Isle of Lesbos : Poetry : Historical : Anna Seward


Anna Seward

Anna Seward was a poet and a prolific correspondent of the late eighteenth century. She was the daughter of Thomas Seward, the canon of Lichfield, and Elizabeth Hunter. Elizabeth died and left Thomas a widower--an event that left Anna without a mother but with the freedom not to marry. As the eldest daughter, it was her responsibility to care for her father, and so she stayed at Lichfield and tended to him through senility. When he died, she was in her forties, and no longer under any social obligation to marry. As she was quite outspoken in her opinions of marriage (openly criticizing popular guidebooks for women that purported any marriage as preferable to none) the inability to marry young does not seem to have been a problem for her.

Anna was well-educated, known for her lively, generous nature and her unconventional ideas. She was educated at home, and read French, Italian, and Latin. Lichfield was one of the major provincial literary centers of the 18th century, and hers was a literary household. She began writing poetry young, publishing in periodicals and circulating her poems among friends.

Her style of verse was more conventional than her ideas, tending toward the enthusiastic and sentimental. She wrote many poems commemorating events and celebrating special places, and she is best known for these, as well as for her elegies. But another important topic to her was love, passionately expressed but always cast as friendship, and often directed toward Honora Sneyd.

Honora Sneyd came to live with the Sewards in her childhood. She was nine years younger than Anna, and the two shared a household for thirteen years. Anna and Honora formed a close attachment; when Honora's father had her return to his household when she was nineteen, Anna was stricken, though relieved that Honora did not move far away and they could still spend time together. Two years after Honora left the household, however, she married Robert Edgeworth. Anna was heartbroken. Judging from the poems she wrote at this time, she was consumed with anger and sorrow, feeling betrayed by Honora, who did not listen to Anna's attempts to talk her out of marriage. Anna went into mourning during this time. When Honora died of consumption seven years later, Anna was inconsolable. Even thirty years later, she was writing of how she wept for the sight of her dear Honora.

The poems Anna wrote about Honora were not censored or disparaged by Anna's admirers, as romantic friendship was well-accepted at that time. But whether Anna's affection for Honora indicated intense friendship or lesbian passion is unclear. While Anna continued to mourn Honora the rest of her life, she also formed affectionate attachments with other women. She wrote exuberant poems about Penelope Weston, Miss Mompesson, Miss Fern, and Elizabeth Cornwallis (whom Anna named Clarissa). Anna's relationship with Elizabeth was something she undertook in the face of difficultly, as Elizabeth's father did not condone female friendships, forcing them to meet and correspond in secret. For a woman she referred to as the "unpartaken and secret treasure of my soul," this difficulty was something Anna could overcome.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, Anna befriended the Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, two women famous for eloping together and setting up their household in in Wales. Anna wrote Llangollen Vale in their honor. She often wrote to them of how she admired them, and when she found a portrait of a woman who resembled the late Honora, she sent it to her two friends so that they could enshrine the painting in their home.

Anna's correspondence made her just as well-known as her poetry. She had a large circle of literary correspondents, a circle she widened on each of her forays outside of Lichfield. Her letters show a less conventional side than appears in her poetry, revealing her direct nature and somewhat feminist stance. After her death (and at her request) her letters were published in six volumes.

During her lifetime Anna was both admired and criticized. One of her admirers named Anna the "Swan of Lichfield," and Erasmus Darwin called her "the inventress of epic elegy." She bequeathed her writing to Sir Walter Scott, and after her death he published a three-volume book on her poetry.

Biography by Alix North

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Selected Works


Written at the Sea-side, and Addressed to Miss Honora Sneyd

I write, Honora, on the sparkling sand!-
The envious waves forbid the trace to stay:
Honora's name again adorns the strand!
Again the waters bear their prize away!

So Nature wrote her charms upon thy face,
The cheek's light bloom, the lip's envermeil'd dye,
And every gay, and every witching grace,
That Youth's warm hours, and Beauty's stores supply.

But Time's stern tide, with cold Oblivion's wave,
Shall soon dissolve each fair, each fading charm;
E'en Nature's self, so powerful, cannot save
Her own rich gifts from this o'erwhelming harm.

