A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter VII." 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. 101-123.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

CHAPTER VII.

CORRESPONDENCE ON GENERAL SUBJECTS–DOMESTIC FEELINGS.


TO MISS E. F.

Colchester, February 14, 1808.

NOTHING less, my dear E. than your actual presence could, I believe, just now, rouse me from the stupor of a long evening's application. I always grow quite rusty in the winter, and almost [Page 102]  forget that the world reaches further than from one end of the house to the other. Not but my thoughts take an occasional flight to regions more remote; but they stretch so far into the blue distance, that I can scarcely tell whether they arrive at realities, or rest upon vapor and illusion. You, who have seen us only in the summer, when we are never so regular in our movements, and with a visitor, can scarcely form an idea of the retirement and uninterrupted regularity of our winter life. We seem more like the possessors of some lone castle in the bosom of the mountains, than the inhabitants of a populous town. Yet do not imagine me showing a deplorable face through the grates of my prison, and longing to break forth into the gay world. I assure you I enjoy this retirement–this peaceful and happy home, where my heart and my happiness are centred. When I look round at the dear and yet unbroken circle, I reproach myself if ever I have indulged a feeling of fretfulness–that the glow of thankfulness should ever forsake my heart. Yet we have troubles and anxieties that will sometimes destroy cheerfulness. But I feel persuaded that however I may feel their pressure now, I shall never know happier days than these. And one advantage I have, which must soon forsake me–I am still young; and feel occasionally that flow of spirits–that bounding joy of heart, that ever attends the spring of life. The spirits may indeed be depressed, but they will rise again; and I have often [Page 103]  been surprised to feel, not only cheerfulness, but hilarity returning to my heart from no apparent cause, and when circumstances which had plunged me in dejection remain unchanged.


TO MR. J. C.

Colchester, May 19, 1808.

* * * YOU still ask me to define a compliment: I thought we had agreed that praise bestowed upon real merit, sanctioned by the honest judgment, and administered temperately, ought not to be termed a compliment. Whenever praise exceeds the above mentioned limits, it deserves no better name. Now I fear that unless we have courage to violate the common laws of good breeding, we must all acknowledge ourselves to be faulty in this respect. Indeed, it seems to depend more upon the character of our associates than upon ourselves, to what degree we offend. I have friends whom I cannot compliment; and I have many acquaintances whom, unless I transgress these laws, I must needs compliment whenever I am in their company. In this view, if I have accused you of such a practice, I am willing to take the blame upon myself. And I will consider myself bound, for your sake as well as my own, better to merit those commendations which neither your politeness could entirely withhold, nor my vanity wholly dispense with. It is difficult to distinguish accurately between an honest desire to please, and that poisonous love of admi- [Page 104]  ration which acts rather as a clog than a stimulus to mental improvement;–to judge between a laudable ambition to excel, and a vain and selfish desire to outshine others. How many mortifications should we escape, if we were always more solicitous to deserve the love of a few valued friends, than to excite general admiration! A proud indifference to the opinion of the world is no amiable feeling. But to be independent of its smiles, by valuing chiefly the sweets of inward tranquillity, is indeed a most desirable state of mind–only to be attained by cultivating the best principles, and by seeking approbation from the highest source. * * *


TO MISS S. L. C.

Colchester, June 2, 1808.

