Dear friends and readers,
This week I was torn between choosing a relatively or wholly unknown woman poet for this week’s foremother poet, or a woman who was part of a larger cultural milieu in which women flourished in her period. I at first thought to write a blog on a Scots’ lyricist who has one famous (often-sung) ballad attributed to her on the Net: Caroline Keppel Adair (born 1734?). But I couldn’t verify the information I had. The books I used when I made the posting have long since been put back in the library; one of them (an anthology of Scottish women poets, available as an inexpensive paperback on the Net) I did buy and when it arrives, I might be in a position to feel I could do one securely on Adair.
In the meantime I thought I’d write about another Scottish woman poet whose poem of friendship to another woman moves me, and about whose “The Highlanders” I found an interesting essay in JStor: Anne Grant (nee Macivar) (1755-1853). I like her combined stance of quiet reason and the vatic and poetic:
Of Beatrice, I know only that she was Anne Grant’s beloved friend. The story of the poem is of a woman who has had to give up poetry to be a wife, have an take care of children; now grown older, she tries to revivify her muse, and finds that friendship and truth rather than romance must be her themes; she names several women writers (showing the contexts she saw herself in), a Scotswoman poet, Anne Hunter (about whom I wrote a foremother poet blog on Jane Austen’s World), a sonneteer, Anna Seward, a romantic and pro-revolutionary, Helena Maria Williams, and the historian Catherine Macauley. Having said she cannot achieve the vatic, she recreates her poetry in a new descriptive, quietly vatic stance.
Familiar Epistle to a Friend
Dear Beatrice, with pleasure I read your kind letter;
On the subject, methinks, there could scarce be a better:
How vivid the scenes it recall’d to my view,
And how lively it waken’d remembrance anew!
Yet our souls are so crusted with housewifely moss,
That Fancy’s bright furnace yields nothing but dross:
Surrounded with balling, and squalling, and prattle,
With handmaids unhandy, and gossipping tattle,
Cut fingers to bandage, and stockings to darn,
And labyrinths endless of ill-manag’d yarn,
Through whose windings Daedalean bewilder’d we wander,
Like draggle-tail’d nymphs of the mazy Meander,
Till at length, like the Hero of Macedon, tir’d
Of the slow perseverance untwisting required,
We brandish our scissors, resolved on the spot,
Since we cannot unravel, to cut through the knot.
Blest vicars of England! how happy your wives!
Though devoted to pudding and plain work their lives,
Though quotations and homilies forced to endure,
While fumes of tobacco their graces obscure;
Though their quiet be disturb’d with the nursery’s noise,
Though their girls should be hoydens, or dunces their boys,
With the tangling of yarn they are never perplex’d,
More difficult to clear than his Reverence’s text.
While with labour incessant our toils we renew,
To furnish fine linen, and purple and blue,
Such a series of self-same minute occupation
Yields nothing, you’ll own, to enliven narration;
And as for the friend of all poets, Invention,
‘Tis a thing, of late years, I scarce think of or mention:
Or of useful inventions alone make my boast,
Such as saving potatoes and turnips from frost;
Or repulsing whole armies of mice from my cheese;
Or plucking the quills without paining the geese.
What a change on the scene and the actors appears?
‘Tis now but a dozen and odd of short years,
Since when we, and the season, and fancy were young,
flowery banks our gay whimsies we sung,
Regardless of profit, and hopeless of fame,
Yet heedless of censure, and fearless of blame,
We travers’d the vale, or we haunted the grove,
As free as the birds that were chanting above;
Where the fair face of Nature was bright with a smile.
