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Anna Seward (1742–1809), by Tilly Kettle, 1762

Seward, Anna [called the Swan of Lichfield] (1742–1809), poet and correspondent, was born on 12 December 1742 in Eyam, Derbyshire, the first of two surviving children of Thomas Seward (1708–1790), rector of Eyam, Derbyshire, later canon residentiary of Lichfield, Staffordshire, and his wife, Elizabeth Hunter (d. 1780), daughter of John Hunter, the headmaster of Lichfield grammar school whose most famous pupil was Samuel Johnson. Only one of Anna’s siblings, Sarah (1744–1764), survived infancy, but she died in her twentieth year, just before she was to marry Joseph Porter, a merchant of Leghorn, the brother of Lucy Porter and the stepson of Samuel Johnson.
Early years and literary ambitions
Apart from her first seven years in Eyam, Anna Seward lived all her life in Lichfield, from the age of thirteen on, in the same house, the bishop’s palace in the grounds of Lichfield Cathedral. According to Seward, her adolescent years in Lichfield were Edenic; the sisters wandered in the cathedral close or did needlework and read to each other in the open air.

When Anna was fourteen, five-year-old Honora Sneyd, whose mother had just died, was adopted by the Seward family. Following the sudden death of Sarah in 1764, the friendship between Seward and Sneyd became intense; for the next six years, they had the daily pleasure of each other’s company. Much to Seward’s regret, in 1771, Honora Sneyd returned to her father’s house after living for fourteen years with the Sewards. The beautiful and accomplished Honora Sneyd had several suitors, including Major John André and Thomas Day. In 1773 she became the second wife of Richard Lovell Edgeworth and the stepmother of four children, including Maria Edgeworth, but died young, of consumption, in 1780. Seward grieved the loss of Honora Sneyd throughout her life. Among the recurrent themes of Seward’s best known poetry are Honora’s beauty, the mutual joys of the Seward–Sneyd friendship, their alienation after Sneyd’s marriage, and an enduring sense of loss. Seward’s long-lived love for Sneyd and for her sister is inscribed on the very landscape of Lichfield in such poems as ‘The Anniversary’, ‘Time Past’, and ‘Epistle to Miss Honora Sneyd … from the grave of a Suicide’. Judging by the satirical comments Seward makes on married couples and her praise of the achievements of unmarried women, she came to value highly the independence of the single life. During her twenties, however, she had several proposals and was courted by at least two suitors: Cornet Vyse of Lichfield and a Colonel Taylor. Vyse married one of Seward’s intimate friends, whose early death is the subject of a Seward monody. The strange correspondence that took place between Seward and Colonel Taylor’s wife in 1796 reveals that the colonel continued, for decades, to be infatuated with Seward much to the chagrin of Mrs Taylor and to the surprise of Seward.

