Archive for May 4th, 2012

Angelica Kaufmann (1741-1807), Muse of Composition [Contemplation]

Dear friends and readers,

I liked Mary Whateley Darwell the first time I came across “Pleasures of Contemplation.” As I went hunting for more poems, I liked her more. She was grave, serious, presents herself as living a life among books and pictures apart. While her idiom is not one popular today, and she is not varied in her rhythms and uses poetic diction, much power and feeling and thought comes across. I don’t know that Austen would have liked her verse.


The first time I read this particular poem I was so into the 18th century Miltonic-Thompson romantic idiom (which leads directly into Shelley and Keats) I felt really moved, I just loved it and went about to find a book which had the poem in it and bought Joyce Fullard’s British Women Poets, 1660-1800: An Anthology — which I’ve treasured ever since and out of which I wrote a number of these foremother poet blogs.

The Pleasures of Contemplation

Queen of the halcyon breast and heaven-ward eye,
Sweet Contemplation, with thy reign benign
Light my lone passage thro’ this vale of life,
And raise the seige of Care! This silent hour
To thee is sacred, when the star of eve,
Like Dian’s virgins trembling ere they bathe,
Shoots o’er the Hesperian wave its quivering ray.

     All nature joins to fill my labouring breast
With high sensations: aweful silence reigns
Above, around; the sounding winds no more
Wild thro’ the fluctuating forest fly
With gust impetuous; Zephyr scarcely breathes
Upon the trembling foliage; flocks and herds
Retir’d beneath the friendly shade repose,
Fann’d by oblivion’s wing. Ha! is not this,
This the dread hour, as ancient fables tell,
When flitting spirits, from their prisons broke,
By moonlight glide along the dusky vales,
The solemn churchyard, or the dreary grove;
Fond to revisit their once-Iov’d abodes,
And view each friendly scene of past delight!

     Satyrs and fawns, that in sequester’d woods
And deep-embowering shades delight to dwell,
Quitting their caves, where in the reign of day
They slept in silence, o’er the daisied green
Pursue their gambols, and with printless feet
Chase the fleet shadows o’er the waving plains.

     Dryads, and Naiads, from each spring and grove,
Trip blithsome o’er the lawns; or, near the side
Of mossy fountains, sport in Cynthia’s beams.
     The fairy elves, attendant on their queen,
With light steps bound along the velvet mead,
     And leave the green impression of their dance
In rings mysterious to the passing swain;
While the pellucid glow-worm kindly lends
Her silver lamp to light the festive scene.

     From you majestic pile, in ruin great,
Whose lofty towers once on approaching foes
Look’d stern defiance, the sad bird of night,
In mournful accent, to the moon complains:
Those lofty towers with venerable ivy crown’d,
And mouldering into ruin, yield no more
A safe retirement to the hostile bands;
But there the lonely bat, that shuns the day,
Dwells in dull solitude; and screaming thence
Wheels the night raven shrill, with hideous note
Portending death to the dejected swain.

     Each plant and flow’ret bath’d in evening dews,
Exhale refreshing sweets; from the smooth lake,
On whose still bosom sleeps the tall tree’s shade,
The moon’s soft rays reflected mildly shine.

     Now towering Fancy takes her early flight
Without restraint, and leaves this earth behind;
From pole to pole, from world to world she flies;
Rocks, seas, nor skies, can interrupt her course.

     Is this what men, to thought estrang’d, miscall
Despondence? this dull Melancholy’s scene?
To trace the Eternal Cause thro’ all his works,
Minutely and magnificently wise?
Mark the gradations which thro’ Nature’s plan
Join each to each, and form the vast design?
And tho’ day’s glorious guide withdraws his beams
Impartial, cheering other skies and shores,
Rich intellect, that scorns corporeal bands,
With more than mid-day radiance gilds the scene:
The mind, now rescu’d from the cares of day,
Roves unrestrain’d thro’ the wide realms of space,
Where (thought stupendous!) systems infinite,
In regular confusion taught to move,
Like gems bespangle yon etherial plain!

