What countless wealth? The cherish’d pain,
The care, the doubt, the hope of gain.
Vain hope! were his Potosi’s store,
The miser’s soul would crave for more.-
What beauty? ’tis the mirror’s shade,
As fast the fairest features fade,
Till youth, and charms, and lovers gone,
Sad vanity remains alone.-
What literary fame? The strife
Of boundless mind with narrow life.-
What friendship? The poor man’s last fall!-
What love? The veriest dream of all!-
An excerpt from ‘Christina, the Maid of the South Seas; a Poem’ by Mary Russell Mitford, 1811.
Diction changes but sentiments endure, and the similarity between my own sentiments today and those of a 23-year-old poet from Hampshire, England some 205 years ago staggers me.
Mary Russell Mitford had friends, true friends, who loved her character, the way she spoke and the letters she wrote. But although she wrote often of love, Mitford died a spinster. As a youth she had dreamed of becoming the greatest female English poet, but perhaps by the time Mitford wrote the words echoed above she already, subconsciously knew the reality would be quite different.
The direction of her career was almost certainly influenced by the lavish lifestyle of her father Dr. George Mitford (or Midford) whose excesses she tolerated willingly and financed with increasing difficulty. By the time of her death in 1855 Mitford was not impoverished, but was best known not as a poetess so much as a novelist and playwright, and justly, one of great merit. It then duly alarms me that so little is written or spoken about this literary luminary, whose works span five decades and received much critical acclaim.
Read the rhyme again now and see if you can’t appreciate the irony of this prophetic extract. Or read the full poem at: https://archive.org/stream/christinamaidso00mitfgoog#page/n6/mode/2up
Had poetry proven a more lucrative endeavour, who knows what Mitford might have achieved – perhaps the enduring fame she had craved as a child. I feel her pain. Like Mitford, I will never make my living out of poetry because my sort, the structured, rhyming sort, just isn’t en vogue anymore.