Anna Seward

Walter Scott, Biographical Preface, in Poetical Works of Anna Seward (1810) 1:iii-xxxix.

The name of ANNA SEWARD has for many years held a high rank in the annals of British literature; and the public has a right to claim, upon the present occasion, some brief memorials of her by whom it was distinguished. As the tenor of her life was retired, though not secluded, and uniform, though not idle, the task of detailing its events can neither be tedious nor uninstructive.

Miss Seward's father was the Reverend Thomas Seward, Rector of Eyam, in Derbyshire, Prebendary of Salisbury, and Canon Residentiary of Lichfield. In his youth he travelled as tutor with Lord Charles Fitzroy, third son of the Duke of Grafton, a hopeful young nobleman, who died upon his travels in 1739. Mr. Seward returned to England, and soon after married Miss Elizabeth Hunter, daughter of Mr. Hunter, head-master of the school at Lichfield, the preceptor of Johnson, and other eminent literary characters. Mr. Seward, upon his marriage, settled at his rectory of Eyam. In 1747, the second year of his marriage, Miss Seward was born. She had several sisters, and one brother; but none survived the period of infancy except Miss Sarah Seward, whom her sister and parents were to lament at a later and more interesting stage of existence.

Mr. Seward was himself a poet; and a manuscript collection of his fugitive pieces is now lying before me, the bequest of my honoured friend, when she entrusted me with the task I am now endeavouring to discharge. Several of these effusions were printed in Dodsley's collection, volume second, towards the close. Mr. Seward was also an admirer of our ancient drama; and, in 1750, published an edition of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays, which, though falling beneath what is expected from the accuracy and investigation of later dramatic editors, evinces a scholar-like degree of information, and a high relish for the beauties of his authors. Thus accomplished himself, the talents of his eldest daughter did not long escape his complacent observation. He early introduced her to Milton and to Shakespeare; and I have heard her say, that she could repeat passages from the Allegro before she was three years old. It were absurd to suppose that she could comprehend this poem, even at a much later period of infancy; but our future taste does not always depend upon the progress of our understanding. The mechanism, the harmony of verse, the emotions which, though vague and indescribable, it awakens in children of a lively imagination and a delicate ear, contribute, in many instances, to imbue the infant mind with a love of poetry, even before they can tell for what they love it. Miss Seward was one of these gifted minds which catches eagerly at the intellectual banquet. — The romantic hills of Derbyshire, where the village of Eyam is situated, favoured the instructions of her father. His pupil imbibed a strong and enthusiastic partiality for mountainous scenery, and in general for the pleasures of landscape, which was a source of enjoyment during her after life. Her father's taste was rigidly classical; and the authors to whom Miss Seward was introduced, were those of Queen Anne's reign. She was early familiar with Pope, Young, Prior, and their predecessor, Dryden; and, in later life, used to make little allowance for poetry of an older date, excepting only that of Shakespeare and Milton.

The desire of imitating the compositions which gave her pleasure, very early displayed itself. Anna Seward attempted metrical versions of the Psalms, and even exercised herself in original composition, before she was ten years old. An Address to the First Fine Day of a Backward Spring, which has been preserved from these early days, intimates considerable command of numbers and language, though the ideas cannot be called original.

