A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter VI." by Isaac Taylor, Jr., of Stanford Rivers
Publication: Taylor, Isaac. The Writings of Jane Taylor, In Five Volumes: Volume I, Memoirs and Poetical Remains.. Boston: Perkins & Marvin, 1832. pp. 80-101.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 80] 



JANE was at this time employed, conjointly with her sister, upon some little works to which their names have not since been attached. To this indeed they were always extremely reluctant; and yielded their names only when it was no longer within their option to withhold them. It may be added, that, if publicity was not sought for by my sisters, neither were they incited by any prospects of considerable pecuniary advantage; for, with one or two exceptions, the authors' share of the profits arising from the sale of their works never amounted to a sum which, if they had been dependant upon their exertions in this line, could have afforded them a comfortable subsistence. I feel it to be due to my sister's memory–and not to her memory alone–thus explicitly to contradict a supposition entertained, I believe, by many persons, that the very extensive sale of their works has been the source of a large income to the authors.

In pecuniary matters, Jane was, at once, provident, exact, and liberal; but her tastes and habits made her utterly averse to the care of accumulating money. Her feelings in writing were dissociated from the idea of gain; and she would neither personally interfere to secure what she [Page 81]  might deem her rights, nor suffer her mind to be long disturbed by solicitudes of this sort. She received, with gratitude to the Giver of all good, whatever share she actually obtained in the products of her writings, and strove, as far as possible, to put away from her thoughts the disquieting recollection of what that share might have been. Often have I heard her break off a conversation on pecuniary matters, by an exclamation of this kind–"Ah well, it is God who determines what I am to have; and if I were to gain all that I might fairly gain, He would know how, in other ways, to reduce the amount to the exact sum at which he sees best to fix my income."

The success of her first attempt to write for the press, administered no more stimulus to my sister's mind, than her diffidence needed. Still she considered herself as merely filling up a subordinate part; and it was with no feigned humility that, in addressing her sister, she says–

"My Ann, you had taken the lyre,
  And I, from the pattern you set,
Attempted the art to acquire;
  And often we play a duet.
But those who, in grateful return,
  Have said they were pleased with the lay,
The discord could always discern;
  And yet I continued to play."

The second volume of Original Poems met with as much favor as the first;–both volumes [Page 82]  were soon reprinted in America; and have to the present time, continued there, as well as in England, to be very generally used in the nursery.

From the period of which I am now speaking, the history of my sister's mind will best be given by herself, in the extracts from her Correspondence; the part, therefore, of her biographer, will chiefly be to furnish such connecting facts as may render the perusal of the selected letters intelligible and interesting. The sound good sense which has recommended the latter productions of her pen, began then to temper the sprightliness of her fancy; and the letters of each succeeding year will exhibit a very marked progression in this respect. For not only did her understanding ripen, but the false diffidence by which it had been shackled was gradually removed by the successful exercise of her talents. In some young persons self-confidence occasions a precocious developement of the reasoning powers; while in others, a morbid diffidence retards the expansion of them, and even protracts a certain jejeuneness of style in writing, long after the substance of thought has become more worthy of mature years. This was very much the case with Jane:–if earlier in life she had felt herself possessed of the powers she afterwards displayed, she might have moved in a wider and higher sphere. She continued to address herself to childhood and youth, not merely because she thought that to be the work for which she was fitted; but in great [Page 83]  measure because, within this humble sphere, she felt herself safe; and that, while she moved not out of it, the dreaded charge of presumption could not well be brought against her. On many of the most important topics of religion, morals, and manners, she thought justly, and felt strongly; and seemed only to need the persuasion that she could gain the attention of adult readers, in order to do so with success. But though representations of this kind were often made to her, she could never be prevailed upon to make the attempt.

