Seward Letters, 1799

Letter XXXI.

Sarah Ponsonby.
{vol. 5, pp 193-197}

Lichfield, Jan. 24, 1799.

I have to thank you, dearest ladies, for a very beautiful but too costly present. This ring and seal in one, this Apollo’s head and lyre, makes an admirable impression. It is a fine gem, and rich and elegant is the circlet for the finger. As you gift, it possesses value,

—————– “Gold says, ‘is not in me;’
And, ‘not in me,’ the diamond.”

Mr S. desires me to make his grateful acknowledgment for the elegant testimony he has received of Lady E. Butler and Miss Ponsonby’s regard, who increase the happiness of all on whom they smile, and confer distinction wherever they esteem.

Frequent are the periods in which I grieve for the lost tranquillity of your hearts, and in which I deplore the cause. This forcing the scheme of union upon Ireland, against the general inclination [194] of its people, especially at this dangerous juncture, is a new instance of the daring pride of Mr Pitt. The English may thank themselves for the complicated mischiefs he has brought upon their country. They have not only borne and do bear, but have applauded, and yet applaud, his baffled schemes, and heavy unprecedented oppressions, till they have taught him to think he may coerce the world. He commands a majority in the Irish parliament, and he will say to the sword, Do thou the rest.

When last I had the honour to address you, it was with the fervent and probable hope, that, ere this time, I should have the happiness to congratulate you on the restored tranquillity of your native country; it was then comfortably in train for that blessed event, till this fatal scheme came forward:

“That bears a thousand dangers on its wing,
And thousand well-disposed Irish hearts
Plucks from the cause of England.”

My sonnets and odes are gone to press. I wished a pretty engraving for their frontispiece. A design occurred to me, allusive to the first sonnet. I described it to our Lichfield Claude, Glover, and though landscape, not figures, is his study, he has made a sweet drawing from my plan, [195] if the engraver will but do him equal justice. Imagination, a beautiful female figure, stands lightly on an eminence, partially gilded by a sunbeam, glancing through the clouds of a gloomy horizon, which darken the surrounding scene below. With her hands gracefully lifted, she holds her lamp up to the sunbeam, which enkindles it. The motto you will find underdrawn in the lines which suggested my design:

————- ——— “Lo! with alter’d brows
Lowers the flase world, and the fine spirit grieves,
No more Hope’s day-spring tints with light and bloom
The darkening scene. Then to ourselves we say,
Come, bright Imagination come, relume
They orient lamp!”

Glover is a man of most comprehensive genius. His first attempt at portrait, and he has yet made only two, is a striking and pleasing likenss of our young and lovely Mr Lister, whose literary fame is rising fast, and I conceive his talents plumed for a very lofty flight; but I have not yet dismissed Mr Glover, whose taste is not less awakened to the beauties of the pen, than his hand is competent to the powers of the pencil. A gentle and amiable temper has removed from his voice, and from his manners, every vestige of that rusticity [196] which his obscure birth and unlettered education might teach us to expect. He has engaged to instruct a young married pair of our city in drawing, gratis, on condition that the gentleman teaches him Italian. Such lettered ambition in a life so busy, and with the care of providing for a wife and seven children, is as laudable as it is rare.

Early in December I lost, in the prime of his life, a valued friend and nineteen years correspondent. Yes, the humane, the lettered David Samwell, is no more. He was fellow-voyager of the brave Cook, and stood high in his esteem. My elegy on him procured me Mr Samwell’s friendship. He was born amid your vales, and has been long the patron of Cambrian poesy in its native tongue, and, I am told, wrote it finely himself.

And Wales has yet more recently lost a very pleasant acquaintance of Mr Saville’s and mine. Poor Watkin Haymen, the witty and the harmonious, whose songs

“So oft made vocal Cambria’s passing gales.”

Mr Saville sighs and says, “So there is one pleasure the less for us in Wales.” Both these gentlemen died in apparently perfect health, by apoplexy.

[197] Adieu! adieu! May the new dangers which threaten Ireland, and, with it, your future peace, be averted!


Letter XXXIV.

Miss Ponsonby.
{vol. 5, pp 206-212}

Lichfield, April 3, 1799.

That your and Lady Eleanor’s kind attentive cares have restored the health of your humble friend and follower of your fortunes, I congratulate you, my dearest Madam [footnote: The female servant who, when these ladies left their splendid connections in Ireland, twenty years ago, to seek a lettered retirement in Wales, pined a few months for their absence, and then set out to search for them in England, without any clue to direct her pursuit, since, to avoid solicitations to return, they had kept the scene of their retreat a secret even from their nearest relations and friends.—S.]. Concerning your own and mutual health, the kind letter, which I have now the honour to acknowledge, makes no mention. I therefore flatter myself it is unimpaired. [207] Would to Heaven I could entertain for your peace as dear a certainty! [footnote: On account of the present dreadful situation of their native Ireland.—S.] –but let me forbear to touch the jarring string, which you shun to vibrate; –nor will I descant on my own increasing weakness from the augmenting tyranny of rheumatic disease.

