The Wives of Poets


THE great peasant-poet of Scotland, the man at whose name every true Scottish heart thrills, Robert Burns, was born on January 25, 1759, at Alloway, near Ayr, his father being a gardener and nursery-man, and died of fever at Dumfries, on July 21, 1796, aged thirty-seven. The general incidents of his life, from his driving his father’s plow to his publishing a volume of immortal song, which was forthwith recognized as immortal throughout his native country, and so on to his serving as an excise officer, are exceedingly well known ; too well known, also, are his infirmities in the ways of raking and drinking. I shall pass over all the details, and limit myself to what concerns Burns’s marriage, which indeed counts for a good deal in his career.

About the same time that his sturdy, upright father died, in 1784, Burns first encountered Jean Armour, daughter of a respectable master-mason at Mauchline. Her charms made her the reigning toast among the young men of her acquaintance; and Burns, in a song which preserves the name of several fair damsels of his condition and locality, avowed, —

“But Armour’s the jewel for me o' them a'.” Jean Armour was not cold to Burns’s suit, — she was not even sufficiently cold, In 1786 the two agreed to make a legal profession of antecedent marriage, in order to legitimize their expected offspring, — twins, as it turned out; but Jean’s parents were so indignant at the whole affair that they refused to assent, and she was prevailed upon to relinquish the written declaration, and her lover along with it. Great was the poet’s fury, and loud bis denunciation of this breach of plighted troth; though he

confessed, in a private letter, “ I do still love her to distraction, after all.” He was called upon to give security for the support of the infants, and went in danger of imprisonment; and had made up his mind to go out to Jamaica as assistant overseer to a planter. He lost no time, also, in making love to another woman, Mary Campbell, bis “ Highland Mary; ” but this had no result, as she died very soon afterwards. The Jamaica project collapsed, in consequence of his having just now published his first volume of poems, and been invited on the strength of it to Edinburgh, where he won all sorts of literary and social success. In July, 1787, he revisited Mauchline, and was reconciled to the Armour family; but the father soon found renewed cause for being dissatisfied with bis daughter’s conduct, and he took the extreme step of turning her outof-doors. Burns was at this time carrying on his enamored correspondence with his Clarinda, Mrs. McLeliose. He had, however, sufficient regard for the honor of his too-complying Jean, and for his own, to espouse her, which he did by public declaration of marriage in the summer of 1788, and they settled down for a while on the farm of Ellislaud, in Dumfriesshire. His letters of this time speak of her as “a once much-loved and still much-loved female, literally and truly cast out to the mercy of the naked elements;” with “the most placid goodnature and sweetness of disposition, a warm heart gratefully devoted to love me, vigorous health and sprightly cheerfulness, set off to the best advantage by a more than commonly handsome figure. In housewife matters, of aptness to learn and activity to execute, she is eminently mistress. ... I have got the handsomest figure, the sweetest temper, the soundest constitution, and the kiudest heart in the country. Mrs. Burns believes as firmly as her creed that I am le plus bel esprit et le plus honnête homme in the universe; although she scarcely ever in her life, except the Scriptures and the Psalms of David in metre, spent five minutes together on either prose or verse.”He proceeds to qualify this somewhat, speaking of her admiration of his own verses and the national ballads, and of her fine singing voice.

Mrs. Burns did justice to her bridegroom’s eulogium. She made his home comfortable as far as this depended on herself; and when he gave her serious cause to feel indignant — which he certainly did more than once — she behaved with marked tenderness and prudence. He condemned himself for his transgressions and for his occasional captiousness, which increased towards the end, and was on the whole a decidedly affectionate, though not a constantly faithful husband. “ Conjugal love,” he once wrote, “ is a passion which I deeply feel and highly venerate ; but somehow it does not make such a figure in poesy as that other species of the passion,

“ Where love is liberty, and nature law! ”

He was also very attentive to the education of his children, especially the eldest son.

While Burns was expiring, his wife was confined to bed; and on the very day of his funeral she gave birth to a boy who soon died. Four other sons survived. Two of them became colonels in the Indian army, and died not many years ago. A considerable subscription was started for the widow and orphans shortly after the poet’s death ; and with the means arising from this and other sources Mrs. Burns continued living in decent independence in the same house where her husband had dwelt, not a little beset (as we may well believe) by literary and other enthusiasts and inquirers. Her life was prolonged for many years, up to 1828 or later; and she retained a great veneration for her illustrious husband’s memory, never naming him, it is avouched, “ but in terms of the profoundest respect and the deepest regret.”

Burns was above the middle size, but hardly looked so tall as he was, with black hair, dark complexion, and brilliantly dark potent eyes. Touchiness was one of his chief characteristics, so that his even-tempered wife had every opportunity of proving her merits in that respect.

It must suffice me to name, without quoting, some of the poems which Burns wrote in reference to his Jean, before and after marriage. Such are the lyric, “ O thou pale orb that silent shines,” which is fictitiously headed as relating to A Friend’s Amour, but really refers to the time when Jean renounced the poet and his declaration of marriage; the song, “ Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw I dearly like the west,” composed immediately after his wedding ; “I hae a wife o’ my ain, I ’ll partake wi’ naebody,” written nearly at the same time ; “ Oh, were I on Parnassus’ hill,” “ Though cruel fate should bid us part,” and “ It is na, Jean, thy bonnie face.”

As we come down to a date nearer our own, the work accumulates on our hands. I have now spoken of seven British poets, — Spenser to Burns; the first born in 1553, and the last in 1759, a period of two hundred and six years, Next appears the great group of poets born towards the end of the eighteenth century, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Landor, Byron, and Shelley ; all coming into the world within a brief interval of twenty-two years, ranging from Wordsworth in 1770 to Shelley in 1792. I should have added Walter Scott; but have found some uncertainty in the records or traditions of his married life, and would therefore rather say nothing than something which might be misleading as to the facts, or less than fair to the memory of Lady Scott. All the other five are quite appropriate to our object: it is impossible, however, that I should speak of any with even that very moderate amount of detail which I have given to their precursors. Let us see, in brief, how their marital lots were cast.

Wordsworth in 1802, aged thirty-two, married Miss Mary Hutchinson, of the some age as himself, and described as “peculiarly English.” They had known each other from childhood, having been fellow-pupils in a dame-school. They were exceedingly well matched. The poet habitually asked her judgment upon his productions; and her simple truthfulness and strong good sense made her opinion valuable within its own range. She had feeling for nature, society, and emotional truth, and a liking for direct verbal expression. Wordsworth’s lines beginning, “ She was a phantom of delight,” form a noble tribute to her, written in the third year of their union. When they had both reached the age of seventy-four, he observed that his own spirituality did not increase as he approached the grave, but hers did. Milton’s famous line,

“ He for God only, she for God in him,” was severely denounced by our poet as “a low, a very low and a very false estimate of woman’s condition.” He also observed that, unless there is a strong foundation of love and respect, the unavoidable breaks and cataracts of domestic life must soon end in mutual aversion ; for married life ought not to be submission on one side, but mutual cooperation, and the wife ought not to conceal her opinions, or she ceases to be an equal. All these remarks are, I think, extremely honorable to Wordsworth, and in a reflex way to Mrs. Wordsworth also. She outlived him nearly nine years, dying in January, 1859.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, born in 1772, married in the autumn of 1795 Sarah Fricker, of Bristol. She was a milliner, and one of her sisters married the future poet laureate, Southey.

There seems to have been nothing particular to distinguish the early married life of Coleridge and his wife from that of other people. A few of his poems relate to her, one of them, written in 1806 in a highly affectionate tone, being named The Happy Husband. They had a family of four children, or possibly more. The singular point is that in 1810, after fifteen years of wedded life, and when he was thirty-eight years of age, Coleridge left his home in the Lake country, and his wife and family, and he was never again domesticated with them. I do not find that he gave any further cause of scandal. He was by this time a confirmed opium-eater and laudanumdrinker, and we may not unreasonably surmise that the perturbations of mind hence ensuing magnified in his eyes any moderate cause of domestic discomfort which may have actually existed. A letter of his states that, for some years prior to beginning with opium, the condition of his digestion was such that any family disputes reacted harmfully on his health. One of his poems, named The Pang more Sharp than All, treats of “ kindness counterfeiting absent love,” and relates seemingly to the experiences of his own home and heart. On parting from his wife, he left her in the enjoyment of all his small income, and lived thenceforth entirely by his pen, chiefly in or near London. Southey, for many years, housed Coleridge’s wife and children. The lady has, I believe, been generally accounted a person of very ordinary mental faculties ; she could, however, write verse with fluency and not amiss, as is proved by a published effusion of hers on receiving from a friend four thimbles to replace one that she had lost. In the course of this little piece she speaks of her husband (this was at an early period of the marriage) as “ the much-loved object of my choice.”

Walter Savage Landor, the author of the Hellenics and many other nobly composed poems, and of the famous Imaginary Conversations, was born in 1775, heir to a good landed estate, and in 1811 he married a very pretty girl aged seventeen, Miss Julia Thuillier. She was a moneyless damsel, of noble Swiss family, and was remarkable for the rich abundance of her curls; her tone of mind, romantic and self-indulgent; her charms of person, coupled with much youthful amiability. Landor married her for her good looks, and perhaps little true sympathy existed between them. There were quarrels and reconciliations, and the poet, in the earlier years of his marriage, showed as much forbearance as was consistent with one of the least forbearing and most intolerant, imperious, liberty - loving characters on record. At last, after they had had four children, Landor left his wife behind in Fiesole, near Florence, returned to England, and would never see her again: the motive was probably nothing more unbearable than what he would now at length no longer bear, incompatibility of temper. He relinquished to her his Italian villa and almost the whole of his fortune. In advanced age, towards 1855, he returned to Florence ; but he lived in lodgings, and there he died in 1864, aged eighty-nine. His wife outlived him till the spring of 1879, dying at the age of eighty-five.

Of Lord Byron and his marriage and separation I shall say very little. The matter is still in a high degree mysterious. One solution was offered eleven years ago, which, if accepted, would have fully accounted for the separation ; but there are grave difficulties in admitting its correctness, and it has been generally denounced and rejected. Setting aside that solution, we find that none other is offered which seems fully adequate to explain the known incidental features of the case. Many people think that nothing is needed beyond acknowledging that Byron was ill adapted, in intellect, morals, and temperament, to the ordinary routine of married life; and that Lady Byron, by the very force of her recognized good qualities, — a widely cultivated mind, strictly virtuous principles, tenacious self-respect, and punctilious or even strait-laced rectitude of conduct and demeanor, — was the last person apt to condone his errors and willfulness, or fitted to cope with and subdue them. From repeated consideration of the minutiæ of the question, the inclination of my own mind is to believe that the causes of separation, as estimated by Lady Byron at the very time, no less than at a much later date, must have been of a grave and precisely definable kind, something much more than common irregularities of conduct or of temper; but how far Byron was really and greatly culpable, or how far his wife may have exaggerated the facts to herself, and put an arbitrary construction upon incidents and appearances, I cannot settle to my own satisfaction, and still less can, in my present limits, venture to expound for others to consider. A few matter-of-fact details and dates must finish up what I have to say of the author of Childe Harold.

George Gordon, Lord Byron, was born in London in 1788 ; being the second child of his father, Captain Byron, who had had, by his previous marriage, a daughter, born in 1780, who became the Hon. Mrs. Leigh. Byron married in January, 1815, Anne Isabella Milbanke, daughter of a baronet and of Lady Noel. A daughter, Augusta Ada, was born to them in December of the same year; and on the 2d of February ensuing Lady Byron announced to her husband by let ter that she would never live with him again. He died in Greece in April, 1824, aged thirty-six; and she, surviving him unmanned for thirty-six years, died in May, 1860, aged sixty-eight.

