Two Poems to Mary Steele (1769):

"To Silvia" and "Silvia's Rattle"

Background and Analysis on these two Poems

In 1843, John Holland, in The Psalmists of Britain, mistakenly attributed the epitaph on Anne Steele’s tomb at Broughton to Mary Steele, Anne Steele’s niece. His terse footnote on Mary Steele, however, at that time only the second identification of her as a poet to appear in print, was spot on: “Afterwards Mrs. Dunscombe; and said by one who knew her to have ‘possessed no small share of Theodosia’s poetic genius and Christian excellence’” (2: 223).[1] The collaborative and communal aspect of her artistic connection with her aunt is implicit in the assertion by Holland’s unidentified source that Mary Steele possessed a “share” of Anne Steele’s “poetic genius,” a share that fortunately yielded social and artistic dividends far beyond “the circle of her [aunt’s] personal friends” or the limited bounds of Holland’s knowledge. Mary Steele’s “genius,” however, was not only shaped by Anne Steele but also by her other aunt, Mary Steele Wakeford, a poet whose influence in the late 1760s would prove pivotal in her niece’s composition of Danebury and her decision to pursue a life of poetry, and her father, William Steele IV, whose role as promoter and agent for his poet daughter reveals much about women’s coterie authorship in the eighteenth century.

“Sylvia” (sometimes spelled “Silvia”), as she was known within the Steele circle, was born on July 24, 1753, the daughter of William Steele IV (1715-85) of Broughton, Hampshire, and Mary Bullock (1713-62) of Yeovil, Somerset. Her grandfather, William Steele III (1689-1769), succeeded his uncle, Henry Steele (1655-1739), as pastor of the Baptist congregation at Broughton in 1739. The two elder Steeles were not only ministers but also successful timber merchants and farmers who by the mid-1700s had become large landowners in Broughton and the surrounding area. Mary Steele lived most of her life in a stately Georgian manor house (later called “Broughton House”) purchased by her father in 1758 and located just down the lane from “Grandfathers,” where Anne Steele lived with her parents before moving in with her brother’s family in 1769. Anne Steele (“Theodosia” to the outside world but “Silviana” within the family circle) was primarily responsible for her niece’s early education, inculcating in her a distinct love of poetry and a profound reverence for the family’s Particular (Calvinistic) Baptist faith. Mary Wakeford (“Amira” within the circle), no average poet herself, also served an important role as a subsidiary mentor. After her marriage in 1749, Wakeford resided in Andover, Hampshire, where she maintained a keen interest in the progress of her precocious niece. In January 1767, during a visit to Broughton, Wakeford noted in her diary that another female poet had emerged among the Steeles. She told her sister that she could not help but notice young Mary’s “dawning genius which is remarkable, and her hopefully serious turn” (NWW 3: 9).[2] Thirteen-year-old Mary Steele, home on break from Mrs. King’s school in Hackney where she attended from 1766-69,[3] had discovered not only the power of personal faith at school but also the power of poetry and female friendship, enough for Wakeford to conclude that her niece had quietly grasped a sense of inherited identity and would soon be following in Anne Steele’s footsteps.

Two years later, Wakeford, now convinced of Mary Steele’s intention to become a second “Theodosia,” composed two clever yet poignant verse epistles to her young, idealistic niece. Unlike the poems addressed to a very young Mary Steele in Anne Steele’s little known Verses for Children (1788),[4] Wakeford’s poems are addressed to a more mature “Silvia,” her niece’s literary identity within the Steele circle. Wakeford’s playful wit and hard-nosed pragmatism stand in stark contrast to the didacticism of Anne Steele’s earlier poems to young Mary. Wakeford does not offer her niece spiritual wisdom but rather practical advice about the inescapable difficulties she will face if she attempts to combine a life dedicated to poetry and the pleasures of the mind with the all-too-typical life of an eighteenth-century woman devoted to her husband and mundane domestic concerns. Wakeford is convinced the tension between these two states of existence will be impossible for her niece to ignore, and if she persists in becoming a poet, difficult to overcome.

