1797 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elizabeth Ryves

Isaac D'Israeli, "Hasty Recollections of an Unfortunate Genius" Monthly Magazine 4 (September 1797) 212-15.



Those whose perception can pierce to the core of Genius, folded and concealed in its obscurest coverings, whose feelings are kindred to the sympathies of taste, and whose heart can respond to the sorrows of a cultivated mind, will have sometimes to mourn over some, who—

Have felt the influence of malignant star,
And wag'd with Fortune an eternal war.

who, possessing the energies or intellect, have exhibited them but at intervals, and always with a diminished power; who, after the languor which disappointed hopes have left in the soul, have, in despair, exerted a singular fortitude; till the human form itself, yielding its feverish existence, the invincible mind may he said to have survived amidst the ruins of its corporeal frame, and that with the slow wastings and silent strokes of atrophy, sinks with murmurs unheard, into an oblivious grave. When such a character is a man of genius, we cannot forbear a sigh; but when, as now it is, an amiable female, it is in vain I seek for expression!

With such a character was I lately acquainted: our acquaintance was casual and interrupted; but her death revives these recollections, and the perusal of one of her works gives me the history of her life, which till this moment I knew not.

Miss Eliza Ryves, whose death is recorded in the Obituary for May, 1797, was descended from a family of distinction in Ireland. She was deprived of an affluent independence, by the unfavourable decision of a law-suit; or, as she expressed it, "she had been deprived of her birth-right by the chicanery of law." She informed me of the nature of the circumstance, and, as much as I recollect, the female part of the family had been left with a magnificent portion, while the paternal estate had gone to support the name and honour of an elder bother. But in this statement I may not be correct. The little she had was, however, expended in the law-suit.

I first met with her at the British Museum. The singularity of her occupation could not fail of exciting curiosity. She had before her the superb and voluminous manuscript of old Froissart, the historian which she seemed to translate. Lord Berner's version, published in the reign of Henry VIII, lay at, her side. It was evident, that his Lordship was employed by our authoress as a spy on Froissart, to inform her of what was going forward in the French camp; but his lordship himself wanted an interpreter, and spoke in a language not much more intelligible than was the ancient French of Froissart.

Literature was a magnet that equally attracted us. She was known and esteemed by a friend of mine; and the gift of some of her poems proved to me that she was no vulgar writer. Some visits were reciprocally given. It was in these I partially learned her misfortunes, and admired the singular exertions of her literary powers. In her former hours of tranquillity, she had published two volumes of poems, which are harmonious and elegant. Her poetical talent was, however, improved, I think, after this publication, and the close of their recollections will afford a proof of the pathetic tenderness of her mind. She had written a tragedy, and several comedies, which were all in MS. But latterly, when her distresses were of the most urgent nature, she looked up to her pen for a resource. We can easily conceive the impediments which a female must encounter, in her attempts of trafficking with booksellers. She has frequently returned from their shops, to hasten to her bed; exhausted by misery, she sought, in a disturbed repose, some temporary oblivion of her grief; but even the dreams of the unfortunate, with a cruel sport of the imagination, revive and prolong the miseries of the day.

She told me she had written, for a newspaper, much political matter, for which she had been ill paid; much poetry for another, in which she had been one of the correspondents of Della Crusca; and in payment of her verses, got nothing but verses: but the most astonishing exertion from a female pen, was that of having composed entirely the historical and political parts of some annual work which I suspect was an annual register.

All these laborious exertions were not profitable. A bookseller advised her to adopt the mode of translation. She was ignorant of the French language. She purchased some elementary works, retired to an obscure part of Islington, and in less than two months, she acquired the language sufficiently to give the public a version of Rousseau's Social Compact: which, I am told, is well translated; but which, I fear, sold little. Afterwards, she translated the Abbe Raynal's Letter to the National Assembly; and, at length, De la Croix's Review of the Constitutions of the principal States in Europe, with intelligent notes, in two thick volumes, 8vo. These indefatigable and masculine attempts for an honest independence were all fruitless; they not only left her as they found her, but with a health now much broken, and with spirits now almost exhausted.

During her labours of translation, Hope had breathed a whisper in her lonely ear. For some years her comedies were in possession of the hands of the managers, who found in them too much merit to refuse them a representation. Year passed over year, and the last always promised her a crowded audience, and an annual fame. I was favoured with a reading of her "Debt of Honour," the comedy from which the greatest expectations had been formed. It had been handled from one house to another; Covent-garden and Drury lane, had both approved it; but want of patronage. perhaps, had retarded their acceptance of it. "I feel (said Miss Ryves) the necessity of some powerful patronage, to bring them forward to the world with eclat, and secure them an admiration, which, should it even be deserved, is seldom bestowed, unless some leading judge of literary merit gives the sanction of his applause; and then the world will chime in with his opinion, without taking the trouble to inform themselves whether it be founded in justice or partiality." Here is much truth, of importance to literary persons. It is astonishing, how many fine pieces of composition are written by some men of letters who, are now neglected, and whose talents are perhaps equal to the first literary works, which they will never undertake, because they have not the skill of slavering the face of patronage, and resolutely refuse to practise the artifices of some favourites of literary fashion, who enjoy an usurped reputation.

Of this comedy, I can now recollect little. There was also present a beautiful woman, whose penetrating eyes, expressive manners, and interesting character, made me all eye. I listened but little to the five long acts. What an error in the authoress, to place me near a form, diffusing all the enchantment of beauty! A man placed between two females, is but an indifferent auditor, at the recitation of a play. This notice may be of use to future recitators. In this comedy there certainly was no "vis comica."

