Whig Histories

Fifty years later, in the works of the Whig poet Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, we find a very different account of the development of the national literature. In "Her palace plac'd beneath a muddy road" Montagu describes the progress of English literature from the Reformation, "When Harry's Brows the Diadem adorn," to the advent of Joseph Addison's Spectator in the early eighteenth century:

When Harry's Brows the Diadem adorn From Reformation, Learning shall be born, Slowly in Strength the infant shall improve The parents glory and its Country's love, Free from the thraldom of Monastic Rhimes, In bright progression bless succeeding Times, Milton free Poetry from the Monkish Chain, And Adisson that Milton shall explain, Point out the Beauties of each living Page, Reform the taste of a degenerate Age.

("Her palace plac'd beneath a muddy road,"

Montagu's account links the reformation of modern poetry not to the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, but to the Protestant Reformation, and to the Whiggish liberty encapsulated in Milton's blank verse and Joseph Addison's periodical essays on Paradise Lost. For her the "degenerate age" is not the Civil War period but the Restoration, here no golden age but an era of debauchery. If the "restoration" of literary and political authority is the key term in Dryden's accounts of the period, in Montagu's poem it is "reformation" that is central to the narrative of poetic development. This reformation is both moral — the correction of the literary abuses of the Stuart Court — and political; Milton's attempt to release English poetry from the "thraldom" of rhyme is represented here, as elsewhere, as the establishment of a form of literary liberty. We can see that with her emphasis on progression and improvement, Montagu is presenting the story of the advancing development of a modern English literature, not a story centered on the restoration of classical authority. Her emphasis is on a movement away from the "thraldom" of older forms, both religious and literary, toward the freedom of the new.

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