We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Caroline Bowles Southey & Cowper in the 1983 _Mansfield Park_ · 2 June 07

Dear Anne,

Today I watched the last episode of the 1983 BBC Mansfield Park (once again). I’ve just fallen in love with this film adaptation, and hope to write about it at length and cogently in this long paper I’m working towards (or book). Several times in the film the characters quote some wonderful verses by William Cowper (from The Task). Pulled out of context they don’t seem inspired but in the film they capture some of the deepest impulses the story is meant to embody; in this film Mansfield Park, as a home, building, beautiful place, comfort and set of values is the major force in Fanny’s life and the one she finds comfort, strength, safety, happiness in. Susan, Fanny’s 15 year old sister, is seen & heard reading these lines from The Task to a (comically sleeping Lady Bertram) towards the film’s end:

Scenes must be beautiful which daily viewed
Please daily, and whose novelty survives
Long knowledge and the scrutiny of years:
Praise justly due to those that I describe.

Susan Price (Eryl Maynard) reading Cowper’s Task to Lady Bertram (Angela Pleasance) (Mansfield Park, 1983)

The lines made me think of the block I live on. Despite the transformation of several of the houses into ugly over-large mansions, and the influx of snobbish Bushite types, the place is as beautiful as ever. The whole surroundings engulf and make trivial these tasteless excrescences. The ideal this neighborhood embodies is that of a vast park in the which one finds separate houses. Our road is wide and our block on a high hill; below the roads are serpentine, curve, and there are lots of trees. We have two small woods in our area, and one stream, a small park (it has a playground of sorts, wooden).

The scene and poem also prompt me to choose Caroline Bowles Southey for my foremother poet posting this week. I wrote this one some time ago for Wompo. Bowles’s poem is as beautiful and deeply felt as Cowper’s. I thought of her poem on Wompo because Annie Finch asked if there were any long blank verse poems by women. Of course. Aurora Leigh. But it’s not alone. There’s Caroline Bowles’s The Birthday.

The Birthday is a kind of Prelude where the Poet remembers her girlhood and youth and tells of how she came to love poetry. Bowles was born rich, but became poor when her parents died. She was for a time a seamstress (not much fun).

I hope the verses come out right. I’ve copied and pasted them.

The Birthday by Caroline Bowles

From Part the First:

How vivid still, how deep the hues, the imprint
Left by those childish pastimes! Later joys,
Less puerile, more exciting, have I known
(Ah! purer none; from earth’s alloy so free),
But memory hoards no picture so distinct
In freshness as of yesterday as those
Life’s first impressions, exquisite and strong
Their stamp, compared to that of later days,
Like a proof print from the engraver’s plate
The first struck offmost forcibly impressed.
Lo! what a train like Bluebeard’s wives appear,
So many headless! half dismembered some,
With battered faces eyeless noseless grim
With cracked enamel and unsightly scars
Some with bald pates or hempen wigs unfrizzed,
And ghastly stumps, like Greenwich pensioners;
Others mere torsosarms, legs, heads, all gone!
But precious all. And chief that veteran doll,
She, from whose venerable face is worn
All prominence of feature: shining brown
(Like chestnut from its prickly coating freed)
With equal polish as the wigless skull
Well I remember, with what bribery won
Of a fair rival one of waxen mold
(Long coveted possession!) I was brought
The mutilated favorite to resign.
The blue-eyed fair one cameperfection’s self!
With eager joy I clasped her waxen charms;
But thenthe stipulated sacrifice!
“And must we part?” my piteous looks expressed
(Mute eloquence!) “And must we part, dear Stump!
Oh! might I keep ye both!”and both I kept.
Unwelcome hour I ween, that tied me down,
Restless, reluctant, to the seamstress’ task!
Sight horrible to me, the allotted seam
Of stubborn Irish, or more hateful length
Of handkerchief, with folded edge tacked down,
All to be hemmeday, selvidge sides and all.
And so they were in tedious course of time,
With stitches long and short, “cat’s teeth” yclept;
Or jumbled thick and thin, oblique, transverse,
At last, in sable line imprinted grim.
But less distasteful was the sampler’s task;
There green and scarlet vied, and fancy claimed
Her privilege to crowd the canvass field
With hearts and zigzags, strawberries and leaves,
And many a quaint device; some moral verse
Or Scripture text enwrought; and last of all,
Last, though not least, the self-pleased artist’s name.
And yet, with more alacrity of will,
I fashioned various raiment caps, cloaks, gowns
Gay garments for the family of dolls;
No matter how they fittedthey were made;
Ay, and applauded, and rewarded, too,
With silver thimble. Precious gift! bestowed
By a kind aunt, one ever kind and good,
Mine early benefactress! since approved
By time and trial mine unchanging friend;
Yet most endeared by the affecting bond
Of mutual sorrows, mutual sympathies.

