Amelia Opie (1769-1853) was a well-regarded poet and novelist in her time. We do not find her work very readable today, but in the early nineteenth century her writing was very much the flavour of the month. It was maudlin and dull stuff, but it must have struck a chord with readers of the time. One of her books, Poems by Mrs Opie, was published in London and had reached six editions by the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century – and I have no reason to believe there were not further editions. I can’t imagine even a poetry book by Pam Ayres reaching such heights today.
It makes me realize what a great poet Wordsworth was; he was writing at the same time as Amelia Opie, but he never fell into the trap of writing in a fashionable style. If he had done so his verse would be as unreadable today as Amelia Opie’s is, but instead of miring his poetry in gloom and despondency it is bright and optimistic. Nor did his language use the archaic forms of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ as other poets did, but the common speech of ordinary people. Wordsworth has been read ever since and his verse is still popular today.
Death and despair are favourite themes of Amelia’s, strange as it may seem. Even the frontispiece of the poetry book has a dark picture of a desolate maiden walking in a graveyard. Ah! Setting sun, how chang’d I seem!/ I to thy rays prefer deep gloom/ Since now alas! I see them beam/ Upon my Henry’s lonely tomb reads the caption under the picture. Her verse has a pervasive sadness. Even one of her better poetic efforts, this Elegiac Song, is coloured by notions of betrayal and heartbreak. It is written to the Welsh tune of Ar Hyd Y Nos, better known to the English as the hymn tune All Through the Night.
HERE beneath this willow sleepeth Poor Mary Anne,….
One whom all the village weepeth; Poor Mary Anne!
He she loved her passion slighted, Breaking all the vows he’d plighted;
Therefore life no more delighted Poor Mary Anne!
Pale thy cheek grew, where thy lover, Poor Mary Anne!
Once could winning charms discover;…. Poor Mary Anne!
Dim those eyes, so sweetly speaking When true love’s expression seeking;….
Oh! we saw thy heart was breaking, Poor Mary Anne!
Like a rose we saw thee wither, Poor Mary Anne!….
Soon, a corpse, we brought thee hither, Poor Mary Anne!
Now, our evening pastime flying, We, in heartfelt sorrow vying,
Seek this willow,….softly sighing ‘ Poor Mary Anne!’
So much for poor Mary Anne. I will now turn to Costessey and her poem about the village. We are talking of 200 years ago, and the correct way of spelling Costessey then was COSSEY – as it has been spoken for well over 500 years and still is today. The long way of spelling the word, which is very close to the original spelling in the Domesday Book – Costeseia – is a result of Victorian antiquarianism.
Amelia Alderson – her maiden name – was the daughter of a Norwich physician. It was in 1771 that the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital had been opened and James Alderson was one of the first surgeons to operate there. The original building was still in use as part of the hospital until the early years of the 21st century, although it had been much extended. She married the Cornish born portrait artist John Opie in 1798 and his portrait of his wife appears at the top of this page. They lived in London, where he encouraged her in her literary career and under his tutelage it took off. When her husband died childless after 9 years of marriage she returned to live in Norwich. She was by then already a literary celebrity.
The Jerningham family who had lived in Costessey for generations were, in the 1820s ,to become the Earls of Stafford. They were an old Catholic family who had remained loyal to their faith throughout the Reformation and the following centuries of East Anglian Puritanism. It is this Protestant tradition in which we must place Amelia Opie herself, who became a Quaker in 1825. But this religious divide makes no appearance in the poem where all is sweetness and light; Sir William Jerningham was an agreeable host and a good companion. There is much more in the same vein, but you get the picture. In this instance it is not gloom and despair that moves the reader but a display of peace and tranquility. It is a pastoral scene, and it is as unrealistic as the unremitting sorrow in her other poems. In spite of Opie’s rustic idyll it was not a time of universal delights; even as Amelia Opie was writing of all the charms that “glow around” this was a period of rapid industrial change. Just a mile down the road at Taverham the mill was making paper by the new Fourdrinier paper machine. Daily consignments of finished paper were taken through the village to be stored at Costessey mill. The workers at the mill toiled away seven days a week, i.e. there was even a Sunday shift. They had no thought of the “Soft smiling scene… adorned by Taste”; rather they would shortly riot against their intolerable conditions, and working practices that were grinding the faces of the poor into the ground. They were left with less and less to eat from those same fields “with varied beauties graced”. Amelia was a prominent campaigner against slavery, but seemed oddly oblivious to the plight of the poor that existed under her nose. That was real hardship, not the fabricated misery of poems like Elegaic Song.
This view of a shepherd with his flock was taken in Costessey in 1912, about a hundred years after Amelia Opie’s poem was written. Rather than industrial strife this is the view that Amelia would have preferred you to see. A donkey and cart and a flock of sheep could have been seen on the gently sloping Norfolk hills at any time in the three to four hundred years before. Earlier than that you might have had to substitute an ox cart for a pony. How different is today’s mechanised agricultural scene! Tractors and trailers have replaced the horse and cart and the sheep are kept in by electric fences. The photograph was taken by Frank Welch, Sub-postmaster of Costessey, whose son Barney I knew well.