1843 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anna Seward

Anne Katherine Elwood, in Memoirs of the Literary Ladies of England (1843) 1:241-58.



ANNA SEWARD was born on the 12th December, 1744, at Eyam, in Derbyshire, of which place her father, Mr. Seward, was rector, and where the first six or seven years of her life were spent. The family then removed to Lichfield, in 1754, where, with but very few interruptions, the rest of her life was passed.

She was the eldest of two daughters, the sole survivors of a numerous family. Her father had some pretensions as a poet, and was besides a good classical scholar, and several of his productions were printed in Dodsley's Collection. In 1750, he published an edition of Beaumont and Fletcher, which Sir Walter Scott describes as evincing a considerable degree of information and sound criticism.

The name of Miss Seward's mother was Hunter; she was the daughter of Mr. Hunter, the head master of the school at Lichfield, the preceptor of Johnson, Garrick, and of other eminent literary characters. But for intellectual employments, Mrs. Seward seems to have had little inclination, and in fact she rather discouraged the early indications of talent in her daughter; so much so, indeed, that poetry was almost altogether prohibited, and ornamental needlework substituted in its place.

Mr. Seward, as Canon Residentiary of Lichfield, was, together with his family, of course entitled to move in the first circles there, and his daughters, as reputed heiresses, met with much homage and attention.

Miss Seward, in early youth, must, in addition to her mental accomplishments, have possessed considerable personal attractions; for, in 1807, when arrived at her grand climacteric, Sir Walter Scott thus describes her: "When young, she 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 of her hair, and possessed great expression. In reciting, or in speaking with animation, they appeared to become darker, and, as it were, to flash fire. 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. Her tone of voice was melodious, guided by excellent taste, and well suited to reading and recitation, in which she willingly exercised it." It appears that she was considered to bear a strong resemblance to the late Mrs. Fitzherbert, and she was also occasionally thought like the pictures of Mary Queen of Scotland. in 1796, she thus more modestly describes herself: "I can believe what I am told about my countenance expressing the feelings of my heart, but I have no charms, no grace, no elegance of form or deportment. If, in youth, my complexion was clear, glowing, and animated, — if my features were agreeable, though not regular, they have been the victims of time."

When about thirteen years of age, Miss Seward's father removed to the palace of Lichfield, which, though, of course, not his own property, singularly enough continued to be her residence until the time of her death.

It was about 1755, that Miss Honora Sneyd, the daughter of Edward Sneyd, esq., one of a family of eight children lately deprived of their mother, was partly adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Seward, and continued to reside with them from the age of five to nineteen, when she rejoined her family, till the period of her marriage. Miss Seward appears to have assisted in superintending her education, and to have formed for her the most romantic and enthusiastic friendship; and though, after her union with Mr. Edgworth, in 1773, their intimacy in some degree ceased, to the last moment of her life she retained for her lost Honora the warmest and tenderest affection.

Miss Seward was not herself eighteen years of age, when, in 1762, she inspired Col. T— with an attachment as fervent as it was lasting. From her own account, she appears to have felt, at first, merely a girlish interest in, and curiosity for, his dignified seriousness of manner, and his refined attachment to Miss Georgiana Chadwick, afterwards Lady Middleton; but in becoming the confidante of his passion for an absent object, in a few weeks she found his affections were transferred to herself. His regiment then leaving Lichfield, they were separated for two years, when, on meeting again in London, their former friendship was renewed, and soon assumed the shape of love; but as Mr. T—'s fortune had been considerably diminished by the expenses of his education, the price of his commission, and perhaps by the mismanagement of his guardians, during his minority, Mr. Seward gave a decided negative to his addresses, when the affair was brought to his notice by the observations of officious friends.

In this decision Miss Seward seems to have so perfectly acquiesced, that in the following year she began a flirtation, which on her part soon became an ardent attachment, with Colonel, afterwards General Vyse, a native of Lichfield, who in a few months avenged her inconstancy to Col. T—, by totally neglecting her, and in a couple of years afterwards marrying a friend of hers, whose fortune, then in her own possession, exceeded that which Miss Seward had only in prospect. Mrs. Vyse died in childbirth in the following year, when Miss Seward composed a monody to her memory.

