Writing these close readings as a regular feature for the blog has given me many things: a chance to sort out my own, disordered thoughts; a venue to practice my critical reading skills; even a microscopic audience for my writing. But one benefit I’ve just started to appreciate is that, in writing up these pieces, I’ve introduced myself to some interesting historical figures. I wasn’t much aware of Charlotte Smith’s role in the early Romantic movement, or Thomas Moore’s involvement in revolutionary Irish politics. But I think, in terms of having a fascinating biography, no one I’ve covered quite stacks up to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
We’ll hit some of those notes along the way, but for now, let’s take a look at one of her poems: “A Receipt to Cure the Vapors.” The title alone got my attention, we’ll give the whole text a read-through.
A Receipt to Cure the Vapors
Why will Delia thus retire,
And idly languish life away?
While the sighing crowd admire,
‘Tis too soon for hartshorn tea:
All those dismal looks and fretting
Cannot Damon’s life restore;
Long ago the worms have eat him,
You can never see him more.
Once again consult your toilette,
In the glass your face review:
So much weeping soon will spoil it,
And no spring your charms renew.
I, like you, was born a woman,
Well I know what vapors mean:
The disease, alas, is common;
Single, we have all the spleen.
All the morals that they tell us,
Never cured the sorrow yet:
Chuse, among the pretty fellows,
One of honor, youth, and wit.
Prithee hear him every morning
At the least an hour or two;
Once again at night returning—
I believe the dose will do.
We might as well begin with the title, which promises the reader something useful: “A Receipt [i.e., a formula] to Cure the Vapors.” The “vapors,” as the term was used in the 18th century, refers to a nebulous mental disorder primarily diagnosed in women and characterized by depression, hypochondria, fainting, and so forth. (The name comes from its supposed cause: gaseous emanations from the internal organs. This condition was also known as “spleen,” as we see in the fourth stanza.) Thus, the poem presents itself as a remedy for something that resembles depression.
That Lady Mary would write a poem of medical advice is not surprising when you consider her biography. In addition to her career in letters, Lady Mary was England’s leading advocate for small inoculation, which she learned about during her husband’s tenure as an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Reading this “Receipt,” one gets the sense that the speaker’s medical knowledge covers more than smallpox; she says it is “too soon for hartshorn tea” (line 4), an ammonia-based brew related to smelling salts that was commonly used to treat the vapors.
In addition to any public-minded goals, Lady Anne may have had a personal impetus to write this remedy down. The footnotes to the poem in The Norton Anthology of Poetry say that the “Receipt” was “apparently written to Lady Anne Irwin, widowed eight or nine years previously,” though she is not referred to by name here. Rather, the speaker gives her the generic poetic name of Delia, and so one can reverse engineer that Damon in stanza 2 is Lady Anne’s deceased husband. These pseudonyms allow Lady Mary to respect her friend’s privacy while still using her situation to address a social concern.
So what is this promised cure for the vapors? Well, it takes the speaker the length of the poem to actually get to it. Indeed, the speaker spends much more time detailing the symptoms of Delia’s condition. Delia is inclined to “retire, / And idly languish life away” (1-2), suffers from “dismal looks and fretting” (5), and is given to “So much weeping” that she may “spoil” her appearance permanently (11). Whether or not “a case of the vapors” is the best way to describe her condition, it certainly seems that Delia is severely despondent.
To go off on a slight tangent: the poem’s musicality tends to underscore the uneasy feeling associated with the vapors. The poem’s base rhythm is alternating lines of trochaic tetrameter (eight syllables, alternating stressed and unstressed: “All those | dismal | looks and | fretting”) and trochaic tetrameter catalectic (same as before, but with the last unstressed syllable dropped: Cannot | Damon’s | life re | store“). Trochaic rhythms are particular incessant, always pushing forward, yet the stress pattern means one tends to end on the unstressed, weaker syllables. One leaves a trochaic line feeling incomplete, as though one more syllable is needed to round things out. That seems fitting for the vapors, doesn’t it? (One could say the same of the poem’s use of slant rhymes.)
Not only does the speaker linger over the symptoms of the vapors, but also she deploys some misdirection in prescribing her cure. From the first two-thirds of the poem, one would get the impression that what Delia really needs is a stern lecture. In the second stanza, the speaker tells her in no uncertain terms that her beloved Damon is gone: “Long ago the worms have eat him, / You can never see him more” (7-8). In the third, she commands her to “consult [her] toilette,” her “face review,” with the warning that “no spring [her] charms [will] renew” if she keeps on weeping (9-10, 12). And in fourth, she says the vapors are just a common problem for women: “Single, we have all the spleen” (16). The speaker doesn’t quite say, “Just get over it,” but the sentiment creeps close to it.
Yet right as the speaker got me scratching my head, the fifth stanza offers a bit of a swerve. “All the morals that they tell us,” the speaker says, “Never cured the sorrow yet” (17-18). In other words, the sort of lecturing the speaker has indulged in up to this point is of no use in bringing Delia out of her despondency. That’s an unexpectedly comforting thought coming from 1730. Further, rather than offering a universal cure for the vapors, the speaker suggests something more specific to her friend’s case.
And that cure is: another man. She tells Delia to “Chuse, among the pretty fellows, / One of honor, youth, and wit” (19-20). If the death of Damon is the cause of her condition, the thinking goes, then finding a new man to love should remedy it. It’s a little disappointing that the speaker’s cure is so other-centered, but it’s in keeping with Lady Mary’s larger body of work. Her most famous poem, “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband,” is a critical look at society’s double standards regarding gender relations, particularly how “The judging world expects [women’s] constancy” (14), but will forgive men their infidelity. Viewed in this context, the “Receipt” is a cheekier variation on the same theme.
This context also brings into sharp focus an ambiguity in stanza four that I haven’t mentioned yet. The last line of that stanza, “Single, we have all the spleen,” can be taken two ways. The first way, I’ve already mentioned: women are “Single” in succumbing to the vapors, that is, they are the only ones who suffer from it. But that line can also be paraphrased as, “Women will suffer the vapors when they are single, i.e., not in a relationship.” No one would object if a man in a similar position tried out the dating scene again; why should it be any different for a woman?
Again, this is not necessarily great advice. Companionship can certainly be comforting for those in a depressed state, but those relationships can’t solve the fundamental problem. But the speaker doesn’t advise going all in with this “pretty fellow,” either. She instead recommends, as one should with any remedy, exercising moderation. Delia ought to “hear him every morning, / At the least an hour or two,” and hear him “Once again at night returning” (21-23). That, for the speaker, ought to be the sufficient “dose” to overcome the vapors (24). It’s like taking two aspirin, except it’s two rendezvous.
By the end, one gets the sense that this was never “A Receipt to Cure the Vapors” at all, but rather a critique of the whole diagnosis. Conceptually, “the vapors” is not too far removed from the clinical sense of “hysteria”: a medical-sounding term used to dismiss women’s emotional states as disordered. Such states are not diseases; they’re not like smallpox. One cannot simply administer smelling salts or devise an inoculation and have them be “cured.” One must treat those who suffer “the vapors” as fellow humans, and nothing less.
* * *
Thanks for reading! If, like me, you’re interested in outdated medical and scientific concepts, you might want to check out a very old post on this blog, in which I analyze Stephen Jay Gould’s article “Dr. Down’s Syndrome,” which critiques some of the inaccurate and racist terminology surrounding the condition.