Published on April 8th, 2021 | by All Things Warrington


‘Epistle to Dr Enfield’ by Anna Laetitia Barbauld

Dr. William Enfield was a Unitarian minister for whom Anna Laetitia Barbauld wrote a series of Hymns. Her ‘Epistle’ (or letter) to him – or to give it its full title, ‘Epistle to Dr Enfield on his revisiting Warrington in 1789’ – is of great local interest because of its timing, its title and its subject matter, all of which are discussed in the commentary at the end of the poem.

Friend of those years which from Youth’s sparkling fount
With silent lapse down Time’s swift gulf have run!
Friend of the years, whate’er be their amount,
Which yet remain beneath life’s evening sun!
O when thy feet retrace that western shore
Where Mersey winds his waters to the main,
When thy fond eyes familiar haunts explore,
And paths well-nigh effaced are tracked again;
Will not thy heart with mixed emotions thrill,
As scenes succeeding scenes arise to view?
While joy or sorrow past alike shall fill
Thy glistening eyes with Feeling’s tender dew.

Shades of light transient Loves shall pass thee by,
And glowing Hopes, and Sports of youthful vein;
And each shall claim one short, half pleasing sigh,
A farewell sigh to Love’s and Fancy’s reign.
Lo there the seats where Science loved to dwell,
Where Liberty her ardent spirit breathed;
While each glad Naiad from her secret cell
Her native sedge with classic honours wreathed.
O seats beloved in vain! Your rising dome
With what fond joy my youthful eyes surveyed;
Pleased by your sacred springs to find my home,
And tune my lyre beneath your growing shade!
Does Desolation spread his gloomy veil
Your grass-grown courts and silent halls along?
Or busy hands there pile the cumbrous sail,
And Trade’s harsh din succeed the Muse’s song?

Yet still, perhaps, in some sequestered walk
Thine ear shall catch the tales of other times;
Still in faint sounds the learned echoes talk,
Where unprofaned as yet by vulgar chimes.
Do not the deeply-wounded trees still bear
The dear memorial of some infant flame?
And murmuring sounds yet fill the hallowed air,
Once vocal to the youthful poet’s fame?
For where her sacred step impressed the Muse,
She left a long perfume through all the bowers;
Still mayst thou gather thence Castalian dews
In honeyed sweetness clinging to the flowers.
Shrowded in stolen glance, here timorous Love
The grave rebuke of careful Wisdom drew,
With wholesome frown austere who vainly strove
To shield the sliding heart from Beauty’s view.

Go fling this garland in fair Mersey’s stream,
From the true lovers that have trod his banks;
Say, Thames to Avon still repeats his theme;
Say, Hymen’s captives send their votive thanks.
Visit each shade and trace each weeping rill
To holy Friendship or to Fancy known,
And climb with zealous step the fir-crowned hill,
Where purple foxgloves fringe the rugged stone:
And if thou seest on some neglected spray
The lyre which soothed my careless hours so much;
The shattered relic to my hands convey,—
The murmuring strings shall answer to thy touch.
Were it, like thine, my lot once more to tread
Plains now but seen in distant perspective,
With that soft hue, that dubious gloom o’erspread,
That tender tint which only time can give;

How would it open every secret cell
Where cherished thought and fond remembrance sleep!
How many a tale each conscious step would tell!
How many a parted friend these eyes would weep!
But O the chief!—If in thy feeling breast
The tender charities of life reside,
If there domestic love have built her nest,
And thy fond heart a parent’s cares divide;
Go seek the turf where worth, where wisdom lies,
Wisdom and worth, ah, never to return!
There, kneeling, weep my tears, and breathe my sighs,
A daughter’s sorrows o’er her father’s urn!

Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1789).

Why is the poem of local interest?

(1) Its timing. 1789 was a full 15 years after Anna Laetitia Barbauld, one of Britain’s most successful female poets, had left Warrington for pastures new. The poem therefore suggests she returned to Warrington on numerous occasions thereafter, perhaps not surprisingly given her father John Aiken was still a tutor at Warrington Academy. 

(2) Its title. ‘Epistle to Dr. Enfield’ is Barbauld’s only published work to explicitly namecheck the town in its title, albeit in its subtitle which refers to Dr. Enfield ‘revisiting Warrington in 1789’. 

(3) Its subject matter. In the poem Barbauld specifically talks about the state of Warrington as she saw it in 1789. The second verse, for example, remembers “the seats where Science loved to dwell”, a clear reference to the old Academy building where she once spent much of her time, but goes on to lament the fact that “Trade’s harsh din”, sparked by the industrial revolution, had started to “succeed the Muse’s song” (the creativity and learning that the Academy promoted). 

The poem was not well received in some quarters. Indeed, in 1933, over 140 years after its publication, Sydney Jeffrey, a member of Warrington’s Literary and Philosophical Society denounced the poem for “pathetically” suggesting “the intellectual eclipse brought on the town by the rise of industrialism”. Given the organisation he was a member of – which is still thriving today – Jeffrey had good cause to denounce it. Never one to shirk from committing her feelings to paper, Barbauld, of course, had every right to compose it.

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