Correcting every proof-sheet of my emerging volume has been a task at once engrossing and irksome. Yet was it not repented even in the most oppressive moments of lassitude. The proper or improper position even of commas and semicolons, is momentous to perspicuity. We cannot hope from the demons of the press a sedulous attention to them, and revisers are very prone to conceive a meaning in passages foreign from the author’s conception, and hence to alter the punctuation so as to favour their own mistaken idea. There is no guarding against that danger, but by the author correcting the press himself. It is true his eye, conscious of what should be, is apt to overlook what is. This propensity has probably left several erroneous verbalisms in myself-revised sheets; but worse mischief had probably ensued from delegating that trust, even though the person so employed were a man of sense, and a scholar.

[208] The desire which you say your numerous correspondents express to see my muse re-entered on the paths of publicity, is highly flattering, thorny as those paths are apt to prove. Considering that desire as sincere, it gratifies my hope of her welcome reception in the world; and, in the modester idea, that such avowed impatience is merely the wish of saying what they know will please those whom every person of taste desires to please, their courtierism must result from a belief thrice precious to my heart; –and thus, either way, am I gratified.

A friend of Mr Roscoe’s lately sent me that gentlemen’s translation, in verse, of an ancient Italian poem, La Balia [footnote: The Nurse.—S.], by Tansillio. By making immense boats, in the preface, of the poetic merit of his original, Mr Roscoe made himself responsible for a very charming poem in an English dress. Either he has been fascinated by the grandeur and sweetness of the Italian language, into a very overweening appreciation of the merit of La Balia, or he has suffered the charms and graces, of which he boats, to vanish from beneath his pen in their translation. It is, in truth, a dry-nurse in his versification, destitute of imagery, barren of metaphor, and nearly naked as to allusion. [209] In short, we find scarce any of the poetic essentials in this work; the versification is flat and monotonous; nor does the long and heavy composition contain, in my opinion, twenty lines which deserve to be called poetry. Many passages are obscure through grammatic inaccuracy.

The duty enjoined by this poem is, without doubt important, and, in the higher classes of life, infamously sacrificed to unjustifiable excuses; –but, by ridiculous exaggeration of the evils resulting from its neglect, the poet disarms the force of his own admonitions. The unnatural practice of omitting it through idleness, the love of amusement, or personal vanity, is sufficiently reprehensible, without calling in the aid of bug-bear. The injunctions to perform it are, in this composition, positive, without making any exceptions from circumstances which render a large number of mothers unfit for this delightful office, as insanity or scrofula in their families, or a pulmonary or scorbutic taint in their own constitution. Also, with no more exception, it pronounces the hired wet-nurse an inevitable fiend, whether in or out of the house of her employer; and absurdly asserts that, not only bodily diseases are imbibed by the infant from her, but every grovelling and and vicious propensity, as if ignorance and wickedness could be conveyed by aliment. [210] Where the maternal nutriment is ineligible, no mention is made of cow’s milk as a substitute. Experience continually proves that a healthy infant may be so fed, without danger of inoculated malady.

With all the sins of omission against poetry, and all of commission against good sense, with which this translation abounds, I observed to Mr Saville and cousin White, when we read it together, that the reviewers would applaud it. They exclaimed, “Impossible! you are too hard upon reviewers.” But, lo! my prophecy is accomplished. I knew that the celebrity which Lorenzo de Medicis has obtained, would make them conclude every production must be good which came from the pen of its author. I believed they were not aware that it is one thing to be a good prose-writer, an industrious linguist, and historian, and even a good classic scholar, and another to be a good poet. From specimens, which I had seen in former years, of Mr Roscoe’s verse-writing, the defects of his translation were no great surprise to me. His powers, in that art, are not above mediocrity; –but the suffrages of the reviewers will give this poem present sale; and then, like Glover’s Leonidas, it will sink to rise no more. The prefixed sonnet to Mrs Roscoe is pretty — worth more, short as it is, than the old [211] nurse. If she falls in your or Lady Eleanor’s way, you will tell me if the original supports, in any degree, the encomiums of the translator’s preface, since it is printed, page by page, with the English.

