Introduction to the Poetry of

Jane Attwater

Though writing poetry was a frequent pastime in the Attwater home (not surprising given the close relationship the Attwaters enjoyed with their relatives, the Steeles of Broughton), Jane was never the equal as a poet to her sister, Marianna, or her friends, Mary Steele and Mary Scott. Instead, patterning herself after Anne Cator Steele, Jane Attwater devoted her time primarily to entering into her diary her spiritual contemplations and summaries of sermons she heard preached that week. Attwater, however, was not averse to poetry, as her collection of seventeen poems demonstrates, many of which appear in her diary. Her genuine admiration for the poems of Mary Steele and Mary Scott, however, was often, like Mary Wakeford, prefaced by considerable self-deprecation. If she had “the pen of my Silvia,” she writes to Steele on 27 May 1771, she could “describe in faintest colours the beautious scenes around” her, but instead her “poor Description falls so very short of its beautiful Original” that she will not even attempt it because it would only try Steele’s “patience.” She expresses similar thoughts in a letter to Steele dated 5 May 1773, complaining that she cannot “find words to describe [her] ideas,” unlike her “dear Silvia” who has “this happy art” and whose “much lov’d lines,” she writes, are “expressive of the thoughts of my heart.” “All my much lov’d friends,” she writes on 31 May 1773, like Steele and Scott, are “too indulgent” in excusing her “unworthyness,” though she continues to “degrade” herself in her compositions.

She began inserting poems into her diary as early as 1770. These verses are of a religious nature, many of them generated by a sermon Attwater would have heard or a scripture verse that was particularly meaningful to her on that date. These verses are not as polished as those of the other members of the Steele circle; in fact, at times they appear more like drafts, with numerous word changes and mark-throughs, as if they were extemporaneous effusions arising out of her spiritual meditations, with the poem a means of encapsulating those thoughts into her diary. Some are hymn-like, evidence of the enormous importance hymns would play in Attwater’s life and in her diary (allusions to hymns are second only to passages from the Bible). Two poems inserted into the diary, considerably more polished than the others, are signed “Myrtilla,” one dated 16 October 1785 and the other 23 September 1787. The first one, composed in heroic couplets, begins, like her sister’s untitled poem (“What Beauteous Form is that in simple dress”), with an apostrophe to Religion, that “Spirit divine” that alone is capable of teaching her “to seize & use the present hour” since death can arrive at any time. In the second poem, in six quatrains, Attwater pleads to God for guidance now that she is an “orphan,” her “parents gone / None to consult [her] welfare as their own.” “A helpless traveler thro” ye world I roam,” she writes, pleading that God will “Point clearly point ye road yt leads to bliss.” Like her predecessors, Hannah and Mary Wakeford, and her sister, Marianna, Jane also composed two contemplative poems commemorating the end of the year and one on the commencement of a new year, 1818.

Though Mary Steele’s poems to Attwater form the largest group of friendship poems in her canon, Attwater is not without some lines directed to her friend, especially those found in her letter to Steele of 5 May 1773 (poem 96). These lines reflect Attwater’s well-developed spiritual appetite at the age of twenty, noting the temporality and illusiveness of the material world and its pleasures in contrast to the “permanent delight” found only “in the blissful realms of Light.” She is thankful for her “blest competence” in wealth but more importantly for her friends, such as her “Silvia,” “thou welcome boon of heaven,” as she calls her, a true friend who can “feel the sorrows of [her] much lov’d friend” when “anxious Care” depresses Attwater’s “pensive mind.” Other poems are addressed to various family members (both living and dead), including three poems to Attwater’s daughter, Annajane Theodosia – on her first birthday, an epitaph after her death, and a memorial poem from 1811. Some of these poems are among Attwater’s finest, most notably “Lines addressed to her Nephew, Philip Whitaker, 1786,” which clearly belies her need for any self-deprecation. The birthday poem to her daughter was inserted in her diary on 16 July 1794. Annajane, her mother’s “Dear Lovely flower” (a metaphor popularized by Anne Bradstreet, the American Puritan poet, in her elegies on the deaths of her grandchildren in the 1660s), is a “plant” given to her parents for them to “raise” to maturity in the Christian faith. Attwater recognizes, however, that reaching maturity (at a time when infant mortality rates were extremely high), is strictly “the will of Heaven.” Attwater’s desire that her daughter exemplify true Christian character falls more under her control, and her wishes will be fulfilled. Mary Steele’s description in “Epitaph on Miss Blatch, 1810” is apropos:

Sweet Excellence! thy opening virtues shone

Fair as the loveliest morning of the Spring[.]

Jane Attwater Blatch, however, could not dictate the will of God for the continuance of her daughter’s life. She anticipates that she and her husband will die long before Anna does, but that will not be the case. She has no choice but to resign herself to God’s “will,” as her memorial poem makes clear, even though the agony of losing her only child will never be appeased nor the memories erased.