Today in 1736, James Macpherson was born in Inverness, Scotland. He became a poet and politician, but what Frances Rolleston knew him for, and what he is best remembered for even today, was a deception.
Macpherson collected old Gallic poetry manuscripts, and his collection was impressive enough that money was raised to help him with his research. Then at age 25 he announced the discovery of an epic from the 3rd century. He published his own translation of this epic which he called Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, together with Several Other Poems composed by Ossian, the Son of Fingal, translated from the Gaelic Language.
Since there was no other Gallic work earlier than the 10th century, it gained attention and became an immediate controversy. The Irish historian Charles O'Conor, among others, noted technical errors in chronology and in the forming of Gaelic names, among other questionable things, which Macpherson could not defend. He never produced the "manuscripts" in question.
However, at least one child enjoyed Macpherson's book. Ten-year-old Frances Rolleston discovered the epic in her old cousin's library (she had been sent to her cousin for three years after the death of her mother), and it made a great, impression on her young mind. She "devoured it," she said, for after all, there she was living in Ossianic country (Yorkshire). But her cousin's daughter took the book away from her, saying that the child was too romantic already.
October 20, 1853 an article or a letter by Frances Rolleston about William Blake appeared in London's Patriot newspaper. I would like to have a copy of what she wrote. (Although the source is searchable, I haven't the time today to search.) Blake was a most interesting artist, writer, and poet, considered a lunatic by some, and unappreciated during most of his lifetime. He died in 1827. What did Frances really think of his work? Click on the image for a link to others of his work.
Today, September 22, 2017, is autumn equinox. One might think of equinox as one point on a continuum. The three paragraphs here have to do with continuation.
From the autumn equinox, the sun continues its path southward and the daylight hours continue to shrink until the next solstice. Frances Rolleston mentioned the spring equinox a number of times in her letters. She understood the workings of calendars—their history and how to change dates from one system to another—all beyond me.
September 22, 1791 Michael Faraday was born in London. He became a physicist and discovered electro-magnetic induction, thus continuing the many scientific discoveries of the 19th century. Frances was interested in all manner of science, but I do not know how acquainted she was with Faraday's work although, he associated with Humphry Davy, whom Frances knew. Some years earlier, Luigi Galvani had worked with electricity with an interest in benefiting the human body. At one time Frances allowed herself to be "Galvanized" in order to heal her chilblains. This appears to be her only "contact" with electricity.
September 22, 1863 Frances wrote to her niece who was about to be married. Frances mentioned her pleasant recollections of the niece's lively and interesting childhood, and wished this new season of life to be an even happier continuation of the sunny one she remembered with so much pleasure.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born August 4, 1792. Some might argue that he was the greatest among English Romantic poets. His work influenced generations of poets and continues to do so.
Frances Rolleston had a high opinion of Shelley's work, even though during his life time his progressive views hindered his acceptance. She mentioned him several times in her letters.
In 1859 Frances was working on metrical translations of poetical passages of the Bible. It may have been in connection to her work on Canticles (The Song of Solomon) that she wrote:
I am puzzled what to call my metre, it is more like Shelley than any other, in the dialogues of his "Prometheus Unbound," still it is in the cadence of the Hebrew, and nearer to its measure than any other I can trace. The irregular measure I tried disgusted me: this has fascinated me at once—it is Hebraistic.
Poetry has gone through many style changes, and sometimes it seems as though style doesn't matter at all. Meters, measures, cadences—who cares about that? But in Frances' day, poetry was serious business—not just in the thoughts contained in the words, but also in form and musical aspect. Shelley was innovative—radical, some said—yet he did not discard the principles which contributed to the enduring admiration of his poetry.
On July 29, 1818, Gaspard Monge, French mathematician, died in Paris. You can read about his life and how it was affected by the French Revolution here. However, this blog is not about Monge. I mention him only because the fact of his passing reminded me of the fun Frances Rolleston had with French mathematics.
A French nobleman who had fled the Revolution tutored her in French and mathematics. The system he taught her was later adopted in English universities, but before it was widely known, Frances had fun stumping her acquaintances with problems which now seem simple to us.
The following is from a letter she wrote some time after the events.
My French friend despised English mathematics. He told me to try my professing friends with these two questions; first, what is two-thirds of three-fourths? It was curious to see gentlemen who had taken their degree, fill quantities of paper, and come to no satisfactory answer. One clergyman, who was trying to puzzle a young disciple of mine studying for college, could not master this simple problem. Then said I, try another, of which my French friend had said, 'No Englishman can do this'—'PROVE that two and two make four." After making his wife and young cousin laugh at his failure, he gave it up, and I was obliged to show him the French proof.
Some time later when Frances told this story to a new college graduate, he said, "We know that now, we are taught on the French plan." So the English have at least this to thank the French for.
