(A small country church, and to Saughall quite near);For myself I had flattered in that rural scene
No other spectators around me would reign,
Excepting fair Flora, and the feathered train.
But trust me, when we to the village drew near,
The nymphs and the swains all in ranks did appear,
To see us fine folks; for sure, fine we must be,
When powdered, and dressed, à la mode de Paris!’
from Letter to a Sister, Giving an Account of the Author’s Wedding-DayPriscilla Pointon
Written c. 1788; published 1794
It might seem affected or overblown to construct a ‘letter’ as a poem, but in fact there is a long and rather eminent tradition of letter-poems in the eighteenth century (a format that is technically known as ‘epistolary verse’). Bill Overton has noted that ‘The verse epistle was a key form in eighteenth-century Britain’, but also marks the distinction between literary verses that were written as letters, and letters that happened to be written in verse. For me, Pointon’s poem would seem to fall into the latter category. In an earlier blogpost we looked at Alexander Pope’s Letter to Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, a good example of an epistolary verse that was always intended for publication. The gap of six years between the composition of Pointon’s poem and its ultimate publication would seem to imply a rather less formal motivation behind this poem’s composition. Pointon’s husband sadly died by 1794, and Roger Lonsdale has suggested that Pointon’s ‘desolate situation’ following this may have prompted the publication of the new anthology of her poems in which this epistolary verse appeared.
In many ways, it is simply a narrative account of a rather delightful wedding day, involving lots of driving around through the countryside and eating. Such a fun way to spend a day! Like much eighteenth-century poetry, there is also ample use of classical characters, such as the reference to ‘Flora’ which (before margarine was invented) referred to the Roman goddess of flowers and spring. When Pointon writes that she was getting married in the country in the expectation that ‘No other spectators around me would reign, / Excepting fair Flora and the feathered train’ what she is really saying is that she thought the only company would be the flowers and the birds. Rather a nice way of putting it, eh?
|View of Parkgate today: the wall you can see at the bottom of|
the picture would have originally been the quayside. You can
also see Wales in the distance, visible as a blue line of hills.
For me, this poem is even more enjoyable because I am actually familiar with many of the locations which it refers to. The historical city of Chester is hopefully already known to many. It’s a glorious old place that, once upon a time, was an important Roman port; walking around the Roman walls that still encircle the city was a much enjoyed activity in my childhood, as was playing around the equally splendid ruins of a Roman amphitheatre. I don’t want to start sounding like a travelogue here, but seriously it is definitely a place worth visiting! Parkgate – one of the places to which the wedding party drive in the poem – is also of significant eighteenth-century interest: Lady Emma Hamilton, the mistress of the sea commander Lord Nelson, was born in nearby Ness and used to often visit Parkgate for the waters. There is still a seawall at Parkgate today, and a lovely view across to Wales, but the River Dee has long since silted into a lush green marshland. Now it is a major wildlife site, with an award-winning ice-cream shop across the road (highly recommended!). It’s absolutely mindblowing to think how much, yet also how little, the place will have changed from when Pointon travelled there on her wedding-day, about 230 years ago.
Happy reading! As always, feel free to ask questions and/or leave comments!
You can find this poem:Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
(available from numerous book shops online and on the high street: an excellent volume! Last time I mentioned this book I said it looked like an interesting read: see, I was right! The non-italicised ‘from’ reveals that this is an extract from a longer poem)
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=budbAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=editions:k_O5naWEZggC&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAmoVChMIpK_p0pGDxwIVwkAUCh1siABS#v=onepage&q&f=false(a link to a googlebooks preview from which some more of Pointon’s poetry can be accessed!)
About Priscilla Pointon:
Finding information about Pointon has proved rather more challenging than anticipated! Pointon would seem to have been born in about 1740, and died in 1801. From a fascinating seminar talk given by Kathleen Keown at Oxford earlier in the year, I learnt that Pointon was a woman who basically made her living from her poetry. Having lost her eyesight at the age of 12, her poetry was composed inside her head and then written down by an assistant. As such, Pointon became very good at extempore poetry, that is poetry made up on the spur of the moment (an enormously popular genre in the eighteenth-century). Keown’s talk gave a fascinating insight into the life of a professional woman, whose disability did not prevent her from travelling widely around the country in search of subscribers willing to commit funds for the publication of her poetry. Kathleen Keown is on Twitter @kathleenkeown and regularly tweets about matters relating to 18th century women’s poetry.
Information for this blogpost was derived from the following books:Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
Bill Overton, The Eighteenth-Century British Verse Epistle (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)(A useful source of more information about epistolary verse!!)