Although it is not known who dubbed Seward ‘the Swan of Lichfield’, her literary ambitions were stimulated by the early support of her father, who taught the precocious girl to read Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope at three, and to recite the first three books of Paradise Lost by the time she was nine. Canon Seward himself achieved some literary reputation by publishing poetry, including ‘The female right to literature’ (1748) in Dodsley’s Collection of Poems by Several Hands (2.295–302); and by editing (with Lewis Theobald and Samuel Sympson) The Works of Beaumont and Fletcher, in ten volumes (1750). During the 1770s the Seward residence became the centre for an important local literary circle, which included Lichfield physician Erasmus Darwin and at times visitors such as Thomas Day and Richard Lovell Edgeworth. As an adolescent, Seward was encouraged to write by Dr Darwin whose own florid poetical style is said, unfortunately, to have influenced her own. Later, her budding talent was recognized at the poetical amusements organized by Lady Anna Miller at her Batheaston villa from 1775 to 1781. In Poem to the Memory of Lady Miller (1782) Seward expresses her gratitude for Miller’s ‘gentle ordeal’ by which verses were put into an Etruscan vase, and then read aloud by a gentleman to the gathering at Batheaston. The best verses, including some of Seward’s earliest publications, were chosen as prize poems and collected in Batheaston’s annual volume of poetry.
Seward and Dr Johnson
Seward’s vexed relationship with Lichfield’s celebrated native son Samuel Johnson is well known. On a personal level, as a close friend of Lucy Porter, she resented Johnson’s marriage to Tetty Porter (Lucy’s mother) and blamed him for Tetty’s impoverished life in a writer’s garret in London, after he had lost her widow’s portion. It added fuel to the fire that Lucy Porter herself adored her stepfather as a deity. While Johnson was alive, Seward feared the sting of his mocking wit, as shown, for example, in his cruel stories about her maternal grandfather, his schoolmaster, of whom Johnson claimed that he never taught the boys, but whipped and they learned. Johnson later joked that, because of Anna Seward’s strong resemblance to her grandfather, he trembled at the very sight of her. Seward also took umbrage at Johnson’s dismissal of Lichfield as a cultural backwater because she felt his contempt slighted the literary endeavours of her father and his circle. Anna Seward’s chagrin at the success of Johnson was also grounded in her own sense of thwarted ambition, given that she was acutely aware that the youthful talents of both Garrick and the uncouth Johnson had been cultivated by the most accomplished citizen of Lichfield, Gilbert Walmesley, in the very house, the bishop’s palace, in which Seward grew up. Yet, though she might inhabit the very room of their studies, as a girl, she could find no Walmesley to sponsor her high intellectual and literary ambitions. Despite everything, Seward’s personal connections with Johnson were such that she was invited by Johnson himself to make visits to him while he was on his deathbed in Lichfield during the autumn of 1784. Only after his death did Seward venture to publish, along with her praise of Johnson’s literary achievements, her objections to his social bullying, his gloomy misanthropy, and his depreciation of the poetic merits of Thomas Gray, Ossian, and Chatterton, and other poets, whom she admired. She wrote against the ‘old literary Colossus’ even though she knew she would be ridiculed as ‘an unlearned female entering the lists of criticism against the mighty Johnson’ (Letters, 3.352). The letters she wrote, signing herself ‘Benvolio’, in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1786 and 1787 reveal that she became increasingly incensed by what she saw as the servile adulation granted to Johnson, especially by Boswell. For a brief time, in 1784, Boswell and Seward had been on very friendly terms. Their confidential correspondence indicates that he was in ‘a flutter’ over their conversations and desired to have ‘a lock of that charming auburn hair I admired so much the delicious morning I was last with you’ (Heiland, 386). Rejecting the ‘voluptuous inclination’ suggested in Boswell’s request, Seward eventually sent him the lock of hair on her own terms of a chaste friendship (ibid., 387). After the publication of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, however, an acrimonious public quarrel developed between Boswell and Seward, who argued that Boswell’s idolatry of Johnson led him to suppress evidence of Johnson’s despotic behaviour and its vicious effects, including Seward’s minutes, which she obligingly supplied to Boswell at his request, detailing Johnson’s public mortification of a young woman, Jane Harry, for converting to Quakerism. Seward’s assessments of Johnson and her controversy with Boswell form only a small part of her accomplishments as a critic. To date, her extensive body of critical writings remains scattered in her letters, in her Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin, and in various periodicals, waiting to be studied systematically and appreciated as an important and distinctive contribution to eighteenth-century criticism.
Literary recognition
Throughout her life, Seward’s main occupations were managing the family household, keeping up a wide correspondence with both famous and ordinary people, and writing poetry and criticism, when time allowed. As the only surviving child of invalid parents, Seward decided that she was required to care first for her ailing mother, who died in 1780, and then for her beloved father, whose increasingly diminished capacities of body and mind required, she claimed, that she develop stationary habits and limited ambitions. When her father died in 1790, he left her an independent income of £400 annually, and by special dispensation of her episcopal landlord she was permitted to remain living in the bishop’s palace until her death. It was during the 1780s, while caring for her father, that she began to win acclaim for her poetry. Her Elegy on Captain Cook (1780), was very popular at the time, but when, in 1791, the Royal Society struck a medal to honour Cook, Seward was hurt that, while those who directed ‘their attention to the moths, butterflies, and curry-combs of that voyage’ were given medals, she whose poetry celebrated Cook’s achievement was overlooked (Letters, 3.59). Among Honora Sneyd’s suitors, Seward had favoured John André, whose romantic and noble qualities are memorialized in Monody on Major Andrè (1781), a timely poem protesting at André’s court martial and hanging at Tappan by the Americans who condemned him as a British spy after the plans for the fortress at West Point were delivered to him by Benedict Arnold. Seward’s denunciation of George Washington for his part in the affair was so fierce that Washington sent an emissary to Seward with evidence demonstrating that his role was limited. In 1784 she published Louisa: a Poetical Novel, in Four Epistles, which experiments with a hybrid form she calls a ‘poetical novel’, and which she considered to be her best work. Louisa went through four editions in 1784 and a fifth edition in 1785. Her Original Sonnets on Various Subjects; and Odes Paraphrased from Horace (1799) collects poems dated from the 1770s to 1799, some of which had already been published in periodicals. In the preface she defends the sonnet form against contempt of Johnson and other critics as a ‘highly valuable species of verse’; and later, in a long footnote, justifies her poetic ‘translations’ of Horace, though she knew little Latin, by claiming that a literal prose translation is not as true to the ‘essence’ of Horace as the ‘freedom of unimitative numbers’ (167–9n.).

As the wit and good judgement of her letters show, Seward took the maintenance of her very large correspondence as a serious literary pursuit; she once quipped that an unanswered letter resembled ‘an unexpiated sin’ (Letters, 4.30). Her circle of friends and correspondents included a variety of celebrated figures of the late eighteenth century of whom only a few can be mentioned. During the early 1780s poet William Hayley wrote to praise her Elegy on Captain Cook and then visited Lichfield to pay her court, after which they became mutual admirers of each other’s poetry. In 1788 Josiah Wedgewood wrote to enlist her pen against slavery, but she declined, claiming that Thomas Day and Hannah More had done a better job than she could do on the topic. In 1791, in a letter to Humphry Repton, whose theories on landscape improvement advocated turning England into a huge picturesque park, Seward recorded the practical achievements of her oldest friend, Mrs Mompesson whose lifelong industry and good taste led her to transform her ancestral estate into a highly desirable country retreat. In 1793 Seward found the sympathetic first-hand accounts of the French Revolution sent to her by her young friend Helen Maria Williams naïve; according to Seward, revolutionary France was ‘a whole nation of Macbeths!’ (ibid., 3.339). In a letter of 1803 to Walter Scott she greeted him with a high compliment for a woman of her sensibilities—‘You Salvator! You Claude!’—which flattered his young ambitions and which eventually led to his visiting her in Lichfield (ibid., 6.91).
Erasmus Darwin and Seward’s Memoir
Seward’s friendship with Dr Erasmus Darwin started during her adolescence when he was her neighbour and endured in spite of the literary abuses of which she accuses him. In one case she asserts that verses she wrote in his garden in 1779 were reproduced as his own, with a few additional lines, as the Exordium of his Botanic Garden (1791). This was done without the permission or knowledge of their author, even though the verses had already been published as her work in the Gentleman’s Magazine (May 1783). In another case, Darwin wrote three poems and appended them to Francis Mundy’s Needwood Forest (1776); he signed his name to the best one, his son’s name to the second, and, without her knowledge, Seward’s name to the third and worst poem. When Seward confronted him, ‘he laught it off in a manner peculiar to himself, and with which he carries all his points of despotism’ (Letters, 3.154). Such incidents did not deter Seward from publishing, in 1804, Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin, a biography of Darwin’s early life in Lichfield (from 1756 to 1781), that reveals her indulgent fondness for his idiosyncratic genius as a doctor, inventor, and writer. Her critical explication of Darwin’s poetry and her comparisons of his work with that of other poets reveal not only her keen appreciation of Darwin’s playful, voluptuous style, but also her own extensive knowledge of English poetry. At the same time, she uses the Darwin biography to write about her own life and to further her critical views. She reconstructs, in order to honour, the vibrant intellectual life of the Lichfield circle of which Darwin, her father and, eventually, Seward herself were the leading figures. In the interest of women’s education, she defends Darwin’s books on the sexual reproduction of plants against the charge that they are unfit reading for the fair sex: ‘do not suppose that a virtuous girl, or young married woman, could be induced, by reading the Botanic Garden, to imitate the involuntary libertinism of a fungus or a flower’ (ibid., 6.144–145). At times Seward is a vigorous critic of Darwin’s errors, as when she censors his misrepresentation of the venerable Mary Delany in The Love of the Plants (the second part of Botanic Garden, published in 1789), as a mere artificial flower maker. Although Darwin refused to change future editions, Seward’s Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin corrects the record by pointing out that Delany’s ten folio volumes of paper cuttings of plants and flowers represent a brilliant achievement in art and science:
She employed no material but paper, which she herself, from her knowledge of chemistry, was enabled to dye of all hues, and in every shade of each; no implement but her scissors, not once her pencil; yet never did painting present a more exact representation of flowers of every colour, size, and cultivation, from the simple hedge and field-flower. (Seward, Darwin, 315–16)
Later years
Over the course of her life Seward had many close friendships and dear correspondents, but she mentions four people as her deepest attachments: her sister, her father, Honora Sneyd, and finally John Saville, the vicar choral of Lichfield Cathedral, who had been a long-time friend of the Seward family. After her father’s death in 1790, Saville, who was living, separate from his wife, in a small house in the cathedral close, became Seward’s daily companion, her beloved ‘Giovanni’, with whom she shared many interests, ranging from their affection for her dog Sappho to their devotion to the music of Handel. After Saville’s death in 1803, she paid his debts, supported his family, and had a monument built to his memory just outside the cathedral. During the last two decades of her life, Seward travelled regularly, looking for healthy retreats at Buxton, at Matlock, and in Wales, where she befriended the famous ladies of Llangollen, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. The title poem of Llangollen Vale with other Poems (1796) honours the home and garden of Butler and Ponsonby that attracted so many celebrities to the site; their intelligent labour had ‘converted a cottage, in two acres and a half of turnip ground, to a fairy-palace, amid the bowers of Calypso’ (Letters, 4.99).

According to her own account, Anna Seward had agreeable features, a clear animated complexion, and tolerably good manners. While still a young woman, she began to grow plump, and, in 1768, she fell and fractured her kneecap, causing an incurable limp that worsened as she aged. Yet, by all accounts, she remained a striking and majestic presence in Lichfield. She was a brilliant conversationalist, according to Edgeworth who met her in the 1770s; and throughout her life, she had a magnificent voice and gave pleasurable recitals of poetry and dramatic readings from Shakespeare’s plays. Walter Scott, who met her late in her life, said that her ‘great command of the literary anecdote’ made her delightful company (Scott, xxiii). Over the years, Seward’s body was assaulted by a multitude of rheumatic and other mysterious ailments. In 1794 she exacerbated her lung problems one evening when she read all the principal scenes in Macbeth to company in Nottingham with so much energetic exertion that ‘[I] have never breathed freely since’ (Letters, 3.385). Increasing difficulties with her breathing led to an acute sensitivity to air quality, as her wry comments on the environment of Birmingham and other polluted places attest. Her two poems on Colebrook Dale, ‘The lake, or, Modern improvement in landscape’, as well as other poems present prescient criticisms of environmental degradation. Among their various themes, Seward’s Letters are a rare treasury of grim observations on health; she often mentions particular cases, besides her own, assessing which treatment would be effective, as for example, when she considers whether amputation is an appropriate treatment for breast cancer. During the severe winters of the mid-1790s, she suffered from whitlows; all her finger-nails, then all her toe-nails, fell off one by one ‘imprisoning me to my chair or couch during a fortnight, at three different periods … so much for bodily egotism’ (ibid., 4.164). No wonder, by 1796, blighted by disease, she considered middle age detestable, and resolved not to sit for a portrait again until, and if, she reached a venerable old age. Yet her appearance remained impressive even as late as 1807, when her intelligent face, melodious voice, and attractive auburn hair and eyes were noticed by Walter Scott.

As her own health declined, Seward recognized her inability to finish projected collections of her poetry and letters, so she enlisted Scott as her literary executor. During her last days Seward was attended by women friends, as she had been all her life; her cousin Susan Seward and a Miss Fern read to her in the evenings as she lay dying of scorbutic fever. She died at her home on 25 March 1809 and was buried alone in the choir of Lichfield Cathedral on 2 April, and not, as she had requested, in the tomb either of her father or of John Saville.

The year following her death, Scott edited a three-volume set of Seward’s poems, which he prefaced with a short biography (1810), but he declined to edit her letters. From a bequest of twelve volumes of copies and parts of manuscript correspondence, dated from 1784 to 1809, the Edinburgh publisher Archibald Constable produced an expurgated edition of six volumes of Seward’s letters in 1811.

Sylvia Bowerbank
Sources Letters of Anna Seward: written between the years 1784 and 1807, ed. A. Constable, 6 vols. (1811) · A. Seward, Memoirs of the life of Dr Darwin (1804) · W. Scott, biographical preface, in The poetical works of Anna Seward, ed. W. Scott, 3 vols. (1810) · GM, 1st ser., 79 (1809), 379 · M. Ashmun, The singing swan: an account of Anna Seward and her acquaintance with Dr. Johnson, Boswell, & others of their time (1931) · D. Heiland, ‘Swan songs: the correspondence of Anna Seward and James Boswell’, Modern Philology, 90 (1992–3), 381–91 · European Magazine and London Review, 1 (1782) · R. L. Edgeworth and M. Edgeworth, Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, 3rd edn (1844) · E. V. Lucas, A swan and her friends (1907) · The Swan of Lichfield. Being a selection from the correspondence of Anna Seward. Ed. with a short biography and preface by Hesketh Pearson, ed. H. Pearson (1936) · W. J. Bate, Samuel Johnson (1977); repr. (New York, 1979) · A. Seward, Poem to the memory of Lady Miller (1782) · J. L. Clifford, ‘The authenticity of Anna Seward’s published correspondence’, Modern Philology, 39 (1941–2)

Archives BL, poems and letter-books, RP4112 [copies] · FM Cam., letters · Hunt. L., letters; literary MSS · NL Scot., literary MSS and papers [copies] · Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield, corresp. and literary MSS · Staffs. RO, corresp. · U. Birm. L., letters | BL, letters to Anne Parry Price, Add. MS 46400 · JRL, letters to Hester Lynch Piozzi · NL Scot., corresp. with Sir Walter Scott · Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield, letters to John Nichols · U. Birm. L., letters to the Dowdeswell family · Yale U., Beinecke L., corresp. with James Boswell; letters to Sophia Pennington

Likenesses T. Kettle, oils, 1762, NPG [see illus.] · J. Romney, portrait, c.1786, repro. in Lucas, A swan and her friends · A. Cardon, stipple, pubd 1811 (after T. Kettle), NPG · A. Cardon, engraving, Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield · J. Chapman, stipple, BM, NPG; repro. in Lady’s Monthly Museum (1821) · H. Landseer, stipple (after J. Downman), NPG · W. Ridley, stipple (after G. Romney), BM, NPG; repro. in Monthly Mirror (1797)

Wealth at death rich; left many annuities: will, detailed Ashmun, Singing swan, 266–70