About 1754, Mr. Seward removed with his family to Lichfield, which continued ever afterwards to be his daughter's residence, although varied, during her father's life, by occasional visits to his rectory at Eyam. Lichfield, the birth-place of Johnson and of Garrick, and, necessarily, the residence of a body of learned and well-educated clergy attached to its cathedral, had been long distinguished by its classical pretensions. These were at this time exalted by its being the residence of the celebrated Dr. Darwin, who soon distinguished and appreciated the talents of our youthful poetess. Some lines had been shewn to him, which he thought so far superior to her age, that he conceived they must have been written, or greatly improved, by her father. He contrived to engage her upon a poetic theme when Mr. Seward was absent, and the result of the experiment having ascertained the originality of her talents, Dr. Darwin thought them worthy of attentive cultivation. At this time, however, literature was deemed an undesirable pursuit for a young lady in Miss Seward's situation, — the heiress of an independent fortune, and destined to occupy a considerable rank in society. Her mother, though an affectionate parent, and an excellent woman, possessed no taste for her daughter's favourite amusements; and even Mr. Seward withdrew his countenance from them, probably under the apprehension that his continued encouragement might produce in his daughter that dreaded phaenomenon, a learned lady. Poetry was prohibited, and Miss Seward resorted to other amusements, and to the practice of ornamental needle-work, in which she is said to have excelled. Thus rolled on time for nearly ten years after her father had settled in Lichfield. When it is considered that her attachment to literary pursuits bordered even upon the romantic, the merit of sacrificing them readily to the inclination of her parents, deserves our praise. But other incidents occurred in her own life, and that of a confidential friend, that called for stronger exertions of prudence, self-denial, and submission to parental authority. There are, in Miss Seward's letters during this period, passages which shew great firmness and steadiness of mind, and a capacity of compelling feelings, which nature, and perhaps early cultivation, had strung to a keen tone, to submit to the dictates of prudence and of duty. I regret that many of the lessons which she taught her own heart, and that of her friend, must be withheld from the public, lest, even at this distance of time, the incidents to which they relate might injure the feelings of any concerned in them.

In 1764, a heavy calamity took place in Mr. Seward's family. Miss Sarah Seward, his younger daughter, had been for some time on the eve of forming a matrimonial connection with Mr. Porter, a merchant at Leghorn, brother to Mrs. Lucy Porter of Lichfield, and son-in-law, of course, to the celebrated Dr. Johnson. Miss Anna Seward was to have accompanied her sister to Italy, and already anticipated, with delight, the pleasure of treading classical ground, of viewing the paintings of Raphael, and wandering among the groves of Valambrosa. These flattering prospects were clouded by the sickness and death of the young and lovely bride. An affecting account of this distressing calamity occurs among the following extracts from Miss Seward's correspondence. Mr. Porter appears afterwards to have intimated a wish to transfer his attachment to the surviving sister, but it was not encouraged. When time had softened the recollection of this domestic loss, Miss Seward made her sister's death the subject of an elegy, which forms the first article in this collection of her poetry. The blank in her domestic society was supplied by the attachment of Miss Honora Sneyd, then residing in her family, and often mentioned in the ensuing volumes. This young lady was afterwards married to the ingenious Mr. Edgeworth.

After the death of Miss Sarah Seward, her sister's society became indispensable to her parents, and she was never separated from them. Offers of matrimonial establishments occurred, and were rejected, in one instance entirely, and in others chiefly, from a sense of filial duty. As she was now of an age to select her own society and studies, Miss Seward's love of literature was indulged; and the sphere in which she moved was such as to increase her taste for its pursuits. Dr. Darwin, Mr. Day, whose opinions formed singular specimens of English philosophy, Mr. Edgeworth, Sir Brooke Boothby, and other names well known in the literary world, then formed part of the Lichfield society. The celebrated Dr. Johnson was an occasional visitor of their circles; but he seems, in some respects, to have shared the fate of a prophet in his own country. Neither Dr. Darwin nor Miss Seward were partial to the great moralist. There was, perhaps, some aristocratic prejudice in their dislike, for the despotic manners of Dr. Johnson were least likely to be tolerated where the lowness of his origin was in fresh recollection. At the same time, Miss Seward was always willing to do justice to his native benevolence, and to the powerful grasp of his intellectual powers, and possessed many anecdotes of his conversation, which had escaped his most vigilant recorders. These she used to tell with great humour, and with a very striking imitation of the sage's peculiar voice, gesture, and manner of delivery.

Miss Seward's poetical powers appear to have lain dormant, or to have been only sparingly exercised, until her acquaintance with Lady Miller, whose fanciful and romantic institution at Bath Easton, was then the subject of public attention. A concise account of this poetical association, which was graced by the names of Anstey and of Hayley, forms the preface to a poem which Miss Seward afterwards dedicated to the memory of its accomplished foundress. The applause of this selected circle gave Miss Seward courage to commit some of her essays to the press; and the public received with great favour the elegiac commemorations of Andre and of Cook. The first of these subjects was dictated by Miss Seward's personal friendship for the brave and unfortunate sufferer, who had sought to drown in the duties of his dangerous profession, the recollection of an ill-fated attachment to her friend, Miss Sneyd. The Elegy on Captain Cook was dictated by those feelings of admiration and gratitude, which, in common with Europe at large, Miss Seward felt for the firm and benevolent character of the dauntless navigator, and for his tragical destiny. It would be too much to claim for these productions, the warm interest which they excited while the melancholy events which they celebrated were glowing in the general recollection; but, even when the advantage which they derived from their being suited to "the form and pressure of the time" has passed away, they convey a high impression of the original powers of their author.

While Miss Seward's fame increased, it had the advantage, which she highly prized, of extending her acquaintance among those who were candidates for literary reputation. Many of the most distinguished she added to the circle of her friends. I need barely mention Mr. Hayley, Mr. Mundy, the author of two most beautiful poems on Needwood Forest; Mr. Crowe, author of the descriptive poem called Lewesdone-Hill; Dr. Whaley, Mr. Fellowes, and many other persons of acknowledged talent and learning, with whom she maintained, through life, a constant correspondence. Miss Seward was an entire stranger to that paltry jealousy which too often disturbs the harmony of the literary world. She gave, with her whole soul, her applause to contemporary merit, and was not easily daunted in its defence. A love and admiration for existing genius was a leading feature in her character. She was at all times ready with her advice, her encouragement, her purse, if necessary, to assist those whom timidity or indigence prevented from asserting their right to public notice. Nor would she readily admit the preference claimed for more ancient poets over those of her own century. "Many," she says, in a letter now before me, "excel me in the power of writing verse; perhaps scarcely one in the vivid and strong sensibility of its excellence, or in the ability to estimate its claims — ability arising from a fifty years sedulous and discriminating study of the best English poets, and of the best translations from the Greek, Roman, and Italian. A masculine education cannot spare from professional study, and the necessary acquisition of languages, the time and attention which I have bestowed on the compositions of my countrymen. When the accumulating suffrage of centuries shall have mellowed the growing fame of the authors of this age, their equals, perhaps their superiors, at a future period, will be contrasting the superiority of this and the last century, with the littleness of recent and contemporary merit."

It cannot be denied, that Miss Seward's friendships and partialities fortified her in the persuasion thus expressed. In friendship, indeed, she was an enthusiast, of which she gave, in 1778, an example too remarkable to be passed over, even in these brief biographical notices. In the summer of that year, the Countess of Northesk visited Lichfield, to consult Dr. Darwin for the benefit of her health, then sinking rapidly by hemorrhage. The poetical physician became deeply interested in the fate of a lovely and amiable young woman, distinguished by her sufferings and her patience; and the same circumstances produced a strong attachment on the part of Miss Seward. Of this interest and attachment, a proof was nearly made, of a kind so very remarkable, that I will tell it in Miss Seward's own words.

"One evening, after a long and intense reverie, he said, — 'Lady Northesk, an art was practised in former years, which the medical world has very long disused; that of injecting blood into the veins by a syringe, and thus repairing the waste of diseases like yours. Human blood, and that of calves and sheep, were used promiscuously. Superstition attached impiety to the practice. It was put a stop to in England by a bull of excommunication from some of our popish princes, against the practitioners of sanguinary injection. That it had been practised with success, we may, from this interdiction, fairly conclude, else restraint upon its continuance must have been superfluous. We have a very ingenious watch-maker here, whom I think I could instruct to form a proper instrument for that purpose, if you chose to submit to the experiment.' She replied cheerfully, that she had not the least objection, if he thought it eligible.

"Miss Seward then said, 'If the trial should be determined upon, perhaps Lady Northesk would prefer a supply from an healthy human subject, rather than from an animal. My health is perfect, neither am I conscious of any lurking disease, hereditary or accidental. I have no dread of the lancet, and will gladly spare, from time to time, such a portion from my veins to Lady Northesk, as Dr. Darwin shall think proper to inject.'

"He seemed much pleased with the proposal, and this amiable patient expressed gratitude far above the just claim of the circumstance. Dr. Darwin said he would consult his pillow about it.

