Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter lv.

Victory of prince Eugene over the Turks, and the surrender of Belgrade — the news how received at Constantinople — contrast between European and Asiatic manners — estimate of the pleasures of the seraglio — observations on Mr Addison being appointed secretary of state — Mr Addison, Mr Pope, and Mr Congreve, in what respects three happy poets — reflections on the Iliad, and Mr Pope’s translation of it.

To Mr P——.

Sept. 1. 1717.

WHEN I wrote to you last, Belgrade was in the hands of the Turks; but, at this present moment, it has changed masters, and is in the hands of the Imperialists. A janizary, who, in nine days, and yet without any wings but what a panic terror seems to have furnished, arrived at Constantinople from the army of the Turks before Belgrade, brought Mr W—— the news of a complete victory obtained by the Imperialists, commanded by prince Eugene, over the Ottoman troops. It is said, the prince has discovered great conduct and valour in this action; and I am particularly glad that the voice of glory and duty has call’d him from the —(Note in the published book: here several words of the manuscript are effaced.)— Two day’s after the battle, the town surrendered. The consternation, which this defeat has occasioned here, is inexpressible; and the sultan, apprehending a revolution, from the resentment and indignation of the people, fomented by certain leaders, has begun his precautions, after the goodly fashion of this blessed government, by ordering several persons to be strangled, who were the objects of his royal suspicion. He has also ordered his treasurer to advance some months pay to the janizaries, which seems the less necessary, as their conduct has been bad in this campaign, and their licentious ferocity seems pretty well tamed by the public contempt. Such of them as return in straggling and fugitive parties to the metropolis, have not spirit nor credit enough to defend themselves from the insults of the mob; the very children taunt them, and the populace spit in their faces as they pass. They refused, during the battle, to lend their assistance to save the baggage and the military chest, which, however, were defended by the bashaws and their retinue, while the janizaries and spahis were nobly employed in plundering their own camp.

You see here, that I give you a very handsome return for your obliging letter. You entertain me with a most agreeable account of your amiable connexions with men of letters and taste, and of the delicious moments you pass in their society under the rural shade; and I exhibit to you, in return, the barbarous spectacle of Turks and Germans cutting one another’s throats. But what can you expect from such a country as this, from which the Muses have fled, from which letters seem eternally banished, and in which you see, in private scenes, nothing pursued as happiness, but the refinements of an indolent voluptuousness; and where those who act upon the public theatre live in uncertainty, suspicion, and terror? Here, pleasure, to which I am no enemy, when it is properly seasoned, and of a good composition, is surely of the coying kind. Veins of wit, elegant conversation, easy commerce, are unknown among the Turks; and yet they seem capable of all these, if the vile spirit of their government did not stifle genius, damp curiosity, and suppress an hundred passions, that embellish and render life agreeable. The luscious passion of the seraglio is the only one almost that is gratified here to the full; but it is blended so with the surly spirit of despotism in one of the parties, and with the dejection and anxiety which this spirit produces in the other, that, to one of my way of thinking, it cannot appear otherwise than as a very mixed kind of enjoyment. The women here are not, indeed, so closely confined as many have related; they enjoy a high degree of liberty, even in the bosom of servitude, and they have methods of evasion and disguise, that are very favourable to gallantry; but, after all, they are still under uneasy apprehensions of being discovered; and a discovery exposes them to the most merciless rage of jealousy, which is here a monster that cannot be satiated but with blood. The magnificence and riches that reign in the apartments of the ladies of fashion here, seem to be one of their chief pleasures, joined with their retinue of female slaves, whose music, dancing, and dress, amuse them highly; but there is such an air of form and stiffness amidst this grandeur, as hinders it from pleasing me at long-run, however, I was dazzled with it at first sight. This stiffness and formality of manners are peculiar to the Turkish ladies; for the Grecian belles are of quite another character and complexion; with them, pleasure appears in more engaging forms; and their persons, manners, conversation and amusements, are very far from being destitute of elegance and ease.

I RECEIVED the news of Mr Addison’s being declared secretary of state with the less surprise, in that I know that post was almost offered to him before. At that time he declined it; and I really believe that he would have done well to have declined it now. Such a post as that, and such a wife as the Countess, do not seem to be, in prudence, eligible for a man that is asthmatic; and we may see the day, when he will be heartily glad to resign them both. It is well that he laid aside the thoughts of the voluminous dictionary, of which I have heard you or somebody else frequently make mention. But no more on that subject; I would not have said so much, were I not assured that this letter will come safe and unopened to hand. I long much to tread upon English ground, that I may see you and Mr Congreve, who render that ground classic ground; nor will you refuse our present secretary a part of that merit, whatever reasons you may have to be dissatisfied with him in other respects. You are the three happiest poets I ever heard of; one a secretary of state, the other enjoying leisure, with dignity, in two lucrative employments; and you, though your religious profession is an obstacle to Court promotion, and disqualifies you from filling civil employments, have found the philosopher’s stone; since, by making the Iliad pass through your poetical crucible into an English form, without losing aught of it’s original beauty, you have drawn the golden current of Pactolus to Twickenham. I call this finding the philosopher’s stone, since you alone found out the secret, and nobody else has got into it. A——n and T——l tried it, but their experiments failed; and they lost, if not their money, at least a certain portion of their fame in the trial — while you touched the mantle of the divine bard, and imbibed his spirit. I hope we shall have the Odyssey soon from your happy hand; and I think I shall follow, with singular pleasure, the traveller Ulysses, who was an observer of men and manners, when he travels in your harmonious numbers. I love him much better than the hot-headed son of Peleus, who bullied his general, cried for his mistress, and so on. It is true, the excellence of the Iliad does not depend upon his merit or dignity; but I wish, nevertheless, that Homer had chosen a hero somewhat less pettish and less fantastic: a perfect hero is chimerical and unnatural, and consequently uninstructive; but it is also true, that while the epic hero ought to be drawn with the infirmities that are the lot of humanity, he ought never to be represented as extremely absurd. But it becomes me ill to play the critic; so I take my leave of you for this time, and desire you will believe me, with the highest esteem,

Your’s, &c.


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