Anna Seward

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Anna Seward
Anna Seward by Tilly Kettle.jpg
Anna Seward, by Tilly Kettle, 1762
Born 12 December 1747
Eyam, Derbyshire
Died March 25, 1809(1809-03-25) (aged 61)
Lichfield, Staffordshire
Nationality English
Occupation Writer, Botanist
Notable work Louisa (1784)
Home town Lichfield
Relatives Sarah (sister)
Anna Seward, engraving 1799

Anna Seward (12 December 1747 – 25 March 1809)[1] was an English Romantic poet, often called the Swan of Lichfield.


Family life[edit]

Seward was the eldest of two daughters of Thomas Seward (1708–1790), prebendary of Lichfield and Salisbury, and author, and his wife Elizabeth. Born in 1742 at Eyam, a small mining village in the Peak District of Derbyshire where her father was the rector,[1] she passed nearly all her life in the relatively small area of the Peak District of Derbyshire and Lichfield, a cathedral city in the adjacent county of Staffordshire to the west, an area now corresponding to the boundary of the East Midlands and West Midlands regions.[2][1]

In 1749 her father was appointed to a position as Canon-Residentiary at Lichfield Cathedral and the family moved to that city, where her father educated her entirely at home. They lived in the Bishop's palace, and Anna remained there caring for her father until he died in 1790. She spent the rest of her life at the Palace, till her death in 1809.[2] Her sister Sarah, who was three years younger than her, died suddenly at the age of nineteen (1764).[3] When her mother died in 1780,[4] Honora Sneyd moved in with the family to care for her. When her father died, he left her financially independent with an income of ₤400 per annum. She remained resolutely single throughout her life, despite many offers, and friendships, and was quite outspoken about the institution of marriage.[5][1]

A longtime friend of the Levett family of Lichfield, Seward noted in her Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin (Erasmus) that three of the town's foremost citizens had been thrown from their carriages and had injured their knees in the same year. "No such misfortune," Seward wrote, "was previously remembered in that city, nor has it recurred through all the years which since elapsed."[notes 1]

Education and career[edit]

In her early childhood, she was considered a precocious, sensitive redhead, and her bent for learning became evident from the beginning. Encouraged by her father, she was said to be able to recite the works of Milton by the age of three.[1]

Even at the age of seven when the family moved to Lichfield, she recognised she had a gift for writing. At Lichfield the family lived in the Bishop's Palace which became the centre of a literary circle including Erasmus Darwin, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, to which Anna was exposed and encouraged to participate as she later relates.[notes 2][5] Among the many literary figures of the time with which she conversed was Sir Walter Scott who would later publish her poetry posthumously. Her circle also included writers such as Thomas Day, Francis Noel Clarke Mundy and Sir Brooke Boothby, and she was considered the leader of a coterie of regional poets, and was influenced by writers such as Thomas Whalley, William Hayley, Robert Southey, Helen Maria Williams, Hannah More and the Ladies of Llangollen.[6][2] In addition to her literary circle she was involved in the deliberations of the Lunar Society in nearby Birmingham, that would sometimes meet at her father's home.[7]

Between 1775 and 1781, Seward was a guest and participant at the much-mocked salon held by Anna Miller at Batheaston, near Bath. However, it was here that Seward's talent was recognised and her work published in the annual volume of poems from the gatherings, a debt that Seward acknowledged in her Poem to the Memory of Lady Miller (1782).[8]



She began to write poetry beginning at an early age with the encouragement of her father, a published poet, but against the wishes of her mother. Although at sixteen her father altered his position out of fear she might become a 'learned lady'.[5] Later she received encouragement from Dr Erasmus Darwin, who set up practice in Lichfield in 1756,[9] although their relationship was complex and frequently conflicted.[5]

Her verses, which date from at least 1764 (age 17),[5] include elegies and sonnets, and she also wrote a poetical novel, Louisa (1784), of which five editions were published, however she did not published her first poem till 1780 at the age of 33. Seward's writings, which include a large number of letters, have been called "commonplace". Horace Walpole said she had "no imagination, no novelty."[10] She was praised, however, by Mary Scott,[11] who had written admiringly of her father's attitude to female education.[12] She was recogmised, to varying degrees, as an authority on English literature by her contemporaries Walter Scott, Samuel Johnson and Robert Southey.[6] Her work was widely circulated.[13]

In an era when women had to tread carefully in society's orbit, Seward struck a middle ground. In her work, Seward could be alternately arch and teasing, as in her poem entitled Portrait of Miss Levett, on the subject of a Lichfield beauty later married to Rev. Richard Levett.[14] She contributed to Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) but was not particularly happy with the way her material was treated by Boswell.[5]

Authorship has been a continuing problem with assessing her work,[5] and she was known to suggest others had used her work as her own, "a charge of plagiarism must rest somewhere".[15]


Keenly interested in botany, she was closely associated with the Lichfield Botanical Society (despite the name, composed of only three men, Erasmus Darwin, Sir Brooke Boothby and John Jackson) and published as did the preceding members, anonymously under the name of the Society.[16] Encouraged by Darwin she firmly rejected the conservative backlash to the revelations of Carl Linnaeus' sexual system of plant classification. This was considered unfitting for ladies, whose modesty had to be protected.[17]

"I had heard it was not fit for the female eye. It can only be unfit for the perusal of such females as still believe the legend of their nursery that children are dug out of a parsley-bed; who have never been at church, or looked into a Bible, -and are totally ignorant that in the present state of the world, two sexes are necessary to the production of animals."[18][notes 3]

This attitude which was to prevail throughout most of the nineteenth century was typified by writers like the Rev. Richard Polwhele, in his poem The Unsex'd Females, although she escaped his personal criticism, being considered to have the proper attitude.

List of works[edit]

Selected works include;[5]

  • Elegy on Captain Cook (1780) (first published poem)
  • Monody on Major André (1781)
  • Louisa (1784) (epistolary novel)
  • Llangollen Vale (1796) (volume of poems)
  • Original Sonnets (1799) (one hundred sonnets)
  • Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin (1804)
  • The Visions, an Elegy
  • Knowledge, a Poem in the Manner of Spencer
  • Portrait of Miss Levett
  • Ode to Content
  • Receipt for a Sweet Jar
  • Ode to the Sun
  • Ode to Poetic Fancy
  • The Backwardness of the Spring Accounted For 1772 (unsigned but attributed)[19][20]
  • To Remembrance
  • A Meditation
  • Hoyle Lake
  • Ode on Time


Seward wrote many sonnets, such as this one:

POLWHELE, whose genius, in the colours clear
Of poesy and philosophic art,
Traces the sweetest impulse of the heart,
Scorn, for thy Muse, the envy-sharpen'd spear,
In darkness thrown, when shielded by desert
She seeks the lyric fane. To virtue dear
Thy verse esteeming, feeling minds impart
Their vital smile, their consecrating tear.
Fancy and judgment view with gracious eyes
Its kindred tints, that paint the silent power
Of local objects, deeds of high emprize
To prompt; while their delightful spells restore
The precious vanish'd days of former joys,
By Love, or Fame, enwreath'd with many a flower.

—Anna Seward, Sonnet to the Rev. Richard Polwhele, on his poem upon the influence of local attachment[21][notes 4]


After her death Sir Walter Scott edited Seward's Poetical Works in three volumes (Edinburgh, 1810). To these he prefixed a memoir of the author, adding extracts from her literary correspondence. He declined, however, to edit the bulk of her letters, and these were published in six volumes by A. Constable as Letters of Anna Seward 1784–1807 (Edinburgh, 1811). Seward also wrote Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin (1804).[22] Her reputation barely lasted beyond her life, although there has been a renewed interest in the twenty first century. There was a tendency to be dismissive of her work in twentieth century criticism, but later, particularly amongst feminist scholars she was seen as a valuable observer of gendered relationships in late eighteenth century society.[2] Kairoff, considering her "one of the - in a literal sense - ultimate eighteenth century poets".[23]

There is a plaque to Anna Seward (spelled "Anne", which is the spelling she used in her will) in Lichfield Cathedral.[notes 5]


  1. ^ The three victims of the unfortunate carriage accidents were Dr. Erasmus Darwin, Lichfield town clerk Theophilus Levett and Anna Seward herself. (Seward 1804)
  2. ^ "and being canon of this cathedral, his daughter necessarily converses on terms of equality with the proudest inhabitants of our little city" (Scott 1810, Letter February 1763. vol. I p. lxxiii)
  3. ^ Seward is defending Erasmus Darwin for attacks on his Temple of Nature (1803), which had been labelled as indecent.
  4. ^ The Rev. Polwhele, author of The Unsex'd Females was one of the opponents of female education scorned by Seward. (Shteir 1996, p. 27 ff.) His poem Influence of Local Attachment was written in 1796.
  5. ^ See the extracts from Seward's will published in The Lady's Monthly Museum (Lady's Monthly 1812, Miss Seward's Will Wednesday 1 April 1812 pp. 190–195)



Literary surveys[edit]

Anna Seward[edit]


Works by Seward[edit]

External links[edit]