Monday, July 15, 2013

Featured Manuscript: Major André Series (Seward’s Relationship to André)

The previous post made reference to Anna Seward’s lengthy poem entitled “Monody on Major André.”  Seward’s poem, which can be found in the Lloyd W. Smith collection here at the Morristown NHP, was penned in 1781, just a few short months after André’s execution by the Continental Army on October 2, 1780.  The “Monody on Major André” was well-received in Britain, and it helped to inform the general populace’s response to the execution of its namesake.  Though he became involved with prominent social circles in both Britain and America, André was relatively anonymous prior to his death.  However, Seward’s poem helped to establish his reputation in Britain.  Throughout the poem, André is depicted as a gallant officer who was only motivated by a steadfast desire to serve his country, regardless of the danger such service posed to his life.  Seward exclaimed, “Foremost in all the horrors of the day / Impetuous André leads the glorious way / Till, rashly bold, by numbers forc’d to yield / They drag him captive from the long-fought field.”[1] 

Willing to sacrifice his own life for the good of Britain, Seward described the captured André in a manner which would lead readers to believe the young officer was angelic or saintly.  Consider, for instance, Seward’s use of light.  She wrote of André: “Now many a Moon in her pale course had shed / The pensive beam on André’s captive head. / At length the Sun rose jocund, to adorn / With all his splendor the unfranchis’d Morn.”[2]  Seward constructed a scene in which André is adorned by the light cast upon him by both the sun and the moon.  In this way, André was presented as being chosen for some higher calling.  To Seward, André was a martyr for the British cause.  Concluding her poem, she declared: “Oh! Ye distinguish’d Few!  Whose glowing lays / Bright Phoebus kindles with purest rays / Snatch from its radiant source the living fire / And light with Vestal flame your ANDRÉ’S HALLOW’D PYRE!”[3]  Seward’s powerful poem is significant as it exalts André and in doing so, it suggested to the people of Britain that the young officer was the victim of an entirely unjust and murderous American collective led by General George Washington.  Yet one cannot help but wonder why Seward would write so passionately about André. 

Seward’s “Monody on Major André” was motivated, at least in part, by the poet’s personal relationship with the young officer.  Born in 1747, Seward was the eldest daughter of Reverend Thomas Seward, an Anglican clergyman, intellectual, and poet.  She spent the majority of her life in Lichfield, a small town just north of Birmingham, England.  At an early age, Anna had demonstrated a strong command of poetry, having memorized Shakespeare and Milton by the time she was nine years old.  By twelve, she was writing her own verse.  It was not until 1769, however, that Seward first encountered the nineteen-year-old John André, while he was vacationing with his mother and two older sisters at Buxton, a health spa in Derbyshire.  Nearly three years older than André, Seward was accompanied at Buxton by Honora Sneyd, the daughter of a family friend.  Seward had been charged with the task of educating Sneyd and the two grew to become inseparable companions.  Despite her poor health, the seventeen year old Sneyd was regarded by many, including André, to be exceptionally beautiful.  During his stay at Buxton, André grew increasingly passionate about Sneyd, and sought to establish a courtship with her.  Success, however, required that André set about charming not only Sneyd, but Seward as well. 

Eventually André’s efforts were successful and he proposed to Sneyd, who accepted.  Nevertheless, André sought to pursue a career as a merchant in London, so he departed from his young fiancée, but composed a series of letters, which he sent to Sneyd.  Sneyd’s health deteriorated rapidly and she found it difficult to write, so the correspondence was conducted via Seward.  In fact, three of the letters sent by André to Seward are included within the Lloyd W. Smith collection.  Yet by 1771, Sneyd had fallen in love with another man, and her relationship with the heartbroken André disintegrated.  Thereafter, André promptly purchased a commission as a second lieutenant in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, one of the British army’s most renowned regiments.  Following the collapse of his relationship with Sneyd, André’s correspondence with Seward became inconsistent until it ceased completely.  Although she was would never see him again, Seward’s brief encounter with André must have left an indelible impression on her mind. Upon learning of her former companion’s death, Seward composed her passionate tribute.[4]

[1] Anna Seward, “Monody on Major André,” (Lichfield: J. Jackson, 1781), 15.
[2] Ibid., 18.
[3] Ibid., 28.
[4] For more on André’s relationship with Seward, see Robert McConnell Hatch, Major John André: A Gallant in Spy’s Clothing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986), 14-25, and James Thomas Flexner, The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John André (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1953), 24-29.

Anna Seward, by Tilly Kettle, National Portrait Gallery, London. WikiCommons image.

This blog entry by Michael King, Drew University. Part one of this series HERE

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