Verse > Anthologies > Alfred H. Miles, ed. > Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century
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Alfred H. Miles, ed.  Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century.  1907.
 
Critical and Biographical Essay by Alexander Hay Japp
Menella Bute Smedley (1820–1877)
 
MENELLA B. SMEDLEY was born in 1820, the daughter of the Rev. Edward Smedley, M.A., himself the author of some poems of merit. As a child she was delicate, and required the most careful attention. She came of a family that had shown genius in many of its members—her cousin Frank, though from youth paralysed, wrote some popular books; and her sister, Mrs. Hart, secured considerable success alike as a story-writer and a writer of poems for children. Miss Smedley could not, on account of health, live in London, and resided for many years in that pleasant seacoast town Tenby. But though thus exiled from much that she delighted in, she was constantly at work. Considering the weak health with which she was so tried, she produced what formed a fair body of literature, and some of it reached a very high level. Her earliest volume of poems, “Lays and Ballads from English History,” is little known as her identity was disguised under the reversed initials, “S. M.”; but the poet’s touch is felt throughout in fresh images, lines of exceptional beauty, and sweet rhythmic effects, rare in such poems. Those on “Richard Cœur de Lion” and “Wallace” are very fine indeed. She wrote at least half-a-dozen prose-stories, the most successful of which were, perhaps, “Twice Lost” and “Linnet’s Trial”; she contributed many articles to the magazine Good Words and to The Contemporary Review; and published at least three volumes of poems, besides those she wrote for children in association with her sister.  1
  If the poet is born and not made, Miss Smedley was by nature a poet. Not only was she gifted with imagination and the power of verse, but she possessed in no slight measure the dramatic faculty. Though in many of her earlier poems there was a decided tendency to mysticism, by which the human interest was veiled, or at any rate clouded, she managed, as she gained in experience, largely to escape from this. Many of her later poems are indeed imbued with fine human sympathy, and the loving imagination which clothes commonplace themes with beauty. Some of her sonnets on heroic workers—notably that on Bishop Patteson—if not strictly after the Petrarchan form, are very complete; penetrated by a lyrical spirit, and marked by a subtle music of their own. Here and there in her later work there are touches which recall to mind some of Alice Cary’s best work, though Miss Smedley was unacquainted with her writings.  2
  The touch of mysticism, tending sometimes a little to obscurity, which prevails in such poems as “A Little Fair Soul” and “Wind me a Summer Crown,” hardly prepares one for the realistic strength to be found in such pieces as “Hero Harold,” which, though suffused with the true ballad spirit, observes a polish that recalls Lord Tennyson’s “Lord of Burleigh”; while certainly the force and compact energy thrown into some poems written on striking events of the day (only a few of which were published in her volume of collected poems) give the idea of such decision, patriotic feeling, and width of range as only a few English women poets have shown. Note, for example, the poem “When the News about the ‘Trent’ came”:—

        Faint as a sigh the weary light
  Touches the verge before it drops;
The rustle of descending night
  Is felt through all the breathless copse.
  
A great slow shadow dims the sea,
  And ships come softly through its haze,
Like passing shapes seen doubtfully
  By eyes that ache while sleep delays.
  
A ship had brought us word at morn,
  How some mad world beyond the sea
Stood up to fling a look of scorn
  In face of England’s majesty.
  
And all our land was thinking war;
  I, too, with powerless hopes and hands,
Watched while each pale deliberate star
  Struck this wet purple in the sands;
  
And felt, for each red boss of rock,
  Now blackening as the night-time grows;
Each curve of these cliff-walls that lock
  Our precious freedom from our foes;
  
For each small circuit traced by foam,
  And marking England to my sight,
Each fringe and fragment of my home,
  I could have wished to die to-night.
  3
 
  We recall, too, a powerful piece—“Lines suggested by the Greek Massacre”—in Macmillan’s Magazine, 1870, which, so far as we know has not been reprinted.  4
  Miss Smedley, in association with her sister, Mrs. Hart, the author of “Mrs. Jerningham’s Journal,” and other tales in verse, wrote many of the poems in the volumes titled “Child-World” and “Poems Written for a Child;” and if she did not equal her sister in that quaint and sparkling glee which seems to accord with so much in happy childhood, she certainly surpassed her in fancy, in lyrical sweetness, and in all that goes to constitute true poetry. A delicious sense of music, and an airy fancy, are everywhere to be found in the sections of the book that come from her pen.  5
  The drama entitled “Lady Grace” has been declared by competent critics to be in some respects one of the best chamber-dramas ever written in English. It is original in construction, its incidents are nicely treated and adjusted to promote the movement of the piece, and it is full of careful delineations of character, with the nicest perception of the modifying effects of association and personal influence. A second volume, containing two plays, “Blind Love” and “Cyril,” published in 1874, though it showed great resource, with touches of rare music and melody, and a growing feeling for life, was not so successful—at all events, from a publisher’s point of view. Miss Smedley, as we said, wrote many prose tales full of originality, and remarkable for polish of style. The more notable are “A Mere Story” (1865), “A Very Woman” (1867), “Twice Lost” (1868), “Other Folk’s Lives” (1869), “Linnet’s Trial” (1878). She took a great interest in many forms of philanthropic work, and wrote in favour of boarding out poor children.  6
 
 
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