Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Anna Seward and Classic Lichfield

I must say I'm enjoying Anna Seward and Classic Lichfield by Stapleton Martin, despite the scary portrait on the cover (see left).

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.

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Halldor said...

She's not completely forgotten, though, surely? My sister loved "Black Beauty"!

I cannot believe, BTW, that the good and learned Doctor Darwin was capable of acting ungallantly. And by all accounts, Miss Seward was more than a bit daffy - witness her resentment of Doctor Johnson. (To say nothing of her penchant for writing novels about talking horses). There must be more to this tale than meets the eye...

Mrs Woffington said...

Com'on Halldor, you know very well that the author of Black Beauty was Anna Sewell! Honestly... Though I'm perfectly convinced that Dr Darwin could have been less than gallant.

Halldor said...

I can't believe it! The Lunar Men were all gents, albeit slightly unconventional at times. The good Doctor will be turning in his grave. "Ye Gnomes..!"

Eliza Ward said...

I'm sorry to say that I hadn't heard of her--but English poetry isn't one of my specialties. Do students learn about her in school in the UK?

Mrs Woffington said...

Hello Eliza, no they don't learn about her I'm afraid - she's virtually forgotten in the UK, although, according to a talk I attended earlier tonight, there's a growing interest about her in the US. I'll be posting some more about Seward tomorrow, since I learnt some interesting stuff at the talk, and also got my copy of Louisa looked at by the expert!