- Anna Seward's Life of Erasmus Darwin
Anna Seward is a writer whose time has come. Recent publications indicate the emerging importance and canonicity of this once-neglected writer, including several important critical articles; the inclusion of her work in collections of the sonnet and the history of its tradition in the Romantic era; her inclusion in other anthologies, such as those by Paula R. Feldman (2000 and 2002); the availability of two of her collections on the UC Davis British Romantic Women Poets website; and a full-length critical biography by Teresa Barnard (2009). Therefore, Wilson, Dolan, and Dick's edition of her memoir of the life of Erasmus Darwin could not have come at a more auspicious time.
The 1804 memoir is prepared and presented with care. The introductory essay to the volume offers a major overview of the work and its place within considerations of both Seward’s and Darwin’s lives and reputations. In writing her memoir, Seward sought to resituate the available models of biography to slightly [End Page 331] different ends. Rather than take a panoptic view of Darwin’s life, she focuses on his time in Lichfield, when she knew him best, telling her reader: “Of those years in which the talents and social virtues of this extraordinary man shed their lustre over the city which I inhabit, no historian remains, who, with vicinity of habitation, and domestic intercourse with Dr Darwin, took equal interest with myself in all that marked . . . that period of twenty-three years. . . .” While Darwin wrote his major work, The Botanic Garden, during this residency, Seward relates with engaging detail his work as the town doctor and his encounters with various members of Lichfield society. Further, she tells readers that her biographical goals also include being “the recorder of vanished Genius beneath the ever-present consciousness that biography and criticism have their sacred duties, alike to the deceased, and to the public; precluding, on one hand, unjust depreciation, on the other, over-valuing partiality” (54).
Unlike her contemporaries and models, Hester Thrale Piozzi and James Boswell, what Seward has in mind is more of a critical biography in our modern sense than an elaboration of biographical dates and table talk. The middle portion of her work centers on a reading of Darwin’s masterpiece, The Botanic Garden. This close reading of his important but now neglected work that popularized Linnean systems of botany, especially for women, is not without its own investments. Seward carefully and perhaps bitterly indicates Darwin’s plagiarism of her own lines at the beginning of his opus, demonstrating one more manner in which women’s words are co-opted by men. However, her reading on the whole is fair and balanced, and makes a convincing argument for Darwin’s poem having a place in modern readings of the period.
More constructively, too, Seward’s reading adds an additional element not normally found in critical readings today. She offers her readers a primer on what makes good poetry and good publishing practices. Coming from her years of experience as a publishing writer and poet, Seward offers a wealth of wisdom in the almost aphoristic advice she gives while reading Darwin’s poems. For instance, she advises in chapter four that “Book-made descriptions [of landscape] are trite and vapid; but nature is inexhaustible in her varieties . . .” (128). In the same chapter, she rightly advises future poets that “Spondees, judiciously used, vary and increase the general harmony of every species of verse, whether blank or rhyme,” and goes on to explain how this works (135). Thus, in her argument that The Botanic Garden “forms a new class in poetry, and by doing so, gives to the British Parnassus a wider extent than it possessed in Greece, or in ancient, or modern Rome” (134), Seward traces the aesthetic changes that occur in a key moment in the transition between what we now call Neoclassical and Romantic verse.
The appendices to this volume offer mostly substantial information, perhaps similar...