Anna Seward

Anna Seward

Anna Seward, by Tilly Kettle, 1762
Born 12 December 1742[1]
Eyam, Derbyshire
Died March 25, 1809(1809-03-25) (aged 66)
Lichfield, Staffordshire
Nationality English
Occupation Writer, botanist
Notable work Louisa (1784)
Home town Lichfield

(1708–4 March 1790)

  • Elizabeth Hunter
    (d. 4 July 1780)
(m. 27 October 1741)[2]
Relatives Sarah ("Sally") (sister)
(b. 17 March 1744–d. 1764)[1]
Anna Seward, engraving 1799

Anna Seward (12 December 1742 – 25 March 1809) was a long-eighteenth-century English Romantic poet, often called the Swan of Lichfield.


Family life

Bishop's Palace

Seward was the eldest of two surviving daughters of Thomas Seward (1708–1790), prebendary of Lichfield and Salisbury, and author, and his wife Elizabeth.[3][2] Elizabeth Seward later had three further children (John, Jane and Elizabeth) who all died in infancy, and two stillbirths.[1] Anna Seward mourned their loss in her poem Eyam (1788).[4] Born in 1742 at Eyam, a small mining village in the Peak District of Derbyshire where her father was the rector,[3] she and her sister, Sarah some sixteen months younger than her, passed nearly all their life in the relatively small area of the Peak District of Derbyshire and Lichfield, a cathedral city in the adjacent county of Staffordshire to the west, an area now corresponding to the boundary of the East Midlands and West Midlands regions.[5][3]

In 1749 her father was appointed to a position as Canon-Residentiary at Lichfield Cathedral and the family moved to that city, where her father educated her entirely at home. They lived in the Bishop's Palace in the Cathedral Close. When a family friend, Mrs. Edward Sneyd, died in 1756,[6] the Sewards took in one of her daughters, Honora Sneyd, who became an 'adopted' foster sister to Anna.[7] Honora was nine years younger than Anna. Anna Seward describes how she and her sister first met Honora, on returning from a walk, in her poem The Anniversary (1769).[8] Sarah (known as 'Sally') died suddenly at the age of nineteen of typhus (1764).[9] Sarah was said to be of admirable character, but less talented than her sister.[10] Anna consoled herself with her affection for Honora Sneyd, as she describes in Visions, written a few days after her sister's death. In the poem she expresses the hope that Honora ('this transplanted flower') will replace her sister (whom she refers to as 'Alinda') in her and her parents affections.[11][notes 1]

Anna Seward continued to live at the Bishop's Palace all her life, caring for her father during the last ten years of his life, after he had suffered a stroke. When he died in 1790, he left her financially independent with an income of ₤400 per annum. She spent the rest of her life at the Palace, till her death in 1809.[5]


A long-time friend of the Levett family of Lichfield, Seward noted in her Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin (Erasmus) that three of the town's foremost citizens had been thrown from their carriages and had injured their knees in the same year. "No such misfortune," Seward wrote, "was previously remembered in that city, nor has it recurred through all the years which since elapsed."[notes 2]

Education and career

In her early childhood, she was considered a precocious, sensitive redhead, and her bent for learning became evident from the beginning. Canon Seward held progressive views on female education, having authored The Female Right to Literature (1748).[12] Encouraged by her father, she was said to be able to recite the works of Milton by the age of three.[3]

Even at the age of seven when the family moved to Lichfield, she recognised she had a gift for writing. At Lichfield the family lived in the Bishop's Palace which became the centre of a literary circle including Erasmus Darwin, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, to which Anna was exposed and encouraged to participate as she later relates.[notes 3][13][10] Though Canon Seward's (but not his wife's) attitudes towards the education of girls was progressive relative to the times, they were not excessively liberal. Amongst the subjects he taught them was theology and numeracy, and how to read and appreciate poetry, and also how to write and recite poetry. Although this deviated from what were considered ' conventional drawing room accomplishments', the omissions were also notable, including languages and science, although they were left free to pursue their own inclinations.[14] However Anna was not unskilled in the domestic sphere.[15]

Among the many literary figures of the time with which she conversed was Sir Walter Scott who would later publish her poetry posthumously. Her circle also included writers such as Thomas Day, Francis Noel Clarke Mundy, Sir Brooke Boothby and Willie Newton (the Peak Minstrel),[16] and she was considered the leader of a coterie of regional poets, and was influenced by writers such as Thomas Whalley, William Hayley, Robert Southey, Helen Maria Williams, Hannah More and the Ladies of Llangollen.[16][5] In addition to her literary circle she was involved in the deliberations of the Lunar Society in nearby Birmingham, that would sometimes meet at her father's home.[17] Both Darwin and Day were members of the Lunar Society and the Lichfield coterie, while Seward would correspond with other Lunar members such as Josiah Wedgewood and Richard Lovell Edgeworth.[16]