     Ye sons of pleasure, and ye foes to thought,
Who search for bliss in the capacious bowl,
And blindly woo intemperance for joy;
Durst ye retire, hold converse with yourselves,
And in the silent hours of darkness court
Kind Contemplation with her peaceful train;
How would the minutes dance on downy feet,
And unperceiv’d the midnight taper waste,
While intellectual pleasure reign’d supreme!

     Ye Muses, Graces, Virtues, heaven-born maids!
Who love in peaceful solitude to dwell
With meek-ey’d Innocence, and radiant Truth,
And blushing Modesty; that frighted fly
The dark intrigue, and midnight masquerade;
What is this pleasure which enchants mankind?
Tis noise, ’tis toil, ’tis frenzy; like the cup
Of Circe, fam’d of old; who tastes it finds
Th’ etherial spark divine to brute transform’d

     And now, methinks, I hear the libertine
With supercilious leer cry, “Preach no more
Your musty morals; hence, to deserts fly,
And in the gloom of solitary caves
Austerely dwell; what’s life, debarr’d from joy?
Crown, then, the bowl; let Music lend her aid,
And Beauty her’s, to soothe my wayward cares.”

     Ah! little does he know the nymph he styles
A foe to pleasure; pleasure is not more
His aim than her’s; with him she joins to blame
The hermit’s gloom, and savage penances;
Each social joy approves. oh! without thee,
Fair Friendship, life were nothing; without thee,
The page of fancy would no longer charm,
And solitude disgust e’en pensive minds.

     Nought I condemn, but that excess which clouds
The mental faculties, to soothe the sense;
Let Reason, Truth, and Virtue guide thy steps,
And every blessing Heav’n bestows, be thine!

Art Van Der Neer (1603-77), Moonlit Landscape with Bridge

Alas this poem is so rarely reprinted you can’t find it in Chadwyck-Healey and the book which has become the seminal (note the etymology of this word) Roger Lonsdale’s Oxford anthology for 18th century women poets tries to find more prosaic and satiric poems, but as she has none, ends on this to her husband (which is the usual poem reprinted), arguing that this prosaic non-vatic and simple idiom is the one women preferred. That Margaret Homans’s book on women’s poetry as such repeats this idea, wonderful as her book is, makes me suspect this is a prejudice drawn from modern simplicity and a way of putting women in their lower places. At least it lends itself to such attitudes and in it we find the kind of complaint and compromise and resignation that we are told women practiced, and which irritates post-19th century women writers.

When she wrote more simply, it to her husband and children?

On the Author’s Husband Desiring her to Write Some Verses

VERSES, my love! As soon could I
Without a wing or feather fly;
My head, with other matters fraught,
No more attempts poetic thought:
Yet, as I hold your sovereign sway,
In spite of genius I obey.

     Ye Muses, aid me to explore
The shadowy grots, and mountains hoar,
Where ye your tuneful influence shed,
And twine with bays your poet’s head.

     Erato hears my invocation, —
My bosom glows with inspiration,
Instant the fairy scenes appear,
Pierian sounds salute my ear:
Connubial Love! enchanting theme!
Sweet subject of my muse-rapt dream,
To thee I consecrate my lays,
And thus my heart pours forth thy praise:

Blessed state! by gracious heaven designed
     To soothe our passions into peace,
To twine in union sweet the kindred mind,
Th’ endearing ties of social life to bind
     In chains so strong, yet soft, they but with life can cease

     The mutual interest all reserve disclaiming,
The scheme of pleasure each for other framing,
The kindling transports of parental love,
Which the sweet smiles of innocence can move,
Are thine alone, 0 Hymen! to bestow,
Which hearts that do not feel them cannot know:
     — But hark! — my darling infant cries,
     And each poetic fancy flies.