"The next day, when Miss S. called upon Lady N., the doctor took her previously into his study, telling her, that he had resigned all thoughts of trying the experiment upon Lady Northesk; that it had occurred to him as a last resource to save an excellent woman, whose disorder, he feared, was beyond the reach of medicine; 'but,' added he, 'the construction of a proper machine is so nice an affair, the least failure in its power of acting so hazardous, the chance, at least from the experiment, so precarious, that I do not choose to stake my reputation upon the risque. If she die, the world will say I killed Lady Northesk, though the London and Bath physicians have pronounced her case hopeless, and sent her home to expire. They have given her a great deal too much medicine. I shall give her very little. Their system of nutritious food, their gravy jellies, and strong wines, I have already changed for milk, vegetables, and fruit. No wines ever; no meat, no strong broth, at present. If this alteration of diet prove unavailing, her family and friends must lose her.'

"It was not unavailing; she gathered strength under the change from day to day. The disease abated, and in three weeks she pursued her journey to Scotland, a convalescent, full of hope for herself, of grateful veneration towards her physician, whose skill had saved her from the grave; and full also of over-rating thankfulness to Miss S. for the offer she had made. With her Lady Northesk regularly corresponded, from that time till her sudden and deplorable death." — Memoirs of Dr. Darwin, by ANNA SEWARD. Lond. 1804, pp. 110-114.

In the year 1780, Mrs. Seward died, and the care of attending her surviving parent devolved entirely upon his daughter. This was soon embittered by a frequent recurrence of paralytic and apoplectic affections, which broke Mr. Seward's health, and gradually impaired the tone of his mind. His frame resisted these repeated assaults for ten years, during which, Miss Seward had the melancholy satisfaction to see, that, even when he had lost consciousness of every thing else, her father retained a sense of her constant and unremitting attentions. There is, in one of her poems, some verses expressive of his situation, while claiming for him a rank among the bards of her favourite city:

Source of my life, it will not prove
A vain essay of filial love,
Here, if a right thy daughter claim
To rank with theirs thy honour'd name,
Whose silver lyre's harmonious sound
Made lovely Lichfield classic ground,
Though now thy vital lamp's faint light
Gleams on the verge of its long night,
Dull, dim, and weak its social blaze,
And pale its intellectual rays.
While duteous love, with anxious aim,
Guards from rude blasts its quivering flame,
Through yet a few more quiet years,
That bring to thee nor pains nor fears,
O! be it mine to cheer and warm
Thy drooping heart, thy helpless form!

In 1790 this scene closed, by the death of Mr. Seward. His daughter remained mistress of an easy and independent fortune, and continued to inhabit the Bishop's Palace at Lichfield, which had been long her father's residence, and was her's until her death.

While engaged in attendance upon her father, Miss Seward, besides other occasional pieces, published, in 1782, her poetical novel, entitled Louisa, which was favourably received, and passed rapidly through several editions. Other pieces, chiefly on occasional topics, fell from her pen; some of which found their way to the public, and others are now, for the first time, printed from manuscripts. The beauties of Llangollen Vale, with the talents, virtues, and accomplishments of the ladies who have so long honoured it with their residence, claimed and obtained commemoration. Its inmates were among those whom Miss Seward valued most highly, and the regard was reciprocal.

Without pausing to trace the progress of her less important works, it is proper to mention the Collection of Original Sonnets published in 1799. They were intended to restore the strict rules of the legitimate sonnet, and contain some beautiful examples of that species of composition. Less praise is due to the Translations from Horace, in the same publication, which, being rather paraphrases than translations, can hardly be expected to gratify those whose early admiration has been turned to the original.

In 1804, the death of Dr. Darwin, who had encouraged the first notes of her lyre, and from whom, perhaps, it had borrowed some of its peculiar intonations, induced Miss Seward to give the public a biographical sketch of her early friend. Her Life of Dr. Darwin ought, however, rather to have been entitled, anecdotes of the early part of his life, and of the society of Lichfield, while it was the place of his residence. Although written upon desultory plan, and in a style disfigured by the use of frequent inversions and compounded epithets, the Memoir has preserved much curious and interesting literary anecdote. The history of Mr. Day is told with a liveliness which these defects have not obscured, and contains a useful lesson, though humbling to the pride of human wisdom, since no prejudices of bigotry, or of fashion, ever led a votary into so many absurdities as this gentleman successfully achieved, while professing to be guided only by the pure light of reason and philosophy. In this publication also, Miss Seward laid her claim to the first fifty verses in the Botanic Garden, which she had written in compliment to Dr. Darwin, and which he had inserted in his poem without any acknowledgement. The correctness of Miss Seward's statement is proved by the publication of the verses with her name, in some periodical publications, previous to the appearance of Dr. Darwin's poem; and the disingenuous suppression of the aid of which he availed himself, must remain a considerable stain upon the character of the poet of Flora.

After the publication of the Sonnets, Miss Seward did not undertake any large poem. Yet she continued to pour forth her poetical effusions upon such occasions as interested her feelings, or excited her imagination. These efforts were, however, unequal to those of her earlier muse. Age was now approaching with its usual attendants, declining health, and the loss of friends summoned from the stage before her. Yet her interest in literature and poetry continued unabated; and she maintained an unrelaxed correspondence, not only with her former friends, but with those later candidates for poetical distinction, whose exertions she approved of. Among these, she distinguished with her highest regard, Mr. Robert Southey, and used to mention, as the most decided symptom of degenerate taste, the inadequate success of his sublime epic, Madoc. On this subject she used to quote, as a parallel instance of rash judgment, a passage from WalIer's Letters. "The old blind school-master, John Milton, hath published a tedious poem on the Fall of Man — if its length be not considered as merit, it has no other."

In summer 1807, the editor, upon his return from London, visited Miss Seward, with whom be had corresponded occasionally for some years. Robertson observes, that, in a female reign, the queen's personal charms are a subject of importance; and, as the same rule may apply to the case of a female author, this may be no improper place to mention the impression which her appearance and conversation were calculated to make upon a stranger. — They were, indeed, well worth a longer pilgrimage. Miss Seward, when young, must have been exquisitely beautiful; for, in advanced age, the regularity of her features, the hue and expression of her countenance, gave her the appearance of beauty, and almost of youth. Her eyes were auburn, of the precise shade and hue 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. I should have hesitated to state the impression which this peculiarity made upon me at the time, had not my observation been confirmed by that of the first actress of this or any other age, with whom I lately happened to converse on our deceased friend's expressive powers of countenance. — Miss Seward's tone of voice was melodious, guided by excellent taste, and well suited to reading and recitation, in which she willingly exercised it. She did not sing, nor was she a great proficient in music, though very fond of it, having studied it later in life than is now usual. 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.

The great command of literary anecdote which Miss Seward possessed, her ready perception both of the serious and ludicrous, and her just observation and original taste, rendered her society delightful. She entered into every topic with the keenness and vivacity of youth, and it was difficult to associate the idea of advanced years either with her countenance or conversation. The possessor of such quick feelings seldom escapes the portion of pain with which all earthly good is alloyed and tempered. With the warmest heart for her friends, and an unbounded enthusiasm in their service, Miss Seward united a sensibility to coldness, or to injuries real or supposed, which she permitted to disturb her more than was consistent with prudence or with happiness. The same tone of mind rendered her jealous of critical authority, when exercised over her own productions, or those of her friends. Her prepossessions upon literary points were also very strong. — She admired the lofty and energetic tone of Milton; and the passages of Shakespeare to which she gave the preference, were those which partook of the same character. But although she admitted the superiority of these masters of the lyre, her taste for ornament exceeded the simplicity of their models, and was chiefly gratified, in modern poetry at least, by a more laboured and ornate style of composition. For Darwin, her early friend, and perhaps her preceptor in the art of poetry, she claimed a higher rank among the poets of Britain than the judges of literature are at present inclined to allow him. There is a fashion in poetry, which, without increasing or diminishing the real value of the materials moulded upon it, does wonders in facilitating its currency, while it has novelty, and is often found to impede its reception when the mode has passed away. It is with such verses as with the ancient defensive armour:

—The fashion of the fight
Has thrown its gilt, and gaudy plumes aside,
For modern fopperies.

