Seward Letters, 1795

Letter XX.

The Rev. Henry White, of Lichfield.
{vol. 4, pp 98-109}

Barmouth, Sept. 7, 1795.

I resume my pen, to speak to you of that enchanting unique, in conduct and situation, of which you have heard so much, though, as yet, without distinct description. You will guess that I mean the celebrated ladies of Langollen Vale, their mansion, and their bowers.

By their own invitation, I drank tea with them thrice during the nine days of my visit to Dinbren; and, by their kind introduction, partook of a rural dinner, given by their friend, Mrs Ormsby, amid the ruins of Valle-Crucis, an ancient abbey, distant a mile and a half from their villa. Our party was large enough to fill three chaises and two phaetons.

We find the scenery of Valle-Crucis grand, silent, impressive, awful. The deep repose, resulting from the high umbrageous mountains which rise immediately around these ruins, solemnly harmonizes with their ivied arches and broken columns. Our drive to it from the lovely [99] villa leads through one of the most picturesque parts of the peerless vale, and along the banks of the classic river.

After dinner, our whole party returned to drink tea and coffee in that retreat, which breathes all the witchery of genius, taste, and sentiment. You remember Mr Hayley’s poetic compliment to the sweet miniature painter, Miers:

“His magic pencil, in its narrow space,
Pours the full portion of uninjur’d grace.”

So may it be said of the talents and exertion which converted a cottage, in two acres and a half of turnip ground, to a fairy-palace, amid the bowers of Calypso.

It consists of four small apartment; the exquisite cleanliness of the kitchen, its utensils, and its auxiliary offices, vieing with the finished elegance of the gay, the lightsome little dining-room, as that contrasts the gloomy, yet superior grace of the library, into which it opens.

This room is fitted up in the Gothic style, the door and large sash windows of that form, and the latter of painted glass, “shedding the dim religious light.” Candles are seldom admitted into this apartment. –The ingenious friends have invented a kind of prismatic lantern, which occupies [100] the whole elliptic arch of the Gothic door. This lantern is of cut glass, variously coloured, enclosing two lamps with their reflectors. The light it imparts resembles that of a volcano, sanguine and solemn. It is assisted by two glow-worm lamps, that, in little marble reservoirs, stand on the opposite chimney-piece, and these supply the place of the here always chastized day-light, when the dusk of evening sables, or when night wholly involves the thrice-lovely solitude.

A large Eolian harp is fixed in one of the windows, and, when the weather permits them to be opened, it breaths its deep tones to the gale, swelling and softening as that rises and falls.

“Ah me! what hand can touch the strings to fine,
Who up the lofty diapason roll
Such sweet, such sad, such solemn airs divine,
and let them down again into the soul!”

This saloon of the Minervas contains the finest editions, superbly bound, of the best authors, in prose and verse, which the English, Italian, and French languages boast, contained in neat wire cases: over them the portraits, in miniature, and some in larger ovals, of the favoured friends of these celebrated votaries to that sentiment which exalted the characters of Theseus and Perithous, of David and Jonathan.

[101] Between the picture of Lady Bradford and the chimney-piece hangs a beautiful entablature, presented to the ladies of Langollen Vale by Madam Sillery, late Madam Genlis. It has convex miniatures of herself and of her pupil, Pamela; between them, pyramidally placed, a garland of flowers, copied from a nosegay, gathered by Lady Eleanor in her bowers, and presented to Madam Sillery.

The kitchen-garden is neatness itself. Neither there, nor in the whole precincts, can a single weed be discovered. The fruit-trees are of the rarest and finest sort, and luxuriant in their produce; the garden-house, and its implements, arranged in the exactest order.

Nor is the dairy-house, for one cow, the least curiously elegant object of this magic domain. A short steep declivity, shadowed over with tall shrubs, conducts us to the cool and clean repository. The white and shining utensils that contain the milk, and cream, and butter, are pure “as snows thrice bolted in the northern blast.” In the midst, a little machine, answering the purpose of a churn, enables the ladies to manufacture half a pound of butter for their own breakfast, with an apparatus which finished the whole process without manual operation.

The wavy and shaded gravel-walk which encircles [102] this Elysium, is enriched with curious shrubs and flowers. It is nothing in extent, and every thing in grace and beauty, and in variety of foliage; its gravel smooth as marble. In one part of it we turn upon a small knoll, which overhangs a deep hollow glen. In its tangled bottom, a frothing brook leaps and clamours over the rough stones in its channel. A large spreading beech canopies the knoll, and a semilunar seat, beneath its boughs, admits four people. A board, nailed to the elm, has this inscription,

“O cara Selva! e Fiumicello amato!”