Percy Bysshe Shelley appears next before us. This sublime poet, daring thinker, and enthusiastic lover of his kind died by drowning in July, 1822, aged less than thirty, and in that brief span of life he was twice married. It has generally been held that in his first marriage he was more than commonly unfortunate, and in his second more than commonly fortunate: as the evidence matures and is sifted, both these opinions undergo some degree of modification. Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Westbrook, was a girl of sixteen, daughter of a retired and moderately opulent hotelkeeper; he, when he married her, was nineteen years old. She was a delightfully pretty, well-instructed, and nicemannered girl, easy-tempered, sprightly, and pleasant, and there was not at the time the slightest reason apparent for pitying the man who got her to wife. But Shelley, at the end of less than three years, fell desperately in love with another girl of sixteen, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of two justly renowned writers and reformers ; and this, combining with some domestic dissensions, and acting upon a mind afire with the extremest social theories, induced him to leave Harriet and to join lots with Mary. About two years afterwards, in December, 1816, she became legally his wife, —poor Harriet having meanwhile committed suicide, in consequence, it appears, of an unhappy loveaffair of her own with another man. In point of mere intellect and of mental culture, Mary, who wrote at the age of eighteen the celebrated novel of Frankenstein, and others afterwards, was certainly well suited —far better suited than Harriet — to match with Shelley, and to be his life-long companion; and that she sincerely loved him, and he her, cannot reasonably be questioned. Still there were serious divergences between them, both of character and of inclination ; and it seems now sufficiently proved that Mary disquieted him by jealousies (not strictly justified, nor wholly unjustifiable) and by infirmities of temper, and was not always heedful of his personal comfort, — which, indeed, for his requirements were of the very fewest, would have consisted chiefly in being left undisturbed to his own habits and devices. It is therefore surmisable that, after the first few years, Shelley found in his union with Mary not much more genuine unalloyed satisfaction of soul and heart than Harriet would have been willing and capable to afford him. Be this said without any intention of undervaluing Mary Shelley, or of derogating from her many substantial claims to regard. She outlived the poet twenty-nine years, dying in 1851.

There are two other poets of whom I should wish to say a few words: Thomas Hood, the great humorist and author of The Song of the Shirt, and Edgar Allan Poe, author of The Raven.

Hood, who was born in 1799, and died in 1846, after a life of almost constant ill-health, married at the age of twenty-five Miss Jane Reynolds, daughter of the head writing-master at Christ Hospital, and sister of an author of some deserved reputation in his time. No more constantly or profusely affectionate couple than Hood and his wife could be found in any class of society ; indeed, his domestic ties and interests were ever uppermost in Hood’s thoughts, his family on the one hand, and his incessant occupations as an author on the other, making up the whole of his life. Mrs. Hood died eighteen months later than her husband, of an illness contracted in consequence of her close and unremitting attendance on his sick bed.

No poet of our time has been more persistently or mercilessly vilified than Edgar A. Poe ; but of late years, partly through the laudable exertions of Mr. Ingram, a fairer view of his character begins to prevail. His real defects appear to have been a certain want of sturdy, downright solidity of character, an inclination to plunge into literary broils, and in his later years, when beset with sorrows and embarrassments, the culpable weakness of resorting to stimulants and narcotics, both alcoho and laudanum. Against these faults we must set honorable and ceaseless industry, frugality (for after his adolescence he was always poor), refinement, a highminded superiority to gross material interests in life, and, what is chiefly to our present purpose, the most tender and devoted marital affection. In fact, Poe would have been, in whatever condition of life, something not far short of a model husband. In 1836, when he was twenty-seven years of age, he married his paternal cousin, Virginia Clemm, a most sweet and loving young creature, not quite fifteen years old, marked out by consumption for an early death. One account speaks of her personal attractions in rapturous terms, her “ matchless beauty and loveliness; her eyes could match those of any houri, and her face defy the genius of a Canova to imitate.” Her eyes were large and dark, her complexion very white, her hair intensely black. Poe also was markedly handsome, in early youth quite exceptionally so. Virginia died in January, 1847 ; and we have the testimony of a lady who acted like a guardian angel in her last days that " actual want and hunger and cold were borne by the heroic husband, in order to supply food, medicine, and comforts to his dying wife.” His exceeding attachment to his mother-inlaw, Mrs. Clemm, who lived with the young couple, and survived both, was hardly less amiable than his love for Virginia, whose death threw him into a melancholy stupor lasting some weeks, and even dangerous to life.

After this loss Poe formed two projects of remarriage; the first was with the poetess, Mrs. Whitman, — the “ Helen ” of certain verses of his. In September, 1848, they were engaged ; but this match was broken off in the ensuing December, from causes which have been cruelly misrepresented to the poet’s disadvantage, but of which no detailed account has yet been published. In the summer of 1849, he called on a widow lady of fortune in Richmond, Mrs. Elmira Shelton, who had, in fact, at the very early age of fifteen, been engaged to him ; but that engagement fell through, and she married Mr. Shelton, who was now dead. The lady favored his renewed suit, and an early day for the wedding was to be looked forward to, when a sudden death put a stop to this and every other project on Poe’s part. Traveling by rail from Richmond on October 4, 1849, he got out at Baltimore, and was soon afterwards found in the street insensible. He was taken to a hospital, and died there on the third following day. Congestion or inflammation of the brain appears to have been the cause, arising from excitement, — his detractors said, from drink ; it appears also that he suffered from heart disease. Thus dolefully perished, in his fortieth year, one of the most marked poetical geniuses of our century.

