misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

More poetry by James Austen

Dear friends and readers,

Before I put this week's posting for Letter 11 onto the blog, I thought I'd put a few more poems by James Austen onto this blog.  Like his son, James Edward Austen-Leigh, James had real gifts as a writer: as a grave, melancholy poet mostly. Clare Harman says (I agree) that the family respected James for his gifts far more than Austen until she actually succeeded in publishing S&S.  He would be seen as serious, learned, a man.  Much as they liked novels, novels were an inferior form, and anyway Jane could not get anyone to publish hers.

The only picture we have of him: as a young man:

As a young man

I put these onto the listservs, Austen-l, Janeites and WomenWritersthroughtheAges @ Yahoo when we were reading Austen-Leigh's memoir of his aunt on these listserv communities which I wrote about here, together with one by his father, Jane's brother's poems (Lines written at Steventon in the Autumn of1814, after refusing to exchange that Living for Marsh Gibbon in the borders of Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire -- which shows the father fending off his wife's anger because he refused to take livings he could not find the time genuinely to care for. 

I've been reminded of James because of the letters we've been reading and also an essay by J. Walton Litz's on The Loiterer where James was the prominent figure, at the time a witty young man.  The Loiterer shows that while the early James Austen still preferred tragedy to comedy and wrote melancholy prologues, was a much brighter happier man when he was young than when we meet him in later life, chained (I would put it) to Mary. I see him as marrying on the serious re-bound from his disappointment in not getting Eliza.  Mary openly favored her children by him and was apparently so hard on his gifted older daughter,  Anna, she had periodically to be send to live with her aunts and grandmother at Chawton.  In later life in one of the letters Jane Austen says what a disappointment he has become: the family did believe in his gifts, which (like many people) he not only never developed but it seems from his life's choices as well as chances that did and did not befall him, he regressed from.  James spent much energy pushing himself to accept his wife and placating her. In his poems we find him doing this too.

He died not long after Austen.  JEAL in his book and his daughter in hers had the courage to talk openly about the horrors of the harridan aunt Jane (the misery, theft-inclined one) with the legacy they longed for until her death (and which she continually held over their heads), but he never did justice to his father.  Too painful.  I see JEAL's memories of his boyhood in a fraught home as the true context for his emotionalism in his biography of his aunt.

James's best poems do seem to be to beloved family members, especially his children and one to Austen on the publication of Sense and Sensibility.  I've not included these as they have been reprinted before:  two on a cat the famiily owned, "Tyger's Letter to Caroline, 1812," a third on this cat, "Address to Tyger (on his stealing the steak reserved for the author's luncheon) and the touching "To Edward on the death of his first pony."  See The Poetry of Jane Austen and the Austen Family, ed. David Selwyn.  But perhaps I'll come back for another blog another time.  Those I've chosen place him against the skim of his century and other poets like him.  I'm suggesting he should be valued not as a brother of Jane but as a minor poet in his own right.

This one shows his kindly nature and love of his son, plus the gentleness of his tone and how he can turn a line into talk.

  To Edward

On planting a lime tree on the terrace
in the meadow before the house. -January 1813
This tree which we together plant,
If Heaven a Parent's wishes grant,
For many a future year shall prove
A record of our mutual love.
While you, my boy, at school or college
Are absent, gaining useful knowledge,
Oft to this tree shall I repair,
And in my fancy meet you there;
Shall think I see your parting look,
When last a kind farewell we took;
And almost view the smile of joy,
Play o'er the features of my boy,
When some months hence, the wish't vacation.
From books allows him recreation,
And brings him, grown & much improved,
To Parents, home & friends beloved.
Here oft shall I delight to stray;
At the soft hour of closing day,
When the still scene & fading light,
To meditation most invite;
Indulge in many a pleasing dream
Of which my Edward is the theme.
Now look with pleasure on the past,
And wonder how time flew so fast,
When every morning (& what task
More pleasing can a parent ask?)
I taught my boy, whose cheerful looks
Were never damped by sight of books;
Explained some work of classic merit,
And saw him catch each Author's spirit:
Nor vainly tried (I think) to blend
The parent, tutor & the friend.
When every night I softly crept
Into the room where Edward slept;
(Not with more unremitting care
Did Cowper's mother once repair
To the loved chamber of her boy,
Or view him with more tender joy.)
Secured the casement close & tight,
T'exclude the chilling damps of night,
Then smoothed the drapery of his bed,
And on the pillow placed his head,
His night cap tied, & kissed his cheek,
Blooming with health's fresh roseate streak,
And offered up a silent prayer,
That Heaven would keep him in it's care.
Now to the future look with hope,
And give imagination scope,
With sunshine bright the view to gild,
And many an airy castle build:
Trust I shall live to see the day,
When I with thankful heart may say,
"Well Edward does my care repay":
See him, whate'er his lot & station,
Do credit to his education;
Shew learning's & religion's fruits
In fair & rational pursuits,
And brighten by his well earned praise,
The evening of his parent's days.

   These are my day dreams, & with you --
It rests my boy, to prove them true;
You (with that sure & heavenly aid,
For which in vain none ever prayed)
Possess the power - oh! use it right,
To fill with calm & pure delight,
With joy unrivaled here on earth,
The hearts of those who gave you birth.
Here too I hope, when we are gone,
This place when other masters own,
When in the little spire-less Fane,
Just seen above the woody lane,
I and your mother are at rest,
Hither, your cousin's welcome guest
You'll frequent come, & every time
Still to this interesting lime
Your visit will be duly paid;
You'll often rest beneath its shade;
Against its stem you'll often lean,
And pleased survey the well known scene.
You'll love each feature you retrace
Of this still interesting place:
This terrace, where you often stood,
And caught from yonder fading wood
The mellow note of distant hound,
Or the horn's hoarse but cheerful sound.
The little elm encircled mead,
Where whilome for your favorite steed
You marked a course, & on his back
Still made him keep the circling track:
The barn, where many a rainy day
You with your sister spent in play:
The woodwalk, where in finer weather
Beneath the shade you sat together;
All these, & every object near,
Will to your eyes more fair appear
Than any scenes you since have known:
And haply, with a sigh you'll own,
 That, in life's ever varying round,
Joys pure as these you have not found.
 Then too, the tender recollection
Of those who here with fond affection
Your childhood nurtured, & with kind
Instruction, stored your opening mind,
Will to the spot fresh interest give:
In your remembrance we shall live.
I know, & it delights me much
I know your disposition such,
That many an hour you'll linger here,
To think upon your parents dear;
On those whose care, & hope & joy,
Were centred in their much loved boy;
Who, what-so' ere their faults might be,
Were ever kind, I trust, to thee.

From the Complete Poems of James Austen, ed David Selwyn, pp. 53-56

Here is Edward as an older mature man, more than a little weary:


A few comments.  I wonder if James Austen read "This lime-tree bower, my prison"?  The prosody reminds me of John Dyer's "Grongar Hill" -- whom James Austen imitates in his "Selbourne Hangar"

I'm sometimes aware of how smart and how well read in the Austen sources is Andrew Davies. The line about his boy whose "cheerful looks/Were never damped by sight of books" reminds me of a line in the 2008 S&S by Davies:  Davies has Fanny Dashwood say to Edward Ferrars: "you know you just say these things to irritate me."   Edward Ferrars has been praising the library they are standing in and the books.  Davies may be half-remembering James Austen for I feel in this line is a memory of someone who was not cheerful when one mentioned books and whose spirits were "damped", i.e., his wife, Mary.

And there's emotional blackmail going on here. The boy will of course reward his parents for their tender care &c.  We can see how James is pressing on his son to compensate for all the loneliness of his own existence, and how much he tries hard to create some ideal realm and knows it: "These are my day dreams"

We can see too how much the family knew Cowper.  The line about Cowper's mother comes from some poem James knew well and expected his son to know. It is a joy to have such a congenial child: the father knows his son will understand what he reads and react to it in a way similar to himself.