Frances Rolleston had just turned 15, when this day in 1796, Robert Burns died. Called the Scottish Bard, he carried other titles in honor of his poetry, of which much was in the Scottish dialect. Frances must have known of his passing because already she was enthusiastic about poetry.
In the summer of 1841, Frances wrote to her old friend the Rev. Henry Thompson: "I send you two ballads I manufactured with an eye to Burns, out of some raw material in the "Fairy Mythology."
Which two of her ballads these were, I can't say. But in 1850 Thompson published Original Ballads by Living Authors which included six by Frances. Perhaps they were "St. Patrick's Staff" and "Braithwell Cross," since these are based on ancient events. But they may have been others more influenced by folklore. It is certain that Burns enjoyed such topics:
"In my infant and boyish days too, I owed much to an old Maid of my Mother's, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity and superstition.--She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the county of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, inchanted towers, dragons and other trumpery.--This cultivated the latent seeds of Poesy...." (from the Poetry Foundation.)
On this day 1794, William Whewell, was born. He was to become a philosopher, science historian, writer, poet, and Anglican priest.
In September 1854 an acquaintance brought Frances Rolleston a new book by Whewell, The Plurality of Worlds, an Essay. After reading it, she responded thus:
"The most horrid and detestable book I have seen for many years—it almost made me ill."
And what was so horrid about Whewell's essay? Why, he believed that the solar system consisted entirely of matter—Jupiter water, Saturn cork, Venus bronze, and Mercury silver! And Frances, along with many of her day, believed that these worlds were filled with living beings.
It's hard for us to imagine that only 150 years ago intelligent, educated people believed that life existed on the planets of our solar system. Even the sun was thought to be inhabited. Solar spots were universally admitted to be openings in the luminous stratum, not opaque scoriae floating on its surface. Even Sir William Herschel, who we consider a big name in astronomy, suggested that the light of the sun issues from an outer stratum of self-luminous material, beneath which is a second stratum of clouds designed to protect the solid body of the sun, and its inhabitants, from the intense heat and brilliancy surrounding them.
So Frances is not to be considered ignorant in her horror at Whewell's proposal.
In May 1855 Frances received some writings by or about Emmanuel Swedenborg at the time she was entertaining a guest who followed Swedenborg's teachings. Frances' comments to the person who sent them were a lovely example of a Christian spirit.
Swedenborg was a scientist and philosopher whose teachings on the Scriptures attracted a following and eventually led to the establishment of several denominations.
The extracts Frances received, though not uncomplimentary to the man (the Swedenborgian visitor read them with pleasure) were accompanied by a comment that must have seemed so. Frances replied, "You were quite right about his not being sane, but he had a fine feeling and a Christian heart."
Frances had a loving way about her by which she pointed out error, or what she considered error, without putting down the person—a trait we would all do well to emulate.
May 6th, 1862 Frances wrote to her friend Miss Rigby, who had helped Frances think through some points in her writing. Miss Rigby was perhaps planning to have some printing done since Frances closed the letter with this: "I will enclose specimens of the women printers, they execute beautifully—Miss E. Faithfull and her female 'staff'—pray show them."
Emily Faithfull (1835-1895) worked for women's interests toward their improved status, employment and education. Most interested in the employment aspect, she was a member of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women.
One occupation she felt was suitable for women was that of compositor (typesetter). This idea upset the London Printers Union which held that women did not have the intelligence or physical skill for that work.
Emily, nevertheless, set up the Victoria Press in London which soon gained a reputation for excellent work, so much so that Emily was appointed printer and publisher in ordinary to Queen Victoria.
Even Frances far north in Keswick was aware of that reputation.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of the passing of James Montgomery, poet and writer of hymns. Frances Rolleston admired him, as did many others, especially those in Sheffield, England where he lived. A number of streets and public buildings are named for him.
Twice Montgomery was imprisoned for "sedition," the first time in 1795 for writing a poem celebrating the fall of the Bastille. The authorities' fear, of course, was that revolution would spread from France to England. Montgomery was imprisoned the next year for criticizing a magistrate for using force to break up a protest. Montgomery managed to profit from this experience by publishing a collection of poems written during the imprisonment.
Montgomery's activities in social issues extended to the anti-slavery movement, and this is how Frances Rolleston connected with him. They were both asked, along with others, to write hymns for an anti-slavery gathering in Sheffield. Montgomery admired Frances' hymn as the jewel of the collection—his own excepted. In appreciation, she wrote a poem addressed to him.* Montgomery wrote 400 hymns, many still in use today. More about Montgomery's hymns.
*This poem is in Appendix C of Frances Rolleston: British Lady, Scholar and Writer of Mazzaroth.