Seward’s poetry

Note: pages in our 18c Leverhulme study section were originally published on the website in 2010. Links have since been checked and updated.

Language of Seward’s poetry

Seward’s language is a particularly rewarding object of study, both in its own right and for what it tells us about the reading and recording habits of OED researchers and lexicographers. There is a sharp distinction between the vocabulary she uses in her poetry on the one hand and in her letters on the other, and this is strikingly reflected in the OED’s respective record of the two bodies of text. This page and the ones nested immediately below discuss her poetry and OED’s treatment of it, under the headings

while the pages at Seward’s letters discuss the vocabulary to be found in her correspondence.

Seward’s conventional poetic diction and OED’s help in demonstrating this

Seward’s poetry is steeped in conventional poetic diction. Time and again, when looking up her vocabulary choices in the OED, one finds that she is participating in a tradition of poetic lexis stretching from Shakespeare through Milton to the late-18th century, whether or not she is actually quoted in the Dictionary entry as a participant in this lineage (usually she is not).

Llangollen Vale, With Other Poems, a collection dedicated to Seward’s friends Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, published as a pamphlet in 1796 and reprinted twice within the year, is a good example of her work, especially her late style.1 The title poem reviews the valley’s history and celebrates its landscape and the serene friendship of the two dedicatees. Seward favours an allusive and ornate style that is sometimes clotted and hard to follow:

Luxuriant Vale, thy County’s early boast,

What time great GLENDOUR gave thy scenes to Fame:

Taught the proud numbers of the English Host,

How vain their vaunted force, when Freedom’s flame

Fir’d him to brave the Myriads he abhorr’d

Wing’d his unerring shaft, and edgd his victor sword… (p. 1)

Now with a Vestal luster glows the VALE,

Thine, sacred FRIENDSHIP, permanent as pure;

In vain the stern Authorities assail,

In vain Persuasion spreads her silken lure,

High-born, and high-endow’d, the peerless Twain,

Pant for coy Nature’s charms ‘mid silent dale, and plain (p. 6)

The prouder sex as soon, with virtue calm,

Might win from this bright Pair pure Friendship’s palm (p. 9)

Llangollen Vale, With Other Poems (1796)

These lines conform to established, virtually formulaic, 18th-century poetic diction, with typical features such as the opening apostrophe to the landscape (the ‘vale’) rather than to a person, personified references to abstract concepts (‘Fame’, ‘Freedom’, ‘FRIENDSHIP’, and ‘Persuasion’), deliberate archaicisms (‘What time’ and the adjective ‘vestal’, both recalling an early historic period), and the matching compound adjectives ‘high-born’ and ‘high-endow’d’.

OED is an exceptionally useful tool in demonstrating the dependence of Seward on poetic precedent, since the Dictionary tends to cite just the authors that she herself knew well and took pride in echoing – principally Milton, Pope, and Cowper, all of whom are among the OED’s favourite quotation sources, but other influential 18th-century writers too such as the poet Edward Young. OED also shows how later writers such as Shelley and Walter Scott – whether or not influenced by Seward herself – participated enthusiastically in the same tradition, since they (especially Scott, himself the OED’s most cited source after Shakespeare) are often quoted in the same entry as subsequent users of the same locution. The OED documentation for this type of mainstream poetic diction often furnishes splendid examples of literary and cultural echoing back and forth between canonical authors and texts, or what Johnson, in planning his own dictionary, described as a ‘genealogy of sentiments, by shewing how one authour copied the thoughts and diction of another’ (see EOED page on this feature of Johnson’s Dictionary, ‘Genealogy of sentiments’).

We can see this straightaway with four examples from the first stanza quoted above:

  • line 2: What time… i.e., as a conjunctional phrase: OED1/2 defines this ‘At the time…at which’ and comments, ‘Now only poet.’ The entry quotes texts including Milton’s Lycidas (1637: ‘What time the Gray-fly winds her sultry horn’) and Cowper’s translation of the Iliad (1791, XX. 190: ‘What time the monster of the Deep pursued The Hero’)
  • line 5: fired. This is OED1/2 sense 3a (fig.): ‘To set (a person) on fire; to inspire with passion or strong feeling or desire’. The word is illustrated with 18th-century quotations from Dryden, Edward Young, Fielding, and Johnson, with Walter Scott beginning the list of 19th-century attestations:

…1697 DRYDEN Virg. Past. VIII. 99 Verse fires the frozen Veins. 1728 YOUNG Odes to King Wks. 1757 I. 176 What hero’s praise Can fire my lays, Like His? 1749 FIELDING Tom Jones XV. iv, Perceiving she had fired the young Lord’s pride. 1775 JOHNSON Tax. no Tyr. 22 The nations of Europe were fired with boundless expectation. 1813 SCOTT Rokeby I. xii, Fired was each eye, and flushed each brow…