Between 1775 and 1781, Seward was a guest and participant at the much-mocked salon held by Anna Miller at Batheaston, near Bath. However, it was here that Seward's talent was recognised and her work published in the annual volume of poems from the gatherings, a debt that Seward acknowledged in her Poem to the Memory of Lady Miller (1782).[18]


Seward remained resolutely single throughout her life, despite many offers, and friendships, and was quite outspoken about the institution of marriage,[13][3] not unlike her heroine in Louisa,[19] a position that would later be echoed in the novels of her step daughter, Maria Edgeworth. She shunned both marriage and sexual love, as inferior to Aristotelian friendship, based more on equality and virtue. However she had friends of both genders, although only seeking romantic relationships with women.[20] In 1985 Lillian Faderman suggested that her orientation was lesbian,[21] although there is little known evidence of either the erotic or sexual, in her relationships, though the term relates more to twentieth rather than eighteenth century concepts of identity. However, since 1985 Seward remains within the lesbian poetic canon.[20] However Teresa Barnard argues against this based more on examination of her correspondence than merely her poetry.,[13] while more recently Barrett has argued for it, based on other sources.[20]

Much of the literature on Seward's relationship focusses on her childhood friend Honora Sneyd, the sonnets revealing her passion for her when they were together and her despair when Sneyd married Richard Edgeworth. Compared to the correspondence, her sonnets display much more intense emotion such as Sonnet 10 [Honora, shou’d that cruel time arrive] describing her feelings of betrayal. When the Edgeworths returned to Ireland, despair turned to rage, as in Sonnet 14 [Ingratitude, how deadly is thy smart].[20]




She began to write poetry beginning at an early age with the encouragement of her father, a published poet, but against the wishes of her mother. Although at sixteen her father altered his position out of fear she might become a 'learned lady'.[12][13] Later she received encouragement from Dr Erasmus Darwin, who set up practice in Lichfield in 1756,[22] although their relationship was complex and frequently conflicted.[13]

Her verses, which date from at least 1764 (age 17),[13] include elegies and sonnets, and she also wrote a poetical novel, Louisa (1784), of which five editions were published, however she did not publish her first poem till 1780 at the age of 33. Seward's writings, which include a large number of letters, have been called "commonplace". Horace Walpole said she had "no imagination, no novelty."[23] She was praised, however, by Mary Scott,[24] who had written admiringly of her father's attitude to female education.[25]

A number of her poems, particularly the Lichfield poems, were directed towards her friend and 'adopted' sister, Honora Sneyd in a tradition described as 'female friendship poetry'.[16]

In an era when women had to tread carefully in society's orbit, Seward struck a middle ground. In her work, Seward could be alternately arch and teasing, as in her poem entitled Portrait of Miss Levett, on the subject of a Lichfield beauty later married to Rev. Richard Levett.[26] She contributed to Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) but was not particularly happy with the way her material was treated by Boswell.[13] Her work was widely circulated.[27]

Authorship has been a continuing problem with assessing her work,[13] and she was known to suggest others had used her work as her own, "a charge of plagiarism must rest somewhere".[28]

Correspondence and biography

Anna Seward was a prodigious correspondent and her vast collection of letters was published in six volumes after her death (1811)[29] revealing an encyclopaedic breadth of knowledge of English literature and its development and casting considerable light on the literary culture of the Midlands of her day.[16] Early in life (1762–1768) she used an imaginary friend 'Emma' to express her thoughts, writing thirty–nine letters to her in all.[30] She was recogmised, to varying degrees, as an authority on English literature by her contemporaries, including Walter Scott, Samuel Johnson and Robert Southey.[16] Seward also wrote a biography, Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin (1804).[31]


Keenly interested in botany, she was closely associated with the Lichfield Botanical Society (despite the name, composed of only three men, Erasmus Darwin, Sir Brooke Boothby and John Jackson) and published as did the preceding members, anonymously under the name of the Society.[32] Encouraged by Darwin she firmly rejected the conservative backlash to the revelations of Carl Linnaeus' sexual system of plant classification. This was considered unfitting for ladies, whose modesty had to be protected.[33]

"I had heard it was not fit for the female eye. It can only be unfit for the perusal of such females as still believe the legend of their nursery that children are dug out of a parsley-bed; who have never been at church, or looked into a Bible, -and are totally ignorant that in the present state of the world, two sexes are necessary to the production of animals."[34][notes 4]

This attitude which was to prevail throughout most of the nineteenth century was typified by writers like the Rev. Richard Polwhele, in his poem The Unsex'd Females (1798), although she escaped his personal criticism, being considered to have the proper attitude.