It has a fine effect to enter the little Gothic library, as I first entered it, at the dusk hour. The prismatic lantern diffused a light gloomily glaring. It was assisted by the paler flames of the petit lamps on the chimney-piece, while, through the opened windows, we had a darkling view of the lawn on which they look, the concave shrubbery of tall cypress, yews, laurels, and lilachs; of the woody amphitheatre on the opposite hill, that seems to rise immediately behind the shrubbery; and of the grey barren mountain which, then just visible, forms the back ground. The evening-star had risen above the mountain; the airy harp loudly rung to the breeze, and completed the magic of the scene.

[103] You will expect that I say something of the enchantresses themselves, beneath whose plastic wand these peculiar graces arose. Lady Eleanor is of middle height, and somewhat beyond the embonpoint as to plumpness; her face round and fair, with the glow of luxuriant health. She has not fine features, but they are agreeable; –enthusiasm in her eye, hilarity and benevolence in her smile. Exhaustless is her fund of historic and traditionary knowledge, and of every thing passing in the present eventful period. She has uncommon strength and fidelity of memory; and her taste for works of imagination, particularly for poetry, is very awakened, and she expresses all she feels with an ingenuous ardour, at which the cold-spirited beings stare. I am informed that both these ladies read and speak most of the modern languages. Of the Italian poets, especially of Dante, they are warm admirers.

Miss Ponsonby, somewhat taller than her friend, is neither slender nor otherwise, but very graceful. Easy, elegant, yet pensive, is her address and manner:

“Her voice, like lovers watch’d, is kind and low.”

A face rather long than round, a complexion clear, but without bloom, and with a countenance [104] which, from its soft melancholy, has peculiar interest. If her features are not beautiful, they are very sweet and feminine. Though the pensive spirit within permits not her lovely dimples to give mirth to her smile, they increase its sweetness, and, consequently, her power of engaging the affections. We see, through their veil of shading reserve, that all the talents and accomplishments which enrich the mind of Lady Eleanor, exist, with equal powers, in this her charming friend.

Such are these extraordinary women, who, in the bosom of their deep retirement, are sought by the first characters of the age, both as to rank and talents. To preserve that retirement from too frequent invasion, they are obliged to be somewhat coy as to accessibility.

When we consider their intellectual resources, their energy and industry, we are not surprised to hear them asserting, that, though they have not once forsaken their vale, for thirty hours successively, since they entered it seventeen years ago; yet neither the long summer’s day, nor winter’s night, nor weeks of imprisoning snows, every inspired one weary sensation, one wish of returning to that world, first abandoned in the bloom of youth, and which they are yet so perfectly qualified to adorn.

Travelling hither, we found the country rising [105] into yet bolder and sublimer beauty on our progress — the mountains more vast, and more magnificent that night of woods which generally clothes them; though sometimes they aspire the clouds in the grey grandeur of barrenness — while nothing was ever so richly umbrageous as the vales and the glens at their feet, interspersed with meads of the freshest verdure, and with rocks that thrust their craggy points, and lift their angular eminences, whose sterility finely contrasts the woody luxuriance of the general scene. The Deva, always visible, and drawing his “wizard waters” in lines of light, from his rising out of the Lake Bala, through the long track of beauteous vales, Llandynion, Landesillis, Valle-Crucis, and Langollen, extending at least twenty miles. So unpropitious, however, was the wet and cheerless day, that it was through shrouds of rainy mists that we but in part discerned this all-surpassing scenery beneath, as our road zoned the midway of the Alpine steeps which overhung it.

We slept at Bala the first night, that boasts her silver lake eleven miles in circumference. Another rainy morn — but it soon cleared up after we had resumed our journey. We found the road comparatively dreary during about eight miles; –the mountains were vast, but uniformly barren, and the vales at their feet had little luxuriance; [106] but during the remaining ten miles, that lead us to Dolgelly, romantic Beauty resumed all her empire, with the sublime addition of cataracts thundering down the rocks. These were the present of our late rains. One of them was super-eminent in grandeur and picturesque grace. In the dark recess of some immense and over-arching rocks, two large and roaring torrents met, which had descended from their sides, and spread wide sheets of snowy foam in the gloomy chasm.

Waiting for horses at Dolgelly till after five, they at last gave us tired ones; and I have since learned that they were stone-blind. A circumstance so cruel involved us in perils that might have appalled a stouter heart than mine. In the midway to Barmouth night overtook us. Then it was that our miserable horses refused to draw on every ascent, standing stock still, insensible alike to the coaxing or the lashes of the driver; and this though we always alighted, creeping on the foot up every hill, with immense fatigue to me, and with terror inexpressible.

