Archive for October 21st, 2011

Helen Maria Williams

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not written a foremother poet blog since early September! (Stevie Smith). It’s more than time for another. I return by way of a favorite later 18th century writer: Helen Maria Williams who saw herself as a poet but is probably today more appreciated for her journalism, life-writing and simply her life as lived. Her life should arouse identification among many woman today, and someone contemporary with Austen whom Austen probably read.

But since it’s as a poet she saw and valued her work highly, and since these are centered in women’s poetry, first, she wrote some fine sonnets in the high romantic-melancholy vein, of which this is her best:

To the curlew

Soothed by the murmurs on the sea-beat shore,
His dun-grey plumage floating to the gale,
The curlew blends his melancholy wail
With those hoarse sounds the rushing waters pour.
Like thee, congenial bird! my steps explore
The bleak lone sea-beach, or the rocky dale,
And shuns the orange bower, the myrtle vale,
Whose gay luxuriance suits my soul no more.
I love the ocean’s broad expanse, when dressed
In limpid clearness, or when the tempests blow;
When the smooth currents on its placid breast
Flow calm as my past moments used to flow;
Or, when its troubled waters refuse to rest,
And seem the symbol of my present woe.

Williams’s Sonnet VI, To the Torrid Zone

Pathway of light! o’er thy empurpled zone,
With lavish charms perennial summer strays;
Soft ‘midst thy spicy groves the zephyr plays,
While far around the rich perfumes are thrown:
The amadavid-bird for thee alone,
Spreads his gay plumes that catch thy vivid rays;
For thee the gems with liquid lustre blaze,
And nature’s various wealth is all thy own.
But, ah! not thine is twilight’s doubtful gloom,
Those mild gradations, mingling day and night;
Here, instant darkness shrouds thy genial bloom,
Nor leaves my pensive soul that ling’ring light,
When musing mem’ry would each trace resume
Of fading pleasures in successive flight.

She loves to use rich ardent imagery. Bejewelled.

To the Moon

The glitt’ring colours of the day are fled;
Come, melancholy orb! that dwell’st with night,
Come! and o’er earth thy wand’ring lustre shed,
Thy deepest shadow, and thy softest light;
To me congenial is the gloomy grove,
When with faint light the sloping uplands shine;
That gloom, those pensive rays alike I love
Whose sadness seems in sympathy with mine!
But most for this, pale orb! thy beams are dear,
For this, benignant orb! I hail thee most:
That while I pour the unavailing tear
And mourn that hope to me in youth is lost,
Thy light can visionary thoughts impart,
And lead the Muse to soothe a suff’ring heart.

A Thrush, from the Scilly Isles

Then, given my epigraph, Williams’s equivalent poem to Burns’s “To a Mousie,” except the thrush offers a poignant image with its uplifting haunting call:

Elegy on a Young Thrush, which escaped from the writer’s hand, and falling down the area of a house, could not be found.

Mistaken Bird, ah whither hast thou stray’d?
           My friendly grasp why eager to elude?
This hand was on thy pinion lightly laid,
           And fear’d to hurt thee by a touch too rude.

Is there no foresight in a Thrush’s breast,
           That thou down yonder gulph from me wouldst go
That gloomy area lurking cats infest,
           And there the dog may rove, alike thy foe.

I would with lavish crumbs my bird have fed,
           And brought a crystal cup to wet thy bill;
I would have made of down and moss thy bed,
           Soft, though not fashion’d with a Thrush’s skill.

Soon as thy strengthen’d wing could mount the sky,
           My willing hand had set my captive free
Ah, not for her who loves the Muse, to buy
           A selfish pleasure, bought with pain to thee!

The vital air, and liberty, and light
           Had all been thine; and love, and rapt’rous song,
And sweet parental joys, in rapid flight,
           Had led the circle of thy life along.

Securely to my window hadst thou flown,
           And ever thy accustom’d morsel found;
Nor should thy trusting breast the wants have known
           Which other Thrushes knew when winter frown’d.

Fram’d with the wisdom nature lent to thee,
           Thy house of straw had brav’d the tempest’s rage,
And thou through many a Spring hadst liv’d to see
           The utmost limit of a Thrush’s age.

Ill-fated bird!—and does the Thrush’s race,
           Like Man’s, mistake the path that leads to bliss?
Or, when his eye that tranquil path can trace,
           The good he well discerns through folly miss?

I wrote a blog on how women’s poetry shows this impulse towards identification with small, vulnerable creatures. See Women’s animal poetry, Women’s counter-universes, “Fiercely laconic: gush and the gothic” (from Isobel Armstrong). I reprint a brief summary of Doody’s article in a comment to this blog.

(Claude?) Berthault, Desmoulins Exhorts the Crowd

Helen Maria Williams deserves to be better known. She can be a joy to read. I find she uplifts my spirits.

Her years were 1762-1827, and she is described in one compilation as “radical poet, novelists, and historical letter writer.” She supported herself by journalism. She also translated important French works (Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie, 1787) and wrote great travel-books, biographies, among these a long series of letters from France about the period 1789-1820 or thereabouts. She was in France during the terror and in real danger. Her Tour de Switzerland are brilliantly philosophical about nationalism and culture. Her poems show ecriture-femme at its best her engagement with small animals, her delight in the unimportant and immanent. This is Williams’s controlled picturesque version of the kind of gush Armstrong justifies:

The Strawberry blooms upon its lowly bed,
Plant of my native soil!—the Lime may fling
More potent fragrance on the zephyr’s wing,
The milky Cocoa richer juices shed,
The white Guava lovelier blossoms spread—
But not, like thee, to fond remembrance bring
The vanished hours of life’s enchanting spring;
Short calendar of joys for ever fled!
Thou bid’st the scenes of childhood rise to view,
The wild wood-path which fancy loves to trace;
Where, veil’d in leaves, thy fruit of rosy hue
Lurk’d on its pliant stem with modest grace.
ut ah! when thought would later years renew,
Alas, successive sorrows crowd the space.

She adds whimsicality (perhaps from Cowper) to her usual love of rich imagery. See also for the tone her “Sensibility Ode”.

She lived an unconventional life. She never married the man she spent some 30 years with: John Hurford Stone. She was born in Northumberland; her father
died when she was young and she came to London to make her living — and did it successfully as a novelist and journalist. She was much feted by respected literati (including Johnson) and part of the radical circles of London. And she brought her sister’s children up — was in fact the mainstay of her larger family. Yet she was apparently not happy for she left in 1790 and never did return (except for a brief period in her very old age). It was very dangerous to be a radical in England too, and I believe Stone was hounded and harassed by the English government in the 1790s. We only hear of the famous cases. If you had lived in the period, you would have considered her a major figure of the period. She was certainly much better known than Wordsworth.

I’d like particularly to recommend Letters Written in France: In the Summer 1790, to a Friend in England; Containing Various Anecdotes Relative to the French Revolution in the Broadview Press edition. The editors embed these remarkable letters in an apparatus which includes important pieces from the 7 volumes (of letters which take the reader from 1790 through the establishment of the Directory in 1796, excerpts from Williams’ later epistolary journalism in the Napoleonic years, Williams’s poetry, contemporary reviews and reactions to her work, and a number of key documents (selections from Burke, Paine, Olympe de Gouges, Hannah More, not to omit the Declaration of the Rights of Man).

Williams was an eyewitness and participant in numbers of the famous events and eras of the revolution as it evolved in France.She fled twice, once to escape death from the guillotine, in the second instance going to live in Switzerland where she sat down and wrote her 2 volumes Tour of Switzerland. She supported herself thus. Like Benjamin Constant and a number of other liberals, she never lost faith in the principles of the revolution, nor did she regret that the old regime had been overthrown, but saw the excesses, rage, and re-establishment of a military dictatorship as the result of what the ancien regime had been, human nature (with exploitative people coming to the top), the reaction of powerful aristocrats and people who were high in the church (rich and powerful unlike those who lived in nunneries and monasteries and were curates), local intense hatreds and feuds, the massing of armies outside France on behalf of properties classes, and nationalism. She is one of the first to analyze national “hatreds” as prejudice. She was among those who answered Burke directly.

Williams demonstrated a rare courage when she persisted in arguing that the failure, perversions, and fearful violence that the French revolution led to did not invalidate Enlightenment egalitarian and humane ideals; while Hannah More exploited virulent anti-French propaganda to campaign for an emerging counter-revolutionary evangelical value system and restrained bourgeois behavior, Williams praised French culture for initiating reformist ideals and promotion of salon life and aristocratic manners and taste.

