Verse > Anthologies > Alfred H. Miles, ed. > Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century
Alfred H. Miles, ed.  Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century.  1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Alexander Hay Japp
Dora Greenwell (1821–1882)
DOROTHY GREENWELL, a poet of rare sweetness, penetration, and individuality, if touched with something of a religious mysticism, was born at Greenwell Ford, in the parish of Lanchester, Durham, on December 6th, 1821. Her father was owner of the estate of Greenwell Ford, as his ancestors had been before him from the time of Henry VIII. He was a popular magistrate, and Deputy Lieutenant of the County, and was greatly beloved and respected. The mansion of Greenwell Ford was a spacious house in a beautiful country, well fed with streams and charmingly wooded; and the little Dora drew from it many memories and inspirations. Very sweet and gentle as a child, she soon showed rare faculty. Her childish letters were said to have been very premature. Her fondness for those about her—more especially her mother and her brother Alan—was very marked. Always delicate, and often ill, her cheerfulness amidst pain surprised those who were near her, while her sufferings, continued through life, mellowed her character and gave tone and colour to her verse. In 1848 her father was compelled to part with his estate; and Dora went to live for a time with her brother William (afterwards Canon of Durham), at Ovingham Rectory, in Northumberland. While here her first volume of poems was published by Mr. Pickering. It contained poems and sonnets, some of which indicated the mystico-religious vein of which so much was to follow. After a short period of residence with her brother Alan, who was now rector of Colbourne, she went to Durham in 1854, and settled down there with her mother. Her acquaintance with members of the Constable family of Edinburgh, formed about this time, resulted in much encouragement and stimulus, as did also the friendship afterwards formed with Professor William Knight, of St. Andrews,—the editor and biographer of Wordsworth,—which produced a collection of letters, remarkably rich in thought and experience. On her mother’s death, in 1871, she left Durham, where she had lived for eighteen years. After a brief visit to Torquay she settled in London, where she had made many friends, whose society she greatly enjoyed. In 1881 she met with an accident, which rendered it necessary for her to go to the house of her brother Alan, at Clifton, where she passed away on March 29th, 1882.  1
  The most noticeable characteristic of Miss Greenwell, as a poet, is quickness of thought, wedded to striking originality of form and subtle sweetness of verse. She is utterly unconventional in her movements, and now and then touches boldly a new chord. Though she was one of the most interested and active in many philanthropic and social movements, this did not, as in so many other cases, exercise a deteriorating effect on her poetry—at all events, not directly. The same thing can hardly be said of her religious tendencies, which induced a strain of mysticism; and thus had the effect of throwing over much of her work a kind of dreamy haze, such as would have been ruinous in destroying all clear outline, and becoming merely sectarian had it not been for the colours of which she made it the medium. One of her friends—herself a poet—has pointed out that she had the same passion as Charles Kingsley for all that was tropical and glowing—rich and spreading palms, rich and potent scents; and that, in her whole nature, there was a love of what was free and lavish. The width and healthy outflow of her human sympathies did much to save her from the fate of the pure mystic. One of the most remarkable sections of her work is that collection of poems titled “Songs of Salvation,” in which she shows quite an exceptional power of uniting a high religious teaching with a kind of dramatic realism of portraiture of simple characters by monologue and dialogue, marked by the utmost truth and directness. Her faculty in ballad was surprising, and almost beyond expectation, as may be seen in “The Battle Flag of Sigurd,” where there is action, and keen sense of movement. Her prose bears almost the same marks, and has the same range. In “The Two Friends,” and in “The Patience of Hope” we have simplicity and now and then force fitted to carry home practical truths; in “Colloquia Crucis” and “The Soul’s Legend” we have it affecting the level of prose-poetry. Her articles in The Contemporary Review, on “Our Single Women,” etc., and her papers on “Imbeciles and their Treatment,” a subject in which she took a profound interest, should not, however, be forgotten. “The Life of Lacordaire”—full of subtle insight and biographic sympathy—shows Miss Greenwell at her best as a prose writer, as perhaps “Carmina Crucis” shows her at her best as regards poetic form. In some respects, this is the most remarkable of Miss Greenwell’s works. There is in it a glow of colour and light, a passionate throb or thrill of devotion, of spiritual elevation and expectancy. She has entered largely into the joys of the soul; these are but promises, prophecies of fuller joys to follow; and the forms she finds to embody and express her “sanctified emotions” are richly musical, and sometimes recall the finest turns of her friend, Christina Rossetti. She shares with Dr. George MacDonald the tendency to parable. She will accept nothing for itself, but must translate everything into a text for religious truth. The experience of the soul is the first thing with her, and must find a language. Her exceeding desire to interpret exceptional phases of spiritual experience has operated against the popular acceptance of her poetry as a whole; but there is much in it that beyond cavil belongs almost to the first rank, or at the lowest, must take a very high place in the second; for she was undoubtedly original, had a fine sense of music, and in her more important poems exhibited a happy instinct for new forms and musical terms and phrases.  2
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