A striking feature of representations of women in the poetry of the eighteenth century is their insistently specular nature. Whether glittering toast, pox-ruined beauty, or frightful spectacle, whether she dreads her glass or worships her own reflected image, woman in this verse is first and foremost a reflection, an object in a mirror, or, in a closely related trope, the object of a visual scrutiny — her own, the poet's, the voyeuristic reader's. One need only recall the "cultural fact that a woman 'is' her face and figure, in a way that is never — or never merely — true for a man" to see why the trope of the woman before her mirror should recur in poetry throughout the century, and why women's physical appearance should be an ongoing preoccupation (Doody 2000: 225; see also Greene 1993: 86-97). In his study of gender and taste in the eighteenth century, Robert W. Jones shows that "beauty" is always a contested term in this period: "for some it marked the spectacle women ought to make in society, whilst for others, feminine beauty remained the symbol of corrupting pleasures, appetites which were best avoided and if possible extinguished" (Jones 1998: 7). Beauty is praised and prized in poetry, but is also somewhat suspect. As the name given to one kind of power women are capable of exercising over men, feminine beauty since at least Helen of Troy and, before her, the prostitute in The Epic of Gilgamesh, has been feared as a threat to male domination and control. In eighteenth-century Britain this threat takes on larger cultural resonances. The beautiful woman, especially as the century wears on, comes to be associated with the appetites and desires tempting the British nation into effeminacy, luxury, or moral collapse; she is a bright, shiny ornament feeding the cultural appetite for consumption, for good or ill. Representations of feminine beauty reflect, then, a deep cultural ambivalence. They are tied up in the issues of male desire, ownership, and control that have been thoroughly explored in feminist criticism and linked as well to the formation of taste, the rise of consumer culture, and emerging notions of national identity ( Jones 1998).

Nowhere are the ambiguities of beauty on more ingenious display than in Pope's comic masterpiece The Rape of the Lock, a mock-epic battle of the sexes which looks at the phenomenon of feminine beauty from a multitude of shifting perspectives. [See ch. 11, "Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock and 'Eloisa to Abelard.' "] Belinda's personal power resides in her incomparable beauty. She is the central object of the gaze — "ev'ry eye was fix'd on her alone" (ii. 6) — and is shown to belong to a universe of lovely objects and airy beings no less visually enchanting than herself (unsurprisingly, since the sylphs once inhabited "Woman's beauteous mold" [i. 48]). But, as many have observed, Pope has it a number of ways. He lavishes all his inventive powers in celebration of Belinda's ravishing beauty, but also invites the reader, with a single word, to smile at her moral and mental vacuity —

Her lively looks a sprightly mind disclose,

Quick as her eyes, and as unfix'd as those.

— and glories over her in the end by taking poetic possession of the disputed lock after having first moralized, in what many feel is a punitive way, on beauty's insufficiencies: "For, after all the murders of your eye," he reminds her, "your self shall die" (v. 145, 146). Into the mouth of the sensible (but disregarded) Clarissa he puts the conventional caution against over-reliance on beauty, counseling instead good sense and moral worth:

How vain are all these glories, all our pains, Unless good sense preserve what beauty gains

But since, alas! frail beauty must decay, Curl'd or uncur'l, since Locks will turn to grey, Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade, And she who scorns a man, must die a maid;

Beauties in vain their pretty eyes may roll; Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul.

This is only the most famous of many statements on the limitations of a merely physical beauty in a beauty-obsessed age. (For other examples see Thomas Parnell's "An Elegy, To an Old Beauty," Swift's Stella poems, and Finch's subtly revisionary "The Agreeable.") Here and elsewhere coquettes are reminded that their power originates in, and dies with, their physical charms.