Sometimes these letters remind me of Ann Radcliffe’s A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794: both women value commerce; both share strong liberal and whig attitudes; both love ruins and landscape. Their attitude towards nunneries are close: both show the women in them to be in effect cast off by their society into abject poverty (the rules of these convents made keeping these women cheap), the next best thing to killing them off by the families that didn’t want them; both stress the terror of the belief that broken vows are terrible and how these were used against women. Indeed the analysis recalls Germaine de Stael’s Delphine. I find I prefer Radcliffe because there is more depth, more detail in her depictions and more intense passion. Williams is ever softening her hits, looking not to offend, to keep a journalistic stance. But of course it’s Williams who records from the center of the hurricane (so to speak) where Radcliffe is at the peripheries.

When we re-imagine the Romantic literary community, Williams and Radcliffe’s books are both key elements in the development of a print community. If Williams belongs to the Romantic journalists and debates between Paine and Burke in the period, Radcliffe’s book anticipates Wordsworth Guide to the
Lake and recalls Young’s tours. One could argue that book history and the growth of a marketplace records an important source of a sense of tribal
nationalism that grows in the 19th century.

More specifically, the Letters from France contain an important eye witness account of the Festival of the Federation, an early high point of hope and cooperation in 1790. They trace the slow declination into paranoia and
anarchy, ruthless mutual destruction of the revolution in Paris. They contain an important story about how a young man was imprisoned by his father for
marrying beneath him through the use of a lettre de cachet. I say important for these lettres de cachet were used for just such purposes and ruthlessly and they were the second thing the National Assembly abolished. Williams was a good friend to Madame Roland and developed a sort of Parisian salon or circle of friends that met weekly equivalent to what she had had in London.

In the Letters from France, readers will like to read a fresh voice, an intelligent working woman’s who does not lose faith in principles she sees allowing for a decent stable just society. You get a strong sense of particulars of 1790s in Paris and some flavor of what came after. She willing sympathetically to dramatize women’s heterosexual desires finding fulfillment outside the prevailing marital codes. Family romances and emotional appeals alternate with stories of imprisonment, catalogues of executions, and “an overwhelming sensation of exile” where Williams is “reduced to the status of a motherless Gothic heroine, in flight from phantoms and despots” (Keane, 70), mourning for the French people, for a lost dream of an international community, for a time when men and women were encouraged to place shared subjective idealisms in the public sphere.

She wrote also an epistolary novel: Julia, whose tone I find congenial, a book filled with her poetry, around 1790, autobiographical and find her poetry too. She writes from the vantage point of a regained and lost paradise. An Horatian ode on poetry:

An Address to Poetry

While envious crowds the summit view,
Where Danger with Ambition strays;
Or far, with anxious step, pursue
Pale Av’rice, thro’ his winding ways;
The selfish passions in their train,
Whose force the social ties unbind,
And chill the love of human kind,
And make fond Nature’s best emotions vain;

O, poesy! O nymph most dear,
To whom I early gave my heart,–
Whose voice is sweetest to my ear
Of aught in nature or in art;
Thou, who canst all my breast controul,
Come, and thy harp of various cadence bring,
And long with melting music swell the string
That suits the present temper of my soul.

O! ever gild my path of woe,
And I the ills of life can bear;
Let but thy lovely visions glow,
And chase the forms of real care;
O still, when tempted to repine
At partial Fortune’s frown severe,
Wipe from my eyes the anxious tear,
And whisper that thy soothing joys are mine!

When did my fancy ever frame
A dream of joy by thee unblest?
When first my lips pronounc’d thy name,
New pleasure warm’d my infant breast.
I lov’d to form the jingling rhyme,
The measur’d sounds, tho’ rude, my ear could please,
Could give the little pains of childhood ease,
And long have sooth’d the keener pains of time.

The idle crowd in fashion’s train,
Their trifling comment, pert reply,
Who talk so much, yet talk in vain,
How pleas’d for thee, O nymph, I fly!
For thine is all the wealth of mind,
Thine the unborrow’d gems of thought;
The flash of light by souls refin’d,
From heav’n’s empyreal source exulting caught.

And ah! when destin’d to forego
The social hour with those I love,–
That charm which brightens all below,
That joy all other joys above,
And dearer to this breast of mine,
O Muse! than aught thy magic power can give,–
Then on the gloom of lonely sadness shine,
And bid thy airy forms around me live.

