Anna Seward (1747-1809)
ANNA SEWARD was born in Derbyshire, in 1747. She was the daughter of a clergyman and the only one of four children to reach adulthood. She did not attend school but was tutored by her father and introduced to classical works such as Milton at a very early age. Her love of verse started soon after and she was writing religious poetry by the time she was ten years old.
In 1750 her father was chosen as Canon of Lichfield Cathedral, and in 1754 the family relocated to the Bishop’s Palace. It was here that Anna’s friendship with Dr. Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin) blossomed, the older gentleman not only encouraging her to write but supporting her efforts. She was active in Lichfield’s literary community, which included Darwin as well as William Hayley and Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Upon the death of Anna’s mother and sister in 1780, she became the only surviving child left to care for her aging father. Without the aid of Darwin, she may never have been able to see her work published. With his help, Elegy on Captain Cook was published, in 1780, and it was generally well received, thus increasing her reputation in literary circles.
This debut publication was followed by Monody on the Death of Major André (1781), Louisa: A Poetical Novel in Four Epistles (1784), and Collection of Original Sonnets (1799), among others. The romantic themes of her poetry earned her the moniker “The Swan of Lichfield”.
Seward’s father died in 1790 but she remained at the house in Lichfield. Here she met writer and poet Walter Scott, who would later edit her biographical work honoring mentor Erasmus Darwin, Memoirs of the life of Dr Darwin, published in 1804.
In addition to her poetry, Anna was a prolific literary correspondent. After her death in 1809 at the age of 62, three volumes of her letters and poems were published, with an introduction by Sir Walter Scott, as The Poetical Works of Anna Seward with Extracts from Her Letter and Literary Correspondence (1810). Her complete correspondence was published in six volumes in 1811.
Anna Seward is credited with creating a new literary form called “epic elegy” and is considered one of the most important female poets contributing to the romantic poetry of the era.
Sonnet 84: While one sere leaf, that parting Autumn yields
While one sere leaf, that parting Autumn yields,
Trembles upon the thin, and naked spray,
November, dragging on this sunless day,
Lours, cold and sullen, on the watery fields;
And Nature to the waste dominion yields,
Stripped her last robes, with gold and purple gay —
So droops my life, of your soft beams despoiled,
Youth, Health, and Hope, that long exulting smiled;
And the wild carols, and the bloomy hues
Of merry Spring-time, spruce on every plain
Her half-blown bushes, moist with sunny rain,
More pensive thoughts in my sunk heart infuse
Than Winter’s grey, and desolate domain
Faded like my lost Youth, that no bright Spring renews.
Sonnet 92: Behold that tree, in Autumn’s dim decay
Behold that tree, in Autumn’s dim decay,
Stripped by the frequent, chill, and eddying wind;
Where yet some yellow, lonely leaves we find
Lingering and trembling on the naked spray,
Twenty, perchance, for millions whirled away!
Emblem, also! too just, of humankind!
Vain man expects longevity, designed
For few indeed; and their protracted day
What is it worth that Wisdom does not scorn?
The blasts of sickness, care, and grief appal,
That laid the friends in dust, whose natal morn
Rose near their own; and solemn is the call;
Yet, like those weak deserted leaves forlorn,
Shivering they cling to life, and fear to fall!