Mary Wortley Montagu and Her Son
by Jean-Batiste van Mour
The May poetry challenge was judged by Linda Wallin, Vice President of Poets & Patrons of Chicago (and nominee for President of that organization).
The May challenge was a rhyming poem. The judge selected the best of the serious poems and the best of the humorous poems submitted. She commented that in these poems, the rhythm was good and the rhymes were not forced.
Here is the winning humorous poem:
It's often said as we grow old
Our tales emerge more than twice told
As life pushes past September
It could be we don't remember
This condition is not tragic
As we age there's still some magic
Early mornings bring strange new pains
We pop some pills to fool our brains
These ills increase our doctors' pay
Medicare checks roll in each day
Much less our relatives expect
They're happy if we stay erect
No dearth of TV shows to view
Each rerun looks like its brand new
When I was young I spouted jokes
About that group called older folks
But now that I am one of those
Legs encased in compression hose
If we should meet let me disclose
Just one more tale before I doze
John J. Gordon
Here is the winning serious poem:
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
My beauty and my wit defined my youth.
My poems were admired, but in truth
it was my long eyelashes that gave rise
to sly, adoring comments on “veiled eyes.”
Then the smallpox rained its rage and ashes
on me, pocked my skin and plucked my lashes.
My mirror confirmed what others’ glances told:
Without their veils, my eyes were “fierce” or “bold.”
Again the pox struck close – my brother died.
Grieving, I raged. I hated and denied
God. Then I wept. But loss helped me devise
a more profound employment for my eyes.
My husband as ambassador was sent
to the Ottoman Empire, and thus I went
with opened eyes to see a civilization
where every mother used inoculation
against the pox. I gladly chose prevention
for my daughter, then pursued my intention
to speak for inoculation when we returned
to London. There some parents soon discerned
the wisdom of the practice. But Turks were seen
as pagan in much of England, and unclean.
And the smallpox, British clergy said,
revealed the will of God, in all they’d read,
so they opposed the cure, as did physicians
who doubted medicine from foreign nations,
especially since believing it entailed
trusting a woman with her eyes unveiled.
~ Susan Fleming Holm
The poet included a historical note (which was not given to the judge, since the poem had to stand on its own). It is reproduced here for readers who might want to know more about Lady Mary. Here is her note (slightly edited):
Anyone interested in the meeting of Western and Eastern civilizations/cultures soon runs into the name of Mary Wortley Montagu. She is most noted for the open-mindedness of her letters home from the Ottoman Empire, where she went with her husband who had been appointed ambassador from the British Empire. During the trip by coach and boat to Istanbul, she observed and appreciated many customs that were substantially different from those in England, especially noting the way other Europeans heated their homes during cold weather. In England she had suffered the smallpox, and her younger brother had died of the pox. In the Ottoman Empire she noted right away that mothers gathered together in "parties" to have their children inoculated, using dead smallpox virus as the substance of the inoculation (called variolation—vaccination is the use of the cowpox virus to inoculate—a practice introduced by Edward Jenner in 1795). Lady Mary was supported in her desire to inoculate her own child by Emanuel Timoni, an Italian doctor who lived in Istanbul. When she returned to London in 1721, Caroline, the Princess of Wales, supported Lady Mary in her desire to introduce variolation to English parents. Many parents tried it and found it a good idea! However, many British physicians insisted on bleediing and purging patients before the process, and one or two persons died. The physicians (and clergy, as well) then attacked Lady Mary, and found the practice of variolation offensive, because it had come from "a pagan country" and was introduced by a woman. Eventually it caught on and was widely practiced until Jenner's discovery, 95+ years later, that being infected with the cowpox prevented small pox infection. Variolation was also practiced in the New World, where there is a good chance it was introduced by slaves, who knew of it through Arab culture, which may have been the source of the practice of variolation. Abigail Adams had her children variolated. John Adams and a number of other important statesmen had already been variolated. Lady Mary had been a good friend of Alexander Pope, a leading poet of the day, who employed rhymed couplets and perfected and advocated that form of poetry, and Lady Mary followed his example. Thus I decided to write about her in rhymed couplets. Most of my information comes from Biography of Lady Mary by Robert Halsband (Oxford University Press, 1956).
You can google Lady Mary's name and find other pictures and biographical information.
John J. Gordon is married and has three children, eight grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter. He is a member of the Illinois State Poetry Society and of Poets & Patrons of Chicago (the judge had not seen this poem before, and did not know he had written it). He is published in the Journal of Modern Poetry, Distilled Lives, Beaver Island Reader, Prairie Light Review, and on several on-line sites.
Susan Fleming Holm taught Spanish language and literature at Monmouth College in Illinois, and English at Atatürk University in Erzurum, Turkey. She has traveled and done research in the Middle East, Mexico, Central America, and Cuba. Her poetry and essays have been published in the United States and in Turkey.