Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1907), The Muse of Composition
Dear friends and readers,
My woman poet for this week is someone I came across first as an admirer of Anne Finch’s poetry: “In Memory of the Countess of Winchelsea”, a fine ode where we see how a woman poet can look to an admired predecessor as someone who authorizes her to write too. Elizabeth Tollett maintains a sort of shadow existence in the way poets do who have one or two poems repeatedly reprinted in anthologies. Her “Winter Song” is a favorite for anthologies of women’s verse across the ages and 18th century women’s verse and even of European or English verse across the ages and 18th century verse mostly by men:
Ask me no more, my truth to prove,
What I would suffer for my love.
With thee I would in exile go
To regions of eternal snow,
O’er floods by solid ice confined,
Through forest bare with northern wind:
While all around my eyes I cast,
Where all is wild and all is wast.
If there the timorous stag you chase,
Or rouse to fight a fiercer race,
Undaunted I thy arms would bear,
And give thy hand the hunter’s spear.
When the low sun withdraws his light,
And menaces an half-year’s night,
Thy conscious moon and stars above
Shall guide me with my wandering love.
Beneath the mountain’s hollow brow,
Or in its rocky cells below,
Thy rural feast I would provide,
Nor envy palaces their pride.
The softest moss should dress thy bed,
With savage spoils about thee spread:
While faithful love the watch should keep,
To banish danger from thy sleep.
(wr 1750’s, pub 1760)
It’s not coincidental that this is a rare poem by her to endorse heterosexual romance. I’m not sure she does it anywhere else. I quote from one by her permanently on my website (“I have such parts as we have plaid today”) where she personates Anne Boleyn the night before her execution writing to Henry VIII. Unfortunately she does not truly imagine what that night might have been like: filled with rage, despair, anger, nor make it clear how and why it was unlikely Anne could have written anything that night that would last. But her remembering Anne Boleyn and her fate as important and admiration for a transgressive victim was unusual in her time and helped keep Boleyn remembered (albeit by probably a very few) sympathetically.
Elizabeth Tollett was a learned woman, and lived much of her life with a kindly brother, an antiquarian who is always described as having gone to Cambridge. Only recently I learned for the first time that she was disabled, described as a “little crooked woman.” My choices for today show her variety and power as a poet and love for this brother, also her feminism.
First two poems she would have been proud of: the first tells us why people know her brother was at Cambridge: it’s a moving friendship poem, tender and loving, in the Horatian imitation style, and is influenced by poet.
To my brother at St. John’s College in Cambridge,
BLEST be the man, who first the method found
In absence to discourse, and paint a sound!
This praise old Greece to Tyrian Cadmus gives,
And still the author by th’ invention lives:
Still may he live, and justly famous be,
Whose art assists me to converse with thee!
All day I pensive sit, but not alone,
And have the best companions when I’ve none:
I read great Tully’s page, and wondering find
The heavenly doctrine of th’ immortal mind;
An axiom first by parent Nature taught,
An inborn truth, which proves itself by thought.
But when the sun declines the task I change,
And round the walls and antique turrets range;
From hence a varied scene delights the eyes.
See! here Augusta’s massive temples rise,
There meads extend, and hills support the skies;
See! there the ships, an anchored forest, ride,
And either India’s wealth enrich the tide.
Thrice happy you, in Learning’s other seat!
No noisy guards disturb your blest retreat:
Where, to your cell retired, you know to choose
The wisest author, or the sweetest muse.
Let useful toil employ the busy light,
And steal a restless portion from the night;
With thirst of knowledge wake before the day,
Prevent the sun, and chide his tardy ray,
When cheerful larks their early anthem sing,
And opening winds refreshing odours bring;
When from the hills you see the morning rise, 3
As fresh as Lansdown’s cheeks, and bright as Windham’s eyes.
But when you leave your books, as all must find
Some ease required, t’ indulge the labouring mind,
With such companions mix, such friendships make,
As not to choose what you must soon forsake:
Mark well thy choice, let modesty and truth,
And constant industry, adorn the youth.
In books good subjects for discourse are found;
Such be thy talk when friendly tea goes round.
Mirth more than wine the drooping spirits cheers,
Revives our hopes, and dissipates our fears;
From Circe’s cup, immeasured wine, refrain:
Start backwards and reject th’ untasted bane.