The little volume of "Rhymes for the Nursery" appeared not long after the two of Original Poems:–to this volume no one but my sisters contributed. Their aim was to present ideas and to awaken emotions in a form adapted to the earliest childhood. The question which the authors propose in their preface–"Whether ideas adapted to the comprehension of infancy admit the restrictions of rhyme and metre"–seems now to be pretty well determined in the affirmative; for it may be said to have been "carried by acclamation" from thousands of infant voices, that rhyme and metre are the friends of infancy; and that, far from being "restrictions" upon the communication of ideas, they open the avenues of intellect more readily than any other means. Experience proves that poetry itself, as distinguished from mere rhyme and metre, though not fully apprehended by the mind of a child, has truly a charm for it. Those who have been en- [Page 84]  gaged in the instruction of the children of the poor will grant it to be a fact, that if children of active minds are allowed to make their own selection of hymns to be committed to memory, they will, for the most part, choose rather such as have something of the spirit of poetry in them, than those which might seem the best adapted to their comprehension by being altogether prosaic in their style. The Rhymes for the Nursery, though in phraseology brought down to a lower level, are, many of them, more poetical in their character than the Original Poems; and it is believed that the success of the one has been, at least, fully equal to that of the other.

Jane's literary pursuits were facilitated about this time, and her comfort much increased, by the appropriation of a room to her exclusive use; which she fitted up to her own taste. This attic was secluded from the rest of the house;–the window commanded a view of the country, and a "tract of sky" as a field for that nightly soaring of the fancy of which she was so fond. Our parents always considered the exclusive occupation of a chamber or study, by each of their family, as a most important advantage, both for the cultivation of the mind, and the cherishing of devotional habits. So far as it was possible we were all favored in this respect; and Jane was always forward to avail herself of the privilege. Addressing a literary friend, she thus describes her study:– [Page 85] 

"My verses have certainly one advantage to boast, beyond any that ever before escaped from my pen;–that of being composed in my own study. Whether instigated by the sight of your retired literarium, or what, I cannot exactly tell; but certain it is, that one of my first engagements on my return home, was to fit up an unoccupied attic, hitherto devoted only to household lumber: this I removed by the most spirited exertions, and supplied its place with all the apparatus necessary for a poet; which, you know, is not of a very extensive nature:–a few book-shelves, a table for my writing-desk, one chair for myself, and another for my muse, is a pretty accurate inventory of my furniture. But though my study cannot boast the elegance of yours, it possesses one advantage which, as a poet, you ought to allow surpasses them all–it commands a view of the country;–the only room in the house, except one, which is thus favored; and to me this is invaluable. You may now expect me to do wonders. But even if others should derive no advantages from this new arrangement, to me, I am sure they will be numerous. For years I have been longing for such a luxury; and never before had wit enough to think of this convenient place: it will add so much to the comfort of my life, that I can do nothing but congratulate myself upon the happy thought; and I demand a large share of your poetical sympathy on the occasion. Although it is morning, and, I must tell you, but little past six, [Page 86]  I have half filled this sheet, which capability I attribute, chiefly, to the sweet fields that are now smiling in vernal beauty before me."

There is reason to believe that the advantage of being able to fulfil, literally, the command "to enter into the closet, and shut the door," was not slighted; but that religious exercises were more regularly attended to by my sister, from this time; and that a consequent improvement in the state of her mind took place; though it still fell short of the peace and hope which become christian faith. Nevertheless the native soundness of her judgment showed itself when she was called to animadvert upon any morbid sentiments expressed by her young friends.–


Colchester, 1807.

* * * "In your last you again introduce the subject of worldly amusements; and if I am not mistaken, this is neither the first nor the second time you have done so; and that in an argumentative style, as though our opinions were at variance. Now I really apprehend that we think as nearly alike on these points as one could reasonably wish; and I think if you were to examine some of my former letters, in which the subject has been discussed, you would find I acquiesce with you, at least in your most important objections. I cannot think what has given you the idea so strongly, that I am an advocate for the [Page 87]  pleasures of the theatre; unless it be, my having been persuaded, five years ago, to attend it one evening;–and though, certainly, I am not aware of having sustained any material injury, either to my moral or spiritual feelings, I have ever since decidedly resolved never to repeat the visit; and I hope you will believe me when I once again assure you that I do disapprove of such amusements; and should think it very dangerous, and exceedingly wrong to be in the habit of frequenting them. You mention novels:–you have read one or two here; and may conclude we are in the continual habit of perusing them. I believe in all my life I have read, and heard read, about a dozen–it may be twenty:–and though I think it injudicious to suffer very young girls to read even a good novel, if there be love in it, yet I must maintain the opinion that most, or many of those I have read were of a beneficial, and not of a hurtful tendency. I would as soon read some of Miss Edgeworth's or Miss Hamilton's novels, with a view to moral improvement, as Foster's Essays; and I have too high an opinion of your good sense and liberality, to suppose that, after a candid perusal of these, and some few other good novels (for the number of good ones I readily allow to be very small) you would repeat that, "to read them was incompatible with love to God." You oblige me to recur to a hackneyed argument, that the abuse of a thing should not set aside its use. [Page 88] 

