1843 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elizabeth Smith

Anne Katherine Elwood, in Memoirs of the Literary Ladies of England (1843) 2:187-207.



ELIZABETH SMITH was born at Burnhall, in the county of Durham, December, 1776. From her infancy she evinced that application and love of reading which distinguished her through life; at the early age of three years, she would leave an elder brother and younger sister to play, whilst she seized on such books as her nursery afforded, and amused herself with their contents. At four years old, she could read extremely well, and already the utmost regularity was observable in all her actions. Whatever she did was well done, and with a degree of reflection far beyond her tender age.

In the beginning of 1782, the family went into Suffolk, at the earnest request of a blind relation there, when Mrs. Smith's attendance upon him engrossing much of her time and attention, at his request, a young lady scarcely sixteen, whose abilities, however, far exceeded her years, was engaged, at first as a sort of companion, but afterwards as governess to the children, for the eighteen months they remained in that part of the country.

On the death of this relation they again returned, in 1784, to Burnhall, where they remained till the June in the following year, when Mr. Smith and his family went to Piercefield, on the banks of the Wye. Mrs. Smith had for some time superintended wholly the education of her children; but in the spring of 1786, the former governess returned, and continued with them for three years longer, and by her they were instructed in French, and in the little Italian she herself understood. This was the only assistance Miss Smith ever received; her subsequent proficiency in languages having been entirely the result of her own study.

In the summer of 1782, the late excellent Mrs. Bowdler, with her youngest daughter, Mrs. Harriet Bowdler, spent a month at Piercefield, when, notwithstanding their disparity of age, (for Miss Smith was then but twelve years old,) a lively friendship appears to have been formed between her and Mrs. H. Bowdler, with whom she spent much of her time during the following three years, the two families living constantly together, either at Piercefield or at Bath, where Mrs. Bowdler resided.

Mrs. Smith always attributed her daughter's subsequent application to the study of the learned languages, to her having accidentally heard that Mrs. Bowdler had acquired some knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, in order to read the Holy Scriptures in the original. But, though this might be the apparently moving cause, Miss Smith's extraordinary abilities would in all probability have developed themselves under even less favourable circumstances; though their intimacy and friendship with Mrs. Bowdler and her daughter, could not but have been productive of the greatest benefits to her.

She even at this early age astonished her friends with the facility with which she acquired information on every subject, excelling in everything she undertook. At this period of her life, music, drawing, dancing, and perspective, were her chief pursuits, and she excelled in all. She was well acquainted with the French and Italian languages, and had made some progress in geometry and other branches of the mathematics.

She was particularly partial to poetry, and possibly, had her attention been more directed that way, she might have written poems of distinguished merit. But the few girlish specimens that have been preserved though evincing some signs of talent, are certainly not beyond mediocrity. Reading was still her favourite employment, and she pursued it with such unwearied attention, that her friends were often wont to draw her from her books, lest she should injure her.

At the age of thirteen, Elizabeth became a sort of governess to her younger sisters, Mrs. Smith having parted with the only one she ever had, and from this period, though her time must necessarily have been much occupied, the progress she made in acquiring languages, both ancient and modern, was rapid and extraordinary, the more so, perhaps as she was entirely self-taught.

Her intimacy with Miss Hunt, which began in May, 1792, when that lady accompanied Mrs. Bowdler to Piercefield, appears to have first directed her attention to German, to which she was ever extremely partial; Spanish she already read with ease; and in the winter of 1793, — a very fine dictionary and grammar in the possession of her brother, turned her thoughts to oriental literature, — when she acquired some knowledge of Arabic and Persian.

In 1794, when she was spending some time with her friend, Mr. Claxton, she made use of the opportunity which his excellent library afforded her, to commence Latin and Greek. Hebrew she studied from Mrs. Bowdler's Bible, with the assistance of Parkhurst, and her admiration of Ossian induced her to acquire a little Erse.