Wakeford’s two poems were composed in the early months of 1769, not long after Mary Steele had completed Danebury[5] and a little more than a decade after a series of letters passed between Wakeford and her sister Anne concerning courtship and marriage and the inevitable conflict between the aesthetic life of the woman-poet and the domesticity required of the typical eighteenth-century wife and mother. At times Wakeford expresses irritation with her sister’s repeated overtures about writing, for in her letter of November 10, 1757, she complains that she can scarcely “write three lines in any manner” because “either [she] cannot be alone long enough or other employments demand [her] attention,”[6], a situation created by children and domestic duties, both of which were absent from her sister’s daily routine. That routine will never be altered by marriage on Anne Steele’s part, for during the time of their letter exchange she apparently rejected a suitor. “[D]ear Sisters gentle Swain made a bow I suppose to your curt’sie & drew back his gentle hand did he,” Wakeford asks, “alack a day how cou’d you be so uncivil?”[7]. Silviana, however saw it much differently. “’Tis true, a gentle Swain with many soft intreaties lately offer’d his hand to help me over, but I made him a Curt’sie and declin’d his officious civility, for I look’d over and saw no flowers, but observ’d a great many thorns, and I suppose there are more hid under the leaves.”[8].

Twelve years after this letter exchange, Wakeford’s “To Silvia” (NWW 4: 145-46) depicts some of these same “thorns” that her niece will face if she continues on her path as a poet:

Dear Silvia, Consider, consider in time

The ills that await you, for daring to rhyme;

A girl that’s a writer, a friend of the muses,

Almost ev’ry woman and man too abuses,

And the preacher assures us that wit in a woman,

Is a very sad thing and approv’d of by no man;

A poetical turn too! ah! what man will have ye? [9]

As a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who had already composed Danebury and clearly intended it for publication, Mary Steele’s “poetical turn” (as her aunt put it) was already evident, as was the inevitable conflict between her promising future as an artist and her problematic future as a wife. Whether she would choose to be a single woman and poet like her aunt Steele or a married woman and mother like her aunt Wakeford, Mary Steele’s happiness weighed in the balance.

Despite her own feminist leanings and appreciation of her niece’s talents, Wakeford understood all too well that even women “of genius and taste” (l. 20), if they wish to experience motherhood, are often forced to compromise when it comes to choosing a husband, even settling for “Asses,” as the closing line declares. At the same time, Wakeford warns her niece that creativity and domesticity, art and motherhood, are not an easy mix for any woman, for most husbands, even one who is not an “ass,” will find the choice of a “pudding” or a “poem” for dinner unavoidably incompatible (l. 21). Wakeford understood this conflict, for after her marriage she composed only a handful of poems, though they are among her best. Unlike Anne Steele, Wakeford chose to forego a life of poetry and aesthetic pleasure for a family and domesticity, a choice most eighteenth-century women readily accepted, even relished, but one her niece, like her sister, was willing to reject or at least postpone. The restrictions of domesticity, her aunt fears, will ultimately prove uncongenial to Mary Steele’s vision of artistic freedom and female friendship portrayed in Danebury and shared in 1769 by her coterie of young female friends—Mary Scott, the Attwater sisters, and the Frouds of East Knoyle.

Wakeford’s sincerity, however, is suspect, for no sooner does she suggest that her niece give up her dream of a life of poetry and the imagination if she seeks marriage, children, and domesticity, than she immediately reverses herself in “Silvia’s Rattle,” dated March 10, 1769.[10] Wakeford now proposes that Silvia pursue “Apollo” (7) for a beau, despite her warnings in the previous poem. In one of the most openly feminist poems addressed to an aspiring fifteen-year-old female poet in the canon of eighteenth-century women’s writings (amplified even more by the fact that these sentiments are voiced by a Calvinist Dissenter), Wakeford declares that if Mary Steele cannot be both poet and housewife, then live single “And prove yourself a Heroine!” (42). Wakeford advises her niece to reject the declarations of “Rakes” and “Smarts” (11) with equal seriousness. If not, she will learn, like Raleigh’s shepherdess, that “cherish[ed] beauty” (20) will fade like the promised bed of roses, replaced by a contrived duty that will “stifle [her] wit” (l. 20) solely for the social benefit of her “doughty Mast’r” (l. 21). If Mary’s “poetical turn” unsuits her for the task of “mending” and “making” (l. 31) and “ord’ing all such things aright” (l. 34) in her household, all of which is designed to “please the men” (l. 38), then why try? What she can do is follow Anne Steele’s example and create a radically different role for herself as a woman-poet, a role that transforms her from wife to “Heroine” by choosing, even as a young woman, “To drink the streams of Helicon” (l. 48).

Wakeford recognized that, even at fifteen, Mary Steele’s “genius,” as she termed it, had already created a “path” for her “poetical turn,” a path that would keep her from marrying for nearly thirty years. Wakeford, on the other hand, knew first-hand the difficulties marriage entailed, gently steering her niece in the opposite direction with such lines as “They’re worse companions than the Muses” (l. 68). Wakeford’s path took her “a diff’rent way” (l. 54), however, a way “ne’er the flow’ry plain cou’d reach” (l. 56), yet on her way she left behind a striking tribute to the value of poetry in the life of Mary Steele, her two poems serving as fitting models of the communal, collaborative, and scribal nature of eighteenth-century women’s literary coteries. In this instance, two poems composed for the immediate benefit of a private circle were circulated and preserved as artifacts for future generations, providing a celebratory record of Mary Steele’s decision to follow the admonitions and example of her two aunts concerning the pursuit of the single life dedicated to poetry.


[1] Nonconformist Women Writers, vol. 2, p. 223. For the epitaph on Anne Steele, see “Sepulchral Inscriptions” 321. Holland also gleaned information on Anne Steele from a brief memoir by Caleb Evans inserted at the beginning of Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose and Verse. The best biographical study of Anne Steele is John Broome's A Bruised Reed. Anne Steele: Her Life and Times (Harpenden, Hertfordshire: Gospel Standard Trust Publications, 2007); for a critical discussion of her hymns, see Cynthia Aalders, To Express the Ineffable: The Hymns and Spirituality of Anne Steele (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2008); see also Nonconformist Women Writers, vol. 1, pp. 1-29.

[2] A copy of the only surviving portion of Mary Wakeford’s diary can be found in STE 11/1/ii, Angus Library, Regent's Park College, Oxford.

[3] Mrs. King was the sister of Dr. William King (1701-69), Independent minister at Hare Court, Aldersgate, London, 1740-69.

[4] “To M. S.” and “To M. S. with some Flowers Early in the Spring” (quotations above taken from the second poem, l. 12) (Nonconformist Women Writers, vol. 2, pp. 95, 96, 98). This same spiritual emphasis is evident in the only surviving letter from Anne Steele to Mary Steele, attached to a letter by Anne Steele to William Steele IV, January 5, 1763, in which Anne reminds her niece to “devote your blooming Days to [God’s] Service” (Nonconformist Women Writers, vol. 2, p. 322).

[5] A note attached to a copy of Danebury in STE 14/2, Angus Library, Regent's Park College, Oxford, states that Danebury “was written by Mrs Dunscombe at the age of 15,” which would have been 1768. Another manuscript version of the poem in STE 5/5/ii, residing in a set of poems by Mary Steele dated “1768,” validates that claim.

[6] Nonconformist Women Writers, vol. 2, p. 305.

[7] Nonconformist Women Writers, vol. 2, p. 305.

[8] Nonconformist Women Writers, vol. 2, p. 307.

[9] Nonconformist Women Writers, vol. 4, pp. 145-46, ll. 1-7.

[1o] Nonconformist Women Writers, vol. 4, pp. 146-48.