But for one fortunate circumstance, amid those wild and savage heights must we have passed the night, stunned with the din of unseen torrents, pouring down the rocks above — a noise which darkness rendered horrible — while intervening seas were breaking in at the feet of those precipices on [107] whose edge we travelled. –Fortunately we met with two stout peasants, who, by our bribing high, were induced to accompany us to Barmouth, to assist the horses in dragging the empty chaise up the hills, and to walk between our horses and the precipices when we were in our vehicle. Luckily it did not rain, though the infant moon was shrouded in threatening blackness. The road, by day-light, is not very unsafe, though sufficiently alarming. It leads through magnificent scenery of rocks and woods, interspersed with arms of the sea, and the ocean lying in front, –but the veil of night concealed its charms from us, and trebled all its dangers. Ah! how welcome the glimmering lights of the Barmouth windows. –It was eleven ere we arrived. From a projection of the rocks, there was no appearance of human habitation till we immediately descended into the town. Nothing, till then, could our wearied eyes discern through the gloom, but a vast ocean, howling and harbourless.

I must not conclude my letter without observing, that, on my second visit to the fairy palace, a lovely Being cast around its apartments the soft lunar rays of her congenial beauty. — Mrs Tighe, the wife of one of my friend’s nephews, an elegant and intelligent young gentleman, whom I should have observed more had his wife’s beauty been less. I used the [108] word lunar as characteristic of that beauty, for it is not resplendent and sunny, like Mrs Plummer’s, but, as it were, shaded, though exquisite. She is scarcely two-and-twenty. It is not too much that Aonian inspiration should be added to the cestus of Venus? She left an elegant and accurate sonnet, addressed to Lady E. Butler and her friend, on leaving their enchanting bowers.

Lady Cunliffe,* of whom you have often heard me talk with delight, was here for a day or two the beginning of the week. We met as old friends. She is the same intelligent, interesting, amiable creature with whom I passed a month so pleasantly at Buxton in the autumn 1784 — but eleven years have made some havock in her beauty; — unless the swart power of these fierce suns, exposed to them during several days, as she had been, in an open carriage, and the dust and dishabille of travelling, had greatly increased the tarnishing power of time. Seeing her now, you would say she was a very fine woman; but would scarcely conceive how divinely handsome she was at the period above mentioned. Her lilies and roses are exchanged for the unblended flush of sun-burnt health. Ah! if my dear Honora, whom she then so strikingly resembled, had lived to this hour, she would probably have been as much, perhaps more, altered. It is these changes that make it so desirable [109] to possess good pictures of our lovely friends, before time shall either fade or bronze them. If, like my sister and Honora, they die young, their beauty lives, in undecaying youth, in the memory of their contemporaries; but if they grow old by our side, we insensibly lose the distinct recollection of what they once were, without the assistance of the pencil.

This bright morning has risen upon me with better health on its wings. I have accepted the very kind offer of Mr Wise and his engaging daughters, and am settled in delightful apartments, situate on an high terrace, that looks immediately down upon this vast mass of animated water. I sit writing at an open sash-window, inhaling its salubrious gales. The tide is flowing up, and rolls its green waves in light.

What mercifully fine weather is ripening the golden harvest that waves through our land! O! that to this gracious boon of Heaven, our rulers would endeavour to add the blessings of peace! –that, of all the allied powers, the English would not be the last to grow wise, and bide the sanguinary sword sleep in its scabbard!

*NB the Lady Cunliffe whom Seward knew was Harriet Kinloch, wife of Sir Foster Cunliffe, baronet – related to Mary Gosling (aka Lady Smith) through her maternal grandfather, Sir Ellis Cunliffe.


Mrs Parry Price

1795, September 15. Barmouth.–

I shall hope to reach my friends Mr. and Mrs. Roberts on their mountain that overlooks the beauteous Vale of Llangollen, by Monday eve. On my late nine days’ visit to them I was honoured with the most gratifying and kind attentions from Lady E. Butler and Miss Ponsonby; who, by their singular amity, and yet more singular seclusion, and by their rare talents and graces, are continuing to that Vale, the celebration for which, in times of yore, it was indebted to the charms of the lady of the Castle of Dinas-Bran, when, in her then princely mansion, high on the conic mountain, she taught the Bard Howell, like Petrarch, to ‘purchase fame by misfortune,’ as he sighed and sung of unattainable beauty, and for glory of stronger colouring to the exertions of the great Owen Glendour, when, struggling for the freedom of his country, he gave the Cambrians to boast, in their own Llangollen, another Thermopoli.

Letter XXI.