* * * WE have already had some delightful evening rambles. When we are all out together on these happy occasions, I forget all my troubles, and feel as light-hearted as I can remember I used to do some seven or eight years ago, when I scarcely knew what was meant by depression. If I should ever lose my relish for these simple pleasures–if I thought by growing older, my feelings would no longer be alive to them, I should be ready indeed to cling to youth, and petition old Time to take a little rest, instead of working so indefatigably, night and day, upon me. But, alas! he is such a persevering old fellow, that nothing can hinder him: one must needs [Page 105]  admire his industry, even though one may now and then be a little provoked with his obstinacy. But seriously; it is not right to shrink from age, much less from maturity; and could I be sure of retaining some of my present ideas, feelings and sentiments, and of parting only with those that are vain and childish, I think I could welcome its near approach with a tolerably good grace. But I dread finding a chilling indifference steal gradually upon me, for some of those pursuits and pleasures which have hitherto been most dear to me–an indifference which I think I have observed in some in the meridian of life. I am always therefore delighted to discover, in people of advancing years, any symptoms of their being still susceptible of such enjoyments; and in this view the letters of Mrs. Grant afforded me peculiar gratification: increasing years seem to have deprived her of no rational enjoyment. If time clipped a little the wings of her fancy, she was still able to soar above the common pleasures of a mere housewife;–no reflection, by the by, upon that respectable character; believe me, I reverence it; and always regard with respect a women who performs her difficult, complicated, and important duties with address and propriety. Yet I see no reason why the best housewife in the world should take more pleasure in making a curious pudding, than in reading a fine poem; or feel a greater pride in setting out an elegant table, than in producing a well-trained child. I perfectly [Page 106]  glory in the undeniable example Mrs. Grant exhibits of a woman filling up all the duties of her domestic station with peculiar activity and success, and at the same time cultivating the minds of her children usefully and elegantly; and still allowing herself to indulge occasionally in the most truly rational of all pleasures–the pleasures of intellect.

I dare say you read a paper in the Christian Observer for April, on Female Cultivation.–I feel grateful to the sensible and liberally minded author. I do believe the reason why so few men, even among the intelligent, wish to encourage the mental cultivation of women, is their excessive love of the good things of this life; they tremble for their dear stomachs, concluding that a woman who could taste the pleasures of poetry or sentiment, would never descend to pay due attention to those exquisite flavors in pudding or pie, that are so gratifying to their philosophic palates; and yet, poor gentlemen, it is a thousand pities they should be so much mistaken; for after all, who so much as a woman of sense and cultivation, will feel the real importance of her domestic duties; or who so well, so cheerfully perform them? * * *


TO MR. J. C.

Colchester, February 21, 1809.

* * * MR. — is the principal subject of your last letter. I have felt quite impatient to add my thanks to those Ann has, I believe, [Page 107]  already presented, for your truly friendly exertions to introduce us to his notice; for as your interviews were few, and occupied by much more interesting discourse, to remember two obscure country rhymers was very kind; and so we feel it. As to his remarks on our books, they cannot be otherwise than gratifying. We feel all the difference between such an opinion, expressed by a man of taste and genius, and the customary compliment of–"Sweet pretty things, ladies;–they do you great credit;" &c. I regret he did not leave room to find fault: we are fully conscious that we deserve it. When we first wrote we were not in the habit of taking pains; that is to say, we were not aware what pains are necessary; neither did we know what we had at stake; consequently our earliest productions abound with inaccuracies. Parents are pleased with them, because their children are. But from Mr. —, who is neither a little boy, nor a father, I had not expected so favorable a critique. But since it would ill become me to question his judgment or taste, the small portion of his praise which I take to my own share, affords me solid satisfaction.

