Anna Seward, by Tilly Kettle, 1762
12 December 1742
|Died||March 25, 1809 66) (aged|
|Resting place||Lichfield Cathedral|
(1708–4 March 1790)
|Relatives||Sarah ("Sally") (sister)|
(b. 17 March 1744–d. 1764)
Anna Seward (12 December 1742 –25 March 1809) was a long-eighteenth-century English Romantic poet, often called the Swan of Lichfield.
Seward was the eldest of two surviving daughters of Thomas Seward (1708–1790), prebendary of Lichfield and Salisbury, and author, and his wife Elizabeth.Elizabeth Seward later had three further children (John, Jane and Elizabeth) who all died in infancy, and two stillbirths. Anna Seward mourned their loss in her poem Eyam (1788). Born in 1742 at Eyam, a small mining village in the Peak District of Derbyshire where her father was the rector, she and her sister Sarah, some sixteen months younger than she was, passed nearly all their life in the relatively small area of the Peak District of Derbyshire and Lichfield, a cathedral city in the adjacent county of Staffordshire to the west, an area now corresponding to the boundary of the East Midlands and West Midlands regions.
In 1749 her father was appointed to a position as Canon-Residentiary at Lichfield Cathedral, and the family moved to that city, where her father educated her entirely at home. In 1754 they moved to the Bishop's Palace in the Cathedral Close. When a family friend, Mrs. Edward Sneyd, died in 1756,the Sewards took in one of her daughters, Honora Sneyd, who became an 'adopted' foster sister to Anna. Honora was nine years younger than Anna. Anna Seward describes how she and her sister first met Honora, on returning from a walk, in her poem The Anniversary (1769). Sarah (known as 'Sally') died suddenly at the age of nineteen of typhus (1764). Sarah was said to be of admirable character, but less talented than her sister. Anna consoled herself with her affection for Honora Sneyd, as she describes in Visions, written a few days after her sister's death. In the poem she expresses the hope that Honora ('this transplanted flower') will replace her sister (whom she refers to as 'Alinda') in her and her parents affections.
Anna Seward continued to live at the Bishop's Palace all her life, caring for her father during the last ten years of his life, after he had suffered a stroke. When he died in 1790, he left her financially independent with an income of £400 per annum. She spent the rest of her life at the Palace, till her death in 1809.
A long-time friend of the Levett family of Lichfield, Seward noted in her Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin (Erasmus) that three of the town's foremost citizens had been thrown from their carriages and had injured their knees in the same year. "No such misfortune," Seward wrote, "was previously remembered in that city, nor has it recurred through all the years which since elapsed."
In her early childhood, she was considered a precocious, sensitive redhead, and her bent for learning became evident from the beginning. Canon Seward held progressive views on female education, having authored The Female Right to Literature (1748).Encouraged by her father, she was said to be able to recite the works of Milton by the age of three.
Even at the age of seven, when the family moved to Lichfield, she recognised she had a gift for writing. At Lichfield, the family later lived in the Bishop's Palace, which became the centre of a literary circle including Erasmus Darwin, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, to which Anna was exposed and encouraged to participate, as she later relates.Though Canon Seward's (but not his wife's) attitudes towards the education of girls was progressive relative to the times, they were not excessively liberal. Although her father was a poet himself, he attempted to suppress Anna's own passion for poetry. When given the liberty to choose her own studies, however, she decided to pursue composition of poetry. Amongst the subjects he taught them were theology and numeracy, and how to read and appreciate poetry, and also how to write and recite poetry. Although this deviated from what were considered 'conventional drawing room accomplishments', the omissions were also notable, including languages and science, although they were left free to pursue their own inclinations. However Anna was not unskilled in the domestic sphere.
Among the many literary figures of the time with which she conversed was Sir Walter Scott, who would later publish her poetry posthumously. Her circle also included writers such as Thomas Day, Francis Noel Clarke Mundy, Sir Brooke Boothby and Willie Newton (the Peak Minstrel),and she was considered the leader of a coterie of regional poets, and was influenced by writers such as Thomas Whalley, William Hayley, Robert Southey, Helen Maria Williams, Hannah More and the Ladies of Llangollen. In addition to her literary circle, she was involved in the deliberations of the Lunar Society in nearby Birmingham, that would sometimes meet at her father's home. Both Darwin and Day were members of the Lunar Society and the Lichfield coterie, while Seward would correspond with other Lunar members such as Josiah Wedgwood and Richard Lovell Edgeworth.
Between 1775 and 1781, Seward was a guest and participant at the much-mocked salon held by Anna Miller at Batheaston, near Bath. However, it was here that Seward's talent was recognised and her work published in the annual volume of poems from the gatherings, a debt that Seward acknowledged in her Poem to the Memory of Lady Miller (1782).