The Right Hon. Lady Eleanor Butler.
{vol. 4, pp 110-112}

                                                                                    Emral, near Wrexham, Sep. 27, 1795.

The distance between Langollen and Emral is longer than I supposed.  I had a degree of pain during the journey, that sunk my spirits extremely, inspiring a fear that it might be the last I should find strength or cheerfulness to undertake.  Alas! dearest ladies, much did that despondence deepen the regret, that my ear no longer drank the sweet sounds of condescending kindness and confidential friendship, with which I had been honoured beneath the Arcadian bowers!

I found my beloved Mrs Price with a party of friends around her.  Yesterday we dined at Brenny-Peaw, taking Gwemheylid, which, in English, means Sunny-Alders, in our way.  I had heard much of the scene. — It is certainly a fine one, though not exactly that which enchants me.  The prospect is very extensive.  It commands the spires of Chester, distant twenty-miles; and the terminating mountains beyond, are too distant for [111] effect.  A pendant wood, sloping down to the valley, stretches on, two miles to the right, from the lawns which surround the house.  Beautiful walks are cut through this wood.  In one part, there is an elegant summer-house, in another, one of the most natural and picturesque grottos I have seen.  The meadows of this valley are richly verdant, and the vast number of fine cattle they feed, suggest patriarchal ideas which are very agreeable.

The Deva winds along the expansive and fertile vale with capricious beauty; and her lucid and singular twinings form the characteristic grace of the scene.

Yesterday we dined with a venerable pair at Broughton, in a right venerable mansion, spacious, and surrounded by large gardens, laid out in the last century.  Every thing in and round this house breathes the spirit of ancient days, without their decay.

To-morrow, Mr Hughes, of this neighbourhood, after having new fronted, new-names his house.  –It is to be a gala of dinner, ball, and supper.  We are invited, but I must be excused. –I am not in health for “such late wasseling.”

This neighbourhood is rich in gentlemens seats, whose inhabitants are convivially generous, and meet often: consequently that retirement, so dear to me in country-residence, is not likely to [112] be mine while I stay at Emral.  It seems peculiarly suited to the genius of this place, whose mansion, whose gardens and groves are mellowed, and sobered by vestiges of antiquity.

I have the honour to remain, with every grateful impression, and the most admiring esteem, dear Lady Eleanor and her charming friend’s obliged and affectionate servant.


Letter XXIII.

Mrs Mary Powys.
{vol. 4, pp 117-122}

                                                                                    Lichfield, Nov. 17, 1795.

We are in the same situation, dear friend, –perpetually forced into long reluctant silences to each other, and to many besides who are dear to us.  It is only a month since I received your last, bearing the long date of August the 20th.  When it arrived, I had recently set out for Wales.  My health and spirits needed much every restorative they could obtain from changed air, mountain-gales, coast-residence, and abstinence from the pen, with exemption also from the uneasy consciousness of not fulfilling the claims made upon its exertion.  Therefore I left orders that no letters, arriving in my absence, should be sent after me, but wait my return.  Thus yours, with almost twenty others, remained some weeks unopened in my house.

Your excursions to Ireland by Holyhead, have [118] familiarized you with the Claude-landscapes of Langollen’s Vales.  I lived at Mr Roberts’ house a fortnight of this absence, situate on a bold mountain that rises amidst their scenes.  On my road thither, I passed four days with your friends, Mr and Mrs and Miss Wingfields in Shrewsbury — breathing many a sigh, as I passed and repassed the venerable Abbey-walls — your native walls — scene of your infant sports — haunts of your youth — within whose bounds I passed with you many a day of interest and delight, that passed swiftly on in the brighter years of life and friendship; — my mind previously strung to the keenest sense of these yearnings, by the inexpressible, yet to you perfectly conceivable sensations which arose in my heart, on travelling under the park walls of Weston: — sad, sacred spot!

From Mr Roberts’ I went to Barmouth, distant thence about fifty miles.  What landscapes, matchless surely on this island, did those fifty miles exhibit!  Barmouth is in the bay of Cardigan.  I staid there a month, almost baked by the intense heat of the weather, and of the situation; for into that western bay, concaved by vast mountains, western winds only can blow, while every apartment of the lodging-houses have the same aspect, so oppressive when the sun flames in a sultry horizon.  I had scarcely a day’s health [119] while I staid there, and, thank God, have scarcely known a day’s illness since I returned home.  One has heard of the after-benefits received from excursions.  I hope I may flatter myself with having obtained that ensuing good; but really, at Barmouth, the ocean-breezes, passing over a bed of burning sand, that intervenes between the town and the sea, seemed the Sirocco gales of Italy.  The semicircular mountains are high, but barren, and somewhat monotonous.  An half mile’s walk up the turnpike road, cut in the rocks, conducts us to scenery, great beyond all I had seen, and totally unlike every other prospect that had met my eye.  It continues, in unabated and varied grandeur, to Dolgelly, a ten-mile stage, and which I had travelled in darkness and peril extreme; but I repassed it, on my return, beneath a bright morning sun.  Its peculiar features are formed by an estuary of the sea, breaking in amongst rocks and mountains, immense in their elevation, and tumbled about in magnificent disorder; some richly curtained with foliage, and others bare; the water, when the tide is up, forming apparent lakes amongst them, which exceed the boasted grandeur of Ullswater, as I was assured by a gentleman of accurate observation, who had seen both countries.  From Dolgelly to Langollen, romantic [120] beauty assumes softer features, profusely uniting sylvan luxuriance to mountainous sublimity.

