1813 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Russell Mitford

X, "Biographical Memoir of Mary Russell Mitford" Monthly Recorder [New York] 1 (June 1813) 175-77.



SIR—

When writers of extraordinary merit are suddenly brought before the public, it produces, I believe invariably, a curiosity in the reader to know something of their history. This is at once natural and laudable. From the facts which their biography disclose, we learn to estimate their real character. Besides, the more intimate our acquaintance with the writers, the more strongly we are excited by the perusal of their productions. We partake in some degree of all their success; we sympathise in all their failures. For their faults we find a ready excuse, either in the youth of the writer, or in the hasty manner in which the production has been composed — their superior excellences are at once attributed to the splendour of their genius, and the overpowering weight of their talent. The pleasure we have derived, lessens, if not destroys, our fastidiousness; while the opinions which we have formed, and expressed, make us parties hi their fame. Perhaps, sir, you may deem the above remarks superfluous — if so, lay them on one side without hesitation. They were dictated by the notice which you have taken in your Recorder of the "Narrative Poems on the Female Character, by Mary Russell Mitford."

It appears that the writer of these elegant poems is the daughter of Doctor Mitford, a physician of respectability at Reading in Berkshire, by Mary Russell, a near relation of the noble house of Bedford. Her father, whether following the bent of his own inclination, or induced to it by the splendour of his connexions, I have not learnt, very soon expended his fortune by a gay course of living; and while our fair author was yet in her infancy, he was confined within the limits of King's Bench Prison. From this confinement, so mortifying to generous feeling, as well as to human vanity, he was relieved by the following occurrence. One day, with his little daughter by the hand, he was pacing his limits, when Mary was attracted by the show if lottery tickets. She made inquiries respecting their use, received satisfactory answers, and persuaded the father to purchase a ticket. For once the wheel administered to the wants of depressed genius. The ticket produced ten thousand pounds — the one-half was immediately applied to satisfy Dr. Mitford's creditors, the other devoted to the education of his child, as well as to her support in future. About the same period a female relative bequeathed to Miss Mitford one thousand pounds. With the interest arising out of these joint sums, this accomplished young lady was placed in a situation of both comfort and independence.

At the above period Miss Mitford was only eight years of age. My informant having left England about that time, could not furnish me with more facts respecting her. In the year 1810, however, we find her introducing herself to public notice by a volume of poems. She was then only in her eighteenth year; and though she gave promise of future excellence, she would have sooner risen to fame had some friend succeeded in advising her to postpone the publication. But, deficient in point of accuracy as many of those poems are, there is yet a beauty in several of them which the most fastidious critic cannot but perceive, and the acknowledgment of which nothing but dullness or malignity could be tempted to withhold.

Her smaller poems were soon followed by one of considerable length, entitled "Christina, or the Maid of the South Seas." Not having read this poem, I can say nothing further concerning it than that it called forth the commendations of several of the periodical critics. Her powers of versification were acknowledged to be great, her descriptions, though sometimes fanciful, were generally accurate, and always interesting. The qualities of her mind, and the rich variety of her genius, were seen gradually to develope themselves; and there seemed no hesitation in predicting, that when her powers should be more expanded, and her mind more matured, she would shine conspicuous among the first poets of her age.

After the excellent review which you have given of her last poems, criticism would here be superfluous; yet I cannot help adding, that if they do not exhibit so much manly vigour, and rapid transition, as Scott — in purity of style, in refinement of sensibility, in all that genuine glow of feeling, which while it appeals to, enchains the heart, the "Narrative Poems of Miss Mitford" are greatly his superiors. I am respectfully,

Sir,

Your most ob't serv't.

X.

New-York, June 14, 1813.