William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) is the Romantic poet who once said he wrote to “shew that men who did not wear fine clothes can feel deeply.”
Austen must have known of his poetry when she wrote Sense and Sensibility. She does not mention the poet in her work, least of all in connection with the slightly awkward Edward Ferrars.
I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air…
What connection can one possibly fathom between pedestrian Ferrars and the highflown language of Wordsworth? Besides, it was Willoughby who recited that passage.
Well, I’ll tell you…
A strong theme in Sense and Sensibility is the promotion of honesty, particularly in Christian marriage. Austen was the daughter of a cleric and strongly invested with the ideals of the good old C of E:
In particular, for Austen, the marriage of men and women who have been transformed through “naked self-disclosure”, who have acknowledged their mistakes and who are now “poised to be active forces for good in their spheres, from village to town to nation to world.” — The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in William Wordsworth and Jane Austen, by Laura Dabundo from a book review by Friar Paul Byrd, to be read in its full content here
Willoughby may have read Wordsworth’s words, but he was a dishonest character and we cannot suppose he felt “sense sublime” at all honestly. Edward Ferrars, on the other hand, was the honest character that Elinor Dashwood needed in a life-long companion. He revealed his mistake in engaging himself to Lucy Steele, yet remained faithful to it, without sentimentality attendant on thwarted love.
Once released, he turned his full devotion to the one he would best love, who was best suited to helping him be fully devoted to the ideal of Sense, versus Sensibility.
Recall how Edward read Cowper, and rather poorly in Marianne’s eyes. He did not fully engage in the feelings of overwrought nature:
“I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees…I have more pleasure in a farm-house than a watch-tower.”
He preferred the honesty of ”nature put into practice” — a pleasure taken in nature, yet glorifying the utility it is put to. Any other “romanticizing” of nature is simply that–a useless ornament.
Like love that idles dormant.
“Cut down an avenue? What a pity! Does that not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’ “
— Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
Fanny Price, like Austen, was very fond of William Cowper, a poet of the eighteenth century. He was not a Romantic poet, but his brooding, melancholy, emotional writing had great influence over poets of the Regency, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Cowper suffered bouts of insanity and deep depression–he wrote various hymns preserved today in the Sacred Harp (think O Brother, Where Art Thou?) but it was his poetry, encouraged by various women in his life, that gave him a much-needed outlet for his despair.
In Nature he sought solace:
Who loves a garden loves a greenhouse too.
Unconscious of a less propitious clime,
There blooms exotic beauty, warm and snug,
While the winds whistle and the snows descend.
The spiry myrtle with unwithering leaf
Shines there, and flourishes.
– The Task, Book III, The Garden
But humanity, like nature, eventually dies:
I was a stricken deer, that left the herd
Long since: with many an arrow deep infix’d
My panting side was charged, when I withdrew,
To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.
What does it mean to have a Regency-era character who adores Cowper? He might be depressed and perhaps thinking of his own death. She might look upon the trees in the park, and find comfort from the stress of every day living, as Fanny does in Mansfield Park:
“Here’s harmony! Here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe. Here’s what may tranquilize every care, and lift the heart to rapture!”
Speaking of Downton Abbey, Violet’s character is so very rich, is it not? Her remarks are cleverly acid and yet illuminating as well. Certainly we know what her ladyship thinks of Byron. We probably can guess what she thinks of Regency poetry in general, with its idealism and “sensibility:”
Edith: “..am I to be the maiden aunt? Isn’t this what they do? Arrange presents for their prettier relations?”
The Dowager Countess: “Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s terribly middle-class.”
No pining about and no nonsense.
I like to speculate what poets my favorite Regency-set characters favor. As dear Anne from Austen’s Persuasion famously says, “We are living through a great age for poetry, I think.” In the next few posts, this blog will consider some characters from Regency fiction and what poets they might find appealing.
Which of the following would Heyer’s Kitty Charing like?
“..Shelley’s ‘silver music,’ Coleridge’s ‘wings of healing,’ Wordsworth’s ‘wild unpeopled hills’ and above all..Keats.”
from Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life by Edna O’Brien
Hang on–wasn’t it Anne who advised caution against too much poetry? Her companion, Captain Benwick, was:
“..intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet (Walter Scott), and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other [Lord Byron]; he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read poetry.”
– Persuasion by Jane Austen (as presented by Janet Aikens Yount in Eighteenth Century Life, Winter 2010)
It must be recalled, however, that Anne Elliot is a masterfully drawn character. She is so nuanced in her beloved, practical way that it is a beautiful serendipity to find in her a great capacity for the “sensibility” vital to Romantic poetry. That capacity was hidden, in a:
“..heart large and expansive, this seat of deep, kind, honest and benevolent feelings–a bosom capacious of universal love, but through which there flowed a deeper stream…” — The Retrospective Review, Vol. 7 Part 1 (1823)
Still waters run deep, as they say.
It turns out the Earl of Grantham might be a poet.
When a family must be evicted, one that has held their tenancy at Downton for many generations, Lord Grantham gropes for a reason to let them stay:
“If we don’t respect the past,” he says, ”we’ll find it harder to build our future.”
“Where did you read that?” asks the Dowager Countess.
“I made it up.”
“It’s too good,” she admonishes. “One thing we don’t want is a poet in the family. The only poet peer I am familiar with is Lord Byron and I presume we all know how that ended.”
A teasing remark a mother might make to her prosing son.
Still, the Dowager Countess must have been keenly aware that Byron’s finances, like the earl’s, were a mess. Moreover, the great Romantic owned an abbey, which had to be got rid of to pay his debts.
Clearly there exists some parallels between Baron Byron and the Earl of Grantham.
And they are just too appalling to contemplate.
Dr. Roget had not even begun his famous Thesaurus when he heard a terrible crash upstairs in his uncle’s house. Sprinting up the stairs, he found the man who had raised him like a son bespattered with blood. He gathered his uncle in his arms, appalled that such a nurturing figure had quite deliberately slashed his own throat.
Why had he committed suicide?
Sir Samuel Romilly’s (1757-1818) last words were a fragment, scribbled down before he succumbed:
“My dear, I wish…”
Romilly had been distraught over the death of his wife some days before. The news of her passing came to her husband at Cowes Castle, on the Isle of Wight. It was thought that removal to his town residence at 21 Russell Square might revive him. His daughter Sophia attended him there, but she had, alas, for a moment, left him alone.
He died, as they said, of an excess of sensibility. He died of an excess of love.
Regency society was in shock. Romilly had been a beloved barrister, a tireless opponent of the slave trade, a champion of the criminal defendant at bar. It struggled to condemn him, for such cases generally provoked disapproval. In previous years, as reported by The Times in the case of one Mr. Green: “..to be inconsolable over one’s wife, and to follow her to the grave–is madness.“
There was much prevarication in those first reports. Donna Andrews’ Aristocratic Vice: The Attack on Duelling, Suicide, Adultery, and Gambling in Eighteenth-Century England is instructive. Surely Romilly had committed his act in “mental delirium” and “under instant paroxysm of the brain.” Indeed, he had been working tirelessly for the good of a Nation. He cannot be blamed for a physical manifestation that had little to do with lack of character. Other writings were not so charitable. Remember how stoic Princess Charlotte’s husband had been in the wake of Her Highness’ death?
These illustrations seemed wretchedly unsatisfactory. More writings, including poetry, continued to pour forth, as the Regency struggled to reconcile the Act with the Man. From much hand-wringing emerged the most soothing explanation, which became widely adopted. Here was a man who had defended the least among us, they said, with such devotion that he surely suffered from “an excess of feeling, or rather than by sentiment, which is the most binding one in our social system.”
Had he been less feeling, less sensitive to the tragic death of his wife, he would still be living.
In a watershed moment, Society allowed itself to salute what Byron once reviled (see Castlereagh.) In leaving this world, as Lady’s Magazine beautifully related, Romilly was both weak and wise, delicate and great, showing ”human nature in a point of view, which commands at one and the same time our utmost love and veneration.”We cannot judge those who love and lose. We must only imagine their pain, and perhaps hope that we have had occasion to experience such exquisite joy.”
“To lose Lady Romilly, after an attachment so formed, and after years flown away in the tranquility of domestic joy, disturbed only by the pursuits of a splendid ambition, synonymous with virtue, was one of those shocks which must be left, undefined, to the imagination of such as know what it is to feel.” The New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 10, 1818
Eleanor Anne Porden (1795 – 1825) met her future husband on board his ship, the HMS Trent, and wrote a poem about his travels to the Arctic.
Captain John Franklin took her admiration to mean he could have her for the taking.
Eleanor was one of England’s Romantic poets. Her “Veils or, Triumph of Constancy,” written when she was a teenager, had been published by John Murray II, Byron’s publisher, in a ”vanity” arrangement brought about by her father.
Veils did not sell well at first. Perhaps the dissatisfaction came from Porden’s attempt to express her admiration for science in romantic terms. Rich in allegory, at some future date this blog will address Porden’s singular work, but for now, it must be known that her father had to forward eighty-four pounds and four shillings to the publisher to cover initial losses.
John Murray Publishing is still in operation today, presumably no longer offering vanity arrangements.
Upon Captain Franklin’s return, he found Miss Porden still unspoken for and repaired to her London house to pay his addresses. His suit was not accepted, a circumstance she explained by post:
“No one else in my acquaintance could have spoken to me on the subject as you have done without meeting with an instant and positive denial.”
He dashed off a letter in response, appalled that his proposal had upset her ”exquisitely.” He would have her know he was not the cold and formal stranger she thought him to be. His proposal was clumsy only because it was likely to be met with rejection. After all, there were ten other aspirants for her hand, many of whom danced attendance upon her constantly at the modish salon she presided over, which discussed scientific and literary topics.
She accepted the Captain’s explanation and now admitted he had thrown her into “pretty confusion,” agreeing to marry him. However, throughout their long engagement, the couple exchanged such heated correspondence (and not a word about love) that it seemed their marriage might not take place.
For one thing, Eleanor loved science. She offered to share with the good captain her notes from a lecture on Electro-Magneticism. The good captain rather wished she would not, being disinclined to “venture on so intricate a subject.”
Perhaps her fiancé’s reluctance in this matter gave Eleanor the sense he might not approve of her literary endeavors:
‘It was the pleasure of Heaven to bestow those talents on me, and it was my father’s pride to cultivate them to the utmost of his power. I should therefore be guilty of a double dereliction of duty in abandoning their exercise.’
He replied that he did not wish his name to be connected with anything like the publication trade. It would be most lowering. (Never mind the fact he was about to publish his own book accounting his adventures in the Arctic–for which England had come to know him as the “Man Who Ate His Boots.”)
“You must not expect me to change my nature,” she wrote, “I am seven and twenty, an age after which women alter little.”
He conceded that point but demanded she give up her Salon, which met on Sundays. The Sabbath is a day which must be devoted to reading books on moral instruction.
Eleanor told him to go to the devil with his books. “The simpler our Religion, the better.” Besides, the works he thought worthwhile reading she believed “mere dilutions of the Sacred Text.” And as for his desire she spend Sundays in seclusion, the notion was absurd, stemming from “the same religious zeal which drove many of the early Christians into the deserts of Syria and Egypt.”
Still clumsy, her fiancé then proffered for Eleanor’s education some correspondence he enjoyed with his good friend Lady Lucy Barry. Her ladyship had generously provided religious books which had been of great comfort to him and his men on their Arctic journey.
Eleanor was not impressed.
“Should I find you to be really tainted with that species of fanaticism which characterizes Lady Lucy Barry’s letters, it would be the severest shock I could receive.”
She added that Her Ladyship must be a Methodist and had perhaps converted the good captain.
Horrified (for no one wanted to be accused a Methodist), he protested:
“..you mistake in supposing me a Methodist. I can by no means enter into the exclusive ideas and opinions which they entertain..nor do I go the length which my friend Lady Lucy Barry has done in the letters I sent for your perusal.”
Shortly thereafter, Captain Franklin became Lord Franklin. Nevertheless, his elevation to the peerage left Eleanor unmoved and unwilling to set a date for the marriage. This was in July of 1823, four years after the engaged couple had met, seven months after their betrothal.
Then Lord Franklin left off his correspondence and demonstrated his intent by deed. He sent Lady Barry packing.
The battle was at an end and the couple wed in August.
They had a daughter, but the birth plunged Eleanor into another battle–one she could not win. Now it was time for her to demonstrate her love.
Lord Franklin was to embark on another long voyage of exploration. Eleanor readily urged him to pursue his vocation. She told him not to linger and wait for the tuberculosis she suffered from to run its course.
She loved him enough to let him go, even though she knew she would never see him again.