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.
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.
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.)
June 22, 1835 Frances mentioned to her friend William Irons that she had picked up a pebble on "Diadem Hill" at Annesley in memory of "my friend in early life, Byron's Mary." Both Byron and Mary were deceased by this time.
"Byron" was George Gordon Lord Byron, heir of Newstead Abbey and the celebrated poet. "Mary" was Mary Ann Chaworth, heiress of Annesley, the estate adjacent to Byron's. Mary was older than Byron, but he fell in love with her when as a child he first saw her. He visited Annesley frequently. However, Mary was in love with John Musters, and when she married him, it supposedly broke Byron's heart. He wrote a famous poem, "The Dream," about Mary and their relationship, and in the poem he mentioned being on "Diadem Hill" with her while she watched for John Musters.
Earlier, Frances had written to Irons, "The 'Diadem' is cut down and universally deplored." Washington Irving had a hand in the "universal" disgust. He had visited Annesley and swallowed the old housekeeper's story that Mary's and Byron's lives were ruined by her marriage to John Musters. Irving's account was widely read, so when Mr. Musters (who was Frances' host about the time she wrote this letter) cut down the trees on Diadem hill, he was thought to be acting vengefully.
Frances and Sophie Musters (John and Mary's daughter) knew better and planned together to have the facts brought to light, but Sophie's marriage prevented the project's completion.
What was the truth concerning Mary's marriage to John? What was the real reason Mr. Musters cut down the trees? That can be found in Frances Rolleston: British Lady, Scholar and Writer of Mazzaroth in the chapter "On Trees and Poetry."
Yesterday was the anniversary of poet John Milton's birth. You can probably tell from the style of his clothing that he lived in the 1600s. He lived through the English Civil War and used his pen to support republicanism, and social and ecclesiastical reform.
Milton is best known for the epic poem, "Paradise Lost," written in blank verse after he was blind in the later years of his life. This poem was Frances Rolleston's first acquaintance of Milton's works:
I liked it at ten years old as a wild story; it then grew dull to me, but I thought I ought to like it, and did not confess to myself that I did not, but persevered in reading it frequently; for the last five or seven years it has been gradually rising in my opinion; every book I read, every years I live, gives me more insight into, and greater admiration of, Milton.
Frances was about twenty-four at the time she wrote this. Her admiration of Milton never diminished. In her late seventies and early eighties, while putting the Psalms of the Bible into meter, she calls upon Milton's work as a model:
I also wish to preserve Hebraisms as often as I can. Milton is my only justification, he thinks and writes Hebraically, and his is the only metre justifiying mine, especially his "Samson Agonistes." . . . I find the eleven syllabled line, so often used by Milton in "Samson," is the natural tendency of all long Hebrew lines; ten seldom will hold them, twelve should only end a verse or subject.
Milton's life makes interesting reading—in hiding during the Restoration because of his pro Parliament writing, three wives, unorthodox views, and support of freedom of the press, among other things.
Wehaven't long until autumn turns to winter, so I thought I'd share a few lines of poetry by Frances Rolleston to celebrate autumn. These lines are taken from a poem she wrote to honor James Montgomery, well-known hymn writer of her time.
A few more days, these voices shall be mute,
Now singing in the branches, eve and morn,
And in the azure noon, the song of hope;
For now the sun descends, the year declines,
. . .
Sweet birds, I prize each failing note the more,
For coming silence; mute the many then,
And I shall listen for the wind above,
Among the murmuring boughs, or the faint tone
Of rippling streams among the broken stones,
Smoothed by the gliding waters, or at eve
To one lone songster from the distant hill,
More valued for its soleness;
. . .
That autumn songster has beheld the fall
Of his sweet summer bower, his hopes of spring,
And sadness mingles with his notes of joy.
On this day in 1832, Sir Walter Scott, poet and novelist, passed from this life. Scott was famous for his poetry before trying his hand at novel writing. Since poetry was held in high regard, and novels considered to be of less importance, he endeavored (unsuccessfully) to keep his novels anonymous.
Scott wrote about historical traditions of the kind that appealed to Frances Rolleston. She considered herself an "Anglo-Saxon enthusiast." Ivanhoe, which portrayed the cruel Normans lording it over the Saxons, would certainly have pleased her. She recommended Scott's works as good reading for children.
So, although Frances feared, while still young, an old age of novel reading, she did later see value in novels.
On this day in 1834, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge died. Frances Rolleston mentioned Coleridge several times in her letters. We learn that when Frances bought that first volume of William Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner was included. She read the Rime constantly "with ever increasing delight," and thought it eclipsed all the ballads as poetry. This is significant, since it was Wordsworth who was ever her favorite poet.
In a later letter, Frances recommends Coleridge's "exquisite poem," Lesson to Fathers," to a young mother. This was in response to her young son's remark, "If he was not to have gunpowder, why did they give him a cannon?" Frances complimented the boy as "a great philosopher" and suggested the poem because it agreed with the old proverb, "never say A, if you don't mean to say B."
Here is a link to the Wikipedia article on Coleridge.
February 20th, 1860
The excitement of the brain of which I complained seems to have yielded to the counter-excitement of the Psalms. There is a young lady here, a real Hebrew scholar, who reads them for me, and is a judge of their accuracy.
Hebrew and poetry were two of FR's passions. They came together as she spent many hours translating the poetical passages of the Bible into poetic meter. This letter was written in her 80th year, and she was finding the work on the Psalms reviving to her. Her plan was to begin with Lamech's poem in Genesis and go right through to the Gospels to include the song of Mary and the prophecy of Zacharias.
My object is to keep as close as possible to our admirable E.V., only making it verse, not prose, and generally finding an obscurity in each Psalm, that I alter. I also wish to preserve Hebraisms as often as I can . . . Mine are not paraphrases, but the very closest translation I can give.
FR admired Milton and believed that he thought and wrote Hebraically, and that the meter he used was right for her work.
I find the eleven syllabled line, so often used by Milton in "Samson," is the natural tendency of all long Hebrew lines: ten seldom will hold them, twelve should only end a verse or subject.
FR's Metrical Versions of Early Hebrew Poetry was finally published three years after her death.
While in Malvern, just before her relocation to Keswick, FR made the acquaintance of two sisters, Bessie and Caroline Dent. They found their interests so similar and the sisters were so taken with FR's theory of the constellations, that they were instant close friends. These interests included poetry, painting, and the Scriptures.
Since FR was older than they, the sisters began to call her "Aunt," and she was delighted by this new relationship. So many of her friends had already died that at times she felt bereft.
The women sent their sketches, paintings and poetry to one another, sometimes just to share it and sometimes seeking advice. This excerpt from a letter demonstrates their mutual affection.
To the Misses Dent. Keswick, January 17th, 1849.
I think I ought to write an epitaph "on two fair sisters smothered in sonnets," by a cruel aunt, as bad as an uncle, vide Babes in the Wood—for lo! here are more that would be written, it's no use resisting, when the thought has rolled in my brain the destined time, out it will come. And of most of these the first idea was spoken to you, on the scenery viewed together.