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Foremother Poet: Mary Hays (1760-1843)

Dear friends and readers,

Another in my ongoing series of foremother poet blogs here and at Ellen and Jim have a blog, two: my choice for tonight is a woman poet whose voice in prose I am strongly drawn to. Mary Hays, appealing 18th century journalist, novelist, biographer, poet. I retell her life and summarize and comment on her writing. Her eloquent voice on behalf of social justice, her exposure of the culture of rape, her life-writing all very moving and relevant today.

I like her.  Her poetry may feel outdated because she uses poetic diction of her day, however, by calling attention to two of her poems which appeal strongly to me (for tone and attitude) and quoting from a third, I make an occasion to retell her life and summarize and comments on her  journalism, philosophy, strong feminist treatises, novels and life writing. Hays's importance lies in her prose.

No likeness of her has survived.

Her poetry is written in the vein of sensibility.

  Invocation to the Nightingale

Wand'ring o'er the dewy meadow,
Oft at ev'ning hour I go;
Fondly courting Philomela's
Sympathetick plaints of woe.

Sometimes, hush'd in still attention,
Leaning pensive o'er a stile,
Fancy bids her sound delusive
Lull the yielding sense awhile.

Soft the visionary musick,
Rising floats upon the gale:   
Now it sinks in strains more languid,
Dying o'er the distant vale.

Starting from the dream of fancy,
Nought my list'ning ear invades,
Save the hum of falling waters,
Save the rustling aspin-shade.

"Little songstress, soothe my sorrows,
'Wrap my soul in softest airs;
"Such as erst, in Lydian measures,
"Charm'd the Grecian hero's cares.   

"But, if forg'd by cruel rusticks
To lament thy ruin'd care;
"Breathe thy saddest strains of anguish,
"Strains that melodize despair.

"Deeply vers'd in Sorrow's lessons,
"Best my heart thy griefs can know;
"Pity dwells within the bosom
"Soften'd by an equal woe.

"While thy melancholy plainings
"All my hapless fate renew,
"Heart-felt sighs shall load the zephyrs,
"Tears increase the falling dew.

"Cease to shun me, lovely mourner;
"Sweetly breathe the melting strain:
"Oft thou deign'st to charm the rustick,
"Roving thoughtless o'er the plain.

'Yet, to him, thy softest trillings
"Can no sympathy impart;
''Wouldst thou seek for kindred feelings,
"See them trembling in my heart!"

Vain, alas! my Invocation,
Vain the pleadings of the muse!
Wrapp'd in silent shades, the charmer
Doth her tuneful lay refuse.

Homeward as I hopeless wander,
Faintly sighs the evening breeze;
Shadowy beams the pale moon's lustre,
Glittering through the waving trees.

            (1781)

(There is an alternative much less plangent ending:
"Clouds obscure deform the aether,
Rising damps involve the plain;
Pensively I hasten homeward,
To avoid the coming rain.")
   
    Ode to Her Bullfinch

Little wanton flutt'rer, say
Whither wou'dst thou wing thy way?
Why those airy circles make,
All untry'd the thorny brake?
Various dangers lurking lie
In the guise of liberty;
See the wily fowler laid
Close beneath the hawthorn shade;
Mark his tyrannous intent,
Full on schemes of murder bent;   
For within that rugged breast
Meek-ey'd Pity ne'er wou'd rest,
Nor the softer powers of Love
E'er that stoick heart could move,
Little trembler, hither fly,
In my bosom safely lie;
Sympathy and tenderness
Doth that bosom still possess;
There thy glossy plumes unfold
Plumes of azure and of gold;   
While secure from every harm,
Pining want and rude alarm,
A willing captive still remain,
Nor with thy liberty to gain.

Whisp'ring Nature prompts to fly,
Seeking sweet society;
Or the gentler voice of Love
Bids thee range the mazy grove;
Ah! thy fond intent forbear,
Transient joys which end in care;   
All a parent's anxious woe
Soon thy downy breast would know,
Lest the school-boy's truant eye
Shou'd thy tender young descry;
Lest the ruder vernal storm
Shou'd thy little nest deform,
Hither then, thou wanton, fly,
Bless thy soft captivity;
And lull with notes of soothing sound
The pangs which do my bosom wound.


