1831 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ann Yearsley

Robert Southey, in Attempts in Verse by John Jones ... and an Introductory Essay on the Lives and Works of our Uneducated Poets (1831) 125-34.



ANN YEARSLEY'S is a melancholy story. She was first heard of in 1784, when some verses were shown to Miss Hannah More as the production of a poor illiterate woman who sold milk from door to door. "The story," says Miss More, "did not engage my faith, but the verses excited my attention; for, though incorrect, they breathed the genuine spirit of poetry, and were rendered still more interesting by a certain natural and strong expression of misery, which seemed to fill the head and mind of the author. On making diligent inquiry into her history and character, I found that she had been born and bred in her present humble station, and had never received the least education, except that her brother had taught her to write. Her mother, who was also a milk-woman, appears to have had sense and piety, and to have given an early tincture of religion to this poor woman's mind. She is about eight-and-twenty, was married very young to a man who is said to be honest and sober, but of a turn of mind very different from her own. Repeated losses and a numerous family, for they had six children in seven years, reduced them very low; and the rigour of the last severe winter sunk them to the extremity of distress. Her aged mother, her six little infants, and herself (expecting every hour to lie in) were actually on the point of perishing, when the gentleman (Mr. Vaughan,) so gratefully mentioned in her poems, providentially heard of their distress, which I am afraid she had too carefully concealed, and hastened to their relief. The poor woman and her children were preserved; but for the unhappy mother all assistance came too late: she had the joy to see it arrive, but it was a joy she was no longer able to bear, and it was more fatal to her than famine had been. This "left a settled impression of sorrow on Mrs. Yearsley's mind."

"When I went to see her," Miss More continues, "I observed a perfect simplicity in her manners, without the least affectation or pretension of any kind, she neither attempted to raise my compassion by her distress, nor my admiration by her parts. But on a more familiar acquaintance, I have had reason to be surprised at the justness of her taste, the faculty I least expected to find in her. In truth, her remarks on the books she had read are so accurate, and so consonant to the opinions of the best critics, that from this very circumstance they would appear trite and commonplace to any one who had been in habits of society; for without having ever conversed with any body above her own level, she seems to mess the general principles of sound taste and just thinking." She had read Paradise Lost and the Night Thoughts, and was well acquainted with both Pope's Eloisa, a few of Shakespeare's plays, and a translation of the Georgics, which seems particularly to have delighted her. Some classical allusions in her verses she had taken from prints in a shop window, ... these gratuitous exhibitions, have, like bookstalls, contributed much to the delight and instruction of those upon whom the advantages of education would have been well bestowed. She had never seen a Dictionary, and knew nothing of grammatical rules. Her vocabulary therefore was that of the books which she had read, her syntax that of the ignorant and vulgar with whom she conversed. Miss More described her poems as like those of all unlettered poets, abounding in imagery, metaphor, and personification, her faults in that respect being rather those of superfluity than of want. "She thought her ear perfect, and the structure of her blank verse so happy and so varied, as even to appear skilful. You will find her," she says, "often diffuse from redundancy, and oftener obscure from brevity; but you will seldom find in her those inexplicable poetic sins, the false thought, the puerile conceit, the distorted image, and the incongruous metaphor, the common resources of bad poets, and the not uncommon blemishes of good ones."

A small volume of her Poems was now published by subscription, the grosser inaccuracies of language having been corrected. Miss More was a most efficient as well as kind patroness; and the volume in consequence went through a second and a third edition. "It is not intended," said that patroness, "to place her in such a state of independence as might seduce her to devote her time to the idleness of poetry. I hope she is convinced that the making of verses is not the great business of human life; and that as a wife and a mother she has duties to fill, the smallest of which is of more value than the finest verses she can write. But as it has pleased God to give her these talents, may they not be made as instruments to mend her situation? Pressing as her distresses are, if I did not think her heart was rightly turned I should be afraid of proposing such a measure, lest. it should unsettle the sobriety of her mind, and, by exciting her vanity, indispose her for the laborious employments of her humble condition; but it would be cruel to imagine that we cannot mend her fortune without impairing her virtue. For my own part I do not feel myself actuated by the idle vanity of a discoverer; for I confess that the ambition of bringing to light a genius buried in obscurity, operates much less powerfully on my mind than the wish to rescue a meritorious woman from misery; for it is not fame, but bread, which I am anxious to secure to her."

The sum of 350 arising from the first edition of these poems, and the presents made by some of the subscribers, was placed in the funds in the names of Mrs. Montague and Miss Hannah More, as trustees, for the benefit of Mrs. Yearsley and her children. This occasioned an unfortunate difference between the authoress and her first benefactress. Mrs. Yearsley wished to be admitted as a joint-trustee, and that the money should be equally divided according to the number of her children, and subject to their demand as each arrived at the age of twenty-one. The latter part of the proposal was improvident, the former seemed to imply a caution which, because it was felt to be unnecessary, was thought to be ungrateful. Some angry altercation ensued, and the acrimonious feelings thus excited were not soothed by the interference of friends on Mrs. Yearsley's behalf. It ended in a resignation of the trust, and in a lasting breach between the parties. The whole transaction was vexatious to Miss More, whose benevolent intentions ought not to have been misunderstood; and it was unfortunate for Mrs. Yearsley, who was now represented as a thankless and unworthy person, and who from that time considered as an enemy one who, but for this misunderstanding, would have continued to be her friend and faithful adviser.

Mrs. Yearsley prefixed a narrative in vindication of herself to the fourth edition of her Poems in 1786, and in the following year published a second collection by subscription. She now opened a Circulating Library at Bristol Hot Wells, but not upon a scale which could prove attractive, nor was the place one where much support was to be expected. In 1791 she produced a tragedy called Earl Goodwin, which was represented with little success at the Bristol and Bath Theatres. And in 1795 she published the Royal Captives, an unfinished novel, founded upon the mysterious story of the Iron Mask. "One of my motives," she says, "for publishing the work unfinished is, that the world may speak of me as I am, while I have power to hear. The clouds that hang over my fortunes intervene between me and the public; I incessantly struggle to dissipate them, and feel those struggles vain, and shall drop in the effort. This consolation I shall however bear with me to the verge of life, that to those who have guided me by the sacred and lambent flame of friendship, my memory will be dear."

This book was noticed in the Monthly Review, with a better feeling than is usually found in periodical criticisms. The unknown writer remarked the striking contrast between the strength of thought and the weakness of judgement which were apparent in the composition, "the almost continued inflation of the style, and the frequent power of expression, the crude and disjointed manner in which the story was planned and pursued, and the occasional force discovered in the incidents, the characters, and the philosophy at which the authoress aimed. The incidents are generally improbable, not because events more strange and incredible have not happened, but because in the writer's haste to produce great events she has neglected the minutiae which are necessary for that purpose. From the same mistake there is a want of progression in the story. Having related one striking incident which she has not possessed patience and judgement enough to prepare, she hurries forward to another, and thus robs each of that force which she has been so ardent to impart. — If the reader of these volumes has thought before, they will lead him to think again. Those who buy books will much more frequently buy worse than better; and those who love to encourage an enterprizing and, however abashed and subdued, no vulgar spirit, will not think their money ill bestowed."

Mrs. Yearsley published one or two occasional poems before this, her last publication. The culture which she received, such as it was, came too late; nor does she appear to have derived any other advantage from it than that it enabled her to write with common grammatical accuracy. With extraordinary talents, strong feelings, and an ardent mind, she never produced a poem which found its way into any popular collection; and very few passages can be extracted from her writings which would have any other value than as indicating powers which the possessor knew not how to employ. But it ought to be observed here, that I have never seen either her novel or her tragedy. The best lines which I have noticed are in her second publication.

—Cruel the hand
Which tears the veil of time from black dishonour;
Or, with the iron pen of Justice, cuts
Her cypher on the scars of early shame.

There is a like felicity of expression in these lines on the remembrance of her mother:—

How oft with thee, when life's keen tempest howl'd
Around our heads, did I contented sit,
Drinking the wiser accents of thy tongue,
Listless of threatening ill. My tender eye
Was fix'd on thine, inquisitively sad.
Whilst thine was dim with sorrow: yet thy soul
Betray'd no innate weakness, but resolv'd
To tread thy sojourn calm and undismay'd.

Flourishing reputations (of the gourd tribe) have been made by writers of much less feeling and less capability than are evident in these lines. Ann Yearsley, though gifted with voice, had no strain of her own whereby to be remembered, but she was no mocking-bird.

She died at Melksham in 1806. Her affairs had not been prosperous, and it has been said that she was deranged for some time before her death. I know not what foundation there may have been for this report, more than the probability that such an effect would be wrought upon a highly sensitive mind by embarrassments, disappointments, the sense of supposed injuries, and the perpetual consciousness that her powers, not having been kindlily developed, had failed to produce, what, under favourable circumstances, they could not have failed to bring forth.