Anna Seward was born in Eyam, (pronounced Eem) a village in Derbyshire which had been ravaged by the plague less than a century earlier. Her father, Thomas Seward, the rector and himself an author and poet, relocated with his family to Lichfield when Anna was seven following his appointment as canon residentiary at Lichfield Cathedral and she spent the rest of her life there living in the bishop’s palace. She had a younger sister Sarah who died of typhus aged nineteen and a much younger adopted sister Honora. Sarah was honoured in Anna’s poem Visions.
Anna was educated at home by her father and his friend Erasmus Darwin, a physician and polymath and grandfather of Charles Darwin. Her father encouraged Anna to write poetry at an early age and she also benefitted by being included in gatherings at their home with a coterie of prominent authors including Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. She remained single all her life despite several offers of marriage and sought romantic relationships with women. She was particularly attached to her adopted sister, seemingly to the point of possessiveness as she felt betrayed when she married Richard Edgeworth, an Anglo-Irish politician, and angry when they later moved to Ireland, as reflected in her Sonnet 14 in the lines “Ingratitude, how deadly is thy smart”.
The year 1980 was a sad one for her as she lost both her adopted sister and her mother. Her father also suffered a stroke and she cared for him until his death ten years later. She published her first poem in 1780 at the age of 38 and went on to write many elegies and sonnets as well as a novel, Louisa, a Poetical Novel in Four Epistles, a plethora of letters and a memoir of the life of Erasmus Darwin. During her lifetime she was widely recognised as an authority on English literature and she was highly regarded by Sir Walter Scott who published a three-volume set of her poems and a short biography of her. She herself published Llangollen Vale with Other Poems in 1796 and Original Sonnets on Various Subjects; and Odes Paraphrased from Horace in 1799. A volume of 39 letters to an imaginary friend, Emma, was published posthumously. Although lesser known today, her poetry enjoyed a wide readership towards the end of the 18th Century on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly for her Elegy on Captain Cook and Monody on Major Andre. Known as the Swan of Lichfield, she was a Romantic poet who wrote with passion and intensity. There is a plaque to her memory in Lichfield Cathedral.