John Constable (1776-1837), Hampstead Heath looking towards Harrow at Sunset (1823)

                (1785)

From "The Consolation:"

Oh let me then with trembling footsteps haste
To where Fair Science gilds the dreary waste.
And seek from philosophic lore to find
A lenient balm to heal my wounded mind ...

Survey the boundless prospect of mankind,
And mark the lot by heaven to each assigned,
Fleeting their joys, but real in their pain;
The various ills -- a complicated train,
Disease, Intemperance, Want, and fell Despair,
The thrill of anguish and corroding care ...

The"Invocation to the Nightingale" is in Ann Radcliffe and Helen Maria Williams's vein:  about loss and disappointment and losing yourself in an illusion  The "Ode to her Bullfinch" is in the vein of Robert Burns to a mouse; Anna Barbauld, the mouse's petition; Helen Maria Williams to  a lovely flying bird.  These are familiar from early fables; the poems are most often by women and in them small animals are caged, tortured, killed and or just fail to survive in a harsh natural world.  The harder version is the supposed laughing neo-classic type about preying cats drowning in their efforts to murder a yet smaller animal.  I'm thinking of Thomas Gray's rather cruel Ode to his cat trying to kill a fish.  The excerpt from The Consolation, a long poem,, shows Hays's strong affinities with  Samuel Johnson -- with the important difference that she shows is aware of the generality of people and connects their destinies to how they were treated by others ("society").

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Mary Hays's signficance lies in her journalism, lives of other contemporary women, a treatise that matches Wollstonecraft's, An Appeal to the Men of Great Britain on Behalf of Women, a book of letters she left (between herself and a lover who died), and a short epistolary novel, The Memoirs of Emma Courtney.  In all these she powerfully presents the inner life of a intensely passionate and radical spirit, a woman, caught up in the real circumstances and injustices of the era.  Her writing like Helen Maria Williams is often ignored because some of her best pieces are not in fiction but in the jouralism of the day (like Johnson), the forms it took, the specifics of issues.  The fate of Hays's reputation makes me think of Molly Ivan's reputation eventually , journalism is not really paid enough respect as a whole and journalists often have to go to other forms, and yet what they write in journalism is probably much more important and as influential as anyone ever is.

Hays lived well into the Victorian age (1785-1843).  She was the child of middle class radical dissenters; early in her life she fell in love with a neighbor, John Eccles, whose parents had even less money than hers, and they were pressured to give one another up, held out, but after overcoming (ignoring) continued objections, they got engaged.  Alas, he became very ill, and died.  To assuage her grief, she turned to books, poetry, reading, philosophy and through this plus her knowledge of how dissenters were treated in England, became a strong Jacobin (as the English radicals were called).

In Paula Feldman's retelling of Hays's life (from her British Women Poets of the Romantic Era) I took the first two poems), Hays was often isolated after the death of Eccles; she was slowly brought into a circle of non-conformist and radical friends by a rational dissenter (an early religious radical much attacked by Burke), Robert Robinson. She met and much admired Mary Wollstonecraft, and they became fast friends; so she entered the circles of Wollstonecraft's associates William Godwin, Blake, Paine, Holcroft, Helen Maria Williams.  She wrote her Appeal to the Men of Great Britain on Behalf of Women in 1792.

Encouraged by Wollstonecraft, she finally left her mother and went to live alone independently at 30 Kirby Street, Hatton Garden.  This freed her to write herself publicly and she began with the Critical Review, studied mathematics, penned sermons, fell in love again, with William Frend who did not return the feeling.

An important aspect of her life was that she was perceived as ugly.  She later wrote a powerful novel inditing the way women were treated sexually, The Memoirs of Emma Courtney.  The basis of this are the  letters she and Frend wrote. The novel makes painful and yet exhilarating reading.  It's not often mentoined that it also includes a story of adultery and a woman accused of murdering her newborn infant (she didn't) so the issues swirling around this not-common happening and accusation are equally part of the novel.  It was at first praised and then ferociously attacked and explicitly for its political stances and description of women's lives.  Really women's memoirs of the period were often much franker, told much more. There's a masterly one at the Folger, An Apology for the Life of George Anne Bellamy, an important actress of the period who ended indigent and ill and had the guts to tell about it (not an uncommon ending), but since often (as Bellamy still is) such women were dissed as not respectable and their books described as "scandalous" and treated scabrously, stigmatized; some are until today, e.g., Frances Vane's Memoirs of a Lady of Quality.

Godwin became Hays's mentor by the mid-1790s and he encouraged her to write novels. It was his encouragement which led to Emma Courtney where she placed much autobiographical material.  People will remember his candid biography of Mary Wollstonecraft (written just after she died in great grief). When Wollstonecraft returned from the continent, and the terror was on, she and Hays found themselves increasingly isolated and attacked.

Hays in particular was mocked and ridiculed for her open vulnerabiilty, her refusal to play parts, to be guarded, to hang out performative signs (to use Janet Todd's metaphor).  Elizabeth Hamilton was one of those who couldn't leave her alone, but also Coleridge was really crude and in the Anti-Jacobin others.  Wollstonecraft had married Godwin and died in childbirth.  Hays was with her in these last days and announced Wollstonecraft's death in letters and wrote a short biography of her which went into her Female Biography, which begins with Anne Askew and has the merit of being among the first to drop all goddesses and mythic figures, and include many women who the world would call failures, many persecuted women.  These are exemplary portraits in a new style.

By 1799 Hays's feminist stance had become intensely unpopular in the media.  Her Victim of Prejudice written "to delineate the mischiefs that have ensued from the too great a stress placed on the reputation for chastity in woman" was castigated and ridiculed mercilessly.  it is a daring bold tale of aggravated rape (the only one beyond Richardson's Clarissa from the 18th century): of Mary Raymond in Mary Hays's startling The Victim of Prejudice: “Deaf to my remonstrances, my supplications [to] his callous heart, his furious and uncontrollable vehemence [was unstoppable] I suffered a brutal violation” (117).  She defies the virginity taboo (as it's called), and Hays argues that given what society is, the demand that a woman maintain a reputation for absolute chastity as a condition of respectability to find employment robs them of any opportunity for independence and/or a moral life.

Southey comes out well here.  He did remain friends with Hays and she was invited to live with  his family in Keswick in1814. Her friendship with Godwin cooled, probably because of the dense conservative woman he had married.  Charles Lloyd then published a rumor she had offered herself to him. Hays had not at all (nonsense), but Lloyd could get attention and make a little money that way, and she became the subject of ridicule again. What was supposedly ugly about her I don't know. So since Emma Courtney where she gave away her vulnerability, the place to hit her was obvious.  Elizabeth Hamiton kept up riculing her biographies of women whom (according to Hamilton) no one admired.

So Hays retreated from public life in 1814 and went to live in Hotwells Clifton, Bristol.  She was writing evangelical tracts for the poor at the end of her life and 83 at death. Feldman's life of her is shorter and tells what counts in an intelligent (humane) and candid way.  I also recommend Gina Luria Walker's The Idea of Being Free:  A Mary Hays Reader, a Broadview Press book where Luria reprints Hays's journalism, letters, and a mass of writing by others which makes it into a sort of autobiography intermingled with contemporary voices by others on Hays and her writing and with writing by a very few critics and scholars today on Hays.

There is an excellent Mary Hays site by Eleanor Ty one chapter of whose book, Unsex'd Revolutionaries is devoted to Hays. See Walker's biography.  Ty includes a superb bibliography

***********************************************


Further commentary:

Two essays by Mary Hays:  reprinted in The First Feminists: British Women Writers 1578-1799 are 1) an essay for the Monthly Magazine where she argues women are as intellectually capable and emotionally competent as men, but miseducated and given no opportunity to develop their talents or strength of character.  Indeed discouraged strongly from this. In the literature of the 17th and 18th century and especially in the 17th century one can see how women were really treated in effect as secondary animals (for breeding, for family aggrandizement).  The second 2) is an essay in the Monthly Magazine where she daringly argued that the system of demanding a reputation for absolute chastity for women is pernicious in the extreme:  unreal, unfair (she shows that when they fail this test they are outcast and turned into a hollow destructive world), blinding. 

I was interested to find in the essay she says this sexual faultline and injustice supports the "system of property" and goes on to expose that.  Like Charlotte Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, and numbers of other radicals, men and women both, she did not give up on the principles or ideals of the revolution even if the results became themselves horrific, retrograde, or useless in many areas. Not all, for the documents signed and the new codes put in place in some realms remained.

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Dual edition with Amelia Opie: see my foremother poet blog.

