1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anne Hunter

Anonymous, Obituary in New Monthly Magazine NS 3 (February 1821) 89.



When those whose genius or talents have contributed, in any degree, to the instruction or enjoyment of mankind, have finished their earthly career, and can no longer add to the obligations we owe them, there is a melancholy pleasure in looking back upon what they have done, and paying some tribute of gratitude to their memory. No one who has ever delighted in musical numbers, expressive of refined and tender sentiments, and is acquainted with the writings of the late Mrs. John Hunter, will question her claim to such a token of respect. The verses, "On November 1784;" the beautiful address to Fancy, under the title of "La Douce Chimere," with several of her miscellaneous poems, shew that she possessed the feeling and imagination of genius: but, as her songs are the portion of her works which are best known, and mark more particularly her style of writing, the following observations shall be confined to them. In appreciating her merits as a lyric poet, we ought to recollect how few songs, before her time, were to be found in the English language, that were worthy of being sung by the cultivated and refined, or were truly expressive of the pathetic melodies to which they were joined. The cruelty of Delia, receiving a rosebud or presenting a nosegay to the fair Idol, complimentary gallantry or the silly courtship of imaginary shepherds, were the usual subjects of our politer popular songs; though a few of superior excellence might indeed be discovered, like rare jewels, closed up in the volumes of our classical poets. Mrs. Hunter had the good taste, the good sense and feeling, to strike into a better path, and to take deep and tender feeling, as arising from some implied situation of passion or distress, for the subject of her verses. The superiority of this refinement was immediately felt; and the first of her songs that were known to the public — "The Son of Alknomook," "Queen Mary's Lament," &c. became exceedingly popular. They had also one great advantage to the singer, and the listener, that, as the love of music had first induced the author to write in verse, no word was admitted into her measure, which conveyed any harshness to a musical ear, or was in the least degree at variance with the air.

This good path she pursued; but contemporaries soon arose, whose lyrical works more than shared with her the public favour; and her volume of songs and poems, published many years after they were written, was less attractive than it would have been at an earlier period. It is not, however, we are confident, rating her genius too high to say, that at this present time, when the songs of Burns, Scott, Moore, and Byron, enrich the different collections of our national airs, the pathos, harmony, and elegance of many of her compositions have not been surpassed.

Though fond of reading and music, and capable of amusing herself in the closest retirement, she had great relish for society; and at one period of her life mixed very often in a circle of agreeable and cultivated friends, who met together regularly, many of whom are well known in the literary world. By those friends she was respected and admired; and into whatever assembly she entered, the delicacy of her face, with the commanding grace of her person, gave her a peculiar air of distinction, and seldom failed to attract attention. But she never ascribed to her own merit the notice.she received in society; feeling herself the wife of a celebrated man, she was fond of imputing the attention she received, to the influence of his character; doing injustice to herself, from a generous pride of owing every thing to him: and she never appeared so much gratified by attention and kindness, as when she supposed it was shewn to her for his sake.

The latter years of her life were mostly spent in retirement, though no infirmity of age, a slight deafness excepted, prevented her from enjoying society. The resources of her books and her, pen never failed her; many of her songs, and other poems, written at an advanced age, are very beautiful, and some of them are of a more cheerful character than the productions of her younger days. She also wrote many letters to her friends; and her flow of ideas, and facility of diction, made it an amusing and pleasant occupation.

She was an affectionate relation; and, where she was attached and had opportunity, she was a warm, useful, and steady friend. To her contemporary writers, particularly the poets of these days, she was a charitable critic, and a warm and generous admirer. The pleasure she received from them was repaid with no grudging or niggard thanks. To critical severity, as applying to her own works, she was mild, considerate, and forgiving. — This distinguished woman departed this life on the 7th of January, 1821, after a lingering illness, which she bore with great patience, in the 79th year of her age.