Alas! if a poor wight has ever had the misfortune to hit upon two words that gingle, what a craving appetite is instantly created; and he is perhaps doomed to endure perpetual starvation; or at best to derive a scanty and precarious subsistence from crumbs of praise; though it is as delicious to his palate (and even more so from its [Page 108]  rarity) as to that of the favored bard, who receives it as his daily bread. But while I must confess that I have felt the appetite, I can say with sincerity that my happiness does not depend upon dainties of this sort, and that I can live contentedly upon plainer food. I wish to be thankful that I can find enjoyment in simple pleasures, and such as are, as far as I can discover, purified from the dross of selfishness and vanity. I am pleased to look within, and find that I am really happy when our complete family circle is formed; and useful and interesting conversation rises and circulates. Memory can recall many livelier scenes, and fancy could present others still gayer; but neither memory nor fancy can persuade me to be discontented with the present. The loss of every external source of happiness, by the death of our early friends here, forced us to seek it in its native soil:–I loved home; but I knew not how to value and enjoy it; and to the beauties of nature, though blooming around me, I was blind. I am surprised when looking back only a few years, I remember how totally insensible I was to those very scenes which are now constant sources of delight:–though I should have been not a little startled had my taste and feeling been questioned;–I, who have spent many a summer evening on the old ivy-grown town wall, reading Thomson to the friend of my bosom; and would often strain my eyes till they ached, that I might read by moonlight. But now, [Page 109]  though I confess I prefer the convenience of a commodious apartment, and willingly endure the gross vapors of tallow, and the barbarism of artificial light; yet, I flatter myself, I know better how to enjoy the glowing landscape, as well as to taste the beauties of the poet; and that I can contemplate the fair face of the moon with sensations not only more rational, but more pleasurable, than in those days of idle romance. That I have an eye to see, and a heart to feel the beauties of nature, I acknowledge with gratitude; because they afford me constant and unsatiating pleasure; and form almost my only recreation. And I indulge the hope that having acquired a love for these simple enjoyments, I shall never lose it; but that in seasons of solitude or of sorrow, I shall continue to find a sweet solace in them. When I am low in spirits, weary, or cross; or especially when worried by some of the teasing realities of life, one glance at the landscape from the window of my attic, never fails to produce a salutary effect upon me. And when "'tis night, and the landscape is lovely no more," if moon, planet, or star, condescends to beam through my casement, I revive under its benign influence. Many might smile at this; especially as I have renounced the title of romantic, and claim that of rational, for my pleasures; but I beg you will not. As a Londoner, I might apologize for dwelling so long upon such a theme; but to a poet, I cannot; and though to a corres- [Page 110]  pondent I ought to apologize for so much egotism, to a friend I need not.

The infant smiles of spring have, perhaps, inspired me with this effusion: its return is always reviving and cheering; and while all around is gay and young, we forget that our winter has approached a step nearer. I am sometimes startled when I recollect that very probably half my allotted days are already spent; and possibly much more. Years that once appeared such long and tedious periods, now seem to fly onward with such rapidity that they are gone ere they can be enjoyed or improved. Yet a few, at most, of these fleeting seasons, and I, and all I love, shall be forgotten upon earth. You have heard doubtless that we have lost our friend Mrs. —. Thus we see a family nearly extinct in which, but a few years ago, was centred all that was interesting and dear to us. We have no juvenile recollections with which they are not connected; and the much valued friendships we have formed in later years have not effaced those early impressions. It is difficult to realize such losses. And it is not these alone; for, of a gay and happy circle with whom we were intimately connected, Ann and I are the only survivors.


In the course of the year 1809, our long united family was separated, by the removal of two of its members to London; and if the expressions of regret, on this subject, with which Jane's letters [Page 111]  abound, were to be quoted, they would seem, to many readers, to go beyond the merits of the occasion. But none of her feelings were more vivid than those of family affection; and, almost blind to the reason of the case, she would fain have held the endeared circle entire, at the cost of all secular interests. "I regard," she says, "this separation, as one of the greatest sorrows I have ever known. I cannot view it merely as a parting with a friend, whom I may hope to meet again in a few months; for though our interviews may be frequent, our separation as companions is final. We are to travel different roads; and all the time we may actually pass together, in the course of occasional meetings in our whole future lives, may not amount to more than a year or two of constant intercourse. "

This foreboding was falsified by the event; for in fact, only a year or two of separation took place between Jane and the brother to whom she here refers;–excepting that short interval, it was his happiness to be the constant companion of her life.

In a letter written to her brothers soon after their leaving home, she says,–"Oh this cruel separation! It would have killed me to have known, when we first parted, how complete it would be. I am glad we deceived ourselves with the hope of keeping up frequent intercourse by letters and visits; it saved us a severer pang than any we then endured. These painful recollections are revived by the disappointment of our fond [Page 112]  hopes of a speedy reunion, which is now rendered not only distant, but very doubtful. You, engaged in business, and surrounded with friends, cannot feel as we do on this subject. We have nothing to do but contemplate our cheerless prospects, or to think of the days that are past. I do not mean it reproachfully when I say, that you will soon learn to do without us; it is the natural consequence of your situation, and we ought to be reconciled to the 'common lot.' But how can I forget the happy years in which we were every thing to each other? I am sometimes half jealous of our friends, especially of —, who now has that confidence which we once enjoyed. But I will not proceed in this mournful strain; and do not think, my dear brothers, that I am charging you with neglect, or any decrease of affection; though I do sometimes anticipate, and that with bitter regret, the natural effect of a long continued separation."

