Inspired by my recent purchase of my great*3 grandfather Weeden's 1821 letter about a poetry review
, I decided to do a bit more digging.
I've often thought that Weeden was not a particularly happy ancestor. His father, Weeden Sr., was quite a difficult person to live up to; he may also have felt overshadowed by his younger brother George, who was not only Senior Wrangler at Cambridge but went on to be Headmaster of Harrow, while Weeden just carried on with the family school in Chelsea. Hints dropped in a memoir by his granddaughter suggest that Weeden Jr. was cast into a depression by the deaths of his wife and teenage son - the latter, in 1830, being followed swiftly by his own, at the age of 58.
That happened in 1831. Working backwards, we can see a kind of trajectory, and it's a rather unhappy one. In 1821, in his late '40s, he's writing his slightly snippy letter to the Gentleman's Magazine
. Do we hear a batsqueak of disappointed literary ambition - or am I just projecting?
In 1814, he's taking over the school from his father, who's just retired - shaken, no doubt, by the death that year of Weeden and George's younger brother Charles, who was master of the East Indiaman William Pitt
and drowned with all hands off Algoa Bay. Still, it's a new beginning of sorts, and Weeden's pupils include a young Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose family lived down the road.
In 1800, still in his late '20s, he's writing his passionate-if-eccentric anti-slavery volume, Zimao the African
. How widely read it was I don't know. No one speaks of Weeden in the same breath as Wilberforce, but he was doing his bit for the cause...
Then there are the Bagatelles
. This collection of poems and translations was published in 1795, when Weeden had only just come down from Cambridge - it includes some pieces written in his teens. What kind of person do they speak of?
Well, here's the Preface, in which literary ambition is scarcely suppressed:
The contents are a very mixed bag. The first poem, "The Slave," is striking enough in its subject, which anticipates Zimao
. The first-person speaker, the slave Maratan, adopts a very eighteenth-century idiom, but Weeden's sympathies are clearly already engaged by the cruelties of the slave trade. Weeden was no fair-weather abolitionist:
Can I think upon the day
When I left my native home,
Forc'd reluctantly away,
To these barbarous climes to come?
Torn from countries, friends, relations,
Torn from all my soul holds dear,
To endure the worst vexations,
Under cruel bondage, here!
Yet, though thus deceiv'd I be,
And by fraud enroll'd a slave,
Still the inward man is free,
And unfetter'd as the wave.
Nor is Maratan the only oppressed speaker in the volume. The first four poems are all laments by various persecuted peoples of Weeden's time: 'The Indian Warrior, bound to the stake,' 'The American Warrior, after a defeat' ('the sad Carandoc left his native home/ Compell'd through drear Columbia's wilds to roam') and 'The Indian in Despair.' They may not be great poetry, but they're hardly the kind of frivolous production implied by 'bagatelles.'
However, after this quadruple whammy of contemporary oppression, and a fifth more historical piece, 'Belisario' ('A young Roman recites the misfortunes of his general, to a concourse of peasants, upon an extensive plain
'), we move to a far more mixed set. Sadly, I have to report that much of it is the kind of thing that Lyrical Ballads
(published just three years later) was destined - and designed - to make obsolete. Take the opening of 'A Night Storm':
Now gloomy Night expands her sable wings:
Now a dread silence o'er the plain is cast,
Save where the warbling Philomela sings,
Or dry leaves rustle in the eddying blast.
I mean, it's not terrible, but it's sixty years out of date. No need to look ahead to Romantics: put it next to Thompson's Seasons
from the 1720s and its stiffness is too plain.
There are love poems (in which Weeden assumes the poetic moniker, Edwin); there are poems in praise of Chelsea and his father, a number of translations, a comic poem written in the person of 'A Rusticated Cantab' under the name Phileleutherus Cantabrigiensis, and so on. One possibly telling composition is called 'On Poetry,' and records Weeden's preference for poetry over science, in which study he admits that he has little skill:
Ill suits, dear Emma, with thine Edwin's powers,
The mighty lore of Newton to peruse,
[He first explain'd dame Nature's laws abstruse,
In that great work whose ample volume showers
A blaze of light, rich knowledge to diffuse
O'er each young student's mind, midst Granta's bowers.]
I love to cull the gay luxuriant flowers
Of gentle poetry, and rather chuse
To greet with numbers wild the fleeting hours,
And taste those joys Ambition's sons refuse.
I can't help wondering whether this is a preemptive attempt to claim (in the way some families have) a certain territory for himself, while ceding the fields of mathematics and ambition to clever brother George, whose Senior Wranglership happened the year before Bagatelles
was published. (Having struggled with the Principia
myself, I do sympathise.)
Another poem, 'Upon the Death,' is dedicated to 'A Gallant Young Naval Officer, Who Was Shot in the Action of the First of June, 1794.' The officer in question is Weeden's cousin, Richard Dawes, two of whose brothers had already been killed in the service of the East India Company, in Mysore and Bangalore. (Another cousin, Daniel Southwell, whose earlier adventures with the First Fleet
I've recounted before, was present at the same battle, and wrote an exultant letter to Weeden Sr.
the same day, being presumably ignorant of Richard's death. It would be three more years before Daniel too was killed, in Tenerife.)
In 'The Wish,' we find Weeden looking forward to the moment of his own death:
So, when the close of life draws nigh,
All anxious fears may I defy,
To leave this world unmov'd.
And may each liberal person say,
As tow'rd my grave he bends his way,
"Him all the virtues lov'd:
No sordid views his mind opprest,
In blessing he himself was blest,
He scorn'd all foolish pride:
The tears he wip'd from every eye,
And, ripe for Heav'n, without a sigh,
At length serenely died."
I would like to think that happened. However, the only time I find Weeden really happy is on his nineteenth birthday:
Thanks to kind Providence that plac'd me here,
To-day I enter on my twentieth year.
Oh! may no future time disturb the bliss,
The peace of conscience, that I feel at this.
I'd like to think that happened, too. But appearances and circumstances both are against it.