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.
October 3rd, 1862
A friend sent FR a proof of his review of "Purgatorio," one part of Dante's The Divine Comedy, and she wrote to thank him for it. She then shared her interest in the Italian poets.
"In early life I was deep in the Italian poets, particularly what then no one cared for . . . their grand patriotic and political poetry. . . . Some years ago the railway thieves stole a box of books of mine and all my Italian poets, so I have not read of late, but I have often thought of Dante, Petrarca, and Filicaia, and their almost prophetic anticipations of the future of Italy, now come."
What was this future now come? For years Italy had been struggling towards unification. Finally, in March of 1861, the Italian Parliament proclaimed Victor Emmanuel King of Italy, and Rome as its capital, even though Rome was not yet part of the united area. In August of 1862, Garibaldi led his army in an unsuccessful bid to annex Rome, and this is where things now stood.
Two years previously FR was collecting money for Garibaldi by means of a woman's penny subscription: ". . . Garibaldi has opened twelve Orphan Asylums in Naples he really deserves our aid."
September 16, 1858
"MY DEAREST CARY,
"_____ _____ wants materials for a speech, or something about Dunmail Raise. I had an old unﬁnished sonnet on it, sketched, with the view on the spot, so I hunted it up, and the crabbed task I have had to ﬁnish it has almost disgusted me with sonnet writing. Cramming one’s thoughts in that measure is like a carpet bag that won't shut . . . ."
FR referred to herself as a Anglo-Saxon enthusiast, which is why she would have visited Dunmail Raise and started a piece of poetry about it. Dunmail Raise is a pass on the Keswick-Kendal road which in AD 945 was the scene of a bloody battle between the King of Cumbria and the Saxon King Edmund First and Malcolm, King of Scots.
Stories of heroism moved FR; she was always a Romanticist. Trying to cram her romantic thoughts into the sonnet form would certainly have left her feeling cramped—and crabby.
August 9, 1847
FR wrote to her friend the Rev. Irons that the first lines of poetry she ever felt were those from John Milton's "Il Penseroso":
And may at last my weary eye
Find out the peaceful hermitage.
She misquoted—eye rather than age--but the lines haunted her and became a prayer. She was weary of homelessness. Then she came to the Lakes District, to Bowness, to a home "strangely fulfilling my visioned dwelling."
She describes it: "A lonely stone-walled house with ivy and creepers, standing in a hollow half way up a rocky hill, the garden with starting-out rocks and bursting springs, all run wild, but capable of great beauty, 'wooded Winandermere the river-lake' from my bedroom window, and from the garden top the splendid amphitheatre of mountains. . . slate floors and stairs, beams for ceilings, walls near three feet thick, of rough stone outside. All very hermit-like."
FR began bringing in moss for the window sills long before she realized she was completing the "mossy cell," image of the poem. The last ten lines of "Il Penseroso" go thus:
And may at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The Hairy Gown and Mossy Cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell
Of every Star that Heav'n doth shew,
And every Herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetic strain.
These pleasures Melancholy give,
And I with thee will choose to live. (lines 168-76)
How fitting these lines for one who so loved the natural world—the stars, the herbs—and who felt within herself the melancholy poetic spirit.
June 5, 1847
FR arrived in the English Lakes District for the first time. At last she laid eyes on real mountains. She had admired them in paintings and copied paintings of them, but had never seen them.
"The vision of my youth is before me, at length I have seen the mountains, and the reality is even far beyond the pictures I have often copied and oftener admired. The forms, the colour, are equally beyond the reach of art; poetry and imagination had gone nearer, in Wordsworth's Excursion I had seen them far better."
On this first visit, FR stayed at Bowness. The next spring she moved to Keswick, where she remained for the last 15 years of her life.
The photo above is of Derwent Water next to Keswick taken on my trip this past April.
Near the schoolhouse runs a brook with the pastoral name of Sheep-wash. A little footbridge crosses it, a long, broad slab of stone. Behind the schoolhouse lie green meadows on the slope of a hill where sit the remains of a castle; a rookery crowns the hill. The shallow brook presents a challenge to teachers and mothers, for the children love to walk in it, especially in warm weather, but fail to remove their shoes.
This afternoon, students emerge from the schoolhouse, and Miss Rolleston follows the last stragglers out. She overtakes the children by the brook. Some are gathering early violets. One group occupies the bridge to dispute the teacher’s passage, clinging affectionately to her. She has the “Violet Lesson” in her hand and three or four children begin at once to read the lines they already know, tracing them with their fingers. One little blue-eyed one repeats
The lily loves the pleasant sound
By running waters made.
As she reads, she glances expressively at the rippling water, turning her ear toward its sound. The teacher is struck by the tiny child’s obvious understanding of the words the pleasant sound, and decides then and there to retain that wording in her little poem, which runs in full as
The violet loves the sunny bank
The primrose loves the shade
The lily loves the pleasant sound
By running waters made.
She had for a while changed the wording of the third line to “The lily of the vale, the sound,” hoping to make it more easily understood. But the little girl obviously felt and understood the original version. Four or five of the little ones now go over the song something in the style of ancient catches and glees, some singing out of the glee in their hearts and catching each other up.
Miss Rolleston observes her little charges closely, and uses their natural learning methods to build her teaching techniques.
February 15, 1828 in a letter to her friend the Rev. Henry Thompson: I am "much pleased that you have come to the same conclusion with myself, that he who said religious poetry was a hopeless attempt, was neither truly poetical, nor . . . truly pious."
At this time FR was 46 and already writing religious poetry. Her love of poetry and of religious subjects never diminished. In her eighties she spent many happy hours putting Hebrew poetry (the Psalms and other Bible portions) into English, maintaining the meter of the original.
On February 11, 1862 (age 80) she enclosed in a letter the following:
The Great Physician
Take thy sick heart to Jesus, He will heal it,
The Great Physician He, I know and feel it.
Oh, seek no other help, in self no cure,
He knows, He feels, what suffering hearts endure.
My Lord and Saviour, lo, for help I faint,
There is no help in man, nor sage, nor saint,
And least of all in self; oh, I am weak,
Therefore, my Lord, for strength in Thee I seek;
Strength from the strong, and mercy from the kind,
Love from the Loving One in Thee I find.
Without Thee light were darkness, day were night,
Here walk I but by faith, and not by sight.
Oh, rise on my deep darkness, heavenly Sun,
So shall my night be ended, day begun.
In Thee is help and cure, I know and feel it;
My heart is in Thine hand, Oh, take and heal it.