Her lover, once more at liberty, again bowed at the shrine of rank and wealth, in preference to that of the Muses, and married a lady, whose father was high in military command, and during the war, the son-in-law soon rose to the rank of general. Miss Seward consoled herself for his desertion by composing several copies of verses and sprightly songs on the occasion, and soon resumed her tranquillity of mind; though she seems to have suffered sufficiently to have formed a sort of resolution to remain for ever a priestess of Apollo rather than to become a votary of Hymen.

Though she subsequently received several offers of marriage, they were all declined by her. Four years afterwards, Miss Seward again accidently met Col. T— in London, when he declared his unceasing affection, with his hopes that an acquisition to his fortune would now induce Mr. Seward to consent to their union.

Miss Seward was too much surprised at the moment to make him an immediate answer, and also somewhat ashamed to find how much he had surpassed herself in constancy; but, on the following day, she communicated to him by letter the complete change which had taken place in her feelings towards him, — from the apparent tranquillity of his deportment never for an instant supposing that she had made an indelible impression on his heart. But it was never effaced; for though, from the conviction of the hopelessness of his attachment, in 1775 he married a young and beautiful woman, the remembrance of Miss Seward clouded with gloom the first years of their married life.

Mrs. T— appears to have repeatedly sought for opportunities of becoming acquainted with the object to whom her husband was so devoted, and with melancholy enthusiasm she was induced to invest her with all the charms imagination could devise, or which were lavished on her by her husband's description.

The gravity which first captivated Miss Seward's youthful fancy, in after life partook in some degree of a religious insanity, in the form of a devotion which, however intent, veered by turns from one faith to another. Notwithstanding his wife and numerous family, his mind became strangely, extravagantly, and darkly coloured by disappointment; and the singular visit he paid to Lichfield, in 1796, more than thirty years after he first became acquainted with Miss Seward, evinces that she was the original cause of his eccentricity. A servant brought up his card to her whilst she was dressing, and on her sending down word she would be down immediately, he had vanished! The housekeeper coming up stairs had observed him gazing up the next flight, at the foot of which he was standing when, perceiving her, he went back into the hall and left the house. Mrs. T—, who was in correspondence with Miss Seward, and who, singularly enough, was always requesting of her to send her portrait, on perusing her account of this singular visit, naturally exclaimed to her husband, "Good heaven! how could you leave the place without seeing Miss Seward at last, since she was at home?"

He replied, with much solemnity, "The momentary gratification must have been followed with pain and regret, that would sufficiently have punished the temerity of attempting to see her at all. I had no sooner entered the house than I became sensible of my perilous state of feeling, and fled with precipitation." Both Mrs. T— and Miss Seward regretted this result of his visit, for his "insane constancy," as this fair object of his devotion terms it, would scarcely have stood the test of seeing the devastations of time on the idol of his imagination. It would, as she observes, in all probability, "have proved a spell-dissolving interview," for at fifty-two she could scarcely have retained many of the charms that first captivated him when she was but eighteen.

But to return to Miss Seward's youthful days. In 1764, the arrival in Lichfield of Mr. Porter, the son-in-law of Dr. Johnson, appeared likely to produce a considerable change in her manner of life, as, in the event of his marriage with her sister Sarah, then about to take place, she was to have accompanied the bride and bridegroom to Italy, where she was to have spent a couple of years. In her early letters, she gives a spirited and amusing account of the first introduction of Mr. Porter to his fair intended, who, fortunately, were so mutually well pleased with each other, that in a couple of days the offer was made and accepted. But a terrible blow awaited the family of Seward; the lovely and amiable girl, (for such indeed does she appear to have been,) when everything. was arranged for her marriage, and the wedding-day fixed, was suddenly seized with fever, and in a few days was a corpse!

This was the first affliction experienced by Miss Seward, and it consequently was most severely felt by her; and it was now, when deprived of her only sister, that the friendship of her amiable protegee, Honora Sneyd, became of inestimable value to her.

With the exception of a few months occasionally spent at Eyam, her father's living, whither she frequently accompanied him, or at her uncle, Mr. Marten's, at Gotham, in Nottinghamshire, where every two years they passed a month, the greater part of Miss Seward's subsequent life was generally spent at Lichfield, where there seems to have been considerable gaiety, and much visiting in the winter months.

Miss Seward thus describes the quietude of a country clergyman's life seventy or eighty years ago. She was on a visit at Gotham, 1767, when she writes—

"The convenient old parsonage is uncommonly light and cheerful. Its fire-places have odd little extra windows near them, which are the blessings of employment in cold or gloomy days. A rural walk encircles the house. In its front, a short flagged walk divides two grass-plots and leads to a little wicket gate, arched over with ivy, that opens into the fold-yard. A narrow gravel-walk extends along the front of the house, and under the parlour-windows. Opposite them, and on the larger grass-plot, stands the venerable and expansive mulberry-tree. * * * We rise at seven. At eight, my aunt and cousin, my mother, Honora, and myself, meet at our neat and cheerful breakfast. That dear, kind-hearted saint, my uncle, has his milk earlier, and retires, for the morning, to his study. At nine, we adjourn to my aunt's apartment above stairs, where one reads aloud to the rest, who are at work. At twelve, my uncle summons us to prayers in the parlour. When they are over, the family disperses, and we young ones either walk or write till dinner. That appears at two. At four, we resume my aunt's apartment. * * * When we quit this dear apartment to take an evening walk, it is always with a degree of reluctance. At half-past ten, he calls in his servants to join our vesper devotions, which close the peaceful and unvaried day, resigning us to sleep as tranquil as itself. * * * The village has no neighbourhood, and in itself no prospect. The roads are deep and dirty, in winter scarce passable. My fair cousin, Miss Marten, is completely buried through the dreary months. * * * She tells us she weeps for joy at the sight of the first daisy, and welcomes and talks to and hails the little blessed harbinger of brighter days, her days of liberty as well as of peace."

Both Miss Seward and Miss Honora Sneyd appear to have far more enjoyed the society and the pleasures of Lichfield than the quiet uniformity of this rural life; and her lovely young friend, now growing up to womanhood, shortly after became the object of the fervent but disastrous attachment of Major Andre.

They first met at Buxton, in 1769, when Major Andre, then little more than a boy, drew two miniature portraits of Miss Honora Sneyd, and in so doing he appears to have become desperately enamoured of the object whose charms he was portraying. One of these pictures was given to Miss Seward, the other became of melancholy celebrity in after years, when he was seized by the Americans. He wrote to a friend, "I have been taken prisoner by the Americans, and stript of everything but the portrait of Honora, which I concealed in my mouth. Preserving that, I think myself fortunate."

Miss Sneyd does not seem ever to have felt for him any sentiment warmer than that of friendship, and in 1773 she became the second wife of Mr. Edgworth of Edgworth town.

Andre afterwards joined the army in America, where his unfortunate end has attached a melancholy celebrity both to himself and to the object of his attachment.

Miss Seward composed a monody to his memory, in which she severely animadverted upon the conduct of Washington. Some years after peace was signed between England and America, an officer introduced himself to her, commissioned from General Washington to call upon her, and to assure her, from, the general himself, that no circumstance of his life had been so mortifying as to be censured in the Monody on Andre, as the pitiless author of his ignominious fate; that he had laboured, in fact, to save him, as appeared by papers he had sent for her perusal, which fully proved the truth of the assertion.

In 1778, Miss Seward gave a singular mark of friendship for Lady Northesk, daughter of the Earl of Leven and Melville, who then visited Lichfield to consult Dr. Darwin about her health, which was rapidly sinking by haemorrhage. She became an object of great interest both with Dr. Darwin and Miss Seward, from her sufferings and patience, as well as from her beauty and amiable qualities. Dr. Darwin, one evening, suggested to her the expediency of attempting in her case an old medical custom, long since sunk into disuse from superstitious feelings, viz. that of injecting blood into the veins by means of a syringe, — both human blood, and that of calves and sheep, being used. Lady Northesk cheerfully replied, "She had not the least objection, if he thought it eligible." Upon which Miss Seward, who was then present, immediately observed, that "perhaps Lady Northesk would prefer a supply from a healthy human subject, rather than from an animal, and as she had no dread of the lancet, she would gladly spare from time to time such a portion from her veins as Dr. Darwin should think fit to inject." He was much pleased with the proposal, and Lady Northesk expressed her warm gratitude on the occasion. The, idea was, however, subsequently abandoned, from, Dr. Darwin's fear of the consequences. He, however, by altering her regimen to a milk diet, did her much good; she gradually recovered her strength, and in three weeks time she was enabled to pursue her journey to Scotland, a convalescent, and full of hope of eventual recovery.

Lady Northesk corresponded with Miss Seward till her death, which took place in 1779, at Edinburgh, in consequence of her cap and handkerchief taking fire.

In 1780, Miss Seward lost tier mother. Her father died in 1790, at an advanced age, leaving his daughter an independence of 400 per annum, which, with economy, enabled her to continue to reside in her beloved palace at Lichfield. In her attention to her father in his declining years, Miss Seward appears in a most amiable light, and she evidently took more than ordinary filial delight in soothing the infirmities of his protracted life.

Miss Seward early obtained considerable celebrity, and six volumes of letters published by Sir Walter Scott, evince that she was well known in the republic of letters, as she, from 1784 to 1807, corresponded with many of the most celebrated characters of the day.

Miss Seward was so early in life introduced to some of the best poets, that she could repeat passages from L'Allegro and Il Penseroso before she was three years of age; of course before she could comprehend their meaning. When but eight years old, the dazzling beauty and graces of the Countess of Bradford were the first inspiration of her infant muse, that lady's fondness for her at that period making an indelible impression on her young heart. At ten years of age she began a versification of the Psalms, after which her attempts at poetry appear to have received a check from her mother, who deemed the needle and the thimble fitter implements to grace the hand and to occupy the time of a young lady, than pen and ink. Her father, also, seems not to have relished the being told that he was surpassed in the poetic art by his daughter. Dr. Darwin, perhaps, may be considered to have been her master and her model in verse, as Johnson was in prose, — to which latter may be attributed her lavish use of epithets, her inversion of sentence, and her grandiloquence of phrase.

Although several pleasing little poems, composed between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three, have since been printed, at the time they were written she seems to have had but little idea of publication, and it was not till after the encomiums she received from Lady Miller and the Bath-Easton coterie, that she was induced to give her poems to the world. Her monodies to Andre, Cook, and Lady Miller, were among the first that appeared in print. The laurel wreath of Bath-Easton appears frequently to have been awarded to Miss Seward, as to many of her poems is prefixed Prize Poem at Bath-Easton. It was after thus having tried her poetical powers, that she gave the monody to Andre to the world, and the interest attached to his melancholy fate soon obtained for it no slight celebrity.

Her longest, and as she seems to consider it, her most superior poem, Louisa, a poetical novel in four epistles, appeared in 1782. In this, she endeavoured "to unite the impassioned fondness of Pope's Eloisa, with the chaster tenderness of Prior's Emma, avoiding the voluptuousness of the first, and the too conceding softness of the second."

This pleasing poem, which, when first it came before the public, was perused and admired, has since incurred the fate of man a favourite of fashion — that of being forgotten when its original patrons and patronesses are laid in the grave. Numerous little poems of local and temporary interest, then, at different times issued from the pen of Miss Seward. Her Paraphrases and Imitations of Horace were considered as having caught the spirit, while they departed from the letter of the poet; though with the Latin language she was totally unacquainted, as, indeed, with any other than her own.

Miss Seward's voluminous correspondence made its appearance in 1811, after her death. It was edited by Sir Walter Scott, to whom, together with Constable, she left the superintendence of her papers. The letters commence in 1784, and continue down to 1807, and are addressed to several of the literati and celebrated characters of the day; Boswell, Hayley, Mundy, Gregory, Carey, Croft, Repton, Whalley, Jerningham, Sir Brook Boothby, Dr. Parr, Todd, Walter Scott, Southey, Percival; Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, Helen Williams, Mrs. Brookes, Mrs. Piozzi, Mrs. Knowles, and a long etcetera in addition, whom her partial friendship would fain have exalted into a foremost station in the temple of fame. They present an interesting picture of her own pursuits and of the passing literature of the day. Some of her stars, however, already begin "to pale their ineffectual fires," whilst others, whose dawning glories she ardently watched, have justified her predictions of becoming of the first magnitude in the constellation of literature.

Her letters contain many excellent observations, both moral and literary, though they certainly must be considered as productions of the head, rather than of the heart. Her style is studied almost to affectation, and is frequently disfigured by inversions and compounded epithets. But it must be remembered that many of her letters are addressed to literary characters, exclusively upon subjects of taste and criticism, and consequently, cannot be expected to have the easy elegance of more familiar letters. They had also the advantage, or disadvantage of having been revised and corrected by herself for the press, so that we do not see them in their original form.

It was her habit to transcribe into a book every letter of her own which appeared to her worth the attention of the public, omitting those passages which were without interest but to the person to whom they were addressed. She left twelve volumes of letters, thus copied by herself; but as from this it is evident she always had in view the possibility of publication, their studied and highly ornamented style is easily accounted for.

Three volumes of poems, also thus prepared by herself, have made their appearance, in a collective form, since her death, the greater part of which, however, had previously been published in periodicals, or in separate editions. Among these was a centenary of sonnets completed in 1790, all in the style of Milton's. The interesting sonnets of Mrs. Charlotte Smith she ever held in the most utter contempt; but the latter are ofttimes remembered and quoted, whilst Miss Seward's are already consigned to oblivion.

In 1802, the death of her early friend, Dr. Darwin, induced Miss Seward to commit to paper anecdotes of his life, which were afterwards published, and which contain a curious and interesting account of the society of Lichfield at that time.

It is a singular fact that some lines of Miss Seward's, about fifty in number, first suggested to Dr. Darwin the idea of his celebrated Botanic Garden. They were written in 1778, in a wild umbrageous valley near Lichfield, which Dr. Darwin had purchased the preceding year, and where a mossy fountain of pure and cold water had, one hundred years before, induced the inhabitants to build a cold-bath. A rock there drops perpetually three times in a minute. Summer drought does not abate, frost does not congeal, nor rain, increase it. Aquatic plants border it, and branch from fissures. Dr. Darwin cultivated and ornamented the spot, and converted it into a picturesque garden of botanical science. She took out her tablets and pencil, and, seated on a flowery bank in the midst of this luxurious retreat, wrote the lines in question, while "the sun was gilding the glen, and while birds of every plume poured their songs from the boughs." When shown to him whom she considered as her poetic preceptor, he expressed himself pleased with them, and said they should form the exordium of a poem, which he that instant conceived might be written upon the Linnean system, and under the Ovidian licence of transforming trees, shrubs, and flowers into ladies and gentlemen.

Upon this hint, Darwin commenced his Botanic Garden, somewhat disingenuously prefixing the said lines, with a few alterations, without any acknowledgment of the author. They had, however, been previously sent to the Gentleman's Magazine unknown to Miss Seward, and had from thence got into several public prints of that era, with her name affixed.

Miss Seward, though she utterly condemned the licentious excesses of the French Revolution, was liberal in her views both in politics and religion; so that, as she herself observes, she pleased neither the high church party on the one hand, nor the Jacobins on the other.

It was comparatively late in life that Miss Seward began to apply herself to music, of which afterwards she appears to have been passionately fond, that is, of cathedral and sacred performances; and of Handel, she seems to have been an idolater. Her taste may possibly have been formed by an intimacy with Mr. Saville, which commenced when she was about thirteen, and he but twenty years of age, when they were next door neighbours, and which continued uninterruptedly for a space of forty-eight years. He was musician and vicar choral of Lichfield, and appears to have been also a clever and well-informed man.

Miss Seward never left her native land, and was but seldom in the metropolis; but she made frequent excursions to watering-places, and to the habitations of her friends. She was a frequent visitor at Mr. Whalley's, in Somersetshire, where she became acquainted with Hannah More; also at Wellsburn, the seat of Court Dewes, Esq., the nephew of Mrs. Delany, where she was introduced to Dr. Parr; at Mr. Robert's, at Dinbran, in Wales, she first visited and became intimate with the celebrated recluses of Llangollen, Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, who, early in life retired to that elegant seclusion, which they never willingly left even for a night, though they were sought by, and corresponded with, many of the celebrated characters of the day. Miss Seward paid frequent visits to Llangollen vale, the beauties of which she describes in glowing colours, both in prose and verse.

Though an enthusiast in friendship, and liberal in her opinions, it is evident that Miss Seward did not like contradiction, from the impetuous manner with which she frequently addresses Mr. Hardinge, the Welsh judge, and Mr. Hayley, both of whom occasionally presumed to differ with her in opinion. Probably at Lichfield, where there was none to cope with her — she, like "Cato, gave her little senate laws," and thus acquiring confidence in her own opinions, was astonished at any one who disputed her critical decisions.

Her taste seems to have been formed on the models of Pope, Dryden, Prior, and the authors of the reign of Queen Anne. Excepting for Shakespeare and Milton, she had little partiality for writers of an earlier period, nor indeed for those in general of the romantic school; though she admired the poetry of Sir Walter Scott, and had penetration enough to foresee his future literary fame. She preferred Johnson to Addison, and formed her style accordingly, though she was by no means one of his indiscriminate admirers.

Miss Seward had very early in life seriously injured her right knee, which impeded in some degree the taking that exercise which seems to have been absolutely necessary for the preservation of her health. She was frequently ordered to the sea, Buxton, Harrogate, &c., but many of the remedies for her lameness, and other disorders, tended to increase an oppression of health to which she was liable, and which latterly seems to have rendered writing inconvenient to her.

In 1801, when paying an evening visit, deceived by an imperfect moonlight, she fell down a flight of steps into the street, and violently strained the muscles and tendons of her hitherto uninjured knee. It was long before she recovered from the effects of this accident, and thus being prevented taking her customary exercise, her health seems gradually to have become impaired. She, however, continued her love of literature to the last, and latterly occupied herself with preparing her prose and poetical works for the press.

In 1807, she was attacked with a scorbutic disorder, which affected her blood and whole frame in so distressing a manner, as to banish sleep, and to render intolerable her waking hours. She, however, struggled with her complaint till the year 1809, when, in the month of March, she was attacked with a lethargy, which carried her off on the 25th, at the age of sixty-five.

Her last letter, completed on the 13th of March, was addressed to her friend Sir Walter Scott, with whom she had maintained a literary correspondence for some years, and who, in 1807, had paid her a visit at Lichfield. In this epistle she too surely felt her own approaching end, and describes the fatal progress of her disorder. In another letter, delivered to him after her death, she explained her wishes as to the arrangement and publication of her letters and poems.

Her poetical works were published in 1810, in three volumes, and her letters in six, in the following year.

Dr. Johnson appears to have highly respected Miss Seward, notwithstanding the difference of their opinions, for which she says, she "knew he hated her." Some letters, under the signature of Benvolio, upon his character, were after his death addressed by her to, and published in the Gentleman's Magazine.

WORKS.
Anna Seward's Poetical Works, with extracts from her Literary Correspondence, by Walter Scott. 3 vols. 1810.
A. Seward's Letters from 1784 to 1807. 6 volumes, 1811.
Life of Dr. Darwin, 1804.