“all the tenderest songs” – Jane Austen and PoetryIn honour of National Poetry Day on 6 October, our Creative Engagement Officer (and award winning poet!) Ellora Sutton discusses Jane Austen and poetry.
‘it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.’
Perhaps the most poetic of Jane’s characters is the tragic, heartbroken figure of Captain Benwick. In Chapter 11, when the party are staying at Lyme Regis, Anne encourages him out of his bereft silence by discussing poetry with him – and he suddenly comes to life:
‘he showed himself so intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; 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 only poetry, and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.’
Just as so many people do today, Benwick finds comfort in poetry, a way to understand and give voice to his emotions. He is understood best, perhaps, by the poets he holds dear.
‘I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love’
Pride and Prejudice
On the other hand, Elizabeth Bennet has some words of warning for any lovers (and poets) out there:
“I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!”
“I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,” said Darcy.
“Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”
‘He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet’
Letter from Jane Austen to her niece, Anna Austen, 28th September 1814
Jane might have been more sympathetic with Captain Benwick’s views on poetry than Elizabeth Bennet’s – Jane loved reading poetry, and poetry was big business in Regency England. She even shared a publisher with the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Romantic poet Lord Byron! Her favourite poet, though, was Lord Walter Scott. And the feeling was mutual – Scott was one of Jane’s earliest and warmest reviewers. Jane, however, seems less than thrilled at the idea of the great poet crossing genres and, potentially, stealing her readers:
‘Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. – He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.’
(She did, though, enjoy his novels just as much as she enjoyed his poetry!)
‘I could not do without a Syringa’
Letter from Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra Austen, 8th February 1807
Another favourite poet of Jane’s was William Cowper, an abolitionist who was also a favourite with Martin Luther King Junior. She was such a Cowper devotee that she turned to his poem ‘The Winter Walk at Noon’ for gardening advice. Cowper’s poem describes ‘Laburnum, rich / In streaming gold; syringa, iv’ry pure; /The scentless and scented rose’.
And so, of course, Jane ‘could not do without a Syringa, for the sake of Cowper’s Line’ when redesigning her garden in Southampton.
‘But behold me immortal!’
‘When Winchester Races’, 1817
Jane even wrote some poems of her own. In fact, her final piece of creative writing was a poem called ‘When Winchester Races’, written from her sickbed in College Street, Winchester, where she’d gone for medical care. She wrote her final poem on 15th July 1817, just three days before her death at the age of just 41.
‘When Winchester Races’ contains this particularly poignant line: ‘When once we are buried you think we are gone / But behold me immortal!’
‘My work being done, I look’d through the windows’
Mrs Austen, 1807
But it was Jane’s mother, Mrs Cassandra Austen, who was really the poet of the family. The theme for National Poetry Day 2022 is The Environment, so it seems fitting to finish with some verse from Mrs Austen, who loved nothing more than working away in her vegetable patch:
My work being done, I look’d through the windows,
And with pleasure beheld all the bucks and the does,
The cows and the bullocks, the wethers and ewes.
To the library each morning the family goes,
So I went with the rest though I felt rather froze.
My flesh is much warmer, my blood freer flows,
When I work in the garden with rakes and with hoes.
Mrs Austen’s poem came from a family competition to write a poem with as many rimes with ‘rose’ as possible. Why don’t you give it a try this National Poetry Day?