Thy page, O SHAKESPEARE ! let me view,
Thine! at whose name my bosom glows;
Proud that my earliest breath I drew
In that blest isle where SHAKESPEARE rose!
Where shall my dazzled glances roll?
Shall I pursue gay Ariel’s flight?
Or wander where those hags of night
With deeds unnam’d shall freeze my trembling soul?

Plunge me, foul sisters! in the gloom
Ye wrap around yon blasted heath:
To hear the harrowing rite I come,
That calls the angry shades from death!
Away–my frighted bosom spare!
Let true Cordelia pour her filial sigh,
Let Desdemona lift her pleading eye,
And poor Ophelia sing in wild despair!

When the bright noon of summer streams
In one wide flash of lavish day,
As soon shall mortal count the beams,
As tell the powers of SHAKESPEARE’S lay!
O, Nature’s Poet! the untaught,
The simple mind thy tale pursues,
And wonders by what art it views
The perfect image of each native thought.

In those still moments, when the breast,
Expanded, leaves its cares behind,
Glows by some higher thought possest,
And feels the energies of mind;
Then, awful MILTON , raise the veil
That hides from human eye the heav’nly throng!
Immortal sons of light! I hear your song,
I hear your high-tun’d harps creation hail!

Well might creation claim your care,
And well the string of rapture move,
When all was perfect, good, and fair,
When all was music, joy, and love!
Ere Evil’s inauspicious birth
Chang’d Nature’s harmony to strife;
And wild Remorse, abhorring life,
And deep Affliction, spread their shade on earth.

Blest Poesy! O, sent to calm
The human pains which all must feel,
Still shed on life thy precious balm,
And every wound of nature heal!
Is there a heart of human frame
Along the burning track of torrid light,
Or ‘mid the fearful waste of polar night,
That never glow’d at thy inspiring name?

Ye Southern Isles, emerg’d so late
Where the Pacific billow rolls,
Witness, though rude your simple state,
How heav’n-taught verse can melt your souls!
Say, when you hear the wand’ring bard,
How thrill’d ye listen to his lay,
By what kind arts ye court his stay,–
All savage life affords his sure reward.

So, when great HOMER ‘S chiefs prepare,
Awhile from War’s rude toils releas’d,
The pious hecatomb, and share
The flowing bowl, and genial feast:
Some heav’nly minstrel sweeps the lyre,
While all applaud the poet’s native art;
For him they heap the viand’s choicest part,
And copious goblets crown the Muse’s fire.

Ev’n here, in scenes of pride and gain,
Where faint each genuine feeling glows;
Here , Nature asks, in want and pain,
The dear illusions verse bestows;
The poor, from hunger, and from cold,
Spare one small coin, the ballad’s price,
Admire their poet’s quaint device,
And marvel much at all his rhymes unfold.

Ye children, lost in forests drear,
Still o’er your wrongs each bosom grieves,
And long the red-breast shall be dear,
Who strew’d each little corpse with leaves;
For you my earliest tears were shed,
For you the gaudy doll I pleas’d forsook,
And heard, with hands uprais’d, and eager look,
The cruel tale, and wish’d ye were not dead!

And still on Scotia’s northern shore,
“At times, between the rushing blast,”
Recording mem’ry loves to pour
The mournful song of ages past;
Come, lonely Bard “of other years!”
While dim the half-seen moon of varying skies,
While sad the wind along the grey moss sighs,
And give my pensive heart “the joy of tears!”

The various tropes that splendour dart
Around the modern poet’s line,
Where, borrow’d from the sphere of art,
Unnumber’d gay allusions shine,
Have not a charm my breast to please
Like the blue mist, the meteor’s beam,
The dark-brow’d rock, the mountain stream,
And the light thistle waving in the breeze.

Wild Poesy, in haunts sublime,
Delights her lofty note to pour;
She loves the hanging rock to climb,
And hear the sweeping torrent roar!
The little scene of cultur’d grace
But faintly her expanded bosom warms;
She seeks the daring stroke, the awful charms,
Which Nature’s pencil throws on Nature’s face.