She thinks about had she been born a man she would have rebelled:

The Power of Destiny

SURE some malignant star diffused its ray,
When first my eyes beheld the beams of day;
Whose baleful influence made me dip in ink,
And write in rhyme before I knew to think.
Had Fate, propitious to my wish, assigned
Me, wayward girl, of man’s superior kind,
This strong propensity had marred each scheme,
And prudence yielded to a golden dream.
Perhaps I’d then been bred a learned divine,
With Greek and Hebrew in this head of mine;
With musty classics stuffed, dry grammar rules,
And all the specious lumber of the schools:
Yet, had an itch for scribbling filled my brain,
This care and cost had been bestowed in vain.

     Or had I, studious of the healing art,
Been taught with care to act old Galen’s part,
Perused Hippocrates’s laboured page,
And thumbed with reverence each time-honoured sage;
Yet when, from college rules and orders free,
My pen had once regained its liberty,
Thoughtless of gain, and warm with fancied fire,
I certainly had quitted Mead and Floyer,
For Milton, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope and Young,
And left Sanctorius for an idle song;
Strother, Boerhaave, and Celsus had given way
To a smart satire or a roundelay:
For who, bemused, and in a rhyming strain,
Could mark the various fibres of the brain?
Leave all the dear ideas fancy forms,
To learn the strange effect of snails and worms?
Try with what qualities each drug is fraught,
And praise the virtues of some nauseous draught?

     Had I been bred at Gray’s or Lincoln’s Inn,
‘Mid lawsuits, empty quibbles, doubts and din,
Attended duly at the wrangling hall,
And learned to baffle, bluster, bounce and bawl:
Yet with impatience in the long vacation,
I should have left this profitable station;
Have quitted Salkeld and the lawyer’s gown,
And all the gay amusements of the town;
Have fled in raptures to the peaceful grange,
And left Coke, Carthew, Nelson, Wood and Strange,
Hughes, Hale and Hawkins, Bacon, King and Cay,
For Swift, Hill, Congreve, Cowley, Garth and Gay;
And in some cot, retired from crowd and noise,
Have sought serene delights and rural joys;
Mused by a fountain, slept beneath a tree,
And, ‘stead of drafts, composed-an elegy.
Inspired by Silvia’s eyes, or Daphne’s air,
Or Cynthia’s rosy cheeks, and curling hair,
My most exalted wish, and only aim,
Had been to eternise the favourite dame:
Her charms in softest numbers to express,
And paint my passion in the liveliest dress.

      In short, whatever my employ had been,
It soon had yielded to this darling sin:
And naught but Russel’s land, or Gideon’s purse,
Had saved the poet from-the poet’s curse.

She was certainly well-read.

There’s a beautiful literary biography of Mary Whateley Darwell in print: Ann Messenger’s Woman and Poet in the Eighteenth Century: The Life of Mary Whateley Darwell (1738-1823). AMS Press, 1999. Since it’s expensive, for those who have access to JStor, Project Muse or interlibrary loans and good libraries, there’s also the short form: Ann Messenger, “‘Daughter of Shenstone’?: Being a Brief Life of Mary Whateley Darwell,” Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, 87 (1986-87):462-81. She’s also discussed briefly in Paula Backscheider’s Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry.

She didn’t have an easy life. Born 1738, youngest of 9, her father a “substantial farmer,” she managed to read a lot, and began to write poetry at the age of 21 and got some published in the Gentleman’s Magazine (as “Harriet Airey”). Two years later (by which time she lived with her brother as his housekeeper), there is evidence of an organized attempt to put more of her poems in print, headed by a poet of the period who was much respected then and whose mansion house became a symbol of poetic contemplation and beauty (he went broke building and maintaining it), William Shenstone. An account of her life presenting her as the unlearned working class woman archetype (which Anna Karsch also was made to fit) was published in the same Gentleman’s Magazine in 1762. Then a volume was done: dedicated to an uper class lady, it was done by subscription — as Fanny Burney did to make money on Cecilia (and the two later novels); there were 600 subscribers and some then famous names (learned poet, Elizabeth Carter, Erasmus Darwin, Mary Delaney [letter writer, companion to George III’s queen, she got poor Fanny the job at court); Anna Seward’s father (well some men are so-and-so’s husband and others a father).

