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Anna Seward (1742-1809), poet and letter-writer
Introduction and biography
Outside the circles of those working to reclaim female literary history, Anna Seward is little known today. In her own time, however, she had a wide readership, a wide literary acquaintance, and enjoyed considerable recognition and acclaim as ‘the Swan of Lichfield’, and ‘th’immortal Muse of Britain’ – in other words, she was a national literary figure.
The conditions of her upbringing must have favoured her significant literary and intellectual talents. Her parents provided her with what was in general a supportive environment: her father, Canon Seward, had published ‘The Female Right to Literature’, a poem urging the importance of female exposure to education and learning, in 1748 (in Dodsley’s Collection), and he taught his intellectually gifted daughter ‘to read Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope at three, and to recite the first three books of Paradise Lost by the time she was nine’ (ODNB). Seward says that her mother, however, ‘threw cold water on the rising fires’ of her poetic talent, and that her father became less enthusiastic after being told his daughter’s verses were superior to his own (British Review and London Critical Journal, p. 175).
Seward lived in comfortable circumstances for nearly all her life in the Bishop’s Palace in Lichfield (Dr Johnson’s home town), having moved to this city in 1750 when her father was appointed Canon Residentiary of the Cathedral. During the 1770s the Seward household was at the heart of a significant literary milieu which included the local physician, botanist, and man of letters, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), who particularly encouraged her and whose biography she later wrote, as well as visitors such as Thomas Day and Richard Lovell Edgeworth (father, by his first marriage, of Maria Edgeworth).
In her childhood and early youth, Seward formed a particularly strong attachment to her adopted sister Honora Sneyd, who entered the Seward household at the age of 5 (when Seward was 14) and lived there for 14 years, marrying Edgeworth in 1773 but dying in 1790 from consumption. Seward mourned her successive losses of Sneyd – first to marriage and then to death – ever afterwards, and never married herself, possibly in order to retain personal and financial independence from such a tie. During the course of her life she formed a number of intense relationships with men, however, and received several proposals of marriage in her youth.
When first her mother then her father became invalids, Seward was burdened (as she complained) with running the household as well as caring for them, but she combined her domestic activities with a vigorous social life. At the same time, she wrote poetry and criticism and conducted a formidably large correspondence with distinguished as well as lesser known individuals. Although close enough to Dr Johnson to be invited to visit his deathbed in 1784, she both envied and resented this much better known literary figure; after his death she corresponded warmly with Boswell but the two eventually fell out over Seward’s testaments to Johnson’s unpleasantly bullying character.
The death of Seward’s father in 1790 left her with an annual income of £400. This gave her complete independence, and she was able to continue living in the Bishop’s Palace owing to special episcopal dispensation. She made a daily companion of John Saville, the vicar choral of Lichfield Cathedral, who lived separately from his wife and with whom she shared many cultural and intellectual interests. When he died in 1803, as her ODNB entry reports, ‘she paid his debts, supported his family, and had a monument built to his memory just outside the cathedral’. At this stage in her life she had chronic health problems, describing herself as ‘a sad valetudinarian, with every appearance of health and strength’ (Letters, vol. 5, p. 46), and she travelled in search of health cures to a number of destinations including Wales, where she became friends with the famous Llangollen ladies Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. She continued to maintain her enormous correspondence with remarkable energy and persistence, and she appointed Walter Scott, who became a friend towards the end of her life, as her literary executor. After her death in 1809, however, he published only a three-volume set of her poems prefaced by a short biography (Scott 1810), leaving the vast corpus of her letters to be edited down to a six-volume edition produced by the Edinburgh publisher Archibald Constable in 1811 (Constable 1811).
Seward’s first well known poem was Elegy on Captain Cook (1780), published one year after the explorer’s death, in which she showed a close familiarity with Cook’s journals, themselves published in 1773 and 1777. When she described how Cook’s ship was trapped in blocks of ice, for example, she used the term embay (‘Huge blocks of ice th’arrested ship embay’, p. 8 ), the same word that is found in Cook’s original description, as quoted in a footnote to her poem, and also cited in the OED1 entry for embay. Her ‘Monody on Major Andrè’, which followed in 1781, condemned the execution in the American civil war of one of Honora Sneyd’s former suitors; as her ODNB entry describes, ‘Seward’s denunciation [in this poem] of George Washington for his part in the affair was so fierce that Washington sent an emissary to Seward with evidence demonstrating that his role was limited’. Her next work was an experiment in form, Louisa: A Poetical Novel, which appeared in four separate editions in the year of its publication (1784) and a fifth the following year, and in 1799 she published Original Sonnets on Various Subjects; and Odes Paraphrased from Horace. Throughout her literary life she contributed tirelessly to periodicals, especially the Gentleman’s Magazine, thus keeping herself in constant public view. Roger Lonsdale writes, ‘From her headquarters in Lichfield Close, she projected herself for many years as perhaps the most prominent and formidable woman writer of the later century’, though ‘before her death her verse was being increasingly criticized for affectation, prolixity, and obscurity’ (1989: 313).
