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MISS ANNA SEWARD.
The following sketch was originally prefixed to an edition of
Miss Seward's works.
The name of ANNA SEWARD has for many years held a high rank in the annals of British literature; and the public has a right to claim, upon the present occasion, some brief memorials of her by whom it was distinguished. As the tenor of her life was retired, though not secluded, and uniform, though not idle, the task of detailing its events can neither be tedious nor uninstructive.
Miss Seward's father was the Reverend Thomas Seward, Rector of Eyam, in Derbyshire, Prebendary of Salisbury, and Canon Residentiary of Lichfield. In his youth he travelled as tutor with Lord Charles Fitzroy, third son of the Duke of Grafton, a hopeful young nobleman, who died upon his travels in 1739. Mr Seward returned to England, and soon after married Miss Elizabeth Hunter, daughter of Mr Hunter, head-master of the school at Lichfield, the preceptor of Johnson, and other eminent literary characters. Mr Seward, upon his marriage, settled at his rectory of Eyam. In 1747, the second year of his marriage, Miss Seward was born. She had several sisters, and one brother ; but none survived the period of infancy except Miss Sarah Seward, whom her sister and parents were to lament at a later and more interesting stage of existence.
Mr Seward was himself a poet ; and a manuscript collection of his fugitive pieces is now lying before me, the bequest of my honoured friend, when she intrusted me with the task I am now endeavouring to discharge. Several of these effusions were printed in Dodsley's Collection, volume second, towards the close. Mr Seward was also an admirer of our ancient drama; and, in 1750, published an edition of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays, which, though falling beneath what is expected from the accuracy and investigation of later dramatic editors, evinces a scholar-like degree of information, and a high relish for the beauties of his authors. Thus accomplished himself, the talents of his eldest daughter did not long escape his complacent observation. He early introduced her to Milton and to Shakspeare; and I have heard her say, that she could repeat passages from the Allegro before she was three years old. It
were absurd to suppose that she could comprehend this poem, even at a much later period of infancy ; but our future taste does not always depend upon the progress of our understanding. The mechanism, the harmony of verse, the emotions which, though vague and indescribable, it awakens in children of a lively imagination and a delicate ear, contribute, in many instances, to imbue the infant mind with a love of poetry, even before they can tell for what they love it. Miss Seward was one of those gifted minds which catch eagerly at the intellectual banquet. The romantic hills of Derbyshire, where the village of Eyam is situated, favoured the instructions of her father. His pupil imbibed a strong and enthusiastic partiality for mountainous scenery, and in general for the pleasures of landscape, which was a source of enjoyment during her after life. Her father's taste was rigidly classical ; and the authors to whom Miss Seward was introduced, were those of Queen Anne's reign. She was early familiar with Pope, Young, Prior, and their predecessor, Dryden; and, in later life, used to make little allowance for poetry of an older date, excepting only that of Shakspeare and Milton.
The desire of imitating the compositions which gave her pleasure, very early displayed itself. Anna
Seward attempted metrical versions of the Psalms, and even exercised herself in original composition, before she was ten years old. An Address to the First Fine Day of a Backward Spring, which has been preserved from these early days, intimates considerable command of numbers and language, though the ideas cannot be called original.
About 1754, Mr Seward removed with his family to Lichfield, which continued ever afterwards to be his daughter's residence, although varied, during her father's life, by occasional visits to his rectory at Eyam. Lichfield, the birth-place of Johnson and of Garrick, and, necessarily, the residence of a body of learned and well-educated clergy attached to its cathedral, had been long distinguished by its classical pretensions. These were at this time exalted by its being the residence of the celebrated Dr Darwin, who soon distinguished and appreciated the talents of our youthful poetess. Some lines had been shown to him, which he thought so far superior to her age, that he conceived they must have been written, or greatly improved, by her father. He contrived to engage her upon a poetic theme when Mr Seward was absent, and the result of the experiment having ascertained the originality of her talents, Dr Darwin thought them worthy of attentive cultivation. At this time, however,
literature was deemed an undesirable pursuit for a young lady in Miss Seward's situation,—the heiress of an independent fortune, and destined to occupy a considerable rank in society. Her mother, though an affectionate parent, and an excellent woman, possessed no taste for her daughter's favourite amusements; and even Mr Seward withdrew his countenance from them, probably under the apprehension that his continued encouragement might produce in his daughter that dreaded phenomenon, a learned lady. Poetry was prohibited, and Miss Seward resorted to other amusements, and to the practice of ornamental needlework, in which she is said to have excelled. Thus rolled on time for nearly ten years after her father had settled in Lichfield. When it is considered that her attachment to literary pursuits bordered even upon the romantic, the merit of sacrificing them readily to the inclination of her parents, deserves our praise. But other incidents occurred in her own life, and that of a confidential friend, that called for stronger exertions of prudence, self-denial, and submission to parental authority. There are, in Miss Seward's letters during this period, passages which show great firmness and steadiness of mind, and a capacity of compelling feelings, which nature, and perhaps early cultivation, had strung