So eminently characteristic of my sister's mind were feelings of this sort, that I must exhibit them in one or two more quotations from her letters to her brothers.

"We have not yet tried separation long enough to know what its effects will eventually be. I dread lest, in time, we should become so accustomed to it, as to feel contented to live apart, and forget the pleasure of our former intercourse; and I cannot suffer myself to believe what, after all, is most probable, that we never shall be united [Page 113]  again.–It is a forlorn idea; for what will two or three flying visits in the course of the year amount to? Life is short, and we are, perhaps, half-way through it already. Well, I ought to be thankful that so large a portion of it we have passed in company, and that the best part too; and as to the future, if I could be sure that years of separation would not, in the least, estrange our affections from each other, and that the glow which warms the youthful breast, would never be chilled by our passage through a cold, heartless world, I would be content. But the idea of becoming such brothers and sisters as we see every where, is incomparably more painful than that of a final banishment, in which we should love each other as we now do.

"We still indulge the hope of renewed intercourse; this hope may indeed be fallacious, but I cannot reject it. In the meantime, we do, and we will continue to love each other; and this is consolation. Long before the dear circle was broken up, I looked forward to the time of separation with dread; chiefly from the apprehension lest that loveliest of plants, family affection (which, in spite of many storms, had been successfully reared, and tenderly cherished among us) should droop, and in time wither; when the distracting cares of life should call off our attention from it. For my own part, I have scarcely yet made the trial; for although the separation has taken place, yet, as my situation remains the same, I have [Page 114]  found no difficulty in retaining and cultivating that affection which flourished when we were companions; and I am willing to believe that the scenes you have passed through since you left your home, have rather increased than lessened your attachment to it. It must be delightful, cheering, soothing, to turn from the chilling selfishness of those with whom you must often have to do, to the affection of your family and friends; to know that there are those who do, and who always will love you–whose happiness, in a great measure, depends upon yours, and who consider your interest the same as their own.

"From experience I know how baleful it is to the disposition to be placed in circumstances in which the malevolent passions are liable to be roused, and in which we have to be concerned with those whom it is not only impossible to love, but whom it seems a sort of virtue to dislike. There is the same difference between love and hatred, as between happiness and misery; and more real enjoyment in the pains of the former, than in the gratifications of the latter. I envy those who can look with an eye of benevolent compassion upon the lowest instances of human depravity; who, discerning in their own hearts the seeds of the same hateful dispositions, feel more gratitude for the providential restraints to which they must attribute the difference, than anger towards those who have wanted these advantages." [Page 115] 

The same strong feelings of affection appear in the following letters to her friend Miss S. L. C.:–


Colchester, May 4, 1809.

* * * This letter was begun some time ago: many circumstances have prevented my finishing it; and I have been in a state of anxiety about the settlement of —, which has so much occupied my thoughts, that I have not had the heart to resume my pen. His affairs are yet undecided, and we are waiting very anxiously to see what is the will of Providence concerning him. When I remember how kindly our Heavenly Father has hitherto led us on as a family, in credit and comfort, through many struggles, I feel a sweet consolation in committing all our temporal affairs to the same overruling Providence; and hope that my dear brothers, for whose welfare we feel unspeakable solicitude, may be guided by that "pillar of cloud and of fire," by which we have been so far directed. Yet again, when I see that many a one, equally deserving, and equally dear to parents and sisters, becomes a prey to misfortune, and encounters nothing in life but neglect and disappointment, then I say, how can I tell but this may be the case with my dear brothers? Dear L. you would pity me if you knew the many tears I have shed with these forebodings. The world is a chilling place, and going from the bosom of an affectionate family, they must feel it so; but all this is foolish and wrong; [Page 116]  I do try cheerfully to commit them to God; and hope to be able to say with some submission, whatever be their fate, "Thy will be done." The separation which now draws so near, I hardly know how to fortify myself to bear; for though the distance is short, and our interviews may be frequent, yet I must view it as the breaking up of our family, so long and so closely united; and a part of it so dear to us, leaving home –safe, happy, affectionate home, for ever. Excuse me, dear L., my heart is very full on this subject, and in writing to a friend I could not avoid it.

