A history of female literature is much wanted, to complete the general stock of elegant and useful biography. In such a constellation, the number of British names would be great and splendid, to a degree far surpassing what could be boasted by any other country, either ancient or modern. Many years ago, the honest and industrious antiquary, George Ballard, printed a small quarto, at Oxford, with the title of "The Lives of the Learned Ladies of Great Britain;" but valuable as the book is, its errors and deficiencies are considerable. Since his time, several of our fair countrywomen have attained a high station in the temple of fame, by their literary accomplishments; such as Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, Miss Elizabeth Smith, Mrs. Montague, and many now living. In this galaxy shone, for a long period with undiminished lustre, Anna Letitia Barbauld; and so long as letters shall be cultivated in Britain, or wherever the English language shall be known, so long will the name of this lady be respected.
She was the eldest of the two children of the Rev. Dr. John Aikin, a dissenting minister at Kibworth, in Leicestershire, and was born there June 20th, 1743. Her mother was the daughter of the Rev. John Jennings, well known as the friend of Watts and Doddridge, and the author of a practical treatise upon "Evangelical Preaching;" to which the former eminent writer gave a recommendatory preface. Her education was entirely domestic, and was principally superintended by her father, who, perceiving her aptitude for learning, took great pleasure in imbuing her mind with classical instruction. Dr. Aikin at that time kept a respectable boarding-school, but in 1756 he removed to Warrington, in Lancashire, where he became principal of the dissenting academy. at that place. There Anna, as well as her brother, the late Dr. John Aikin, profited greatly by the enlarged circle of literary and philosophical acquaintance which that situation afforded. But though Miss Aikin evinced proofs of a poetical genius at a very early age, she sent none of her productions into the world till she was near thirty, when a small volume of her poems was printed at Warrington, and dedicated to her estimable friend, the Lady Mary West. This publication within a few months passed through three editions, and commanded, as it deserved, the admiration of the critics. The variety of its contents displayed the versatility of the writer, and the equal ease with which she could manage gay and serious, humorous and, sublime subjects. The first in blank verse, entitled "Corsica" Written in 1769, is highly dignified, and much in the manner of Thomson.
How raptur'd fancy burns, while warm in thought
I trace the pictur'd landscape: while I kiss,
With pilgrim lips devout, the sacred soil,
Stain'd with the blood of heroes. CYRNUS, hail!
Hail to thy rocky, deep indented shores,
And pointed cliffs, which bear the chafing deep
Incessant foaming round their shaggy sides.
Hail to thy winding bays, thy sheltering ports
And ample harbours, which inviting stretch
Their hospitable arms to every sail;
Thy numerous streams, that bursting from the cliffs,
Down the steep-channel'd rock, impetuous pour
With grateful murmur; on, the fearful edge
Of the rude precipice, thy hamlets brown,
And straw-roof'd cots, which from the level vale
Scarce seen, amongst the craggy hanging cliffs,
Seem, like an eagle's nest, aerial built.
Thy swelling mountains, brown with solemn shade
Of various trees, that wave their giant arms
O'er the rough sons of freedom; lofty pines,
And hardy fir, and ilex ever green,
And spreading chesnut, with each humbler plant,
And shrub or fragrant leaf, that clothe their sides
With living verdure; whence the clust'ring bee
Extracts her golden dews: the shining box
And sweet-leav'd myrtle, aromatic thyme,
The prickly juniper, and the green leaf
Which feeds the. spitining worm; while glowing bright
Beneath the various foliage, wildly spreads
The arbutus, and rears his scarlet fruit
Luxuriant, mantling o'er the craggy steeps;
And thy own native laurel crowns the scene.
Hail to thy savage forests, awful, deep;
Thy tangled thickets, and thy crowded woods,
The haunt of herds untam'd; which sullen bound
From rock to rock with fierce unsocial air
And wilder gaze, as conscious of the power
That loves to reign amid the lonely scenes
Of unbroke nature; precipices huge,
And tumbling torrents; trackless deserts, plains
Fenc'd in with guardian rocks, whose quarries teem
With shining steel, that to the cultur'd fields,
And sunny hills, which wave with bearded grain,
Defends their homely produce.
