William Newton: Anna Seward's "Peak Minstrel"

Article excerpt

William Newton (1750-1830), the son of a Peak District carpenter and himself a professional machinery carpenter and later mill-owner at Tideswell, was the protege of Anna Seward, the Swan of Lichfield, who fashioned a role for him as "the Peak Minstrel." In an appreciative biographical article that Seward contributed to the Gentleman's Magazine in 1785, she had recommended Newton, the labouring-class poet, to her readers. In January, 1789, in the Gentleman's Magazine, Newton in turn published "Sonnet to Miss Seward," a tribute celebrating her "melting and pathetic lyre," which publicly cemented their friendship. (1) While Newton enjoyed a local reputation during the Romantic period and was celebrated in William Wood's Genius of the Peak (1837), he has fared less well among major and lesser known late 18th century authors. The lack of biographical information and the unavailability or complete loss of Newton's poetry may explain this oversight.

Although Seward encouraged Newton to write poetry, he did not collect his verse for publication in a single edition. Instead, he submitted his poems to the publisher and editor of an important Yorkshire newspaper, the Sheffield Register (1787-94). In Industrial Revolution in Yorkshire, Frederick Bernard Singleton has termed the newspaper a "paper with a policy," as it was "one of the first provincial papers to publish editorials expressing political opinions" (188). Alter Joseph Gales resigned (for political reasons) as editor of the paper, his onetime clerk James Montgomery (1771-1854), the popular poet, accepted the post and re-launched the paper under the new name of Sheffield Iris (1794-1816), (2) Both the Sheffield Register and its successor had designated sections for the publication of poetry - the "Repository of Genius" (later "the Bower of the Muses") - in which some of the most celebrated poets of the day published their verse, among them, Helen Maria Williams, Anna Seward, Charlotte Smith, Coleridge, and Holcroft. From its inception, the Sheffield Register promoted interest in local literary activity, featuring an article on the Rev. James Cawthorn (1721-61), a minor Sheffield poet, as well as other notices of Yorkshire poets. It also encouraged female writers such as Susanna Pearson, a domestic servant and author of two collections of poems, Mary Sterndale who published The Effusions of the Heart: Poems in 1798, and Barbara (Hoole) Holland, nee Wreaks (1770-1844). The latter, an author of didactic children's fiction, was acquainted with Montgomery and began her writing career in the late 1780s when she published verse in the Sheffield Courant. The local anthology, Flowers from Sheffield Park (1827), reflects the range of poetry published in the Sheffield Iris.

Among other poems he contributed to the two papers over more than twenty years, Newton produced "Sonnet to a Mountain Cowslip," "Verses addressed to Mr. Home. Written upon reading his tragedy of Douglas," and "Verses occasion'd by the tolling of a passing bell." It is likely that poems such as "Song. Written by the Moonlight" (January 1, 1796), using the nom de plume Edwin, are also by Newton, as that was Seward's poetic and epistolary name for her friend. (3) Some of his productions shed light on the writing activities of a number of forgotten or little known poets such as Josiah Bardsley, John Aikin. Mr Tyson of Leeds, and Susanna Pearson. (1) Others reveal Newton as a skilful imitator of earlier 18th century models and poetic practice. By 1790, he was recognized in the Sheffield Register as a regular and prominent contributor of verse and frequently commended the works of new poets or advocated the causes of fellow writers.

Seward had known Newton since the summer of 1783, and repeatedly mentioned him in her literary correspondence. Her interest in his life and work was stimulated by her general fascination with literary primitivism, labouring-class poetry, and the "wild" poetry of Macpherson's Ossian. …


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