Seward remained resolutely single throughout her life, despite many offers, and friendships, and was quite outspoken about the institution of marriage,not unlike her heroine in Louisa, a position that would later be echoed in the novels of her step-niece, Maria Edgeworth. She shunned both marriage and sexual love, as inferior to Aristotelian friendship, based more on equality and virtue. However she had friends of both genders, although only seeking romantic relationships with women. In 1985 Lillian Faderman suggested that her orientation was lesbian, although there is little known evidence of either the erotic or sexual, in her relationships, though the term relates more to twentieth rather than eighteenth century concepts of identity. However, since 1985 Seward remains within the lesbian poetic canon. However Teresa Barnard argues against this based more on examination of her correspondence than merely her poetry, while more recently Barrett has argued for it, based on other sources.
Much of the literature on Seward's relationship focusses on her childhood friend Honora Sneyd, the sonnets revealing her passion for her when they were together and her despair when Sneyd married Richard Edgeworth. Compared to the correspondence, her sonnets display much more intense emotion, such as Sonnet 10 [Honora, shou’d that cruel time arrive] describing her feelings of betrayal. When the Edgeworths returned to Ireland, despair turned to rage, as in Sonnet 14 [Ingratitude, how deadly is thy smart].
She began to write poetry beginning at an early age with the encouragement of her father, a published poet, but against the wishes of her mother. Although at sixteen her father altered his position out of fear she might become a 'learned lady'.Later she received encouragement from Dr Erasmus Darwin, who set up practice in Lichfield in 1756, although their relationship was complex and frequently conflicted.
Her verses, which date from at least 1759 (age 17),include elegies and sonnets, and she also wrote a poetical novel, Louisa (1784), of which five editions were published, however she did not publish her first poem till 1780 at the age of 38. Seward's writings, which include a large number of letters, have been called "commonplace". Horace Walpole said she had "no imagination, no novelty." She was praised, however, by Mary Scott, who had written admiringly of her father's attitude to female education.
A number of her poems, particularly the Lichfield poems, were directed towards her friend and 'adopted' sister, Honora Sneyd in a tradition described as 'female friendship poetry'.
In an era when women had to tread carefully in society's orbit, Seward struck a middle ground. In her work, Seward could be alternately arch and teasing, as in her poem entitled Portrait of Miss Levett, on the subject of a Lichfield beauty later married to Rev. Richard Levett.She contributed to Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) but was not particularly happy with the way her material was treated by Boswell. Her work was widely circulated.
Authorship has been a continuing problem with assessing her work,and she was known to suggest others had used her work as her own, "a charge of plagiarism must rest somewhere".
Anna Seward was a prodigious correspondent and her vast collection of letters was published in six volumes after her death (1811)revealing an encyclopaedic breadth of knowledge of English literature and its development and casting considerable light on the literary culture of the Midlands of her day. Early in life (1762–1768) she used an imaginary friend 'Emma' to express her thoughts, writing thirty–nine letters to her in all. She was recognised, to varying degrees, as an authority on English literature by her contemporaries, including Walter Scott, Samuel Johnson and Robert Southey. Seward also wrote a biography, Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin (1804).
Keenly interested in botany, she was closely associated with the Lichfield Botanical Society (despite the name, composed of only three men, Erasmus Darwin, Sir Brooke Boothby and John Jackson) and published as did the preceding members, anonymously under the name of the Society.Encouraged by Darwin she firmly rejected the conservative backlash to the revelations of Carl Linnaeus' sexual system of plant classification. This was considered unfitting for ladies, whose modesty had to be protected.
"I had heard it was not fit for the female eye. It can only be unfit for the perusal of such females as still believe the legend of their nursery that children are dug out of a parsley-bed; who have never been at church, or looked into a Bible, -and are totally ignorant that in the present state of the world, two sexes are necessary to the production of animals."
This attitude which was to prevail throughout most of the nineteenth century was typified by writers like the Rev. Richard Polwhele, in his poem The Unsex'd Females (1798), although she escaped his personal criticism, being considered to have the proper attitude.
Selected works include;
After her death, Sir Walter Scott edited Seward's Poetical Works in three volumes (Edinburgh, 1810).To these he prefixed a memoir of the author, adding extracts from her literary correspondence. Scott's editing demonstrates considerable censorship and he declined to edit the bulk of her letters, which were later published in six volumes by Archibald Constable as Letters of Anna Seward 1784–1807 (1811). Her reputation barely lasted beyond her life, although there has been a renewed interest in the twenty first century. There was a tendency to be dismissive of her work in early twentieth century criticism, but later, particularly amongst feminist scholars, she was seen as a valuable observer of gendered relationships in late eighteenth century society, and played a transitional role between late eighteenth century principles and emerging romanticism. Likewise, her engagement with the political, cultural and literary issues of the time gives her a role in reflecting the responses of society to those issues. Kairoff, considering her "one of the - in a literal sense - ultimate eighteenth century poets".
There is a plaque to Anna Seward (spelled "Ann") in Lichfield Cathedral. The epitaffio has been written by her friend Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe.Seward appears as a character in the novel The Ladies by Doris Grumbach (1984).
Erasmus Darwin was an English physician. One of the key thinkers of the Midlands Enlightenment, he was also a natural philosopher, physiologist, slave-trade abolitionist, inventor and poet.
Maria Edgeworth was a prolific Anglo-Irish writer of adults' and children's literature. She was one of the first realist writers in children's literature and was a significant figure in the evolution of the novel in Europe. She held views on estate management, politics and education, and corresponded with some of the leading literary and economic writers, including Sir Walter Scott and David Ricardo.
Charlotte Turner Smith was an English Romantic poet and novelist. She initiated a revival of the English sonnet, helped establish the conventions of Gothic fiction, and wrote political novels of sensibility. A successful writer, she published ten novels, three books of poetry, four children's books, and other assorted works over the course of her career. She saw herself as a poet first and foremost, poetry at that period being considered the most exalted form of literature. Scholars now credit her with transforming the sonnet into an expression of woeful sentiment.
Thomas Day was a British author and abolitionist. He was well known for the book The History of Sandford and Merton (1783–1789) which emphasized Rousseauvian educational ideals.
Richard Lovell Edgeworth was an Anglo-Irish politician, writer and inventor.
Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield, Staffordshire is the former home of the English poet and physician Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of naturalist Charles Darwin. The house is a Grade I listed building, and is now a writer's house museum commemorating Erasmus Darwin's life.
Mary Scott (1751/52–1793), married name Mary Taylor, was an English poet, born in Milborne Port, Somerset.
The Botanic Garden (1791) is a set of two poems, The Economy of Vegetation and The Loves of the Plants, by the British poet and naturalist Erasmus Darwin. The Economy of Vegetation celebrates technological innovation, scientific discovery and offers theories concerning contemporary scientific questions, such as the history of the cosmos. The more popular Loves of the Plants promotes, revises and illustrates Linnaeus's classification scheme for plants.
Thomas Seward was an English Anglican clergyman, author and editor who was part of the Lichfield intellectual circle that included Samuel Johnson, Erasmus Darwin and his own daughter Anna Seward, amongst others.
Francis Noel Clarke Mundy 1739 – 1815 was an English poet. His most noted work was written to defend Needwood Forest which was enclosed at the beginning of the 19th century. He was the father of Francis Mundy.
Needwood Forest was a large area of ancient woodland in Staffordshire which was largely lost at the end of the 18th century.
The Derby Philosophical Society was a club for gentlemen in Derby founded in 1783 by Erasmus Darwin. The club had many notable members and also offered the first institutional library in Derby that was available to some section of the public.
Sneyd Davies (1709–1769) was an English poet, academic and churchman, archdeacon of Derby from 1755.
Dr Samantha George is a Senior Lecturer in Literature in the Social Sciences, Arts & Humanities Research Institute at the University of Hertfordshire. She completed a PhD at the University of York in 2004, then taught in the Department of English Literature at Sheffield University till taking up her post at Hertfordshire in 2007. She is known for her research on eighteenth century literature and science with a particular emphasis on the role of women and botany.
Maria Elizabetha Jacson was an eighteenth-century English writer, as was her sister, Frances Jacson (1754–1842), known for her books on botany at a time when there were significant obstacles to women's authorship. In some sources her name appears as Maria Jackson, Mary Jackson or Mary Elizabeth Jackson. She spent most of her life in Cheshire and Derbyshire, where she lived with her sister following her father's death.
The known works of Anna Seward include the following:
Honora Edgeworth was an eighteenth-century English writer, mainly known for her associations with literary figures of the day particularly Anna Seward and the Lunar Society, and for her work on children's education. Sneyd was born in Bath in 1751, and following the death of her mother in 1756 was raised by Canon Thomas Seward and his wife Elizabeth in Lichfield, Staffordshire until she returned to her father's house in 1771. There, she formed a close friendship with their daughter, Anna Seward. Having had a romantic engagement to John André and having declined the hand of Thomas Day, she married Richard Edgeworth as his second wife in 1773, living on the family estate in Ireland till 1776. There she helped raise his children from his first marriage, including Maria Edgeworth, and two children of her own. Returning to England she fell ill with tuberculosis, which was incurable, dying at Weston in Staffordshire in 1780. She is the subject of a number of Anna Seward's poems, and with her husband developed concepts of childhood education, resulting in a series of books, such as Practical Education, based on her observations of the Edgeworth children. She is known for her stand on women's rights through her vigorous rejection of the proposal by Day, in which she outlined her views on equality in marriage.
Lisa L. Moore is a Canadian-born American academic and poet. She is known for her writing about lesbian literature, art and garden history, and poetry.
Sabrina Bicknell, better known as Sabrina Sidney, was a British woman abandoned at the Foundling Hospital in London as a baby, and taken in at the age of 12 by author Thomas Day, who tried to mould her into his perfect wife. She grew up to marry one of Day's friends, instead, and eventually became a school manager.
Elegiac Sonnets, titled Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Essays by Charlotte Sussman of Bignor Park, in Sussex in its first edition, is a collection of poetry written by Charlotte Turner Smith, first published in 1784. It was widely popular and frequently reprinted, with Smith adding more poems over time. Elegiac Sonnets is credited with re-popularizing the sonnet form in the eighteenth century. It is notable for its poetic representations of personal emotion, which made it an important early text in the Romantic literary movement.
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