1782 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anna Seward

Anonymous, "Anecdotes of the Author" European Magazine 1 (April 1782) 288-90.



Miss Seward is the daughter of the Rev. Mr. Seward, the present rector of Eyam in Derbyshire, and canon residentiary of the cathedral church of Litchfield. The family have lived in the Bishop's palace at Litchfield since our author was fourteen years old, and are its present inhabitants. Mrs. Seward, a very excellent woman, and in her youth a celebrated beauty of Staffordshire, died in the year 1780. This gentleman and lady lost many infant children; our author is the only surviving one. She had a lovely sister who died at the age of twenty, on the eve of her intended marriage. Mr. Seward is one of the learned editors of Beaumont and Fletcher's works — author of an ingenious treatise concerning the conformity between Popery and Paganism, which was much celebrated, though it is now out of print. Among other poems in Dodsley's collection, the Female right to Literature, is his. Mr. Seward adapted the maxims of that poem to his own practice in the education of his daughter; at least as far as literary taste could be acquired by an introduction, while they were yet children, to the best English writers. Perhaps it might have been wished that his love of society, and that vivacity of temper which disqualified him for the drudgery of grammatic instruction, had not prevented his giving our author the advantages of acquiring the Greek and Latin languages. But he early set her taste for poetry very high, for she could lisp L'Allegro il Penseroso of Milton, at three years old, before she could read; and at nine was able to repeat the first three books of Paradise Lost, with a spirit and propriety of emphasis, which shewed she felt and understood their beauties. We have been informed by a lady, who knew her in her infancy, when the family lived at Eyam in Derbyshire, and who used to walk out with her on a summer's evening, that when she was not more than five years old, in the midst of that childish playfulness with which she bounded among the rocks and over the Alpine heights of her native mountains, she would frequently stop, and with eyes swimming in delight, and an air of the most animated enthusiasm, repeat poetical passages from her memory, and apply them to every smiling, or awful grace of prospect which met her young and wandering attention. To her, therefore we may apply those beautiful lines of Gray,

And oft before her infant eyes would run
Such forms as glitter'd in the muses ray.

She put several of the psalms into verse at nine years old; and in her tenth year, her father having promised her half a crown if she would produce him a copy of verses upon the first fine day of a stormy spring, she earned her reward in a few hours, by writing twenty-five lines upon the subject — the first four of them ran thus,

Fairest quarter of the year,
Dost thou then appear,
Clad in this thy golden dress,
Bright presage of happiness?

We may, surely, without partiality, considering her youth, pronounce that these lines presaged a poetic summer, whose flowers and fruits should not be crude or immature.

Mrs. Seward, though a very sensible and well-bred woman, had not a poetical taste, and took no pleasure in this propensity of our author's; but, as the little rhymist grew up to womanhood, even prevailed with Mr. Seward to acquiesce in its being repressed. As the family were then become inhabitants of Litchfield, there was no great difficulty in prevailing upon a sprightly girl, surrounded by the amusements and perpetual visiting of a provincial city, to relinquish "the Female right to Literature," which could only be preserved by devoting her youthful hours to study and application. To her taste for fine needle works, and afterwards for music, she gladly resigned her small portion of retirement; and was ready to believe those who told her, that they were more proper employments for a young lady than scribbling verses. Respecting literary pursuits therefore, she chiefly contented herself with eagerly contemplating the effusions of genius in others; yet, now and then, occasion would tempt her into the interdicted path of composition. Some of these little attempts attracted the notice of a gentleman of genius and erudition, who thought them above the abilities of a girl not sixteen; and suspected them to be chiefly her father's. Wishing to know the truth of this matter, he called upon her one evening, when he knew Mr. Seward was in Derbyshire. He talked with her upon poetic subjects, and combated her enthusiastic devotion to the Paradise Lost of Milton, denying its claim to poetic pre-eminence. He then proceeded to say, that it had been suggested to him, how greatly her verses were above the capacity of so young a female, and that he wished she would empower him to vouch for their being her own, by writing him instantly a little poem, no matter what might be the subject; a description of a beautiful valley, or any thing she pleased. He added, "let me write the first stanza, and do you finish it," — So saying, he took the pen and wrote the opening stanza of the following poem.

"To mark how fair the primrose blows,
How soft the feather'd muses sing,
My wand'ring step had prest the dews,
My soul enraptur'd hail'd the spring."

