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Wine & Poetry: British Romantics I

Welcome to Second Thursday’s poetry and cuisine pairing. For this series of posts, we’ll be matching up poets and writers with drinks, snacks, meals, and whatever other tasty ideas we can come up with. We hope you’ll join along in the conversation!

This week, I’ve assembled some female British Romantic poets and wines that I enjoyed while reading their works. I’ve included a short biography with the poets, as they are lesser known, but you’re welcome to skip straight to the wine, in the second paragraph.

The Poets

Born in 1743 in Leicestershire with the name Anna Laetitia Aikens, Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s  parents were Presbyterian dissenters, and her father was a minister and teacher. She is often noted for one of her earliest poems, “Corsica.” In 1774, she married Richard Barbauld. While they never had children of their own, they raised Anna’s brother’s third child as theirs and established a boarding school together. Anna wrote several small books for children’s education. Her writing became political and social in the later part of the 1700s. Richard eventually suffered from mental illness (at one point, he tried to kill Anna, forcing them to separate) and eventually ended up drowning himself in a river. Anna died in 1825. Her poetry ranges from lighthearted to pious to somber, and she often wrote on topics such as children, the home, and faith. She wrote with an individual and strong voice, clear of clichés and rich in meaning. She was much admired by Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

  What I’d like to be sipping while reading Barbauld’s work is a French Chardonnay that is rich but not overpowered by the oak flavors like many of the California varieties can be. Her poetry and the achievements of her life reveal a strength of character, political engagement, and fervor in her beliefs that I think the steadfast flavor of a Chardonnay mirrors. My specific choice was a 2011 Domaine Jean Tourzot Mâcon Villages, which is crisp and clean on the palate, but still flavorful.

 

Anna Seward’s poetry does not do her nature justice. She wrote rather conventional verse for one who lived, if not unconventionally, at least not as the epitome of tradition. The oldest daughter of Thomas Seward and Elizabeth Hunter, she grew up to take care of her father in his old age–relinquishing from her the need to marry young, or ever. Anna formed a very close attachment to a woman who came to live with the Sewards at a young age, Honora Sneyd. Sneyd eventually was recalled back home and, soon after, married a man by the name of Robert Edgeworth. Anna was devastated by this occurrence, saddened that her friend was unconvinced to not marry despite Anna’s arguments against marriage. Seven years later, Sneyd died of consumption, and Anna wrote for the rest of her life of the sorrow that the tragedy caused her. (You might check out her poem “Elegy” for just one example.) She had her critics, but Erasmas Darwin and Sir Walter Scott were among the admirers of her work.

  Pinot Grigio would pair nicely with Seward’s work. Her poetry doesn’t reflect her independent and feminist views as much as her letters do, but the poems are still fine examples of form. Additionally, she wrote at an interesting time, between classicism and Romanticism. I tried out a few Italian Pinot Grigios looking for a good one to pair, and I discovered that really all of them would work–they are trustworthy to be fruity whites that don’t verge on too much sweetness. Plus, the Italian version of the varietal has a really beautiful golden color–which, in a bit of synesthesia, to me transfers to its taste as well–and Anna’s is a life that could have used some golden sweetness to it, don’t you think?

 

Mary Robinson lived quite the scandalous eighteenth-century life. Born in 1758, she married–secretly–Thomas Robinson at the age of fifteen. Thomas was something of a rake, to be truthful, immediately taking a mistress and without any prospects for future livelihood. The couple lived beyond its means and made the acquaintance of other libertine and high-rolling friends, such as Lord Lyttelton. Robinson was gifted in more than just poetry. In fact, she achieved great fame from her role as Perdita in The Winter Tale at the age of twenty-one, even being pursued by the seventeen-year-old prince of Wales for a time. When the affair went sour, the Perdita actress had acquired quite the reputation–and her marriage, though apparently never officially ended, seems to have dissipated around this time. Another of Mary’s romantic ties was with a Captain Tarleton. He had little money, and when he and Mary accrued several debts, they were forced to separate by his family. While Tarleton was away, Mary had a miscarriage, and mistreatment from her midwife caused paralysis in her legs. The possibility of being elected took Tarleton back to England, where he moved in with Mary. After Tarleton’s loss in the election, however, the couple had to leave England (more debtors’ issues); they spent several years living and traveling in France and Germany. They did eventually return to England and lived near each other, though in separate residences. Mary’s poetry began to garner acclaim, as did many of her novels. She was writing her autobiography when her health worsened, and she died in 1800 before it was complete. Her daughter finished it. Mary’s poetry became neglected in the ages that followed because of her so-called notoriety. The best of her work shows a mastery of form and particular attention to sound and meter. Some examples are “All Alone” and “The Widow’s Home.”

  My immediate thought for what to drink with Mary Robinson’s work was something spicy and capricious–a Pinot Noir seemed perfect. Pinot Noir’s finicky nature in general fits the pattern in Mary’s life of high successes punctuated with sporadic ruin and her own impulsiveness. Specifically, I chose Le Grand’s 2011 Pinot Noir, a French Pinot Noir with the “unique taste” of spiced cherries.

 

Considered one of the first Romantics along with Anna Barbauld, Charlotte Smith drew much of her writing’s themes from her own life. Though her parents were wealthy, her father encountered financial troubles when she was older. He married Charlotte to the son of a wealthy merchant and director of the East India Company, Benjamin Smith, in 1765, when Charlotte was fifteen. She condemned her father’s decision as “legal prostitution.” Smith was abusive and unfaithful, and Charlotte was miserable in her marriage. Additionally, he accrued enough debts to land the couple in debtors’ prison, where Charlotte wrote her first book of poetry. Charlotte and Smith had twelve children together, but even with their financial burden, Charlotte eventually left her abusive husband and wrote to support the children. She was a successful poet and novelist and was admired in her time by Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Scott. Her novels were particularly instrumental in the development of Gothicism and the novel of sensibility. Through her writing, Charlotte promulgated radical views, and she wrote in favor of legal reform for women’s rights and the French Revolution. She died in 1806.

  Her novels were the predecessors of Gothic romance and her poetry the predecessor of sentimentality/Romanticism/the sublime, so I was looking for something with deep and dark flavors to drink while reading Charlotte’s poetry. I found it in a grape I had never heard of or tried before (not unusual, considering the overwhelming numbers of varietals there are): the Sicilian Nero d’Avola. My particular choice was the Caleo 2012. This wine was smooth and round on the tongue and medium to full bodied, but it had notes of dark fruits and the slightest touch of a bitter finish. It was perfect to capture the feeling of Charlotte’s life and poetry

 

Obviously well-known for being the sister of William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth was a writer in her own right, though she never wanted to be known as one in her lifetime. She was born in 1771 and lived with her father and siblings until her father’s death in 1783, when she went to live with an aunt. She and William later reunited and spent the rest of their lives living together, though William eventually married Dorothy’s best friend, Mary Hutchinson. The two had a very close relationship, which has been speculated on by many biographers, and Dorothy did indeed live with William and Mary. (This NPR review of a recent book about Dorothy Wordsworth sheds an interesting cast on the pair.) Later in life, Dorothy developed an addiction to opium and laudanum.

  Originally, I wanted to find something herbacious for Dorothy. By all accounts, she was just as much a naturalist as her brother (some even suggest she influenced his writing with her journals), and I thought a woodsy wine would provide that nature feel I was looking for. Alas, I could not find one (I’m sure I just did not look hard enough), but I did find a Torrontés that answered the call for a wine that inspired nature. Alamos’s 2012 Torrontés tastes like a field of wildflowers (according to the vintners, it is has an “explosive floral aromatic character and bright citrus flavors”). All I needed to see to know that I had picked out the correct wine for Dorothy’s work was this excerpt from her journals (courtesy of Project Gutenberg):

 

“Alfoxden, January 20th 1798.—The green paths down the hill-sides are channels for streams. The young wheat is streaked by silver lines of water running between the ridges, the sheep are gathered together on the slopes. After the wet dark days, the country seems more populous. It peoples itself in the sunbeams. The garden, mimic of spring, is gay with flowers. The purple-starred hepatica spreads itself in the sun, and the clustering snow-drops put forth their white heads, at first upright, ribbed with green, and like a rosebud when completely opened, hanging their heads downwards, but slowly lengthening their slender stems. The slanting woods of an unvarying brown, showing the light through the thin net-work of their upper boughs. Upon the highest ridge of that round hill covered with planted oaks, the shafts of the trees show in the light like the columns of a ruin.”