Do not say I am pleading for an indiscriminate indulgence in novel reading; or a frequent perusal of the very best of novels:–that, in common with every innocent recreation, may be easily carried to a hurtful excess: but you seem to me to fancy some fatal spell to attend the very name of novel, in a way that we should smile at, as narrow-minded and ignorant, in an uneducated person: all I wish you to admit–all I think myself is, that it is possible for a book to be written, bearing the general form, appearance, and name of a novel, in the cause of virtue, morality, and religion;–and then, that to read such a book is by no means "incompatible with love to God," or in the least displeasing in his sight. I think you will not hesitate to admit this: and then we exactly agree in our opinions of "plays and novels." That plays, and bad novels, are "poisons which Satan frequently insinuates" with too great success, I have no more doubt of than yourself. Yet if I am not mistaken, he has some still more potent venoms;–if I might judge from myself, there are ways, in the most private life, in domestic scenes, in solitary retirements, by which Satan can as effectually operate on the heart, as in a crowded theatre. I believe I might read a hundred novels, and attend as many plays, and have my heart less drawn from God, than by those common pursuits and interests which, while it would be sinful to avoid them, I cannot engage in without sin. It is in the realities of life, and [Page 89]  not merely in the fictions that occasionally amuse us, that I find the most baneful poisons, the most effectual weaners from "love to God."

I think many people "strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel," in these very circumstances; and Satan willingly suffers them to abstain, with holy horror from the theatre, or to throw aside a novel with abhorrence–so that the idol, the real idol he has erected in their hearts, receive its daily worship. You cannot suppose I am bringing this forward by way of argument, for the one or the other; but it always appears to me that people begin at the wrong end, when they attack such errors as these. One might as well expect to demolish a building by pulling down some external ornament, while the pillars were left unmoved: and I think many who exclaim with vehemence against those who indulge in some of the vain pleasures of the world (for which probably themselves have no relish, and from which, therefore, it costs them little self-denial to abstain), would do well to examine if there be not some favorite idol within their own breasts, equally displeasing in the sight of a heart-searching God. I do not say this to you, dear E., I know you watch your heart, as well as your conduct, and earnestly desire to guard it in every quarter from the incursions of the wily adversary; and while you have abundant occasion to warn me of that worldly-mindedness which I desire daily to mourn over and to mortify, I hope your anxiety for me, "as [Page 90]  one who reads novels, and tolerates the frequenting of plays," will be abated, at least. I will discuss the subject with you as often as you please; but do not again employ your time in arguing me out of opinions which I ever discarded. * * *

A similar strain of good sense appears in the following passages.

"Those," she says in a letter to a friend, "who are in the habit of reading their own hearts, know that the heart may be as devotedly fixed on what is in itself a truly worthy and proper object of regard as on the sinful vanities of the world: and if that object be any thing but God, its intrinsic value diminishes nothing from the idolatry of the feeling. Perhaps I need not blush to enumerate those worldly pleasures on which my heart is most intent;–but I know I ought to blush, could I disclose the high, monopolizing place they hold there:–they reign;–when will these idols fall before the ark of God? Are they to be torn from their hiding-place as yours have been? O! Why have I not had this trial rather than you?