This excursion has given me the honour and happiness of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby’s friendship, the celebrated Recluses of Langollen Vale.  Their retreat, as you have doubtless heard, if you have not seen it, is a little temple, consecrated to Friendship and the Muses, and adorned by the hands of all the Graces.  Their lawns and bowers breathe the same spirit of consummate elegance.  They are women of genius, taste, and knowledge, — sought, in the beauteous retirement, by the great, the literary, and the ingenious.  Devoted to each other, their expanded hearts have yet room for other warm attachments.  Mrs Powys of Berwick stands high in their esteem, and they have known her long.  They assure me, that the uncommon beauty of her face, the pensive and expressive sentiment of her countenance, and the serene grace of her majestic and fine form, exactly delineate the intelligent mind and feeling heart that animate them.  The elegant style of her letters, with one of which she has honoured me, confirm their high praise of her understanding.  Nor can I doubt that she equally merits their glowing eulogium on her virtues.  They tell me that the envy, always excited by her [121] superiorities, and of late more inflamed by the high connection she has made for her lovely daughter, Lady Fielding, has made her a few industrious foes amongst the ladies of her vicinity, some of them villifying an shunning her.  Ah! they would do better to imitate the condescending sweetness they so little resemble.

Lady Eleanor and Miss Ponsonby anxiously inquired if you, and this your beauteous cousin, were on terms of amity.  I told them that I did not recollect to have heard you mention Mrs Powys, except in general terms.  They observed, that she always spoke of you with much regard.

What a charming description your last letter gives me of Sandgate, on the Kentish coast.  How rarely, as there, do trees and flowers luxuriantly adorn the ocean’s side.  A poet has asked,

“Who seeks to pluck the fragrant rose,

From the bare heath, or oozy beach?”

— but the beach of Sandgate shows us roses.  I hope its fine air and bathing restored your friend Miss Hardy’s health, whom you so kindly accompanied thither, and so assiduously nursed.  Well do I know the generous energy of your attentions on occasions like these; — indeed on all occasions where friendship needs them.

[122] I heard much in Shropshire of Miss Louisa S.’s beauty and graces; of the conquest they had seemed to make of Mr P.’s heart.  Does time barb the shaft? –and will he seek balm for its would at the altar of Hymen?  Adieu!


Letter XXVI.

Right Hon. Lady Eleanor Butler.
{vol. 4, pp 131-138}

                                                                                                Lichfield, Dec. 9, 1795.

Before I speak to you, dearest Lady Eleanor, of the contents of your thrice-gratifying, thrice-beautiful letter, suffer me to present my thanks of a bounteous present of fruit-trees.  They will be the pride of my garden, and I shall watch their growth with solicitude, as the pledges of an highly-prized friendship.

I rejoice that my poem, on Langollen Vale, meets a reception of such partial warmth from the bright spirits it celebrates, and whose praise I more desire for it than fame; yet am I conscious how largely that praise transcends its merit.  I believe its poetic stamina are not weaker than those of the best of my writings; my utmost hope, as to its essential merit, “has that extent, — no more:” — but indeed, indeed, none of my compositions have any pretence to vie with the Darwinian muse, in the splendours of imagination.

I am sorry that only my two essays on Richardson’s Clarissa please you, in the collection entitled [132] Variety.  The generality of them appear to me agreeable, amusing, animated; by no means without interest, or deficient in wit and humour, though not of fascinating eloquence: I thought them on a level with the papers of the Spectator.  I have ever considered those as greatly over-praised and over-rated as works of genius, of which I cannot conceive that they contain any very bright emanations.