The fair author then proceeds to celebrate the struggle of the Corsicans for independence; but after dwelling upon this animating theme with rapture, the muse suddenly breaks off, to mourn the iron fate of the intrepid islanders, who had been doomed to bend under the yoke of despotism. This melancholy event is thus happily figured;
So strives the moon In dubious battle with the gathering clouds,
And strikes a splendour through them; till at length,
Storms roll'd on storms involve the face of heaven,—
And quench her struggling fires.
This collection of poetical effusions was followed, in 1773, by a volume entitled, "Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose," the joint production of Miss Aikin and her Brother. The essays written by the former, are, "The Hill of Science; — on Romances; — Selama, in Imitation of Ossian; — Against Inconsistency in our Expectations; — On Monastic Institutions; — On the Pleasure derived from Objects of Terror; — and an Inquiry into those kinds of Distress which excite agreeable Sensations."
In 1774, Miss Aikin became the wife of the Rev. Rochemont Barbauld, who was about four years younger than herself. This gentleman was descended from a French protestant family, which came into England in consequence of the revocation of the edict of Nantes. The father of Mr. Barbauld was a respectable clergyman of the established church, beneficed at Palgrave, in Suffolk; and his son was also educated with a view to the ministry, in the same communion. Having, however, in the course of his studies, imbibed some sentiments repugnant to the thirty-nine articles of religion, he conscientiously declined subscription, and the advantages that would probably have resulted from conformity. He then became a student in the academy at Warrington, and there formed that attachment to the daughter of his tutor, which ended in a matrimonial union. For some time after this, Mr. Barbauld officiated as a dissenting minister at his native place, where also he kept an academy, in which he was materially assisted by his highly accomplished lady. In 1785 they left Palgrave, and went to the continent, where Mr. Barbauld had some relatives and property. On their return, they settled at Hampstead, and in 1802 removed to Stoke Newington, that they might be near their friends, Dr. Aikin and his family. Here Mr. Barbauld continued to minister to a small congregation of dissenters, till an aberration of the mental faculties terminated his pastoral usefulness, and in that state he died, in December, 1808.
We now resume the literary history of Mrs. Barbauld, who, in 1775, published "Devotional Pieces compiled from the Psalms of David, and the Book of Job; to which are prefixed, Thoughts on the Devotional Taste, on Sects, and on Establishments." Her next publications were, "Lessons for Children from two to three years old;" and "Hymns in Prose, for Children;" two little books, of which it is sufficient to say, that they attracted the notice and called forth the praise of the great Johnson, who was struck with this voluntary descent from possible splendour to painful duty. In this honourable career of instruction, Mrs. Barbauld led the way to some other accomplished women, particularly Mrs. Trimmer, who, on publishing her "Little Spelling Book for Children," acknowledged how much she was indebted to the example of her amiable precursor. Mrs. Trimmer, however, descended a step lower than Mrs. Barbauld, in order to lead infant minds gradually from the alphabet to the division of words into syllables. "I do not mean," says she, "that Mrs. Barbauld has done too little, for whoever considers her rank in the literary world must wonder that she has done so much."
A period of nine years elapsed between these publications, and the next appearance of Mrs. Barbauld before the world, and then she attracted very little notice. The struggle made by the protestant dissenters in 1790, for a repeal of the corporation and test acts, drew a vast number of pamphleteers into the field of controversy; and many ingenious tracts were printed on both sides. At any other time, perhaps, the subject would not have kindled so much animosity as it did in the present instance, when the French revolution gave the question at issue more than ordinary interest. It is a curious fact, that some of the old and orthodox dissenters, on this occasion, either kept themselves neutral, or appeared directly hostile to the petitioners for the repeal. In consequence of this schism, if the difference may be so called, Mrs. Barbauld addressed a "Letter to the opponents of the Repeal;" in which she canvassed the offensive acts with considerable ability, and treated the defenders of them with sarcastic severity.
