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Anna Seward and the End of the Eighteenth Century

Claudia Thomas Kairoff

Publication Year: 2012

Anna Seward and her career defy easy placement into the traditional periods of British literature. Raised to emulate the great poets John Milton and Alexander Pope, maturing in the Age of Sensibility, and publishing during the early Romantic era, Seward exemplifies the eighteenth-century transition from classical to Romantic. Claudia Thomas Kairoff’s excellent critical study offers fresh readings of Anna Seward’s most important writings and firmly establishes the poet as a pivotal figure among late-century British writers. Reading Seward’s writing alongside recent scholarship on gendered conceptions of the poetic career, patriotism, provincial culture, sensibility, and the sonnet revival, Kairoff carefully reconsiders Seward’s poetry and critical prose. Written as it was in the last decades of the eighteenth century, Seward’s work does not comfortably fit into the dominant models of Enlightenment-era verse or the tropes that characterize Romantic poetry. Rather than seeing this as an obstacle for understanding Seward’s writing within a particular literary style, Kairoff argues that this allows readers to see in Seward’s works the eighteenth-century roots of Romantic-era poetry. Arguably the most prominent woman poet of her lifetime, Seward’s writings disappeared from popular and scholarly view shortly after her death. After nearly two hundred years of critical neglect, Seward is attracting renewed attention, and with this book Kairoff makes a strong and convincing case for including Anna Seward's remarkable literary achievements among the most important of the late eighteenth century.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

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pp. ix-xiii

When I began working on this study in 2004, I thought I had chosen—to borrow the phrase from Jane Austen—“a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” (Letters 209). Anna Seward (1742–1809) had been the subject of curiously pejorative biographies, had been overlooked by most scholars of the later eighteenth century, and was being dropped from both eighteenth-century and Romantic-era...

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pp. 1-14

Anthologies of both eighteenth-century and Romantic-era British poetry are beginning to include Anna Seward (1742–1809), who is attracting renewed scholarly attention after nearly two hundred years of critical neglect. Her poems have been cited recently as precursors of queer and environmental writing; she has been described as a provincial writer and as a domestic muse. None of these...

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1. Under Suspicious Circumstances: The (Critical) Disappearance of Anna Seward

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pp. 15-31

When she died in 1809, Anna Seward was arguably “the most prominent and formidable woman writer” in Britain (Lonsdale 313). She had produced poetry that, when collected into three volumes, spanned genres from the ode to the sonnet to a novel in verse. Her critical opinions were frequently published in the Gentleman’s Magazine. She had been the first biographer of Dr. Erasmus...

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2. “Fancy’s Shrine”: Lady Miller’s Batheaston Poetical Assemblies

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pp. 32-50

Anna Seward participated in a local poetic coterie and circulated poems in manuscript, but she did not publish in print until 1780, a transitional time for poetry, publishing, and the professionalization of writing (Barnard, Anna Seward 110, 122). In this chapter, I examine the poems Seward chose to publish in her collected works (1809) from among those she presented to her...

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3. The Profession of Poetry

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pp. 51-69

In Men’s Work, Linda Zionkowski outlines the process through which, over the course of the eighteenth century, writing gradually became defined as manly work (210). In many ways, of course, the gendering of “professional” as masculine and “amateur” as feminine was a fictional creation. For example, women were perhaps less likely than men to write, teach, or perform musically for...

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4. British Patriot

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pp. 70-97

Just as Anna Seward’s approach to publication via Batheaston challenges our twenty-first-century notions of Romantic-era amateurism, professionalism, and careers, so too knowledge of eighteenth-century poetics challenges aesthetic standards that some have used to categorize her as a mediocre poet, as a careful reading proves her to have been quite accomplished by her century’s criteria. In this...

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5. Wartime Correspondent: The French Wars and Late-Century Patriotism

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pp. 98-116

The Ode on General Eliott was the last of Seward’s panegyrical odes. The following decade witnessed a torrent of patriotic verse as Britain waged war fi rst with revolutionary, then with Napoleonic, France. As Simon Bainbridge has observed, war became the central theme of British poetry, as poets seized their opportunity to portray and interpret the wars for domestic readers (2–5). But not for...

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6. Seward and Sensibility: Louisa, a Poetical Novel, in Four Epistles

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pp. 117-137

In 1784, two years after publishing her elegy to Lady Miller, Seward published her most popular work. Louisa, a Poetical Novel, in Four Epistles went through five editions between its first appearance and 1792, not including an additional fifth edition published in Philadelphia in 1789. The story was calculated to attract and instruct an audience accustomed to admiring keen sensibility, and so in this...

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7. Louisa and the Late Eighteenth-Century Family Romance

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pp. 138-157

When Seward revisited Louisa in 1784 after having set the project aside for some years, she had to develop the remainder of it without the aid of the map that Rousseau and Pope had provided to her as she wrote the first epistle. In this chapter, I analyze Seward’s variation on the sentimental fiction of the 1780s and 1790s. In her recent literary history, Susan Staves suggests that self-abnegation...

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8. Milton’s Champion

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pp. 158-178

Seward’s intervention in the developing novel genre is generally forgotten today, but her contribution to a particular lyric poetic form is widely acknowledged. Two hundred years after their publications captivated the British reading public, Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets (1784–1811) and Seward’s Original Sonnets on Various Subjects (1799) are generally regarded as landmarks in the late...

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9. Corresponding Poems

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pp. 179-198

Seward rejected Charlotte Smith’s model of a chain, in which she rings changes on a single mood, in favor of what she considered Milton’s precedent, sonnets written on particular occasions. In Smith’s cycle, her personal state of being gives rise to her verse; any and all occasions inspire variations on her theme. One might speculate that Smith’s drive to explore her personal ontology took precedence...

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10. The “Lost” Honora

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pp. 199-226

Of one hundred sonnets, it is difficult to do more than generalize. Seward personally defined the sonnet in Miltonic terms and produced masterful renditions of the “legitimate” sonnet, and at the same time she anticipated her Romantic-era successors in certain ways but also differed from them in eschewing the model of poet as outcast. Still, Seward was a poet of sensibility and therefore...

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11. Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin: Digging in The Botanical Garden

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pp. 227-239

In my introduction, we glimpsed Seward in a characteristic posture in her autobiographical “Lichfield, an Elegy.” Traveling past Honora Sneyd’s burial place to her present home and by implication into the future when she will write this poem, Seward nevertheless strains her eyes looking back to catch a last glimpse of her beloved’s grave (l. 138). The image captures Seward’s state of mind as she...

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12. Anna Seward, Samuel Johnson, and the End of the Eighteenth Century

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pp. 240-265

The most surprising aspect of Seward’s antipathy toward Samuel Johnson is that she shared a great many of his assumptions. Seward was twenty when, in 1762, the fifty-three year-old Johnson received a pension for his renowned Dictionary. More than a generation younger than Johnson, she devoured all of his writings and incorporated many of his literary judgments into her own...


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pp. 267-281


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pp. 283-293


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pp. 295-308

E-ISBN-13: 9781421406633
E-ISBN-10: 1421406632
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421403281
Print-ISBN-10: 1421403285

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2012