Monday, March 11, 2019

Women's History Month: 'The Power of Beauty' by Mary Leapor (1722-1746)

Women's History Month: A month celebrating women of history! I will be posting media and book recommendations, highlighting women from (mostly) the 18th century, and otherwise sharing content with an emphasis on women in history. 
Mary Leapor (1722-1746) was one of a select few labor-class women writers to produce written poetry during the 18th century. She was only 24 years old when she died from measles but during her short lifetime, she cultivated a love for literature and poetry, frequently carving out time during her tireless work as a kitchen maid to take up a pen or tuck into a book. Her relatively extensive body of work was published after her death due to the efforts of her friend Bridget Freemantle, which saw two volumes of Leapor's work published in 1748 and 1751. Leapor was subsequently praised by contemporaries as "one of the most interesting of the natural poets" and today is recognized as one of the most intriguing (if understudied) poets of her era.

Leapor's poetry is notable for its frequent social commentary, with a particular emphasis on the struggles and experiences of being a woman in that period. Throughout many of her poems, Leapor criticized society's treatment of women; one common theme is criticism of the view of women as valuable only when they are beautiful. Leapor laments the fate of beautiful women who grow older and lose their sense of self worth; women who, despite being educated or witty or compassion, are ignored for their lack of outward beauty. She also calls out the hypocrisy of men who value women only for their beauty yet at the same time, criticize women for taking the means to meet those beauty standards through cosmetics, corsets and fashion. 'The Power of Beauty' is one such poem which I think perfectly encapsulates Leapor's view, ending with the telling sentence: "If you wou'd have your Daughters wise/Take care to mend your Sons."

The Power of Beauty by Mary Leapor

O GODDESS of eternal Smiles,
Bright Cythera the fair,
Who taught Sabina's pleasing Wiles,
By which she won Bellair.
Bellair, the witty and the vain,
Who laugh'd at Beauty's Pow'r;
But now the conquer'd humble Swain
Adores a painted Flow'r.

With Delia's Art my Song inspire,
Whose Lips of rosy Hue
Can ne'er the partial Audience tire,
Tho' wiser Claudia's do.
Tho' Claudia's Wit and Sense refin'd,
Flows easy from her Tongue;
Her Soul but coarsly is enshrin'd,
So Claudia's in the wrong.
Hark, Delia speaks — that blooming Fair,
See Crowds are gathering round
With open Mouths: and wildly stare
To catch the empty Sound.
See Lelia with a Judgment clear,
With manly Wisdom blest;
Wit, Learning, Prudence, all appear
In that unruffled Breast.

But yet no Beau for Lelia dies,
No Sonnets pave her way;
Say, Muse, from whence these Evils rise,
Why Lelia's Teeth decay.
Then, why do rev'rend Sages rail
At Woman's wanton Pride?
If Wisdom, Wit, and Prudence fail,
Let meaner Arts be try'd.
Those Arts to please are only meant;
But with an angry Frown,
The Queen of Wisdom lately sent
This Proclamation down:
Minerva, with the azure Eyes,
And thus the Statute runs,
If you wou'd have your Daughters wise,
Take care to mend your Sons.

Further Reading about Mary Leapor:

'Mary Leapor: The Female Body and the Body of Her Texts' by Michael Meyer. Available to read online at Academia.Edu.

'Mary Leapor: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Women's Poetry' by Richard Greene

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