Perhaps to neighbouring shades you now repair,
To look abroad and taste the scented air;
Survey the useful labours of the swain,
The tedded grass, and sheaves of ripened grain;
The loaded trees with blushing apples graced,
Or hardy pears, which scorn the wintry blast;
Or see the sturdy hinds from harvest come,
To waste the setting suns in rural mirth at home.
Now on the banks of silver Cam you stray,
While through the twisted boughs the sunbeams play,
And the clear stream reflects the trembling ray.
Think, when you tread the venerable shade,
Here Cowley sung, and tuneful Prior played.
O! would the Muse thy youthful breast inspire
With charming raptures and poetic fire!
Then thou might’st sing (who better claims thy lays?)
A tributary strain to Oxford’s praise:
Thy humble verse from him shall fame derive,
And graced with Harley’s name for ever live.
First sing the man in constant temper found,
Unmoved when Fortune smiled, undaunted when she frowned,
A mind above rewards, serenely great,
And equal to the province of the state.
Thence let thy Muse to private life descend,
Nor in the patriot’s labours lose the friend.
As opposed to men of the era whose poems in this mode address public political questions, Tollett’s poem, like those by women of the era, present her innermost ideals for living. She says her brother is so much was luckier than she because he could go to Cambridge. He was learned, an antiquarian, many friends, and she is grateful to him for sharing his life with her.
A recent photo of Cambridge, Wimpole Hall
She tended to write in heroic couplets, grave and ultimately Popian in style (polished) but she also has merry and witty stanza poems. like the following:
A New Ballad To the Tune of All You Ladies now At Land &c [by Mrs Eliz Tollet.] To all you sparkling Whiggs at Court, p68v – 69v
To all you sparkling Whiggs at Court
We Torys in the Tower
Declare we mean to Spoile your Sport
By Mustring up our Power.
For tho’ you’vre laid us fast in hold
Yet Beauty bids defiance bold with a fa la &c
And first the fair of Villiers Race*
A Race to Beauty borne,
The freshest bloom, the Sweetest Grace,
Her Matchless face adorne
Our Land no Poet can afford
To praise Her justly but her Lord with a fa la &c
The Neighbouring Realm for beauties fame
Her Antient Right revives,
Nor can She plead a Stronger Claime
Than what Emilia gives,
For Artless Charmes & Native Mirth
Records the Bonny Maids of Perth with a fa la &c
Tho thus Maintain’d with Native Arms,
We call in foreign Aid,
May he be blind to British Charms
That dares resist the Swede
United forces Arm the fair,
Her Lovely Shape & Charming Air with a fa la &c
Fair Blackler Conquers by Surprise
And double Arms She bears
For while her form invades our Eyes
Her Musick Charms our Ears
Nature in her has Joyn’d to please
Good Natur’d Witt & Gracefull ease with a fa la &c
Tho Lovely Harley’s early Ray**
Now Shine in Youthfull bloom,
The Genial Influence of the Day
Shall brighen Charms to Come
So does the smiling morne arise
And Radiant Glories paint the Stars with a fa la la &c
Such force drawne up at our Command
We bravely take the feild
Whoever does our Arms withstand
Prepare to dye or Yeild.
Do you Appoint the Time & Place
We dare you bring a better face with a fa la &c
There are problems with the attribution on several grounds and I used to be sure it was by Finch, but no longer am and surmize it’s by Tollett, partly on the strength of the manuscript I found it in which is usually accurate in its attributions where I could check it.
It is, however, far more common for Tollett to write grave and melancholy verse, satire, and serious imitations. I chose her for today because of this and a poem by her I recently read in which she reveals she suffered from depression: it’s one of her Horatian imitations. Samuel Johnson would have liked this one. Horace seems to have authorized all kinds of subversive unacceptable feelings.
This particular imitation is one of the Pindaric kind and thus probably not one which will get much readership, but it’s superb, austere, controlled, filled with strong sad feeling. She would be preceded by Anne Finch, whose pindaric “Spleen” is in a similar vein and is perhaps one of the first or earliest poems where a poet comes out openly as suffering depression and analysing it in front of us.
Imitation of Horace, Lib II Ode 3
/Equam memento rebus in arduis/Servare mentem
Why thus dejected? can you hope a Cure
In mourning Ills which you endure?