Some sonnets:

on leaving Oxford in the evening May 14th 1785

What fondly cherish'd thoughts my bosom-fill,
As yon dark mansions from my sight retire,
As the last turret black & pointed spire
Vanish, slow sinking 'neath the far seen hill,
While half hushed murmurs from the distant mill
The white smoke rising from the village fire,
Wake in my breast such social soft desire,
And thoughts of Home into my heart instill.
Thus fondly wrapt in Fancy's magic dream
And many a Castle forming, on I stray
Cross the lone heath, or deeper shaded dale,
While soft reflected in the wavy stream
Night's full orbed Queen directs my dubious way
Tinting the woodlands round with radiance pale.

In Selwyn's collection it follows a series of sonnets, one to Lady Catherine Powlett, and then one to each of the seasons (Winter, Spring, Autumn and Summer).


As I read the above, I thought of William Bowles and have to admit Bowles is more striking. Possibly because he's more openly pessimistic.  There's good quiet feeling in James Austen's sonnet too.


Sonnet to Autumn

Nymph of the straw-crowned hat, & kirtle pale,
Mild Autumn come, & cheer thy longing Swain;
Whether thou pleased survey'st the yellow plain
Bend in light currents to the western gale;
Or from yon mountain's summit view'st the vale
Now dim with fogs, now dank with mizzling rain,
Or warn'st collected on the village Fane,
Light summer's guests to spread their plumy sail
Sweet season welcome, for nor Summer's blaze,
Spring's vernal sweets, nor Winter's tempests wild
Like thy soft scenes invite my willing Lays,
When 'neath thy tranquil sky serene & mild,
I frame light measures in my Fair one's praise
Or muse, lone Melancholy's favoured child.

Sonnet 46: Written at Penshurst, in autumn 1788

Ye towers sublime! deserted now and drear!
 Ye woods! deep sighing to the hollow blast,
The musing wanderer loves to linger near,
 While History points to all your glories past:
And startling from their haunts the timid deer,
 To trace the walks obscured by matted fern,
Which Waller's soothing lyre were wont to hear,
 But where now clamours the discordant hern!
The spoiling hand of Time may overturn
 These lofty battlements, and quite deface
The fading canvas whence we love to learn
 Sydney's keen look, and Sacharissa's grace;
But fame and beauty still defy decay,
Saved by the historic page -- the poet's tender lay!


Tonight,  today, in the northern hemisphere, on the east coast of the US, it's very cold still,

                    A Sonnet to Summer

Veiled in thy radiant vest of streaming light,
Whilst midst thy parted locks soft zephyrs play,
Fair Summer come, & bring the lengthened day,
The dewy evening, & the milder night;
With many a fair returning morning bright,
With many a dazzling noon prolong thy stay,
Nor from these plains too eager haste away,
Quick to the southern climes to wing thy flight.

So shall our blessings still thy steps attend,
So shall the humble tenants of the plain,    
Whilst o'er their floated meads the rains descend
Whilst torrent floods their woodland scenes distain,
Warmed by thy smiles submissive learn to bend
Beneath dark Autumn's sway, or Winter's tyrant reign.

He uses 5 rhyme words; this and the layout of the poem reminds me strongly of the sonnets of Mary Sidney Wroth. Now I doubt he knew her sonnets, but both are rising to the challenge of the form.  By contrast, Charlotte Smith is happy to do Shakespearean sonnets (which allow for many rhymes). I don't know the typical rhyme schemes of the other sonneteers of this era (the Wartons -- who I suspect James would have read -- Bowles, Seward) well enough to pronounce.

Again I like the tone, the attitude of mind and feel of the piece. I know it's not original in diction :)  he's writing out of Thompson's Seasons.

finally, James was the one Austen to connect his sister intelligently to her characters in her novels:

To Miss Jane Austen, reputed author of Sense and Sensibility, a Novel lately published:

On such Subjects, no Wonder that she should write well
In whom so united those Qualities dwell;
Where "dear Sensibility, Sterne's darling Maid,
With Sense so attemper'd is finely portray'd.
Fair Elinor's self in that Mind is exprest,
And the feelings of Marianne live in that Breast.
Oh then, gentle Lady! continue to write,
And the Sense of your Readers t' amuse and delight.

Emma Thompson and Kate Winslett as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood -- in imitation of Cassandra's sketch of Austen absorbed by the landscape in reverie

Tags: jane austens letters, literary biography

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