Enraptur’d in silence we gaz’d for a while;
Then as clear and as artless resounded our lays,
As the sky or the stream we endeavour’d to praise;
While strains of delight the pure pleasures impart
That thrill’d through each bosom, and glow’d in each heart;
But when from the east, with dun vapours o’ercast,
Came horrors bestriding the bleak howling blast;
When rude echoing rocks with brown cataracts foam’d,
And bewilder’d in mist the sad traveller roam’d;
When to part us, loud storms and deep gullies conspir’d,
And sublime meditation to garrats retir’d;
To the workings of fancy to give a relief,
We sat ourselves down to imagine some grief,
Till we conjur’d up phantoms so solemn and sad,
As, if they had lasted, would make us half mad;
Then in strains so affecting we pour’d the soft ditty,
As mov’d both the rocks and their echoes to pity:
And to prove it, each note of the soul-moving strain
In more sonorous sounds was return’d back again;
And we, silly souls, were so proud of our parts,
When we thought that our pathos had reach’d their hard hearts!
But when grave looking Hymen had kindl’d his torch,
With a pure lambent flame that would glow but not scorch,
The Muses, who plain humble virtues revere,
Were affrighted to look on his brow so austere;
The cottage so humble, or sanctified dome,
For the revels of fancy afforded no room;
And the lyre and the garland, were forc’d to give place
To duties domestic, and records of grace:
Then farewell Illysus, adieu Hippocrene,
The vales of Arcadia and Tempe so green;
To the hills of Judea we now must draw near,
King Lemuel’s good mother’s wise maxims to hear,
And strive to leave none of the duties undone
Which the matron prescrib’d for the spouse of her son;
For my own part, I labour’d and strove with my might
To do all that the proverbs applauded as right:
Fine coverings I made that with tapestry vied,
And with heather and madder my fleeces I dy’d,
While the sun shone I still made the most of his light,
And my candle most faithfully burnt through the night;
And while that and large fires through the winter did glow,
Not a farthing my household would care for the snow:
Their plaids, hose, and garters, with scarlet adorn’d,
Chill December they braved, and its rigours they scorn’d;
Yet these were not all my pretensions to claim
Of a matron industrious and virtuous the name;
My mate (can you doubt it?) was known in the gates,
Among seniors, and elders, and men of estates:
I made him a coat of a grave solemn hue,
Two threads they were black, and the other two blue;
So warm, and so clerical, comely and cheap,
‘Twas a proof both of thrift and contrivance so deep;
His cravats of muslin were spun by my hands,
I knit all his stockings and stitch’d all his bands;
Till the neighbours all swore by St. Bridget herself,
Such a wife was worth titles, and beauty, and pelf.
Quite dead and extinct all poetical fire,
At the foot of the cradle conceal’d lay my lyre;
What witchcraft had alter’d its form I ne’er knew,
But by some means or other a whistle it grew;
The brats in succession all jingled its bells,
While its music to them the piano excels:
But when slowly and surely the cold hand of time
Had stole my complexion, and wither’d my prime,
Resolv’d for a while to respire at my ease,
In Clydesdale I courted the soft western breeze;
Whose fresh breathing whispers my languor could soothe,
With visions of fancy, and dreams of my youth.
While slowly retracing my dear native Clyde,
And reviewing my visage, so chang’d, in its tide,
As sad and reluctant I strove to retire,
To my grasp was presented my trusty old lyre,—
I snatch’d it, I strumm’d it, and thrumm’d it again,
But strove to awaken its music in vain;
So rusty the wire, so enfeebled my hand,
A while in suspence and dumb wonder I stand:
Thus it happen’d they say, to Ulysses of old,
When twenty long years of sad absence had roll’d,
To his Ithaca forc’d in disguise to resort,
When the suitors with uproar were filling his court;
He set his foot forward, and bending his brow,
With a dignified air he demanded his bow;
With joy-mingled sorrow review’d his old friend,
And three times essay’d the tough crescent to bend,
Till the string to his efforts resounded so sharp,
Some thought it a swallow and some an old harp.—
Thus awkward and faint were my efforts at first,
But I rais’d the note higher whenever I durst:
To Friendship and Truth I exalted the lay,
And homewards with music beguil’d the long way;
And now since beyond any doubt it appears,
From duties discharg’d through a series of years,
That nor peace nor industry are banish’d the cell
Where in ease and retirement the Muse loves to dwell;
Once more let us try to awaken the strain,
So friendly to sorrow, so sothing to pain!