O! certainly Johnson’s quotation, in his folio Dictionary, under the word rhyme, from Dryden, to the disparagement of Milton, is of the same complexion with his citing the evident burlesque, the Tetrachordon Sonnet, as a specimen of that great poet’s manner of writing sonnets; — but the injustice, in the former instance, is not so broad and enormous as in the latter.  Dryden probably disliked Milton for the censurable superciliousness with which he had called him, “the man of rhyme;” but Dryden’s dislike had not the bitterness of Johnson’s, because he was a better-tempered man.  Neither had Johnson’s aversion the excuse of piqued pride and personal soreness.  –He hated the man for his party, and his poetry for its pre-eminence.  Of blank verse, of odes, and of sonnets, he omits no occasion of speaking disdainfully, without making any exception in favour of Milton; and, for that author’s writings in the couplet [133] rhyme, he was glad to quote the idle censure of Dryden.  What then, as a poet, did he leave him?  To be sure, when, in writing the life of that transcendent writer, he was obliged to review the Paradise Lost, he durst not, with all his effrontery, withhold a considerable portion of praise: — but he praises Milton under the eye of the public as Pistol eat his leek under that of Fluellen.  After all, he endeavours to do away, collectively, all his reluctant praise of that glorious and beautiful poem, by observing, that no person closes its pages with the desire of recurring to them; — that its perusal is always a task, never a pleasure — or to that effect.  A self-evident, I could almost say an impudent falsehood; since there can be no inducement to resume a work of imagination in our native language, the perusal of which had afforded us no delight, but had inspired only weariness; therefore, if Johnson’s assertion was not a falsehood, no one would look twice into Milton’s Paradise Lost — with which, in fact, every person of poetic taste is familiar.

I am flattered, extremely by the conviction you express, that my centenary of sonnets, and which form a sort of compendium of my sentiments, opinions, and impressions, during the course of more than twenty years, would be acceptable to the public; — but I have always felt a reluctance in [134] giving my writings in form to the world.  Some stronger stimulus than the uncertain hope of its favour, was always necessary to conquer this procrastinating tardiness.  I certainly mean they should one day appear.  I know their poetic worth, and dare trust their fame to posterity; — assured that the Gothic mantle, now spread over poetic taste, will be cast away in time to come.  Few people, at this period, respect the Muses; and this consciousness makes me feel unwilling to expose myself to the mortification of press-errors, and to the spleen of my personal enemies, venting itself in anonymous criticism.

My Memoir of the Peak Minstrel, and poem addressed to him, in the Gentlemen’s Magazine for March 1785, have had the honour to interest you and your charming friend in his destiny, and suggested your inquiry into his present situation.  At the time that memoir and poem were written, or very soon after, he was articled for seven years, upon a salary of L. 50 per annum, as machinery-carpenter in a cotton-mill, in beauteous Monsaldale, Derbyshire.  Two years after, the mill was burnt, and he with difficulty escaped from its sudden and midnight conflagration.  His tools, purchased gradually, and which cost him L. 30, were consumed. — He was refused any compensation for them.  Thus, with a wife and two [135] children, he had the world to begin again.  I procured a few guineas for their present support.

That accident, which seemed so ruinous, will, I trust, prove the means of making his fortune.  His known ingenuity in mechanics, his industry and fair moral character, induced some monied people, who were going to erect a cotton-mill in that neighbourhood, but, alas! in a situation dreary as the former was Edenic, to offer to admit him third partner, if he would undertake to construct its machinery, keep it in order, and could advance L. 200 to the common-stock.  An old godmother of his, who had boarded with his wife some years, and experienced from him the kindness of filial attention, sold, for this purpose, houses, which were her sole support, and which produced L. 150.  I lent him the remaining L. 50, and he re-embarked in business, in the respectable station of cotton-manufacturer.  The mill, to which he belongs, stood, amidst the commercial wreck of so many great houses in Manchester, about two years ago.  All the Peak mills supply that town.  A little before that dangerous crisis, he wrote to me that he had realized a thousand pounds in the concern; — a great sum for the short time he had been engaged in it.  I find they are now going on very prosperously.

[136] But for the destruction of the Monsaldale-mill, he would not have been at liberty to accept the advantageous proposals made to him.  Yet, when that sad accident happened, he bewailed it as ruinous.

“Oft from imagined ills our blessings flow.”

            I have just read Madame Roland’s interesting Memoirs and Letters.  The third volume contains some strange indelicacies, similar to those in Rousseau’s Confessions.  Of very recent publication, probably they may not have reached Langollen Vale.  She was a most extraordinary woman; of a great comprehensive mind, and affectionate heart, and her husband one of the few really virtuous characters of the revolution.  How severely did they both suffer from the chimerical plan of liberty they supported and propagated! — a plan which, except it found men angels, must make them demons.  Of that truth they were soon fatally convinced, and to its force these Memoirs bear frequent testimony.  O! what new scenes of unprecedented barbarity do they disclose, and which, as Madame Roland herself observes, far transcend the annals of Tiberius Cæsar’s reign!