Oh, when the mind is weary and heavily laden with these worldly cares, how refreshing it is to look beyond them all to that rest–to those happy, peaceful mansions that are prepared for the people of God. The delightful hope of seeing all my dear family, and all I love below, safely landed there, makes these fears and anxieties fade into insignificance. But oh! what new fears and anxieties arise here! It may be well that our minds are not capable of measuring the vast disproportion between the concerns of this life and those of eternity, or we should not be able to give a sufficient degree of attention to our present duties. Could we view the most important events that can ever occur to us here, in the same light as we shall look back upon them from the other world, we should scarcely be able to exert a proper degree of energy in the pursuit or management of them. [Page 117] 

I find myself at the end of my last page, without having noticed the contents of your letter; but really, when a letter has been so long received, one feels ashamed of referring to what can no longer interest, and is scarcely remembered by the writer. I must not begin a comment upon your last year's tour, when you are planning a new excursion. Yet I must say I think you are a very lively, ingenious, and intelligent traveller; and your journey was thought highly entertaining. Let me thank you, my dear L., since I can do it with the most heartfelt sincerity, for the many gratifying expressions of affection and friendship with which your letters abound; they make me alternately proud and humble, but always leave me grateful and glad. * * *


TO THE SAME.

Colchester, Nov. 1, 1809.

* * * Life appears to me now to be wearing out so rapidly, and so large a portion of mine is already spent, that I more than ever regret these long intervals in my communications with my friends. But when I consider the few days which will be all, probably, that I shall actually enjoy in the society of those from whom distance divides me, in the whole course of my life, I am obliged to take comfort in the animating hope of renewing, in a happier state, these delightful friendships, which will there flourish without interruption, and without end; and how refined and unalloyed will they then be–no selfishness or [Page 118]  vanity, no little jealousies to imbitter their sweetness.

I regard it as one of the greatest blessings of my life, that all those whom my heart acknowledges as its owners, are travelling towards the same home; so that I can say with sincerity and peculiar emphasis, 'These are the choicest friends I know.' Our earlier friendships, though they must ever be remembered with interest and fond affection, were little adapted to promote our truest welfare. To them indeed we are indebted for many benefits of a less valuable nature; but I look to my present circle of friends with gratitude that has a nobler subject. If ever I reach that happy land where their possessions lie, I shall have cause for endless thanksgivings to Him who gave me such companions in my way. * * *


The regrets occasioned by the separation of the family were soon afterwards diverted by literary interests. Poetry had formed the bond of union in that circle of friends in which Jane thought herself so happy to be included; and about this time a volume was projected, in which the talents of those of them to whom poetical composition was familiar, should be conjoined. My sister was reluctantly persuaded to take her part in this volume:–she expresses her feelings on the subject in a letter to the friend who conducted the work. Alluding to some verses which she was solicited to surrender for publication, she says:– [Page 119] 

"They were written to gratify my own feelings, and not for the 'Wreath;' (such was then proposed to be the title of the volume) yet you have pressed them into the service; and what shall I say? I feel that, in permitting them to be published, I make some sacrifice;–as indeed all do who once begin to express their feelings in rhyme; for sentiments and feelings that, in plain prose, would only be whispered in secret to a chosen friend, in this form gain courage, and court the gaze, and bear the ridicule of the vulgar and unfeeling. Since I have had time to think soberly about the 'Wreath'–for this must always be its title, I have felt far less anxious about the share I am to have in it. Now I am not going to tease you with any of my 'morbid humility;' for I am as weary of it, and as angry with it, as you are; but I must just tell you how it affects me. I think I know pretty well how to estimate my poetical talent; at least, I am perfectly persuaded I do not underrate it; and, in comparison with my blooming companions in this garland, I allow my pieces to rank as the leaves; which are, you know, always reckoned a necessary, and even pleasing part of a bouquet: and I may add that I am not only contented, but pleased with this station;–it is safe, and snug; and my chief anxiety is not to suffer any thing ridiculous, or very lame to appear:–with these views, I consent. The opinion of the little hallowed circle of my own private friends is more to me than the applauses of a [Page 120]  world of strangers. To them my pieces are already known; by them their merits and their faults are already determined; and if they continue to smile kindly upon my simple muse, she will not, I think, easily be put in ill-humour."