The blessings we’ve tasted let’s carefully rate,
And be just to kind Nature, and grateful to Fate;
Thus wisely employing the last closing strain,
We shall not have liv’d or have warbled in vain.
Were the foot-path of life to be travell’d anew,
When we calmly look back with a serious review,
For noisy applause or for tinsel parade,
Would we part with sweet Peace that delights in the shade?
Or blame the kind harbour, remote and obscure,
Where our minds were kept tranquil, our hearts were kept pure?
While with streamers all flying, and wide-swelling sails,
Toss’d high on the billows, the sport of the gales,
The Muse’s fair daughters triumphant were borne
Till the public applause was converted to scorn;
For by vanity guided, so wildly they steer’d,
Or by caprice directed, so frequently veer’d;
Creation’s proud Masters observ’d with a sneer,
That like comets eccentric forsaking their sphere,
Their brightness so gaz’d at, would never produce,
Or pleasure, or profit, or comfort, or use.
[Anna Seward] and [Anne Hunter] thus shone for a day,
How prais’d was each period! how flatter’d each lay!
Till a crop so luxuriant arising of pride,
Affectation, and fifty new follies beside,
The duties and joys of the mother and wife,
The nameless soft comforts of calm private life,
Fell victims together at Vanity’s shrine,
For who could endure to exist and not shine!
Macaulay, of Stuarts had tore up the graves,
To prove half of them fools, and the other half knaves,
And sully’d the mitre and spatter’d the gown,
And flatter’d the mob and insulted the Crown;
Then insensibly shrunk to a faction’s blind tool,
And discover’d too late they had made her their fool.
With virtues, and graces, and beauties beside,
The delight of her friends, of her country the pride,
Say, who could to [Helen Maria Williams] their suffrage refuse,
Or who not be charm’d with her chaste classic Muse?
To the passion for liberty giving loose rein,
At length she flew off to carouse on the Seine;
And growing inebriate while quaffing the draught,
Equality’s new-fangled doctrines she taught;
And murder and sacrilege calmly survey’d;
In the new Pandemonium those demons had made;
Seine’s blood-crimson’d waters with apathy ey’d,
While the glories of old father Thames she decried.
Now with equals in misery hid in some hole,
Her body a prison confining her soul,
From the freedom of Gallia how fain would she fly,
To the freedom which genius shall taste in the sky!
No longer pursue those fond lovers of fame,
Nor envy the honours and trophies they claim;
No further excursive to speculate roam,
But fix our attention and pleasure at home:
Why regret, when celebrity proves such a curse,
he cares of the mother and toils of the nurse:
While the nurse finds delight in sweet infancy’s smiles,
And hope the fond mother’s long trouble beguiles.
“But why these quick feelings, or why this nice ear,
“Or musical accents, if no one must hear?
“Why blossoms of fancy all scatter’d to waste,
“The glow sympathetic, or pleasures of taste?—”
Ask why in the mountains the flow’ret should blow,
Which none but the hermit is destin’d to know?
Why the wild woods re-echo with melody clear,
Which none but the hunter is destin’d to hear?
When often enjoyed and but seldom they’re shewn,
Our riches and pleasures are truly our own:
The milk-maid that carols her wild native airs
To solace her labours, and lighten her cares,
Feels a pleasure more genuine and free from alloy,
Than Catley or Mara could ever enjoy:
Who, while their divisions they warbled aloud,
Depended for joy on the praise of the crowd;
Then blest be the lyre, ever sacred its strain,
In the regions of bliss let it waken again:
When the kind hand of Nature has fitted its strings,
And the dictates of truth and of virtue it sings,
As softly and sweetly it touches the mind,
As Æolus’ harp when ’tis mov’d by the wind;
Untainted by art were the notes it has sung,
It has cheer’d our decline, and has charm’d us when young;
And when useful employments demanded our prime,
Our leisure it soothed without wasting our time:
And when all our sorrows and toils shall be o’er,
Its music perhaps may delight us once more;
When swelling to concords more rich and sublime,
It may rise beyond earth, and may live beyond time.
The blossoms I once so admir’d and caress’d,
That cheer’d my fond heart till they dy’d on my breast,
Which my tears that fell frequent, like soft silent rain,
Could not waken to life and new fragrance again:
There, again, in new sweetness and beauty shall bloom,
And the evergreen plain with fresh odours perfume;
Perhaps while exalted their graces shall rise,
Again their dear verdure shall gladden my eyes!
When the season of fear and of sorrow is o’er,
And our tears and our songs are remember’d no more!
She wrote a poem on the death of Burns outlining his achievements (and misfortunes from her conservative ethical stance) whose best lines seem to me to be: “He wak’d the genuine Caledonian lyre,/Tweed’s severing flood exulting heard her tell …”
This is astute enough:
And Ramsay , once the Horace of the North,
Who charm’d with varied strains the listening Forth ,
Bequeath’d to him the shrewd peculiar art
To satire nameless graces to impart,
To wield her weapons with such sportive ease,
That, while they wound, they dazzle and they please …
The independent wish, the taste refin’d,
Bright energies of the superior mind,
And Feeling’s generous pangs, and Fancy’s glow,
And all that liberal Nature could bestow,
To him profusely given, yet given in vain;
Misfortune aids and points the stings of pain.
Born Anne MacVicar in Glasgow, Scotland, Anne grew up in New England. Her father was a Highland officer, and she crossed the Atlantic with her mother and lived in Albany, New York between 1757 and 1768. There she read a good deal, and from a friend-mentor, Catalina Schuyler, was introduced to Shakespeare, Pope, Addison and other writers. She was fourteen when the family came to live in Glasgow, without “accomplishments” but with a love of the natural world, and knowledge of books and travel.
She married an Army chaplain, Reverend James Grant, and ended up in Laggan, Scotland, a remote village 50 miles from Perth and Inverness. There she adopted Highland customs, learnt Gaelic, translated Gaelic verse. Her personal life was sad and hard because when her eight children were young, they died and her husband in 1801. In debt and with only a tiny pension due to her, she turned to writing.
She published volumes of verse. With the active patronage of the Duchess of Gordon, she began to publish verse; 1803, Poems on Various Subjects. Among these are translations of Gaelic songs, including Grant’s words to “Oh, Where, tell me, is your Highland Lassie Gone?” from which I quote one verse, clearly meant to be set to music:
Oh, where, tell me where, is your Highland laddie gone?
Oh, where, tell me where, is your Highland laddie gone?
He’s gone with streaming banners were noble deeds are done,
And my sad heart will tremble till he comes safely home;
He’s gone with streaming banners where noble deeds are done,
And my sad heart will tremble, till he comes safely home
In 1802–3 she left Laggan for Woodend, near Stirling as her daughter, Mary was ill. When her son, Duncan, received a commission in the East India Company, she needed to find him uniform, weapons, and brought a manuscript to women friends and poets and writers, Joanne Baillie and Catherine Maria Fanshawe. Letters from the Mountains (1805): descriptions of scenery, customs, manners. But in April 1807 her daughter Charlotte died (age 17) and in July of the same year, Catherine (age 20).
It was then she wrote her memories of her time in the US before the revolution: Memoirs of an American Lady (1808) and published more poetry The Highlanders and Other Poems. Her book on her experience of the US is still cited in studies of early New England. Of “The Highlanders” Gottlieb writes it was the poem that clinched her reputation:
Subtitled “Sketches of Highland Scenery and Manners, with some Reflections on Emigration,” “The Highlanders” uses rhyming couplets, iambic pentameter, and discrete parts (each prefaced with a synoptic argument) to announce its epic intentions. Like other Romantic-era epics, moreover, it begins on a personal note, with a candid admission that it was written (apparently in the spring of 1795) as a form of convalescent therapy. Asking “How long must I in storms and sickness mourn? / Oh when will health, and light, and spring return?,” the narrator (apparently Grant herself) rises from her sickbed to view the countryside, only to realize that things are not as they once were (1.13). Expecting to have her spirits cheered by the sight of “social hamlet[s]” and “cluster’d cottages around / Where tranquil peace and rural joy were found,” Grant is upset to find only desolation and depopulation (1.54-56).