Selected works

Selected works include;[13][35]

  • The Visions, an Elegy (1764)[11]
  • The Anniversary (1769)[8]
  • Lichfield, an elegy (May 1781)[36]
  • Poem to the Memory of Lady Miller (1782)
  • Eyam. (August 1788)[4]
  • Louisa, A Poetical Novel in Four Epistles (1784)
  • Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin (1804)
  • Original Sonnets on Various Subjects: And Odes Paraphrased from Horace (1799)
    • Sonnet 10. To Honora Sneyd. [Honora, shou’d that cruel time arrive]
    • Sonnet 14 [Ingratitude, how deadly is thy smart]


After her death Sir Walter Scott edited Seward's Poetical Works in three volumes (Edinburgh, 1810).[26] To these he prefixed a memoir of the author, adding extracts from her literary correspondence. Scott's editing demonstrates considerable censorship[37] and he declined to edit the bulk of her letters, which were later published in six volumes by Archibald Constable as Letters of Anna Seward 1784–1807 (1811).[29] Her reputation barely lasted beyond her life, although there has been a renewed interest in the twenty first century. There was a tendency to be dismissive of her work in early twentieth century criticism, [38] but later, particularly amongst feminist scholars she was seen as a valuable observer of gendered relationships in late eighteenth century society, and played a transitional role between late eighteenth century principles and emerging romanticism. Just as her engagement with the political, cultural and literary issues of the time gives her a role in reflecting the responses of society to those issues.[5][39] Kairoff, considering her "one of the - in a literal sense - ultimate eighteenth century poets".[40]

There is a plaque to Anna Seward (spelled "Anne", which is the spelling she used in her will) in Lichfield Cathedral.[notes 5] Seward appears as a character in the novel The Ladies by Doris Grumbach (1984).[41]


  1. Scott chose to open his collection of Seward's poetry with this poem
  2. The three victims of the unfortunate carriage accidents were Dr. Erasmus Darwin, Lichfield town clerk Theophilus Levett and Anna Seward herself. (Seward 1804)
  3. "and being canon of this cathedral, his daughter necessarily converses on terms of equality with the proudest inhabitants of our little city" (Scott 1810, Letter February 1763. vol. I p. lxxiii)
  4. Seward is defending Erasmus Darwin for attacks on his Temple of Nature (1803), which had been labelled as indecent.
  5. See the extracts from Seward's will published in The Lady's Monthly Museum (Lady's Monthly 1812, Miss Seward's Will Wednesday 1 April 1812 pp. 190–195)


  1. 1 2 3 Barnard 2013, p. 26.
  2. 1 2 Bancroft 2015.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Roberts 2012.
  4. 1 2 Scott 1810, Eyam, vol. III p. 1.
  5. 1 2 3 4 Roberts 2010.
  6. Williams 1861, Anne Seward pp. 239–255.
  7. Edgeworth & Edgeworth 1821a, p. 233.
  8. 1 2 Scott 1810, The Anniversary, vol. I p. 68.
  9. Macdonald, & McWhir 2010, Anna Seward 1742–1809 pp. 82–84.
  10. 1 2 Edgeworth & Edgeworth 1821a, p. 232.
  11. 1 2 Scott 1810, The Visions, vol. I p. 1.
  12. 1 2 Dodsley 1765, Seward, T. The Female Right to Literature Volume 2, pp. 309–315.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Barnard 2004.
  14. Barnard 2013, p. 36.
  15. Barnard 2013, p. 95.
  16. 1 2 3 4 5 6 deLucia 2013.
  17. Schofield 1963.
  18. Bowerbank 2015.
  19. Barnard 2013, p. 14.
  20. 1 2 3 4 Barrett 2012.
  21. Faderman 1985.
  22. Moore et al. 2012, Anna Seward pp. 319–322.
  23. Chisholm 1911.
  24. Radcliffe 2015, Mary Scott, "Verses addressed to Miss Seward, on the Publication of her Monody on Major Andre" Gentleman's Magazine 53 (June 1783) 519.
  25. Scott 1775, p. 38.
  26. 1 2 Scott 1810.
  27. Foster 2007, Lisa Moore: The Swan of Lichfield pp. 259–264.
  28. Constable 1811, Letter to Mrs. Jackson August 3 1792 Vol.3 p. 156.
  29. 1 2 Constable 1811.
  30. Barnard 2013, 1. 'My Dear Emma': The Juvenile Letters, 1762–1768 pp. 9–38.
  31. Seward 1804.
  32. George 2014.
  33. Shteir 1996, p. 28.
  34. Constable 1811, Letter to Dr. Lister, June 20 1803. vi. 83.
  35. Moore 2015.
  36. Scott 1810, Lichfield, an Elegy May 1781, vol. I p. 89.
  37. Barnard 2013.
  38. Clarke 2005.
  39. Kairoff 2012, Preface p. ix11.
  40. Kairoff 2012, p. 11.
  41. Grumbach 1984.


Historical sources

Literary surveys

Anna Seward



Works by Seward

Reference materials

External links

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