A short time after this, her pen was employed on a topic more suited to its powers, in "A Poetic Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. on the Rejection of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade." This vigorous and pathetic performance had scarcely issued from the press, when another subject excited the zeal of the fair authoress. That extraordinary man, Gilbert Wakefield, having drawn general attention to a piece, in which ho asserted that Christians are not bound to attend any public worship, and that, in fact, the setting apart places for such a service, or a set of men to conduct it, is repugnant to religious liberty, gave great offence even to his warmest admirers and oldest friends, among whom was Mrs. Barbauld, who had contracted an intimacy with him when he was a tutor in the academy at Warrington. Shocked at a position which, in her opinion, tended, by the subversion of social piety, to impede the moral improvement of mankind, she felt it her incumbent duty to repel the poison by a remonstrance; but it is painful to reflect, that, instead of producing a conviction in the mind of Mr. Wakefield, it had the contrary effect, and Mrs. Barbauld found that she lost a friend by her judicious and temperate "Reflections on the Enquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public or Social Worship."
The biographer of Mr. Wakefield has said, with what propriety we shall not stop to examine, that the "basis of his divinity was philology;" and there is reason enough to believe, that having made classical literature his study, he held cheap every other kind of knowledge. We are then told that "in the progress of his speculations, he had been led to form notions concerning the expediency and propriety of public worship, extremely different from those of every body of Christians, whether insects or establishments; and as he was incapable of thinking one thing and practising another, he had sufficiently made known his sentiments on this subject, as well in conversation, as by abstaining from attendance upon every place of religious assembly. They who were well acquainted with him, knew that, in his own breast, piety was one of the most predominant affections; but the assembling for social worship had, for so many ages, been regarded as the most powerful instrument for the support of general religion, that to discourage it was considered as of dangerous example, especially in a person engaged in the education of youth." Mr. Wakefield was, at this period of his life, classical tutor in the dissenting college at Hackney, but, as the publication of his sentiments was in direct opposition to the very nature of that institution, and tended to subvert all foundations of a similar kind, his dismissal from the situation naturally took place. Besides this, he lost, on account of his very singular opinions, the only two private pupils which he had any reason to expect would have been continued under his care.
Perhaps a stronger instance of the necessity of social religion could not be adduced than in the history of this very learned man. That he was upright in his principles, and free from vice, cannot be called in question; but his high attainments only made him insufferably vain and dogmatical; and his moral system was stoicism bordering upon gloomy misanthropy. Whatever notion he took up and it was generally in a sudden manner, he asserted boldly, and persevered in it the more vehemently, when it ran counter to the commonly received sentiments of mankind. Thus,
Stiff in opinion, always in the wrong,
Wakefield, with great talents that might have been useful, passed through life an object of general notice, without commanding respect or attracting esteem.
To return to the more particular subject of this sketch. The French revolution seems to have excited a lively interest in the mind of Mrs. Barbauld, and to have operated, at the time, rather more strongly upon her feelings than might have been expected in a person of her judgment. The manner in which she communicated her opinions, on this subject, to the world, was, however, rather extraordinary. It was in the form of a sermon, with the following title, "Sins of the Government, Sins of the Nation; or a Discourse for the Fast appointed on April 19th, 1793. By a Volunteer." The text of this curious oration is of a very indefinite nature, and might apply to a vast variety of topics. It is Deut. xxix. 10. "Ye stand this day, all of you, before the Lord." The essay is rather of a political than theological character, and exhibits, throughout, the admiration in which the ingenious writer regarded the great change that had recently taken place on the continent. The following passage, however, in the tract, is of a better description than the rest, and is, at all times, well worthy the consideration of persons who suffer themselves to be influenced by the spirit of party. "You who have, on this occasion, given warm and unqualified declarations of attachment to the existing system, you have done well. — You, who have denounced abuses, and declared your wishes for reform, you have done well likewise, provided each of you has acted from the sincere, unbiassed conviction of his own mind. But if you have done it lightly, and without judgment, you have done ill; — if against judgment, worse; — if by any improper influence you have interfered with the liberty of your neighbour or your dependant, and caused him to act against his judgment and his conscience, worse still. If the ferment of society has stirred up a spirit of rancour and animosity among friends and townsmen, or introduced the poison of distrust amidst the freedom and security of social life, we stand this day before the Lord; and if our brother bath ought against us,'let us go first, and be reconciled to our brother, and then conic and offer our gift.'"
Another performance written by Mrs. Barbauld, at this period, we shall here give entire, as a happy specimen of her genius for delicate satire and allegorical composition. It was thrown upon the world without a name; and of those who may have already read it, few, if any, have suspected to whom they were indebted for the entertainment which this jeu d'esprit afforded.