[137] Her third volume wears an air of vanity, which lowers her a little, and that from the number, minuteness, and length of details, which relate solely to the years of her infancy.  A few of them would have been welcome.  Those whom great characters interest, love to look at the dawn of so bright an intellectual day — but she keeps us out too long before breakfast.

New warnings to England glare broad through these Memoirs.  God forbid they should be vain!  Yet our Catilines, to obtain the seat of rule for an interval, are straining every never to pull eventual destruction upon their own heads, after ruining their country.

Had Roland and his wife seen, as we have seen, the miseries resulting from an overturned empire, and from democratic sway, their virtue would have prevented their disseminating those ideas and principles, to which such numbers of wretched people have, with themselves, been sacrificed.  This work, however, has taught me to believe the murdered king more blameable than I supposed; — that if he had acted sincerely, he might yet have been a monarch, with limited powers, and saved his people from the miseries of lawless disorganization, under the idiot name of equality.

[138] In the description of Madame Roland’s person, on the day of her execution, we have a curious instance of that want of veracity for which Frenchmen have been always notorious.  She tells us herself, that he height was precisely five feet, and that her eyes were small and of a greyish hue.  Her describer says, she was tall and majestic, with eyes large and black, &c.

We had a charming public concert last week, at which Mr Saville favoured the company with one song, of never-excelled grace and power.  it was a tender amoroso air, succeeded by a disdainful bravura.  It is set by Bach, and quite an opera song.

Most of us felt the earthquake in our little city, but few, at the instant, knew what it was.  Happily for England, those dread convulsions of the earth, which, on the continent, disroot rocks, overturn mountains, tilt oceans on the shores, as water poured from a basin, and swallow up whole cities,—

“But gently vibrate on her grassy bosom.”

            I have the honour to remain, &c.


Letter XXVIII.

Miss Ponsonby.
{vol. 4, pp 142-148}

                                                                                    Lichfield, Dec. 29, 1795.

The energy and speed of your exertion, in procuring the solicited drawing, has all my gratitude.  Ah! on how many occasions, in that short interval, since I had the honour and happiness of waiting upon you and Lady Eleanor, have I felt the sense of obligation!

My foot has been some days restored to soundness, and allowed me to resume my daily walks, beneath the mild skies of a winter hitherto uncommonly temperate.  These walks, after a fortnight’s total confinement, are taken with a pleasure resembling that of a bird escaped from its wiry prison, when it finds its liberty and its wings.

Yes, I will not fail to watch the Brocus Bergamot pear-tree, in my garden-wanderings; though I am, myself, too ignorant of horticulture to be a judge of its progress.  Contented hitherto with seeing my grass smooth and vivid, and my flowers gay, I thought little of the fruit-trees, to whose [143] luxuriance the rocky, and, I believe, rubbishy soil, below the surface, has proved very inauspicious.  Now that your and lady Eleanor’s bounty have annexed, in my ideas, vegetation and sentiment, I shall become impatient of a defect to which I used to be right stoical.  My pear-trees, however, have generally, by their fruitfulness, seemed to deride the niggard soil; so I have good hopes of the brocus.

Justly do you observe, that the closing year has yet scarcely taught us “its solemn lesson.”  The honour you did my Sonnet on Winter, by quoting one of its lines, is not lost upon me.  Quotation is at once the highest, and most delicate kind of praise our writings can receive — that only excepted which Lady E. tells me you purpose to confer upon mine.  When I consider how much time, and time so precious, must be employed in such a task, I vainly wish for them a degree of excellence proportioned to such eminent distinction.

