1786 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anna Laetitia Barbauld

Anonymous, "Account of Mrs. Barbauld" European Magazine 9 (March 1786) 139-40.



The present times, whatever faults they may be charged with, have happily emancipated themselves from many prejudices which formerly enslaved our ancestors. Amongst these no one was more inveterate, more universal, or more absurd, than the aversion which used to prevail against female claims to literary reputation; to that cultivation of the female mind which enabled the Ladies to distinguish themselves by their intellectual endowments. On a retrospective view of those names which are entitled to literary honours, and which will hereafter redound to the reputation of the country, are to be found those of many females who have successfully explored the recesses of science, have enlarged the bounds of human knowledge, and added to the innocent and improving amusements of life.

The Lady we have chosen for the subject of this month's Magazine is no less celebrated for her intellectual than her personal endowments. She is the daughter of the Rev. John Aikin, D.D. tutor in divinity at the academy at Warrington for several years. "Though not (says Dr. Barnes) known to the world at large as an author, his modesty having unhappily prevented him from appearing in print, he was uncommonly revered by all that knew him, for the wonderful extent of his knowledge, for the mild dignity of his character, and for the various excellencies which adorned the scholar, the tutor, and the man." He died about the latter end of the year 1780. Our authoress had the advantage of an excellent education from her respectable father, and seems, early to have shewn her poetical genius. One of her first essays was the following short poem on the death of her grandmother, Mrs. Jennings.

'Tis past: dear venerable shade, farewell!
Thy blameless life thy peaceful death shall tell.
Clear to the last thy setting orb has run,
Pure, bright and healthy, like a frosty sun;
And Lite old age with hand indulgent shed
Its mildest winter on thy favour'd head.
For Heaven prolong'd her life to spread its praise,
And bless'd her with a patriarch's length of days.
The truest praise was her's; a chearful heart,
Prone to enjoy, and ready to impart.
An Israelite indeed, and free from guile,
She show'd that piety and age could smile.
Religion had her heart, her cares, her voice;
'Twas her last refuge, as her earliest choice:
To holy Anna's spirit not more dear
The church of Israel, and the house of pray'r.
Her spreading offspring of the fourth degree
Fill'd her fond arms, and clasp'd her trembling knee.
Matur'd at length for some more perfect scene,
Her hopes all bright, her prospects all serene,
Each part of life sustain'd with equal worth,
And not a wish left unfulfill'd on earth,
Like a tir'd traveller with sleep opprest,
Within her children's arms she dropt to rest.
Farewel! thy cherish'd image, ever dear,
Shall many a heart with pious love revere;
Long, long shall mine her honour'd memory bless,
Who gave the dearest blessing I possess.

The first publication our authoress gave the public was a volume of Poems in 4to. 1773, which hath been since several times reprinted. It contains some pieces which have a smoothness and harmony equal to that of our best poets; with a justness of thought and vigour of imagination, which would lose no credit by a comparison with the greatest names in English literature. The excellence of these poems was immediately acknowledged by the world; and Mr. Garrick, soon after their publication, recognized the writer as one who "sung the sweetest lay," in an epilogue spoken at Bath before a Lady's play. In the same year were published, Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose. 8vo. These were written by Miss Aikin, with the assistance of her brother, a gentleman who has since both instructed and edified the world by many useful and entertaining works. In the next or immediately following year, Miss Aikin united herself in marriage with the Rev. Mr. Barbauld, and published Devotional Pieces, compiled from the Psalms and the Book of Job. To which are prefixed, Thoughts on the Devotional Taste, on Sects, and on Establishments. This is the last publication of importance which Mrs. Barbauld has produced. Since her marriage, she seems to have devoted her attention to the initiation and improvement of children in letters, and has printed several little pieces adapted to their capacities. These useful and unambitious performances have received the best eulogium that can he given to works of this kind, a general reception arising from proofs of their value. Mrs. Piozzi, speaking of them and of Dr. Johnson, says, "Mrs. Barbauld, however, had his best praise, and deserved it: no man was more struck than Mr. Johnson with voluntary descent from possible splendour to painful duty."

We shall conclude this account of Mrs. Barbauld by observing, that every part of her works exhibit marks of a refined and vigorous imagination, of cultivated genius, elegant manners, unbigotted religion, and unenthusiastical devotion. The following lines, in which she has drawn the character of some friend, have been pointed out as not inapplicable to herself:

Of gentle manners, and of taste refin'd,
With all the graces of a polish'd mind,
Clear sense and truth still shone in all she spoke,
And from her lips no idle sentence broke.
Each nicer elegance of art she knew,
Correctly fair, and regularly true.
Her ready fingers plied with equal skill
The pencil's task, the needle, or the quill.
So pois'd her feelings, so compos'd her soul,
So subject all to reason's calm controul,
One only passion, strong, and unconfin'd,
Disturb'd the balance of her even mind.
One passion rul'd despotic in her breast,
In every word, and look, and thought confest;
But that was love, and love delights to bless
The generous transports of a fond excess.