1781
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ode to Ignorance; in imitation of Spencer. ["Knowledge, a Poem."]

Poetical Amusements at a Villa near Bath. Printed for the Pauper-Charity in that City. Vol. IV.

Anna Seward


Six (later five) Spenserians, consisting of mazy musings on the the theme of nature and nurture: "Youth is Life's spring, the seed-time when the mind | Fosters each new idea planted there; | If we neglect to sow the grain refin'd, | No future pains can raise a harvest fair." It is possible, given its subject of eduction, that the poem is a response to James Beattie's The Minstrel. The Ode to Ignorance (signed "Miss Seward") appears much revised in Seward's posthumous Poetical Works under the title "Knowledge, a Poem in the Manner of Spencer." It has been dated as early as 1765, which seems unlikely given its appearance in this volume of society verse assembled by Lady Miller.

In a letter to Henry Francis Cary, Anna Seward confessed that she had never seriously read Spenser before working through Todd's edition: "I never liked that poet, but now, by intimacy, like him worse than ever. To me there is little genius in the fabrication of such hobgoblin tales. I am wholly at a loss to guess what has procured for Spencer the high place he holds amongst our classics" 8 August 1805; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 6:229.

Critical Review: "we are happy to find the celebrated Mr. Ansty, the reverend Mr. Graves, the very ingenious Miss Seward, Mr. Pratt, Mr. Potter, and Mr. Hayley, all favourites of the Muses, and well-known in the literary world, who have contributed largely towards the completion of this entertaining volume. May of the poems, by less distinguished hands, are not without a considerable share of merit, particularly the Fable by Mr. Whalley; Peripatetics, by Mr. Poulter; and a Copy of Verses on Castles in the Air, by an anonymous writer" 51 (May 1781) 372-73.

Edmund Cartwright: "It is sufficient commendation of this elegant Miscellany to mention, among other respectable names, those of Ansty, Seward, Potter, and Hayley, as contributors to it. There are, besides these, several whose names appear in the poetical world for the first time, who amply merit the distinction they have obtained. Indeed, we scarcely recollect any publication of this kind, in which the materials have been selected with more care" Monthly Review 65 (November 1781) 384.

Walter Scott: "She particularly demanded beauty, elegance, or splendour of language; and was unwilling to allow that sublimity or truth of conception could atone for poverty, rudeness, or even simplicity, of expression. To Spenser, and the poets of his school, she lent a very unwilling ear" Preface in Seward, Poems (1810) 1:xxvi.

Julius Nicholas Hook describes this poem as more Miltonic than Spenserian, Eighteenth-Century Imitations of Spenser (1941)142.



Is there a joy that gilds our stormy days,
For which the soul of man so much should pine
As heaven-born knowledge? But her sacred rays
Are as the diamonds, and by art must shine;
The beams of light more exquisitely fine
In some of highest worth, but all require
The artist's hand, or lost the blaze divine,
Ordain'd to kindle each refin'd desire
Which shall to all that's fair, and great, and good, aspire.

While yet unknown the principles of art,
Then still unseen, unfelt its charms so rare;
If sottish Ignorance surrounds the heart,
No beauty can pervade the darkness drear,
But all as colours to the blind appear;
Where Pleasure's tint, "celestial rosy red,"
Majestic purple, scarlet, (hue of war)
The undulating mantle of the mead,
And Heaven's gay robe, a dark, unmingled mass is spread.

But not alone perfection to discern,
And sport delighted in her subtle maze,
Pursue we knowledge, and her precepts learn;
She fires the soul with gen'rous thirst of praise,
And conscious elevation guards her ways.
Awaken'd, delicate, each low pursuit,
Each gross desire, whate'er the heart betrays
To vanity or vice, shunn'd as the fruit
Of deadliest plant, can ne'er th' enlighten'd mind pollute.

In man there is a principle innate,
Of rest incapable, and good, or ill,
Low, or exalted, he must love or hate,
And one dear purpose of the soul fulfil,
As early choice, to habit grown, shall will;
If with the matin lark his plumed wings
He not expand, and with him soaring still
To Wisdom's sun, whence light and beauty beam,
He sinks in murky caves, where owls and ravens scream.

Soft Sensibility, with beauteous mien,
That never fails to visit youthful breast,
Resisted, chill'd, avoids the frigid scene,
Dully unworthy of so dear a guest.
She flies, and with her flies whatever bless'd
The human soul, fair subjects of her pow'r,
Taste in all Art and Nature's beauties dress'd,
Each social tenderness, whose thrilling store
Alone can give the heart one truly blissful hour.

Youth is Life's spring, the seed-time when the mind
Fosters each new idea planted there;
If we neglect to sow the grain refin'd,
No future pains can raise a harvest fair;
And memory, warm and soft in early year,
As yielding wax, diffus'd, grows cold and hard,
Nor aught retains of each impression rare;
Which when retain'd, acquire the high reward
Bestow'd by star-crown'd Fame on timely studious Bard.

[pp. 191-94]