She did marry in 1766, one of the subscribers: Revd John Darwell, Vicar of Walsall, who wrote verse too; he was widower with 5 small children and she had another 6 by him. (Pause.) This affected her literary career; he died in 1789, and five years later she published another collection of poems by subscription. One of the poems was by one of her daughters to her.

She wrote in women’s genres, as in this deeply-felt poem to her friend:

Elegy, Addressed to Mrs. Hewan

Let others glory in fond fortune’s smile,
     The glare of wealth, the pageantry of pow’r,-
For glitt’ring dross endure such painful toil,
     And give to pallid” care the midnight hour:

Let the brave hero, by ambition fir’d,
     Boast high atchievements in th’embattled field,
‘Mid groves of spears, and hosts of foes untir’d,
     His gleaming sword, or deathful faulchion wield;

Let the loud trumpet speak each martial deed,
     The laure1’s freshest bough his temples crown;
Gallia subdu’d, his grateful country freed,
     His name invok’d by bards of fair renown:

Let the dark statesman plan his airy schemes,
     And wrap in mystic shades each deep design;
With pow’r unbounded gild his flatt’ring dreams,
     And sacrifice his peace at PLUTUS’62 shrine:

Let the gay nymph, whom fortune’s golden smile
     Allures to ev’ry elegant delight,
With festive mirth her frolic hours beguile,
     And rove where splendor’s glitt’ring scenes invite:

Be mine along the calm sequester’d vale
     Of humble life to keep my silent way,
Stranger to fame’s inconstant soothing tale,
     Pour forth my unpremeditated lay.

When sober ev’ning draws her shadowy vest,
     Bath’d in refreshing dews, o’er hill and plain,
When the rough sons of toil retire to rest,
     And Philomel resumes her plaintive strain;

With thee, sweet Ethelinda, let me stray,
     By Cynthia’s’ silv’ry light, thro’ lawn and grove,
Where the cool current marks its mazy way,
     Or hold sweet converse in some green alcove.

‘Tis thine, fair friend, to bless the social hour;
     Thy breast, (the seat of virtue, peace and joy)
Can teach the Muse her lenient balm to pour,
     And yield those pleasures that can never cloy.

John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93), In the Gloaming (two women friends)

And most appropriately, An

Ode to May

Fairest daughter of the year,
     Ever blooming, lovely May;
While thy vivid skies appear,
     Nature smiles, and all is gay.

Thine the flowery-painted mead,
     Pasture fair, and mountain green;
Thine, with infant harvest spread,
     Laughing lies the lowland scene.

Friend of thine, the shepherd plays
     Blithsome near the yellow broom,
While his flock, that careless strays,
     Seeks the wild thyme’s sweet perfume.

May, with thee I mean to rove
     O’er these lawns and valleys fair,
Tune my gentle lyre to love,
     Cherish hope, and soften care.

Round me shall the village swains,
     Shall the rosy nymphs, appear;
While I sing in rural strains,
     May, to shepherds ever dear.

I had never skill to raise
     Peans from the vocal strings,
To the god-like hero’s praise,
     To the pageant pomp of kings.

Stranger to the hostile plains,
     Where the brazen trumpets sound;
Life’s purple stream the verdure stains,
     And heaps promiscuous press the ground.

Where the murderous cannon’s breath
     Fate denounces from afar,
And the loud report of death
     Stuns the cruel ear of war.

Stranger to the park and play,
     Birth-night balls, and courtly trains;
Thee I woo, my gentle May,
     Tune for thee my native strains.

Blooming groves, and wandering rills,
     Soothe thy vacant poet’s dreams,
Vocal woods, and wilds, and hills,
     All her unexalted themes.

Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-99), The Interior of a Park


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