Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Alfred H. Miles
Caroline (Bowles) Southey (17871854)
CAROLINE BOWLES, the daughter of Captain Charles Bowles, of Buckland, near Lymington, Hants, was born on the 6th of December, 1787. Her first serious attempt at literature was a poem entitled Ellen Fitz Arthur, written while the century was in its teens, and submitted to Robert Southey for opinion and advice. The laureate is said to have recommended its publication, and it was issued in 1820. Ellen Fitz Arthur was followed in 1822 by The Widows Tale, and Other Poems; in 1836 by The Birthday, and Other Poems, and in 1839 by Solitary Hours. Caroline Bowles also contributed a series of Chapters on Churchyards to Blackwoods Magazine, pathetic novelettes, which were gathered together and issued in two volumes in 1829. Her poem of The Birthday contains some touching pictures of her delicate and solitary childhood. To quote one:
My father loved the patient anglers art;
And many a summer day, from early morn
To latest evening, by some streamlets side
We two have tarried; strange companionship!
A sad and silent man; a joyous child
Yet were those days, as I recall them now,
Supremely happy. Silent though he was,
My fathers eyes were often on his child
Tenderly eloquentand his few words
Were kind and gentle. Never angry tone
Repulsed me, if I broke upon his thoughts
With childish question. But I learnt at last
Learnt intuitively to hold my peace
When the dark hour was on him, and deep sighs
Spoke the perturbed spiritonly then
I crept a little closer to his side,
And stole my hand in his, or on his arm
Laid my cheek softly; till the simple wile
Won on his sad abstraction, and he turned
With a faint smile, and sighed, and shook his head,
Early in life Caroline Bowles sustained a violent attack of small-pox, which disfigured her, and before she attained maturity, lost both her mother and father. These circumstances tended to strengthen her nervous if not morbid desire for retirement and seclusion. Henceforward, to quote her own words, all her adventures were by the fireside; all her migrations from the blue bed to the brown.
Her earlier work was anonymous, and may be fairly said to have attained its reputation on its merits. Southey, who was ever ready to help any one who appealed to him, assisted her in the Quarterly, and Moir, the Delta of Blackwood, gave her high if not extravagant praise. The whirligig of time has reversed this, and the writer, who was called the Cowper of poetesses, and declared to be equal to Mrs. Hemans in her own day, is now denied all praise, and treated with but scant courtesy. Southey, whose powers of letter writing were not the least remarkable of his qualities, kept up correspondence with her from the first, and, losing his wife Edith after a period of severe mental affliction in 1837, he married Caroline Bowles, at Boldre Church, near Keswick, on June 5th, 1839. Widowed in 1843, Mrs. Southey retired into Hampshire, and died at Buckland, Lymington, on July 20th, 1854. The Athenæum (August 5th, 1854), in recording her decease, paid a powerful tribute to her character in connection with her marriage to Robert Southey, whose subsequent mental condition involved her in such assiduous devotion. No sacrifice could have been greater than the one she was induced to make on the occasion. It can be placed beyond all doubt by those who survive her, that she was fully prepared for the distressing calamity that impended over both. She could have had no mercenary motives, for she resigned a larger income on her marriage than she knew she could receive at her husbands death; indeed, the sum bequeathed to her in his will did not amount to anything like the income she had sacrificed. She consented to unite herself with him with a sure prevision of the awful condition of mind to which he would shortly be reduced, with a certain knowledge of the injurious treatment to which she might be exposed from the purest motive that could actuate a woman in forming such a connectionnamely, the faint hope that her devotedness and zeal might enable her, if not to avert the catastrophe, to acquire at least a legal title to minister to the sufferers comforts, and watch over the few sad years of existence that might remain to him.
Mrs. Southeys verse had a greater charm for her own generation than it can ever have again. There is a natural simplicity about it which gives it a certain affinity with the so-called Lake school, and which was much newer in her day than it is in ours. And yet, after the lapse of so many years, like flowers that have been preserved, her work still emits a sweet mild fragrance, and recalls a tender, sympathetic personality. One can scarcely read her general poems without feeling that they came from a true, loving heart, nor peruse the poems which with an almost morbid recurrence she wrote upon the subject of death, without feeling that she had a true sense of the sublime. Faulty in form, she possessed a spontaneity which some masters of form never show, besides in some degree that magic touch which invests a subject with the nameless environment which for want of a better term we call atmosphere. This may not always be in evidence, nor obtain to a very large degree, but in such poems as The Paupers Death-bed, and The Christian Mariners Hymn, short as they are, there is a something conveyed beyond that which is expressed, which is incapable of definition, but which counts for much in poetry. She was the earliest of her sex to follow Wordsworths lead, if indeed she followed any lead at all, and had a far better idea of the difference between true and false sentiment than most of the women poets of her time.