O, Nature! thou whose works divine
Such rapture in this breast inspire,
As makes me dream one spark is mine
Of Poesy’s celestial fire;
When doom’d, “in cities pent,” to leave
The kindling morn’s unfolding view,
Which ever wears some aspect new,
And all the shadowy forms of soothing eve;

Then, THOMSON , then be ever near,
And paint whatever season reigns;
Still let me see the varying year,
And worship Nature in thy strains;
Now, when the wint’ry tempests roll,
Unfold their dark and desolating form,
Rush in the savage madness of the storm,
And spread those horrors that exalt my soul!

And, POPE the music of thy verse
Shall winter’s dreary gloom dispel,
And fond remembrance oft rehearse
The moral song she knows so well;
The sportive sylphs shall flutter here,–
There Eloise, in anguish pale,
“Kiss with cold lips the sacred veil,
“And drop with every bead too soft a tear!”

When disappointment’s sick’ning pain
With chilling sadness numbs my breast,
That feels its dearest hope was vain,
And bids its fruitless struggles rest;
When those for whom I wish to live,
With cold suspicion wrong my aching heart;
Or, doom’d from those for ever lov’d to part,
And feel a sharper pang than death can give;

Then with the mournful Bard I go,
Whom “melancholy mark’d her own,”
While tolls the curfew, solemn, slow,
And wander amid graves unknown;
With yon pale orb, lov’d poet, come!
While from those elms long shadows spread,
And where the lines of light are shed,
Read the fond record of the rustic tomb!

Or let me o’er old Conway’s flood
Hang on the frowning rock, and trace
The characters that, wove in blood,
Stamp’d the dire fate of EDWARD’S race;
Proud tyrant! tear thy laurell’d plume;
How poor thy vain pretence to deathless fame!
The injur’d Muse records thy lasting shame,
And she has power to “ratify thy doom.”

Nature, when first she smiling came,
To wake within the human breast
The sacred Muse’s hallow’d flame,
And earth, with heav’n’s rich spirit blest!
Nature in that auspicious hour,
With awful mandate, bade the Bard
The register of glory guard,
And gave him o’er all mortal honours power.

Can Fame on Painting’s aid rely?
Or lean on Sculpture’s trophy’d bust?–
The faithless colours bloom to die,
The crumbling pillar mocks its trust;
But thou, O Muse, immortal maid!
Canst paint the godlike deeds that praise inspire,
Or worth, that lives but in the mind’s desire,
In tints that only shall with Nature fade!

O tell me, partial nymph! what rite,
What incense sweet, what homage true,
Draws from thy fount of purest light
The flame it lends a chosen few?
Alas! these lips can never frame
The mystic vow that moves thy breast;
Yet by thy joys my life is blest,
And my fond soul shall consecrate thy name.

See this brief excerpt and comment on this poem.

Martin Drolling (1789-1851), Girl Tracing Drawings

The new biography by Deborah Kennedy, well meaning as it is, is very dull; the older French one by Lionel D. Woodward is the one to read. And some essays of interest:

Deborah Kennedy’s *Helen Maria Williams and the Age of Revolution *(2002)
and “Storms of Sorrow: The Poetry of Helen Maria Williams” in Proceedings
of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies

Jessica Damian’s “Helen Maria Williams’s Personal Narrative from
Peru (1784) to Peruvian Tales (1823) in Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies (Summer 2007) http://ncgsjournal.com/issue32/damian.htm

Laetitia Matilda Hawkins’s Letters on the Female Mind (1793)

Keane, Angela. Women Writers and the English Nation in the 1790s: Romantic Belongings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000

Nigel Leask’s “Salon, Alps and Cordilleras: Helen Maria Williams, Alexander
von Humboldt, and the Discourse of Romantic Travel,” in *Women, Writing, and
the Public Sphere* (2001) and “Wandering through Eblis; Absorption and
Containment in Romantic Exoticism” in Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing
and Empire, 1780-1830

Alan Richardson’s “Epic Ambivalence: Imperial Politics and Romantic
Deflection in Williams’s *Peru* and Landor’s *Gebir*” in Romanticism, Race,
and Imperial Culture

Diego Saglia’s “The Aesthetics of the Present: Commerce, Empire and
Technology in Late-Eighteenth Century Women’s Poetry” in Textus 18 (2005)

Anna Seward’s “Sonnet to Miss Williams, On her Epic Poem PERU,” in London
e (February 1785)


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