Behold me immortal

Collected Poems and Verse of the Austen Family
by Jane Austen,
edited with an Introduction and Notes by David Selwyn.
FyfieldBooks / Carcanet Press, in association with the Jane Austen Society, 1996.

The day returns again, my natal day;
What mix’d emotions with the Thought arise!
Beloved friend, four years have pass’d away
Since thou wert snatch’d forever from our eyes.

Jane Austen’s poem (snappily entitled To the Memory of Mrs Lefroy, who died Dec:r 16 — my Birthday. — written 1808) is only one of a couple of extant poems with any pretentions to gravity, mock or otherwise, written by the celebrated author. Most if not all of the rest of Jane Austen’s verse output presented here involves ballad-like doggerel, amusing verses parodying serious poetic forms and wordplay in the form of riddles and other games.

A good two-thirds of the poems included in the collection however are either by individuals from the extended Austen family or represent joint efforts, when they accepted poetic challenges and responded with punning rhymes. Among the contributions are works by her mother, Mrs Cassandra Austen, her sister Cassandra and her brothers, plus one of her uncles, several nieces and a nephew.

While we can’t count any of the verse here as seriously great poetry (though a few are quite splendid) their value lies in exhibiting the playfulness and love of words that the family members shared amongst themselves. As the editor tells us, “Verse-making was a social activity, a game of greeting, or charades, or bouts-rimés,” the pieces often composed “as part of a game, with various members of the family making their own contribution to a round.”

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Jane’s novel Emma gives us a hint of the place of wordplay and riddles in the kind of genteel social gatherings and meetings she was accustomed to, especially illustrated by Mr Elton’s charade which Emma you may remember mistakenly believed is directed at her protégée Harriet. Included here is a ‘noun verse’ by her niece Caroline, written as if In the Character of Mrs. Norris from Mansfield Park, showing how Austen games and Jane’s fiction intersected in real life. Also here is her nephew and later biographer James Edward Austen-Leigh’s To Miss J. Austen (1813), written when the identity of the anonymous author of Pride and Prejudice became known:

No words can express, my dear Aunt, my surprise
Or make you conceive how I opened my eyes,
Like a pig Butcher Pile has just struck with his knife,
When I heard for the very first time in my life
That I had the honour to have a relation
Whose works were dispersed through the whole of the nation. […]

Though a slim collection this is one to dip into, as I have, rather than to read straight through in one sitting: several pieces are both intense and precise, their treasures to be yielded to us moderns only with the help of the annotations because they refer to contemporary events and customs or to familial confidences. For example, Jane’s brother James’s elegiac farewell to her takes on, for all its classical formality, a certain poignancy when we know that he was physically unable to attend her funeral.

Half of the hundred-plus pages here consist of very informative editorial by David Selwyn, to whom the imprimatur has clearly been given by the Jane Austen Society. To the preface and introduction are added (where needed) subheadings for the verses, followed by a bibliography, textual and explanatory notes, and a short appendix of poems not by Jane but copied out by her. Any reader desperate for minutiae of Jane’s life, deeds and acquaintances will be well delighted with these, as they will be for the poems themselves, faithfully transcribed according to the original spelling, punctuation and layout.

Jane’s final poem, Written at Winchester on Tuesday the 15th July 1817, is included in this annotated compilation. Composed three days before her death, the extended piece contains few if any premonitions of what’s to come; however, the words she puts into the mouth of Winchester’s St Swithun naturally can equally apply to her immortal self (note that the Venta personified here is the Roman precursor to Winchester):

[…] Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me Immortal […]


Review written as part of Austen in August

12 thoughts on “Behold me immortal

    1. I think she started to have more than an inkling of that admiration in her lifetime — such as royal approbation! — but it’s such a pity she didn’t live long enough to relish it fully.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. JJ Lothin

    It doesn’t exactly seem like progress when you consider how we’ve regressed as a society from this kind of normal family-level fascination with wordplay to an obsession with social media …!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean, JJ, and I don’t disagree; but I’m also mindful that middleclass society two centuries ago had different expectations, different certainties from ours, as well as being less urbanised and interconnected than we are.

      You won’t find much evidence of the war with Napoleon (mostly hints about army and navy manoeuvres in P&P or Mansfield Park) but the Austens would have kept a beady eye on newspapers, even if the news was several days late, as much as some of us obsessively follow breaking news about murders, disasters and invasions.

      Against confidence in tracts of inherited land, prosperous overseas estates and in God being an Englishman there’d be uncertainty regarding medicine’s ability to deal with sickness and injury, or what to do about an overabundance of sons and daughters.

      Sorry, this is turning out to be more disjointed than I intended! I’ll just leave it there. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. JJ Lothin

        Absolutely – none of us in whatever age is going to escape from the basic insecurity of the human condition! I guess I was thinking mostly of the positive effects on the brain of creative wordplay, as opposed to mindless screen-surfing (of which I am as guilty as the next person!) …

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Creative wordplay, yes, I’m all up for that! As for the screen-surfing, I suppose we’re looking for the mental stimulation that comes from wordplay but sadly too often it’s as rare as a thruppenny bit (present company excepted! And most bloggers I engage with, of course. 😊 ).

          Liked by 1 person

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