Introduction to the Poetry of

Mary Steele

Though unknown as a poet for nearly two centuries, the recently recovered poetry of Mary Steele is remarkably rich and diverse. Excluding the epic, the philosophical verse essay, and the hymn, she wrote in nearly every poetic genre popular in the eighteenth century: historical verse narratives, Pindaric odes, elegies, verse epistles, and friendship poems, of which a large selection to Mary Scott ("Myra"), Jane Attwater ("Myrtilla"), and Elizabeth Coltman are presented below. She also composed a fable, pastoral poems, numerous sonnets, a ballad, and one song. Her poetry spans 45 years, from 1766 (age 13) to 1811, a period in which English poetry underwent significant changes.

Mary Steele’s poetry reflects many of those changes, moving from the neoclassic diction of her early poems to the compressed language and Romantic ideals found in her some of her later poems, such as “On being presented by Miss Coltman with an Eolian Harp made by Robert Bloomfield, 1807.” Her sonnets demonstrate considerable growth in subtlety of language and thought as do her nature and retirement poems, culminating in the rich language combining natural setting and historical reality in “Occasioned by reading Thomson’s Seasons on a Walk near Yeovil, 1798.” Her tribute to Anne Steele in “Elegy written at Broughton, 1779” evokes her indebtedness to her mentor and the inherent difficulties in carving a voice of her own. Mary Steele employs the elegiac as easily as the playful and overtly feminism of “Song to Sarissa, 1778” and “To Miss M. Frowd,” both poems demonstrating her use of metrical variation, verbal sophistication, and an expression of intense, private feelings that would mark her best poetry. Steele’s poems, letters, and spiritual autobiography comprise a body of life writing unique among nonconformist women poets of the eighteenth century. The most dominant theme in Mary Steele’s poetry is friendship, one of the most common topics employed by women poets in the eighteenth century. Steele’s friendship poems are usually directed to an individual. Her chief recipients are Jane Attwater and Elizabeth Coltman (nine poems each), Mary Scott (seven), Anne Steele (four), and Lucy Kent and Sarah Froude (two each). Another genre employed by Steele is the retirement poem, which celebrated friendship as much as it did a secluded natural setting where the poet could meditate apart from the bustle of everyday life. Of Steele’s twenty retirement poems, many are set within the extensive grounds and gardens of Broughton House, where

in Nature’s open Volume

Beneficence unbounded, wide diffus’d

O’er all the vast Creation....

In those “Native Fields,” she writes in “A Reflection wrote in 1768,” ‘my Infant Eye

First op’d on Nature’s Beauties, first experienc’d

The providential Care of Nature’s Lord.

Another favorite location are the fields surrounding her uncle’s estate at Yeovil, where as a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl she retreated to the “jasmine bower” where “blest” by the “improving conversation” of her “dear Myra” (Mary Scott) she spent the “happiest of [her] hours / And all my cares and woes were then at rest.” When she returned as a married woman in 1798, with Mary Scott now deceased, the ecstasy she experienced as a girl had given way to a melancholy gloom; nevertheless, she was determined to “no longer regret the vanish’d Joys of Life,” choosing instead to pay her “silent homage” to a “prostrate Nature.” In her friendship and retirement poems, nature serves as a retreat where Steele can escape into private meditation and also experience emotional intimacy with her female friends, all within the construct of an emblematic Edenic nature. Though these poems evoke memories from the past associated with certain “spots” in Nature, such as the “verdant bower” near Broughton House that Steele recalls as her aunt’s “favorite spot” where “Her dear Idea all around renews,” the deep feelings and memories they engender are often overrun by the hectic struggle of life. With increasing age and the absence of friends through death, her retreat to nature, as described in “Lines written in the Isle of Wight, 1806,” became a means of escape not only from the social world around her but from her internal world as well. In this instance, the place of retreat evolved into a psychological “spot” where she could “lose remembrance – lose myself.”

