There appeared in March, 1716, a volume bearing the title Court Poems, the authorship being attributed to “A Lady of Quality,” who, it soon became known, was Lady Mary. The book was issued by Roberts, who had received the three sets of verses contained in it from the notorious piratical publisher, Edmund Curll. How the manuscript “fell” into the hands of Curll it is not easy to imagine. Curll’s account is that they were found in a pocket-book taken up in Westminster Hall on the last day of the trial of the Jacobite Lord Winton. Anyhow, however it came about, the volume was published in 1716, when it was found to contain “The Basset Table,” “The Drawing Room,” and “The Toilet.”
Curll was an excellent publicity agent for his wares. He wrote, or caused to be written, a most intriguing “advertisement” about the authorship of the poems:
“Upon reading them over at St. James’ Coffee House, they were attributed by the general voice to be the productions of a lady of quality. When I produced them at Button’s, the poetical jury there brought in a different verdict; and the foreman strenuously insisted upon it that Mr. Gay was the man. Not content with these two decisions, I was resolved to call in an umpire, and accordingly chose a gentleman of distinguished merit, who lives not far from Chelsea. I sent him the papers, which he returned next day, with this answer: “Sir, depend upon it these lines could come from no other hand than the judicious translator of Homer.” Thus, having impartially given the sentiments of the Town, I hope I may deserve thanks for the pains I have taken in endeavouring to find out the author of these valuable performances, and everybody is at liberty to bestow the laurel as they please.”
Pope was furious, and there is a story that he invited Curll to drink wine with him at a coffee-house, and put in his glass some poison that acted as an emetic. What is certain is that the poet wrote a pamphlet with the title, “A full and true Account of a horrid and barbarous Revenge by Poison on the body of Edmund Curll.”
The three pieces in Court Poems were claimed by Lady Mary as her own, but this claim was disputed. Pope declared himself the author of “The Basset Table,” and it was printed among his works, and he asserted that “‘The Toilet’ is almost wholly Gay’s,” there being “only five or six lines in it by that lady.” “The Toilet” is included in his collected edition of Gay’s poems.
The whole matter is best explained by that sound student of the eighteenth century, “George Paston,” who suggests that the truth seems to be that the verses were handed round in manuscript to be read and corrected by the writer’s literary friends, and therefore they owe something to the different hands. “George Paston” goes on to say: “Lady Mary was not unaware of the danger of this proceeding, for Richardson the painter relates that on one occasion she showed Pope a copy of her verses in which she intended to make some trifling alterations, but refused his help, saying, ’No, Pope, no touching, for then whatever is good for anything will pass for yours, and the rest for mine.’”