Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Joanna Baillie

A willow on Hampstead Heath, 3rd December 2016

At first, Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) published her grand sequence of Plays on the Passions in tranches But in 1812, following the volume on Fear, she decided it would be better not to publish them any more but to hold them in manuscript. She realized that theatre companies preferred a "new" play to one already in print.

I've been thinking about Scott epigraphs again. Joanna Baillie turned up in a chapter-heading to Kenilworth.

Like Ann Radcliffe, her career as a writer began around 1790. She quickly became famous. She was a good friend of Scott's. She came from rural Scotland, but since 1791 had been living in England, first in Colchester and later in Hampstead. (The exact date she moved to Hampstead is disputed, but it was around 1799.)

 She never married, was an ardent philanthropist and was widely admired, and loved, and even compared with Shakespeare, but her works fell into profound eclipse by the 1830s.

Opening a page of her plays at random, I seem for a moment to be back in Othello ...


A Chamber with a small Bed or Couch in it ; enter Rudigere and Cathrina, wrangling together.

Rud. I say begone, and occupy the chamber
I have appointed for thee : here I'm fix'd
To pass the night.

Cath. Did'st thou not say my chamber
Should be adjoining that which Orra holds ?
I know thy wicked thoughts : they meditate
Some dev'lish scheme ; but think not I'll abet it.

Rud. Thou wilt not ! — angry, restive, simple fool !
Dost thou stop short and say "I'll go no further?"
Thou, whom concealed shame hath bound so fast,— 
My tool, — my instrument ? -- Fulfil thy charge
To the full bent of thy commission, else
Thee, and thy bantling too, I'll from me cast
To want and infamy.

Cath.                       O shameless man !
Thou art the son of a degraded mother
As low as I am, yet thou hast no pity.

Hud. Aye, and dost thou reproach my bastardy
To make more base the man who conquer'd thee,
With all thy virtue, rigid and demure ?
Who would have thought less than a sov'reign Prince 
Could e*er have compass'd such achievement ? Mean 
As he may be, thou'st given thyself a master,
And must obey him.  — Dost thou yet resist ?
Thou know'st my meaning.

   (Tearing open his vest in vehemence of action.) 

Cath. Under thy vest a dagger ! — Ah too well,
I know thy meaning, cruel, ruthless man !

Rud. Have I discover'd it? -- I thought not of it :
The vehemence of gesture hath betray'd me.
I keep it not for thee, but for myself ;
A refuge from disgrace. Here is another :
He who with high but dangerous fortune grapples,
Should he be foil'd, looks but to friends like these.

    (Pulling out two daggers from his vest.)

This steel is strong to give a vig'rous thrust ;
The other on its venom'd point hath that
Which, in the feeblest hand, gives death as certain,
As tho' a giant smote the destin'd prey.

Cath. Thou desp'rate man! so arm'd against thyself !

Rud. Aye ; and against myself with such resolves,
Consider well how I shall deal with those
Who may withstand my will or mar my purpose. ...

Joanna Baillie, engraving by John Henry Robinson after portrait by Sir William Newton

[Image source:]

Here's one of Baillie's poems.


Beside a spreading elm, from whose high boughs
Like knotted tufts the crow's light dwelling shows,
Where screen'd from northern blasts, and winter proof,
Snug stands the parson's barn with thatched roof;
At chaff-strew'd door, where, in the morning ray,
The gilded mots in mazy circles play,
And sleepy Comrade in the sun is laid,
More grateful to the cur than neighb'ring shade;
In snowy shirt unbrac'd, brown Robin stood,
And leant upon his flail in thoughtful mood:
His full round cheek where deeper flushes glow,
The dewy drops which glisten on his brow;
His dark cropt pate that erst at church or fair,
So smooth and silky, shew'd his morning's care,
Which all uncouth in matted locks combin'd,
Now, ends erect, defies the ruffling wind;
His neck-band loose, and hosen rumpled low,
A careful lad, nor slack at labour shew.
Nor scraping chickens chirping 'mongst the straw,
Nor croaking rook o'er-head, nor chatt'ring daw;
Loud-breathing cow amongst the rampy weeds,
Nor grunting sow that in the furrow feeds;
Nor sudden breeze that shakes the quaking leaves,
And lightly rustles thro' the scatter'd sheaves;
Nor floating straw that skims athwart his nose,
The deeply musing youth may discompose.
For Nelly fair, and blythest village maid,
Whose tuneful voice beneath the hedge-row shade,
At early milking, o'er the meadows born,
E'er cheer'd the ploughman's toil at rising morn:
The neatest maid that e'er, in linen gown,
Bore cream and butter to the market town:
The tightest lass, that with untutor'd air
E'er footed ale-house floor at wake or fair,
Since Easter last had Robin's heart possest,
And many a time disturb'd his nightly rest.
Full oft' returning from the loosen'd plough,
He slack'd his pace, and knit his thoughtful brow;
And oft' ere half his thresher's talk was o'er,
Would muse, with arms across, at cooling door:
His mind thus bent, with downcast eyes he stood,
And leant upon his flail in thoughtful mood.
His soul o'er many a soft rememb'rance ran,
And, mutt'ring to himself, the youth began.
  "Ah! happy is the man whose early lot
Hath made him master of a furnish'd cot;
Who trains the vine that round his window grows,
And after setting sun his garden hoes;
Whose wattled pales his own enclosure shield,
Who toils not daily in another's field.
Where'er he goes, to church or market town,
With more respect he and his dog are known:
A brisker face he wears at wake or fair,
Nor views with longing eyes the pedlar's ware,
But buys at will or ribands, gloves, or beads,
And willing maidens to the ale-house leads:
And, Oh! secure from toils which cumber life,
He makes the maid he loves an easy wife.
Ah, Nelly! can'st thou with contented mind,
Become the help-mate of a lab'ring hind,
And share his lot, whate'er the chances be,
Who hath no dow'r, but love, to fix on thee?
Yes, gayest maid may meekest matron prove,
And things of little note may 'token love.
When from the church thou cam'st at eventide
And I and red-hair'd Susan by thy side,
I pull'd the blossoms from the bending tree,
And some to Susan gave, and some to thee;
Thine were the best, and well thy smiling eye
The diff'rence mark'd, and guess'd the reason why.
When on a holy-day we rambling stray'd,
And pass'd old Hodge's cottage in the glade;
Neat was the garden dress'd, sweet hum'd the bee,
I wish'd both cot and Nelly made for me;
And well methought thy very eyes reveal'd
The self-same wish within thy breast conceal'd.
When artful, once, I sought my love to tell,
And spoke to thee of one who lov'd thee well,
You saw the cheat, and jeering homeward hied,
Yet secret pleasure in thy looks I spied.
Ay, gayest maid may meekest matron prove,
And smaller signs than these have 'token'd love."
  Now, at a distance, on the neighb'ring plain,
With creaking wheels slow comes the heavy wain:
High on its tow'ring load a maid appears,
And Nelly's voice sounds shrill in Robin's ears.
Quick from his hand he throws the cumb'rous flail,
And leaps with lightsome limbs th' enclosing pale.
O'er field and fence he scours, and furrow wide,
With waken'd Comrade barking by his side;
Whilst tracks of trodden grain, and sidelong hay,
And broken hedge-flow'rs sweet, mark his impetuous way.

Winter sunshine on Hampstead Heath, 3rd December 2016

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