Friendship is central to the plot of Danebury (1779), Steele’s only significant publication during her lifetime. Subtitled, “The Power of Friendship,” Steele’s narrative poem of 250 lines in rhyming couplets emerges from a 10th century fictional battle between the inhabitants of Hampshire and an invading Danish army at what later became known as Danebury Hill, an historical campsite and fortification within an easy walk of Broughton House.[1] Steele’s purpose, however has less to do with the battle (the Hampshire farmers defeat the Danes) and more to do with the “power of friendship” between two young women. A few autobiographical features of the poem cannot be discounted. Elfrida lives with her widowed father Egbert, just as Mary Steele had lived with her widowed father until his remarriage in 1768; Elfrida also has a bosom friend Emma, an orphan, for whom Jane Attwater (not Mary Scott) was the poet’s pattern, although Attwater was not an orphan, just fatherless, in 1768.[2] Elfrida’s blended family inhabit an idyllic pastoral setting emblematic of a prominent theme in Mary Steele’s poetry: the contrast between the “rude Sincerity” (l. 6), “Meek-ey’d Simplicity” (l. 7), and “Uncultur’d virtues” (9) possessed by the inhabitants of rural England and the artificiality, duplicity, and contrived conventionality of those who live in urban centers such as London. Egbert, the beau ideal of the “rustic” farmer, is a practical (and ancestral) male counterpart (like William Steele IV) to the aesthetic persona of the “rustic maid” that Mary Steele was developing in her poems c. 1768. These rural characters exhibit an “inartful” ease in Nature, exempt, as the poet puts it, “From Fashion’s splendid slavery” (l. 17), qualified by life in this pristine retreat to “taste the transports of the feeling heart” (l. 24). Emma is Elfrida’s “kindred soul” (l. 42) in whom “unnumber’d graces blend” (l. 44) into a friendship that produces “effusions of the mind” that,

Uncheck’d by fear, the rising thought impart,

And catch the glowing transport of the heart. (ll. 63-64)

These fearless, emotionally-charged thoughts imply that Steele, only months before her Aunt Wakeford’s poems about pursuing a life of poetry, was already aware that such “effusions” —whether exhibited in conversation among her friends, sheltered in a private manuscript, or exposed to the world in print—could produce lasting personal, social, and familial consequences.

Egbert is a true British patriot and as the Danes approach, he unhesitatingly volunteers to fight, inspired by “Fair Freedom’s fire” (l. 88). Elfrida follows him to the battlefield, not merely to witness the military engagement but more importantly to watch over her father as best she can. She fulfills her mission, intercepting a poisoned arrow destined for Egbert, an act of self-less love greeted with horror by Egbert, Emma, and Elfrida’s aging nurse. As the poison begins its work in her body, Emma engages in her own act of sacrificial love. Unknown to the rest of the family, she sucks the poison out of her friend’s body, taking Elfrida’s pain and death upon herself, the ultimate act of love and friendship. This Christ-like “greater love,” however, does not go unnoticed in Heaven. A nearby hermit, a “venerable Sage” (l. 183) who, like Egbert, represents the virtues of rural life, is divinely “commission’d” to provide an antidote to the poison in Emma’s body, restoring her to Elfrida just as the Danes are driven out by the “warrior-train” of Hampshire farmers. The closing lines bring the poem into real time, the “romantic mounds” (l. 233) of Danebury Hill becoming an iconic “peaceful spot” of time where the narrator’s imagination, much like Wordsworth’s, “Recalls the scenes of Childhood to her view, / And lives those pleasing moments o’er anew” (ll. 249-50).

