Mary Steele as West Country Woman-Poet

Part of the Nineteenth-Century Major Lives and Letters book series (19CMLL)


Mary Steele exhibited a lifelong commitment to her poetry and her coterie of female kindred spirits. She also relied heavily upon a particular pastoral persona, hinted at in her first poem, as well as in her choice of the nom de plume “Sylvia,” a name derived from the Latin word “Silvia” (a spelling also used by Steele), which means “woods” or “forest.” In “A Rural Meditation, 1766,” the poet seeks retirement in nature, what Margaret Doody calls the “trope of isolation” with its accompanying moods of melancholy, a “nearly universal” feature of British poetry after 1750 (229).1 In this instance, however, the isolated setting serves as a site from which to bask in the intimacy of female friendship and the pleasures of artistic freedom, merging the solitary and communal into a unified voice unlike the “unitary” voice often associated with Romantic poetry. In those “beauteous sylvan scenes” at her uncle’s estate at Yeovil, Sylvia feels secure enough to allow her “feet” and imagination “to stray,” a security sealed by a pleasing sociability she shares with her fellow-poets Myra and Celia (Mary Scott and Miss Williams) (NWW 3: 51). Mary Steele’s natural, almost earthy, persona—a fiercely independent single woman-poet inspired by a rural muse in a secluded setting shared by a community of female friends—stands in stark contrast to her aunt’s near-beatified role as Theodosia, the heavenly hymn writer.


Female Friendship Romantic Love British Poetry Moral Excellence Independent Woman 
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© Timothy Whelan 2015

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