Do you not admire the poetic sublimity of Coleridge’s Ode tot he Departed Year, however you may be shocked, as I am shocked, by the presumptuous and unpatriotic excess of condemnation which it pours forth on this country, as if England were the pest and execration of the whole world! It calls us the boody island. Great, I must confess, has its national guilt appeared to me within the past ten years, yet, I hope, it is not so dark, so extreme, so accursed of God and man, as this ode asserts; but, as poetry, I scarce known any thing superior to the following passage:

“Departed Year! ‘twas on no mortal shore
My soul beheld thy vision. Where alone,
Voiceless and stern, before the cloudy throne
Ay Memory sits; there, garmented with gore,
With many an unimaginable groan,
Thou storiest thy sad hours. Silence ensured,
Deep silence, through th’ etherial multitude,
Whose clustering locks with snow-white glories shone,
Then, his eyes wild ardours glancing,
From the choired host advancing,
[212] The Spirit of the Earth made reverence meet,
And stood up beautiful before the cloudy seat.”

I have lent the book, and, therefore, quoting from recollection, may possibly be inaccurate in one or two words; but what a sublime image is that of Memory, and I believe it perfectly original; nor less original, less exquisite is that of the Spirit of the Earth. Indistinctness in description is, on certain rare occasions, a poetic excellence, where the object mentioned is of too transcendent splendour to be conceived with precision, either by the poet or his reader. Such is the Spirit of the Earth in this ode: his glory is ineffable, –and the words stood up beautiful, renouncing every aim at determinate picture, leave the imagination of the reader, if he has imagination, thrilled with a consciousness of superhuman perfection. Sublimity, in the highest possible degree, thus results from indistinctness in Milton’s portrait of Death when he encounters Satan; and infinite poetic beauty, from the same source, when Ossian says: “Fair as the spirit of the hill, when it glides in a sunbeam at noon, over the silence of Morven.”

I remain, dearest Madam, &c.



Miss Ponsonby.
{vol. 5, pp 225-233}

Lichfield, May 21, 1799.

Amidst all that carried sweetness to my heart in the letter with which you have lately honoured me, I sigh to perceive its first page shadowed over with the gloom of regret. Justly do you observe, dearest Madam, consanguinity and friendship are less often than they ought, synonymous terms. When they prove so, separation is very grievous, even though local distance had long prevented the frequency of personal intercourse. The impossibility of its renewal, the never, never more! is an afflicting consciousness.

[226] I thank heaven, yourself, and Lady Eleanor, possess in the sense, hourly, ocular, and audible, of each other’s existence, a healing balm for every wound which the resistless dart can inflict on objects of secondary dearness.

A little time will now put me in possession of the Plays on the Passions. I had rather read a new work before I purchase it; but there is no borrowing these dramas here; yet I see they have interested my charming friends of the Cambrian vale, and have therefore every confidence that they will interest me. My literary friend and correspondent, Mrs Jackson, whose taste is highly just and discriminating, also speaks of them in a style which creates considerable predilection.

After giving her reasons for preferring Count Basil to the general favourite, Count de Montford, she says: “Before their author was known, I observed so much of the power and defects of Mrs Radcliffe’s compositions in these dramas, as to believe them hers; and I hear she owns them. Mrs Radcliffe, in whatever she writes, attentive solely to the end, is not sufficiently attentive to observe probability and unity of character in the means she uses to attain it. She bends her plan, or, if it will not bend, she breaks it to her catastrophe, instead of making the catastrophe grow out of the preceding events. Still she always [227] takes strong hold of her reader’s feelings; and effects her purpose boldly, if not regularly. Her descriptive talent, used to satiety in her novels, is here employed with more temperance, and consequently to better purpose.”

In this critique, dear Miss Ponsonby, you will perceive the strength of my excellent Mrs Jackson’s understanding, and the discrimination of her judgment.

What a heterogeneous compound is the Oberon, of sportive fancy and grotesque humour! of occasional sublimity, and continually occurring vulgarness of expression and idiom! It is the wildest production of the wild German school, which so industriously seeks to lead us back to our nurseries; their ghosts, their fiends, and their fairies. The numbers in the translation want easy flow, and harmonic roundness.

Truly Jack the Piper is come to great honour to have his Tarantula means of punishment adopted, not only in Caliph Vathec, that witty rival of Voltaire’s tales, but in this allegoric epic, which aspires to emulate Spencer.

In two reviews, which lately fell in my way, I saw unqualified praise lavished upon the morality of this motely Oberon. —Curious is the encomium. From its sensual voluptuousness of description, I declare I scarcely know the book I [228] would not sooner put into the hands of ingenuous youth. Lewis’s Monk, so mercilessly abused for imputed immorality in its luxuriance, is almost an icicle in the comparison. The descriptions which are of that species in Oberon, we find more frequent, more highly coloured, more discriminate than in the Monk, or than any which can be found in Rousseau’s Eloisa. Ah! with how much more justice may the censure Voltaire passed upon that novel be applied to Oberon! “Its author is an empiric, who poisons our souls for the glory of curing them, and the poison will work violently on the passions, and the antidote will operate only on the understanding.” In Oberon the outline, the poetic justice of the punishment is moral, but the interior parts abound with the most lavish fuel to refined sensuality; the only sensuality which can be dangerous to amiable young people.