Seward had begun transcribing her letters with a view to their publication as early as 1784, though they were not published until the posthumous six-volume edition of Constable in 1811. Packed with wonderfully rich comment and subject matter, they are fascinating to read today. Domestic and social gossip features abundantly, sometimes frankly curious and speculative (e.g. on the death, work, and reputation of Mary Wollstonecraft), but Seward wrote penetrating literary criticism too, on forms and genres of literature and on a host of past and contemporary poets and writers (Milton, Dryden, Sterne, Johnson, Wordsworth and Southey, Mrs Radcliffe, Frances Burney, and countless others).1 She also commented extensively and critically in her letters on the events of the day (e.g. the French Revolution, Pitt’s ministry and the Napoleonic wars).
Sources and further reading
ODNB: Bowerbank, Sylvia, ‘Seward, Anna (1742-1809)’, 2004, available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/25135 [accessed 15 August 2018]; subscription required. See also Lonsdale 1989: 311-13, Clarke 2004 (especially chapter 1), John Brewer 1997 (chapter 15: 573-612), Guest 2000 (chapter 10, pp. 255-67), Backscheider 2005 (e.g. pp. 96-315, on ‘The Elegy and Same-Sex Desire’ in Seward’s poetry), and for evidence that she rewrote some of her correspondence for publication, Clifford 1941.
An enlightening contemporary account of Seward, which quotes from her letters on such things as her relationship with and views on Johnson, can be read online in a review of Scott’s posthumous edition of her works and Constable’s edition of her letters: The British Review and London Critical Journal, vol. 2 (1811), pp. 171-87, at Google Books [accessed July 2019].
The 19th-century decline in Seward’s critical fortunes is aptly conveyed in her DNB entry of 1897, written by Elizabeth Lee (available by subscription at https://doi.org/10.1093/odnb/9780192683120.013.25135 [accessed 15 August 2015]).
Note on images
Portrait of Anna Seward: from The Scott Gallery: A Series of One Hundred and Forty-Six Photogravures together with Descriptive Letterpress, ed. James L. Caw (Edinburgh: T. C. & E. C. Jack, 1903). Courtesy of the Walter Scott Digital Archive, Edinburgh University Library. In 1911, this portrait was in the collection of W. Percival Boxall who bought it after the death of William Hayley, to whom Opie presented the picture. No subsequent reference to it has been found by Dr Paul Barnaby, Project Officer of the Walter Scott Digital Archive (to whom many thanks for his kind permission to reproduce these images). John Opie was married to the writer Amelia Opie.
Portrait of Walter Scott: from The Scott Gallery: A Series of One Hundred and Forty-Six Photogravures together with Descriptive Letterpress, ed. James L. Caw (Edinburgh: T. C. & E. C. Jack, 1903). Courtesy of the Walter Scott Digital Archive, Edinburgh University Library. The original portrait was painted in 1809 by Sir Henry Raeburn and is held at Abbotsford House.
Title-page of The Chase, and William and Helen: Two Ballads from the German of Gottfried Augustus Burger(Edinburgh: Manners and Miller; London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1796). Scott’s first publication with MS dedication to Anna Seward (Corson A.15.BUR.a.1796/1). Courtesy of the Walter Scott Digital Archive, Edinburgh University Library.
Last updated on 9 October 2019
- Seward writes of Wollstonecraft’s death, ‘Mrs Godwin’s death shocked and concerned me – though I had no personal acquaintance with her. Why did she die? I mean by what disorder?…It is curious, that, after acknowledging herself to be a mother, she should sign herself by her maiden name…without accounting for the peculiarity’ (Letters, vol. 5, p. 47); she had judged The Rights of Women a ‘wonderful book’ (Letters, vol. 3, p. 117). Later she warmly praises William Godwin’s Memoirs of his wife, despite it being ‘the fashion to abuse him for them violently’, e.g. ‘To reveal the motives on which she acted; – to paint the strength of her basely betrayed attachment to that villain Imlay, was surely not injury but justice to the memory of a deceased wife’ (Letters, vol. 5, pp. 73, 74).