This volume was published under the title of "The Associate Minstrels." My sister's contributions to it (the volume being out of print) I have placed among the Poetical Remains subjoined to this volume: they were, none of them, written with any idea of publication; but were the simple expressions of feeling on particular occasions. They exhibit the tender playfulness of her fancy, and the warmth of her heart; but the vigor she afterwards displayed had not then been roused. Yet she has since written nothing more characteristic of herself, or perhaps more beautiful, than the Remonstrance to Time." In this piece–in the Birthday Retrospect, and in one or two of the pieces, which will be found among the Remains, she has given the portrait of her own mind with so much truth and life, that those who knew her, seem to see and to converse with her while perusing them. To portray itself, her mind needed only the mild excitement of her habitual feelings. But to display its force, it required the stimulus of the strongest extraneous motives. The productions of her pen under these different impulses are widely dissimilar; and perhaps will hardly both please the same readers.

Up to the time to which I am now referring, [Page 121]  Jane had written chiefly as an expression of spontaneous feeling; but after the conviction of possessing a talent which might be rendered useful to others was admitted by her, she very rarely wrote for her own gratification, as she had been wont to do. The Poetical Remains contain, however, a few exceptions to this remark; and these exhibit sentiments of a higher order than those which were indulged in early life.

Soon after the publication of the volume just mentioned, my sisters entered upon a task of peculiar difficulty–that of composing a volume of Hymns for the use of children. This difficulty will not be thought lightly of by those who have had much experience in the business of education, and who have allowed themselves ingenuously to perceive the many perplexities which meet the teacher in his attempts to impart to a child any religious ideas that go beyond the mere notion of invisible power; for not only do these notions seem to surpass his apprehension–but they are felt to have in them a repellent contrariety to the prejudices of our fallen nature, in the very earliest developement of the moral principle. The utmost, perhaps, that can be done is to employ a phraseology, and to use illustrations, so well adapted to the infant mind, as that no unnecessary difficulty shall be added to that which is inevitable; and that the memory may, as it were, be taken possession of by notions of religion, before the slumbering evils of the heart are fully quickened. [Page 122]  "I think," says my sister in a letter of this date, "I think I have some idea of what a child's hymn ought to be; and when I commenced the task, it was with the presumptuous determination that none of them should fall short of the standard I had formed in my mind. In order to this, my method was to shut my eyes, and imagine the presence of some pretty little mortal; and then endeavor to catch, as it were, the very language it would use on the subject before me. If, in any instances, I have succeeded, to this little imaginary being I should attribute my success. And I have failed so frequently, because so frequently I was compelled to say–'Now you may go, my dear, I shall finish the hymn myself.'"

The authors, in their advertisement justly say that, "The Divine Songs of Dr. Watts, so beautiful, and so justly admired, almost discourage, by their excellence, a similar attempt; and lead the way, where it appears temerity to follow." The want, however, of a greater number of hymns of this kind, has always been felt by parents; and parents, very generally, have seemed to think the want well supplied in this volume. It was soon after followed by a smaller collection of a similar kind, adapted to the use of Sunday schools. In this last, the attempt to simplify language has, perhaps, been carried as far as is at all desirable. If one might judge by the appearance of the manuscript copy of these hymns–its intricate interlineations, and multiplied revisions, it would seem [Page 123]  that many of them cost the author more labor than any other of her writings. But a labor of this kind suited well Jane's habitual feelings; for it was at once wholly undisturbed by any ambitious desire of literary distinction, and blessed with the hope of extensive usefulness.

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom