1843 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anna Laetitia Barbauld

Anne Katherine Elwood, in Memoirs of the Literary Ladies of England (1843) 1:224-40.



ANNA LETITIA BARBAULD was born at Kibworth Harcourt, in Leicestershire, on June 20th, 1743. She was the only daughter and eldest child of the Rev. John Aiken, and of Jane his wife, the daughter of a dissenting minister, the Rev. John Jennings, who for some years kept an academy at Kibworth, and who was known, not only for his piety and learning, but also as having been the preceptor of the celebrated and excellent Dr. Doddridge, and who subsequently succeeded him in the care of the school.

Mr. Aiken was the son of a Scotchman, who settled in London as a shopkeeper. He was himself also intended for trade, and even entered a merchant's counting-house as French clerk; but his health incapacitating him from living in the metropolis, he was placed under Dr. Doddridge's care, when, the bent of his mind for learning soon strongly manifesting itself, he obtained his father's consent to devote himself to the Christian ministry. He finished his course with Dr. Doddridge, and subsequently completed an extensive plan of study at the university of Aberdeen. He then became the assistant of his old master, Dr. Doddridge, and was soon afterwards elected as the pastor of a respectable congregation at Leicester; but his lungs not being strong enough for preaching, he was forced to abandon that line of life, and soon after he opened a school of his own at Kibworth, which his learning and abilities soon raised into repute.

It was here that his celebrated daughter Anna Letitia was born.

Miss Aiken early evinced an uncommon aptitude for study, as even in infancy she was described by her mother as "a little girl who was as eager to learn as her instructors could be to teach her, and who, at two years old, could read sentences and little stories in her wise book, roundly, without spelling, and in half a year more could read as well as most women."

The first fifteen years of her life were passed at the retired village of Kibworth, in almost utter seclusion, partly arising, probably, from the nature of her father's employment, and also, perhaps, from the severity and precision of manners which, a century ago, prevailed among the Protestant dissenters, the descendants of the Puritans or non-conformists.

Her education was entirely domestic, and during her childhood she had no suitable companion of her own sex and age with whom to associate. From the apprehensions that were entertained, lest, in this dearth of society, her manners might too much assimilate with those of the rougher sex by whom she was surrounded, maternal care was excited to instil into her a double portion of bashfulness and womanly timidity, which, indeed she could never in after years entirely shake off, and which she imputed to the strictness and seclusion with which she had been brought up. Fortunately, however, Mrs. Aiken, her mother, was a lady of polished manners and cultivated mind; she had also had the advantage of religious and enlightened parents, and of having associated much with Dr. Doddridge, who, for some years, had been domesticated under her paternal roof.

Mr. Aiken appears to have participated, in some degree, in the prejudices of those who would debar females from all acquaintance with classical literature, and for some time he withstood his daughter's wish to be instructed in the learned languages. She at length overcame his scruples, and Miss Aiken, with his assistance, became enabled to read the Latin, and even attained some acquaintance with the Greek language.

In 1758, when she had just attained the age of fifteen, her father received an invitation to undertake the office of classical tutor to the then flourishing dissenting academy at Warrington, in Lancashire. This was a fortunate removal for Miss Aiken, as, by this means, she became acquainted with a number of learned and scientific persons, who were connected, in a similar manner, with the Warrington academy. Among these may be enumerated, Dr. Priestley, Dr. Reinhold Mr. Foster, the naturalist, and Dr. Enfield.

Miss Aiken was at this time possessed of considerable beauty, traces of which she retained to the last period of her life. Her person was slender, her features regular, her complexion exquisitely fair, with a fine bloom, and her dark blue eyes beamed with intelligence. Her talents were, doubtlessly, appreciated by the congenial minds with whom she now associated, and she naturally took a warm interest in the success of an institution, where the most brilliant, and, probably, the happiest part of her existence was passed. She has transmitted its praise to posterity in her animated poem, The Invitation.

This was published in a volume of poems which first made their appearance in 1773, and which were so much admired, as to pass through four editions within the first twelvemonth. It was by the persuasion, and with the assistance of her brother, that these poems were selected, revised, and arranged; and, as she continued for some time nervously averse to their being printed, he perused the papers, and set the press to work on his own authority. The result fully justified his expectations, and the poetry of Miss Aiken became celebrated in all quarters.

This brother, afterwards Dr. Aiken, having chosen the medical profession, in preference to the study of divinity, for which he was originally intended, had been, at an early age, articled to a surgeon in Uppingham, in Rutlandshire, of the name of Garthstore, from whence he went to the University of Edinburgh; and, in 1770, when anxious to settle in life, he had begun to practise at Chester, but not finding a sufficient opening there, he repaired to Warrington, an event which must have proved mutually agreeable and beneficial to himself and his sister.

Mr. Aiken had already appeared in print; in 1772, he had published a volume entitled Essays on Song Writing, with a Collection of such English Songs as are most eminent for Poetical Merit. This was favourably received, and is interesting from the circumstance of its suggesting to his sister her little poem on The Origin of Song Writing.

The well-deserved success of their respective publications induced Mr. Aiken to urge his sister to join him in forming a small volume of their various prose pieces, which were published in the same year, 1773, under the title of Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose, by J. and A. L. Aiken. These have been frequently reprinted, and have been much admired. That, by Miss Aiken, Against Inconsistency in our Expectations, cannot be too much studied and imprinted on our minds, and many a heartache might be spared if we were to attend to the advice it contains.

In 1774 an important change took place in the circumstances of Miss Aiken, as in that year, at the age of thirty-one, she became the wife of the Reverend Rochemont Barbauld, a dissenting minister, who was the descendant of one of the French refugee Protestant families who fled from the tyranny of Louis XIV. His grandfather had, when a boy, been conveyed on board ship, inclosed in a cask. Settling in England, his son became a clergyman of the established church, and on the marriage of the Princess Mary, daughter of George II., in 1741, to the Elector of Hesse Cassel, he was appointed one of her chaplains, and attended her to Cassel. Here his son Rochemont was born, who was originally intended also for the church, but being sent to complete his studies at the dissenting academy of Warrington, he naturally imbibed the principles inculcated there, and though, perhaps, the Calvinism of the French Huguenots might well assimilate with those of the Puritans of our civil wars, yet, at this time, the doctrines taught at Warrington. offered an insuperable obstacle to any of its pupils joining the Church of England.

Thus, being prevented by conscientious scruples from advancing himself in the only profession in which he had any chance of success, Mr. Barbauld's prospects were for some time full of uncertainty, and insuperable obstacles at first appeared to prevent his union with Miss Aiken. It was at this period suggested by Mrs. Montagu, and other distinguished characters, that, under their auspices, she should undertake an establishment, which, from its plan, might almost be termed a college for young ladies. This was, however, declined by Miss Aiken, not only from a becoming diffidence of her own competency for this important undertaking, but also from her doubts of the expediency of such publicity of education for a female. Her observations on the subject are marked by the good sense and sound judgment which are evident in most of her writings. In speaking of the proposed plan, she says—

"It appears to me better calculated to form such characters as the 'Precieuses,' or the 'Femines Seavantes' of Moliere, than good wives or agreeable companions. Young gentlemen, who are to display their knowledge to the world, should have every motive of emulation. * * * * But young ladies, who ought only to have such a general tincture of knowledge as to make them agreeable companions to a man of sense, and to enable them to find rational entertainment for a solitary hour, should gain these accomplishments in a more quiet and unobserved manner, subject to a regulation like that of the ancient Spartans. The thefts of knowledge in our sex are only connived at while carefully concealed, and if displayed, punished with disgrace. The best way for women to acquire knowledge is from conversation with a father, a brother, or a friend, in the way of family intercourse and easy conversation, and by such a course of reading as they may recommend."

This idea, which seems to have arisen from a wish for a more enlarged system of female education than then prevailed, appears to have dropped; and Mr. Barbauld, soon after accepting the charge of a dissenting congregation at Palgrave, near Diss, in Suffolk, opened a boarding-school for boys in that neighbourhood.

The celebrity attached to the name of Miss Aiken, and her active participation in the labours of instruction, soon brought their establishment into great repute, and many are the literary characters who imbibed their first ideas of learning and eloquence under the superintendence of Mrs. Barbauld.

One of the pupils of Mr. Barbauld, William Taylor, Esq., of Norwich, in a biographical notice of his friend and brother scholar, Dr. Sayers, M.D., of the same city, says, "Among the instructions bestowed at Palgrave, Dr. Sayers has repeatedly observed to me, that he most valued the lessons of English composition superintended by Mrs. Barbauld. On Wednesdays and Saturdays the boys were called in separate classes to her apartments: she read a fable, a short story, or a moral essay, and then sent them back into the school-room, to write it out on the slates in their own words. Each exercise was separately overlooked by her; the faults of grammar were obliterated, the vulgarisms were chastised, the idle epithets were cancelled, and a distinct reason was always assigned for every correction; so that the arts of auditing and of criticism were in some degree learnt together. Many a lad from the great schools, who excels in Latin and Greek, cannot write properly a vernacular letter, for want of some such discipline."

Mrs. Barbauld must have had a great love as well as talent for the education of infancy, for not many years after her marriage, on finding she had no children, she made an application to her brother, Dr. Aiken, for one of his, whom she might adopt and bring up as her own.

Mr. Aiken, who had been for some years married to his cousin Martha, the youngest daughter of his maternal uncle, Mr. Arthur Jennings, had now an increasing family, and in the year 1777, yielding to the entreaties of his sister, his youngest son Charles was consigned to her care, whilst yet an infant under two years of age.

Mrs. Barbauld appears to have been delighted with her young charge, who was destined to become an important personage in half the nurseries of the kingdom, as he was the hero of, and it was for his use that his aunt wrote, her Lessons for Children, a work which, though sixty years have elapsed since it was first penned, has not been excelled in its peculiar adaptation to an infant's mind.

Mrs. Barbauld, in the introduction to this work, says "To lay the first stone of a noble building, and to plant the first idea in a human mind, can be no dishonour to any hand;" and, probably, there is many a mind, in which her little elementary work laid the foundation for many an after train of noble thought.

In her correspondence with her brother, Mrs. Barbauld often speaks with eminent exultation of the flourishing state of their establishment, among whom were to be found several members of noble families; indeed, so great was its reputation, that she was solicited by parents to take their children from the earliest age under her own peculiar care. Among these may be mentioned the present Lord Chief Justice Denman — who was committed to her charge before he was four years old — and Sir William Gell. It was for the benefit of these, her infant scholars, that she was induced to compose her Hymns in Prose; the peculiar design of which publication was "to impress devotional feelings as early as possible on the infant mind;" — for, she says, "a child, to feel the full force of the idea of God, ought never to remember the time when he had no such idea."

In many a bosom has Mrs. Barbauld, "by deep, strong and permanent association, laid a foundation for practical devotion" in after life. In her highly poetical language, only inferior to that of Holy Writ, when "the winter is over and gone, the buds come out on the trees, the crimson blossoms of the peach and the nectarine are seen, and the green leaves sprout," what heart can be so insensible as not to join in the grand chorus of nature, and "on every hill, and in every green field, to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and the incense of praise."

With each revolving year, the simple lessons of infancy are recalled to our minds, when we watch the beautiful succession of nature, and think, "How doth every plant know its season to put forth? They are marshalled in order; each one knoweth his place, and standeth up in his own rank."

"The snowdrop and the primrose make haste to lift their heads above the ground. When the spring cometh they say, here we are! The carnation waiteth for the full strength of the year; and the hardy laurustinus cheereth the winter months."

Who can observe all this, and not exclaim with her,

"Every field is like an open book; every painted flower hath a lesson written on its leaves.

"Every murmuring brook hath a tongue; a voice is in every whispering wind.

"They all speak of him who made them; they all tell us he is very good."

She does indeed instruct us how to

Find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.

In 1775, Mrs. Barbauld published Devotional Pieces, compiled from the Psalms of David, with Thoughts on the Devotional Taste, and on Sects and Establishments, which did not meet with the same success as her preceding works; but her reputation as an authoress was now well established, and her society courted in various quarters.

Mrs. Barbauld had the advantage of mingling in circles very different from each other. Her own connexions were among the leading Dissenters and persons of the then opposition politics, whilst Mr. Barbauld's were courtiers and members of the Established Church. At the house of Mrs. Montagu, who was an early and constant admirer of hers, she associated with individuals high in rank and literary fame; whilst under the humble roof of her friend and publisher, Mr. Joseph Johnson, of St. Paul's Churchyard, on terms of greater equality, she tasted "the feast of reason and the flow of soul."

During the intervals of leisure afforded by the vacations, Mr. and Mrs. Barbauld generally visited their friends in the country, or paid visits to the metropolis; but notwithstanding these little breaks in the monotonous business of tuition, at the end of eleven years, their health and spirits being somewhat impaired by their exertions, they resolved upon relinquishing their establishment at Palgrave, and in the autumn of 1785 they indulged themselves in a continental tour.

They continued their route as far as Geneva, and when they returned to England, in the following year, they settled at Hampstead, Mr. Barbauld having been elected the minister of a dissenting congregation there, where for some years he took a few pupils, whilst Mrs. Barbauld gave daily instructions to a young lady, whose mother took up her residence there, to secure to her daughter the benefit of her tuition.

A few miscellaneous papers, both in prose and verse, arising from the events of the day, were all that for some time proceeded from Mrs. Barbauld's pen. Her poetical Epistle to Mr. Wilberforce appeared in 1791; her Remarks on Mr. Gilbert Wakefield's Inquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public or Social Worship, and her Sins of Government Sins of the Nation, in the year 1793; but a far more popular work, to which she largely contributed, was Dr. Aiken's very amusing Evenings at Home, the first volume of which appeared in 1792, and which still remains a favourite work for young people. Many of the more fanciful and ingenious papers were of her composition: The Transmigrations of Indur, The Fairy Tale, Order and Disorder, The Seasons, &c.

In 1795 and 1797, she composed two critical essays, to be prefixed to ornamental editions of Akenside's Pleasures of Imagination and the Odes of Collins; and in 1804, she offered to the public a selection from her favourite works, the Spectator, Tatler, Guardian, and Freeholder, with a preliminary essay, in which the mutual influence exerted by books and manners on each is remarked, and the gradual change from the active circulation of a book till it retires to the shelves of the library as a classic. An account of each particular work is added, with a slight sketch of the state of society at the period of its appearance, the objects they had in view, and the effects they produced.

In the same year Mrs. Barbauld undertook the selection and arrangement of the letters of Richardson and his correspondents, which had remained in the hands of his last surviving daughter, and at her death, were purchased of her grandchildren; to which she prefixed a life of Richardson, and a review of his works. Her own part of the performance would, probably, be generally considered as the most interesting; but still, to those partial to this style of reading, the letters themselves are amusing, and full of particulars of the literary coterie of which Richardson was the Magnus Apollo, and where he, "like Cato, gave his little senate laws."

In the year 1802, Mr. and Mrs. Barbauld left Hampstead to settle at Stoke Newington, where Mr. Barbauld had received an invitation to become the pastor of the dissenting congregation at Newington Green, which had formerly been Dr. Price's. The chief, perhaps the sole reason for this removal, was, that they might be in the immediate neighbourhood of Dr. Aiken, who had resided in that village ever since 1798. The dissolution of the academy at Warrington in 1783, and the dispersion, in consequence, of the little knot of literary society in that neighbourhood, had induced Dr. Aiken to take his doctor's degree at Leyden, in 1784, and to attempt a higher line of practice, where there would be a more extensive field for his exertions.

At the close of the year 1784, Dr. Aiken repaired to Yarmouth, accompanied by his family and mother, who had resided with him since the death of her husband in 1780. He was succeeded in his tutorship by Mr. Gilbert Wakefield, between whose family and that of Dr. Aiken an intimate friendship was formed, which was cemented, in 1806, by the union of Mrs. Barbauld's adopted Charles, with the eldest daughter of Mr. Wakefield. Mrs. Aiken stopping on the road to pay her daughter, Mrs. Barbauld, a visit, was seized with illness, at Palgrave, which speedily terminated in her death.

Dr. Aiken had an excellent opening at Yarmouth, and a fair share of practice, but latterly politics divided the society there, and his, not coinciding with those of the leading party in Yarmouth, his situation became unpleasant, and he finally resolved on moving to London in 1792, where he resided, till obliged by the state of his health, in 1798, to leave the metropolis for Newington.

Many literary works had, at various times, proceeded from Mr. Aikin's pen, besides the Evenings at Home, the greater part of which was originally written for the instruction of his own family. In 1796, he undertook the editorship of the Monthly Magazine, and in conjunction with Dr. English, he began his General Biography, which occupied his attention for nineteen years, and which extended to ten volumes quarto.

It had long been the mutual wish of Dr. Aiken and Mrs. Barbauld to pass the evening of their days in the society of each other; and this wish, which had been affectingly expressed in a poetical epistle, addressed, in 1785, by the brother to his sister, whilst she was at Geneva, was now to be gratified:

How many years have whirled their rapid course,
Since we, sole streamlets from one honoured source,
In fond affection as in blood allied,
Have wandered devious from each other's side,
Allowed to catch alone some transient view,
Scarce long enough to think the vision true!
O then, while yet some zest of life remains,
While transport yet can swell the beating veins,
While sweet remembrance keeps her wonted seat,
And fancy still retains some genial heat;
When evening bids each busy task be o'er—
Once let us meet again, to part no more!