Preoccupation with the transience of feminine beauty owes something to literary tradition and convention. Since at least the classical era women in lyrical carpe diem traditions had been identified with lovely but perishing things like rosebuds (Mary Wollstonecraft would later complain about the "ignoble comparison" between women and flowers; see Guest 2000: 222); poetic forms such as the blazon (or blason) had routinely broken down women into their constituent body parts (a process Swift brilliantly parodies in "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed"); misogynistic satire held up the mirror — literally — to female vanity, as Pope does when he shows Belinda worshipping her own image in The Rape of the Lock. Belinda is at once object of devotion and reverential votary in this witty version of the satiric commonplace of female self-absorption: "A heav'nly Image in the glass appears, / To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears" (i. 125—6). Underpinning all these conventions is a sexualizing of women ("the sex") that feminist theory since at least Simone de Beauvoir has analyzed as a projection of men's anxieties about their own sexuality and control. More recent theorists have extended this analysis to explore how what feminist theory has called "the male gaze" (and ways of looking more generally) encodes gendered power relations on cultural as well as psychosexual levels. At a time when many women poets sought to assert the authority of their own perceptions and to create in their writing a space independent of male assessment and the demands of male desire, it is to be expected that their poems would in various ways ironize the trope of woman as object of scrutiny and appraisal.

In the hands of a poet of satiric bent such as Mary Leapor (1722—46) the trope of female specularity turns comically irreverent. Dorinda, the once triumphant beauty tormented by the spectacle of her age-ruined face in "Dorinda at her Glass," seems at first to offer an occasion for the conventional lesson against "Deceitful Beauty — false as thou art gay" (l. 52). So complete is Dorinda's identification with her now vanished beauty that she regards the face in the mirror as a "Spectre," some "straggling Horror" from the afterworld of the damned, images that at once register and burlesque the destructive force of cultural ideas of beauty (ll. 40, 44). But Leapor does not stop here. The second half of the poem is a rejoinder to all those poetic warnings urging rosebud women to secure a man before her bloom fades. She has Dorinda imagine a female counter-world devoid of the demands of men, fashion, and beauty, a world rich in satiric detail but also somatic pleasures — where Isabel can "unload her aking Head" of curling papers and binding lead (l. 88), where Augusta can throw away her flimsy slippers and put on instead nice thick stockings and sturdy footwear, the better to guard her "swell'd Ancles" from rheumatism (l. 94). In homely detail Dorinda urges her aging sisters to cultivate friendships with other women and learn to be comfortable within their own flesh and spiritual destinies.

Flavia, the speaker of the town eclogue "Saturday. The Small-Pox" by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689—1762), is a once celebrated beauty who shuns the image in the mirror. This tonally complex poem, written while Montagu was herself recovering from the face-wasting disease, refuses to moralize the passing of beauty or accede to the supposed compensations for its loss. (Pope and Swift, in their poems to Martha Blount and Stella, propose in youthful beauty's stead the consolations of good sense, good humor, and the attentions of good men such as themselves.) Indeed, the power of this treatment of the loss-of-beauty theme resides in its unrepentant refusal of consolation. In sharp contrast to the briskly upbeat view — "grieve not at the fatal blow," as Mary Jones (1707-78) puts it in "After the Small Pox" (l. 25) - Flavia, with her author's approval, regards a beautiful face as an irrecoverable asset, its disfigurement a legitimate cause for lamentation. Many readers have detected in Flavia's attachment to beauty a critique of the trivial values of fashionable society, but to stop there is to miss Montagu's satire on the hollowness of the "grieve not" strain of poetry and indeed on those compensatory goodnesses enjoined by the likes of Pope and Swift. The sole comfort Flavia is willing to entertain is retirement from public life and power — figured here as operas, circles, toilette, patches, "all the world" (l. 96) — yet this is no conventional withdrawal to a Horatian simple life of quiet virtue and a few good friends, but rather retreat to a place for mourning in perpetuity her "lost inglorious face" (l. 94) and, more importantly, an escape from the eyes of others. In this peculiarly feminine revision of the locus amoenus, the "pleasant place" is a site where she will neither view nor be viewed. [See ch. 13, "Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Six Town Eclogues and Other Poems."]

