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A Playful Poet: Miss Catherine Maria Fanshawe

by William Andrews

SEVERAL lasting contributions were made to poetical literature by Miss Catherine Maria Fanshawe. In the literary and artistic circles of London in the closing years of the last century, and for more than three decades of the present century she was popular.

Miss Fanshawe was born in 1775, and came of a good old English family. At an early age she displayed literary gifts full of promise. The following sonnet, written at the age of fourteen and addressed to her mother, has perhaps not been excelled by any youthful writer:—

“Oh thou! who still by piercing woe pursued,
Alone and pensive, pour’st thy sorrows here,
Forgive, if on thy griefs I dare intrude
To wipe from thy lov’d cheek the falling tear.
Dear mourner, think!—thy son will weep no more;
His life was spotless, and his death was mild,
And, when this vain delusive life is o’er,
He’ll shine a seraph, whom thou lost a child.
Then, as we bend before th’ eternal throne,
[Pg 150]Oh may’st thou, with exulting accents boast,
‘Now shall my children ever be my own,
For none of those thou gavest me are lost.’
With rapture then thou’lt meet th’ angelic boy,
And she who sow’d in tears shall meet in joy.”
August, 1789.

A long playful poem composed at the age of sixteen, was addressed to the Earl of Harcourt, on his wishing to spell her name, Catherine, with a K. It displays much erudition, but it is too long to quote in full. We give a few of the lines pleading for the letter C:—

“And can his antiquarian eyes,
My Anglo-Saxon C despise?
And does Lord Harcourt day by day,
Regret the extinct initial K?
And still with ardour unabated,
Labour to get it reinstated?
I know, my lord, your generous passion,
For every long exploded fashion;
And own the Catherine you delight in,
Looks irresistibly inviting,
Appears to bear the stamp and mark,
Of English used in Noah’s Ark;
‘But all that glitters is not gold,’
Not all things obsolete are old.
Would you but take the pains to look,
In Dr. Johnson’s quarto book
(As I did, wishing much to see,
Th’ aforesaid letter’s pedigree),
Believe me, ’twould a tale unfold,
[Pg 151]Would make your Norman blood run cold;
My lord, you’ll find the K’s no better,
Than an interpolated letter;
A wand’ring Greek, a franchis’d alien,
Derived from Cadmus or Deucalion;
And why, or wherefore, none can tell,
Inserted ’twixt the J and L.
The learnèd say, our English tongue
On Gothic beams is built and hung.
Then why the solid fabric piece,
With motley ornaments from Greece?
Her lettered despots had no bowels,
For northern consonants and vowels;
The Roman and the Greek grammarian
Deem’d us, and all our words barbarian;
’Till those hard words, and harder blows,
Had silenced all our haughty foes;
And proud they were to kiss the sandals
(Shoes we had none) of Goths and Vandals.”

She wrote a satire on William Cobbett, M.P., for Oldham, which was extremely popular amongst politicians at the period it was penned. This is not surprising, for it contains some most amusing lines. It is entitled “The Speech of the Member for Odium.”

In the lighter vein she produced some verses in imitation of the poetry of Wordsworth.

“There is a river clear and fair,
’Tis neither broad nor narrow;
It winds a little here and there,
[Pg 152]It winds about like any hare;
And then it takes as straight a course
As on the turnpike road a horse,
Or through the air an arrow.

The trees that grow upon the shore,
Have grown a hundred years or more,
So long, there is no knowing.
Old Daniel Dobson does not know,
When first these trees began to grow;
But still they grew, and grew, and grew,
As if they’d nothing else to do,
But ever to be growing.

The impulses of air and sky
Have reared their stately stems so high,
And clothed their boughs with green;
Their leaves the dews of evening quaff,—
And when the wind blows loud and keen,
I’ve seen the jolly timbers laugh,
And shake their sides with merry glee—
Wagging their heads in mockery.

Fix’d are their feet in solid earth,
Where winds can never blow;
But visitings of deeper birth
Have reached their roots below.
For they have gained the river’s brink,
And of the living waters drink.

There’s little Will, a five year’s child—
He is my youngest boy;
To look on eyes so fair and wild,
It is a very joy:—
He hath conversed with sun and shower,
And dwelt with every idle flower,
[Pg 153]As fresh and gay as them.
He loiters with the briar rose,
The blue-bells are his play-fellows,
That dance upon their slender stem.

And I have said, my little Will
Why should not he continue still
A thing of Nature’s rearing?
A thing beyond the world’s control—
A living vegetable soul,—
No human sorrow fearing.

It were a blessed sight to see
That child become a willow tree,
His brother trees among.
He’d be four time as tall as me,
And live three times as long.”

It was related by the Rev. William Harness, who did much to make known the merits of Miss Fanshawe’s works, that when the foregoing lines were read to a distinguished admirer of Wordsworth’s poetry, she thought them beautiful, and wondered why the poet had never shown them to her!