 

Born in September 1793 Felicia Browne, Felicia Dorothea Hemans learned to read at a young age. In addition to reading novels and poetry, she taught herself multiple languages and studied music. She married Captain Hemans, who served in the British war against Spain with her brothers. The two eventually separated, after having five children, with Captain Hemans moving to Rome and leaving Felicia to care for and support their children. She managed to do so with her writing. Her poetry was very popular, and she also wrote a few successful plays. Her poetry seems to have been received well, though some thought she was too lyrical. Her pieces often deal with women’s issues and work, but she covers a wide range of topics, really. Her best known pieces are “Homes of England” and “Casabianca.”

  Something homey and comforting came to mind when I was researching Hemans, which led me to choose a blended table white, Primal Roots’s 2011 California White Blend to be precise. It’s a mix of Viognier, French Colombard, Reisling, and Gewurztraminer. Casual but dependable, this table white has some fruity flavors–peach, apricot, lychee–and a floral honeysuckle aroma. Additionally, as with many of the female poets listed here, a resurgence in Hemans’s poetry parallels the rising appreciation for well-crafted blended wines.

 

Letitia Elizabeth Landon was born in August 1802, the daughter of a superior clerk. She was educated by an aunt at home as well as for a time at a school run by Frances Rowden. When she was around fourteen or fifteen and her family was living in London, she met William Jerden, a friend of her father’s, who was the editor of the Literary Gazette. He published her first poem when she was seventeen. The next year, with the financial backing of her grandmother, she published her first book of poetry: The Fate of Adelaide. She also continued to publish pieces in the Gazette, often signing them L.E.L. Eventually, Landon became a reviewer and editor of the magazine, and she continued her own writing, publishing another collection of poems, The Improvisatrice, as well as a novel. In her personal life, things were not going as well. Her name was slandered in the press, which claimed she had had affairs and secretly borne children. Her fiancé at the time questioned her about the rumors, and while she convinced him of her purity, she later called off the engagement, probably due to his mistrust of her character. Another relationship, with George Maclean, governor of present-day Ghana, arose in 1836. The following year, however, Maclean unexpectedly moved to Scotland and only returned to marry Landon in 1838 after much prodding from friends. Even then, the marriage was kept secret. Later that year, the husband and wife went on a trip to the Cape Coast. They arrived in August, and two months later, Landon was found dead with, reportedly, a medicine bottle in her hand.

  According to one critic, LEL’s poetry is poetry about artifice–the poetry of poems rather than narratives. Her poetic themes were not well received by Romantic school critics of her time, as she did not focus on personal feeling and sentiment in them, but they had better success from later critics. I found a wine (well, technically, my roommate did) that unexpectedly seems perfect for LEL’s poetry. Babble is a blended red made from various grapes grown in Mendocino County–and it was made especially for Trader Joe’s (according to the store’s newsletter). The wine is extremely well balanced with hints of dark berries. Besides the rich flavor, what is particularly reminiscent of LEL about the wine is its description of itself: “We won’t bore you with overwrought descriptions of Babble…why not take turns coming up with your own wine babble? Vie for the longest, most outrageous faux critique. Special bonus points for using words that don’t exist!” Seems pretty aligned with LEL’s play with artistic artifice to me, and drinking it with a poem like “Hebe” is great on many levels.

 

Sources

http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/barbauld/biography.html

http://www.poemhunter.com/anna-laetitia-barbauld/biography/

http://www.usask.ca/english/barbauld/

http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/robinson/biography.html

http://www.poemhunter.com/charlotte-smith/biography/

http://users.dickinson.edu/~nicholsa/Romnat/smith.htm

http://www.sappho.com/poetry/a_seward.html

http://www.poemhunter.com/anna-seward/poems/

http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/hemans/biography.html

http://www.poemhunter.com/felicia-dorothea-hemans/biography/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Wordsworth

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/42856/42856-h/42856-h.htm

http://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/lel/kslelbio.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letitia_Elizabeth_Landon

http://www.poemhunter.com/letitia-elizabeth-landon/poems/

 

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