  • line 6: winged. A comparable line-up of authorities illustrates this term, used in the sense ‘give wings to, enable to fly or soar’ (OED1/2 4b):

…1667 MILTON P.L. I. 175 The Thunder, Wing’d with red Lightning and impetuous rage. 1781 COWPER Catharina 50 With her book, and her voice, and her lyre, To wing all her moments at home. 1814 CARY Dante, Parad. xx. 102 Lively hope, that wing’d The prayers [of St. Gregory] sent up to God for his release. 1818 SCOTT Hrt. Midl. xiv, The hours glided on,..whether winged with joy or laden with affliction…

It is worth noting that Henry Cary, the translator of Dante who is quoted here, was a protégé of Seward’s and wrote her an epigraphic sonnet for the Llangollen Vale collection praising her as ‘th’immortal Muse of Britain’. His poetry was cited around 425 times in OED, compared with seven citations from Seward’s poetry – see below.

  • line 6: edged his…sword. The same is true again: cf. OED1/2 edge, v.1, sense 1a:

…1718 POPE Odyss. xx. 62 Thy sure divinity shall..edge thy sword to reap the glorious field. 1719 YOUNG Busiris IV. i, One dear embrace; ’twill edge my sword. 1808 J. BARLOW Columb. VI. 336 Fame fired their courage, freedom edged their swords…

One could go on making the same point indefinitely about Seward’s participation in a poetic convention stretching both before and after her. For example, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Young, Cowper, Scott, Shelley (3 times), Keats, and Tennyson are all quoted in the OED entry for vestal, referring to Vesta, the chaste Roman goddess of the hearth and household invoked in Seward’s line ‘Now with a Vestal luster glows the VALE’. Vesta is a singularly apt deity for Seward to conjure up in relation both to the Llangollen ladies themselves, who spurned male attachments, and to the cosy home they have created in the valley, which Seward regarded (as she goes on to describe in the poem, and elsewhere in her Letters, e.g. vol. 4) as a sanctuary of female friendship, virtue and happiness.

Seward’s poetry and OED1

Despite Seward’s prominence, in her own time, as a distinguished poet, OED1 recorded only seven quotations from her poetry (in contrast to its treatment of Seward’s letters). She is thus treated very differently from her male contemporaries of comparable reputation and literary visibility, whether poets well known today, such as Cowper, Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc., or less familiar figures like Edward Young and Henry Cary. Of these seven quotations, four qualified for inclusion probably because they furnish earliest recorded examples of the word or sense in question (or in the case of reverseless, the sole example):

  • crimp, adj. (sense 3, ‘Said of hair, feathers, etc.: Crimped’): ‘1764 A. SEWARD in Poet. Wks. (1810) I. p. cxv, A bag wig, in crimp buckle, powdered white as the new shorn fleece.’
  • limitary (sense 3, ‘Serving as a limit or boundary’): ‘1807 A. SEWARD in Athenæum Mar. (1895) 282/1 Where the horizon’s limitary line Meets the gloom’d sea…
  • reverseless: ‘1796 A. SEWARD To Thomas Erskine xi, The urn, whence Fate Throws her pale edicts in reverseless doom!’
  • tint (v., ‘To impart a tint to; to colour, esp. slightly or with delicate shades; to tinge’; Seward supplies the first figurative example): ‘1799 A. SEWARD Sonn. i. Poet. Wks. 1810 III. 122 No more young Hope tints with her light and bloom The darkening scene…

For more discussion of the significance of these citations, see Seward’s first quotations and hapax legomena respectively. OED1’s other two quotations from Seward’s poetry are:

  • for (as a causal conjunction): ‘1799 A. SEWARD Sonn. xlix, In balance true Weigh it, but smile at the objections vain Of sickly Spirits, hating for they do.’
  • tufty, adj.: ‘1796 A. SEWARD Hoyle Lake in New Ann. Reg. 158 Dry are the tufty downs, diffusive spread O’er the light surface of the sandy mound.’

Of these two, the rather contorted quotation for for is the more notable, since in general OED1 turned to male writers for what EOED calls the ‘bread and butter usages’ of the English language, i.e. illustration of the basic lexicon and especially of its more syntactic or grammatical components such as prepositions and conjunctions.

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. Seward discusses the poems with several of her correspondents, including Ponsonby herself, in vol. 4 of her collected letters (Constable 1811).