Jane Bowdler's posthumously-published fragment consists of fourteen Spenserians, being the opening of what seems to have been intended as a one or two-canto imitation of the Faerie Queene. It begins with an invocation to the powers of fancy, followed by a pointed allusion to the Faerie Queene in the ninth stanza: "New scenes appear'd, by mortal ne'er survey'd; | Such as were fabled erst in fairy land, | Where elfin knights their prowess oft display'd, | And mighty Love inspir'd the warlike band | To seek adventures hard at Beauty's high command" 1:55. There follows an allegorical character of Envy in her house of "twisted thorns," and the poem breaks off before the narrative proper commences.
The poem was left unfinished when Jane Bowdler, an invalid who had been left mute by a cold, died in 1784. First published in 1786, it may have been written as early as the 1760s or as late as the 1780s. Jane Bowdler was an object of some fascination after her death: her highly-wrought poems (some written for Lady Miller's literary circle at Bath-Easton) and essays went through at least twenty editions. Given the wide circulation of Bowdler's volume, Envy was likely of some significance to the later development of Spenserian allegory by women poets such as Mary Tighe. The posthumously published collection was originally anonymous.
Argument: "ENVY, her character; her dwelling near the road that leads to the Temple of VIRTUE. A fruit tree gives shelter and refreshment to travellers, she tears all the buds to prevent it, &c. A lamb takes shelter from the snow in her hut; she tears down the roof that it may not protect him, and leaves it so, that none may ever find shelter there. — Disturbs all travellers. — Schemes laid to defeat her. — Nothing will do but the shield of Truth, which is so bright that none dare carry it, because they cannot themselves stand it. At last INNOCENCE, attended by MODESTY, undertakes it. ENVY attacks them with FURY, throws a dart, which instead of hurting, only strikes off the veil which hid the face of MODESTY, and makes all the world admire her. ENVY blushes for the first time; INNOCENCE holds up the shield. — ENVY is dazzled, and becomes almost blind; — she flees from them, and wanders about the world, trying to hurt every body, but being too blind to direct her darts, though they sometimes do harm, yet they always recoil upon herself, and give her the severest wounds" 1:45.
James Beattie to William Forbes: "Miss Bowdler's Essays are just come to hand, and give me a very high idea both of the head and of the heart of the excellent author. Such examples of piety and resignation rarely occur; and the person who published them does an important service to mankind. The preface too, though short, is admirably written, and gives an emphasis to what follows in the book, as cannot fail to recommend religion to the most inattentive, if they will only take the trouble to read this truly valuable work. I was wonderfully struck and pleased with the beauty and propriety of the motto from Ariosto; and it brings tears into my eyes when I consider it as an apostrophe to a departed saint" 22 January 1787; in Forbes, Life of Beattie (1806) 2:202-05.
Critical Review: "The pathetic and the moral strains rise beyond mediocrity" (March 1787) 205.
Town and Country Magazine: "These poems, though distinguished for their benevolence, are not remarkable for poetic fire" 19 (April 1787) 157.
John Rotheram: "In the Preface to this collection, we are told that the pieces of which it is composed were written to relieve the tedious hours of many years pain and sickness. The ingenious and amiable Authoress seems to have possessed no small share of patience and pious resignation, and to have resorted to support and consolation to the comforts which naturally present themselves to a mind habitually conversant with the benefits suggested by Christian hope" Monthly Review 76 (May 1787) 408-09.
Gentleman's Magazine: "In her poetry she displays fancy, taste, and judgement; and in the Essays unites with the strength of a vigorous and cultivated understanding, all the fascinating graces of feminine vivacity and delicacy. If they are not marked by originality of thought, she gives to old arguments and sentiments such new and agreeable turns as produce the effects of novelty: the language is correct and elegant; and the sentiments breathe nothing but purity, benevolence, and piety. We may add, that from the whole, or any detached part, it is impossible not to perceive that this lady, besides being intimately acquainted with the best authors, lived in habits of familiar intercourse with those who are most distinguished in the circles of politeness" 57 (October 1787) 908.
Anna Seward to Francis Noel Clarke Mundy: "A perusal of the posthumous works of that sweet suffering saint, Miss Bowdler, has pleased me much. If they contain no great resplendence of genius, nor curious novelty of ideas, we yet feel our hearts and our understandings serenely warmed and gratified by the effusions of a pure, a gentle, a cultivated mind, which throws a soft, agreeable, and useful light over every subject on which it descants" 10 October 1787; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 1:341.
Christian Examiner [Boston]: "We are glad to see a reprint of this sensible and useful volume. It has passed through at least sixteen editions in England, and well deserves its celebrity because of the comfort and aid which it has given to so many minds. We should possibly have been better pleased if the poetry had been omitted, for it hardly increases the value of the book. It is the Essays, full of the natural expression of quiet and sensible thoughts, of subdued yet fervent feeling, of devout and tranquil faith, together with views of life and manners the most practical and correct, which render it a welcome addition to our stock of religious books" 4 (March-April 1827) 177.
Ye pleasing dreams of heavenly Poesy,
Which oft have sooth'd my throbbing heart to rest,
And in soft strains of sweetest minstrelsy
Have lull'd the tumults of this anxious breast,
Or charm'd my soul with pleasures unpossess'd:
How sweet with you to wander all the day
In airy scenes, by Fancy's pencil dress'd,
To trace the windings of her devious way,
To feel her magic force, and own her boundless sway.
See at her call the awful forms arise
Of ancient heroes, moulder'd in the tomb;
Again Vice trembles thro' her deep disguise,
And Virtue triumphs in a dungeon's gloom,
Or smiles undaunted at a tyrant's doom.
Again she waves on high her magic wand—
The faded glories rise of Greece and Rome,
The heavenly muses lead a tuneful band,
And Freedom's fearless sons unnumber'd hosts withstand.
And now to softer scenes my steps she leads,
The sweet retreats of Innocence and Love,
Where freshest flow'rets deck th' enamell'd meads,
And Nature's music warbles through the grove,
'Mongst rocks and caverns now she loves to rove
And mark the torrents tumbling from on high,
And now she soars on daring wings, above
The vast expanse of yon etherial sky,
Or darts thro' distant time, and long futurity.
And oft when weary nature sinks oppress'd
Beneath the load of sickness and of pain,
When sweetest music cannot lull to rest,
And present pleasure spreads her charms in vain,
Bright Fancy comes and bursts the mental chain,
And bears the soul on airy wings away,
Well pleas'd it wanders o'er her golden reign,
Enjoys the transports of some distant day,
And Pain's suspended force a moment owns her sway.
Ev'n the loneliest wild, the deepest shade,
Remote from ev'ry pleasing, social scene,
New wonders rise, by Fancy's pow'r display'd;
She paints each heav'nly grace with gentle mein,
Celestial Truth, and Innocence serene,
And Hope, exulting still in future joy,
Tho' dangers threat, and tempests intervene;
And Patience, ever calm tho' cares annoy,
And sweet Benevolence, whose pleasures ne'er can cloy.
In dangers firm, in triumphs ever mild,
The awful form of Fortitude appears;
Pure Joy, of heavenly Piety the child,
Serenely smiles, unmov'd by grief or fears,
Soft Mercy dries Affliction's bitter tears,
Still blest in ev'ry blessing she bestows:
While Friendship's gentle voice each sorrow cheers;
Sweet are her joys, and pleasing ev'n her woes,
When warm'd by Virtue's fire the sacred ardour glows.
Thus Fancy's pow'r in solitude can charm,
Can rouse each latent virtue in the heart,
Preserve the heavenly spark for ever warm,
And guiltless pleasures ev'ry hour impart.
Yet oh! beware — lest Vice with fatal art
Should taint the gift for Virtue's aid design'd;
Lest Fancy's sting should point Affliction's dart.
Or empty shadows check th' aspiring mind,
By vain delights subdu'd, or vainer fears confin'd.
For oft when Virtue prompts the gen'rous deed,
And points the way to gain the glorious prize,
Imagin'd ills her upward flight impede,
And all around fantastic terrors rise:
Ev'n Vice itself can Fancy's pow'r disguise
With borrow'd charms, enchanting to betray:—
Oh then let Reason watch with cautious eyes,
Secure its active force in Virtue's way,
Then slack the rein at will, and free let Fancy stray.
Thus musing late at evening's silent hour,
My wandring footsteps sought the lonely shade,
And gently led by Fancy's magic pow'r,
Methought at once, to distant realms convey'd,
New scenes appear'd, by mortal ne'er survey'd;
Such as were fabled erst in fairy land,
Where elfin knights their prowess oft display'd,
And mighty Love inspir'd the warlike band
To seek adventures hard at Beauty's high command.
Full many a path there was on ev'ry side,
These waste and wild, and those beset with flow'rs;
Where many a pilgrim wander'd far and wide,
Some bent to seek gay Pleasure's rosy bow'rs,
And some to gain Ambition's lofty tow'rs;
While others view their labours with disdain,
And prize alone the gifts which Fortune show'rs;
With careless steps some wander o'er the plain,
And some with ardour strive bright Virtue's hill to gain.
But many foes in ev'ry path were seen,
Who strove by ev'ry art to stop the way:
Here Indolence appear'd with vacant mein,
And painted forms of terror and dismay;
And there the Passions rose in dread array,
And fill'd with clouds and darkness all the air;
While empty fears and hopes alike betray,
And Pride with Folly join'd, destructive pair!
Drew many from each path, then left them to despair.
Yet still distinguish'd o'er the hostile band,
By all detested, and to all a foe,
Pale Envy rose; while trembling in her hand,
Her poison'd shaft still aim'd a deadly blow,
Her eyes still wander'd in pursuit of woe:
For her, in vain rises the cheerful morn,
In vain the flow'rs with freshest lustre glow,
Vain all the charms which Nature's face adorn,
They cannot cheer a heart with ceaseless anguish torn.
Beside the way that leads to Virtue's shrine
This wicked hag her fav'rite dwelling chose,
Around her walls did baneful nightshade twine,
And twisted thorns did all her hut compose;
And still from morning's dawn to ev'ning's close,
Some horrid purpose would her thoughts employ;
For never could her heart enjoy repose,
Nor e'er her restless spirit taste of joy,
Save when her cruel arts could others' peace destroy.
The sprightly voice of guiltless Pleasure's train,
The pleasing smile which Peace and Virtue wear,
Whose gentle force might charm the sense of pain,
Suspend distress, and smooth the brow of care,
Still with new pangs her cruel heart would tear:
But when she heard Affliction's bitter cries,
Or view'd the horrid form of dark Despair,
A transient gladness lighten'd in her eyes—
But transient still and vain are Envy's wretched joys.