Last Sunday, on a warm summer evening during the Jane Austen Society of the UK conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, members of the JAS UK and the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Nova Scotia Region read poems by Jane Austen and other members of her family at an event in the beautiful Halifax Public Gardens. The reading was hosted by the Friends of the Public Gardens and organized by Janet Brush. Audience members were encouraged to read as well, from work by Austen or other poets, and they chose poems by such writers as William Blake, John Donne, and Sir Walter Scott. Janet invited me to say a few words about Jane Austen’s poetry at the beginning of the reading, and I decided to post what I said here on my blog as well.
The JAS conference was splendid, and I’m grateful to Patrick Stokes for organizing it and inviting me to give two lectures. I’ll include a few photos from the conference at the end of this blog post, and in July (as promised earlier this month) I’ll write a separate blog post that includes the “Austens in Halifax” walking tour Sheila Johnson Kindred and I prepared to accompany our lecture on “Charles and Francis: Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers on the Royal Navy’s North American Station.”
First, though, here’s what I said about Jane Austen’s poems. This is a slightly longer version of what I said at the poetry reading.
Jane Austen is not usually thought of as a poet. Many of her readers don’t know about her poetry at all—what they know are the “big six” novels, the novels that have made her famous around the world: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion, which were published between 1811 and 1817, the year she died.
The 200th anniversary of her death is next month, on July 18th, and there are events planned in England and around the world to commemorate the occasion, including the conference here in Halifax this week. Members of the Jane Austen Society of the UK have come here to talk about Austen’s novels and about the Austen family’s connection with Nova Scotia. Although Jane Austen herself never visited Halifax—never left England, in fact—two of her brothers were in the Royal Navy and they and their families visited a few times.
Jane Austen is probably best known for creating Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, the heroine and hero of Pride and Prejudice, and that’s partly because the famously “light & bright & sparkling” novel (as she referred to it in a letter to her sister Cassandra on February 4, 1813) has been adapted for film and television several times. But her other works, including her poems, her letters, and the stories and plays she wrote when she was very young, are also well worth our attention, and they give us a richer, fuller picture of her as an artist.
Several of the Austens wrote poetry. There are many poems by Jane’s mother and her older brother James, and there are also riddles and charades composed by other members of the family, including her nieces Fanny Knight and Anna Austen, and her brothers Henry, Charles, and Francis (or Frank).
Charles and Frank are of particular interest to us here in Halifax, because they’re the ones who spent time here when they were posted to the Royal Navy’s North American Station.
Captain Charles Austen was here several times between 1805 and 1811, during Jane Austen’s lifetime, in the years before her two naval novels, Mansfield Park and Persuasion, were published, and she was inspired by his experiences when she created the naval characters in those two novels.
Frank—Admiral Sir Francis Austen—was here many years after her death, when he was Commander-in-Chief of what was by then known as the North American and West Indies Station. He lived in Admiralty House, in the naval yard, which is now the Naval Museum of Halifax.
The Austen family wrote poetry to entertain themselves and their friends, not for publication. Jane Austen once said, when she was encouraged to write a historical romance, “I could no more write a romance than an epic poem” (in a letter written on April 1, 1816). David Selwyn, editor of the Collected Poems and Verse of the Austen Family (1996), has suggested it is “only in an ironic sense that she saw herself as a poet.”
She did not write epic poetry, and she did not, as far as we know, seek to publish her poems. Yet I’m inclined to agree with the argument the Canadian literary critic George Whalley proposes in an essay called “Jane Austen: Poet” (published in Jane Austen’s Achievement , edited by Juliet McMaster). Whalley says she is a poet not primarily because she wrote verses—though she did, and they are clever and entertaining, as you’ll hear in a moment when we read some of them.
Instead, Whalley invokes the Greek root of the word “poet,” poiein, which means “make, do, fashion, or perform,” and he suggests Jane Austen is a poet because she is a “maker” in words, a maker of tragedies as well as of comedies. She is an artist, a creator, a maker with a poetic vision, in her novels, which are her greatest achievement.
(I say more about Whalley and the idea of Jane Austen as a poet in my essay “The Tragic Action of Mansfield Park,” which was published in Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Mansfield Park , edited by Marcia McClintock Folsom and John Wiltshire. An earlier version of that essay appeared in Persuasions On-Line.)
At Sunday’s reading, I chose to focus on three of her poems: “My dearest Frank,” “In measured verse,” and “Winchester Races.” I’ll quote a few lines from them here.
The first poem is a letter Jane Austen wrote to congratulate her brother Frank on the birth of his first son in the summer of 1809. She and her sister Cassandra and their mother had recently settled in a cottage in the village of Chawton, in Hampshire. Frank’s wife and daughter were in nearby Alton, and Frank himself was away on a voyage to China when his son was born. Charles Austen and his family were in Bermuda in 1809, and he brought his wife Fanny and their first baby, Cassy, to Nova Scotia for the first time that fall. (Cassy was baptized at St. Paul’s Church in Halifax on October 6, 1809.) In the last lines of the poem, Jane imagines that perhaps Charles and his family will return to England and settle in the Great House at Chawton, which belonged to her older brother Edward:
You’ll find us very snug next year;
Perhaps with Charles & Fanny near—
For now it often does delight us
To fancy them just over-right us.
I love the fact that North America features so prominently in the second poem I read, “In measured verse,” which Jane Austen wrote for her niece Anna: there are references to “Ontario’s lake,” “Niagara’s Fall,” and “transatlantic groves.” While Jane Austen herself didn’t visit North America, she travelled vast distances in her imagination. She said of Anna that “Her wit descends on foes and friends / Like famed Niagara’s Fall.”
The last poem I read was the last one Jane Austen wrote before she died in July of 1817. She died in Winchester, England, at the age of forty-one, and her beloved sister Cassandra was with her in her final days and hours. Even though she was very ill and must have known she was dying, she chose to write a comic poem. It begins,
When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of St Swithin
And that William of Wykham’s approval was faint.
She wrote it on July 15, St. Swithun’s Day, and she died three days later.
Christy Ann Conlin was the next reader. She read Jane Austen’s “Ode to Pity,” along with a brief excerpt from her novel The Memento. The novel is set in Nova Scotia, at a grand estate called “Petal’s End,” and the descriptions of the estate and garden, “Evermore,” were inspired by Christy Ann’s visits to Uniacke House, Prescott House, and the Halifax Public Gardens, as she discussed in a piece she wrote for my blog last September. The young heroine, Fancy, reminds me of Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland, who thinks with delight of all the gothic horrors that might await her at Northanger Abbey. The crucial difference here, in The Memento, is that Fancy hasn’t simply imagined the stories that haunt the Parker family and their servants at Petal’s End, and Christy Ann’s novel turns out to have even more in common with the ghost stories of Edith Wharton than it does with Austen’s novels.
Janet Brush read Jane Austen’s “Oh! Mr Best, you’re very bad,” we listened to readings from Blake, Donne, Scott, and others, as I mentioned above, and several JAS and JASNA members read from other poems by Jane Austen and her family. Christopher Smith from the JAS amazed and delighted the audience with a dramatic recitation, in French, of two fables by La Fontaine. It was an informal and fun reading, and by the end we were passing around a copy of David Selwyn’s edition of the Collected Poems and Verse of the Austen Family, taking turns choosing what to read next.
Many thanks to everyone who participated, and to Janet and the Friends of the Public Gardens for choosing Jane Austen’s poetry as the theme of the June reading, timed to coincide with the JAS conference. There are more readings planned for July 21st, August 18th, September 23rd, and October 21st, all from 6 to 8pm at the bandstand, to continue the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the Public Gardens.
Here are some of the photos I took at the Jane Austen Society, UK conference in Halifax, “Transatlantic Perspectives on Jane Austen: 200 Years of Persuasion,” 20-27 June 2017. We toured Uniacke House on Friday:
We visited Luckett Vineyards and Grand Pré National Historic Site on Saturday: