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nna Seward, (1742-1809), a late-eighteenth-century poet from the West Midlands known as the Swan of Lichfield, became a protegeé of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Despite the fact that she writes poetry in a romantic vein while his is clearly neoclassical, she considered him her ‘poetic preceptor’ (Uglow, p. 43), and when he founded a small literary circle he included her. Their relationship seems to have been no more than flirtatious as they pursued their mutual interests in Linnaean science and poetry. In fact, when Darwin had a landscape garden laid out near Lichfield, he asked her to write some verses explaining the ways he had united Linnaean science and the charms of landscape (pp. 274-75). In other words, like the Victorian chemist Faraday, they saw no necessary opposition between science and beauty or between technology and poetry.

Despite their shared interests and attitudes towards proper subjects for poetry, when Darwin and Seward came to write about the Industrial Revolution, they took very different approaches to it, Seward lamenting its effects and Darwin lauding its potential. Her Sonnet LXIII: “To Colebrooke Dale,” for example, bemoans the fact that Colebrookedale has become a victim of industrial pollution:

Thy Genius, Colebrookedale faithless to his charge,
Amid thy woods and vales, thy rocks and streams
Formed for the train that haunt poetic dreams,
Naiads, and nymphs, now hears the toiling barge

And the swart Cyclops' ever-clanging forge
Din in thy dells; — permits the dark-red gleams
From umber'd fires on all thy hills, the beams,
Solar and pure, to shroud with columns large

Of black sulphurous smoke, that spread their silk
Like funeral crape upon the sylvan robe
Of thy romantic rocks, pollute thy gales,
And stain thy glassy floods; — while o'er the globe
To spread thy stores metallic, this loud yell
Drowns the wild woodland song, and breaks the poet's spell. [Seward]

Interestingly, in the title she separates the industrial Colebrooke, and the rural dale, and the opposition between the two runs throughout the poem, which begins by chiding the Genius, or spirit of the place, for having betrayed its woods, valleys, rocks, and streams created for poetry’s naiads and nymphs. Instead of protecting a place to inspire “poetic dreams” he has allowed it to become one whose industrial noise “drowns the wild woodland song, and breaks the poet's spell.” The “ever-clanging forge” fills the area with loud noise while the “umber'd fires” and “black sulphurous smoke” cover the woodlands with the "funeral crepe" of nineteenth-century mourning. Despite the sonnet’s impassioned argument that modern industrial technology destroys the sites of poetry and hence by implication poetry itself, the final line becomes self-contradictory, if strangely prophetic — contradictory because, as the sonnet itself demonstrates, the industrial din, stained floods, sulphurous skies have become the subject of a powerful poem, and in doing so they allowed and even encouraged Seward to produce work that anticipates by half a century the protests of John Ruskin and others. Here, in its earliest stages, Seward anticipates mid- and late-Victorian horror at what steam-driven technology has done to the land, waters, and sky.

In contrast, Seward’s supposed poetic preceptor, Darwin, who used neo-classical diction to celebrate the glories of the natural world, also uses then to offer positive visions of the effects of a new mechanized world. (On this subject see also Foster’s ‘Poetry and the Steam Engine’ in his ‘Erasmus Darwin’s Poetry’ on the Victorian Web):

Soon shall thy arm, UNCONQUER'D STEAM! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear
The flying-chariot through the fields of air.
Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,
Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as they move;
Or warrior-bands alarm the gaping crowd,
And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud. [Canto I: lines 289-96]

Darwin’s celebratory and prescient military images push us towards an industrial rather than a pastoral idyll, such as the one whose destruction Seward’s poem mourns. He envisages nothing but triumphs, technological and military, for he envisages a future of steam-powered transportation, which will bring steam-powered ships, automobiles, and airplanes. Like many in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he naively thinks that airplanes will bring only the “fair crews” of flying chariots waving at crowds below and airborne “warrior-bands” that terrorize, rather than bomb (and obliterate) troops below.

Although the details of his description are so traditionally poetic (‘flying-chariot’, ‘wide-waving wings’, ‘fluttering kerchiefs’), Seward’s images are uncompromisingly harsh. The industrial noise ‘Drowns the wild woodland song’, the forges produce’ black sulphurous air’, which spreads ‘like funeral crape’ over the green fields, pollutes the air and stains the waters. Her work is reminiscent of Blake, but we have to wait for the likes of Carlyle and Ruskin who ‘forge’ a language for dealing with the impact of industrialization.

Perhaps the difference between the two poets and their poems lies in the fact that he was celebrating a revolution to which he and his colleagues in the Birmingham Lunar Society contributed very significantly. Darwin, who had helped found the Society, which was a powerhouse of ideas in the early days of the Industrial Revolution that promoted research and experimentation in the rapidly industrializing English West Midlands. He celebrated the positive results of industrialization; she pointed out what it was doing to landscape and environment.

The contrast between the neo-classical images and the modern references to Colebrookdale’s new iron works are reminiscent of Arthur Young’s observations in so far as another essentially-eighteenth century, not Romantic, sensibility confronts a phenomenon to which neo-classical idioms in his case are inadequate.

Related material


Darwin, Erasmus. The Loves of The Plants London: J. Johnson, 1789.

Darwin, Erasmus. The Botanic Garden, Part One, The Economy of Vegetation London: J. Johnson, 1791.

Darwin, Erasmus. The Temple of Nature (1803) (originally The Origins of Society). London: J. Johnson, 1803

Seward, Anna. Original Sonnets on Various Subjects and Odes Paraphrased from Horace. London: G. Sael, 1999.

Uglow, Jenny. The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made The Future: London: Faber and Faber, 2002.

Last modified 23 August 2018