Without Redress you grieve:
A melancholy Thought may sour
The Pleasures of the present Hour.
But never can the Past retrieve.
Who knows if more remain for Fate to give?
Unerring Death alike on all attends;
Alike our Hopes and Fears destroys:
Alike one silent Period ends.
All our repining Griefs and our insulting joys.
Not thy Expence, nor thy Physicians Skill
Can guard thee from the Stroak’ofFate:
Thou yield’st to some imaginary Ill
Thy very Fears of Death create.
With the fantastick Spleen26 oppress’d,
With Vapours wilder Indolence possess’d,
Thy stagnant Blood forgets to roll,
And Fate attacks thee from thy inward Soul,
Vain is Resistance, let’s retreat
To some remote, some rural Seat;
Where on the Grass reclin’d we may,
Make ev’ry Dayan Holy-day:
Where all to our Delights combine,
With Friendship, Wit, and chearful Wine.
Where the tall Poplar and aspiring Pine
Their hospitable Branches twine:
Among their Roots a silver Current strays,
Which wand’ring here and there, its Course delays,
And in Meanders forms its winding Ways,
Perfumes, and Wine, and Roses bring!
The short-liv’d Treasures of the Spring!
While Wealth can give, or Youth can use,
While that can purchase, this excuse,
Let’s live the present Now!
‘Tis all the fatal Sisters may allow,
Tho’ thou should’st purchase an immense Estate,
Tho’ the clear Mirror of the rolling Tide
Reflect thy Villa’s rising Pride,
And Forest shading either side;
Yet must thou yield to Fate:
To these shall thy unthankful Heir succeed;
And waste the heapy Treasures of the Dead.
Nor shall it aid thee then to trace
Thy Ancestors beyond the Norman Race:
Death, the great Leveller of all Degrees,
Does on Mankind without Distinction seize.
Undaunted Guards attend in vain
The mighty Tyrant to repel;
Nor does his Cruelty disdain
The lab’ring Hind! and weary Swain,
Who in obscure Oblivion dwell.
When from the fated Urn the Lot is cast,
The Doom irrevocable past,
Still on the Brink the shiv’ring Ghosts wou’d stay:
Imperious Fate brooks no Delay;
The Steersman calls, away! away!
We can see her feminism in the choices she makes to translate: from Virgil’s Aeneid, these lines:
From Virgil [Aeneid III. 321-4 Adapted]
How hard a fate enthrals the wretched maid
By tyrant kindred bartered and betrayed!
Whose beauty, youth and innocence are sold
For shining equipage, or heaps of gold;
Condemned to drag an odious chain for life,
A living victim and a captive wife!
More happy she, and less severe her doom,
Who falls in all the pride of early bloom,
And virgin honours dress her peaceful tomb!
WHAT cruel laws depress the female kind,
To humble cares and servile tasks confined!
In gilded toys their florid bloom to spend,
And empty glories that in age must end;
For amorous youth to spread the artful snares,
And by their triumphs to enlarge their cares.
For, once engaged in the domestic chain,
Compare the sorrows, and compute the gain;
What happiness can servitude afford?
A will resigned to an imperious lord,
Or slave to avarice, to beauty blind,
Or soured with spleen, or ranging unconfined.
That haughty man, unrivalled and alone,
May boast the world of science all his own:
As barb’rous tyrants, to secure their sway,
Conclude that ignorance will best obey.
Then boldly loud, and privileged to rail,
As prejudice o’er reason may prevail,
Unequal nature is accused to fail.
The theme, in keen iambics smoothly writ,
Which was but malice late, shall soon be wit.
Nature in vain can womankind inspire
With brighter particles of active fire,
Which to their frame a due proportion hold,
Refined by dwelling in a purer mould,
If useless rust must fair endowments hide,
Or wit, disdaining ease, be misapplied.
‘Tis then that wit, which reason should refine,
And disengage the metal from the mine,
Luxuriates, or degenerates to design.
Wit unemployed becomes a dangerous thing,
As waters stagnate and defile their spring.
The cultivated mind, a fertile soil,
With rich increase rewards the useful toil:
But fallow left, an hateful crop succeeds
Of tangling brambles and pernicious weeds;
‘Tis endless labour then the ground to clear,
And trust the doubtful earnest of the year.
Yet oft we hear, in height of stupid pride,
Some senseless idiot curse a lettered bride.
On her long Heroides to Anne Boleyn: If you can bypass the self-blinding presentation of her as somehow penitent and excusing herself to the king (instead of bitter, enraged, hurt, and probably rightly duplicitious — read Retha Warnke’s accurate biography of Boleyn), the poem is striking. It’s long and you can probably find it in Chadwyck-Healey. This is a remarkable and unusual poem because she does not present Boleyn as this lurid victim; it’s not an iconography of glamorous victimhood, but a somber portrait where she defends Boleyn through notes (which shows she read up on the subject and didn’t like the common portrayals in the media then, which I suppose correspond to similar lurid iconographies today). It’s very revealing to go into the way actresses in the 18th century and these tragedy queens (Mary Stuart Queen of Scots, and then Antoinette) were represented; you can find that modern “glamor” types are closely similar (for example, the way Mary Queen of Scots was represented reminds me of the way Princess Diana is presented; Hillary Clinton, Marie Antoinette; Mary Robinson, Madonna). Plus ca change ….
This one precedes Wordsworth’s famous sonnet on Westminster Bridge:
On the Prospect from Westminster Bridge,
CAESAR! renowned in silence as in war,
Look down a while from thy maternal star:
See! to the skies what sacred domes ascend,
What ample arches o’er the river bend;
What vill[a]s above in rural prospect lie,
Beneath, a street that intercepts the eye,
Where happy Commerce glads the wealthy streams,
And floating castles ride. Is this the Thames,
The scene where brave Cassibelan of yore
Repulsed thy legions on a savage shore?
Britain, ’tis true, was hard to overcome,
Or by the arms, or by the arts, of Rome;
Yet we allow thee ruler of the Sphere,
And last of all resign thy Julian year
Elizabeth was the daughter of George Tollet, Commissioner of the Navy in the reigns of William II and Queen Anne; she lived in his home in the tower of London; her father who was friendly with Sir Isaac Newton was encouraged by Newton to give her an excellent education (she translated some of the psalms into classical Latin): she read history, understood mathematics, was fluent in French, Italian and Latin. Like Margaret Cavendish and a number of the later 17th century English women poets who are in print today and still valued, she never belonged to a social circle, and not much is known about her beyond the kinds of facts found in registry documents about her male relatives; she never married. But she was addressed in verse by one John Hanway and perhaps Aaron Hill. She is said to have left property to her nephew, George Tollett (1725-79), a lawyer and critic of Shakespeare. She was buried in West Ham Church, where her epitaph says “Religion, justice, and benevolence appeared in all her actions; and her Poems, in various languages are adorned with the most extensive learning, applied to the best purposes.
She did publish her poems more than once (one edition is dated 1724), and there was a posthumous edition of her poetry (1755; it was in the second edition that her poem as Anne Boleyn was printed). She wrote poetry in praise of the poetry of other women: beyond Annr Finch, the Countess of Winchilsea, she loved the poetry of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu — who she in effect addressed as her foremothers, or as writing in a worthy tradition of poetry by women.
She comes across to me as a likable woman, really generous and kind, with decent values, living a quietly semi-fulfilled life.
I like to think this is to her best friend — who the poem tells us predeceased Tollett — and whom she identifies with:
Adieu my Friend
Adieu my Friend! and may thy Woes
Be all in long Oblivion lost:
If Innocence can give Repose;
Or gentle Verse can please thy Ghost.
No pious Rite, no solemn Knell
Attended thy belov’d Remains:
Nor shall the letter’d Marble tell
What silent Earth the Charge contains.
Obscure, beneath the nameless Stone,
With thee shall Truth and Virtue sleep:
While, with her Lamp, the Muse alone,
Shall watch thy sacred Dust and weep.
Blue Violets, and Snow-Drops pale,
In pearly Dew for thee shall mourn:
And humble Lillies of the Vale
Shall cover thy neglected Urn.
The information here comes from many sources; two useful anthologies which contain some of the above poetry are Rogers Lonsdale’s Eighteenth-Century Women Poets (Oxford); and Paula Backscheider’s British Women Poets of the Long Eighteenth Century.