Jane Austen is best-known as the author of six classic full-length novels and, to a lesser extent, the author of a handful of shorter (often unfinished) novellas. But Jane Austen (1775-1817) was also an occasional poet, and even though Austen’s poems are not as celebrated as her fiction, it helps to shed light on some of the salient themes of her better-known work. So, here’s a brief introduction to some of Jane Austen’s best poems…
‘Ode to Pity’. We begin this pick of Jane Austen poems with a very early work, written while the budding author was still a teenager. With a wry satirical wink at eighteenth-century meditative odes written on the theme of pity, the young Austen manages to write an ode to pity that doesn’t actually address the topic of pity at all. NB: ‘Cnceal’d’ is Austen’s own (mis)spelling.
Ever musing I delight to tread
The Paths of honour and the Myrtle Grove
Whilst the pale Moon her beams doth shed
On disappointed Love.
While Philomel on airy hawthorn Bush
Sings sweet and Melancholy, And the thrush
Converses with the Dove.
Gently brawling down the turnpike road,
Sweetly noisy falls the Silent Stream –
The Moon emerges from behind a Cloud
And darts upon the Myrtle Grove her beam.
Ah! then what Lovely Scenes appear,
The hut, the Cot, the Grot, and Chapel queer,
And eke the Abbey too a mouldering heap,
Cnceal’d by aged pines her head doth rear
And quite invisible doth take a peep.
‘To the Memory of Mrs. Lefroy who died Dec:r 16 — my Birthday’. Is this the best-kept literary secret on the internet? Jane Austen wrote a poem about her own birthday, in commemoration of another woman? This poem commemorates her friend, Anne Lefroy, who died on, of all days, Austen’s own birthday, 16 December:
The day returns again, my natal day;
What mix’d emotions with the Thought arise!
Beloved friend, four years have pass’d away
Since thou wert snatch’d forever from our eyes. –
The day, commemorative of my birth
Bestowing Life and Light and Hope on me,
Brings back the hour which was thy last on Earth.
Oh! bitter pang of torturing Memory! –
Angelic Woman! past my power to praise
In Language meet, thy Talents, Temper, mind.
Thy solid Worth, they captivating Grace! –
Thou friend and ornament of Humankind! –
This poem is a bit longer than these three stanzas, so we’ve linked to the full poem above.
‘Verses to Rhyme with “Rose”’. What rhymes with ‘rose’, that poetic symbol par excellence? Quite a lot, as Jane Austen discovered when writing this poem in 1807. It featured in a letter the aspiring novelist sent in that year, four years before her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published:
Happy the lab’rer in his Sunday clothes!
In light-drab coat, smart waistcoat, well-darn’d hose,
Andhat upon his head, to church he goes;
As oft, with conscious pride, he downward throws
A glance upon the ample cabbage rose
That, stuck in button-hole, regales his nose,
He envies not the gayest London beaux.
In church he takes his seat among the rows,
Pays to the place the reverence he owes,
Likes best the prayers whose meaning least he knows,
Lists to the sermon in a softening doze,
And rouses joyous at the welcome close.
‘Mock Panegyric on a Young Friend’. This poem may not be so mocking as its title suggests: the label ‘mock panegyric’ – i.e. a poem that appears to be in praise of someone but is actually poking fun at them – was attached to the poem by J. E. Austen-Leigh, Austen’s nephew, in his memoir about Jane Austen (1886). Whatever the tone, the poem was written by Austen about her young niece, Anna:
In measured verse I’ll now rehearse
The charms of lovely Anna:
And, first, her mind is unconfined
Like any vast savannah.
Ontario’s lake may fitly speak
Her fancy’s ample bound:
Its circuit may, on strict survey
Five hundred miles be found.
Her wit descends on foes and friends
Like famed Niagara’s fall;
And travellers gaze in wild amaze,
And listen, one and all.
Her judgment sound, thick, black, profound,
Like transatlantic groves,
Dispenses aid, and friendly shade
To all that in it roves.
If thus her mind to be defined
And all that’s grand in that great land
In similes it costs —
Oh how can I her person try
To image and portray?
How paint the face, the form how trace,
In which those virtues lay?
Another world must be unfurled,
Another language known,
Ere tongue or sound can publish round
Her charms of flesh and bone.
‘When Stretch’d on One’s Bed’. Just three days before her debut novel Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, Jane Austen wrote this poem about resting in bed a ‘fierce-throbbing head’ (a headache, or perhaps anxiety over the fate of her soon-to-be-published book?) and vowing to make the most of life while one still has one’s health.
When stretch’d on one’s bed
With a fierce-throbbing head,
Which precludes alike thought or repose,
How little one cares
For the grandest affairs
That may busy the world as it goes!
How little one feels
For the waltzes and reels
Of our Dance-loving friends at a Ball!
How slight one’s concern
To conjecture or learn
What their flounces or hearts may befall.
How little one minds
If a company dines
On the best that the Season affords!
How short is one’s muse
O’er the Sauces and Stews,
Or the Guests, be they Beggars or Lords.
How little the Bells,
Ring they Peels, toll they Knells,
Can attract our attention or Ears!
The Bride may be married,
The Corse may be carried
And touch nor our hopes nor our fears.
Our own bodily pains
Ev’ry faculty chains;
We can feel on no subject besides.
Tis in health and in ease
We the power must seize
For our friends and our souls to provide.
‘Venta’. Three days before she died, Jane Austen wrote a satirical poem about the people of Winchester. Probably the most famous person buried in Winchester Cathedral is Jane Austen, who died in the city in 1817. Three days before her death, Austen wrote a poem about the city, ‘Venta’ (the Latin for Winchester), a light-hearted verse celebrating the city’s saint, Swithun and how people care more for the Winchester races than they do for their city’s patron saint.
When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint.
The races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined
And nobody saw any future alarming. –
But when the old Saint was informed of these doings
He made but one Spring from his Shrine to the Roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he addressed them all standing aloof.
‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal! By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinned and must suffer, ten farther he said
These races and revels and dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighbouring Plain
Let them stand – You shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.
Ye cannot but know my command o’er July
Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers – ’.