Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) was a remarkable woman: as well as her writing, she is also celebrated for introducing smallpox inoculation to Britain, half a century before Edward Jenner developed vaccination against the disease. ‘A Hymn to the Moon’ is a wonderful short poem about the moon.
Written in July, in an arbour
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 Muse’s 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.
E’en thee, fair queen, from thy amazing height,
The charms of young Endymion drew;
Veil’d with the mantle of concealing night;
With all thy greatness and thy coldness too.
In ‘A Hymn to the Moon’, Montagu depicts the moon as a powerful goddess (‘silver deity’) providing light at night-time which help to guide the poet’s way through the woods. She (or the speaker of the poem; it may not be Lady Mary herself) may be on her way to some clandestine romantic tryst, as the references to ‘unknown delight’ and describing the moon as the ‘Lover’s guardian’ suggest.
Yet these tantalising references to a possible romantic assignation are counterbalanced by references to art and poetry (the moon is also the ‘Muse’s aid’) and the poet’s nod to a ‘tender grief’ she is suffering, which she finds she can confide to the moon.
The moon is thus the silent and trusty companion and guide for the poet. The reference to Endymion reminds us that the shepherd from Greek mythology who bore that name was loved by Selene, goddess of the moon. (Selene is faintly summoned by ‘Serenely’, heading the line as it does.) Does the equally mortal Lady Mary Wortley Montagu share a similar fondness for the (feminine) moon? But the poet, unlike Endymion, is also female, like the moon. Might we read ‘A Hymn to the Moon’ as a homoerotic love poem? Perhaps. But what we can say with certainty is that, in this poem, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu offers an image of the moon as silent, dependable, and tender, like a thoughtful lover. The rest, perhaps, is deliberately left to our imaginations.