A Celebration of Women Writers

"To Dr. Priestley, Dec. 29, 1792." by Anna Lætitia Barbauld (1743 - 1825)

First Publication: Morning Chronicle. 8th January 1793, unsigned and undated.
This Edition: The Works of Anna Lætitia Barbauld, with a Memoir by Lucy Aikin. London: Longman, 1825. I:183-184.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

To Dr. Priestley, Dec. 29, 1792.

Stirs not thy spirit, Priestley, as the train
With low obeisance, and with servile phrase,
File behind file, advance, with supple knee,
And lay their necks beneath the foot of power? {1}
Burns not thy cheek indignant, when thy name,
On which delighted science lov'd to dwell,
Becomes the bandied theme of hooting crowds?
With timid caution, or with cool reserve,
When e'en each reverend Brother keeps aloof,
Eyes the struck deer, and leaves thy naked side
A mark for power to shoot at? Let it be.
"On evil days though fallen and evil tongues,"
To thee, the slander of a passing age
Imports not. Scenes like these hold little space
In his large mind, whose ample stretch of thought
Grasps future periods.Well can'st thou afford
To give large credit for that debt of fame
Thy country owes thee. Calm thou can'st consign it
To the slow payment of that distant day,
If distant, when thy name, to freedom's join'd,
Shall meet the thanks of a regenerate land.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

Notes:

  1. Beneath the foot of power: Joseph Priestley was a prominent figure in pro-French and Protestant Dissenter circles. On 14th July 1791, his house and property in Birmingham were destroyed by a mob. This act of violence marked the beginning of a period in which Dissenters and other reformers were harassed, threatened, and attacked. Some were accused of treason, and in May 1792, a Royal Proclamation was issued against "Seditious Writings and Publications." In this climate of fear, many Dissenters signed loyalty oaths to the crown. On December 20th, 1792, a meeting of the deputies of London's Protestant Dissenting Ministers held a special meeting to declare Dissenter support for King and government. Some ministers who opposed the declaration were instrumental in first publishing this poem, which had been written privately in sympathy to Priestley.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom