1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anna Laetitia Barbauld

Margaret Oliphant, in The Literary History of England (1882) 2:335-36; 42-43.



She was born in 1757, Anna Letitia Aikin, and her father's life was chiefly spent at the head of a theological academy for dissenting students, established at Warrington. Of the professors there, the famous Dr. Priestly was one, and Gilbert Wakefield, afterwards convicted after the pleasant fashion of the time for sedition, in consequence of a political pamphlet, another; so that it is evident the little community was of advanced views. Dr. Aikin was the theological tutor of his academy. He held some "obscure notions," according to Priestly, upon the doctrine of the Atonement, but was an Arian like the rest. The Nonconformity of the time, at least in its most cultivated and intellectual circles, was everywhere strongly inclined to Unitarianism. They made a lively little community of their own, the distinct colour of the Nonconformist party of which it consisted giving an amusing and characteristic variety to the type. The Professor's daughter was a beautiful and sprightly girl, of a fine spirit, and full of activity and life. There is a story of her sudden escape, by climbing a tree, from the anxious suit of a rustic lover. The tree grew against the garden wall, and the alarmed young lady swung herself over into the lane beyond, leaving her suiter "plante la." "He lived and died a bachelor," adds the record; "and though he was never known to purchase any other book whatever, the works of Mrs. Barbauld, splendidly bound, adorned his parlour to the end of his days." It might have been well for the girl if she had been content with the faithful farmer, and not gone farther and fared worse....

She is one of the most attractive figures of her age. Her little Lessons will commend themselves to everybody who loves childhood — and she is one of the writers, who, apart from all other claims upon our recollection, has won a tender immortality by one stanza of exquisite and genuine feeling such as finds an echo in most human breasts. It is best that the reader who probably knows this should have it in the setting given it by Crabb Robinson, and hear what great voice it was that confirmed its title to the skies.

"It was after her death that Lucy Aikin published Mrs. Barbauld's collected works, of which I gave a copy to Miss Wordsworth. Among the poems is a stanza to Life, written in extreme old age. It was long after I gave these works to Miss Wordsworth that her brother said, 'Repeat me that stanza by Mrs. Barbauld.' I did so. He made me repeat it again. And so he learnt it by heart. He was at the time walking in his sitting-room at Rydal, with his hands behind him; and I heard him mutter to himself, 'I am not in the habit of grudging people their good things, but I wish I had written those lines'—

Life! we've been long together,
Through pleasant and through cloudy weather;
'Tis hard to part when friends are dear,
Perhaps 'twill cost a sigh, a tear,
Then steal away, give little warning,
Choose thine own time ;
Say not good night, but in some happier clime
Bid me good morning."

Mrs. Barbauld's family was full of literature — but as so often happens when one of an attached kindred attains eminence, the work of the rest is of a nature to encourage the suspicion that it never would have come into being but for the existence of one person of genius among a number of intelligent followers. Miss Lucy Aikin, her niece, wrote her biography, with an old-fashioned formality which must have been antiquated in her own day, but which now is pleasant like Chippendale furniture and blue china — and was besides the author of various historical compilations. This lady's brothers produced some scientific work, carrying out, as the family biographer says, the family vocation. Thus, as in so many cases, the clear little stream of genius dwindled and lost itself among the sands.