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Augusta Webster (1837-1894), 1882 engraving, after Ferrando, 1860's. Courtesy Ms E-Mentor.

Julia Augusta Webster (30 January 1837 - 5 September 1894) was an English poet, dramatist, essayist, and translator.

LifeEdit

OverviewEdit

The daughter of Admiral Davies, she married Thomas Webster, a solicitor. She wrote a novel, Lesley's Guardians, and several books of poetry of distinguished excellence, including Blanche Lisle, Dramatic Studies (1866), Portraits (1870), A Book of Rhyme (1881), and some dramas, including The Auspicious Day (1874), Disguises, and The Sentence (1887). She also made translations of Prometheus Bound and Medea.[1]

Webster was born Julia Augusta Davies at Poole, Dorset. Her father, Vice-admiral George Davies (1800–1876), attained great distinction for services in saving lives from shipwreck (O'Byrne, Naval Biography, pp. 266–7). Her mother, Julia (1803–1897), was the 4th daughter of Joseph Hume (1767–1843) of Somerset House, the intimate friend and associate of Lamb, Hazlitt, and Godwin. Hume was of mixed English, Scottish, and French extraction, and claimed descent from the Humes of Polwarth. He was the author of a translation in blank verse of Dante's Inferno (1812) and of ‘A Search into the Old Testament’ (1841).[2]

Augusta's earliest years were spent on board the Griper in Chichester Harbour and at various seaside places where her father, as lieutenant in the coast guard, held command. In 1842 he attained the rank of commander, and was appointed the next year to the Banff district. The family resided for 6 years in Banff Castle, and Augusta attended a school at Banff.[2]

After a short period spent at Penzance, Davies was appointed in 1851 chief constable of Cambridgeshire, and settled with his family in Cambridge. In 1857 he was nominated also to the chief constableship of Huntingdonshire. At Cambridge Augusta read widely, and attended classes at the Cambridge school of art. During a brief residence at Paris and Geneva she acquired a full knowledge of French. She studied Greek in order to help a young brother, and subsequently learned Italian and Spanish.[2]

In 1860 she published, under the name of Cecil Home, a volume entitled Blanche Lisle, and other poems. Under the same pseudonym appeared in 1864 Lilian Gray, a poem, and Lesley's Guardians, a novel in 3 volumes.[2]

In December 1863 ahe married Thomas Webster, then fellow, and afterwards law lecturer, of Trinity College, Cambridge. There was one child of the marriage, a daughter. In 1870 they left Cambridge for London, where Mr. Webster practised his profession.[2]

Mrs. Webster published in 1866 a literal translation into English verse of the Prometheus Bound of Æschylus. This, and all her subsequent publications, appeared under her own name. She was not a Greek scholar, but her translations — in 1868 appeared the Medea of Euripides — obtained praise from scholars, and proved her a sympathetic student of Greek literature. Her views on translation may be found in two excellent essays contributed to the Examiner, entitled "The Translation of Poetry" and "A Transcript and a Transcription" (cf. A Housewife's Opinions, pp. 61–79). The latter is a review of Browning's Agamemnon.[2]

Webster's first important volume of original verse, Dramatic Studies, was published in 1866. It contains "The Snow-waste," one of her best poems. In 1870 appeared Portraits, Webster's most striking work in verse apart from her dramas. It reached a 2nd edition in the year of publication, and a 3rd in 1893. A remarkable poem, "The Castaway," won the admiration of Browning, and deserves a place by the side of Rossetti's "Jenny."[2]

Her first effort in the poetic drama was The Auspicious Day, published in 1872. It is a romance of mediæval English life of small interest. Disguises, written in 1879, is a play of great charm, containing beautiful lyrics.[2]

Webster took as keen an interest in the practical affairs of life as in literature. In 1878 appeared A Housewife's Opinions, a volume of essays on various social subjects, reprinted from the Examiner. She served twice on the London school board. In November 1879 she was returned for the Chelsea division at the head of the poll, with 3,912 votes above the second successful candidate; she owed her success to her gift of speech.[2]

She threw herself heart and soul into the work. Mrs. Webster was a working rather than a talking member of the board. She was anxious to popularise education by bringing old endowments into closer contact with elementary schools, and she anticipated the demand that, as education is a national necessity, it should also be a national charge. She advocated the introduction of technical (i.e. manual) instruction into elementary schools. Her leanings were frankly democratic, but in the heat of controversy her personality rendered her attractive even to her most vigorous opponents.[2]

In consequence of ill-health, which obliged her to seek rest in the south of Europe, she did not offer herself for re-election in 1882.[2]

During earlier visits to Italy Mrs. Webster had been attracted by the Italian peasant songs known as "rispetti," and in 1881 published A Book of Rhyme, containing rural poems called "English rispetti." She was the first to introduce the form into English poetry.[3]

In 1882 she published another drama, In a Day, the only one of her plays that was acted. It was produced at a matinée at Terry's Theatre, London, in 1890, when her daughter, Miss Davies Webster, played the heroine, Klydone. It had a succès d'estime. In 1885 she was again returned member of the school board for Chelsea. She conducted her candidature without a committee or any organised canvassing.[3]

‘The Sentence,’ a 3-act tragedy, in many ways Mrs. Webster's chief work, appeared in 1887. The episode of which the play treats illustrates Caligula's revengeful spirit (cf. Rossetti's introductory note to Webster's Mother and Daughter, pp. 12–14). It was much admired by Christina Rossetti (cf. Mackenzie Bell's Christina Rossetti, p. 161). A volume of selections from Mrs. Webster's poems (containing some originally contributed to magazines), published in 1893, was well received.[3]

She died at Kew on 5 Sept. 1894. In 1895 appeared ‘Mother and Daughter,’ an uncompleted sonnet sequence, with an introductory note by William Michael Rossetti.[3]

WritingEdit

Mrs. Webster's verse entitles her to a high place among English poets. She used with success the form of the dramatic monologue. She often sacrificed beauty to strength, but she possessed much metrical skill and an ear for melody. Some of her lyrics deserve a place in every anthology of modern English poetry.[3]

Many of her poems treat entirely or incidentally of questions specially affecting women. She was a warm advocate of woman's suffrage — her essays in the Examiner on the subject were reprinted as leaflets by the Women's Suffrage Society (cf. Mackenzie Bell's Life of Christina Rossetti, p. 111) — and she sympathised with all movements in favour of a better education for women.[3]

Works by Augusta Webster, not mentioned in the text, are: 1. ‘A Woman Sold, and other Poems,’ 1867. 2. ‘Yu-Pe-Ya's Lute: a Chinese Tale in English Verse,’ 1874. 3. ‘Daffodil and the Croäxaxicans: a Romance of History,’ 1884. A selection from her poems is given in Miles's ‘Poets and Poetry of the Century’ (Joanna Baillie to Mathilde Blind, p. 499).[3]

Critical introductionEdit

by Mackenzie Bell

If Mr. Ruskin’s dictum that “no weight nor mass, nor beauty of execution can outweigh one grain or fragment of thought” were ever to be accepted as truth, Augusta Webster’s position among contemporary poets would be higher than it now is, for her work seems at times so full of thought that the poetical form is clogged and overweighted. Indeed such shortcomings as have been charged against her poetry generally might all be comprised in one — a certain instinct for allowing beauty both of matter and form to succumb to strength. Perhaps the severity of her methods is partly the result of her deep study of the great classical writers of antiquity — most notably of the Greek dramatists — a study which has left abundant traces on her work.

The quality which distinguishes her from all the other women poets of her time is concentrated strength. Even those who must be set above her in some other respects yield to her here. To Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s gift of impulse and fire, to Christina Rossetti’s gift of a deep and searching symbolism which becomes at times almost prophetic, and to Jean Ingelow’s delightful power of throwing over English scenery a halo of the human feeling and sentiment appropriate to it, she has small claim. But the 2 last-named writers and all the other women poets of England must yield to her in that quality which, as it is generally deemed the specially masculine quality, is called virility. Because of this Augusta Webster has taken her place among Victorian poets — a place which cannot but be enduring.

Blanche Lisle and Lillian GrayEdit

Though the poet’s strength, for the most part, grew with her growth, increasing on the whole book by book, it was very apparent in her first immature volume Blanche Lisle, and other poems, published under the pseudonym of “Cecil Home” in 1860. “Cruel Agnes” and “St. Catherine’s Tiring Maid,” though somewhat imitative, are genuinely poetic in thought and treatment; the story of the lovers who “were not old in heart” reveals the germ of that aptitude in character analysis which marks her later work. A distinct advance is apparent in Lilian Gray (1864). Many passages evince a maturity of thought rare in so young a poet, while not unfrequently the blank verse, though deficient in the emphasis of the author’s later blank verse, excels it in music of rhythm.

Dramatic StudiesEdit

One of the chief features of Augusta Webster’s more mature poetry — her intense and passionate study of Woman’s position and destiny — first became manifest in Dramatic Studies (1866). Of these studies the best is, perhaps, “The Snow Waste,” which depicts allegorically the “doom of cold” borne by one who through jealousy committed deadly sin. This Dantesque conception is treated in a masterly manner, which appears all the more wonderful when we learn that the poem was the result of a sleepless night, when the author was only nineteen.

Although Augusta Webster’s poetry, whether rhymed or unrhymed, cannot be said to show any great musical impulse, her knowledge of metrical laws, and her expertness in the use of metres, is striking. This is very observable in “The Snow Waste.” It opens and concludes with a short passage in blank verse, but the body of the poem is written in eight-line stanzas. In each of these stanzas only one rhyme is employed, and the repetition of the same rhymes, which produces a sense of gloomy monotony, is managed with extraordinary skill.

There are many other noteworthy poems in this volume. “A Preacher” analyses with singular power the mental condition of a conscientious clergyman apprehensive lest having “preached to others” he himself “should be a castaway.” “A Painter” exhibits, with equal force, the self-communings of a man compelled to sacrifice his higher artistic aspirations to the sordid exigences of the hour. “By the Looking Glass” displays the inner life and feelings of a girl not endowed with the gift of beauty, but who longs to be loved. “Sister Annunciata” discloses the hidden struggle of a nun who cannot altogether set aside the yearnings of earthly love, strive as she may; while in “Jeanne d’Arc” Augusta Webster is no less dramatically effective, where her subject is historical. All these “soliloquies” prove their author to possess in full measure the faculty of “thinking the thoughts of others,” and therefore to be a dramatist of no mean order.

A Woman SoldEdit

In the most remarkable volume entitled A Woman Sold, and other poems (1867) the deepest movements of Woman’s heart find a voice — and that often in a few pregnant and telling words that recall the methods of the great poets. Virile, however, as is the strength of the writer, her sex is constantly declaring itself by a discernment of the most secret workings of the heart of Woman such as is far beyond the reach of masculine eyes, and a passionate, almost it might be said, a biassed sympathy with the cause of Woman in her relation to Man. “Too Faithful” and “A Mother’s Cry,” with its irresistibly pathetic appeal, are charged with such sympathy. But the book is not confined to poems of this class. “Pilate” and “Blind Bartimæus,” though widely different, are both fine. “How the Brook Sings” and “The Lake” are almost Wordsworthian in their personal interpretation of nature—a quality seldom seen in Augusta Webster’s work. “To One of Many” and “To and Fro” are strong poems meditative in character, and with many touches of delicate beauty.

PortraitsEdit

It is in “Portraits” (1870) that the poet’s strength and insight in the delineation of Woman seems to culminate. If a fault can be found in the writing of “A Castaway,” one of the most original poems contained in this volume, it is that the delineation of Woman’s heart in the most appalling condition of Woman’s life is too painful. The theme is the same as that which Dante Rossetti handled in “Jenny,” and it is extremely interesting to compare these two poems, one touching the theme from the masculine, the other from the feminine standpoint. In melody and in picturesqueness Dante Rossetti’s famous poem is a masterpiece, and it is most successful in its portrayal of the ironical mood in which is unfolded Jenny’s relation to her more fortunate sisters. But it is lacking in the lofty yet mournful temper that breathes from every line of “A Castaway.” Were it not for the tender pity which inspires this poem as a whole some of the bitter things that fall from the lips of the lost girl would be too terrible and too daring for poetic art. Here is an instance of what I allude to:—

         Well, well, I know the wise ones talk and talk:
“Here’s cause, here’s cure:” “No, here it is and here:”
and find society to blame, or law,
the Church, the men, the women, too few schools,
too many schools, too much, too little taught
somewhere or somehow someone is to blame:
but I say all the fault’s with God himself
who puts too many women in the world.
We ought to die off reasonably and leave
as many as the men want, none to waste.
Here’s cause; the woman’s superfluity:
and for the cure, why, if it were the law,
say, every year, in due percentages,
balancing them with men as the times need,
to kill off female infants, ’twould make room;
and some of us would not have lost too much,
losing life ere we know what it can mean.

In “Tired,” Webster deals forcibly with the problems of “Society” so-called, and shows an insight into its hollowness which implies on her part a noteworthy freedom from conventional prejudice. “A Dilettante” is a weighty and convincing protest against that foolish spirit of complaint when the inevitable in life is concerned with which we are all familiar.

In Portraits Augusta Webster indulged in the eccentricity of writing blank verse without capitals at the beginning of the lines. To do this with English poetry is a great mistake; for it is not possible always to mark the distinction between metrical and immetrical writing by mere sonority and “rhetorical emphasis.” Hence the usual typographical indications that the movements of the passage are meant to be metrical are not by any means superfluous. This may be said of the blank verse of most English writers, but the remark applies with particular force to the blank verse of Augusta Webster, which is much less characterised by perfection of form than by wealth of substance, and her lines require the typographical aid which she discarded.

There is great freshness in “Yu-Pe-Ya’s Lute” (1874), a graceful “Chinese Tale” told in rhymed pentameter measure with interspersed songs. Of these “Too soon so fair, fair lilies” and “So soon asleep!” are probably the most lovely. In her prefatory note to “Yu-Pe-Ya’s Lute” the author raises a suggestive literary question that space will not permit me to discuss.

DramasEdit

Augusta Webster’s genius was largely dramatic. The Auspicious Day (1872), her first drama, was followed in 1879 by Disguises, a story of “sunny Aquitaine.” Here she suddenly passed into a new and luxuriant style, and the play comes nearer than any other of our times to the fanciful comedy of Shakespeare and Fletcher.

The scene of 2 impressive dramas, In a Day (1882) and The Sentence (1887), is laid at Rome in the days of the Empire. Naturally both plays bear witness to the influence of her classical studies, and, indeed, could only have been written by a scholar. They are full of power and beauty. The pathos is especially deep and searching.

Her translations of The Prometheus Bound of Æschylus, and of The Medea of Euripides, published in 1866 and 1868, respectively, are exceedingly close to the originals, and display thorough acquaintance with Greek drama and a penetration into their spirit which could only be displayed by a student who was also a poet. A singularly able review of Browning’s translation of the Agamemnon of Æschylus, appeared originally in The Examiner, and subsequently in her volume entitled A Housewife’s Opinions.

Augusta Webster’s female characters call for praise. Her Gualhardine in Disguises, her Klydone in In a Day, and her Lælia in The Sentence are lifelike and real. Mention must also be made of the beautiful lyrics scattered throughout her dramas, notably those beginning “Hark the sky-lark in the cloud,” “While the woods were green,” and “Tell thee truth, sweet; no” in Disguises.

A Book of RhymeEdit

A Book of Rhyme (1881) is chiefly remarkable for its importation into English poetry of these brief forms of peasant song in which Italian poetry is so rich. What Augusta Webster calls Stornelli, however, seem rather to be rispetti than stornelli, for a stornello has properly only three3 lines, a rispetto eight, the length of these poems. Though several English poets have followed her lead in adapting these forms of Italian peasant poetry to English subjects, few besides Augusta Webster have met with an unqualified success. The rispetti of the other writers partake of the nature of the epigram rather than of the pure rispetto.

A sonnet, “The Brook Rhine,” should be named. “Pourlain the Prisoner,” a sonnet sequence, gives vigorously a mournful yet interesting episode of prison existence. In “A Coarse Morning” we have the old pathetic story of Nature inexorable to the appeal of human grief. There is real poetry in the lines “Not to Be.”[4]

ReputationEdit

During her lifetime her writing was acclaimed and she was considered by some the successor to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. After her death, however, her reputation quickly declined. Since the mid 1990's she has gained increasing critical attention from scholars such as Isobel Armstrong, Angela Leighton, and Christine Sutphin, Her best-known poems include 3 long dramatic monologues spoken by women: "A Castaway," "Circe", and "The Happiest Girl In The World", as well as a posthumously published sonnet-sequence, "Mother and Daughter".

RecognitionEdit

A half-length portrait in crayons by Canevari, drawn at Rome in January 1864, was in the possession of Mr. Webster.[3]

PublicationsEdit

PoetryEdit

PlaysEdit

NovelEdit

Non-fictionEdit

TranslatedEdit


Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[5]

Circe, by Augusta Webster

Circe, by Augusta Webster

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

  • PD-icon.svg Lee, Elizabeth (1885–1900) "Webster, Augusta" Dictionary of National Biography London: Smith, Elder, pp. 115-116 . Wikisource, Web, Mar. 8, 2017.

NotesEdit

  1. John William Cousin, "Webster, Mrs. Augusta," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 399. Wikisource, Web, Mar. 16, 2018.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 Lee, 115.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 Lee, 116.
  4. from Mackenie Bell, Critical and Biographical Essay: Augusta Webster (1840–1894), Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century (edited by Alfred H. Miles), London: Routledge / New York: Dutton, 1907. Bartleby.com, Web, Mar. 8, 2017.
  5. Search results = au:Augusta Webster, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Dec. 8, 2013.

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