Miss Seward was in practice trained and attached to that school of picturesque and florid description, of lofty metaphor and bold personification, of a diction which inversion and the use of compound epithets rendered as remote as possible from the tone of ordinary language, which was introduced, or at least rendered fashionable, by Darwin, but which was too remote from common life, and natural expression, to retain its popularity. Yet her taste, though perhaps over-dazzled by the splendour which she adopted in her own compositions, readily admitted the claims of Pope, Collins, Gray, Mason, and of all those bards who have condescended to add the graces of style and expression to poetical thought and imagery. But she particularly demanded beauty, elegance, or splendour of language; and was unwilling to allow that sublimity or truth of conception could atone for poverty, rudeness, or even simplicity, of expression. To Spenser, and the poets of his school, she lent a very unwilling ear; and what will, perhaps, best explain my meaning, she greatly preferred the flowing numbers and expanded descriptions of Pope's Iliad to Cowper's translation, which approaches nearer to the simple dignity of Homer. These peculiarities of taste, Miss Seward was always ready to defend; nor was it easy for the professors of an opposite faith to sustain either the art of her arguments, or the authorities which her extensive acquaintance with the best British classics readily supplied. She has left, among other manuscripts, a Defence of Pope's Odyssey against Spence, in which she displays much critical acumen, and has decidedly the better of the Professor. I ought, however, to add, that two circumstances qualified Miss Seward's taste for the picturesque. When she wrote upon subjects in which her feelings were deeply interested, she forgot the "tiara and glittering zone" of the priestess of Apollo, in the more natural effusions of real passion. The song which begins, "To thy rocks, stormy Lannow, adieu," seems to have been composed under such influence. The partiality with which Miss Seward regarded the poetical attempts of her friends, formed another class of exceptions to her peculiar taste for the magnificent in poetry. She found, with an ingenuity which the subject sometimes rendered wonderful, reasons for liking what her prejudices in favour of the author had previously determined her to admire. Her literary enthusiasm, ardent as it was, became in such cases tempered and qualified by the yet keener interest she felt in those friends whom she valued; and, if this caused an occasional anomaly in her critical system, those who have experienced its benefit, may be pardoned for quoting it as an illustration of the kindly warmth of her heart.

That warmth was not alone displayed in regard for friends in the same rank of life, and cultivating similar studies. Her benevolence was universally felt among those to whom it afforded active and important support, as well as those whose pursuits it aided, and whose feelings it gratified. But it is not the purpose of this slight sketch either to enter into the merits of Miss Seward's poetry, or to descend minutely into her personal character. The reader has, in these volumes, enough for forming an opinion upon the first point, and many passages from which he may ground his own authentic conclusions concerning the energy of the talents and worth of the heart by which they were dictated. I return to the narrative, which these cursory observations have interrupted.

For a year or two preceding 1807, Miss Seward had been occasionally engaged in arranging and preparing for the press the edition of her poems which is now given to the public. She had reconsidered them individually, and made such additions and corrections as she conceived necessary. This subject was repeatedly mentioned in her correspondence, and the publication would have taken place during Miss Seward's life-time, if some difficulties had not occurred to delay it. These were in the course of being removed; and it is probable the volumes would soon have gone to the press, had the state of Miss Seward's health permitted her to superintend their progress. But her constitution, infirm for several years, was now rapidly declining. In harvest, 1807, she was assailed by a scorbutic disorder, which affected her blood and whole system in a degree most painfully irritating, banishing sleep, and rendering waking hours almost intolerable. — Her spirit continued, however, to struggle against its assaults, and she entered, by advice of her physicians, upon a course of alterative medicine, which, it was supposed, might alleviate or remove her complaint. But the disorder proved invincible; and, in March 1809, the editor had the pain of receiving the last farewell of his honoured friend. It is written at intervals, and the hand-writing gradually degenerates from the distinct and beautiful manuscript which Miss Seward used to write, into a scrawl so feebly traced, as to be nearly illegible.

"You may believe, dear and admired friend, it was no trivial cause, no idle procrastination, that kept me silent four months and a week to a letter of yours, the humour, wit, and kindness of which recompensed its delay. Early in our late Siberian December, I was proposing to address you, when a violent fever, with alarming haemorhage, seized my weak frame. During five nights and days, it put my life into peril. In all that time, I was unable to swallow the least atom of solids, whilst my thirst was raging and unquenchable. On the 6th day, the fever abated, and some degree of appetite returned; but the disease has shook my weak frame to its foundation. The fever abated, but is not yet subdued. Sometimes I have a few hours intermission, but my pulse remaining at 90, and 60 is my pulse of health, the medical people will not consent to my taking the bark. Much writing is forbid me; indeed, its effect is sufficiently forewarning, since, the moment I begin to think intensely, the pen falls from my hand, a lethargic sensation creeps over me, and I doze. Not more than by a page a day shall I attempt to proceed with this snail of an epistle. I had two reasons for wishing to have written to you sooner; gratitude, and the desire of presenting you with one of the three copies which my poetic friend, Mr. Mundy, has sent me to present to three chosen friends. Though printed, it is not published, and consequently unpurchaseable."

"Monday, 13th of March.

"So far was written Monday the 6th of this month when again the lethargy crept on. I fell asleep, and awoke in a raging fever and high delirium. Next day, after a dreadful night, the physician ordered me to lose six ounces of blood, and that not in the slightest degree abating the fever, he took six ounces more on the eve, and all without effect. I feel all the props of my life giving way; and probably this is the last time I shall ever write any thing in the shape of a letter; but I have procured a frank, and am unwilling it should be useless. It is for Thursday next. Considering my pains, my raging thirst, my utter debility, it would be a mercy if I should not be in existence on that day.

"If I knew where to find you, I would send the copy of Mundy's Poems, but I am loth to put you to the expence of its carriage, except I should send it to you in London. I am not able to add more than what I think will be my last benediction on you and yours. O! what a blessing is a sudden death! I always prayed for it, but am not worthy to have my prayer granted.

"I thank you for all your kindness, and for the delightful hours your talents have given me.

"Affectionately your friend,


"It is Thursday, and each intervening day since I closed my letter has taken large death-strides upon me."

This melancholy letter was too true an augury of the event which it anticipated. Upon Thursday the 23d of March, 1809, Miss Seward was seized with an universal stupor, which continued until the 25th, at six o'clock in the evening, when she expired. Her friends, a term which comprehends many names distinguished in British literature, must long lament this accomplished woman. The poems in which she survives to the public, although containing vivid traces of genius, will serve but to remind those who were honoured with her acquaintance, of the loss which they have sustained of her ardent love of literature, her disinterested and candid defence of its best interests, of the amiable and enthusiastic warmth of her friendship, and the innate benevolence of her heart.

The arrangement of Miss Seward's fortune was left under the charge of her residuary legatee, Thomas White, Esq. residing in the Close of Lichfield, and Charles Simpson, Esq. of the same city; the former connected with her by relationship, and both still more by kindness and intimacy. To the present editor she bequeathed her literary performances, and particularly the works she had so long intended for the press, with the instructions, as well as under the exception, contained in the following posthumous letter:

"Dear Sir,

In my last and lately-executed will, I have bequeathed to you the exclusive copy-right of those compositions in verse and prose which I mean shall constitute a miscellaneous edition of my works. This bequest consists of my writings in verse which have passed the press, together with those that are yet unpublished; also a collection of juvenile letters from the year 1762, to June 1768, together with four sermons, and a critical dissertation.

"The verse consists of two half-bound volumes quarto, full of manuscript compositions; and, at this time, of six manuscript books, sewn together in the form of quarto volumes. With these I desire may be blended my poems which have already been regularly and separately published; printed copies of which will be found tied up with the manuscript verse, and from those printed copies I desire the press for this edition may be struck. Some slight alterations in the printed copies are inserted in my own handwriting, to which I request you will have the goodness to attend in your survey of the proof sheets. I wish the printed and manuscript poems may succeed each other in the miscellany according to the successive periods at which they were written; to which end there are specified directions to the printer through their whole course. With these you will find, and to these I desire may succeed in the miscellany, the three first books of an epic poem raised on the basis of Fenelon's Telemachus, but in very excursive paraphrase, harmonizing, as I flattered myself, with the style of Pope's Homer. I once hoped to have compleated the poem, and that, in such a completion, it might have formed no unacceptable conclusion to the adventures of the young and royal hero left unfinished in the Odyssey. More indispensable claims upon my attention frustrated that purpose. Abortive as it proved, those of my classical friends who have examined the three books, assure me that their contents are, poetically, equal to any thing I have written.

"With the above-named compositions, you will meet with a little collection of my late dear father's poetry, with references to more of it published anonymously in Dodsley's Miscellany. I wish you to admit this collection, together with his poems in Dodsley, into the edition I have bequeathed to you, and that it may succeed to my own poems.

"To these metrical volumes, I wish the juvenile letters may be added, succeeding the poetic volumes as in Warburton's edition of Pope's works. I refer the critical dissertation, defending Pope's Odyssey against the erroneous criticisms of Spence, to your judgement, that, when you have read the tract, you may publish or suppress it, as you think best. If the former be your choice, it should follow the juvenile letters, being, as it was, the production of my youthful years. Last, the four sermons, unless you think it better to publish them by themselves at a different period, rather than that they should form a part of this collective edition. I wish it to be printed in small octavo.

"Twelve quarto and manuscript volumes of my letters, from the year 1784, to the present day, I have bequeathed to Mr. A. Constable. They are copies of such letters, or parts of letters, as, after they were written, appeared to me worth the attention of the public. Large as the collection is, it does not include a twelfth part of the letters I have written from the said period.

"To Mr. Constable, rather than to yourself, have they been bequeathed, on account of the political principles which, during many past years, they breathed. Fervent indeed, and uniform, was my abhorrence of the dreadful system in our cabinet, which has reduced the continent to utter vassalage, and endangered the independence of Great Britain. Yet I know these opinions are too hostile to your friendships and connections with the belligerent party, for the possibility of it being agreeable to you to become the editor of those twelve epistolary volumes.

"I shall address a posthumous letter to Mr. Constable on their subject, expressing my desire that he publish two volumes annually, not classing them to separate correspondents, but allowing them to succeed each other in the order of time as they stand in the collection.

"This letter has been written beneath the pressure of much pain and illness. I am in a state which induces me to believe you will, ere long, receive this testimony of my regard, confidence, and gratitude, for all the attention with which you have honoured me; above all, for your kind visit. May health and length of days be yours, with leisure to employ, from time to time, your illustrious muse. And now, dear sir, a long, a last adieu!


I have, in every material respect, punctually complied with the wishes of my deceased friend. I have exercised the latitude indulged to me of omitting the prose compositions, and also the poems of the late Mr. Seward, as it was judged adviseable to limit the size of this publication to three volumes. The imitation of Telemachus is also omitted; and, in publishing the correspondence, every thing is retrenched which has reference to personal anecdote. I am aware that, in this particular, I have not consulted the taste of the age; but, in my opinion, nothing less important than the ascertainment of historical fact justifies withdrawing the veil from the incidents of private life. I would not willingly have this suppression misconstrued. There is not a line in my possession but might he published with honour to her who bequeathed me the manuscripts, and with justice to those named in them; and those in Mr. Constable's possession, being more generally of a literary nature, are still less liable to exception. But few can remember the feelings, passions, and prejudices of their earlier career, without feeling reluctance to their being brought before the public; and, iii some late instances, the parties concerned might have remonstrated with the editor, like the dethroned monarch with his insulting accuser:

—And must I ravel out
My weaved-up follies—
If thy offences were upon record,
Would it not shame thee in so fair a troop
To read a lecture of them?

The poetry has been published precisely according to Miss Seward's directions. To the numerous friends of Miss Seward, these volumes will form an acceptable present; for, besides their poetical merit, they form a pleasing register of her sentiments, her feelings, and her affections. The general reception they may meet with is more dubious, since collections of occasional and detached poems have rarely been honoured with a large share of public favour. Should Miss Seward's poetry be admitted as an exception, it will add much to the satisfaction which I feel in the faithful discharge of the task entrusted to me by the bequest of the amiable and highly-accomplished author.