Saturday, June 20, 2009

Anna Laetitia Barbauld

Anna Laetitia Barbauld (June 20, 1743 - March 9, 1825) was well-known and very successful in her time as a poet, essayist, and children's educator. As she was growing up in Leicestershire, her father, a Presbyterian minister, saw that she received a strong, well rounded education, but her mother worried that she was becoming too intellectual (for a girl), which might damage her matrimonial prospects. However, Anna's love for learning would in later years inspire her to open a school with her husband, Rochefort Barbauld, where they taught for several years.

Her first book of poetry, published in 1773, sold very well, quickly establishing her literary reputation. While teaching at the Palgrave Academy, her school, she published books for children, including Lessons for Children (1778-79), and Hymns in Prose for Children (1781). These books continnued to be used in classrooms for nearly a hundred years. She also began to write political essays in support of such causes as abolition and religious freedom.

Barbauld's first five hymns were written before her first book of poetry was published, and were first printed in Hymns for Public Worship (1772), then in her own book. She went on to write several more, some intended specifically as hymns, and some poems that were later included as hymns in later hymnals. This one, perhaps the most familiar to modern hymn singers, was one of those first five.

Praise to God, immortal praise,
For the love that crowns our days;
Bounteous source of every joy,
Let thy praise our tongues employ;
All to thee, our God, we owe,
Source whence all our blessings flow.

All the plenty summmer pours,
Autumn's rich o'erflowing stores,
Flocks that whiten all the plain,
Yellow sheaves of ripened grain,
God, for these our souls shall raise
Grateful vows and solemn praise.

As thy prosp'ring hand hath blessed
May we give thee of our best;
And by deeds of kindly love,
For thy mercies grateful prove;
Singing thus through all our days,
Praise to God, immortal praise.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld, 1772; alt.
Tune: DIX (
Conrad Kocher, 1838
arr., William Henry Monk, 1860

Barbauld's original hymn was quite different from this version. Hers was in nine verses of four lines each, rather than three (sometimes four) verses of six lines. The first four lines here comprised her first verse, but the next two lines are not hers (though doubtless intended to recall the doxology Praise God, from whom all blessings flow by Thomas Ken). Her second verse continued:

For the blessings of the field,
For the stores her gardens yield,
For the vine's exalted juice,
For the generous olive's use:

It's not really known who made these changes (which happened over many years). The Episcopal hymnal of 1826, where the hymn apparently first appeared in this country, does cast it in six-line verses, and includes those "new" last two lines in the first verse, so they may be the work of someone on the committee that produced that hymnal. This 1826 version uses much more of Barbauld's original than subsequent versions would.

When it first appeared in Hymns for Public Worship, the hymn was titled "Praise to God in Prosperity and Adversity." Her last four verses were:

Yet should rising whirlwinds tear
From the stem the ripening ear;
Should the fig-tree's blasted shoot
Drop her green, untimely fruit;

Should the vine put forth no more,
Nor the olive yield her store,
Though the sickening flocks should fall,
And the herds desert the stall;

Should thine altered hand restrain
The early and the latter rain;
Blast each opening bud of joy,
And the rising year destroy;

Yet to thee my soul shall raise
Grateful vows and solemn praise;
And when every blessing's flown,
Love thee for thyself alone.

Barbauld's fuller theme was that God should be praised no matter what the circumstances, in adversity as well as prosperity. These last verses were largely still present in 1826, but by the next Episcopal hymnal, in 1872, they were gone (except for the first two lines of the last verse, somewhat altered), and have never been restored. The hymn as used today is mostly the version printed in the Episcopal hymnal of 1892, and therefore, probably the work of someone on that committee.

The tune DIX was apparently first matched to this text in the 1872 hymnal in the music edition edited by J. Ireland Tucker (there were 5 different music editions, as the denominational authorities only approved the texts, not the tunes). It takes its name from William Chatterton Dix, who wrote the hymn most closely associated with it.

After many years of success, Anna Laetitia Barbauld's fortunes seemed to reverse toward the end of her life. Her husband became mentally unbalanced and took his own life in 1808. They had separated earlier that year after an episode in which he attacked her, forcing her to jump out of a window to escape. A few years later, during England's war with Napoleonic France, she published Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, A Poem, which was very critical of the ongoing war and predicted that England would go the way of earlier fallen empires if hostilities continued. This was a hugely unpopular stance (as we sometimes see even in the present day), and the savage criticism she received caused her to cease publishing entirely. Though she continued to write, nothing further was published until after her death in 1825. Later that year her niece, Lucy Aikin, published The Works of Anna Lætitia Barbauld, with a Memoir, and Barbauld's reputation was gradually rehabilitated.

P.S. The illustration above is of a Wedgwood cameo of Barbauld crafted in 1775.

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