"You have well described the difficulty, the exertion, requisite for real and fervent prayer. I am glad that I do know the difference between that, and the offering of lifeless petitions: you rightly affirmed that 'true prayer surpasses every other mental exercise, and is entirely be- [Page 91]  yond human attainment, without divine aid.' Certainly, no one ever prayed who was not a Christian; but though sometimes I have found every faculty, for a few moments, intensely engaged in the exercise, how can I hope this was really prayer, when I remember the indifference the coldness, the reluctance that characterize the general state of my mind. Yet in the midst of the darkness that surrounds my own mind, I rejoice, my dear friend, in the light which shines upon yours."

How far this want of the comfort which religion should afford, might have been attributed to an obscured apprehension of "the hope set before us in the Gospel," is a question worthy of inquiry;–that it was not the consequence of cynical feelings or habits will be made apparent by a quotation from a letter addressed to a friend, whose mind was in some degree perverted by sentiments of that sort.

"In a certain sense, I may say with you, 'that my views of life are dark and melancholy:' yet I believe when you say so, you mean something more than I do. You do not permit yourself to receive the comforts and delights that are offered to you by Providence, with 'a merry heart, giving God thanks.' Now I think that though, when compared with heavenly happiness, the best joys of earth should appear mean and trifling in our eyes; yet, considered in themselves, as they were given for our enjoyment, surely a cheerful and [Page 92]  grateful delight in them, must be even acceptable to our all-bountiful Father. When we survey all our comforts–a happy home, affectionate friends, easy circumstances, and the numerous train of common mercies, and social delights, ought we to call the prospect 'dark and melancholy?' Surely the cheerful song of praise befits us better than the sigh of discontent. Do not suppose I would plead for the gay amusements, and dangerous pleasures of the world. I am as firmly convinced of their evil tendency as you can be; and would avoid them as carefully. I am referring only to the natural comforts, and lawful enjoyments of life; and of these even I would say, that we must still 'hold them as if we held them not; and use them as not abusing them.'"

The same order of sentiment appears in a letter of consolation, addressed to this friend, soon afterward, on the death of a beloved brother. "Afflictions rightly improved, are indeed blessings; yet how apt are we to abuse them by receiving impressions very different from what they were intended to produce. I mention this from a fear, that notwithstanding your cheerful acquiescence in the Divine will, you do, in a degree, mistake the intentions of Providence. I hear your cough is become habitual, and that you firmly expect, and almost wish to join your dear brother very soon. Now I am persuaded it is not merely from a selfish motive that I would say, do not court death; but I am sure it is the language [Page 93]  of reason, and the voice of duty. It cannot be a wholesome state of mind, even in the midst of the severest trial, when it is looking to death as a relief. The holy desire 'to depart, and to be with Christ,' is very different from the desire to depart, that we may be with some dear friend, which can arise only from a worldly principle. In sending these sorrows, God usually intends to fit us for living more to his glory here below; and though they certainly contain a loud warning to 'prepare to meet our God,' as we know not how soon our turn may come, it is showing a degree of impatience under them to say–I cannot bear the separation, let me die also. Let me entreat you then, my dear E., to take great and constant care of your health; for vain is the attention of your friends, unless you join your own endeavors; especially restrain yourself from that ardent pursuit of whatever happens to engage your present interest, which, I am very sure has greatly undermined your health already, and which, if persisted in, will assuredly destroy it. May your soul also prosper. I shall rejoice to hear that you have been led by this affliction, more confidently than ever, 'to lay hold of the only hope set before us.'"