Dialogue between Madam Cosmogonia and a Philosophical Enquirer of the 18th century.
January 1, 1793.
E. I rejoice, my good madam, to see you. You bear your years extremely well. You really look as fresh and blooming this morning, as if you were but just out of your leading-strings, and yet you have, I forget how many centuries, upon your shoulders.
C. Do not you know, son, that people of my standing are by no means fond of being too nicely questioned about their years? Besides, my age is a point by no means agreed upon.
E. I thought it was set down in the church register?
C. That is true; but every body does not go by your register. The people who live eastward of us, and have sold tea time out of mind, by the Great Wall, say I am older by a vast deal; and that long before the time when your people pretend I was born, I had near as much wisdom and learning as I have now.
E. I do not know how that matter might be; one thing I am certain of, that you did not know your letters then; and every body knows that these tea-dealers, who are very vain, and want to go higher than any body else for the antiquity of their family, are noted for lying.
C. On the other hand, old ISAAC, the great chronicler, who was so famous for casting a figure, used to say, that the register itself had been altered, and that he could prove I was much younger than you have really reckoned me to be. It may be so; for my part, I cannot be supposed to remember so far back. I could not write in my early youth, and it was a long time before I had a pocket almanack to set down all occurrences in, and the ages of my children, as I do now.
E. Well: your exact age is not so material; but there is one point, which I confess I wish much to ascertain. I have often heard it asserted, that as you increase in years, you grow wiser and better; and that you are, at this moment, more candid, more liberal, a better manager of your affairs, and, in short, more amiable in every respect, than ever you were in the whole course of your life; and others, — you will excuse me, madam, — pretend that you are almost in your dotage, that you grow more intolerable every year you live; and that, whereas, in your childhood you were a sprightly innocent young creature, that rose with the lark, and lay down with the lamb, and thought or said no harm of any one; you are become suspicious, selfish, interested, fond of nothing but indulging your appetites, and continually setting your own children together by the ears for straws. Now, I should like to know where the truth lies?
C. As to that, I am, perhaps, too nearly concerned to answer you properly. I will, therefore, only observe, that I do not remember the time when I have not heard exactly the same contradictory assertions.
E. I believe the best way to determine the question will be by facts. Pray be so good as to tell me how you have employed yourself in the different periods of your life: from the earliest time you can remember, for instance?
C. I have a very confused remembrance of living in a pleasant garden, full of fruit, and of being turned out because I had violated the injunctions that were laid upon me. After that, I became so very naughty that I got a severe ducking, and was in great danger of being drowned.
E. A hopeful beginning, I must allow! Pray what was the first piece of work you recollect being engaged in?
C. I remember setting myself to build a prodigious high house of cards, which I childishly thought I could raise up to the very skies. I piled them up very high, and at last left off in the middle, and had my tongue slit for being so self-conceited. Afterwards, I baked dirt in the sun, and resolved to make something very magnificent, I hardly knew what; so I built a great many mounds in the form of sugar-loaves, very broad at bottom and pointed at top. They took me a great many years to make, and were fit for no earthly purpose when they were done. They are still to be seen; if you choose to take the trouble of going so far. Travellers call them my FOLLY.
E. Pray what studies took your attention when you first began to learn?
C. At first, I amused myself, as all children do, with pictures; and drew, or rather attempted to draw figures of lions and serpents, and men with the heads of animals, and women with fishes' tails; to all which I affixed a meaning often whimsical enough. Many of these my first scratches, are still to be seen upon old walls and stones, and have greatly exercised the ingenuity of the curious to find out what I could possibly mean by them Afterwards, when I had learned to read, I was wonderfully entertained with stories of giants, griffins, and mermaids; and men and women turned' into trees, and horses that spoke, and of an old man that used to eat up his children, till his wife deceived him by giving him a stone to eat, instead of one of them; and of a conjuror that tied up the wind in bags, and—
E. Hold, hold, my good madam; you have given me a very sufficient proof of that propensity to the marvellous — which I have always remarked in you. I suppose, however, you soon grew too old for such nursery stories as these.
C. On the contrary, I amused myself with putting them into verse, and had them sung to me on holidays; and, at this very day, I make a point of teaching them to all my children, in whose education I take any pains.
E. I think I should rather whip them for employing their time so idly. I hope, at least, these pretty stories kept you out of mischief?
C. I cannot say they did; I never was without a scratched face, or a bloody nose, at any period I can remember.
E. Very promising dispositions truly?
C. My amusements were not all so mischievous. I was very fond of stargazing, and telling fortunes, and trying a thousand tricks for good luck, many of which have made such an impression on my mind, that I remember them even to this day.
E. I hope, however, your reading was not all of the kind you have mentioned?
C. No. It was at some very famous races, which were held every four years for my diversion, and which I always made a point to be at, that a man once came upon the race-ground, and read a history book aloud to the whole company; there were, to be sure, a number of stories in it not greatly better than those I have been telling you; however, from that time I began to take to more serious learning, and likewise to reckon and date all my accounts by these races, which, as I told you, I was very fond of.
E. I think you afterwards went to school, and learnt philosophy and mathematics?
C. I did so. I had a great many famous masters.
E. Were you a teachable scholar?
C. One of my masters used always to weep when he saw me; another used always to burst into a fit of laughter. I leave you to guess what they thought of me.
E. Pray what did you do, when you were in middle age? That is usually esteemed the most valuable part of life.
C. I somehow got shut up in a dark cell, where I took a long nap.
E. And after you waked
C. I fell a disputing with all my might.
E. What were the subjects that interested you so much?
E. Pray let us have a specimen?
C. Whether the light of Tabor was created or uncreated; whether one be a number; whether men should cross themselves with two fingers or with three; whether the creation was finished in six days, because it is the most perfect number; or whether six is the most perfect number, because the creation was finished in six days; whether two and one make three, or only one.
E. And pray, what may be your opinion of this last proposition particularly?
C. I have by no means made up my mind about it; in another century, perhaps, I may be able to decide upon the point.
E. These debates of yours had one advantage, however; you could not possibly put yourself in a passion, on such kind of subjects.
C. There you are very much mistaken. I was constantly in a passion upon one or other of them; and if my opponent did not agree with me, my constant practice was to knock him down, even if it were in the church. I have the happiness of being able to interest myself in the most indifferent question, as soon as I am contradicted upon it. I can make a very good dispute, out of the question whether the preference be due to blue or green, in the colours of a jockey's cap; and would desire no better cause of quarrel than whether a person's name should be spelt with C, with Q, or with K.
E. These constant disputes must have had a very bad effect on your younger children. How do you hope ever to have a quiet house?
C. And yet, I do assure you, there is no one point that I have laboured more than that important one of family harmony.
C. Yes; for the sake of that order and unanimity which have always been dear to me, I have constantly insisted, that all my children should sneeze and blow their noses at the same time, and in the same manner.
E. May I presume to ask the reason of this injunction?
C. Is it possible you do not see the extreme danger, as well as indecorum, of suffering every one to blow his nose his own way? Could you trust any one with the keys of your offices, who sneezed to the right when other people sneezed to the left; or to the left, when they sneezed to the right?
E. I confess, I am rather dull in discerning the inconvenience that would ensue; but pray have you been able to accomplish this desirable uniformity?
C. I acknowledge I have not; and indeed, I have met with so much obstinate resistance to this my wise regulation, that, to tell you the truth, I am almost on the point of giving it up. You would hardly believe the perverseness my children have shewn on the occasion; blowing their noses, locked up in their rooms, or in dark corners about the house, in every possible way; so that, in short, on pretence of colds, tender noses, or want of pocket handkerchiefs, or one plea or another, I have been obliged to tolerate the uncomplying, very much against my will. However, I contrived to shew my disapprobation, at least, of such scandalous irregularities, by never saying, God bless you, if a person sneezes in the family contrary to established rule.
E. I am glad, at least, you are, in this respect, got a little nearer to common sense. As you seem to have been of so imperious a disposition, I hope you were not trusted with any mischievous weapons?
C. At first I used to fight with clubs and stones; afterwards with other weapons; but, at length, I contrived to get at gunpowder, and then I did glorious mischief.
E. Pray had you never any body who taught you better?
C. Yes, several wise men, from time to time, attempted to mend my manners, and reform me, as they called it.
E. And how did you behave to them?
C. Some I hunted about; some I poisoned; some I contrived to have thrown into prison; some I made bonfires of; others I only laughed at. It was but the other day, that one of them wanted to give me some hints for the better regulation of my family, upon which I pulled his house down. I was often, however, the better for the lesson, though the teacher had seldom the pleasure of seeing it.
E. I have heard it said you are very partial to your children, that you pamper some, and starve others. Pray who are your favourites?
C. Generally those who do the most mischief.
E. Had you not once a great favourite, called Louis, whom you used to style the immortal man?
C. I had so. I was continually repeating his name. I set up a great number of statues to him, and ordered that every one should pull off his hat to them as he went by.
E. And what has become of them now?
C. The other day, in a fit of spleen, I kicked them all down again.
E. I think I have read, that you were once much under the influence of an old man. with a high-crowned hat, and a bunch of keys by his side?
C. It is true. He used to frighten me by setting his arms a-kimbo, and swearing most terribly; besides which, he was always threatening to put me in a dark-hole, if I did not do as he would have me. He has conjured many pence out of my pocket, I assure you; and he used to make me believe the strangest stories! But I have now pretty nearly done with him; he dares not speak so big as he used to do; hardly a shoe-black will pull off his hat to him now; it is even as much as he can do to keep his own tight upon his head; nay, I have been assured, that the next high wind will certainly blow it off.
E. You must doubtless have made great advances in the art of reasoning, from the various lights and experiments of modern times: pray what was the last philosophical study that engaged your attention?
C. One of the last was a system of quackery, called Animal Magnetism.
E. And what in theology?
C. A system of quackery, called Swedenborgianism.
E. And pray what are you doing at this moment?
C. I am going to turn over quite a new leaf. I am singing, Ca Ira.
E. I do not know whether you are going to turn over a new leaf or no, but I am sure, from this account, it is high time you should. All I can say is, that, if I cannot mend you, I will endeavour to take care you do not spoil me; and, one thing more, that I wish you would lay your commands on Miss Burney, to write a new novel, and make you laugh.
In 1795, we meet with Mrs. Barbauld in the walk of criticism, as the editor of Akenside's "Pleasures of Imagination," to which she prefixed an essay, written in a vigorous style, and evincing as much philosophical acuteness as true poetical taste.
This edition of Akenside was followed, soon after, by one, in a similar form, of the entire poems of Collins; the introductory say, prefixed to which, is entitled to a still greater share of praise, for the power of mind and delicacy of sentiment displayed in it.
An enterprising publisher having, in 1804 purchased of the heirs of Samuel Richardson, the novelist, the manuscript collections of that ingenious writer, applied to Mrs. Barbauld, to make such a selection from the mass of correspondence, as might be fit for the public eye. This task she performed in a very satisfactory manner; and enriched the collection with a critical disquisition on the literary character of Richardson. The ability evinced in this performance, induced the body of booksellers, some years afterwards, to commit the superintendence of an uniform edition of the principal English novels to the care of Mrs. Barbauld, who introduced the works of each writer by an essay, that shewed the vigorous powers of her mind, and the sensibility of her feelings. Another compilation, which did credit to her judgment, was a "Selection from the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian." Besides which, she rendered a service to the young of her own sex, in a volume, entitled "The Female Speaker."
In 1812, she appeared once more before the public as a votary of the muses, in a poem, to which she gave the name of "Eighteen Hundred and Eleven;" but, though it had much of the strength of Dryden, and somewhat of the harmony of Pope, it failed to interest the admirers of the tuneful art, probably because a new generation of versifiers had created another fashion in literature. Mrs. Barbauld, besides these performances, wrote some pieces for the Athenaeum, a periodical work, which was conducted, for some time, by her brother; and she also communicated to his little volumes, entitled "Evenings at Home," several excellent papers.
In her prime, Mrs. Barbauld was rather agreeable than handsome; but there was a suavity in her demeanour which rendered her company delightful; and the charm of her conversation reminded those who were intimately acquainted with her, of the picture which she drew of one of her female friends:
Of gentle manners and of taste refin'd,
With all the graces of a polish'd mind;
Clear sense and truth still shone in all she spoke,
And from her lips no idle sentence broke;
Each nicer elegance of art she knew,
Correctly fair, and regularly true.
After a long, useful, and innocent life, this accomplished lady died at Stoke Newington, March 9th, 1825.