1787 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Helen Maria Williams

Anna Seward to Helen Maria Williams, 25 December 1787; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 1:390-99.



Lichfield, Dec. 25, 1787.

I am glad you like my friend Colonel Barry. He has genius, literature, and an high sense of military honour. The laurel and the bays are entwined around his brow. It is singular that he should have succeeded Major Andre as Adjutant-General to our armies in America; and that both these young soldiers should, at different times, have found the charms of Honora Sneyd so transcendant and impressive, as to have prevented any other attachment capable of extinguishing the impassioned recollection of her. Within these three years, Colonel Barry assured me, that she was the only woman be had ever seriously loved; that he never beheld a being in whom the blended charms of mind and person, could approach the lustre of those which glowed in the air, the look, the smile, the glance, and the eloquence of Honora Sneyd. Judge you, who know the idolatry of my spirit on that theme, how Colonel Barry must have engaged my regard, by exhibiting, in himself, a second proof of constancy, so rare in these gross times, to my Madam de Grignan, — now mouldering in the tomb, but surviving, in my memory, with all her matchless endowments, graces, and virtues.

Yea, it is very true, on the evening he mentioned to you, when Mrs. Piozzi honoured this roof, Colonel Barry's conversation greatly contributed to its Attic spirit. Till that day, 1 had never conversed with her. There has been no exaggeration, there could be none, in the description given you of Mrs. Piozzi's talents for conversation; at least in the powers of classic allusion and brilliant wit. Comic humour, and declamatory eloquence are Mrs. Knowles's fort, and in them she is unrivalled. I speak of our sex, for in wit and classic spirit, who may transcend Mr. Hayley?

When Mrs. Piozzi and I met the next morning, we agreed, that if Colonel Barry was a little less sententious, he would be divine.

I have been attacked with some virulence, and an abundance of absurd sophistry, in the Gentleman's Magazine for July 1787, about my letters on Johnson, signed Benvolio. I replied in the next number, page 684. The answer to that reply, in the November number, is too feebly and evidently sophistical, to be worth any farther notice.

Johnson's uncandid and intolerant bluster against the Dissenters has made every proud High Priest his idolater — and champion. Whoever, therefore, speaks impartially of him,

—Calls up a pitchy cloud
Of locusts, warping on the funeral winds,
That o'er Great Johnson's glaring errors bang
Like night, and darken all the rays of truth.

You will easily procure, from Mr. Whalley an introduction to Mrs. Piozzi. It will delight you to hear with what energy she speaks of her Egyptian bondage to the arbitrary despot. Scarcely was it less severe for having been voluntary. What a recompense did the ingrate make her after her marriage, for the devotion of her fortune, her health, her peace, to prevent every want, every wish of his! To a benevolent and cheerful temper like hers, most oppressive must have been his habitual malignancy, when resident under her roof. Perhaps she knows not the opprobrious terms in which he abused her for a connection, which, however it might lessen her consequence with the world, was clear' from every stain of criminality towards God and towards man. He spoke of her in company here, as a being without veracity, or worth of any kind; even she, Mrs. Thale! whom he tells, in his letters to her, after many year's intimacy, and daily intercourse, "that to hear her was to hear wisdom; to see her was to see virtue!"

No, indeed, I quarrel not with Burns for his high Scotch; so far from it, that all my favourite parts of his compositions are in the broad Caledonian dialect. It is when be writes in English that his imagination flags and dwindles into ill-judged plagarism. Pope stole immensely, but his thefts were from obscure English poets of earlier times, whose embryo-ideas he finished up into perfect shape, and breathed over them that warm glow of colouring, that rich harmony and luminous perspicuity, that none knew better how to impart. It is unfortunate to see in Burns such depredation as the following, made upon the very fine and popular song in Shakespeare's As You Like It.

Blow, blow, ye winds, with heavier gust,
And freeze thou bitter biting frost!
Descend, ye chilly smothering snows!
Not all your rage, uniting, shews
Such hard unkindness unrelenting,
Vengeful malice unrepenting,
That Heaven-illumin'd man on brother man bestows.

Here is assuredly the most bare-faced theft, and the most sickening inferiority to the plundered lines!

To be sure, I do think his Epistle to Davy, and his Ode to Despondency, the most dissonant jingles that ever tortured the ear; and I marvel much, that he could prostitute his great genius to long uninteresting descriptions of vulgar superstition, in his poem, the Hallowe'en. Not one of the frolic or terrible graces preside over that odd composition.

I feel very much, as you do, about the Yearsley and the Burns. They are both miracles. His imagination is more luxuriant; and if it has more weeds, it has also more flowers, and some of them are most beautifully and originally tinted. Perhaps she has more depth and strength of thought; but I much oftener, and shall continue much oftener to look into his works than to her's, for they have sweeter poetic witchery. His Vision; the descriptive part of The Winter's Night, for the sentimental part is trite; the dear Brigs of Ayr; the Cottager's Saturday Night; the Mouse; and the Mountain Daisy, enchant me.

It would here be injustice to Lactilla not to observe, that her poem On the Sudden Death of an Amiable Lady is original and finely imagined. Her Address to Friendship is spirited and new, upon a very hackneyed theme, and it strongly paints the jealous and gloomy energy of her mind:

My soul's ambitions, and its utmost stretch
Wou'd be to own a friend; but that's denied.
Now at the bold avowal gaze, ye eyes,
That kindly melted at my woe-fraught tale!
Start back Benevolence, and shun the charge,
Ungrateful as it seems! My abject fate
Excites the willing hand of Charity,
The momentary sigh, the pitying tear,
To misery so kind. Yet not to you,
Bounty, or Charity, or Mercy mild,
The pensive thought applies fair Friendship's name;
That name which never did, or can exist
But in equality.

When I first read that passage, surely very finely written; white all was yet apparent amity between Lactilla and her patroness, Miss More, I exclaimed to the person to whom I was reading it, Ah Yearsley! thou hast a proud and jealous spirit, of the Johnsonian cast. It will be difficult to oblige thee, without cancelling the obligation by the manner of conferring it.

Ere I quit the subject of new-risen genius in our art, let me speak to you of the most amiable poem I have read this many a day. I should like much to converse with the youthful author. It is the junior Mr. Hoole's poem, The Curate, that I mean. His description of the ceremony of ordination is charming. The subject is new, in verse, and well becomes the chaste poetic colouring he has thrown upon it. My heart went with his Edward, on his journey home. I saw the top of Snowdon in imagination, with a glow of sympathetic pleasure from the soft domestic source. Soon was this pleasure extinguished in commiserating tears.

Nothing can be more sweet and pathetic than the egotism in the opening of this poem.

But the lovely landscape of his parsonage in the country; how one longs to go and dine with him! From want of time, I must repress the inclination I feel to point out the numerous passages in this poem which have delighted me, while with every part I was at least pleased and satisfied. This work is the mild green of poetic writing on which the eye is gratified to dwell, without being dazzled.

With the father of this young bard, the ingenious translator of Ariosto, I had once the pleasure of passing an evening at your house.

The genius of such a youth must give to such a father no common degree of delight,

When to the inn, exulting, he unfolds
His plumes, that with paternal colours glow.

The happiness which results to me from reflecting upon these white specks in the destiny of others, is amongst the dearest of my pleasures. It makes the blessings of my acquaintance my own. Time, as yet, has nothing weakened its force.

Does Mr. Hardinge write to you incessantly? His wit is brilliant, his genius considerable; but he is the most decisive, and the oftenest mistaken critic I know, his fine abilities considered. He praises your epistolary talent, and says he loves to encourage you in it. I took the liberty of observing, in my reply, that if he exacted of you the very frequent intercourse in which he strives to engage me, he would do you injury; intreated him to reflect, that an author's time was his or her source of profit and of fame; that where talents exist, capable of engaging the attention of the public, it was deplorable extravagance to turn them almost all into the covert channel of private letters.

I protest to you his everlasting anathemas upon words, phrases, and usages of style, which are justified by the habitual practice of our finest writers, hectic me past bearing. I have great honour for his talents, his liberality, the energy of his exertions to serve the ingenious, and the unfortunate; but I shall never be able long to continue our correspondence, since he will have it to be incessant. I have neither his leisure nor his facility. By the way, whence comes it, that a man so eminent, and so high in the law, a senator, an orator, a counsellor, and a judge, should have so much leisure? As it was said of poor Chatterton, I fancy he never sleeps.

Do you know Mr. Christie, from Edinburgh? A young physician, and a rising light in the philosophic and classic spheres, or I am much mistaken.

Adieu! — You will be glad to hear that no storms of pain or present danger agitate the venerable cradle I am rocking.