Note: pages in our 18c Leverhulme study section were originally published on the website in 2010. Links have since been checked and updated.
This page briefly reviews the significance of OED’s past neglect of Seward’s poetry as a quotation source, while the next pages (beginning at Unrecorded usages in Anna Seward’s poetry) present evidence of usages from this work currently unrecorded in the OED.
Did OED1 miss important evidence from Seward’s poetry? The sample reading conducted by EOED indicates that the answer is yes and no. Only a tiny number of unrecorded words have turned up, and not many ante- or post-datings. However, like the other writers we investigate in this section, Seward furnishes many examples of usages that would swell the defective record of 18th-century language in the OED.
What is the significance of this – does it matter, and if so, in what way? The cause of OED’s under-documentation of 18th-century language are complex, but it seems certain that Victorian and Edwardian aesthetic, or cultural, assumptions (i.e. a bias against the literary qualities of much eighteenth-century writing) was a contributory element. In common with a number of other previously popular and well-regarded writers (e.g. A. L. Barbauld), Seward’s star had fallen by the time OED came to be compiled, and this is evident in Elizabeth Lee’s assessment of the writer in the DNB entry of 1897 (e.g. ‘At times she shows an appreciation of natural scenery, and now and then turns a good line’).
The very conventionality and typicality of Seward’s poetry, however, mean that it is an excellent witness to the literary language of the period. OED’s documentation of such language from predominantly male poets, and its under-reporting of 18th-century language in general, recommend her poetry as a good source (one among many) for the revision of OED currently underway in OED3, whose aims include increasing quotation from both 18th-century and female authors (see OED3 quotation sources).
Even if the vast majority of Seward’s poetic usages can easily be replicated in other male writers of the period – which is almost certainly the case – there is an independent value in quoting from a female writer per se. Both men and women engaged in published and public literary writing. This means that to prefer male quotation sources so consistently and exaggeratedly to female ones, as has been OED practice in the past, is to misrepresent the linguistic record that OED sets out to document (see further Brewer 2009b, partially summarised at EOED’s page below on Men and women compared).
Certainly aesthetic judgements on the literary merit or demerit of writers should play only a carefully limited part in determining their suitability as quotation sources, especially – as is the case with Seward and Barbauld – when writers were much read and well regarded in their day, and likely therefore both to influence and to reflect the linguistic practice of their contemporaries. As the Philological Society stated at the beginning of the process of compiling OED, ‘the literary merit or demerit of any particular writer, like the comparative elegance or inelegance of any given word, is a subject upon which the Lexicographer is bound to be almost indifferent’ (K. M. E. Murray 1977: 195).
The interesting question, of course, is what OED3 is doing, and will do, with such sources. As of September 2009, i.e. just over a quarter of a way through the process of revising OED2, it has added just 16 new quotations from Seward’s poetry and 9 from her prose: i.e. a small number, which EOED discusses in Seward and OED3. Seward is only one of dozens of possible female sources, so this neglect is not necessarily significant. It is important, however, that OED3 substantially increases its quotation from female 18th-century sources in general, whether or not these turn out to include Seward.
Go to next page on Unrecorded usages in Anna Seward’s poetry.
Last updated on 30 July 2019