Introduction to the Poems of Marianna Attwater

Twenty poems by Marianna Attwater (signed “Maria’) remain in manuscript, all in her hand. Like Mary Wakeford, she admired James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1766). Though aware of the inadequacies of female education in his day, Fordyce nevertheless perpetuated a number of stereotypes about women’s intellectual capacities and social activities, especially as wives. Marianna, however, praises him for teaching young ladies to be “studious” and to achieve a “Virtuous Name,” one that will last long after physical charms have “decay’d.” Fordyce is like a “Guardian Angel” to young women, pointing them to “the safe, the flowery path to Heaven” through the aid of religion. Several other poems by Attwater are also of a religious nature, including “A Sunday Morning’s Reflection” and “Serious Reflections,” her longest poem of forty-seven stanzas. Both poems are examples of spiritual exercises often performed by nonconformists like Jane Attwater and Anne Cator Steele who devoted Sunday to meditating upon religious themes and recording their thoughts into their diaries. In the first instance, Marianna hopes that “Grace divine” will “illuminate [her] Soul” so she can offer proper worship to God, not by seeking to “Soar above the Skies” on “Contemplation’s Wings” but by admiring the “numerous Wonders” of this lower world which are capable of inspiring the Christian far more than “the famed Parnassian Fire.” In the second, in typical neoclassic fashion, she plots the dangers of yielding to “Passions ... unbounded Sway” when “Reason quits her Throne,” of confusing reality with “the Phantom Pleasure,” thus reinforcing one of the primary tenets of the Reformed faith, from the Puritans of the seventeenth century to the Evangelicals of the late eighteenth century, that the “pleasures” of this world are temporal at best.

Among her occasional poems, two concern her pocket diaries. “At the End of a Pockett Book for the Year 1768” and “Wrote in the Beginning of a Pockett Book for 1769” are examples of a common poetic exercise, in which the poet examines how effectively time was spent (or misspent) during the previous year and proposes ways to improve in the next. Attwater prefers such introspection to that spent in “Dressing, Coquetting, in Bustle and Noise” often associated with New Year’s Eve balls, none of which was capable of providing “substantial Joys.” The second poem, however, is far more playful, the poet hoping that the “dull” previous year’s journal will be replaced with far more exciting “Incidents,” maybe even a little “Scandal – which is always Wit, / At least fine Ladies think it so,” and always “in Fashion.” Or, more importantly, a “Love Affair,” some Strephon, Damon, or Thyrsis to sigh at her feet, or maybe a romantic adventure worthy a Knight Errant and his trusty Squire, or even a “Lover banish’d to the Wars.” With assistance from Cupid and the Muses, her pocket diary is sure to surpass her previous year, which seems now like something belonging to the Queen of Dulness. If not, her diary may, in the end, lack everything, including common sense. Other occasional poems include a humorous satire on a character named “Fribble,” whose misguided education and foppish arrogance destroy his chances to find a good wife and happiness, leaving him with an uneducated but virtuous wife whose only blessing to Fribble is that her deficiencies preclude the possibility that her husband will ever be jealous of her; and a poem about a gift to Lady Joseph Andrews by another friend, a Miss Harding.

Attwater composed serious poems as well. Besides two friendship poems to a “Serena” and one to a “Cleora,” her “Ode to Peace” describes an essential ingredient of the retirement poem. The fourteen-stanza poem in heroic quatrains combines both a public need for peace (the Seven Years War with France had finally ended) with the personal (the peace attained through seclusion in a natural retreat). For those who loved the security of rural retirement, only the “society” bestowed upon them by the Goddess “Peace” could bless their “Solitude” with “Innate Satisfaction,” or grace “the Social Fire” with effusions of a “rural Strain.” Not confined to “one Nation,” age, or social status, Peace is universal in its appeal and, the poet hopes, in its application to “each Virtuous Humble Mind.” Two poems about literature, the latter addressed to the novelist Samuel Richardson, display Attwater’s dedication, as a young woman of twenty, to the acquisition of knowledge and an appreciation for stimulating works of imagination, like Richardson’s novel, Sir Charles Grandison. Unlike Mary Steele’s poetry, in which the theme of love poems play a very small role, one-fourth of Attwater’s poems are love poems. None are sonnets, but they nevertheless reflect the kind of love poetry popular in her day, such as “The Willing Captive,” in which the idealistic “Maria” declares herself “A Willing Votary of the Enamour’d train,” a “Victim” of the “Sacred Shrine” of that “Heaven born passion Love.”

Attwater’s poetry would not be complete without at least one nature poem, a genre used frequently by her poet friends, Anne and Mary Steele. “On May,” though far more elaborate in its use of pastoral imagery and language than Mary Steele’s “Stanzas written in May 1774,” is less an allusion to the power and wisdom of the Creator and more a pagan celebration of the “Goddess” May and her rites of spring, in which

Each Swain shall lead his fav’rite Nymph along,

Each Nymph shall smile upon her happy Swain[.]

Steele’s more generalized Nature, with its “flower-enamelled Meads” and unidentified “Birds” that “Breathe their harmony refin’d,” unable to distract her from the “sweeter” “Music of the Mind” and a proper adoration of “the Hand Divine,” falls flat against Attwater’s lavish pastoral depiction of the beauties of May:

Now Daisies o’re the Vernal Turf are spread,

Now the pale Primrose and Blue Violet blows,

And on the Bank or on some mossy Bed

The Blue-Bell and the Cowslip sweets disclose.

Now the shrill Sky Lark tunes his Matin Lay,

Blest sound to those whom Love deprives of rest.

And now the Linnet warbles from his Spray

And Love and Peace inhabits ev’ry Breast.

Though Marianna Attwater’s poetic output is far less than that of Anne Steele, Mary Steele, and Mary Scott, she nevertheless produced more quality poetry in a three-year period (1768-1770) than any other member of the Steele circle.