Unconsciously to herself, a real progression appears, from her letters, to have been taking place in Jane's religious feeling; if not more happy in hope, she was more established in principle. In a letter of an earlier date than the last, she says [Page 94]  –"Well, I hope I can say that I have different views of life, and a higher ambition than formerly. I dare not trust my treacherous heart a moment. But yet, upon examination, I think I may say, I should feel at least contented, to pass silently and soberly through the world, with a humble hope of reaching heaven at the end of my pilgrimage. I have many, many difficulties in my way; and when I compare the state of my mind with that which is required of those who follow Jesus, and see how much must be done ere I can attain it, I have no other comfort than this–'With God, all things are possible.' Yes, indeed, my dear E., we have each of us dangerous snares to avoid, and as you say, temptations to love the world. But I well know, and with shame I would allow it, that yours are far more inviting, and require more courage and self-denial to resist, than mine: yet you escape, and I become the victim. With half your graces and accomplishments, what should I have been! You mention talents;–but indeed you mistake in supposing that the accidental success that has attended my feeble efforts, has been very hurtful to me. I wish I had no worse enemies than my wits. I do not deny–it would be ungrateful to do so, that the approbation we have met with, and the applause, especially of some whose opinion was particularly precious, have been sources of constant satisfaction; and perhaps occasionally, my weak mind has been partly overset by them. [Page 95]  Yet I think I may say, my humiliations have generally counterbalanced such feeling, and kept my mind in equilibrio. No, though I own my muse has done me a few good turns, for which I shall always feel grateful; yet she has been the means of procuring me as many good, wholesome mortifications, as any personage, real or ideal, that I know of. I do not say all this to prove that I am not vain, for I am; if I were not, you know, I should not be liable to mortifications; nor have I yet thrown aside my pen in disgust, though I have many a time longed to do so."

Her letters about this time, when notoriety as an author was new to her, abound with similar sentiments. "We have been visiting some friends in the country, who correspond with the description you give of yours. They possess that natural intelligence, sound sense, and intrinsic excellence, which cannot fail to render them interesting, though deficient in cultivation, and unpolished in matters of taste. Now, among these friends, our poor superficial acquirements blaze away most splendidly. But though I am conscious of feeling elated at such times, yet it is checked by a humiliating sense of my real inferiority. I see them living in the daily exercise of virtues and graces to which I never approached. In all that is sound, sterling, durable–in all that a heart-searching God can approve, I see how far I fall short; and then, how contemptible and worthless is all in which I may have the advantage. Although [Page 96]  that degree of vanity which amounts to conceit, and obvious and obtrusive self-complacency, must, I think, be absolutely incompatible with dignity and refinement of mind, as well as with the christian graces; yet where is the heart, in which, in a state more or less subdued, it exists not?–and those who are wont to speak and to think meanly of themselves–who are willing to prefer others to themselves–and who are continually deploring their deficiencies, yet, after all, evince great ignorance of their own hearts, if they imagine that, beneath all this humiliation, no seeds of vanity lie concealed; in truth, they may spring up nowhere more luxuriantly than in the soil that is watered by the tears of self-condemnation. With respect to this baleful weed, it may with peculiar propriety be said–

'We cannot bear diviner fruit,
Till grace refine the ground.'
Here is the only remedy–religion, and religion only, can humble the proud spirit to the dust."

Jane's intimate friends were not ignorant of the embarrassed state of her religious feelings; nor were they backward in affording to her the direction and encouragement she seemed to require. These offices of christian friendship were acknowledged by her with lively affection.

"With feelings of sincere gratitude and love, I would again thank you, my very dear A., for the tender concern you manifested on my behalf; and the readiness with which you afforded the [Page 97]  advice and encouragement I solicited. You are highly privileged, dear A., in having it in your power to promote pleasure and cheerfulness wherever you appear. Your visit was truly a season of sunshine; and how sweetly refreshing are such occasional gleams, breaking forth from a clouded sky–and such indeed is mine. I could bear the roughness of the road, if it were but bright overhead: however, I dare not turn back; and you, dear A., while going on your way rejoicing, will not, I am sure, be unmindful of your benighted friend. It may be long before we meet again; but my heart has been accustomed to love the absent, and my thoughts have been trained to fly towards every point of the compass: and whether at —, or at —, they will frequently attend you, laden with sincere affection."