She appears to have been endowed with no small degree of antiquarian research, for at fifteen, whilst wandering among the beautiful scenery in the neighbourhood of Piercefield, she discovered some remains of a building in a wood, where she thought she could trace out round towers, a moat, &c.; and her lively imagination immediately converting this into a castle, she followed up the idea with avidity, raising a little antiquarian romance thereon, with better grounds than many of the speculations of antiquarians in general; — for, finding in Warrington's History of Wales, that Llewellan-ap-Gryffydd's death took place at Builtt on the Wye, occasioned by his having been pierced with a spear whilst endeavouring to escape from his enemies, Dec. 10, 1281; she made out tolerably satisfactorily to herself, that her castle in the woods, apparently of Human construction, was Builtt or Bullaeum Silurum, and that the name of Piercefield had been given to that spot from the death of the prince. In corroboration of this supposition, she made numerous extracts from Smollett, Collier, Camden, &c., and composed a little poem on the subject, embodying the chief particulars of the transaction, which she feigned to have been dug up at Piercefield.

At the commencement of the war in the year 1793, numerous Banks in the west of England failed, and Mr. Smith's, unfortunately, was among the number.... This terrible reverse of fortune, which, from all the comforts and elegancies of affluence, plunged the whole family suddenly and unexpectedly into comparative indigence, was supported by them with truly christian fortitude and resignation. Not a single murmur escaped them, and, indeed their sympathies seem to have been far more called forth by the distress of the family alluded to in Miss Smith's letter, than for themselves. In 1791, when the bank was in a very flourishing state, that gentleman, a neighbour and friend of Mr. Smith's, had been induced to put his name into the firm, without advancing any capital or receiving any emolument, on condition of his son's being taken into the house as a clerk, and being admitted as a partner when of age. He was, of course, a fellow-sufferer of Mr. Smith, to the regret of all that knew him but particularly of the Smith family.

Immediately on hearing of this misfortune, Mrs. H. Bowdler repaired to her friends at Piercefield, which noble and beautiful place they, in a few days afterwards, quitted for ever; and with the loss of their fortune, they were interrupted in many of their most valuable and elegant pursuits. Miss Smith lost her harp and piano, on both of which instruments she performed extremely well; but a still greater privation was the library, by the use of which she had so well profited. The beautiful scenery about Piercefield had likewise afforded them a variety of subjects for their pencils, — and Elizabeth, who drew remarkably well, was also a complete mistress of perspective.

Though but just sixteen, at an age when many girls would have severely felt such a reverse, she appears to have supported it with the utmost equanimity, and even cheerfulness; instead of desponding and giving up her acquirements, as many under such circumstances might have done, she seems to have redoubled her diligence, and to have seized every opportunity of prosecuting, her literary studies.

In the following year Mr. Smith went into the army, and for many years he accompanied his regiment, which was stationed in Ireland, whither his family subsequently followed him. In the first instance, however, the young ladies spent several months with their kind friends, the Bowdlers, in and near Bath, where they readily entered into a plan of employment proposed by Mrs. Bowdler, and pursued a regular course of history, both ancient and modern, varying their reading with the English and Italian poets, works on religion, &c.

Their friend, Miss Hunt, who was spending some time in the neighbourhood, now first turned Elizabeth's attention to the German language, to which she was ever afterwards extremely partial, and assisted her in botanical and other pursuits, as well as different branches of and other pursuits, as well as different branches of mathematics.

After Mrs. Bowdler had retired to rest, they studied the stars, and read Bonnycastle's Astronomy; and an extraordinary instance of Miss Smith's powers of mind is recorded with reference to this work. One evening she had told Mrs. Bowdler she did not understand what is said in that work, page, 91, of Kepler's celebrated calculation, by which he discovered that the squares of the periods of the plants are in proportion to the cubes of their distance. She wished to know who to make use of the rule, but her friend could not assist her. On the following morning, when Mrs. H. Bowdler came down to breakfast at nine o'clock, she found Elizabeth with a folio sheet of paper, nearly covered with figures, before her, and discovered she had risen as soon as it was light, and by means of Bonnycastle's Arithmetic, had learnt to extract the cube root, and had afterwards calculated the periods and distances of several planets, so as clearly to show the accuracy of Kepler's rule, and the method of employing it. She was then little more than sixteen years of age.

In one of her letters about this time, she mentions that her favourite study was algebra. She was also occupied in reading a German translation of the Iliad, — Klopstock's Messiah; Zimmerman's "Einsamkeit," with which she was exremely delighted, a work known to English readers as "Zimmerman on Solitude;" Haller, Kleist, &c.; also, several Spanish works, — Feyjoo's "Theatro Critico Universale," Mariana's "History of Spain," &c.

There seems to have been about this period some idea of the family going to Canada, which, however, was subsequently abandoned. She says with reference to this:—

"It is entirely given up, much against my will, for I was delighted with the idea, and wished excessively to go, but I despair of ever seeing it now."

In October, 1794, Miss Smith accompanied her family to London, and in November she went to Shirley, the seat of her kind friends and relations, Mr. and Mrs. Claxton. Here she began to study classical literature with such assiduity, that in the space of the four months she spent there, and without any regular instruction, she was able to read Caesar's Commentaries, Livy, Cicero, Virgil, &c. Mr. Claxton's library did not contain any translations of these works, which makes her attainment the more extraordinary.

She returned to town in February, 1795, and in the spring of the following year accompanied her mother to Ireland, where they spent three or four months, paying, in their way thither, a visit to the celebrated recluses of Llangollen Vale, Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, with whom they were greatly delighted.

They spent some happy weeks at Kingston Lodge, the seat of the late venerable Earl of Kingston, father of the late and grandfather of the present Earl; with whose daughter, Lady Isabella King, Elizabeth subsequently corresponded. From thence they set off on horseback to Sligo, about twenty miles distance, during the last ten of which it rained heavily. On arriving at their barracks at Sligo, dripping wet, owing to the negligence of the quarter-master, there was not even a bed to rest on, and the whole furniture of their apartments consisted of a piece of a cart-wheel for a fender, a bit of iron for a poker, a dirty deal table, and three wooden-bottomed chairs. It was the first time the ladies had joined the regiment, and the contrast was indeed great which this forlorn scene presented, to the comforts and luxuries of Piercefield, which they had so recently enjoyed.

Mrs. Smith, who was standing by the fire, meditating, was suddenly roused from her reverie by Elizabeth's exclaiming — "O what a blessing!"

"Blessing!" answered Mrs. Smith, "there seems none left."

"Indeed there is, my dear mother; for see, here is a little cupboard."

Mrs. Smith dried her tears, and endeavoured to learn fortitude from her daughter.

Elizabeth ever paid that strict attention to economy which the altered circumstances of her father rendered requisite. She dressed with elegant simplicity, but at the same time, with but little expense, and could make a gown or a cap with the same skill she displayed in solving a problem in Euclid, or explaining a difficult passage in Hebrew. Nothing she thought right to do, was ever neglected by her.

They soon after left Ireland for Bath, whither they returned in October, 1796, and where they found their friend Mrs. Bowdler extremely ill. Miss Smith was staying with her, when her death took place on the 10th of May, 1797, and by her attention and kindness cheered her last moments, and supported her daughter during the trying scene.

The following winter was spent by Miss Smith at Bath, and in the summer of 1797 she went with her mother to Conway, null afterwards to Plashenty near Oswestry, apparently in search of a cheap place of residence, which at last ended in their settling on the Lakes in the north of England. Whilst at Conway, Elizabeth ascended Snowdon, a spirited and graphic description of which she sent to one of her friends, by whom it was handed to Mrs. De Luc, and by her read to Queen Charlotte, who spoke of it in terms of great approbation.

In the summer of 1797, Mrs. Smith and all her family removed to Ballitore in Ireland, where Captain Smith's regiment was still quartered, and during their residence in that hospitable country, they everywhere met with the most distinguished marks of kindness. Whilst there, Elizabeth's former partiality to Ossian induced her to collect all the traditional accounts in her power which related to the heroes of Morven and Erin, and amongst her fragments appears an imitation, which, however, had probably been written at an earlier period.

Notwithstanding the wandering life which from circumstances she was now obliged to lead, she still seized every opportunity to pursue her studies, and at Ballitore, where they spent nine months, having access to a curious collection of classical authors, and other works, she made extensive extracts. Among these were extracts from Epictetus, Hesiod, and the Sybilline Oracles in Latin; from Cicero, Terence, Grotius, &c.; and she continued the practice till her death; for after her decease there were found among her papers, — An Analysis of the Odyssey — A thousand words, written in Hebrew, Arabic, and Persic, to show the resemblance between these languages — A number of Greek words, with their signification — A collection of Welsh words — of African — Mandingo, Foulah, Yangay — of Chinese, &c. — Explanation of the proper names in Scripture — of the stars, with their titles in Arabic, and other papers in that language — Extracts from Bartholinus, in the Icelandish language, &c.

With all this wonderful extent of knowledge she ever retained the utmost modesty and simplicity of character; for as she herself observes — "The more talents and good qualities we have received, the more humble we ought to be, because we have the less merit in doing right."

The following is the opinion of their friend, Thomas Wilkinson, of this amiable and excellent young woman:—

"Her acquirements must have been allowed to have been wonderful; but to me the most astonishing thing is, how she has done so much, for she never appeared to do anything, and every one who saw her would have been more apt to have supposed her indolent than industrious. But though her progress of improvement was silent as light, yet it was certain as time. In her knowledge she was as modest as in everything else; never presuming to be wise in a discovery or a judicious observation. Always simple, sweet, and innocent, in her demeanour, she never gave herself an air of consequence for genius, learning, or beauty, though she possessed them all. In company she kept back so much, that some would be in danger of forgetting she was there; but when called on to speak, she did it so much to the purpose, so pleasingly, and so unaffectedly, that one wished no one to speak but herself. Some might have supposed her of an absent cast, but nothing was further from her character; for her replies were the readiest I ever knew, when information was wanted. Her countenance was serious, but she not unfrequently smiled, and it was the smile of complacency and peace."

In 1800, Mrs. Smith and her family left Ballitore, to reside at Patterdale, by the Lake of Ulswater, from whence they afterwards moved to Coniston, where a small farm had been purchased. The situation of their house appears to have been very beautiful, and in summer it was delightful; it was, however, far from commodious, and in winter must have been uncomfortable. They, however, appear easily to have reconciled themselves to it, and to have greatly enjoyed the beautiful scenery with which they were surrounded.

In May, 1802, Mrs. E. Hamilton, with her sister, Mrs. Blake, went to spend the summer near the Lakes, when they were introduced to the Smiths, by Miss Bowdler, and they seem mutually to have enjoyed the society of such congenial spirits. In speaking of Miss Smith, Mrs. E. Hamilton says, alluding to "a most kind and welcome visit from the young ladies at Bowness," — "I never before saw so much of Miss Smith, and in the three days she spent with us, the admiration which I had always felt for her extraordinary talents, and as extraordinary virtues, was hourly augmented. She is, indeed, a most charming creature, and if one could only inoculate her with a little of the Scotch frankness, I think she would be one of the most perfect of human beings."

On another occasion she says, — "It was not on a first acquaintance that her extraordinary qualities were to be appreciated. She did not emit those brilliant flashes which dazzle the imagination; and so superior were the native graces of her mind to the ornaments which embellished it, that acquirements, which in others would have been admired as astonishing, were in her sometimes almost unobserved. To those who had been accustomed to contemplate the possessor of genius or learning raised upon the pedestal of vanity, and extorting the homage of applause from all beholders, the simplicity to which all ostentatious display was abhorrent, would have appeared as a defect; and therefore it is not surprising that her merit should have been sometimes overlooked. But whoever compared it with a higher standard than that of the world, must have been sensible of its near approach to perfection, and while they bestowed on her character the admiration so justly due, they would he led to reflect with gratitude that the model on which all her virtues were formed, is within the reach of all who with equal sincerity endeavour to mould themselves to its likeness."

The scenery of the Lakes had many charms for Elizabeth. She drew correctly, and her enthusiastic admiration of the beauties of nature often carried her beyond the bounds which prudence would have imposed on her excursions. In the summer she frequently was out for twelve or fourteen hours, in which time she walked many miles. When she returned at night, she never seemed fatigued, but was apparently more cheerful than usual, though probably by these great exertions she was undermining her excellent constitution.

In speaking of the beauties of the Lake, Mrs. E. Hamilton says, "Across which my sister was conducted by the Nymphs, who in the days of paganism would have been worshipped as beings of a superior order, so elegantly graceful do they appear, when with easy motion they guide their light boat over the waves. After having seen all this country, I consider Coniston as the most eligible spot they could possibly have fixed on."

Having discovered a method of clearing the lights with wax instead of oil or varnish, with the assistance of her sisters, Elizabeth accomplished a beautiful set of transparencies for her friend Mrs. H. Bowdler, the subjects of which were copied from the scenery in the neighbourhood of Patterdale and Coniston.

In the year 1803, she spent some time with Mrs. H. Bowdler, when she showed her friend her translation of the Book of Job, which has since been printed. It is a wonderful performance for a young woman of not more than twenty-six years of age, and has been spoken highly of by the learned. She had also translated some chapters in Genesis, several of the Psalms, parts of the Prophets, &c.

Some of these were shown to a gentleman well acquainted with the language, who observed that the writer had an extraordinary knowledge of Hebrew, though he thought him rather too free for a biblical translator, but he showed great acquaintance with the language, as well as a refined taste, and many of his conjectures were eminently happy. This opinion was given without any acquaintance with the writer, whom the critic little supposed to be a lovely and accomplished young woman.

She was only twenty years old when she translated the eleventh chapter of Genesis, which, differing considerably from that in the English Bible, Mrs. H. Bowdler requested a friend to show it to the celebrated Mrs. E. Carter, who candidly confessed the idea was new to her, but sue thought the words would bear the interpretation. Sir William Jones, it seems, had given the same interpretation with Miss Smith in his works, which at that time had not been published, so that she had not the benefit of his criticism.

In the year 1803, Miss Smith's attention was turned to the translation from the German of letters and memoirs relating to the poet Klopstock, and his first wife Margaret, in consequence of Mr. Sotheby, the elegant translator of Wieland's Oberon, expressing a wish that her uncommon talents should be employed in something which might interest the public. He would scarcely believe what Mrs. H. Bowdler told him of the facility with which she translated from the German, and taking down Gessner's works, the only German book at hand, and turning to one of the Idylls, he requested she would ask her to translate it for him. Miss Smith had never read the poem before, and had no dictionary, but on Mrs. H. Bowdler's telling her Mr. Sotheby highly commended it, and that she wished to understand it, on the following morning Elizabeth brought her a correct and spirited translation, with which Mr. Sotheby was extremely pleased.

The interest which had been awakened by the publication of some of Klopstock's Letters, in Mrs. Barbauld's Edition of Richardson's Correspondence, induced Mrs. H. Bowdler to believe that the public would be gratified with further and more authentic information respecting the amiable Meta; and as she was supplied by the kindness of the venerable Dr. Munssen of Altona, who had been th intimate friend of Klopstock, with many letters and other works of his, both in prose and poetry, these were transmitted by her, as soon as they were received, to Miss Smith, by whom they were translated into English, and subsequently returned to Mrs. H. Bowdler.

Miss Smith had long been an enthusiastic admirer of Klopstock's poetry, and the interest which she took in making his character known to the English public, appears to have been intense. Her memoirs of him were compiled from Dr. Munssen's papers, together with extracts from Klopstock, "Er und uber ihn," by Professor Cramer, and from a life of the poet, published in the Monthly Magazine.

In March, 1805, Mrs. H. Bowdler thus addressed her, with reference to the work with which she was then occupied:—

"My endeavours to obtain a clear account of the new edition of Klopstock's works have been unsuccessful, but I still hope that I shall very soon know whether it contains any thing new, or worth sending to you. In the mean time, if you are not tired, let me have everything written by Mrs. Klopstock."

Among these were some "Letters from the Dead to the Living," suggested to Mrs. Klopstock by her husband's extreme partiality for Mrs. Rowe's works, and which will probably be considered by impartial critics to be quite equal, if not superior, to that lady's celebrated composition.

But Miss Smith's labours were now to be interrupted by a severe but neglected cold, which she caught in the summer of 1805, and which, terminating in a rapid decline, was the eventual cause of her death. To a faithful and affectionate servant, of the name of Turpin, who had lived in the family ever since she was six weeks old, did Elizabeth give the following account of the manner in which it was caught, and which should serve as a caution to all young persons, to whom the emphatic words in Warren's Diary of a late Physician, may well be considered as worth remembering.

"Consider a slight cold to be in the nature of a chill, caught by a sudden contact with your graves; or, as occasioned by the damp finger of Death laid upon you, as it were to mark you for HIS, in passing to the more immediate object of his commission."

"One very hot evening in July, I took a book, and walked about two miles from home, when I seated myself on a stone beside the Lake. Being much engaged with a poem I was reading, I did not perceive that the sun was gone down, and was succeeded by a very heavy dew, till in a moment I felt struck on the chest as if with a sharp knife. I returned home, but said nothing of the pain. The next day being, very hot, and every one busy in the hay-field, I thought I would take a rake, and work very hard, to produce perspiration, in the hope that it might remove the pain, but it did not."

From that time she was afflicted with a bad cough, and with occasional loss of voice, but could not be prevailed upon to take the proper remedies, or to abstain from her usual walks. These she persisted in, being sometimes better and sometimes worse, till October, when she proposed to accompany her mother to Bath, to make a visit to Mr. and Mrs. Claxton, in the hope that she might possibly beguile some of the painful hours that gentleman constantly but patiently endured. Previous to the journey, she, however, became so rapidly worse, that a physician at Kendal was consulted as to the propriety of their continuing it. His directions were that they immediately proceed, as he considered a milder climate very essential. At Gloucester, her mother was alarmed to find she had lost the use of her limbs, and it was in this deplorable state that she reached her friend Mrs. Bowdler's house, on the 17th of October.

Under the care of Dr. Gibbes, and the friendly attentions of Mr. and Mrs. Claxton, to whose abode she afterwards removed, she in six weeks recovered sufficiently to be able to converse with pleasure, and to walk without difficulty, — when, being anxious to see her sister before her marriage, she accompanied her mother to Sunbury, where were her two sisters at the house of Sir John Legard. Here, Elizabeth spent the winter, Mrs. Smith having returned to attend a dying friend. On her rejoining, her daughter on the 23rd of March, 1806, she was alarmed to see symptoms of confirmed decline in her countenance, and immediately consulted Dr. Baillie, who at once admitted it to be a very bad case.

In May they went to Matlock, the waters of which had been recommended to her, but these were only of transient benefit, and they soon after returned to Coniston, to which she evinced a decided partiality. She, however, gradually continued to decline, and on the 7th of August, this amiable and accomplished young woman breathed her last, to the inexpressible grief of her family and friends. She was interred at Hawkshead in Cumberland, where, on a tablet of white marble erected to her memory, the following words are inscribed.

IN MEMORY OF
ELIZABETH
ELDEST DAUGHTER OF GEORGE SMITH.
OF CONISTON, ESQ.
SHE DIED AUGUST 7, 1806 — AGED 29.
SHE POSSESSED, GREAT TALENTS,
EXALTED VIRTUES,
AND HUMBLE PIETY.

Miss Elizabeth Smith's character has been so well described by Hannah More, in Coelebs, that we shall, in conclusion, transcribe her words.

"Against learning, against talents of any kind, nothing can steady the head, unless you fortify the heart with real Christianity. In raising the moral edifice, we must sink deep in proportion as we build high. We must widen the foundation, if we extend the superstructure. Religion alone can counteract the aspirings of genius, can regulate the pride of talent. And let such women as are disposed to be vain of their comparatively petty attainments, look up with admiration to those contemporary shining examples, the venerable ELIZABETH CARTER, and the blooming ELIZABETH SMITH. I knew them both, and to know was to revere them. In them let our young ladies contemplate profound and various learning, chastised by true christian humility in them let them venerate acquirements which would have been distinguished at an university, meekly softened, and beautifully shaded, by the gentle exercise of every domestic virtue, the unaffected exercise of every feminine employment."