It was written in 1909 both to commemorate her centenary and to try to raise her profile; as the preface says: 'Literature and music and science have been found this year amazingly prolific in centenary commemorations of their great exemplars... yet the death in 1809 of Anna Seward, who "for many years held a high rank in the annals of British literature," to quote the words of Sir Walter Scott, has generally passed unnoticed.'
The book has been reprinted by Dodo Press this year to mark the 200th anniversary of her death (which is tomorrow), and though the writing style is pretty florid, I've learnt some curious things from it.
Martin doesn't pull his punches; on the subject of Seward's Memoirs Of The Life Of Dr. Darwin he says: '[Her] Memoir she called, "The woman's might in biography". This book... is, nowadays, considered but a poor piece of writing.' Yet many thought her a fine poet; let's not forget that Erasmus Darwin actually nicked her work and passed it off as his own in his poem, the Botanic Garden, an act that Stapleton describes as 'ungallant, to say the least'.
Curiously, Anna's family had several pet names for her, including Nancy and Julia (she was baptised Anne but preferred Anna). Sadly, all of Seward's siblings died in infancy, except one beloved sister, Sarah, who died aged 19, almost on the eve of her marriage to Dr Johnson's son-in-law. There's a monument (pictured here) in Lichfield Cathedral which commemorates Seward, her parents and Sarah. It depicts the poetess mourning her relations while her harp hangs, neglected, on a tree.
The epitaph is by Sir Walter Scott:
Amid these Aisles, where once his precepts showed,
The heavenward pathway which in life he trode,
This simple tablet marks a Father’s bier;
And those he loved in life, in death are near.
For him, for them, a daughter bade it rise,
Memorial of domestic charities.
Still would you know why o’er the marble spread,
In female grace the willow droops her head;
Why on her branches, silent and unstrung,
The minstrel harp, is emblematic hung;
What Poet’s voice is smother’d here in dust,
Till waked to join the chorus of the just;
Lo! one brief line an answer sad supplies—
Honour’d, belov’d, and mourn’d, here Seward lies:
Her worth, her warmth of heart, our sorrows say:
Go seek her genius in her living lay.
There's a free e-version of Stapleton Martin's book here.