The share which she appears to have long enjoyed of the intimate society of Dr. Darwin, and her opportunities of accurate information relative at least to a considerable portion of his life, had given to Miss Seward some peculiar advantages in becoming, as she terms it, “the recorder of vanished genius.’ It is therefore the more to be regretted that she should not have been restrained, by some visitations of a better taste, from clothing her narrative in a garb so injudicious and fantastic. But it would appear that Miss Anna Seward has been too long accustomed to soar into the high and giddy regions of verse, to be able to tread with sober step and becoming gravity of air in the humbler pathway of prose. — Edinburgh Review
nna Seward (1742-1809) and Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) had intertwined poetic careers and reputations, although the reputation of Charles Darwin’s grandfather lasted longer and has seen something of a recent revival. He recognized her poetic abilities while she was still in her teens, and after Darwin died she published a critical biography in which she described him an “extraordinary” poet of “genius, unprecedented,” claiming that “not one great poet of England is more original than Darwin. . His design, his ideas, his style, his manner, are wholly his own” (quoted by the Edinburgh Review).
Like her mentor, Seward willingly propounded controversial ideas, and the Edinburgh Review mentions “the fondness which Miss Seward showed for controversy. She engaged in a public debate (in print) with Mr. Weston regarding the reputation and claims of the "Sweet Swan of Twickenham"; also she debated the subject of pulpit oratory with Mr. Jerningham” (11?). Her most famous opponent was James Boswell, and had heated exchanges about the character of Samuel Johnson, whom Seward loathed for his lack of politeness and harsh treatment of others.
According to her twentieth-century biographer, Margaret Ashmun, “Miss Seward seems never to have liked Dr. Darwin very well — he was, as she said bluntly, “sometimes friendly but never amiable.’” The Edinburgh Review points out in its damning article on her Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin (1804), that “Miss Seward does not stand forth as the indiscriminating panegyrist of her deceased friend; nor does she appear to have been withheld, by any violent or undue partialities, from discharging those ‘sacred duties of biography,’” and the reviewer continues,
Thus, we are informed, that “beauty and symmetry had not been propitious to his exterior;” that “he stammered extremely;” that he was “sore upon opposition,” and overbearing and sarcastic in conversation . . . Moreover, we are told, that “extreme was his scepticism to human truth; — that habits of distrust timetured his conversation with an apparent want of confidence in mankind;—and that “perhaps this proneness to suspicion mingled too much of art in his wisdom.” . . . Of his virtues and talents, we learn that “professional generosity distinguished Dr. Darwin's medical practice;” that “his was the cheerful board of open-housed hospitality;” and that “generosity, wit and science were his household gods.” [232-33]
The most blatant indication that Seward did not want to write a complete panegyric, such we often see decades later in Victorian biographies, appears in in the midst of her high praise (quoted above) when she charges her mentor with plagiarizing her verses in the long poem that won him his greatest success — The Botanic Garden.
According to the Edinburgh Review’s explanation of this accurate claim, around 1777 Darwin purchased wetlands outside Litchfield, which he turned into a botanic garden: “This little dell was wet and swampy from springs, which encouraged a multitude of aquatic plants. The Doctor took steps to improve this sequestered place, widening the lake, and guiding the brook into curved channels. He planted many botanical specimens, partly for their beauty and partly for their use in making experiments in embryonic development and pollination” (66). Seward wrote a poem of some fifty lines praising the results, and “Dr. Darwin approved the poem, as its author had approved his garden. ‘I shall send it to the periodical publications,’ said he; ‘but it ought to form the exordium of a great work.’ He outlined then and there this visionary great work, which was to propound, in magnificent detail, the complete Linnaean system.” When Seward “blushingly remarked that the projected poem was not ‘strictly proper for a female pen,’” presumably because it concerned matters of reproduction and sexuality in plants, Darwin wrote The Botanic Garden, using her verses as the introduction without either acknowledging that she wrote them or obtaining permission to use them. According to her biographer, “someone (probably Mr. Stevens of Repton) sent Miss Seward's poem to the Gentleman's Magazine, and it appeared in print long before Darwin’s long poem (68).
Still, his high-handed appropriation of her work seems to have been a minor blip in their relationship, for, after all, Seward praised Darwin’s genius, “generosity, wit and science.”
Ashmun, Margaret. The Singing Swan; an Account of Anna Seward and Her Acquaintance ... . New Haven, Yale University Press, 1931.
“[Review of] Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin, chiefly during his residence at Lichfield; with Anecdotes of his Friends, and Criticisms on his Writings. By Anna Seward. London. 1804’ Edinburgh Review. 2 (June 1804): 230-241. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the Unversity of California Library. Web. 22 August 2018.
Last modified 27 August 2018