Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

SEWARD, ANNA (1747-1809)

SEWARD, ANNA (1747-1809), English writer, often called the Swan of Lichfield, was the elder daughter of Thomas Seward (1708-1790), prebendary of Lichfield and of Salisbury, and author. Born at Eyam in Derbyshire, she passed nearly all her life in Lichfield, beginning at an early age to write poetry partly at the instigation of Dr. Erasmus Darwin. Her verses include elegies and sonnets, and she also wrote a poetical novel, Louisa, of which five editions were published. Miss Sewardʼs writings, which include a large number of letters, are decidedly commonplace, and Horace Walpole said she had no imagination, no novelty.

Sir Walter Scott edited her Poetical Works in three volumes (Edinburgh, 1810); to these he prefixed a memoir of the authoress, adding extracts from her literary correspondence. He refused, 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). Miss Seward also wrote Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin (1804). See E. V. Lucas, A Swan and her Friends (1907); and S. Martin, Anna Seward and Classic Lichfield (1909).

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

SEWARD, Anna (1742-1809) by JoEllen DeLucia

The epithet Swan of Lichfield begins the 1910-1911 Encyclopædia Britannica’s description of the Romantic poet and critic Anna Seward. In her lifetime, this marked her as a descendant of Alexander Pope, sometimes called the Swan of Twickenham. Over time, the distinguished literary lineage of this moniker has faded; it now signals her status as a provincial writer on the margins of literary culture, a reading fostered by the entry. The Britannica entry does not mention the Pope association, which would suggest that Seward made notable contributions to the developing British canon; instead, the brief lines that follow note that she rarely left the Midlands Cathedral city in which she was raised. The entry obscures the fact that her fame led major Romantic writers to visit her in the Midlands, including Robert Southey and Walter Scott. Unremarked is that during the Romantic period, Seward was also known as Britannia’s Muse. Her poetry circulated throughout the English-speaking world, issued in multiple editions, featured in magazines and anthologies, and published both in her native Lichfield and in London. Many of her poems celebrate local landscapes and lives, but others speak for the nation. One of her earliest published poems, Monody on Major Andrè (1781), attacked General George Washington for ordering what she understood as the dishonorable hanging of Andrè in the aftermath of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal of the American forces. So powerful was Seward’s reach that, after its publication, Washington sent a representative to Lichfield with corroborating documents in hand to persuade her that he had in fact tried to save Andrè’s life. As well as being an arbiter of public opinion, she was also an arbiter of taste, taking on literary heavyweights with the same gusto she used in her attacks on Washington.

Anna Seward
Kettle, Tilly. Anna Seward. 1762, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

Most famously, in the 1790s, she sparred with James Boswell in the pages of The Gentleman’s Magazine. She accused Boswell of idealizing his portrait of fellow Lichfieldian Samuel Johnson in his biography as well as repressing the information he had solicited from her about Johnson’s early life and work. She further challenged Johnson’s literary tastes, finding his criticisms of poets, who are now recognized as exerting a shaping influence on Romantic poetry, such as John Milton, Thomas Gray, and James Macpherson, as narrow-minded and yoked too closely to neoclassical ideals. Her most robust challenge to Johnson as a canon builder appears in her letters, which, as the entry notes, were published posthumously in 1811 by Archibald Constable. Mixed with a host of personal details, Seward’s letters propose an alternative British canon, boldly arguing that as a woman unburdened with the study of Greek and Latin, she is better able to evaluate English verse. Seward intended these six volumes of letters as a companion to a posthumously published three-volume collection of verse; she hoped to have her friend Sir Walter Scott edit both, but he refused the letters. In Scott’s early career, Seward acted as a loyal patron and promoter of his work; however, Scott found the task of editing both her letters and verse too tedious: claiming in his introduction to Seward’s collected poems that her diction was overly ornate and out of step with the nineteenth-century’s preference for more natural expression.

The Britannica entry also cites Horace Walpole’s characterization of Seward’s verse as overrated and anachronistic. He finds no imagination, no novelty—an assessment still found in Wikipedia (as of August 2023), which actually draws on the Britannica as a source. Although she may not have always been successful, few poets experimented as boldly with verse. Her popular Louisa, a Poetical Novel, in Four Epistles (1784), which the entry notes went through five editions, was described by Seward as an effort to wed her love of verse to the growing cultural interest in the novel. Seward’s experiment was never imitated, and it remains a largely forgotten byway in the early novel’s development, as Claudia Kairoff reminds readers in her important 2012 biography, Anna Seward and the End of the Eighteenth Century. Like Charlotte Smith, Seward participated in the sonnet revival, but the two argued vehemently over the formal requirements of the sonnet. Smith positioned herself as more innovative, experimenting with rhyme and borrowing lines phrases from Shakespeare, Pope, and others; Seward argued that Smith was unoriginal, a plagiarist, who was unable to meet the technical requirements of the form. As a critic she could be scathing, but her poetic experiments influenced those around her.

Although her close friend and neighbor Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin) may have encouraged her to write, as the entry notes, he was inspired by Seward to circulate his early ideas about evolution in poetic form. She in turn, as Melissa Bailes suggests (2017), used Linnean ideas in her effort to develop a system of literary classification. Darwin even invited Seward to render his scientific theories in verse, but when she demurred, he wrote The Loves of Plants (1789) and The Botanic Garden (1791), borrowing lines Seward wrote about his garden in the latter work and publishing them as his own. Darwin also provides a direct connection between Seward and the Birmingham Lunar Society, whose members included Darwin, Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Thomas Day, and Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Although not a member, Seward corresponded with many of these early proponents of industrialization and attended select meetings. She was even asked by Wedgewood to write a poem to support the anti-slavery movement; shamefully, she refused. As Donna Coffey and others have recently argued, her Colebrooke Dale poems might best be understood within the context of her relationship to the Lunar Society; unlike Darwin, who promoted a utopian vision of industry in his own verse, Seward’s poems mourn the damage to the Midlands’ landscape and the environmental losses industrialization entails.

Britannica’s entry is shaped by her relationship to male contemporaries; Johnson, Boswell, Walpole, Darwin, and Scott’s assessments of Seward and her work have made it difficult to evaluate her as a poet and critic. Only recently have feminist and queer critics drawn attention to the ways in which Seward’s work memorializes and celebrates her friendships with women. Recent scholarship has focused on Seward’s lyrics dedicated to Honora Sneyd, her adopted sister and companion who died soon after marrying Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Also of interest has been her epic elegy dedicated to The Ladies of Llangollen Vale (1796), which instead of focusing on the ladies’ eccentricities, as did many contemporaries, takes their project of setting up a woman-centered and utopian household in rural Wales seriously. After visiting them, she even contributed a likeness of Honora to their portrait gallery housed in the library of their Welsh estate Plas Newydd. Seward’s lifelong mourning of her friend Honora and her celebration of the ladies’ unconventional life in Wales inspired her to find new and experimental modes of verse; these poems now figure in queer literary histories, written by Fiona Brideoake and others, that document lives both celebrated and lived outside the confines of heterosexuality and the gender binary. In a letter written soon after the publication of Seward’s letters in 1811, the conservative novelist Jane West decries Seward’s morals and lifestyle but celebrates her poetry, dubbing her the British Sappho—a moniker contemporary scholars, historians, and readers will likely continue to use to place her within developing literary histories.

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