The Memoirs of Emma Courtney: In these letters Emma is neither a Marianne or Jane Eyre, but a woman  who doesn't fit in: ostracized on grounds of poverty, lack of status, not being married (and she's what's called ugly apparently), and yet so gifted, capable of such intense enjoyment of experience were she only to meet a cordial mind.  This portrait is a mirror of Hays herself.

I can see that these may have been originally letters she wrote to Frend who intellectually was so much her confidant, but who was not attracted to her sexually. She can't understand why he can't love her for herself, her mind, and through that grow to love her character and thus want to spend his life by her side, as she'd love to spend her life by his.

It' s a novel where the heroine bares her souls to men, pursue them, and in the face of rejection, humiliates herself,  by pleading and reasoning with the man about all she has to offer.  Three like this in real life memoirs, both books of letters, and Mary Hays's own letters to William Frend:

1) Julie de Lespinasse's Letters to M.Gilbert (available in an older English translation), she is abject, passionate, and ceaseless in her attempts to appeal to him.  The first time I read the book in English I was overpowered with the intelligence of the woman and couldn't quite understand why he couldn't like her the way she liked him.  Now it seems to me he was afraid of this intensity and didn't want such a relationship with anyone. 

2) Madame du Deffand's letters to Horace Walpole:  she is humble, pathetic, eager and anxious to show how much she loves him, all the while knowing he finds her attitude painfully embarrassing. She was much older than he and blind.  Her letters are to many other people, including a small volume to Voltaire (as witty and clever as he, which he knows), but those to Walpole are the ones most famous in English. 

3) In The Idea of Being Free:  A Mary Hays Reader edited by Gina Luria  The opening section is made up of her letters to Eccles; her love is reciprocated but the same passionate woman speaks out.  The problem is they are being forbidden to marry, and it seems that her mother is one of the big obstacles, all the more so because her mother will not acknowledge her true opposition and maneuvrings to stop the marriage from going forward. . This is a Broadview Press book where Luria reprints Hays's journalism, letters, and a mass of writing by others which makes it into a sort of autobiography intermingled with contemporary voices on and to Hays and with writing by a very few critics and scholars today on Hays.

for a modern version:  Elena Ferrante's Days of Abandonment.

Back to Emma Courtney:   I found particularly striking the content of the arguments Emma produced.  Emma says that Augustus admits fully she is his intellectual and emotional companion; she and Augustus are deeply congenial; what's more the woman Augustus prefers to her is superficial, petty, and not someone he would want to talk to at all. Nonetheless, it seems he would prefer to spend his life with this woman. What she is making visible is the animal basis for marriage for this man (and perhaps all men).  Does not he wants an equal to talk to?  What is it he wants out of marriage to a woman? 

What we see here is what some say is a perhaps continuing difference between men and women or so some say. The woman looks for companionate love and support above all; this man for sexual gratification and someone to be his housekeeper, bear children.   He looks for friendship among men or elsewhere. I don't say this is a general truth at all, but I've heard it asserted to explain why men frequent prostitutes and women don't:  men are more aggressively sexual.

At any rate, this presentation of herself continually as his soul-mate which he nonetheless reject is terribly painful especially when you know that in real life Mary Hays was ridiculed as ugly.  Rather like George Eliot (and Lewes too) come to that.  We might ask how our reading of this novel knowing it's based on real letters should proceed. Is not this one at least deepened by regarding it as a partially real document, one rooted in realities not mentioned but assumed on the part of Mary Hays and her contemporary readership.  I find Elizabeth Hamilton's ridiculing of Mary Hays particularly ugly because she does refer to Hays's appearance. Again, In the middle 1790s when it was known that Frend had rejected Hays and that she had written these abject letters to him, an unscrupulous journalist Charles Lloyd then published a rumor she had offered herself to him (she didn't but he could get attention and make a little money that way), and she became the subject of ridicule again. What was supposedly ugly about her I don't know.