But in an evil hour I stray'd,
Since from a yew-tree's cleaving side,
Issued a pale disdainful maid;
No good to me she did betide!

A squalid, sickly, tasteless dame,
Of false incongruous pride the child;
She lights her innovating flame,
And scornful sports her fancies wild;

Caprice her name; — disdain, said she,
To sail along the common tide,
But launch upon a wider sea,
While I thy tow'ring bark shall guide.

Alas! what notice canst thou claim
Condemning what has no one's laud?
Be thine a nicer, subtler flame,
To blame what all the world applaud.

She ceas'd; — but still my ears retain'd
The deep vibration of her lays;
And in her magic fetters chain'd,
She guides my censure and my praise.

Hence he, who on seraphic wings
Soar'd high above the starry spheres,
And heav'n-inspir'd enraptur'd sings
Seraphic strains to mortal ears.

Impell'd by her vain whims I tried
To veil his bright meridian rays;
And fain I would, ah! strange the pride!
From Milton's temples snatch the bays.

The next morning this gentleman called upon our young poetess for the task he had set her — She put it into his hand, and he kindly forgave the freedom of inventing for him this self-reproach, concerning his injustice to her favourite poet, and ceas'd to doubt that the former verses were really hers, which had been shewed him as such, and of whose authenticity he had doubted.

Miss Seward's keen sensibilities were awakened to anguish upon the death of her beloved sister, which happened three or four years after. We have been able to procure the following extract from an Elegy which she wrote on the subject a few days after the funeral, as she was sitting on the terrace walk of the palace garden, which over-hangs a lovely rural valley.

Yet e'en these rankling woes some respite know,
As o'er the smiling landscape pleas'd I gaze;
In loud and raptur'd note, on ev'ry bough,
Gay nature's warblers swell the song of praise.

The green tall trees bend o'er the glassy stream,
And wave in spring's full pride, their graceful heads,
While from the setting sun a golden beam
Flings in soft radiance o'er the dewy meads.

That glowing sun, in evening splendor gay,
The fragrant gale, that breathes the groves among;
The beauteous flowers that drink the humid ray,
'Mid the wild transports of the woodland song.

Have they a charm for thee! and still remains
Deep in thy breast fond joy's congenial tide?
Springing at beauty's glance, and pleasure's strain,
Do her bright streams thro' sorrow's darkness glide?

Where is thy friend? dim in the lonely cell,
Livid, and wan, insensate, sunk, and cold!
Then Julia, bid thy hopes a long farewell,
The hapless story of thy fate is told!

Several other poems slid occasionally from her pen — but she could never be persuaded to think any thing she had written worth the attention of the public; and has been heard to say, that, but for an accidental interview with Lady Miller in the year 1778, she never could have been induced to consent that a poem of hers should pass the press. In this interview Lady Miller obtained a promise that she should write for her vase; and the poetical institution at Bath-Easton opening for that season a few weeks after, her ladyship sent the subject to her new friend, demanding her promise. Invocations of the Comic Muse was the thesis. The Ode Miss Seward wrote opens thus,

On this mirth-devoted day,
From these festal bow'rs away,
In your sable vestments flee
Train of sad Melpomene!
Ye, who midnight horrors dart
To strike the palpitating heart;
Fear, that flies the shadowy cause
With hurried step, and startled pause!
Straw-crown'd Phrenzy's glaring gaze,
Chanting shrill her changing lays;
Nor let dim-ey'd Grief appear,
To weave her mournful garlands here
Of Cypress buds, and fading flow'rs,
Wet with cold November's show'rs,
Nor, with the damp, wan brow, and streaming wound
Let wild self-pierc'd Despair her hollow groans resound.
But come Thalia, frolic fair!
Enthron'd on Pantomimic car;
Thine open brow with roses bind,
By morning's lucid rays entwin'd,
Thine azure vest flow lightly down,
And gaily glow thy rainbow zone.

This ode obtained the myrtle wreath; and, together with several other poems, which Miss Seward sent to the vase, met so much general approbation, that she was persuaded to publish those which she afterwards wrote upon the melancholy fate of Capt. Cook, and Major Andre; to the former of which is subjoined an Ode to the Sun, which she has been heard to say, she thinks more worth attention than any thing she has written; and lastly this tribute to the memory of her lamented patroness, which is now the subject of our criticism.

After these little anecdotes, which we have collected with the care that distinguished excellence deserves, it is superfluous to pronounce the object of them one of the most shining ornaments of the British Muse.