From Part the Second:

.................................How I hate
Those London Sparrows! Vile, pert, noisy things!
Whose ceaseless clamor at the windowsill
(The back-room window, opening on some mews)
Reminds one of the country just so far
As to bemock its wild and blithesome sounds,
And press upon the heart our pent-up state
In the great Babylon; oppressed, engulfed
By crowds and smoke and vapor: Where one sees,
For laughing vales fair winding in the sun

And hilltops gleaming in his golden light,
The dingy red of roofs and chimneys tall
On which a leaden orb looks dimly down!
For limpid rills, the kennel’s stream impure;
For primrose banks, the rifled scentless things
Tied up for sale, held out by venal hands;
For lowing herds and bleating flocks, the cries
Of noisy venders threading every key,
From base to treble, of discordant sound;
For trees, unnatural stinted mockeries
At windows and, on balconies, stuck up
Fir trees in vases!picturesque conceit!
Whereon, to represent the woodland choir,
Perch those sweet songsters of the sooty wing ….

Yet as I write, the light and flippant mood
Changes to one of serious saddened thought,
And my heart smites me for the sorry jest,
Calling to mind a sight that filled me once
With tenderest sympathy.

................................. In a great city,
Blackened and deafening with the smoke and din
Of forge and enginetraffic’s thriving mart,
Chartered by Mammonunderneath a range
Of gorgeous showrooms where all precious metals,
In forms innumerous, exquisitely wrought,
Dazzled the gazer’s eye, I visited
The secret places of the “Prison House.”
From den to den of a long file I passed
Of dingy workshopseach affording space
But for the sallow inmate and his tools:
His table, the broad, timeworn, blackened slab
Of a deep sunken window, whose dim panes
Tinged with a sickly hue the blessed beams
Of the bright noonday sun. I tarried long
In one of those sad cells, conversing free
With its pale occupant, a dark-browed man
Of hard repellant aspecthard and stern.
But having watched awhile the curious sleight
Of his fine handicraft, when I expressed
Pleased admirationin few words, but frank,
And toned by kindly feeling, for my heart
Yearned with deep sympathythe moody man
Looked up into my face, and in that look

Flashed out an intellectual soul-fraught gleam
Of pleased surprise, that changed to mild and good
The harsh expression of that care-marred face.
There lay beside him on the window slab
A dirty ragged book turned downwards open
Where he had last been reading, from his toil
Snatching a hurried moment. Anxiously
I glanced towards it, but forbore to question,
Restrained by scrupulous feeling, shunning most
Shadow of disrespect to low estate
But from the book my wandering gaze passed on
To where, beyond it, close to the dim panes,
A broken flowerpot, with a string secured,
Contained a living treasurea green clump
(Just bursting into bloom) of the field orchis.
“You care for flowers,” I said, “and that fair thing,
The beautiful orchis, seems to flourish well
With little light and air.” “It won’t for long,”
The man made answer, with a mournful smile
Eying the plant. “I took it up, poor thing!
But Sunday evening last from the rich meadow
Where thousands bloom so gay, and brought it here
To smell of the green fields for a few days
Till Sunday comes againand rest mine eyes on,
When I look up fatigued from these dead gems
And yellow glittering gold.”

...........................With patient courtesy,
Well spoken, clear (no ignorant churl was he),
That poor artificer explained the process
Of his ingenious artI looked and listened,
But with an aching heart that loathed the sight
Of those bright pebbles and that glittering ore;
And when I turned to gonot unexpressed
My feelings of good will and thankfulness
He put into my hand a small square packet
Containing powder that would quite restore
(He told me) to dull gems and clouded pearls
Their pristine luster. I received, well pleased,
Proffering payment; but he shook his head,
Motioning back my hand; and stooping down,
Resumed his task, in a low deep-toned voice
Saying, “You’re kindly welcome.”

Say with a friend we contemplate some scene
Of natural loveliness, from which the heart
Drinks in its fill of deep admiring joy,
Some landscape scene, all glorious with the glow
Of summer evening, when the recent shower
(Transient and sudden) all the dry white road
Has moistened to red firmness, every leaf
(Washed from the dust) restored to glossy green
In such an evening, oft the setting sun,
Flaming in gold and purple clouds, comes forth
To take his farewell of our hemisphere;
Sudden the face of nature brightens o’er
With such effulgence, as no painter’s art
May imitate with faint similitude.
The raindrops dripping fast from every spray
Are liquid topazes; bright emeralds those
Set on the green foil of the glistening leaves,
And every little hollow, concave stone
And pebbly wheeltrack holds its sparkling pool
Brimming with molten amber. Of those drops
The blackbird lights to drink, then, scattering thick
A diamond shower among his dusty plumes,
Flies up rejoicing to some neighboring elm
And pours forth such a strain as wakens up
The music of unnumbered choristers.
Thus nature to her great creator hymns
An hallelujah of ecstatic praise.
And are our voices mute? Oh, no! we turn
(Perhaps with glistening eyes), and our full heart
Pour out, in rapturous accents, broken words
Such as require no answer but by speech
As little measured, or that best reply,
Feeling’s true eloquence, a speaking look.
But other answer waits us; for the friend
(Oh! heaven! that there are such) with a calm smile
Of sweet no-meaning gently answers, “Yes,
Indeed it’s very pretty Don’t you think
It’s getting late thoughtime to go to tea?”


Caroline Bowles’s years were 1786-1854 so she crosses the 18th and 19th century eras. She was born to people with money but as when her parents died her guardian absonded with the money that was to support her, she grew up very poor. She was educated (she was a genteel hanger-on in a big family and I imagine might have loved Jane Eyre and identified readily with Lucy Morris in Trollope’s Eustace Diamonds or Kirsten in Oliphant’s wonderful novel of that name). She published other books of poetry; The Birthday was originally compared with Cowper’s Task. At the time Wordsworth’s Prelude was hardly known. Robert Southey met, introduced her to Wordsworth, and they collaborated on a poem called Robin Hood. It never saw the light (was not completed). When Southey’s wife died, Southey married Bowles, but he was very ill by that time and his illness blighted her later life. She received a crown pension in 1854.

There’s a wonderful essay on her in Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception, edd. Harriet Linking and Stephen Behrendt: Kathleen Hickok, ”’Burst are the Prison Bars: Caroline Bowles Southey and the Vicissitudes of Poetic Reputation,” pp. 192-213. There has been an edition of Caroline Bowles Southey’s poetry and a biography by Virginia Blain. Both are very expensive.

“The Birthday” is a longish blank verse poem telling of the growth and development of a poet’s mind through retelling her story. It’s called “The Birthday” because it’s imagined that she begins to write it on her birthday one year. “The Birthday” gives us a woman’s version of Wordsworth’s Prelude It’s shameful “The Birthday” is not better known. In its way it’s also superior to “Aurora Leigh” as it hasn’t got a melodramatic story at its center, but a real one. In the excerpt I sent the poet goes to a filthy shop in London where she meets a laboring man who loves to read and has aspirations to write. He can’t. He can’t begin to get the books he needs (shades of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure) and hasn’t got any time to himself at all. He must work from early morning to late at night. Wordsworth refers to poor people but does not give them reality; in her Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning gives us this melodramatic story of the seamstress in love who has a baby out of wedlock and after all deserved to be dropped.

I wrote and put onto the Net a review of Paula Backscheider’s book which attempts to counter the determined erasure of womens’ poetry throughout the ages, how it’s never included in histories, important anthologies and that’s why it doesn’t make its mark. Today the poems included are still those which tend to be de-contextualized into impersonal (Elizabeth Bishop) or are hysterical-tragic (Plath)—though the situation is changing since the mid-20th century. Yet we can see that there are continual rearguard actions to regard women’s writing as “biodegradable” (Germaine Greer’s word) from say even such a fair-minded man as Garrison Keilor in a recent screed he wrote against sentimental women’s poetry.

Fanny Price (Sylvestre Le Tousel) writing to William Price, her brother (Allen Hendrick) from her attic room (Mansfield Park, 1983)

The Antwerp was the ship Jane Austen’s brother sailed on; Fanny is of course a face of Jane Austen.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. From Judy:

    “Dear Ellen,

    I’ve just done a bit of googling and you’re right, this is Cowper,
    from “The Task: Book One, The Sofa”.

    Here’s a link to the Gutenberg text:

    And here’s the passage:

    Here Ouse, slow winding through a level plain
    Of spacious meads with cattle sprinkled o'er,
    Conducts the eye along his sinuous course
    Delighted. There, fast rooted in his bank
    Stand, never overlooked, our favourite elms
    That screen the herdsman's solitary hut;
    While far beyond and overthwart the stream
    That, as with molten glass, inlays the vale,
    The sloping land recedes into the clouds;
    Displaying on its varied side the grace
    Of hedgerow beauties numberless, square tower,
    Tall spire, from which the sound of cheerful bells
    Just undulates upon the listening ear;
    Groves, heaths, and smoking villages remote.
    Scenes must be beautiful which daily viewed
    Please daily, and whose novelty survives
    Long knowledge and the scrutiny of years:
    Praise justly due to those that I describe."