Love and the Muse can boast superior power,
Indelible the letters they shall frame;
They yield to no inevitable hour,
But will on lasting tablets write thy name.

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Sonnet XII

Chlll'd by unkind HONORA's alter'd eye,
"Why droops my heart with pining woe forlorn,"
Thankless for much of good?-what thousands, born
To ceaseless toll beneath this wintry sky,
Or to brave deathful oceans surging high,
Or fell Disease's fever'd rage to mourn,
How blest to them would seem my destiny!
How dear the comforts my rash sorrows scorn!-
Affection is repaid by causeless hate!
A plighted love is changed to cold disdain!
Yet suffer not thy wrongs to shroud thy fate,
But turn, my soul, to blessings which remain;
And let this truth the wise resolve create,
The Heart estranged no anguish can regain.

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Sonnet XIII

Thou child of Night and Silence, balmy Sleep,
Shed thy soft poppies on my aching brow!
And charm to rest the thoughts of whence, or how
Vanish'd that prlz'd Affection, wont to keep
Each grief of mine from rankling into woe.
Then stern Misfortune from her bended bow
Loos'd the dire strings;-and Care, and anxious Dread
From my cheer'd heart, on sullen pinion fled.
But now, the spell dissolv'd, th' enchantress gone,
Ceaseless those cruel fiends infest my day,
And sunny hours but light them to their prey.
Then welcome midnight shades, when th wish'd boon
May in oblivious dews my eye-lids steep,
Thou child of Night and Silence, balmy Sleep!

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Farewell, false Friend!-our scenes of kindness close!
To cordial looks, to sunny smiles farewell!
To sweet consolings, that can grief expel,
And every joy soft sympathy bestows!
For alter'd looks, where truth no longer glows,
Thou hast prepared my heart;-and it was well
To bid thy pen th' unlook'd-for story tell,
Falsehood avow'd, that shame, nor sorrow knows.
O! when we meet,-(to meet we're destin'd, try
To avoid it as thou may'st) on either brow,
Nor in the stealing consciousness of eye,
Be seen the slightest trace of what, or how
We once were to each other;-nor one sigh
Flatter with weak regret a broken vow!

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To the Right Honourable Lady Eleanor Butler

With the Same Present

Thou, who with firm, free step, as life arose,
Led thy loved friend where sacred Deva flows,
On Wisdom's cloudless sun with thee to gaze,
And build your eyrie on that rocky maze;
Ah, ELEANORA! wilt thou gently deign
To bid these nets the tribute lines contain,
When Virtue, Genius, Rank, and Wealth, combine,
To pay ow'd homage at so pure a shrine?
And O! when kindling with the lovely theme,
The blest reality of Hope's fond dream,
Friendship, that bliss unshar'd disdains to know,
Nor sees, nor feels one unpartaken woe;
When for such worth, in each exalted mind,
Resolv'd as man, and more than woman kind,
Their warm admirers ask a length of years,
Unchill'd by terror, and unstain'd by tears,
Then may the fervent benedictions lie!
And long, long hence meet ELEANORA'S eye,
While with her ZARA'S it shall frequent rove
The treasur'd records of esteem, and love!

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Where to

  • Anna Seward (1747-1809): Poems on Female Friends Poems By Anna Seward (1810)
  • Anna Seward, Letters of Anna Seward: Written Between the Years 1784 and 1807, edited by Walter Scott, 6 volumes (Edinburgh: Constable and Co., 1811)
  • Anna Seward, The Poetical Works of Anna Seward; With Extracts from Her Literary Correspondence, edited by Walter Scott, 3 volumes (Edinburgh: John Ballantyne and Co., 1810)
  • Walter Scott, Biographical Memoirs of Eminent Novelists, and Other Distinguished Persons, volume 2 (Edinburgh: R. Cadell, 1834; New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1972)
  • Margaret Eliza Ashmun, The Singing Swan: An Account of Anna Seward and Her Acquaintance with Dr. Johnson, Boswell, and Others of Their Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1931)
  • Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: William Morrow, 1981), pp 132-138
  • E. V. Lucas, A Swan and Her Friends (London: Methuen, 1907)

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