It is a strange fancy to make the exordium utterly unintelligible till after we have read the whole. Instead of preparing us for the poem, the poem must prepare us for the exordium.

Surely the translator wants taste, so totally to exclude every thing like, what is called by painters, keeping in the style. Florid and elevated language, perpetually interspersed with such words and phrases as — old boozer — safe and sound — [229] chat — spilled tears — popt out the secret — fished out the cause — noodle, &c. Then the perpetual recurrence of the word wink, is beyond measure disgusting. Why did he not, on serious occasions, substitute the word glance, which had occupied the same space in the verse? When we read of Eternal Providence accomplishing its designs in a wink, we turn from the low phrase with more than disgust. Nay, on less occasions, when the lovely luxurious Almaransis winks her attendants away, the miserable word breaks, in my imagination, all the magic of her graces. We endure to see old Sherasmin nodding and winking, but who, that is elegant, ever winked and blinked in the presence of him to whom she wished to appear enchanting, or even decently well-bred.

However, after all the childish extravagance of the plan, and all the motley infelicities of the translator’s style, all the cramp of the numbers, I confess Oberon a work of very considerable genius; that it amused and interested me extremely; and that five times the sum it cost should not induce me (adopting its own language) to suffer any old boozer to carry it off, in a wink, for ever from my book-shelves; and for my young friends, “I hold it very stuff of the conscience” not even to lend it them.

[230] I am beyond measure gratified by all which the dear letter before me says in honour of my late volume. Whatever may prove its reception from the world, and its consequent circulation, if the hireling critics should, by their censures, sink it into present neglect, I cannot therefore repent having published my Sonnets and Horatian Paraphrases, since they have obtained such warm praise from my lettered friends, and since they would not so well have escaped from press-errors beneath the eye of a posthumous editor. If I do not extremely flatter myself, the sonnets possess an inherent bouyancy, which give them the power of emerging in future. That expectation has been often ridiculed as the forlorn hope of the poet; but Spenser, Milton, Otway, Collins, and Chatterton, are instances that it is not always found vain.

Yourself and Lady Eleanor are no strangers to the new poetic star of the Caledonian sphere; but, nourishing, as I do, the pleasing hope of being enabled to pass a few days beneath your roof, in the autumn of this yet wintry year, I almost hope his last and yet unpublished poems, Glenfinlas and the Eve of St John, may not previously meet your eye; that I may have the delight of reading them to you, and observing the lively interest they will excite, and the glowing [231] praise with which they will be honoured. It is my great happiness to be exempt from the frequent torment of authors, literary envy, though perhaps there is little virtue in exemption so constitutional; but it renders my poetic pleasures wholly unembittered from that source. From a very different one they are often allayed, since I cannot rear or hear the beautiful compositions, bold, original, and sublime, which have poured in upon this torpid age, from such various authors, insolently criticized, and unjustly depreciated, without feelings of very painful indignation.

Our little city, in its late contested election, has had a taste of the diabolic mischiefs of awakened strife. It assailed reputation by anonymous libels, and it produced riots which hazarded complicated murders. Though I took no active interest, and, neither by tongue or pen, said one bitter word against any of the party opposite to that which had my calm good wishes, yet, because a certain vilely abusive song upon one of its agents was tolerably written, it was imputed to me. I would as soon have robbed or killed the person it libelled, as have written or encouraged the publication of those verses. I never saw nor heard of them till they had been several days printed, and when they [232] were read to me, expressed the sincerest indignation against the composition and its unknown author; yet the improbable suspicion produced a most injurious effort of dark-spirited malice and revenge. There can be no doubt the contriver would have murdered me if he durst for the laws. Instances of such industrious villainy, the bitter fruits of a contention, in which personal spite and fury is at once wickedness and idiotism, should teach us the injustice of national reflections; –should shake to air our proud vaunt that Englishmen would amid the flames of civil war, be less cruel than Frenchmen, or than the Irish.

I am tempted to insert a little impromptu of mine, which arose from my having observed, that Pope had ill-defined the subtle essence of wit in the following couplet:

“True wit is nature to advantage dress’d,
What oft was thought, but ne’re so well express’d.”

since new ideas, or rather new combinations of ideas, are vital to its existence. His dogma applies better to eloquence. This is my attempt on the subject:

“Wit springs from images in contact brought,
Till then ne’er coupled, or in fact, or thought;
[233] Yet, seen together, people laugh and wonder,
How things so like, so long were kept asunder.”

I have the honour to remain, &c.


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