It is pleasant to see the brother and sister, though separated by even tenderer ties from the constant society of each other, still retaining through life the same warm affection, arising, not merely from the fraternal connexion, but still more from a similarity of taste and genius, unalloyed by envy or jealousy, and at the close of their lives, when each had acquired an honourable station amidst the literary characters of their country, again renewing the social intercourse of their youthful days.

The happiness of Mrs. Barbauld, was, however, of no very long duration, for on the 11th November, 1808, her husband was taken from her. "His latter days were oppressed by a morbid affection of the spirits, in a great degree hereditary, which came gradually upon him, and closed the scene of his earthly usefulness; yet in the midst of the irritation it occasioned, the kindness of his nature broke forth, and some of his last acts were acts of benevolence."

His death was probably a happy release from sufferings of a melancholy nature, but after an union of thirty-four years, the separation was a painful trial to his widow.

It was not till 1810 that Mrs. Barbauld again resumed her literary pursuits, when a collection of British Novelists, edited by her, issued from the press, to which were prefixed, an Introductory Essay, together with Biographical and Critical Notices.

In the following year, she compiled, for the use of young ladies, a volume of verse and prose, entitled The Female Speaker, and soon afterwards, an original composition appeared in verse — Eighteen Hundred and Eleven. In this, which contains some beautiful passages, Mrs. Barbauld has, perhaps, rather adopted the gloomy views of those who anticipated the downfall of England's glory, from the doubtful struggle in which she was then engaged; and, in consequence, notwithstanding her sex and age, her blameless character and literary reputation, she was attacked by some, who were so illiberal as not to be able to make allowances for the circumstances under which the work was composed.

The venerable septuagenarian appears to have felt somewhat keenly this unkind treatment, and henceforth she confined every literary attempt to her own immediate circle, and retired from the world to her own connexion and friends, by whom she was honoured and beloved. She lived many years in undisturbed peace, though it was her lot to suffer the penalty of advanced life, in the seeing the friends of her youth gradually drop into the grave, one after the other. Her brother, Dr. Aiken, died in December, 1822; after a long decline; and just after she had consented to take up her abode under the roof of the child adopted by her in her prime of life, whose infancy she had tended, and who now wished to repay in her failing years the attention she had lavished on his early ones, she herself was attacked by illness at the house of her sister-in-law, Mrs. Aiken, where she was on a visit, and on the morning of March the 9th, 1825, she expired without a struggle, in the eighty-second year of her age.

The works of Mrs. Barbauld for children entitle her to the gratitude of all those who have the care of education, and many of her other miscellaneous performances evince not only sound judgment and good sense, but also brilliancy of imagination and a considerable degree of wit. Her allegory of The Hill of Science, will bear a comparison with the beautiful ones of Addison.

Mrs. Barbauld's works are very slightly tinged with the peculiar tenets of the sect to which she belonged. Indeed, she appears ever to have been in principle equally opposed to superstition and fanaticism, to sectarianism and persecution. In spirit, it would rather seem as if she were of the moderate party of the Church of England, which boasts so many amiable and learned divines, who, holding fast the profession of their own faith, earl make charitable and liberal allowances for those who differ from them either in opinion or in discipline.

Since Mrs. Barbauld's demise, a small volume of miscellaneous pieces, chiefly intended for young females, has been published, among which may be found several excellent and original observations.

Mrs. Barbauld was exemplary in every relation of life; as a wife, a sister, and a friend, she was beloved, admired, and esteemed; and she must ever be considered as an ornament both to her sex and to her native land.

WORKS.
Poems, 1773.
Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose, by J. and A. L. Aiken, 1773.
Devotional Pieces, &c. 1775.
Lessons for Children.
Hymns in Prose.
Poetical Epistle to Mr. Wilberforce, 1791.
Remarks on Mr. Gilbert Wakefield's Enquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public Worship, 1793.
Sins of Government, 1793.
Contributions to the Evenings at Home, 1792.
Essays Prefixed to Editions of Akenside and Collins, 1795-1797.
Selections from the Spectator, Tattler, Guardian, and Freeholder, 1804.
Correspondence of Richardson, with Life, &c. 1804.
British Novelists, with Essays and Biographical Notices, 1810.
The Female Speaker, 1811.
Eighteen Hundred and Eleven — a Poem, 1812.
Miscellanies for Young Females, &c.