    Elinor    Jun 3, 4:48pm    #
  2. From Austen-l:

    “Yes, they are from THE TASK, Book 1, lines 177-179

    Scenes must be beautiful, which, daily view’d,
    Please daily, and whose novelty survives
    Long knowledge and the scrutiny of years.

    The narrator and his companion have, as often before, been standing atop a high hill, looking down with delight at a scene with a plowman at work, the winding Ouse edged with elms, a herdsman’s hut, grazing cattle, villages, groves, and heaths, and a square-towered church whose bells they could hear.

    Thanks for inviting our attention to it; I don’t remember Susan reading the lines, and am tempted to see the film again.

    Gracia Fay”
    Elinor    Jun 4, 7:19am    #
  3. Thank you, Judy and Gracia.

    I’ve watched the 1983 MP about 4 times now and think I’m just beginning to see its depth and interest. As in the case of the better or best Austen films, it both offers a take or interpretation on its eponymous book as well as Austen’s vision as such, and its own projected vision. Early in the film Edmund when young turns into Edmund grown up reading lines of Cowper, and I need to go back to catch what these are. (It’s enormously useful, indeed a since qua non when watching these films to use software like the vlnc viewer which enables you to pause, make a scene go slower, capture stills, and other things to be able to study it as if you were reading a book.) My memory is these lines by Cowper alsoo emphasize the centrality of place, and that when it is beautiful, well-ordered by supportive humane values, that this can provide meaning a person can live in and by.

    This I think is the 1980s take we get from this movie and it is one which responds to deep anxieties and insecurities in modern culture, ones which I suggest lie behind the environmentalist movement (usually presented as scientific discourse but if you read that original book by Rachel Carson was you see its from a need, a reaction against our cement overladen ugly worlds): in the 1983 movie much time is spent showing us how Fanny’s personality formed (cut off from a family too suddenly, there on tenuous grounds, getting emotional support for a very long time just from Edmund), many slow scenes on the buildings and grounds of Mansfield, Sotherton, and also Chekhovian-like lingering scenes of the dinners inside; we also have the original establishment shots and the conclusion (including a quotation from the very last paragraph of Austen’s novels which is rarely quoted—about how Fanny’s deep security and peace would not be located within the purviews of Mansfield Park), with its shots of coming up to the house and beautiful grounds, and last walk (not a wedding, this one does not end on a wedding or people with wine glasses but in the meadow, so what is the penultimate or antepenultimate scene in many of the Austen films becomes the last one).

    The 1983 MP is one of the Austen films which is a work of art in its own right that stands up to reviewing, analysis, and giving the kind of pleasure one gets from rereading a great book. You see more each time. I’d put the 1972 Emma in its category. Remarkable as it is intuitively, the 1995 Sense and Sensibility by Emma Thompson and Ang Lee can be crude because it goes too quickly so for example we really don’t get a slow development of Brandon and Marianne’s love: she basically switches almost like a doll. The 981 Sense and Sensibility is thus superior as time is given for the relationship between the two characters to develop. The male also repeats poetry. Thompson’s Brandon recites from the Faerie Queene_ about how loss can be regained; Constantduros’s Brandon (he wrote the original screenplay for the 1972 Emma as well as this 1981 Sense and Sensibiilty recites the beauitful song from Cymbeline: “Fear no more the heat of the sun,” again about how disaster is not disaster (making me recall Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master ..”)

    I’m beginning to think the 2007 Persuasion is another one—I have a copy of it and have watched a couple of times now. So the shorter type can rise to heights too. I think there is a type of Austen film not meant to be faithful, only analogous and also critical. The 1999 MP by Rozema is this type, so too the recent 2007 Persuasion: this latter one strikes me as brilliant take on Austen’s book which like the 1940 P&P makes its statement by its departures as much as its fidelities.

    I have always loved literary criticism and found when it goes past stereotypes, it can be as creative and deep as any novel, play or poem—just as it’s as often poor as any novel, play or poem. The kind of enrichening and deep pleasure I can get from reading literary criticism of Austen I find in numbers of the movies made from her books. also film criticism. That is though only one reason for seeing them—as reading criticism. One sees and reads whatever it is for its own sake or in its own right.

    Elinor    Jun 4, 7:25am    #
  4. From Gabriel Berry:

    “Incidentally enough, I was actually reading a rather obscure novel that quotes these lines as the epigraph to the opening of one of its chapters:

    Scenes must be beautiful, which daily view’d,
    Please daily. COWPER.

    The source, according to Google Books, is from the First Book of Cowper’s The Task, around lines 177-79.

    Hope that helps.”
    Elinor    Jun 4, 7:38am    #

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