This week's project (already past deadline!) is to write a book proposal for a new edition of poems by Anna Seward. Here's an excerpt, followed by one of my favorite poems by the writer who made her small English city famous in the eighteenth century as "The Swan of Litchfield."
Seward (1742-1809) was one of the most popular and prolific poets of the early Romantic period. So high was her reputation that none other than Sir Walter Scott edited the standard edition of her poems, the three-volume The Poetical Works of Anna Seward, in 1810. Among other achievements, Seward was admired for renovating the sonnet form in English. Arguably the dominant form in Renaissance English verse, the sonnet had gone into eclipse during the eighteenth century in favor of more public forms such as epic and satire. Seward, along with two other important women poets, Mary Robinson and Charlotte Smith, initiated a renewed interest in the form, which then became a prominent aspect of nineteenth-century poetics.
Seward was admired by canonical first-generation Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, but her reputation went into decline with the emergence of the bardic role of the poet in later Romanticism. Shelley, Keats and Byron, as famous for their athletic and sexual exploits as for their poetry, emphatically masculinized the image of the poet, and for the first time the term used to refer to women poets became the denigrating “poetess.” The formative role of late eighteenth-century women poets in the emergence of Romanticism was obscured in literary history until the last thirty years of feminist scholarship. Following on two decades of archival recovery work, the 1990s saw the publication of new editions of the work of Smith and Robinson (Oxford, 1993, ed. Curran; Broadview, 2000, ed. Pascoe). What is missing is the third leg of the stool of the early Romantic sonnet revival: a new edition of the poems of Anna Seward.
I first became interested in Seward as a poet of love between women. In my book Sister Arts, which includes a chapter on Seward, I describe the trope of "lesbian death wish elegy" in which the poet writes about the loss of her beloved after marriage, mourning it as if it were a death. Here's one of Seward's notable contributions to the tradition. It's addressed, as were many of her poems, to a beautiful younger woman, Honora Sneyd:
Chlll'd by unkind HONORA's alter'd eye,
"Why droops my heart with pining woe forlorn,"
Thankless for much of good?-what thousands, born
To ceaseless toll beneath this wintry sky,
Or to brave deathful oceans surging high,
Or fell Disease's fever'd rage to mourn,
How blest to them would seem my destiny!
How dear the comforts my rash sorrows scorn!-
Affection is repaid by causeless hate!
A plighted love is changed to cold disdain!
Yet suffer not thy wrongs to shroud thy fate,
But turn, my soul, to blessings which remain;
And let this truth the wise resolve create,
The Heart estranged no anguish can regain.