In reply to a letter of religious consolation and advice, addressed, about this time, to Jane, by another friend, she says–"I have already thanked you for a letter received two months ago; but I have yet to assure you of what you seem to entertain a doubt–that the principal subject of it was very far from being uninteresting or unwelcome to me. I own indeed, I do feel a backwardness in introducing these topics; and that, as you say, greatly arising from a false shame, that ought not to be encouraged; but I have other impediments; and if I cannot speak with entire freedom on religious subjects, it is not indeed because I cannot 'confide in you;' but for want of confi- [Page 98]  dence in myself. I dread much more than total silence, falling into a common-place, technical style of expression, without real meaning and feeling; and thereby, deceiving both myself and others. I well know how ready my friends are to give me encouragement; and how willing to hope the best concerning me; and as I cannot open to them the secret recesses of my heart, they put a too favorable construction on my expressions. You will not then impute it to a want of confidence, though I cannot speak otherwise than generally on this subject. * * * Yet I do hope that I have of late seen something of the vanity of the world; and increasingly feel that it cannot be my rest. The companions of my youth are no more:–our own domestic circle is breaking up:–time seems every day to fly with increased rapidity; and must I not say 'the world recedes.' Under these impressions, I would seek consolation where only I know it is to be found. I long to be able to make heaven and eternity the home of my thoughts, to which, though they must often wander abroad on other concerns, they may regularly return and find their best entertainment. But I always indulge with fear and self-suspicion in these most interesting contemplations; and doubtless, the enjoyments arising from them belong rather to the advanced Christian, than to the doubting, wandering beginner. I am afraid I feel poetically, rather than piously on these subjects;–and while I am in- [Page 99]  dulging in vain conjectures on the employments and enjoyments of a future state, I must envy the humble Christian who, with juster views, and better claims, is longing 'to depart and be with Christ.' Nor would I mistake a fretful impatience with the fatigues and crosses of life, for a temper weaned from the world. I could, indeed, sometimes say–

'I long to lay this painful head,
And aching heart, beneath the soil;–
To slumber in that dreamless bed
         From all my toil.'
And I have felt too those lines–
'The bitter tear–the arduous struggle ceases here–
The doubt, the danger, and the fear,
       All, all, for ever o'er.'
But these feelings, though they may afford occasional relief, I could not indulge in."

The extracts from her correspondence will be found to exhibit, again and again the same constitutional feelings, but counterpoised by a more established faith, and a brighter hope. Yet the improvement took place too insensibly to be ascertained in its immediate causes. At the time the above cited letters were written, perhaps no advice, no representations of the simplicity and certainty of that offer of happiness which is made to us in the Scriptures, would have availed to dispel the obscurity and discomfort of my sister's mind; for constitutional feelings will be long in admitting amelioration. [Page 100] 

She nevertheless knew how to address consolations to her suffering friends.


Colchester, December 11, 1807.

It would be to me a most delightful and gratifying task to address you, my dear M., on this occasion, did I believe it to be in my power to speak to your deeply wounded spirit the language of real consolation; but I feel forcibly the insignificancy and inefficacy of empty words, in a case of such sad reality; and I own the task would be only painful, were I not fulfilling your kind request.

If it be consolatory to be persuaded that we do not mourn alone and disregarded; but that in our tears and sorrows we have the deep sympathy of a friend, then indeed, my dear M., you may receive all the consolation such a persuasion can bestow. To a mind so well stored as yours, with religious principles and so well regulated by them, it would be superfluous to enumerate those sources of comfort which the word of God presents to the mourning Christian. Nor would it, indeed become me, being sensible how far I fall short of your attainments in this respect: and I am very sure you are daily receiving these lessons of pious resignation from your dear and excellent father. Have you not, dear M., felt something of the "joy of grief," and that too in a better sense than the poet intends, in the feeling [Page 101]  of having a new tie to the heavenly world, while one of the strongest cords that bound your soul to this, is broken. Cowper beautifully rejoices in being the son of parents "passed into the skies." It is indeed a most inspiring idea, and those who have a good, well founded hope of the happiness of their departed friends, cannot be inconsolable at the separation. A friend, who has lately lost a beloved brother, in a letter just received from her, says, "We are always happy in the idea that our dear brother is in heaven." This is the privilege of Christians–this is indeed a joy that the world knows not of. Oh, how can those who are without hope, either for themselves or their friends, support the weight of such a stroke. They are obliged to plunge into gaieties for a refuge from reflection. But how poor a substitute are these for the consolation of religion. * * *


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom