1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anna Laetitia Barbauld

Sarah Josepha Hale, Woman's Record; or, Sketches of all Distinguished Women (1852; 1855) 196-98.



ANNA LETITIA BARBAULD, to whom the cause of rational education is much indebted, was the eldest child, and only daughter, of the Rev. John Aiken, D.D. She was born on the 20th of June, 1743, at Kibworth Harcourt, in Leicestershire, England, where her father was at that time master of a boys' school. From her childhood, she manifested great quickness of intellect, and her education was conducted with much care by her parents. In 1773, she was induced to publish a volume of her poems, and within the year four editions of the work were called for. And in the same year she published, in conjunction with her brother, Dr. Aiken, a volume called "Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose." In 1774, Miss Aiken married the Rev. Rochemont Barbauld, a dissenting minister, descended from a family of French Protestants. He had charge, at that time, of a congregation at Palgrave, in Suffolk, where he also opened a boarding-school for boys, the success of which is, in a great measure, to be attributed to Mrs. Barbauld's exertions. She also took several very young boys as her own entire charge, among whom were, lord Penman, afterwards Chief Justice of England, and Sir William Gell. It was for these boys that she composed her "Hymns in Prose for Children." In 1775, she published a volume entitled "Devotional Pieces, compiled from the Psalms of David," with "Thoughts on the Devotional Taste, and on Sects and Establishments;" and also her ''Early Lessons," which still stands unrivalled among children's books.

In 1786, after a tour to the continent, Mr. and Mrs. Barbauld established themselves at Hampstead, and there several tracts proceeded from the pen of our authoress on the topics of the day, in all which she espoused the principles of the Whigs.

She also assisted her father in preparing a series of tales for children, entitled "Evenings at Home," and she wrote critical essays on Akenside and Collins, prefixed to editions of their works. In 1802, Mr. Barbauld became pastor of the congregation (formerly Dr. Price's) at Newington Green, also in the vicinity of London; and, quitting Hampstead, they took up their abode in the village of Stoke Newington. In 1803, Mrs. Barbauld compiled a selection of essays from the Spectator, Tatler, and Guardian, to which she prefixed a preliminary essay; and, in the following year, she edited the correspondence of Richardson, and wrote an interesting and elegant life of the novelist. Her husband died in 1808, and Mrs. Barbauld has recorded her feelings on this melancholy event in a poetical dirge to his memory, and also in her poem of "Eighteen Hundred and Eleven." Seeking relief in literary occupation, she also edited a collection of the British novelists, published in 1810, with an introductory essay, and biographical and critical notices. After a gradual decay, this accomplished and excellent woman died on the 9th of March, 1825. Some of the lyrical pieces of Mrs. Barbauld are flowing and harmonious, and her "Ode to Spring" is a happy imitation of Collins. She wrote also several poems in blank verse, characterized by a serious tenderness and elevation of thought. "Her earliest pieces," says her niece, Miss Lucy Aiken, "as well as her more recent ones, exhibit, in their imagery and allusions, the fruits of extensive and varied reading. In youth, the power of her imagination was counterbalanced by the activity of her intellect, which exercised itself in rapid but net unprofitable excursions over almost every field of knowledge. In age, when this activity abated, imagination appeared to exert over her an undiminished sway." Charles James Fox is said to have been a great admirer of Mrs. Barbauld's songs, but they are by no means the best of her compositions, being generally artificial, and unimpassioned in their character.

Her works show great powers of mind, an ardent love of civil and religious liberty, and that genuine and practical piety which ever distinguished her character.

In many a bosom has Mrs. Barbauld, "by deep, strong, and permanent association, laid a foundation for practical devotion" in after life. In her highly poetical language, only inferior to that of Holy Writ, when "the winter is over and gone, and buds come out on the trees, the crimson blossoms of the peach and the nectarine are seen, and the green leaves sprout," what heart can be so insensible as not to join in the grand chorus of nature, and "on every hill, and in every green field, to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and the incense of praise."

With each revolving year, the simple lessens of infancy are recalled to our minds, when we watch the beautiful succession of nature, and think, "How doth every plant knew its season to put forth? They are marshalled in order; each one knoweth his place, and standeth up in his own rank."

"The snowdrop and the primrose make haste to lift their heads above the ground. When the spring cometh they say, here we are! The carnation waiteth for the full strength of the year; and the hardy laurnstinus cheereth the winter months."

Who can observe all this, and not exclaim with her, "Every field is like an open book; every painted flower hath a lessen written on its leaves.

"Every murmuring brook hath a tongue; a voice is in every whispering wind.

"They all speak of him who made them; they all tell us he is very good."

Such sentiments, instilled into the hearts of children, have power, with the blessing of God, to preserve the moral feelings pure and holy; and also to keep the love of nature and the memories of early life among the sweetest pleasures of mature life.

In a memoir written by Miss Lucy Aiken, the niece of Mrs. Barbauld, and kindred in genius as well as in blood, we find this beautiful and just description of the subject of our sketch:

"To claim for Mrs. Barbauld the praise of purity and elevation of mind may well appear superfluous. Her education and connections, the course of her life, the whole tenour other writings, bear abundant testimony to this part of her character. It is a higher, or at least a rarer commendation to add, that no one ever better loved 'a sister's praise,' even that of such sisters as might have been peculiarly regarded in the light of rivals. She was acquainted with almost all the principal female writers of her time; and there was not one of the number whom she failed frequently to mention in terms of admiration, esteem or affection, whether in conversation, in letters to her friends, or in print. To humbler aspirants in the career of letters, who often applied to her for advice or assistance, she was invariably courteous, and in many instances essentially serviceable. The sight of youth and beauty was peculiarly gratifying to her fancy and her feelings; and children and young persons, especially females, were accordingly large sharers in her benevolence: she loved their society, and would often invite them to pass weeks or months in her house, when she spared no pains to amuse and instruct them; and she seldom failed, after they had quitted her, to recall herself from time to time to their recollection, by affectionate and playful letters, or welcome presents.

"In the conjugal relation, her conduct was guided by the highest principles of love and duty. As a sister, the uninterrupted flow of her affection, manifested by numberless tokens of love, — not alone to her brother, but to every member of his family, — will ever be recalled by them with emotions of tenderness, respect, and gratitude. She passed through a long life without having dropped, it is said, a single friend."

Since the decease of Mrs. Barbauld, her productions have been collected, published in three volumes, and circulated widely both in England and the United States. Some of the prose articles are of extraordinary merit; the one which we here insert ["On Education"], has rarely been excelled for originality of thought and vigour of expression. Its sentiments will never become obsolete, nor its truths lose their value.