Closely related to the trope of specularity is the trope that figures women, their faces or bodies or both, as landscapes or prospect-views to be gazed upon, appraised, and appreciated (or not). Prospects in poetry express authority over the landscape (Fulford 1996: 2—6) and by implication authority over the person-as-landscape or prospect-view subjected to the authorizing gaze. Unsurprisingly, then, the trope of woman-as-prospect often turns upon and reinforces cultural constructions of the feminine as passive, subordinate, and controlled. The speaker of "An Elegy, To an Old Beauty" by Thomas Parnell (1679—1718) chastises a woman in her mid-fifties for fancying she can still please male sight and, in a cruel combination of seasonal and topographical imagery, describes her appearance as a prospect bleak to the eye: "While with'ring Seasons in Succession, here, / Strip the gay Gardens [of her face], and deform the Year" (ll. 19—20). In "Saturday. The Small-Pox" Montagu offers a revision of this trope when she has Flavia recall the days when the face in the mirror offered to her own admiring gaze the pleasures of the prospect:

Then with what pleasure I this face survey'd! To look once more, my visits oft delay'd! Charm'd with the view, a fresher red would rise, And a new life shot sparkling from my eyes!

The female viewer is both landscape and observer gazing in an uninterrupted circuitry of self-pleasure. The trope was so well established that it lent itself to curiously "conceited" uses such as this, in the 1719 poem "The Art of Beauty: A Poem," in which the female face sports purling streams that afford secret joy to its narcissistic viewer:

Then to the floating Mirrour they [women] retire, Act o'er the Lover, and themselves admire, Survey the purling Streams with secret Joy, And smile with Pleasure as they whisper by.

(quoted in Chico 2002: 5)

In "Non Pareil," Matthew Prior (1664—1721) uses the face-as-prospect to explore male ambivalence about feminine beauty. Drawing upon the attractions of the countryside — lilies and roses, warbling songbirds, a crystal stream — the speaker creates a Phillis whose physical being affords to his appreciative eye (and ear) the pleasures of the prospect-view: "In Her alone I find whate'er / Beauties a country-landscape grace" (ll. 5—6). But Prior's emphasis falls, finally, upon the vulnerability of the male viewer who senses that Phillis, like the first woman of an earlier and more ominous garden, poses the dangers implied by the closing references to Eve and the poison at the apple's core.

In a body of poetry filled with memorable prospects it is notable that women produced few prospect poems and that such prospects as do appear in their work are to some degree ironized. Male poets, and the male speakers and characters they create, are at liberty to wander the landscape and subject its prospect-views to their commanding, sometimes appropriating gaze. Recall, for example, Pope at the beginning of Essay on Man inviting Bolingbroke to expatiate freely with him over the "scene of man," analogized as an expansive field over which they range in search of game (i. 5): they do not hesitate to "Eye nature's walks, shoot folly as it flies" (i. 13) Women, as has been seen, are subjected to the gaze, their own included. They are seen, observed, watched, scrutinized, desired, admired, envied; scorned for the beauty they lack, chided for taking so seriously those fleeting beauties they do possess. Seldom, however, do they possess the kind of authority that would enable them to take command of the heights or to subdue a man to the status of landscape. Mary Leapor satirically enacts this absence of authority in "Crumble-Hall," a country-house poem brilliantly imagined from a laboring-class point of view. When the speaker attempts a prospect from the roof — significantly, the leads are described as uncomfortably hot — she is permitted no more than a single couplet of appreciative description before being comically "hurl'd" back into the "nether World" where she belongs (ll. 107—8): to the kitchen where her fellow servants produce butter, tarts, pudding, and jellies. The servant-class speaker-poet returns, that is, to the place where the produce of the landscape is transformed into items of consumption for those who, by virtue of the combined authority of gender and class, are able to enjoy a sustained view of the lands lying beneath them. [See ch. 16, "Mary Leapor, 'Crumble-Hall.' "]

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