hymn to content note

"Hymn to Content"

But thou, oh Nymph retir'd and coy!
In what brown hamlet dost thou joy
          To tell thy tender tale;
The lowliest children of the ground,
Moss rose and violet, blossom round,
          And lily of the vale.

The "Hymn to Content" first appeared in Poems (1772) and was reprinted in Enfield's Speaker (1774), Barbauld's Poems, new edition (1792), Odes by George Dyer, A. L. Barbauld, M. Robinson, & J. Ogilvie (1800), and Barbauld's Works ed. Lucy Aikin (1825) (See McCarthy and Kraft, 264n).

The poem became the subject of controversy when some lines from the seventh stanza were mentioned by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his final lecture on Milton, delivered January 27, 1812. Although the lectures were never published, Henry Crabb Robinson, a friend of both Coleridge and Barbauld, attended the lecture and recorded his impressions:

The lecture was exceedingly well attended: and Coleridge was very animated in parts; his development of the character of Satan, his apology for Milton's mode of treating the character of the Supreme Being, etc., were excellent. There were some excrescences in the lecture, and he offended me by an unhandsome and unmanly attack upon Mrs. Barbauld. He ridiculed some expressions in her Ode to Content, 'The hamlets brown, primrose and violet,' etc.--'criticisms,' he added, 'which Wordsworth made to me at Charles Lamb's two years ago.' That he should select among the living authors, a woman, and that woman a lady who has been among his admirers formerly, and I believe always showed him civilities, is ungenerous and unworthy of his better feelings.
See Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and Their Writers ed. Edith J. Morley (London: J. M. Dent, 1938), 61-2.

Robinson 's On Books and Their Writers is an interesting source of anecdotes about Barbauld and her family. He reports on February 13, 1813 that he:

took tea with Mrs. Barbauld ... Chatted ... with Mrs. Barbauld about Coleridge's lectures: though no kind feelings towards Coleridge, I found her not indisposed to do justice to his talents. In reference to the evening at Charles Aikin's she seemed to think Wordsworth not justified in being displeased with young Roscoe, whom she represented as qualified to give an opinion with anyone as a man of genius, etc. And Wordsworth she thought spoiled by associating with those who reverenced him, etc. Chess, etc., as usual.
(On Books and Their Writers, 118).

On Books and Their Writers makes clear that Robinson felt that it was his task to redress any wrongs towards Barbauld on the part of Coleridge and his circle. He attempted to quell the false rumour that Barbauld wrote an unfavourable review of Charles Lamb's John Woodvil in 1803; he records discussing the "effect that report had in alienating certain persons from Mrs. Barbauld" with the Aikin family in 1812 (69), and was still righting that wrong in the 1840s (638) and in 1850, when he asked Robert Southey to "put a note in a future volume of the Life, stating that Mrs. Barbauld was not the writer of the article on Lamb in the Annual Review (695). On May 19, 1850, he called upon Coleridge's daughter Sara and "read to her Mrs. Barbauld's lines to her father in his youth. She is, I believe, made sensible that he treated her unworthily" (697). That the friction between Coleridge and Barbauld, which was based upon oral statements, was still being discussed even after both writers' deaths suggests the power of literary gossip in the nineteeth century.


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