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Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.

By Critical and Biographical Essay by Alfred H. Miles

Anna Lætitia Barbauld (1743–1825)

ANNA LÆTITIA BARBAULD was born at Kibworth-Harcourt, Leicestershire, on the 20th of June, 1743. Her father, Dr. Aiken, kept a private school for boys, and under his instruction she acquired a knowledge of both Greek and Latin. At her father’s house, too, she met Dr. Priestley, Dr. Taylor, Roscoe, Pennant the naturalist, and other men of culture, who influenced her thought and stimulated the development of her mind. In 1773 she published a volume of poems, and, encouraged by its success, in conjunction with her brother, a volume of “Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose.” In the following year she married the Rev. R. Barbauld, a Nonconformist minister, who shortly after opened a school for boys at Palgrave, Suffolk. While here Mrs. Barbauld published “Hymns in Prose for Children” (1781), a work that had a large sale both in England and America, and which was translated into several languages. In 1787 the Barbaulds gave up their school and removed to Hampstead, where Mr. Barbauld became minister of a Nonconformist Church. Here they formed the acquaintance of Agnes and Joanna Baillie, and Mrs. Barbauld wrote a number of pieces for her brother’s “Evenings at Home.” In 1802 Mr. Barbauld accepted the charge of a Church at Newington Green, where his wife had the great advantage of living near to her brother, who had become a physician. Here Mr. Barbauld developed symptoms of mental derangement, and, after attempting the life of his wife—who escaped him by leaping from a window—was placed under restraint, from which, however, he managed to escape in November 1808, when he committed suicide by throwing himself into the New River. Mrs. Barbauld, engaged frequently in literary work, edited a selection for the “British Essayists”; an edition of “Richardson’s Letters”; a collection of the “British Novelists,” with biographical notices, which latter work was published in 1810. In 1811 she edited “The Female Speaker,” and wrote a long poem on the current year. For some years she enjoyed the friendship of Wordsworth, Lamb, Rogers, Crabb, Robinson, and others, who visited her and felt the charm of her manners and conversation. She died at the age of eighty-two, on the 9th of March, 1825. Her poems were published in two volumes in 1826.

Much of Mrs. Barbauld’s poetry is commonplace to our eyes, but some of it justifies the judgment of her contemporaries, and seems likely to hold its place in hymn-books and anthologies for many years to come.

Wordsworth committed the following lines, from a poem entitled “Life,” to memory, and said of them, “I am not in the habit of grudging other people their good things, but I wish I had written these lines.”

  • Life! we’ve been long together,
  • Through pleasant and through cloudy weather
  • ’Tis hard to part when friends are dear;
  • Perhaps ’twill cost a sigh, a tear;
  • Then steal away, give little warning,
  • Choose thine own time;
  • Say not Good-Night, but in some brighter clime
  • Bid me Good-Morning.
  • As Mr. Eric Robinson says, “Few will deny the lyric charm of the concluding lines.”

    Walter Savage Landor, who was an admirer of Mrs. Barbauld’s verse, quoted the following lines from “A Summer Evening’s Meditation” with high praise:—

  • But are they silent all? or is there not
  • A tongue in every star that talks with man,
  • And woos him to be wise? nor woos in vain:
  • This dead of midnight is the noon of thought,
  • And wisdom mounts her zenith with the stars.
  • At this still hour the self-collected soul
  • Turns inward, and beholds a stranger there
  • Of high descent, and more than mortal rank;
  • An embryo God; a spark of fire divine,
  • Which must burn on for ages, when the sun
  • (Fair transitory creature of a day)
  • Has closed his golden eye, and, wrapt in shades,
  • Forgets his wonted journey through the east.
  • Of her devotional verse the two following hymns are fine examples, and it would not be difficult to add to the number.