Closely related to her friendship and retirement poems are poems that focus on a particular natural setting, evoking a contemplative mood in the poet that elevates and transforms nature into a spiritual, even healing, force in the life of the poet. “The Morning in April,” written c. 1770, depicts the music of nature, especially the nightingale’s lament, as emblematic of the fleeting nature of “Youth and Beauty,” which, in their brevity, give way to “Death and decay.” More particularly, “Occasioned by reading Thomson’s Seasons on a Walk near Yeovil, 1798” reveals not only her appreciation of a pristine natural setting but also her ability to impose her imagination upon such a setting. She uses language to create visual images of nature, like Thomson’s poetic descriptions that “enraptur’d” her as a young girl and still charm her “in maturer Age.” These images create an immediate and lasting aesthetic pleasure for both the spectator of the scene and the reader of the poem. Steele also recognizes that nature can engender powerful emotions, even a spiritual awareness not gained in any other way, linking her with another important motif of Romantic poetry, as evidenced in the opening lines of her late lyric, “On being presented by Miss Coltman with an Eolian Harp made by Robert Bloomfield, 1807”:

Spirit of harmony, whose power extends

O’er Nature’s vast domain; – whose voice is heard

In every breeze, in every murmuring rill,

In every sound when evening’s placid smile

Lulls the rude discord of the world to rest.

Oh breathe thy influence o’er my soul, and teach

A language to its feelings! –

Steele’s transcendental “Spirit of harmony” permeates all aspects of nature and is capable of directly influencing her language and innermost feelings, provoking an intensely private experience. Her language here is similar to Wordsworth’s “motion and a spirit” that “rolls through all things”; or Coleridge’s “animated nature” with its “organic Harps,” “plastic and vast,” that create an “intellectual breeze” uniting God and the soul of every living thing (“The Eolian Harp,” ll. 45-49); or the opening lines of “Thanatopsis,” by the American poet, William Cullen Bryant, in which Nature, to those who seek “Communion with her visible forms,” “speaks / A various language.”[3]

Most of her friendship, retirement, and nature poems are embedded within a generally orthodox religious framework. Though rarely doctrinal in the way Anne Steele’s hymns and poems were, Mary Steele was certainly her aunt’s heir in demonstrating the pervasive influence of a deep spirituality in her life, providing one of the chief constructs for both her individual and social identity. Though raised in an environment where hymns permeated family devotions and church services, Mary Steele refrained from composing hymns.[4] However, her religious poems link her with scores of poets in the eighteenth century, both Anglican and nonconformist, who used poetry to propagate their ‘Faith’ and, at times, their doubts, fears, and anxieties. She was not her aunt’s niece when it came to a strict interpretation of certain tenets of Calvinism, especially the doctrine of election, which seemed to her “beyond the feeble grasp of Reason” and liable to sink her into “the dark Gulph of horrible Despair.

If love and religion were popular topics for poetry in the latter half of the eighteenth century, death was almost as popular, and Steele’s 24 poems on death are among her best, providing her with a medium to express a wide range of emotions as well as certain intellectual, philosophical, and religious opinions. The death of friends and loved ones produced some of her finest elegies, such as her emotionally charged “Lines on the Death of Anne Steele,” published in 1780 by Caleb Evans in the third volume of his three-volume edition of Anne Steele’s poetry and prose, and “Elegy written at Broughton, 1779,” also written in memory of her aunt. Steele devotes six poems to her father’s death, clearly the most difficult of all the deaths she was forced to confront, including two “effusions” and two of her best sonnets. In “Sonnet, 1786,” the absence of both her aunt and her father has altered the landscape, not only of her life, which lies before her “As a vast, trackless, desolate Plain,” but also of the grounds surrounding Broughton House, where the blissful pastoral scene, that ‘”verdant Spot,” that “Eden gay” she shared in retirement with those most intimate with her, has now become a postlapsarian “Wilderness,” Despite her despair, even depression, over her father’s death (which lasts well into 1789), her poems on death usually end with an appropriate spiritual appeal.

