Introduction to the Poetry of

Mary Scott

In 1788 the editors of A Catalogue of Five Hundred Celebrated Authors of Great Britain, now living included Mary Scott in their list of writers. She appeared under her maiden name (without her first name), described only as “a poetess” and, with a rather cruel twist, the “Author of a performance entitled the Female Advocate, which has had between two and three admirers.” Whether that criticism was accurate or not, such statements did much to diminish the public’s awareness of and appreciation for Scott’s poetry. The dismissal of Scott’s poetry began before her death in 1793. She is not included in any of the numerous miscellanies of the 1780s. In Poems by the Most Eminent Ladies of Great Britain and Ireland, Re-published from the Collection of G. Colman and B. Thornton, Esqrs., with Considerable Alterations, Additions, and Improvements, 2 vols (London, [1785?]), vol. 2, pp. 171-77, two poems appeared under the designation “Miss Scott’: “Dunnotter Castle” and “Verses, On a Day of Prayer, for Success in War.” Gae Holladay contends that the “content and versification” of both poems link it to Mary Scott, but she does not elaborate on this point. Neither poem, however, is by Mary Scott. “Dunnotter Castle” first appeared in Lessons in Reading: or, Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose and Verse, Selected from the best English Authors (Aberdeen: Joseph Taylor, 1780), pp. 208-11, by “Miss Scott of Benholm,” a native of Scotland. Other versions of the poem (with numerous substantive changes) appeared in the Lady’s Poetical Magazine; or, Beauties of British Poetry, 4 vols (London: Harrison and Co., 1781-82), vol. 1, pp. 200-03, and in Poems by the Most Eminent Ladies. “Verses, On a Day of Prayer, for Success in War” is actually by Mary Scott’s mentor, Anne Steele, having appeared in Steele’s posthumous Miscellaneous Pieces in Verse and Prose, pp. 125-26, as well as the Lady’s Poetical Magazine, vol. 4, pp. 456-57. Steele’s poem, however, does bear some similarities to Scott’s unpublished hymn, “On a Day appointed for General Fasting and Prayer” but why Colman and Thornton would have been confused about the Steele poem is puzzling. Roger Lonsdale, as does the ODNB, repeats the possible connection of these poems with Mary Scott. Her only publication after The Messiah is her posthumous hymn, “On Family Worship” (see below, poem 5), included in A Collection of Hymns and Psalms, for Public and Private Worship (1795) and cited by McLachlan. Nothing by Mary Scott appeared in print again until Holladay’s edition of The Female Advocate in 1984. Scott is missing from Alexander Dyce’s Specimens of British Poetesses; Selected and Chronologically Arranged (1825) and from Frederic Rowton’s The Female Poets of Great Britain (1848).

By 1844, Scott's two published poems, The Female Advocate (1774) and The Messiah (1788), were largely forgotten, her subjects no longer popular topics among women poets. The writer of the “Memoir” on J. E. Taylor in 1844 dismissed her arguments in defence of women writers and considered her poetry only slightly better than average. “Few of the names” in The Female Advocate, he writes,

are now known beyond a narrow circle, and we fear that time has already done something to shew the weakness of her arguments. Her versification, however, is better than her logic. That the poem exhibits the higher attributes of a poetic mind, we cannot affirm, but neither does it in any part sink below mediocrity; and in its general strain it is happy and fluent in its diction, vigorous in its sentiments, lofty in its tone, and in its imagery select and impressive; altogether leaving on the reader’s mind a pleasing conviction of the sincerity and amiableness of the writer.

Being a “sincere” and “amiable” poet was not exactly the praise Mary Scott, or any of the other women poets in the Steele circle, desired from a critic. With the publication of The Messiah in 1788, the writer (most likely a Unitarian like Scott and her son) believed “the flow of the verse, and the facility with which the subjects introduced are treated, indicate a hand more practised and a mind more cultured, as well as devotional feelings more matured with the lapse of time and the growth of experience.” Isabella Scott, who had access to the same manuscript books of poetry that the writer of the “Memoir” saw, was anything but enthusiastic about her ancestor’s poetry. “She had a considerable ability and a literary turn of mind,” she writes of Scott. “Small books of verses by her remain, but none of these are worth giving here,” describing The Female Advocate as “a defence in verse of some of the women writers of her time, most of whom are now wholly forgotten.” Much like the authors of the “Memoir,” A Family Biography, and A Catalogue, Herbert McLachlan argued in 1950 that Duncombe’s Feminead, which Scott’s Female Advocate was written to supplement, is now “deservedly forgotten.” He recognizes that Scott’s poem is “a forerunner of the twentieth-century movement for the emancipation of women,” but his praise is faint, for he later adds, “It would be idle to profess that Mary Scott had any great poetical gift at a time when versifying was as common as taking snuff. Nonetheless, she displays talent and taste, and strikes a valiant note of womanly independence, free from pose and passion, and inspired by lofty motives and religious convictions.” “So far as the public was concerned,” he concludes, “her Muse was silent after marriage, almost certainly an instance of post hoc, propter hoc.”

Recent critics have expressed far different opinions on the poetry of Mary Scott. The most extensive discussion of Scott has come from Moira Ferguson. She contends that “The Female Advocate establishes Mary Scott as the first woman to feature a historical lineage of accomplished women poets and prose writers who are a credit to England … [and] silently constitutes herself as a member of that community.” Since “Britain cannot boast a positive, freedom-loving identity as long as women are denied access to knowledge,” Scott proposes a radical solution, according to Ferguson, linking “political freedom and the right of females to education.” Because of Scott’s recurring ill health, Ferguson contends that The Female Advocate is also an “expose of vulnerability” that many women, like Scott, were subject to, the poem in essence reconstructing “a female cultural lineage to allow for a voice about the politics of sickness,” with Scott “a martyr of sorts.” Ferguson also argues that Scott’s tributes to Phillis Wheatley and Catharine Macaulay in her dedicatory epistle “evince an abolitionist impulse and a love of patriotism and freedom.” Concerning The Messiah, Ferguson notes its Arian underpinnings, but also some passages that seem a subtle criticism of Britain’s “imperial predation.” In a sweeping conclusion, Ferguson contends that “The Female Advocate stamps Mary Scott as a cultural historian who helps to redefine the nation along gendered lines from a progressive Protestant perspective. The Messiah reconfigures this gendered commitment into a frontal attack on Roman imperial predation and religious superstition.” [See Moira Ferguson, ‘‘The Cause of My Sex’: Mary Scott and the Female Literary Tradition’, Huntington Library Quarterly 50 (1987), pp. 38, 39, 40, 41, and 42.]

If The Female Advocate demonstrates the intellectual power of Mary Scott (the poem was composed when she was in her early twenties) and The Messiah and the collection of hymns transcribed by Anne Steele reveal her religious convictions, her friendship poems and correspondence are a testament to a private life not previously known to students of Mary Scott, a life that faithfully treasured her friendship with Mary Steele, honorably cared for her mother, hesitantly entered into marriage with John Taylor, and regrettably discovered, all too late, that her worst fears were justified. With the publication of the poetry and correspondence of Mary Steele in Volume 3 of this series, which includes seven friendship poems to Mary Scott (from 1770 to 1792) and three letters by Steele to Scott (from 1769, 1773, and 1786), and the publication in this volume of Scott’s three friendship poems to Steele and the seven letters that passed between Scott and Taylor, considerable new light has been opened on her poetry and, more importantly, her life. The depth of her friendship with Steele is most compelling, as she writes in “On Friendship Addressed to Sylvia, 1770’:

No powers of eloquence can e’er recite

The ecstasy when kindred Souls unite,

Angels with Joy the sacred Union view

And Fiends admire, but Ah! they envy too.

Oh may this bliss if Heaven permit be mine,

And such my Sylvia be forever thine.

In the midst of “unremitting pain” in 1773, her heart still retains the “lovely and dear Idea” of Sylvia. As if she knows that futurity will not be kind to her as a poet, she requests her friend to defend her “Mem’ry’

From each attack of slander’s venom’d Tongue,

Tell to the world I was thy chosen Friend,

And let me live in thy harmonious Song!

Mary Steele’s friendship poems would do just that. As she writes in “To Miss Scott, 1788,”

Friend of my Soul! One pleasure yet remains

Which Time hath only render’d more secure,

Friendship its pristine Energy retains,

And my heart tells me ever shall endure.

In February 1812, in her last extant letter, written to Mary Scott’s daughter, Mary Ann Taylor, Steele proudly tells her, “To have appeared not wholly unworthy of having been your Mother’s Friend is enough to satisfy my Ambition.”

When Scott’s poems on herself and John Taylor and Jonas Hanway are added to the mix, a character emerges of someone intensely loyal to her friends (her friendship with Steele, however, far surpasses her more formal epistolary friendship with Anna Seward), a romantic at times (but with her feet always on the ground), steadfast in dealing with affliction (her frequent attacks of rheumatism), aware of social injustices and the need for philanthropy, and always devoted to her art, even though, as Mary Wakeford discovered, a woman’s domestic responsibilities are not always conducive to the aesthetic life. In her first published poem, “To Miss Aikin, on Reading her Poems,” just prior to the appearance of The Female Advocate, Scott turns the table on the normal tribute poem, which often promises immortality to the subject through the poem itself (or rather the objectification of the poem). In this case, Scott asserts that the name of Aikin (shortly thereafter, Mrs. Barbauld) will now “immortalize” her verse. Immortality through verse, in Scott’s version, however, pertains to the author, not the subject, but since she signed the poem “Mira,” attributing immortality to a pastoral nom de plume seems clearly misplaced. Not to the members of the Steele circle, for they knew exactly who “Mira” was, and now, thanks to the Steele Collection and the exploratory work of Marjorie Reeves, the modern reader does as well. Mary Scott, however, did not need Anna Letitia Barbauld or any of the other women writers in The Female Advocate to “immortalize” her verse. Her published poems were fully capable of doing that themselves, and with the addition of the poetry and letters preserved within the Steele and Scott Collections and presented for the first time in this volume, her stature now as one of the more significant woman poets of the eighteenth century will only increase.