I thank you for transcribing the article from Chamber’s Encyclopedia on the word Sonnet.  It ascertains, clearly enough, the rules respecting the return of the rhymes, &c. which render it regular, or, as it is termed, legitimate; but where the constituents of its perfection are attempted to be defined, I was astonished at the stupidity of the [144] critic, till Mr White informed me, that the late Dr Kippis was one of the editors of that work.  I knew that he had many years filled the department of poetic critic in the Monthly Review, successor to the enlightened, elegant, and candid Bently.  From the manner in which I had repeatedly seen Kippis executing that office, resulted a conviction of his utter incompetency to judge of English poetry; a power which the study of the Greek and Latin classics will not give, unless an at least equal portion of time and attention is bestowed upon the English poets.  It was alike evident, from the praise and censures of Kippis in the Monthly Review, that he possessed no native sensibility of poetic powers and graces in this language; — no scientific consciousness of those essentials which form poetic excellence; — no familiarity with the works of our sublimest bards.  Therefore my wonder ceased at the definition, in the Encyclopedia, of sonnet-beauty, and at its Midas preference amongst the sonnets of Milton.  He tells us a good sonnet must end with some pretty ingenious thought, and the close must be particularly beautiful, or the sonnet is defective.  If he had ever attended to the subject, upon which he so arrogantly and so emptily decides, he would have known, that the legitimate sonnet generally consists of one thought, regularly [145] pursued to the close; and that nothing can be less necessary, indeed more improper, than a new or detached thought for the conclusion; and that brilliance, epigrammatic turn or point, belong not to that species of composition; which, notwithstanding the lightness of its name, is of rather a grave and severe character.  An harmonious and impressive close, provided it be not epigrammatic or detached, but connected with the subject, must be an advantage.  Yet, since the best of Milton’s sonnets are models for this order of verse in our language, their practice demonstrates, that a quiet unornamented close is not inconsistent with its excellence.  Those three, which are incomparably the finest of Milton’s, finish with serene simplicity, viz. that sublime sonnet on the Piedmont massacre; — that majestic exhortation to the solider to spare his dwelling, in which we participate so forcibly with the delight the great poet must have felt from the consciousness there expressed of the fulness of his power to reward the protection he solicits; — that to Mr Lawrence, which, in the compass of fourteen lines, presents a winter and summer landscape; a festal board, surrounded with a knot of literary friends, a concert, and an important philosophic observation.  Nor only these three, but nearly all the rest close [146] with sobriety: — so closes the favourite sonnet of the sage Encyclopædia critic, — that addressed to Mr H. Laws, and which, he tells, us, is one of Milton’s best: and, lo! it contains not one image, not one sentiment, has no magic of versification, and is utterly unworthy to have proceeded from the pen of Milton.  So much for Dr Kippis’ judgment concerning the indispensable in sonnet excellence; — so much for his taste respecting selection.

He is talking of Milton’s English sonnets, and he tells us there are twenty-three, — forgetting that five of Milton’s sonnets are Italian, which reduces the number of the English ones to eighteen.  Of these eighteen, four are wretched.  The Tetrachordon is evident burlesque, written in sport — but it is the sport of an elephant, heavy, and clumsy.  That to Sir H. Vane, and that to Lady M. Lee, and the selected to H. Laws, are of curious infelicity.

Mr Cary has honoured my poem on Langollen Vale, which I read to him, with a very beautiful and strictly regular sonnet.  Behold it —

Deva, when next my vagrant steps explore

The haunts romantic, where they silver streams,

On which the garish sun but seldom gleams,

Fill, with their wild and fancy-soothing roar,

[147]    Langollen’s verdant straits, and mountains hoar,

How shall I dwell enraptur’d on the themes,

That now the immortal muse of Britain deems

Worthy her sacred scroll, unmark’d before;

The steeds whose fetlocks swam in blood; — the host

Of Glendour, claiming valour’s brightest meed;

Hoel’s love-breathing harp, and lays divine;

And the fair wanderers from Ierne’s coast,

Who, to fond Friendship’s gentle power decreed,

Rear in this watery vale their simple shrine.

It may be old-fashioned to send Christmas compliments; yet the wish of my heart will not be restrained for many, very many, happy returns of this season to yourself and Lady Eleanor — this season, in which, the divine Shakespeare tells us,

“The bird of dawning singeth all night long;

No ghost can walk, no witch hath power to harm,

So hallow’d, and so gracious is the time.”

I awoke at six on Christmas-day; and, on hearing the cocks of the neighbourhood cheerily answering each other, recollected that passage with thrills of delight.  It chased the mists of slumber, so I rang for my fire and arose.  My dressing-room windows look upon the cathedral area, which is a green lawn, encircled by prebendal houses, and they are rough-cast.  The glimmer [148] of the scene, through the dusk of a December morning at seven, produced the following sonnet, several years ago, from my pen:

I love to rise ere breaks the tardy light,

Winter’s pale day; and, as clear fires illume,

And cheerful tapers shine around the room,

Through misty windows bend my musing sight

Where, round the dusky lawn, the mansions white,

With shutters clos’d, peer faintly through the gloom,

That slow recedes; while you grey spires assume,

Rising from their dark pile, an added height,

By indistinctness given; — then to decree

The rising thoughts to Heaven, ere they unfold

To Friendship, or the muse; or seize with glee

Wisdom’s rich page! — O hours, more worth than gold,

By whose blest use we lengthen life, and, free

From drear decays of age, outlive the old!

I remain, with the most perfect esteem, dearest Madam, &c.


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