Of course I do not intend in this article to speak of living poets. Yet I cannot refrain from pointing to one union, an unexampled one, of a greatly-gifted poet with a greatly-gifted poetess,— Robert Browning with Elizabeth Barrett; a union which is generally known to have been as happy as the conditions of it were peculiar and interesting.

I have now reached the end of my details regarding the individual poets and their wives ; and it remains for us to inquire, Have the poets as a class been unfortunate in the character of married men ? I am bound to say that I think not. The first and most obvious test is a numerical one ; that is, a comparison of the number of the fortunate with the unfortunate poet - husbands. This may seem a somewhat businesslike and crude process in an affair of the heart, but it is at least safe so far as it goes. How does the account stand?

I have named (omitting Mr. Browning), twenty-nine poets ; the number of wives was thirty-six, as five of the men remarried, and thus we must, for the purposes of a numerical comparison, reckon some of the latter more than once, I find eight instances in which the poet may fairly be pronounced to have been unhappy in marriage, — Lafontaine, Molière, Bürger (with his first and third wives), Dry den, Landor, Byron, and Shelley (with his first wife) ; five instances in which unhappiness, more or less marked, is reasonably presumed, rather than distinctly evidenced, — Lucretius, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton (with his first wife), and Coleridge; fifteen instances of happiness, — Alfieri, Lope de Vega (with both his wives), Corneille, Lessing, Schiller, Heine, Donne, Milton (with his two wives), Blake, Wordsworth, Hood, and Edgar A. Poe; three instances of presumed happiness, — Cervantes, Bürger (with his second wife), and Spenser. There remain five cases in which it is somewhat difficult to express an opinion : those of Euripides (of whose matrimonial lot in two instances it would appear, on investigation, that we really know nothing definite) ; Goethe (whose wife was entirely below his level, but still, it seems, beloved, and in various respects deserving of love) ; Burns (who had nothing to complain of in his partner, but who gave her grave cause of complaint) ; and Shelley with his second wife (a lady who was, nevertheless, on several grounds, more than commonly worthy of him). These cases, therefore, I would rather leave to the suffrages of my readers, withdrawing from any further expression of my own views regarding them. The three of which we know somewhat (I exclude Euripides) are instances of what some people might reasonably call happy rather than unhappy marriages, and others unhappy rather than happy. Leaving all these four poets out of the count, we have a general total of thirteen marriages certainly or probably unhappy, and eighteen marriages certainly or probably happy — being an excess of five on the better side of the account. And thus we may, I think, leave the subject, at the close of our scrutiny, with less gloomy views of the poetico-marital relation than those which at starting were presented to our consideration by Trelawny and Elze, and which, as I have already intimated, appear to be somewhat generally, though vaguely, entertained. In short, poets seem in marriage to have been not particularly different from other people, — several of them happy, or contented, or well suited, and several others unhappy, or discontented, or ill suited; in various of these instances the fault lay chiefly with the wife, and in various others with the husband, and in most of them, or probably all, there were (the old story) “faults on both sides.”

At this fag-end of my last paper, and after so much said, as material out of which the reader’s own opinion may be evolved, I hardly know that there is any other general reflection which I need suggest, unless it be this : poets, considered as a class, must necessarily possess two qualities in a very far higher degree than the average of men possess them,

— elevation and vividness of mind and emotional susceptibility. In proportion to their elevation and vividness of mind, which raise them so high, not only above stupid or foolish people, but also above those who are intellectual or clever in an ordinary mode, they may naturally tend to some degree of indifference as to mental endowments in their wives ; for even good capacity is greatly below their own, and poor capacity is, relatively speaking, not so very much lower than the good. And hence it may turn out, paradoxical though the statement might at first appear, that the poets lay less stress upon mental endowments in their wives than men of fair talent and culture, but not of the poetic order, would do. Then as to the second poetic quality,— emotional susceptibility. This would naturally find its response in the like quality on the wife’s part; and hence we might conclude that a warm-hearted, tender feminine character, simple in essence,

but of delicate sensitiveness, is the most likely of all to win and to secure the poet’s heart, — a conquest perhaps not a little precarious, but rare and precious indeed.

William M. Rossetti.