1809 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anna Seward

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 79 (April 1809) 378-79.



ANNA SEWARD was the daughter of the late Rev. Thomas Seward, rector of Eyam, in Derbyshire, prebendary of Salisbury, and canon-residentiary of Lichfield. Mr. Seward had graceful manners, great hilarity of spirit, and active benevolence. His poetic talents were by no means inconsiderable, and he studied with discriminating taste, and, in their original languages, the Greek, Latin, and English Bards. He was known to the World of Letters as chief Editor of Beaumont and Fletcher's Plays, published in the year 1750; also as author of a learned and ingenious tract on the Conformity between Paganism and Popery, much celebrated in its day, though now out of print. To Dodsley's Collection he sent a few elegant little poems, which may he found late in the second volume, extending to its close. At the village of Eyam, situated amongst the highest of the Peak mountains, Mr. Seward passed the first eight years of his marriage. In the second his eldest daughter, the subject of this memoir, was born. She had several sisters, and one brother, but all died in their infancy, except the second daughter, who lived till she was 19, and then died on the eve of her nuptials. In Miss Seward's seventh year her family removed from Eyam to Lichfield; and in her thirteenth they became inhabitants of the Bishop's Palace, which remained her home to her last hour. Mrs. Seward, who died at 66, in the year 1780, was a woman of strong sense, and had possessed extreme beauty, a large portion of which she retained to her latest hour. Without taste for literary pursuits herself, she had never encouraged them in her daughters. For the delight they mutually took in books, they were indebted to their father's early instruction. Fancying that he saw the dawn of poetic genius in his eldest girl, he amused himself with its culture, though not from any idea or desire that he should ever become an authoress. Her ear for poetic recitation, in which he himself was remarkably excellent, inspired the pleasure he felt to nurse her in the lap of the Muses. At three years old, before she could read, he had taught her to lisp the Allegro of Milton; and in her ninth she was enabled to speak by rote the three first books of the Paradise Lost, with that variety of accent necessary to give grace and effect to the manly harmonies of that poem. Miss Seward has herself remarked, "that its sublime images, the alternate grandeur and beauty, of its numbers, perpetually filled her infant eyes with tears of delight, while she performed the parental task, by daily committing a portion of them to memory." It has been already observed, that Miss Seward's progress in the composition of verse met the chillness of maternal discouragement; and her father, as she grew up to womanhood, was induced to withdraw the animating welcome he had given her early Muse. Thus repressed, she cast away, during some years, her own poetic lyre, or at least awakened it only at short and seldom-returning intervals, devoting much of her time to fancied needle-works, and the gar amusements of her juvenile companions. Nothing could restrain, however, the ardour she felt to peruse, with discriminating attention, the writings of our finest Poets. Miss Seward's productions were confined to the perusal of her more intimate friends, till she became accidentally acquainted with the late Lady Miller, of Bath-Easton, by whose persuasion she was induced to write for the poetic institution of that villa, and to become a candidate for its myrtle wreaths she obtained it repeatedly. The prize-poems were published and adopted from the Bath-Easton volume into other public prints, with the names of time authors; and thus the Rubicon was passed. Early the next year, 1780, her Elegy on Capt. Cook was given to the world, with an Ode to the Sun subjoined, on the bright unwintered year 1779. These poems meeting a flattering reception, she was encouraged to lament the cruel fate of her gallant and amiable friend; Major Andre. Her Monody on him, and also her Elegy on Capt. Cook, involving a series of events the most important in the lives of their heroes, formed a new species of funeral song. Doctor Darwin used to tell her, she was the inventress of epic elegy. In 1782 appeared her poem to the memory of Lady Miller, who died during the July of the preceding year, in the meridian of her days. In 1784 she published the poetical novel intituled Louisa, which is perhaps the most popular of all her compositions; and in 1787 her Epic Ode on the return of General Eliott from Gibraltar. These, with her Llangollen Vale, and other Poems, in 1790, the Life of Darwin, in 1806, and contributions to Mr. Urban and to other periodical publications, form, we believe, the whole of her printed works. As an Authoress, few women have exhibited more strength of intellect, or more genuine delicacy of taste, than Miss Seward. Her poetry is particularly distinguished by beauty of imagery, and vigour of sentiment; yet we do not totally acquit it from the charge of occasional affectation. Her Life of Darwin cannot but be accurate, from her intimate acquaintance with that great character; and is rendered peculiarly interesting from the literary circle at Lichfield, which she has delineated with great spirit and fidelity. In private life Miss Seward was much respected: her friends were very numerous, and they composed no small part of the virtue and genius of the times. We are informed that Miss Seward has bequeathed her manuscripts, published and unpublished, with an hundred pounds, to Walter Scott, esq. the author of Marmion; and her vast collection of letters from, and to the most eminent literary characters of her age, to Mr. Constable the bookseller, who, we believe, is to select and publish two volumes of them annually. The remainder of her income, with the exception of some handsome legacies, she leaves to her relations by her father's side.