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ALEXANDER POPE'S friends, acquaintances, and contacts among the aristocracy were extensive, as might be expected from a man whose natural wit and undoubted personal charms were enhanced by a finely tuned sense of social ambition. His regular correspondents included, for example, John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham; Allen, 1st Earl Bathurst; Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington; Hugh Hume, Earl of Marchmont; John Boyle, Earl of Orrery; Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford; and Charles Mordaunt, Earl of Peterborough. His intimacy with female members of the nobility was no less extensive, encompassing Katherine Sheffield, Duchess of Buckingham; Dorothy Boyle, Countess of Burlington; Elizabeth Douglas, Duchess of Hamilton; and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough.(1) It is the purpose of this article, therefore, primarily by means of a newly discovered collection of manuscripts at Badminton House, Avon, to outline for the first time in detail the significance of Pope's personal and literary contacts with one of the most influential and cultured groupings of noble women in England--that of the Somerset family, headed by the Dukes of Beaufort.
Hitherto, our rather fragmentary knowledge of Pope's dealings with the family has rested largely upon his own correspondence. Frances (Scudamore) Somerset (1711-50), 3rd Duchess of Beaufort, had been well known to Pope since her childhood.(2) This acquaintance stemmed from Pope's long friendship with her mother, Frances (Digby), Viscountess Scudamore (d. 1729), who was a cousin of Pope's close friend, Robert Digby, the younger son of William 5th Lord Digby. Pope's collected correspondence is riddled with references to her daily life in London and at her country residence, Holm Lacy, near Hereford.(3) So intimate was the relationship that Pope could even suggest, in a letter of 27 March 1729 to the Earl of Oxford, that her London house would provide a convenient distribution point for The Dunciad Variorum by Edward Digby, the elder brother of Robert:
I beg your Lordship to send about 20 books to Cambrige, [sic] but by no means to be given to any Bookseller, but disposd of as by your own Order at 6s. by any honest Gentleman or Head of a House. If you send to Mr Digby's at Lady Scudamores house in Pall mall, he will deliver 'em to your order.
As the editor of this letter wryly noted: 'This paragraph shows well Pope's amazing gift for getting services even from noble friends. Clearly his intimacy with the Digby family continued after the death of his friend Robert Digby in 1726.'(4) In fact, within six weeks of this arrangement in 1729, the Viscountess herself had also died (of smallpox).
In the Muniments Room of Badminton House there are two copies of an anonymous verse elegy of 102 lines, lamenting the Viscountess' sudden demise, and dedicated to her daughter Frances, entitled: 'Panthea. A Pastoral Elegy on ye. Death of ye. Lady Viscountess Scudamore humbly inscribe'd to her Grace the Dutchess of Beaufort'.(5) Although the level of poetic accomplishment in these verses is somewhat modest, their conventional tone and phrasing still manage to convey the sharp sense of loss felt by her closest friends at her unexpected sickness and death. The opening eighteen lines of the elegy also specifically praise her interest in poetic composition:
Where Vaga murmuring glides, in pensive State Damon beneath the bending Willows sate, And mourn'd sincere ye. stern Decrees of Fate; His Tears incessant swell ye. rolling Stream, How just the Grief! Panthea was his Theme.
Yet still, he cryed, a Debt remains, which She May claim from others but exact from me: Can I so sing Panthea's Praise refuse Or how presume? with Her I've lost ye. Muse.
Thou, Gratitude, canst yet my Soul inspire, Fresh Flames excite, or fan ye. languid Fire, Make me reflect, how She would condescend To call, the far unworthy me her Friend.(6) How she my humble Strains would oft commend While still ye. Muse received her surest Aid From what she practise'd, and from what she said When words were apt or juster thoughts appear, They all were copyed, all deriv'd from Her.
Following some eighty further lines of panegyrical platitudes--'Whenever She spoke, how ev'ry Bosom glow'd' (line 28), 'How well her looks her tender Heart express'd' (line 39)--the anonymous poet concludes in more interesting vein, by deftly requesting an elegy on the Viscountess from Pope himself:
But such a Pourtraict asks a Master's Hand, Thy Muse, O Pope, Panthea may demand: Neglecting Her just Praise, yourself you wrong Her Fame, with yours, to distant Times prolong, Nor let it sink Obscure in Damon's Song.
Although no such poem by Pope on the Viscountess' death is known to have been written, the concluding lines of the 'Panthea' elegy seem to imply that Pope was being addressed as a familiar member of her literary circle, rather than simply as a nationally known name.
Unfortunately, at this point it is also necessary to note that the various manuscripts in Badminton Muniments Room have been sorted through on a number of occasions since the 1st Duke of Beaufort instituted the systematic storing and recording of the muniments in the late seventeenth century: most extensively by Richard Salter, the assistant Badminton agent and acting librarian, in the 1840s; and by Queen Mary, during her wartime …