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Jane Austen’s Poetic Life

by Debra Lynne Peck © 2020

As for ourselves, we’re very well; as unaffected prose will tell – Cassandra’s pen will paint our state, the many comforts that await, our Chawton Home – how much we find, already in it to our mind, and how convinced that when complete, it will all other houses beat, that ever have been made or mended – with rooms concise or rooms distended. You’ll find us very snug next year, perhaps with Charles and Fanny near – for now, it often does delight us, to fancy them just over-right us!

The happy little verse above is an excerpt from a poem called “My Dearest Frank, I Wish You, Joy.” Jane Austen wrote this poem in 1809, to congratulate her brother Frank on the birth of his second child, and to sing the praises of her new home – Chawton Cottage. Jane was often inspired to write poetry for her family and special friends, to both entertain them, and to let them know in her humorous way, how much they meant to her. She composed poems on every subject, from headaches and praises, to current events and snippets of gossip. Writing imaginative verse was second nature to Jane, as she grew up in a family of talented poets. Her Mother, Brothers James and Edward, and even her Sister Cassandra, all tried their hand at rhyming. Later, her nieces and nephews joined in the fun, and her nephew James Edward Austen (later Austen-Leigh,) upon finding out his dear Aunt was responsible for writing the novels he had come to love, wrote her a humorous poem of applause! James Edward would later write one of the first biographies on Jane Austen’s life.

No words can express, my dear Aunt, my surprise – or make you conceive how I opened my eyes, like a pig Butcher Pile has just struck with his knife, when I heard for the very first time in my life, that I had the honour to have a relation, whose works were dispersed through the whole of the nation. I assure you, however, I’m terribly glad; Oh dear, just to think (and the thought drives me mad) that dear Mrs. Jennings’ good-natured strain, was really the produce of your witty brain – that you made the Middletons, Dashwoods, and all, and that you (not young Ferrars) found out that a ball, may be given in cottages never so small – And though Mr. Collins so grateful for all, will Lady De Bourgh his dear patroness call, ‘Tis to your ingenuity really he owed, his living, his wife, and his humble abode! Now if you will take your poor nephew’s advice, your works to Sir William pray send in a trice – If he’ll undertake to some grandees to show it, by whose means at last the Prince Regent might know it – for I’m sure if he did, in reward for your tale, he’d make you a Countess at least without fail – and indeed, if the Princess should lose her dear life, you might have a chance of becoming his wife!

Her Father’s extensive library at Steventon Rectory, along with the circulating library of the day, afforded Jane access to works of the great poets of her time. Jane’s brother, Henry, was recorded as stating that her favorite poet was William Cowper. Jane herself refers to his works “Tirocinium, and The Task” many times in her novels and letters. Other poets Jane admired were Dr. Samuel Johnson, the Reverend George Crabbe, Lord Byron, Charlotte Smith, and Anna Laeticia Barbauld. Jane was known to have joked with her family about being the second Mrs. Crabbe. Upon hearing of the death of the first Mrs. Crabbe, she remarked in an 1813 letter to Cassandra – “I will comfort him as well as I can, but I do not undertake to be good to her children…she had better not leave any!” George Crabbe wrote realistic poetry depicting how harsh and depressing life in the countryside could be – poems that were neither idyllic nor pastoral. Perhaps Jane admired Crabbe’s poetry for his attempts to bring the harsh reality of poverty into the social consciousness. An excerpt from William Cowper’s “Tirocinium (A Review of Schools”) from 1784 shows a romantic point of view and a lyrical rhythm which is more inviting –

Spring hangs her infant blossoms on the trees, rocked in the cradle of the western breeze. Summer in haste the thriving charge receives, beneath the shade of her expanded leaves, till Autumn’s fiercer heats and plenteous dews, dye them at last in all their glowing hues.

An excerpt from Charlotte Smith’s “Invitation to the Bee,” would have appealed to Jane’s love of nature and the joys of living in the country –

Child of patient industry, little active, busy bee, though art out at early morn, just as the opening flowers are born – among the green and grassy meads, where cowslips hang their heads, or by hedge-rows, while the dew, glitters on the hare-bell blue – then on eager wing are flown, to thymy hillocks on the down, or to revel on the broom, or suck the clover’s crimson bloom – murmuring still thou busy bee, thy little ode to industry!

There is some dispute about a little needle and thread case that Jane Austen made, in which she enclosed the following poem – written by herself. Three different biographers list the possible recipients as being Jane’s dear friend Martha Lloyd, her sister-in-law Mary Lloyd, or her niece Caroline Austen! I would like to think she wrote it for Martha Lloyd, a faithful bosom companion and friend of her lifetime.

This little bag I hope will prove to be not vainly made – for if you should a needle want, it will afford you aid – and as we are about to part T’will serve another end, for when you look upon the bag, you’ll recollect your friend!  

Loyal friends were vitally important to Jane Austen, and close companions Martha Lloyd and Anne Sharp were models for perfect friendship. – From the poet Anna Laeticia Barbauld’s “Pious Friendship” –

How blest the sacred tie that binds, in union sweet according minds! How swift the heavenly course they run, whose hearts, whose faith, whose hopes are one!

Another dear friend of Jane’s youth, Madam Lefroy – inspired her to write a poem of tribute after Mrs. Lefroy’s untimely death from a horse accident on Jane’s birthday in 1804. An excerpt from one of Jane’s most heartfelt and emotional poems shows her deep feelings for her kindly mentor:

Angelic woman! Past my power to praise, in language meet thy talents, temper, mind – thy solid worth, thy captivating grace, thou friend and ornament of humankind.

The following verse is one of my very favorite Jane Austen poems, written for her niece Fanny Knight, on the occasion of Francis Austen’s wedding to Mary Gibson, July 24, 1806. The imagery this verse calls forth pulls one right into the heart of the story where you can feel every bump in the road and hear the rumbling of the carriage and the sound of the horse’s hooves pounding the lane!

See they come, post haste from Thanet, lovely couple, side by side – They’ve left behind them Richard Kennet, with the parents of the Bride! Canterbury, they have passed through, next succeeded Stamford Bridge – Chilham Village they came fast through, now they’ve mounted yonder ridge – Down the hill, they’re swift proceeding, now they skirt the Park around – Lo! The cattle sweetly feeding, scamper – startled at the sound! Run, my Brothers, to the Pier gate! Throw it open, very wide! Let it not be said that we’re late in welcoming my Uncle’s Bride! To the house the chaise advances, now it stops – They’re here, they’re here! How d’ye do, my Uncle Francis? How does do your Lady dear?

Many “Janeites” of yesteryear, inspired by the writings of Jane Austen, felt compelled to honor her – both in verse and prose. Lord Morpeth: 7th Earl of Carlisle and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Anne Isabella: Lady Ritchie, Andrew Lang, Virginia Woolf, and Rudyard Kipling, were just a few. Of these, Rudyard Kipling offers the most touching tribute, when he imagines “Jane’s Marriage:” Try not to cry when you read this – I always do!

Jane went to Paradise: that was only fair, Good Sir Walter followed her, and armed her up the stair. Henry and Tobias, and Miguel of Spain, stood with Shakespeare at the top, to welcome Jane – Then the Three Archangels, offered out of hand, anything in Heaven’s gift that she might command. Azrael’s eyes upon her, Raphael’s wings above, Michael’s sword against her heart, Jane said – “Love.” Instantly the understanding Seraphim, laid their fingers on their lips and went to look for him. Stole across the Zodiac, harnessed Charles’s Wain, and whispered round the Nebulae, “Who loved Jane?” In a private limbo, where none thought to look, sat a Hampshire gentleman, reading of a book. It was called “Persuasion,” and it told the plain, story of the love between Him and Jane. He heard the question, circle Heaven through – closed the book, and answered – “I did – and do!” Quietly but speedily (as Captain Wentworth moved) entered into Paradise, the man Jane loved!  – Jane lies in Winchester, blessed be her shade! Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made. And, while the stones of Winchester – or Milsom Street – remain, Glory, Love, and Honour unto England’s Jane!

It is serendipitous to me that Kipling chose Jane Austen’s most mature novel for the subject of his poem because I believe Persuasion to be her most poetic novel. Jane lived a very creative life. Though her verses are few, her stories teem with all the drama poets love. They are filled with tragic and disappointing love, separation of lovers, unsettled home life, the longing for a real home, failed communication between lovers, the desire to have it all, (love and independence) and the tragedy and comedy of the human condition. How can one not see the poetry in her novels? Is not the line “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,” or “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more,” pure poetry? And from “Persuasion,” “Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy, could never have passed along the streets of Bath, than Anne was sporting with from Camden-place to Westgate-buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way.” Consider Captain Harville’s speech to Anne at the White Hart, and Oh! Captain Wentworth’s letter! It is poetic from beginning to end!

But, alas, it is a line from Jane Austen’s last poem that says what we all feel. On July 15, 1817, St. Swithin’s Day – Jane wrote a poem about the Winchester Races. The story in this verse tells the humorous tale of St. Swithin cursing the horse races held on a day that was supposed to honor him. She says: “When once we are buried, you think we are gone, but Behold me Immortal” and we do.

Jane Austen and Chawton House Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Rita Greer, Licence Art Libre, Copyleft

British Library Public Domain Photos

Works cited:

A Memoir of Jane Austen:  James Edward Austen-Leigh, Richard Bentley and Son, London 1886

A Portrait of Jane Austen: David Cecil, Penguin Books LTD, London 1980

Charlotte Smith Complete Poetical Works: Delphi Classics, East Sussex, United Kingdom 2014

Debits and Credits: Rudyard Kipling, Doubleday/Page, New York 1926

Jane Austen’s Letters: Edited by Deirdre LeFaye, Oxford University Press, New York 1995

Persuasion: Jane Austen, 1818, Penguin Classics, London 1998

The Poems of Anna Laeticia Barbauld: Edited by William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft, University of Georgia Press 1994

The Poetry of Jane Austen and The Austen Family: Edited by David Selwyn, University of Iowa Press/Jane Austen Society 1997

The Works of William Cowper:  Hardpress, Miami, Florida 2018

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