The poem has a deeply melancholy atmosphere, and is “initially … a ‘farewell’ to the ‘Genius,’ or spirit, of the Highlands, which has disappeared along with a sizeable portion of its population.
“emotional openness, the poet notes, has already been extended by many Britons to African slaves; now the time has come for the people of England and the Lowlands to recognize the importance of sympathizing with the northern inhabitants of their own island as well.
Accordingly, Grant uses the subsequent parts of “The Highlanders” to describe in great, almost anthropological, detail the quotidian customs and habits of Highland life as it existed in times past. Here, much of Grant’s work reads like a poetic attempt to illustrate the Scottish Enlightenment’s ideas regarding the Highlanders’ place in the stadial evolution of society . . . Grant’s greatest fear is that this traditional Highland culture will be destroyed by the onset of modernity.
To be brief, she fears and desires assimilation for these people; much of the latter part of the poem retells recent Scottish history (adventures of Bonnie Prince Charles) and is politically conservative (for church and monarchy, not for the principles of the French revolution). This helps explain Walter Scott’s later favoring of her, and her poem anticipates or is in line with his Lay of the Last Minstrel.
Two years later she had moved to Edinburgh, and had met Walter Scott. She started a small school and would entertain and it’s said (by several) her house became a gathering place for Scots writers of all political persuasions (despite her own Tory views). Henry Mackenzie, Felicia Hemans, Robert Southey, Scott, Hogg, Francis Jeffrey. She was known for her promotion of Gaelic and pro-Highlander stance, her wit, conversation. In 1811 a book on the “superstitions of the Highlands and more translations from gaelic verse, and in 1814 Eighteenth Hundred and Thirteen: A Poem in Two Parts).
Her later life (like that of many) was not easy: disabled by a fall in 1820, in 1825 Walter Scott obtained a small pension for her; there were the successive deaths of all her children but one, John-Peter Grant who in 1844 published her autobiography and letters, a record of literary life and society in Edinburgh in the 1st quarter of the 19th century. She died of flu on November 7, 1838 aged 84, and was buried in New Cemetery at Edinburgh’s St Cuthbert’s Cuthbert’s church.
Walter Scott wrote of her: “Her literary works although composed amidst misfortune and privation, are written at once with simplicity and force, and uniformly bear the stamp of a virtuous and courageous mind.” She was for a time by a few thought to be the author of the Waverly novels. I would be surprised if Austen had not read some of her writing.
The poems and information come from Jennifer Breen’s Women Romantic Poets, 1785-1832 and the information about her occurs with a brief poem in Paula R. Friedman’s British Women Poets of the Romantic Era. See also Evan Gottliebe, Blameless Empires and Long-Forgotten Melodies: Anne Grant’s “The Highlanders,” Walter Scott’s “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” and the Poetry of Sympathetic Britishness, Journal of Narrative Theory, 40:3 (1983); and Pam Perkins, “Anne Grant and Late Eighteenth-Century Idealizations of America,” American Literature, 40:2 (2005):315-340.
Anne’s life and her work are best understood among her female peers (with whom we see she measured herself) and as one of large amorphous group of Scots women writers whom Kirsteen McCue in “Women and Song: 1750-1850)” writes about in a delightful (and very fat) book, A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, edd Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan, which I bought myself while researching the life of Anne Halkett, a 17th century Scots and English autobiographer when I discovered it also has long articles on Margaret Oliphant, modern Scots-descended writers (e.g., Alice Munro), memoirists (Elizabeth Grant Smith whose memoirs I read this year — superb and only published unabridged and uncensored in the last 20 years). I am now awaiting Catherine Kerrigan’s Anthology of Scottish Women Poets in order to do this. Eighteenth century women to be celebrated include Carolina Oliphant Nairne, Anne Lindsay Barnard, Anne Grant, Anne Hunter, Susanna Blamire, Alison Cockburn, Jean Elliot. Did you know Muriel Spark was an able Scots poet (who spent much of her life in Italy)?
there is a vast website which reprints her works with appropriate pictures. Anne Macivar Grant