Miss Fanshawe’s fame rests on the authorship of the celebrated riddle on the letter H, which has frequently been attributed to Byron, and appeared in more than one edition of his poems. At a party held one evening at the house of her friend, Mr. Hope, of Deep Dene, the conversation turned upon the abuse of the aspirate. After the guests[Pg 154] had withdrawn, Miss Fanshawe retired to her room and composed her noted poem. Next morning she read it at the breakfast table, much to the surprise and delight of the company. It is as follows:—

“’Twas in heaven pronounced, and ’twas muttered in hell,
And echo caught faintly the sound as it fell;
On the confines of earth ’twas permitted to rest,
And the depths of the ocean its presence confest.
’Twill be found in the sphere, when ’tis riven asunder,
Be seen in the lightning, and heard in the thunder.
’Twas allotted to man with his earliest breath,
Attends at his birth, and awaits him in death,
Presides o’er his happiness, honour, and health,
Is the prop of his house, and the end of his wealth.
In the heaps of the miser ’tis hoarded with care,
But is sure to be lost on his prodigal heir,
It begins every hope, every wish it must bound,
With the husbandman toils, and with monarchs is crown’d,
Without it the soldier, the seaman may roam,
But woe to the wretch who expels it from home!
In the whispers of conscience its voice will be found,
Nor e’en in the whirlpool of passion be drown’d,
’Twill not soften the heart; but though deaf to the ear,
It will make it acutely and instantly hear.
Yet in shade let it rest like a delicate flower,
Ah, breathe on it softly—it dies in an hour.

Some other riddles and charades appear in her collected poems, but none are of equal merit to the riddle on the letter H.

[Pg 155]Our next example bears the title of an “Ode”:—

“Lo! where the gaily vestur’d throng,
Fair learning’s train, are seen,
Wedg’d in close ranks her walls along,
And up her benches green.[2]
Unfolded to their mental eye
Thy awful form, Sublimity!
The moral teacher shows—
Sublimity of Silence born,
And Solitude ’mid caves forlorn
And dimly vision’d woes;
Or Stedfast Worth, that inly great
Mocks the malignity of faith.
While whisper’d pleasure’s dulcet sound
Murmurs the crowded room around,
And Wisdom, borne on Fashion’s pinions,
Exulting hails her new dominions.
Oh! both on me your influence shed,
Dwell in my heart and deck my head!

Where’er a broader, browner shade
The shaggy beaver throws,
And with the ample feather’s aid
O’er canopies the nose;
Where’er with smooth and silken pile,
Ling’ring in solemn pause awhile,
The crimson velvet glows;
From some high benches giddy brink,
Clinton with me begins to think
[Pg 156](As bolt upright we sit)
That dress, like dogs, should have its day,
That beavers are too hot for May,
And velvets quite unfit.

Then taste, in maxims sweet, I draw
From her unerring lip;
How light, how simple are the straw,
How delicate the chip!
Hush’d is the speaker’s powerful voice,
The audience melt away,
I fly to fix my final choice
And bless th’ instructive day.

The milliner officious pours
Of hats and caps her ready stores,
The unbought elegance of spring;
Some wide, disclose the full round face,
Some shadowy, lend a modest grace
And stretch their sheltering wing.

Here clustering grapes appear to shed
Their luscious juices on the head,
And cheat the longing eye;
So round the Phrygian monarch hung
Fair fruits that from his parchèd tongue
For ever seem’d to fly.

Here early blooms the summer rose;
Her ribbons wreathe fantastic bows;
Here plays gay plumage of a thousand dyes—
Visions of beauty, spare my aching eyes!
Ye cumbrous fashions, crowd not on my head!
Mine be the chip of purest white,
Swan-like, and as her feathers light
When on the still wave spread;
And let it wear the graceful dress,
[Pg 157]Of unadornèd simpleness.

Ah! frugal wish; ah! pleasing thought;
Ah! hope indulged in vain;
Of modest fancy chiefly bought
A stranger yet to Payne.[3]
With undissembled grief I tell,—
For sorrow never comes too late,—
The simplest bonnet in Pall Mall
Is sold for £1 8s.

To Calculation’s sober view,
That searches ev’ry plan,
Who keep the old, or buy the new,
Shall end where they began.

Alike the shabby and the gay
Must meet the sun’s meridian ray;
The air, the dust, the damp.
This, shall the sudden shower despoil;
That slow decay by gradual soil;
Those, envious boxes cramp.
Who will, their squander’d gold may pay;
Who will, our taste deride;
We’ll scorn the fashion of the day
With philosophic pride.

Methinks we thus, in accents low,
Might Sydney Smith address,
‘Poor moralist! and what art thou,
Who never spoke of dress!’

‘Thy mental hero never hung
Suspended on a tailor’s tongue,
In agonising doubt;
Thy tale no flutt’ring female show’d,
Who languish’d for the newest mode,
Yet dar’d to live without.’”

[Pg 158]In Miss Mary Russell Mitford’s “Recollections of a Literary Life” are some genial allusions to Miss Fanshawe. “Besides,” wrote Miss Mitford, “her remarkable talent for graceful and polished pleasantry, whether in prose or verse, Miss Catherine Fanshawe was admirable as a letter-writer, and as a designer in almost every style.” Her drawings and etchings met with praise from those capable of judging their merits.

After Miss Fanshawe’s death, in 1834, her friend, the Rev. William Harness, printed for private circulation a small collection of her poems, expressing his wish “that some enduring memorial may exist of one who, in her varied accomplishments, her acute perception of the beautiful, her playful fancy, her charming conversation, her gentle and retiring manners, her lively sympathy with the sorrows and joys of others, and above all, her simple piety, was so cherished a member of a society, not very extended but intimately united by a common love of literature, and art, and science, which existed in London at the close of the last and the opening of the present century, and which, perhaps, taken for all in all, has never been surpassed.” In 1876, Mr. Basil Montagu Pickering issued “The[Pg 159] Literary Remains of Catherine Maria Fanshawe,” with notes by the Rev. William Harness. Doubtless his admiration of the productions of the author prompted him to publish the volume. Only two hundred and fifty copies were printed. Mr. Pickering is entitled to the gratitude of lovers of choice poetry for publishing the charming volume.