The Lady who p---st herself

Alexander Pope:

On A LADY Who P---st at the Tragedy of Cato
Occasion'd by an Epigram on a LADY who wept at it

While maudlin Whigs deplor'd their Cato's Fate,
Still with dry Eyes the Tory Celia sate,
But while her Pride forbids her Tears to flow,
The gushing Waters find a Vent below:
Tho' secret, yet with copious Grief she mourns,
Like twenty River-Gods with all their Urns.
Let others screw their Hypocritick Face,
She shews her Grief in a sincerer Place;
There Nature reigns, and Passion void of Art,
For that Road leads directly to the Heart.


I think the lifting light of this squib from Pope is in his use of the word 'Vent'. The capitalised 'V' is almost obscene, but tender; some might opine that Passion aroused in that Vent is, indeed, artless, if not always incapable of untruths.

A vent is a slit, a splitting open; the "gushing" or overly fulsome praise could simply be that which is heard to rise up after a performance of some kind, part of the audience nervously coming back to the present. Pope literalizes the gushing, we can imagine a theatre filling up with p--s and steam in the shuffling, chatty noise of people filing out.

The deathbed scene in Addison's Cato, which is the emotional off-stage on-stage subject of the poem, is also a point of splitting apart, a vent for the age. The play belongs to the "maudlin Whigs" because Addison completed it for his Whig friends (though Pope contributed a final line and the prologue); Tories gush too, for they used the play - so popular its scenes and soliloquies could be referred to in political rhetoric - as part of their opposition to Walpole. Cato was a "patriot" of defeated zeal to the latter; a paragon of emotional and sacrificial liberty to the former (and to Americans, where this republican drama also packed the theatres - Washington had it staged to cheer up the troops at Valley Forge). Johnson noted: "The Whigs applauded every line in which Liberty was mentioned, as a satire on the Tories; and the Tories echoed every clap, to shew that the satire was unfelt." Both sides ended by gushing, but it's a point of splitting because Pope senses that a political morality drawn from such a death-bed mawkishness is laying a weaker model over the Christian morality to be drawn from Christ's crucifixion. The name Cato had come to mean a passionate love of freedom, but there was something deeply uneasy about the popular religious template (arising in a rage for death-beds - given brilliant painted form in Jacques-Louis David's 'The Death of Marat'). Much later, as unease with these icons and despair of the political religions unleashed grew, Addison's play was dropped and forgotten.

The poem's last word, Heart, is also the Tory heart which suddenly beat so strong on Queen Anne's death, and did continue to beat in England, claiming the centre.

Melissa Flores-Bórquez

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