Poet and literary critic Ann Taylor Gilbert (1782-1866) was born today in the London neighborhood of Islington. Her mother (also named Ann) had also written poetry and "satiric effusions" as well as seven books of moral and religious advice. Her father, Isaac Taylor, was a metal engraver who later became a Nonconformist minster and moved the family to various towns where he pastored successive congregations.
In her posthumously-published memoir, Ann recalled beginning to write "verses in metre, imitated from Dr. Watts, at that time the only poet on my shelves," at the age of seven or eight. She believed this effort arose from anxiety about her mother's poor health. One early stanza remained in her memory:
Dark and dismal was the weather,
Winter into horror grew;
Rain and snow came down together,
Everything was lost to view.
Ann and her younger sister Jane (best known as the author of Twinkle, twinkle, little star) collaborated on four collections of verse for children:
Original Poems for Infant Minds Volume 1 (1804)
Original Poems for Infant Minds Volume 2 (1805)
Rhymes for the Nursery (1806)
Hymns for Infant Minds (1808)
The sisters may have been inspired by Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1715) by Isaac Watts, perhaps the very book that Ann knew as a child. Their books were extremely popular in the nineteenth century, going through many different editions. An article on children's literature in the Encyclopedia Britannica describes their work (and its popularity) thus: "The Taylor sisters, though adequately moral, struck a new note of sweetness, of humour, at any rate of nonpriggishness." Just which sister wrote each of the poems was not always indicated, and over the years many of Ann's poems were attributed to Jane, though subsequent scholars have sorted most of them out. One of Ann's poems, The Maniac's Song (1810) is thought by some to be the inspiration for La belle dame sans merci by John Keats.
In 1813, Ann married the Reverend Joseph Gilbert, who had proposed to her before they ever met, because he was familiar with her work, particularly her literary criticism published in The Eclectic Review magazine. After marriage, she continued her writing of verse and prose, often on subjects such as abolition and prison reform (though she was staunchly opposed to women's suffrage). At least one more book of children's verse (compiled by Ann alone) appeared, Hymns for Infant Schools (1827).
Today's hymn text comes from the earlier Hymns for Infant Minds, written on the well-known story of story of Jesus' visit to the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), from where the phrases "one thing needful" and "better part" are taken directly. Like various other "children's hymns" of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it still has something to say to the adults of the twenty-first century (with just a bit of editorial clean-up).
As Mary sat at Jesus' feet
To learn her Maker's will,
We in the Savior's presence meet
To learn his precepts still.
Oh, for that quick, attentive mind
Which happy Mary showed!
May we the one thing needful find
That was on her bestowed.
'Tis here we learn the glorious name
Of God, who reigns above.
How the descending Spirit came
How great the Savior's love.
God, while we thank you for the grace
That sends this happy news,
We still would sit in Mary's place,
Her better part to choose.
Ann Gilbert, 1806; alt.
Tune: SONG 67 (C.M.)
Orlando Gibbons, 1623;
arr. Henry T. Smart, 19th cent.