Though death was an ever-present reality to Steele, she never allowed the melancholy it could produce in her life to overshadow for long the joys of the social life she enjoyed at Broughton House and elsewhere among her family and friends. At least twenty-three poems by Steele fall under the heading of “social,” or “occasional” verse, some of which highlight aspects of her poetic friendships and familial experiences, such as her “friendship book” exchange with Mary Scott in 1770, 1772, and 1774, or the playful poem about life in the Attwater home in Bodenham in “To Myrtilla.” She wrote poems commemorating the marriage of Marianna Attwater in 1773, a visit to the Revd Caleb Evans in Bristol in 1782, the romance of Elizabeth Coltman’s ancient home in the Newarke of Leicester in 1788, and her sister Anne’s birthday in 1790.

Steele was not oblivious to public matters or averse to commenting on them, especially politics. She was an ardent proponent of individual liberty and equally strong opponent of tyranny. She joined the majority of the nonconformists in the West Country in opposition to the war against the American colonies, and in the 1790s supported the French revolution and political reform in England.[5] As the conflict with the American colonies reached a turning point in 1775, she gave vent to her frustration with British policies in “Liberty, an Ode,” fearing that “The voice of Nature, Friendship,” a constant voice at Broughton House, would be “heard no more, /Amid the din of universal strife” and “civil discord.” More than two decades later, in her poem on Thomson’s Seasons, she mourns the “mangled Thousands” who lie dead “on some foreign Shore,” a reference to England’s war with France, condemning ‘”ye mad Murderers,” the leaders of both countries, for such unnecessary “waste of Life.”

Mary Steele's poetry is a rich source of personal, social, and religious history for Steele and the other women poets in her circle. From the time she was sixteen, Mary Steele’s identity was formed not only by her family or her nonconformist faith (with which she fought as much as she cherished) but also by poetry. In fact, the most profound legacy she gained from her family was not merely an ability to write poetry but the belief that it was her right to be a poet if she so chose, and that she did without hesitation. If writing poetry was Mary Steele’s greatest aspiration, it was so because as a Dissenter she never believed it should not be so. Her poetry is, above all else, the poetry of her life and every thought worth expressing. Now that her poetry and life writings have finally appeared in print, her voice “sings” once again, as recored in the following selection of her poetry, revealing a life that, though long forgotten to posterity, is very much worth knowing today. The texts of the poems below, with extensive annotations and textual variants, can be found in Timothy Whelan, ed, The Poetry and Prose of Mary Steele, vol. 3 of Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011).


[1] “Danebury Hill” was used as part of the original title of Steele’s 1768 manuscript copy (STE 5/5/ii, Angus Library) as well as William Steele’s fair copy (STE 5/7) that he carried with him to London and Bristol in 1777. When and by whom the title was shortened to “Danebury” is not known. On top of Danebury Hill is an Iron-Age fort, much of which has now been excavated and restored. The outer defenses were reconstructed sometime in the fifth century, during a revival of Celtic culture in the region. Though battles were probably fought at Danebury (the name is a mixture of Celtic and Saxon, meaning “a fortified place”) and nearby sites during the Danish occupation, Steele’s poem is not based upon any known historical event. See Cooke 40.

[2] See Mary Steele’s note to Attwater (Attwater Papers, acc. 76, II.A.5, Angus Library, Oxford) (Nonconformist Women Writers, vol. 3, p. 390, n. 2) where she attributes to her friend the inspiration for the character of Emma in Danebury.

[3]See Wordsworth, ‘Tintern Abbey’, ll. 101-03; Coleridge, ‘The Eolian Harp’, ll. 45-49; Bryant, ‘Thanatopsis’, ll. 1-2.

[4]As close as Mary Steele comes to a hymn is her poem, ‘Stanzas written in 1792’, composed in heroic quatrains but maintaining throughout a religious objective.

[5]See Caleb Evans, A Letter to the Rev. Mr. John Wesley, occasioned by his Calm Address to the American Colonies (London, 1775) and British Constitutional Liberty. A Sermon, preached in Broad-mead, Bristol, November 5, 1775 (Bristol, 1775); Robert Hall, Christianity Consistent with a Love of Freedom (London, 1791) and An Apology for the Freedom of the Press (London, 1793).