Lent Light and Wistful Wonder: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s “A Hymn to the Moon”
By Marissa Caston
A Hymn to the Moon
Thou silver deity of secret night,
Direct my footsteps through the woodland shade;
Thou conscious witness of unknown delight,
The lover’s guardian, and the muses aid!
By thy pale beams I solitary rove,
To thee my tender grief confide;
Serenely sweet, you gild the silent grove,
My friend, my goddess, and my guide.
Ev’n thee, fair queen, from thy amazing height,
The charms of young Endymion drew;
Vail’d with the mantle of concealing night;
With all thy greatness, and thy coldness too.
~ Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Lent Light and Wistful Wonder: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s “A Hymn to the Moon”
A lyric poem comprised of sacred sensations and contemplations, the hymn portrays private passions while celebrating some of the higher powers and beliefs that enhance existence. Greek mythology justifies the feminine personification of the moon, and in “A Hymn to the Moon,” Lady Mary Wortley Montagu honors Zeus’s daughter, Diana, while expressing the natural world’s ability to saturate the mind with wonder. An unsatisfactory reality has the potential to become otherworldly and elegant. In “A Poetry of Absence,” David B. Morris offers the idea that “imagination in the eighteenth- century normally refers to the mind’s ability to make or receive pictorial images. As mainly pictorial compositions, dreams not only communicate with unusual speed and vividness but also maintain a strong link with emotions” (Morris 238). Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s “A Hymn to the Moon” uses rich imagery and a range of allusions to show that ordinary landscapes can inspire personal pleasure.
The hymn opens with a periphrastic description of the moon as a “silver deity of secret night” (Montagu 1). The moon’s “silver” light represents chastity or coldness, and “deity” alludes to Paradise Lost since John Milton uses the word in a similar context before God’s son departs from Paradise to declare judgment on Adam and Eve. God imbues his son with divine capabilities, “and unfolding bright/ Toward the right hand his glory, on the Son/ Blazed forth unclouded deity” (Milton X. 63- 65). Using the same word, “deity,” Montagu gives similar sacred attributes to the moon. Yet, the consecrated moon only shines during “secret night,” and the word “secret” in line one refers to Milton’s invocation to his muse in Paradise Lost. He writes, “Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top/ Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire/ That shepherd” (Milton I. 6-8).
The Oxford English Dictionary cites “secret” as “removed from the resort of men; retired, remote, lonely” and “affording privacy or seclusion,” thereby suggesting intense isolation; the moon bestows delicate solitude upon its gazers while drifting through extreme obscurity. Montagu’s moon “secretly” sails through eternity, reflecting Joseph Addison’s view in The Spectator that, “our imagination loves to be filled with an object, or to grasp at anything that is too big for its capacity” (424). Solitary ruminations on sublime aspects of nature, such as the moon, can bring pleasure to the mind as it tries to seize “too big” an article; likewise, the “s” sound soothingly alliterates the hymn’s first line, which concludes with a comma just as the speaker’s personal perspectives begin to emerge.
The second line demonstrates the speaker’s confidence in the moon’s intensity as the word “woodland” refers to the ancient Greek mythological figure, Artemis. She is a “fierce and revengeful” hunter for the gods, but branded “the Lady of Wild Things” and “the protectress of dewy youth everywhere” and “when women died a swift and painless death, they were held to have been slain by her silver arrows.” The speaker looks to this “lover of woods and the wild chase over the mountain” (Hamilton 31) to “[d]irect [her] footsteps thro’ the woodland shade” (Montagu 2). The word, “shade” illustrates the poet’s yearning for the Goddess to light the way through a life that is at once salient and transitory in view of the fact that The Oxford English Dictionary defines “shade” as “something that has only a fleeting existence, or that has become reduced to almost nothing.” A semicolon brings the second line’s affirmation of the speaker’s trust in the moon to a close while pointing to a pause in the hymn’s progression.
The personification of the moon as a “conscious witness of unknown delight,” in line three, expands the imagery put fourth in the previous lines. The words “conscious” and “unknown” bond this line, implying that the moon has knowledge of unconscious proceedings; furthermore, these two words spark another literary allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost seeing that the night serves as the only “conscious witness” of clandestine affairs. After Satan’s first day of conflict with Gabriel and Michael, the devil and his party work “all ere day- spring, under conscious night / secret they finished” (XI. 521- 522); however, Satan and his entourage did not “finish” in “secret,” and “delight” is never “unknown” since the moon graciously observes the hearts and minds of men and women.
In addition, “delight” in line three forms a masculine rhyme with “night” in line one, revealing the idea that pleasure can exist under the moon’s watchful eye. Notably, the final stressed syllable of line three is “light,” accordingly connecting brightness with darkness and suggesting that respite is never completely out of reach for those who pray without proof that anyone can hear. In “Couplets and Conversation,” J. Paul Hunter notes that “rhyme is a staple of eighteenth- century verse, linking particular and syntactic arrangements so as to call special attention to word and phrase connections and sometimes implying a kinship poets might not dare assert directly” (Hunter 21). A comma stops the third line and silences the hymn as the speaker grasps her breath before illustrating the moon’s supreme capabilities.
The final line of the opening heroic quatrain asserts that the moon is “[t]he lover’s guardian, and the muses aid!” (Montague 4), and parallelism places equal emphasis on both epithets. A medial caesura, a comma, interrupts the fourth line for a split second; in so doing, the moon gains momentum and never ceases to defend affection and encourage imagination. “[G]uardian” presents the first quatrain’s sole synaeresis, and the word’s first and only stressed syllable, “guard,” underscores protection. Also, The Oxford English Dictionary cites “muse” as “the inspiring goddess of a particular poet” and “a poet’s particular genius,” indicating the moon’s correspondence with beauty and brilliance. Perfect rhymes link lines four and two, intensifying the vast solemnity of the first quatrain since the words “aid” in line four and “shade” in line two reinforce the moon’s proclivity to “aid” individuals through inevitable “shade.” A terminal caesura, an exclamation point, caps the fourth line while calling attention to the energy of the exordium’s fundamental formalities.
The first line of the second quatrain, also written in conventional iambic pentameter, augments the gravity of the first quatrain. In the hymn’s fifth line, “By thy pale beams I solitary rove” (Montagu 5), the word, “rove” can be viewed as another cultured reference to Paradise Lost seeing that Satan, in the form of a serpent, begins to describe the tree of forbidden fruit to Eve by telling her that “till on a day roving the field I chanced / a goodly tree far distant to behold” (Milton 575- 576). Eve eventually shows that virtue, sincerity, and faith subsist in the hearts of those who journey through darkness in pursuit of light. Further, the speaker’s feelings of reassurance and comfort while “roving” beneath the “pale beams” take precedence over the moon itself since “a spacious horizon is an image of liberty, where the eye has room to expatiate at large on the immensity of its views, and to lose itself amidst the variety of objects that offer themselves to its observation” (Addison 424). The “pale beams” produce pleasure within the “solitary rover,” given that she perceives the moon’s effects and a comma brings line five to a delicate close as a faint shaft of light depletes isolation.
Line six, “to thee my tender grief confide,” highlights the moon’s emotive role in the “solitary rover’s” journey by retreating from iambic pentameter to iambic tetrameter and representing the moon’s ability to take lonesomeness away from the speaker. The word, “grief” denotes a disquiet emptiness that can only be filled by a transcendent confidante. Montagu’s portrayal of the moon as a symbol of celestial radiance reflects the idea that “nature cannot be understood in the eighteenth- century except as the handiwork of God…desire in the eighteenth- century even when occupied in counting the streaks of a tulip simultaneously engaged readers and writers in a variety of experience that can only be called religious” (Morris 230). The moon may be a synecdoche that signifies the natural world since the speaker has faith in its power to show her the way through “tender grief.” Trust brings with it liberation from sorrow that gains strength with the end- stop of line six, a semicolon.
The following line, “Serenely sweet, you gild the silent grove,” flows back to iambic pentameter. The “s” sound alliterates and soothes the first portion of the seventh line and an initial caesura provides a brief pause before coming into direct contact with the moon’s luminosity. For the first and only time in the hymn, the word, “you” directly addresses the moon, which adorns the “silent grove” with enchanting pigments that appear nothing short of golden and illustrate that “we nowhere meet a more glorious and pleasing show in nature than what appears in the heavens at the rising and setting of the sun, which is wholly made up of those different stains of light that show themselves in clouds of a different situation” (Addison 425). Remarkably, the words “grove” and “rove” form perfect end- rhymes that connect lines five with seven, and their semantic significance implies that the “solitary rover” wanders through the same “silent grove” that just accepted of the moon’s heavenly glaze. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that a grove is a “small group of trees affording shade or forming avenues or walks, occurring naturally or planted for a special purpose;” moreover, these little wooded areas “were commonly planted by heathen peoples in honour of deities to serve as places of worship or for the reception of images.” A comma ends line seven with a sense of devout gratification.
Similar to the sixth, the eighth line, “my friend, my goddess, and my guide” (Montague 8), is written in iambic tetrameter and end- rhymes link lines six and eight given that the moon is a “guide” with whom the desolate drifter can “confide.” Furthermore, a traditional ballad stanza alternates tetrameter with trimeter lines and may have a rhyme scheme of abab; following this pattern, the second quatrain of Montagu’s “A Hymn to the Moon” has a rhyme scheme of abab, but a foot is added to each line, substituting pentameter for tetrameter and tetrameter for trimeter thereby drawing attention to the sixth and eighth lines and giving song- like qualities to the poem. The upward movement of the eighth line mirrors the speaker’s relationship with the moon and expresses an appreciation for the soft tranquility that directs her through darkness since a rhetorical ascension concludes the second quatrain’s metrical variation of common measure.
The ninth line, “Ev’n thee, fair queen, from thy amazing height” (Montagu 9), begins the peroration with iambic pentameter. The hymn’s only syncope, along with an initial caesura after the opening phrase, “Ev’n thee,” provide grounds for a comparison between the moon and a “fair queen.” A literary allusion to Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene resonates since the Red Crosse Knight describes Gloriana as a “Goddesse heavenly bright” and as a “Mirrour of grace and majestic devine.” Spenser elevates the queen and she becomes a “Great lady of the greatest Isle, whose light / Like Phoebus lampe throughout the world doth shine” (Spenser 1.1.28-31.). Gloriana plays a miniscule role in The Faerie Queene; yet, her presence never ceases and, like Montagu’s moon, she becomes a symbol of all that is reassuring and gracious in the world. A medial caesura, a comma, points to a pause before making it clear that “thy amazing height” does not thwart, but fortifies, the moon’s celestial beams. Line nine is comfortably end- stopped with a comma.
The next line, “The charm of young Endymion drew,” retreats to iambic tetrameter while referring to Endymion, the stunning shepherd with whom the moon goddess, Selene, fell in love and caused to sleep everlastingly so that “night after night“ she could “visit him and cover him with her kisses... But it is said, too, that her passion brings her only a burden of pain, fraught with many sighs” (Hamilton 154). In Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Isobel Grundy proposes that “though [Selene] stoops, the goddess retains her poise; this poem makes something delicate and dream- like from the confused turmoil of reality” (Grundy 364). Line four has one less metrical foot than the rest in the concluding stanza; the word, “Endymion” contains the hymn’s second and last synaeresis. As his conscious existence is shortened, Endymion’s name loses a syllable when pronounced. A semicolon brings the hymn’s tenth line to an abrupt close.
That Endymion is an attractive shepherd and the speaker has a connection with nature’s progressions are more than coincidences, and both develop into pastoral motifs with expansive undertones; in Pope to Burney, 1714-1779, Moyra Haslett notes that “women’s writing is part of the cultural economy of the pastoral because so much of women’s writing of this time operates within pastoral modes…pastoral is the genre in which male poets learn their craft.” She also puts forth the notion that “Montagu may have been advancing her sense of herself as a poet and distancing herself from the perceived limitations of the pastoral” (Haslett 164- 165).
The hymn’s last two lines, “Vail’d with the mantle of concealing night; / With all thy greatness and thy coldness too” (Montagu 11- 12), bounce back to iambic pentameter as they allude to Hecate, the goddess of “black nights when the moon is hidden” (Hamilton 32). A “Concealing night” perpetually watches over the handsome shepherd as he slumbers given that The Oxford English Dictionary defines “mantle” as “a protective garment or blanket.” Still, the “night” is “concealing,” and all traces of light cease to exist by the time a semicolon concludes the penultimate line’s depiction of the moon’s mystifying facade. By giving equal weight to Diana’s “greatness” and her “coldness too,” the parallelism of line twelve verifies that the goddess represents “the uncertainty between good and evil which is apparent in every one of the divinities” (Hamilton 32). Also, end- rhymes bond the first and last quatrains since lines one, three, nine, and eleven paint a portrait of a “secret” and “concealing night” comprised of “unknown delight,” that can bring intrinsic pleasures of “amazing height.” A period concludes the hymn, making it evident that “greatness” is not always wonderful, nor is “coldness” always awful.
The three stanzas that comprise Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s “A Hymn to the Moon” symbolize Diana’s three identities. The deity possesses the power to transform “from the lovely Huntress flashing through the forest, from the Moon making all beautiful with her light” to the Goddess of the “lower world and the world above when it is wrapped in darkness” (Hamilton 32). Selene, Artemis, and Hecate lend the moon their hues in pursuit of creating fascinating pictorial images that produce an everlasting sense of wistful wonder, and in The Moon and the Western Imagination, Scott L. Montgomery asserts that, “the moon reveals its mixture of dark matter and fiery substance in the black spots that cover its face, even as it ‘wanders around the Earth, shines at night with a light that is not her own… always gazing toward the rays of the Sun’” (Montgomery 17).
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Grundy, Isobel. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
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© Marissa Caston