1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anna Seward

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 8:156-60.



MISS SEWARD'S father was the Rev. Thomas Seward, rector of Eyam in Derbyshire, prebendary of Salisbury, and canon-residentiary of Litchfield. In his youth he had travelled as tutor with Lord Charles Fitzroy, third son of the duke of Grafton, who died upon his travels in 1739. Mr. Seward returned to England, and soon after married Miss Elizabeth Hunter, daughter of Mr. Hunter, head-master of the school at Litchfield. In 1747, the second year of his marriage, Miss Seward was born. She had several sisters, and one brother, but none survived the period of infancy, except Miss Sarah Seward. "Mr. Seward," says Sir Walter Scott, "was himself a poet; and a manuscript collection of his fugitive pieces is now lying before me, the bequest of my honoured friend when she intrusted me with the task which I am now endeavouring to discharge. Several of these effusions were printed in Dodsley's Collection, vol. ii, towards the close. Mr. Seward was also an admirer of our ancient drama; and, in 1750, published an edition of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays, which, though falling beneath what is expected from the accuracy and investigation of later dramatic authors, evinces a scholar-like degree of information, and a high relish for the beauties of his authors. Thus accomplished himself, the talents of his eldest daughter did not long escape his complacent observation. He early introduced her to Milton and Shakspeare; and I have heard her say, that she could repeat passages from the Allegro before she was three years old."

The romantic hills of Derbyshire, where the village of Eyam is situated, favoured the instructions of her father. His pupil imbibed a strong and enthusiastic partiality for mountain scenery, and the pleasures of landscape, which was a source of great enjoyment during her after life. Her father's taste was rigidly classical, and the authors to whom Miss Seward was introduced were those of Queen Anne's reign. She was early familiar with the works of Pope, Young, Prior, and their predecessor Dryden; and, in later life, used to admire no poetry of an older date, excepting only that of Shakspeare and Milton.

Mr. Seward, about the year 1754, removed his family to Litchfield. "The classical pretensions of this city," Scott observes, "were exalted by its being the residence of Dr. Darwin, who soon distinguished and appreciated the talents of our young poetess. At this time, however, literature was deemed an undesirable pursuit for a young lady in Miss Seward's situation, — the heiress of an independent fortune, and destined to occupy a considerable rank in society. Her mother, though an excellent woman, possessed no taste for her daughter's favourite amusements; and even Mr. Seward withdrew his countenance from them, probably under the apprehension that his continued encouragement might produce in his daughter that dreaded phenomenon, a learned lady." Poetry was therefore prohibited, and Miss Seward resorted to other amusements and to the practice of ornamental needle-work, in which she is said to have excelled. Thus rolled on time for nearly ten years, after her father had settled at Litchfield.

In 1764 a heavy calamity took place in Mr. Seward's family. Sarah, his younger daughter, had been for some time on the eve of forming a matrimonial connexion with Mr. Porter, a merchant at Leghorn, brother to Miss Lucy Porter of Litchfield. Miss Anna Seward was to have accompanied her sister to Italy, but these flattering prospects were clouded by the sickness and death of the young and lovely bride. An affecting account of this distressing calamity occurs in Miss Seward's correspondence. Mr. Porter appears afterwards to have intimated a wish to transfer his attachment to the surviving sister; but it was discouraged. In this Miss Seward showed at once the greatest respect for the memory of her sister, and her own mental delicacy. It is plain, that the attachment of the lover was to the deceased bride, "for he had eyes, and chose her," therefore, though we will not suppose one single spark of pride entered into the composition of Anna Seward, yet a strong idea of propriety in this transaction was apparent. She would have expected little happiness in a union rather emanating from compliment than passion; she could not suffer her deceased sister's wedding-cheer, "Coldly to furnish out her marriage-table."

