Anna Laetitia Barbauld

Anna [Aiken] Barbauld letter (Dickinson College Special Collections)

Jennifer Lindbeck, Class of ’98, Dickinson College


Anna Laetitia Aikin Barbauld (1743-1825) was born on June 20, 1743, in Leicestershire, England, the eldest daughter of John Aikin, a Dissenting clergyman and tutor of classical studies, and his wife, Jane Aikin. Anna was praised by her parents for her remarkable intellect; her mother claimed that at the age of twenty months Anna could already read quite well. By the age of six, Anna had mastered French and Italian, as well as English. When old enough, Anna’s parents allowed her to pursue a classical education at Warrington Academy, where her father was a tutor. In addition to learning Greek and Latin, Anna also developed a great love for poetry and spent much time writing. She had many of her own poems and prose printed at the Warrington Press, alongside the writings of John Howard, Thomas Roscoe, and Dr. Ferrier. Anna developed deep and life-long friendships with Joseph Priestley, the scientist and religious philosopher, and his wife, Mary. During the summer of 1767, on one of her visits to the Priestley’s at their home in Leeds, Anna wrote her well-known poem “The Mouse’s Petition” which was born from the following circumstance: late one night, Anna, having crept down to Priestley’s laboratory, found a mouse among his scientific equipment, caged as Priestley’s next victim in his experiment on the effects of fixed air, also known as carbonic acid or nephitic air, on animals of different sizes and body mass. Having found the poor creature and knowing its fate, Anna cleverly composed “The Mouse’s Petition,” pleading for the mouse’s life and freedom. She then fixed the poem to the mouse’s cage with a bit of wire and addressed it to Dr. Priestley. The next morning, upon finding the verses, Dr. Priestley released the mouse.

Anna married Rev. Rochemont Barbauld in 1774 and together with her husband established a school in Palgrave, where she taught and prepared lectures on natural history, geography, English composition, and history. Anna’s interest in natural history and geography extended far outside her classroom walls; throughout her letters and poetry Anna writes of journeys to different countries and describes the animals and plant life found there. In her poem “Corsica,” she writes of James Boswell’s travels to the island of the “sweet-leaved myrtle, aromatic thyme, / The prickly juniper, and the green leaf / Which feeds the spinning worm.” “Corsica” acclaims the rich and beautiful plant and animal life which Anna imagines Boswell happening upon during his travels to the island. During one of her own journeys, Anna recorded the following observations about ocean life in a story she told of two lovers by the shore: “the encrustation which covers part of the sides, exactly resembling honeycomb; various shells imbedded in the rock . . . vegetation in the purple and green tints occasioned by the lichens and other mosses creeping over the bare stone” (Letter of July 18, 1797). In a letter she wrote to her brother, John, in 1785, Anna further attested to her keen eye and the workings of her naturalist’s mind: “the fields are full of lavender, thyme, mint, rosemary . . . the young corn is above half a foot high . . . the trees which are not evergreens have mostly lost their leaves . . . a single tree, of cypress, shooting up its graceful spire of a deeper and more lively green far above the deeds of its humbler but more profitable neighbours . . . there are likewise a vast number of mulberry-trees.” John Aikin, Anna’s brother, was also quite interested in natural history. During the 1770s, he published a work entitled “Application of Natural History to Poetry” about which Anna wrote:

I hope your Essay will bring down our poets from the garrets, to wander about the fields and hunt squirrels. I am clearly of your opinion, that the only chance we have of novelty is by a more accurate observation of the works of nature, though I think I should not have confined the track quite so much as you have done to the animal creation, because sooner exhausted than the vegetable . . . I think too, since you put me on criticizing, it would not have been amiss if you had drawn between the poet and natural historian, and shown how far, and in what cases, the one may avail himself of the knowlege of the other . . . that knowlege becomes so generally spread as to authorize the poetical describer to use it without shocking the ear by the introduction of names and properties not sufficiently familiar . . . I have seen some rich descriptions of West Indies flowers and plants, but unpleasing merely because their names were uncouth, and forms not known generally enough to be put into verse (Letter of 1777 to her brother John).

Anna also had numerous ties with well-known writers of her day. Wordsworth greatly admired her writings, praising her especially for her poem “Life.” He was even quoted as saying he wished he had written its line, “Life we’ve been so long together.” Hannah More and Madame D’Arblay (Miss Fanny Burney) were also very close to Anna; all three exchanged work and letters frequently. Among More’s works there are several dedicated to Barbauld. Others included in Anna’s wide circle of friends and colleagues were John Howard, Sir Walter Scott, Dugald Stewart, Elizabeth Montague, Charles Lamb, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Carter, and Henry Crabb Robinson. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, unlike the majority of her contemporaries, did not admire Barbauld’s works; on several occasions, he spoke in public of his dislike for her. In 1797, when Anna wrote a poem praising him for his talent and genius, Coleridge read the poem and exclaimed that he hated it.

After her husband’s death in 1808, Anna continued writing poetry for many years. Even late in life, her writings reflect her deep love for nature and her sympathetic identification with living creatures. In a letter written in January of 1814, Anna described her old age in a naturalist’s terms: “There are animals that sleep all the winter; I am, I believe, become one of them; they creep into holes during the same season . . . If, indeed, a warm sunshiny day occurs, they sometimes creep out of their holes.” On March 9, 1825, Anna Barbauld died at the age of eighty-two and was buried alongside her husband in the Presbyterian Chapel Cemetery in Newington Green.           ~Jennifer Lindbeck, Class of ’98, Dickinson College

Barbauld links:

Anna Barbauld on the natural world (poetry excerpts)

Barbauld letter at Dickinson College

“To Mrs. P________, with some Drawings of Birds and Insects”

“The Mouse’s Petition” (Dedicated to Joseph Priestley: Dickinson College collection)

This entry was posted in Literary Figures and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.