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
Emily Pfeiffer (1841–1890)
EMILY PFEIFFER, who died on the 2nd of June, 1890, was a poet of remarkable originality and sweetness. She had had many difficulties to contend with, not the least of which were lack of systematic education in youth, and disease which early laid hold of a constitution, from the first weak, and almost morbidly sensitive. She was born in 1841. Her father, Mr. R. Davis, had been at one time possessed of considerable property in Oxfordshire, and was an officer in the army. Her mother was the youngest child of a once numerous family, by far the greater number of whom had died prior to her birth (two of the sons of wounds received in battle and one by accident). Her maternal grandfather, Mr. Tilsley, of Milford Hall, in Montgomeryshire, had unfortunately given the weight of his name to a county bank of which his only remaining son was the head; and when this bank failed, he held himself in honour, though not in law, answerable for its liabilities to the whole extent of his fortune. Comparative poverty was thus the fate of his family; for even the husbands of his daughters had become involved in the bank’s failure.  1
  Her father’s position as a large-hearted country squire became very painful to him from his inability to do for those about him what he would. His little daughter Emily, at a very early age, began to realise what the struggles and pinchings incident to small means meant; and the circumstances in which she was placed opened the door to an invading flood of sensibility unfitted to her childish years. The wearisome and hopeless monotony of the lives lived in the peasant homes which she frequently visited, pressed upon her with an unspeakable weight, and she became subject to fits of depression and melancholy, which she tried to hide from others. She has very clearly indicated the feeling of this period in her poem entitled “A Lost Eden.”  2
  Of regular education for the growing minds of the children there was none; but Mrs. Pfeiffer thought that the struggle kept up then and always by her parents to maintain a position was fruitful in better consequences than mere schooling would have been without it. Only in her own case, as would inevitably happen with a child like her, too much time and scope were allowed for brooding over the woes of others and the evils of life in many forms. As she grew older, she endeavoured to find relief and escape from her own thoughts in books. She read whatever came in her way, and dated her awakening to the sense of wonder and beauty in nature from a first sight of the sea, and to the significance of human life and language by the reading of a work on the Round Towers of Ireland. It is indeed marvellous what the young mind will find sustenance in.  3
  By and by—and a happy circumstance it no doubt was—she was taken by a friend who felt a warm interest in her on a tour abroad. She saw the Rhine, with its ancient castles, its lovely scenery, and historic old towns, and found in that journey a turning point in her life. Afterwards she spent a season in London, and drew from its gaiety, variety, and life the delight, aid and suggestion such a mind was likely to feel. Not long after that she married Mr. Pfeiffer, a rich German merchant in London. In this new existence she found leisure and abundant stimulus to write, and wrote a great deal; but the lack of systematic education was keenly realised, and she now felt more than before that there was much to master as well as much to unlearn. She drew out a plan of more methodical study and work; but this was frustrated through such utter and long-continued physical prostration that for some years she was unable even to write her own letters.  4
  In spite of all the drawbacks progress was made, and in 1873 “Gerard’s Monument,” which had been written in the utmost secrecy, was published, and with it her literary career may be said to have begun. From that time, at intervals, volumes of poetry appeared, and articles on “Woman’s Work” and related themes in the Contemporary Review and elsewhere; all having the same merits, marked by thought, earnestness, and felicity of expression. Perhaps her highest mark in technical quality in poetic work is reached in her volume—a selection from a much larger mass—entitled “Songs and Sonnets.”  5
  In spite of the ill-health from which Mrs. Pfeiffer suffered, her married life was one of delightful harmony and happiness. Her husband believed in her powers, and was wise in his suggestions and encouragements. But she still exercised her art under peculiar difficulty, living always on the brink of insomnia, which was only kept at bay by change of occupation, the most fascinating and effectual being painting, especially the painting of flowers. Mr. Pfeiffer predeceased his wife by exactly a year.  6
  Mrs. Pfeififer told the present writer that she regarded it as a duty to the memory of her husband to do all that in her lay to cultivate still further the literary gift in which he so firmly believed; and she at that time cherished the hope that, in part, it might be given her to do so. But this, she added, was not the only work that had been left to her to carry out for his sake. He was a firm believer in the influence for good that women were destined to exercise on the future of society; and after the satisfaction of all legitimate claims, the fortune made by him in this country was to go, by his wish, to an object calculated to develop and to train, in chosen individuals, this factor of human progress. The small orphanage designed to experiment on these lines was already built, and she hoped soon to open it, when death overtook her. The orphanage has since been opened, and others are to follow, managed by a body of trustees. Mrs. Pfeiffer also took a warm interest in the drama, and practically expressed this by offering a large sum to found a School of Dramatic Art.  7

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