The blank in the domestic society of Miss Seward was supplied by the attachment of Miss Honoria Sneyd, then residing in her family. This young lady was afterwards married to Mr. Edgeworth. "After the death of Miss Sarah Seward," Mr. Scott continues, "her sister's society became indispensable to her parents, and she was never separated from them. Offers of matrimonial establishments occurred, and were rejected, in one instance entirely, and in others chiefly, from a sense of filial duty. As she was now of an age to select her own society and studies, Miss Seward's love for literature was indulged; and the sphere in which she moved was such as to increase her taste for its pursuits. Dr. Darwin, Mr. Day, whose opinions formed singular specimens of English philosophy, Mr. Edgeworth, Sir Brooke Boothby, and other names well known in the literary world, then formed part of the Litchfield society. The celebrated Dr. Johnson was an occasional visitor of their circles; but he seems, in some respects, to have shared the fate of a prophet in his own country: neither Dr. Darwin nor Miss Seward were partial to the great moralist. There was perhaps some aristocratic prejudice in their dislike; for the despotic manners of Dr. Johnson were least likely to be tolerated where the lowness of his origin was in fresh recollection. At the same time, Miss Seward was always willing to do justice to his native benevolence, and to the powerful grasp of his intellectual powers, and possessed many anecdotes of his conversation which had escaped his most vigilant recorders. These she used to tell with great humour, and with a very striking imitation of the sage's peculiar voice, gesture, and manner of delivery."

The revival of the poetical ardour of Miss Seward is, in some degree, attributed to her acquaintance with Lady Miller, whose fanciful and romantic institution at Bath-Easton was then the subject of public attention. The applause of the selected circle of poetical contributors, among whom the names of Hayley and Anstey appear, encouraged Miss Seward to send some of her essays to the press; and the world received with great applause the elegiac commemorations of Andre and Cooke. Personal friendship for the brave and unfortunate sufferer, and the ill-fated attachment of her friend, Miss Sneyd, induced the first: the second was the spontaneous tribute of admiration and gratitude.

In the year 1780 Mrs. Seward died; and, in 1790, the scene closed by the death of Mr. Seward. His daughter remained mistress of an easy and independent fortune, and continued to inhabit the bishop's palace at Litchfield which had been long her father's residence, and was hers until her death. "Miss Seward," says Mr. Scott, "when young, must have been exquisitely beautiful; for in advanced age, the regularity of her features, the fire and expression of her countenance, gave her the appearance of beauty, and almost of youth. Her eyes were auburn, of the precise shade and hue of her hair, and possessed great expression. In reciting, or speaking with animation, they appeared to become darker, and as it were, to flash fire. I should have hesitated to state the impression which the peculiarity made upon me at the time, had not my observation been confirmed by that of the first actress of this or any other age, with whom I lately happened to converse on our deceased friend's expressive powers of countenance. Miss Seward's tone of voice was melodious, guided by excellent taste, and well-suited to reading and recitation, in which she willingly exercised. She did not sing, nor was she a great proficient in music, though very fond of it, having studied it later in life than is now usual. Her stature was tall, and her form was originally elegant: but having broken the patella of the knee by a fall, in the year 1768, she walked with pain and difficulty, which increased with the pressure of years." In 1784 she produced a poetical novel, entitled Louisa, which became popular, and passed through several editions. Her last publication was Memoirs of the life of Dr. Darwin; in which she lays claim to the lines at the commencement of The Botanic Garden, though unacknowledged by the author. Miss Seward died at Litchfield, in March, 1809, leaving the copyright of her miscellaneous works to Sir Walter Scott, who published them in three volumes. Her other poems are Langollen Vale, a volume of Sonnets, and some paraphrases of Horace.

Mr. Polwhele, among his prose illustrations subjoined to his poem of Unsexed Females, thus speaks of the object of this memoir: "Miss Seward's poems are 'thoughts that breathe, and words that burn,' and he who hesitates to allow this lady a very first place among the female poets of the country, must be grossly deficient in taste. Her Cooke, her Andre, her Louisa, are all first-rate performances. Either of these enchanting poems would be sufficient to immortalize the name of Seward."