'Blest by the power, by heaven's own flame inspired,
That first through shades monastic poured the light;
Where, with unsocial indolence retired.
Fell Superstition reigned in tenfold night;
Where, long sequestered from the vulgar sight,
Religion fettered lay, her form unknown
'Mid direful gloom, and many a secret rite;
Till now released she claims her native throne,
And gilds the awakening wolrd with radiance all her own.
The poet was Mary Hunt, (1764-1834), who was a close friend of the Simcoe family. The circumstance of the poem may be suggested by comments in a journal made by one of the Simcoes' friends. Reverend Badock, a literary critic, had stayed with them during 1786 at their Wolford mansion. Badock said that Colonel Simcoe was studying historic Monastic remains and that during his visit the party had visited the Abbey ruins nearby. Simcoe's explorations had been accomplished 'with great zeal', so his enthusiasm for the place and subject may have been influential to those accompanying him. Amongst the party had been a young Lady 'who wrote beautiful poetry'; she had been staying for a while at Wolford. Badock had declined to take part in 'a trial of poetic skill' proposed by the Colonel. The Lady's name was not mentioned, but she was probably Mary Hunt; perhaps her poem appeared after she decided to have a go at the writing-a-poem challenge. Hunt was tutor to the Simcoe children, whilst her mother, Anne Hunt, was their Housekeeper during the five years that their parents were in Canada. Mrs Anne Hunt was said to be the widow of a Naval Officer, who, previously, had been in the employ of Colonel Graves. However, there seems to be some confusion, for in Polwhele's edition of the poem he notes that Mary Hunt was the daughter of a Dr Hunt, Rector of Stoke Doyle in Northamptonshire. The editor of Romantic Women Poets, 1770-1838, in which the Dunkeswell poem is printed, agrees with the latter. More biographical bits and pieces are added in this book: the poet was born on 12th November 1764 at Stoke Doyle. Her mother was daughter of the Vicar of Oundle. Mary Hunt was a close friend of Henrietta Maria and Jane Bowdler (whose poems and essays was published in 1786, the same year as the Dunkeswell poem was written). Later, Hunt became preceptress to the then four year old Princess Charlotte. The poet/writer apparently died on 5 December 1834 and was buried in Exeter cathedral yard.
There are fragments of information about the Hunt mother and daughter in two Elizabeth Simcoe books, Elizabeth Postuma Simcoe; a Biography (by Mary Beacock Fryer) and in Simcoe's Diary; this is because when she was away, Mrs Simcoe regularly wrote to Mrs Hunt senior and occasionally mentioned Mary or Miss Hunt. After the Simcoes returned to Devon either Elizabeth or her daughters kept in touch with Mary. From Fryer's book, we learn that in 1804 Mary Hunt had to leave her employment with Princess Charlotte, because of ill health; in 1806 she was working for a family in Warwick; in 1819 she was looking after her friend Harriet Bowdler who was seriously ill.
Hunt's poem interested another friend/visitor of the Simcoes at Wolford; Richard Polwhele, the historian, apparently admired it and included it in his edition of Poems Chiefly by Gentlemen of Devon and Cornwall, 1792. Possibly that is the only reason the poem survives. Certainly as yet I haven't been able to find any other poems by Hunt, but have not searched too much, so there may be others in existence.
The poet would likely have been wary of public recognition of her sex, for during that period it was more difficult and complex for women to be writing poetry, which might be deemed as stemming from the author's imaginative 'fancies' - what has been called the 'imaginative self'' at the heart of Romanticism (see introduction to Romantic Women Poets).
Mary Hunt wasn’t the only female writer of poetry in Devon at that period of early Romanticism. Given the complexities surrounding the creative role for women, it is perhaps surprising that there were a number of other women penning verse. They included Catherine Jemmat, Ann Dunsterville, Emily Clark, Ann Thomas, Margaret Croker and Mary Marie Colling. Ostensibly, these women would seem to be writing and riding on the groundswell of the male Romantic poets, who were everywhere prominent. But, odd though it might now seem - given the fame and longevity of those well-known Romantics poets (Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron) whose names and poetry are well-established in the canon of literature, as well as famous for their Westcountry connections - at one time some of the British women poets were just as acclaimed, even though their position as poets made for a more complicated writing and publishing history compared to that of men writers. Some of these women were probably writing against, rather than with, the conventional parameters of the writings of their male counterparts; others would have been 'following in the footsteps' of the male
icons and surpassing them in quality, quantity and dexterity. There is much yet to re-cover and reassess from this period, so that Devon’s contribution to literary Romanticism is more understood and therefore added to the already expanding national map of literary-writing-women Romantics.
What about the 'Dunkeswell Abbey' poem itself? It is in the form of Spenserian Stanza (6 stanzas, with nine lines: iambic pentameter with a final, longer, Alexandrine; rhyming ababbcbcc), a poetic structure widely used at the time of early Romanticism. Spenserian stanza was especially used by those writing poems on pastoral subjects and/or exploring the new and evolving styles that accompanied the changing ethos of the era, as writers began to describe and reflect on their feelings about various, often external, phenomena. I'm not sure copyright allows me to include the full poem here, so a few extracts will have to suffice. Of its time, the poem's language seems rather archaic to C21 readers and this may be emphasised because of the poem's very intellectual/religious/historical preoccupations. However, for all that, it indicates subtle and careful structuring, with alternating stanzas focusing on the poet's interest in the Abbey's historic past and the effects on those observing it in the then present day. So, the first stanza (above) suggests the poet's awareness of the ruin's complex and long history: founded by 'God', but despoiled by corruption and indolence, it lay hidden away from public view and hence was ignored. But, in the final two lines she says that 'now' 'she' (Abbey) is reconfimed in 'her'/ its native state: 'released' and with its 'radiant' qualites showing through the ruins, it can match those of its originator, 'God.' A second stanza concentrates on the present time; a soft alliterative line 'source of sweet celestial peace' expands on the idea that real spirituality has been allowed to fly free of its 'bondage'; Hunt concludes the verse: 'And the Great Cause of All with purer rites adores'. confirming the idea that now, as the building itself disappears, the 'enlightened spirit soars'. The poem continues in this alternating stanzaic-mode; there are one or two suitably creepy lines/ images , including 'On the rough grate the pale moon quivering gleams/And through the lengthening aisle the owlet screams'. In the final verse the poet claims that the Abbey's ruins are 'No trivial subject for the poet's lays', because their 'ruined majesty' creates 'solemn shades' and these induce intellectual effort and spiritual reflection.
Mary Hunt's poem wasn't the only one written locally during the Romantic period on the subject of Devon's historic ruined buildings; in 1807 Original Poems, a collection by another Devonian women writer, Mary Ward, was published: it contained a poem about Okehampton Castle.
But ... of that, another day.
See Shadow of the Blackdowns, for information about Dunkeswell Abbey.
John Graves Simcoe; a Biography, 1752- 1806, Mary Beacock Fryer and Christopher Draycott,
Traditions and Recollections, Richard Polwhele, 1826.
copyright Julie Sampson