It was, I fear, deficient in a vigorous conception of character, and diversification of incident; it might be elegant, but not pointed and brilliant: sentimental it certainly was; but there was a monotony, which was not interrupted by gaiety that exhilarates, and humour that provokes our laughter. Alas! the authoress, whatever might be her talents, had never an opportunity to perfect them. It was in sorrow she composed comedies, and her fine taste distained to employ that stage artifice, and those temporary circumstances which now disgrace our modern theatre. To the credit of the manager of one of the theatres, when he returned her comedy, she was presented with a bank-note of a hundred pounds.

Like a perfume that has been crushed and bruised, she now breathed forth her last sweets in a work of imagination. It is a little volume entitled, "The Hermit of Snowden." A tale formed on a very delicate, and not unfrequent act of the mind of a man of great refinement in love. Albert, the hermit, having felt, when opulent and fashionable, a passion for Lavinia, meets from her the kindest return. But having imbibed an ill opinion of women, from his licentious connections, he conceived they were slaves of passion or of avarice. He wrongs the generous nature Lavinia, by suspecting her of mercenary views. Hence arises the ingenuous perplexities of the hearts of both. Lavinia is reduced to poverty, and Albert affects to be alike ruined, and spreads a report of an advantageous match. Lavinia feels all the delicacy of her situation, she loves, but "she never told her love." She seeks her existence from her literary labours, and dies the victim of her sensibility, and the suspicious of Albert. The danger of trifling with a feeling heart is admirably moralized.

This little volume is well written, and curiosity is interested to the last page. But a new interest arises, when we know that the history of Lavinia must be the history of Eliza Ryves — Whether the passion of Albert or Lavinia was verified in the person of the authoress, I know not; Miss Ryves was not beautiful or interesting in her person; and when there is no personal beauty or elegance, it is difficult to conceive how a romantic passion can be felt, with all its enthusiasm, by any man. Love is a mingled desire of sensual gratification and intellectual sympathy; any other love never racks and rends the heart; it may breathe itself in sonnets, it may play about the head, but the heart remains cold and inert.

If we except the passion and events of Albert, all the rest describes the situation and pursuits of this amiable and unhappy woman. The dreadful solitude to which she was latterly condemned, when in the last stages of her poverty; her frugal mode of life; her acute sensations; her defrauded hopes, and her exalted fortitude. She has here formed a register of all that occurred to heir solitary Not without a tear, could I read, an expression, and a circumstance, which speak so well and so finely. I shall write the parts I allude to, and which, I may add, is a scene at which I was present.

"Lavinia's lodgings were about two miles from town, in an obscure situation. I was showed up to a mean apartment, where Lavinia was sitting at work, and in a dress which indicated the greatest economy.—I enquired what success she had met with in her dramatic pursuits? She waved her heard, and with a melancholy smile, replied, "that her hopes of ever bringing any piece on the stage were now entirely over; for she found, that more interest was necessary for the purpose than she could command; and that she had, for that reason, laid aside her comedy for ever." While she was talking, came in a favourite dog of Lavinia's, which I had used to caress. The creature sprung to my arms, and I received him with my usual fondness. Lavinia endeavoured to conceal a tear, which trickled down her cheek. Afterwards the says, "Now that I live entirely alone, I show Juno more attention than I had used to do formerly. THE HEART WANTS SOMETHING TO BE KIND TO,—and it consoles us for the loss of society, to see even an animal derive happiness from the endearments we bestow upon it."—

THE HEART WANTS SOMETHING TO BE KIND TO! — O, eloquent truth! What sensibility in this sweet and sympathetic expression! What delicacy in the circumstance! — How must it be experienced by the sorrowing and forsaken female, who, like Eliza Ryves, was virtuous amidst her despair, and evinced an heroic fortitude, while her soul shuddered with all the delicacy of a feminine softness.

I have not yet finished what I have to observe on this little volume. The authoress, with the melancholy sagacity of genius, foresaw, and has described her own death! The affecting manner of Lavinia's death, occasioned by a broken heart, was strictly that of Eliza Ryves; in the fiction. Lavinia dies of a broken heart, occasioned by a disappointed passion, and an individual neglect; in truth Eliza Ryves died of disappointment and neglect; and when the heart is literally broken, whether it was love, or grief, will signify nothing. I believe this volume procured no temporary aid to its authoress's poverty. I have in vain sought for it in our journals; and not being there noticed, shows, the extreme obscurity with which it was ushered into the literary world.

I shall conclude these hasty recollections with something that will interest the reader of sensibility with more pathos than I can afford. Miss Ryves favoured me with the following stanzas, a short time before her death, with a significant gesture, which too plainly expressed, who was the object of her melancholy muse. The verse is very elegant and flowing; but the circumstance is much more interesting than the verse:

A SONG, BY ELIZA RYVES.
A new-fallen lamb, as mild Emmeline past,
In pity she turn'd to behold,
How it shiver'd and shrunk from the merciless blast,
Then fell all benumb'd with the cold.

She rais'd it, and touch'd by the innocent's fate,
Its soft form to her bosom she prest;
But the tender relief was afforded too late,
It bleated, and died on her breast.

The moralist then, as the corse she resign'd,
And, weeping, spring-flow'rs o'er it laid:
Thus mused, "So it fares with the delicate mind,
To the tempests of fortune betray'd.

Too tender, like thee, the rude shock to sustain,
And deny'd the relief which would save;
'Tis lost, and when pity and kindness are vain,
Thus we dress the poor sufferer's grave!"

These last lines seem to reproach me, as I form these hasty recollections. — Alas! I hardly knew thee — and now know thee too late. Vain and impotent rite! I would now scatter some living roses over the pale ashes of the dead!