Introduction to the Poetry of

Mary Steele Wakeford

Mary Steele Wakeford (1724-72) was the daughter of William Steele III (1689-1769) and his second wife, Anne Cator Steele (1689-1760), the diarist. She was half-sister to William Steele IV (1715-85) and Anne Steele (1717-78). Mary Steele grew up in Broughton, where the Steeles were the leading family in the local Baptist congregation, for which her father served as pastor for much of her life. In 1749 she became the second wife of Joseph Wakeford, three years after the death of Hannah Wakeford. Mary Wakeford’s poetry stands in marked contrast to the more polished poetry of her sister, often exhibiting a comic, even satiric, bent, laced with a fair amount of self-deprecation. Her two best poems are her witty companion pieces “To Silvia” and “Silvia’s Rattle,” both composed in 1769 and addressed to her niece, Mary Steele (1753-1813), a gifted poet in her own right and the literary heir of Anne Steele. That same year Wakeford’s sole publication, “Jesus, and didst thou condescend,” appeared under a shortened form of her nom de plume “Amira” in A Collection of Hymns Adapted to Public Worship (1769), compiled by two West Country Baptist ministers, John Ash of Pershore (brother-in-law of her sister-in-law, Martha Steele, second wife of William Steele IV) and Caleb Evans of Bristol (a long-time family friend). Like her mother, Mary Wakeford also kept a diary, but only a few entries copied by one of her descendants remain extant.

During the 1740s and ’50s Mary Steele Wakeford (as “Amira”) participated in several poetic dialogues with her sister Anne (“Silviana”), her brother William (“Philander”), and their literary friends, which included, among others, the Presbyterian minister John Lavington, Jr., of Ottery St. Mary (“Lysander”), the Independent minister Philip Furneaux of London (“Lucius”), and the Baptist minister Caleb Evans of Bristol (“Fidelio”) [also Daniel Turner and James Fanch]. Wakeford’s poems were composed primarily between 1748 (the year prior to her marriage) and 1769 (three years before her death). Thirteen poems of these poems were copied into a small MS volume titled “Poems on Devotional Subjects” which also belongs to the Steele Collection, where it is joined by five occasional poems on loose sheets of paper. Included in this volume are her hymns as well as her tribute poem to Hannah Wakeford, “Aminta, though my Eyes ne’er saw thy beauties.” Three riddles by Wakeford can also be found in the Reeves Collection at the Bodleian Library.

Religious experience and Christian doctrine are prominent throughout her poetry, even her occasional poems. In “Omnipotent Creator, gracious God,” a doctrinal discourse in blank verse, Wakeford, the “poor defenceless Worm,” seeks to be clothed and “made worthy” by the “perfect righteousness” of Christ, thus becoming through election a recipient of divine grace. Lest the doctrine of “perseverance” be slighted, she emphatically declares that such election is “Forever,” those three syllables standing alone in line 35. Wakeford’s poem of reflection concerning the passing of the year 1748 (a practice employed by Hannah Wakeford and others in the Steele Circle) also uses blank verse and another version of a line consisting only of “Forever.” Wakeford’s poem on Edward Young’s Night Thoughts emphasizes the importance of the heavenly world (the ‘Realms of bright glory’) beyond ‘this bubble world’, thus reflecting a prominent theme in nonconformist poetry (the superiority of the next world to this world) as well as the popularity of Night Thoughts among the members of the Steele circle.

During her twenty years of composing poetry, Wakeford frequently resorted to self-deprecation when commenting on her poetry, a self-deprecation that belies both the verbal and metrical cleverness that distinguishes her poetry from that of her sister. In ‘To Theodosia’, dated April 3, 1769, she confesses she is not the equal of her sister in composing pastoral poetry, with its ‘soft poetic numbers’ (that lead the reader, more times than not, ‘to gentle Slumbers’), or the poetry of nature, depicting ‘the Majestic, and Sublime’ views derived from climbing ‘craggy Rocks’ or from some ‘low Creek’ (when the poet is lucky not to fall and ‘break [her] neck!’), or the heroic epic (which drags on like ‘an old horse’), or odes and philosophical verse essays (for which a discourse on ‘an Ox, a flea’ will qualify), or pastoral elegies (a ‘Music’ that ‘charms the Nymphs and Swains’ like ‘Pigs a ringing’). Religious verse she will not disparage, however, except possibly Ralph Erskine’s Gospel Sonnets (1726). At best, Wakeford’s poem may please ‘the little folks’, she writes in closing, but they are ‘a sad transgression / Against sage judgment and discretion’. Nevertheless, she is confident Theodosia will overlook her ‘offence’, ending her playful verse epistle in typical Wakeford style with a metrically correct signature: ‘Amira.—now M.W’. Mary Wakeford’s poetry, despite her claim to the contrary, is of very high quality. Her religious poetry is painfully honest, and though her occasional verse differs considerably from that of her sister (less elegant and smooth, to be sure), she demonstrates a cleverness of content and style unlike any other woman poet in the Steele Circle.

Included among Wakeford’s poems are seven hymns, all composed in quatrains, with five using common meter, the most popular hymn meters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These hymns, like those of her sister, are expressions of her Calvinist faith, sometimes deeply personal and at other times more communal and doctrinal. Of her seven hymns, only “Jesus, and didst thou condescend” has appeared in print, initially in the Bristol Collection of 1769. Ash and Evans included more than sixty hymns by Anne Steele in their hymnal, so adding one by Wakeford would have seemed appropriate.