I can see that these may have been originally letters she wrote to  Frend who intellectually was so much her confidant, but who was not attracted to her sexually. She can't understand why he can't love her for herself, her mind, and through that grow to love her character and thus want to spend his life by her side, as she'd love to spend her life by his

Part of novel usually not discussed:  What happens is Emma is fallen in love with by a Mr Montague and although she doesn't love him, she decides to marry him.  It's the wisest and most prudent thing to do:  it will help her get over Harley and provide for her.  It seems Montague is this gentleman who does appreciate her mind and soul.  What happens is Montague becomes intensely jealous when Augustus returns sick and dying, and Emma nurses him and takes over Augustus's child.  He also begins to commit adultery with a maid, Miss Morton.  It is when Emma catches them nearly in the act, that Hays's famous peroration against the double standard, her argument that women are driven to allow men sexual freedom because they are desperate for a partner, a support, a protector, and then are despised for what they are driven to obtain occurs.  This peroration appears on blurbs about the book. 

To make a long story, short, at first Emma fires Rachel or Miss Morton, but then she relents when she discovers Miss Morton has given birth to a baby and Montague has killed it.  Miss Morton is in danger of being blamed.  So we have in the last part of the novel  a woman accused of murdering her newborn infant (she didn't) so the issues swirling around this not-common happening and accusation are equally part of the novel and made visible.  Then Montague shoots himself through the head. 16,000 men each year in the US shoot themselves through the head. 

The point of this is I think not to present Emma as ever so alluring and the creme de la creme all men want (as I'm afraid Burney could be accused) but again to make visible what drives people to deep depression, counterproductive anger, suicide, murder, rage.  It's not a story of jealousy in the way of Othello (and Mackenzie's Julia de Roubigne and Brooke's Julia Mandeville rehearse the archetypal jealousy plot Shakespeare used) but to show values people pretend to have, illegitimate and oppressive norms, what really motivates them.  To bring all this out in the light of day.

Not argued. But felt.  The last letter is deeply pessimistic, dark, despairing; Emma can look forward only to death for a release.  I found the last chapter and closing passages very moving,

    The dawn of my life glowed with the promise of a fair and bright day, before its noon, thick clouds gathered; its midday was gloomy and tempestuous. -- It remains with thee, my friend, to gild with a mild radicance the closing evening; before the scene shuts,and veils the prospect in impenetrable darkness."

She is compensating, trying to justify her existence just now by writing her life to Augustus who she adopted and brought up as her own.  Her own daughter Emma by Montague is not Augustus's sister so perhaps they can marry. But her concerns in this last letter is to tell him the study of many of the lucrative profession is a study of chicanery, lying, cheating (that's law), violence (that's the the navy). The church is a school of hypocrisy.  Augustus has shown interest in an art, architecture and she hopes that he will be able to make an honest living giving people decent good places to live in.

She also reiterates a single value in italics:  the child Augustus will have (by Emma) should be taught "the true dignity and virtue consist in being free." Much of Emma Courtney can be seen as variants on others manipulating and using one another for their possessive ownership ends. The source:  fear, anxiety, and behind that lies resentment (and hatred too) of those better off in whatever way.  This may cause revolution but not lead to progress at all.  So this would be Hays's take on what happened to the French revolution. 

This theme as I've just described it is endemic in much of the work reprinted by Gina Luria in her Broadview edition which I cannot recommend too highly.  In this Broadview press edition, you find Hays's her journalism, some of female biographies, excepts from her Appeal to men on Behalf of Women, and much contextualizing material from other writers at the time, including the important Robert Robinson, the single most important influence on Hays's thought:  he was a dissenter with radical Enlightenment philosophy and psychology (Burke chose him as a special bete noir in his Reflections on the French revolution). Anna Barbauld is typical of the kind of woman who accepted Hays. excepts from those who castigated and ridiculed her. 

As you read along you really get to picture of this woman which is (I think) deeply sympathetic.  Since she was like Johnson, Helen Maria Williams and others -- not living in an era where the novel was all important because it could make such money, you really can't rely on reading her novels to begin to get a sense of how she functioned in her era and could be read today for most profit.


Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), The Revenue Cutter (1779)

Ellen

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
misssylviadrake
Jul. 29th, 2011 07:56 pm (UTC)
Very interesting to read about Mary Hays and see some of her poetry - I remember being impressed by 'Emma Courtney' though I had got it mixed up with one or two other novels I read about the same time. I do remember the painful way the heroine keeps being rebuffed by Augustus.

Caged birds do turn up as a theme in male poetry too, like Keats' 'I had a dove and the sweet dove died" - I'm now wondering if he thinks of the dove as female?

Judy
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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