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Poem of the week: Sonnet on Reading Burns’ To a Mountain Daisy by Helen Maria Williams


Sonnet on Reading Burns’ To a Mountain Daisy

While soon the “garden’s flaunting flowers” decay,
And, scatter’d on the earth, neglected lie,
The “Mountain Daisy,” cherish’d by the ray
A poet drew from heav’n, shall never die.
Ah! like that lovely flower the poet rose!
’Mid penury’s bare soil and bitter gale;
He felt each storm that on the mountain blows,
Nor ever knew the shelter of the vale.
By Genius in her native vigour nurst,
On Nature with impassion’d look he gazed,
Then through the cloud of adverse fortune burst
Indignant, and in light unborrow’d blaz’d.
Shield from rude sorrow, SCOTIA! shield thy bard:–
His heav’n-taught numbers Fame herself will guard.

The Scots-Welsh poet Helen Maria Williams was born in London: she moved with her mother and sisters to Berwick-upon-Tweed after the death of her father, Charles Williams, when she was two. Her father was Welsh, her mother, Helen Hay, Scottish, and the younger Helen identified her “native soil” as that of Scotland.

Her political views, influenced by the nonconformist minister Andrew Kippis, were radical: she addressed the abolition of slavery in a substantial poem and her support of the French Revolution took her to Paris, where she was briefly imprisoned. Her literary work included fiction and translation, but she was a prolific poet and is now considered one of the precursors of the Romantic movement, often noticing the minor elements of the natural world, as in her Sonnet to the Strawberry: “Thou bid’st the scenes of childhood rise to view, / The wild wood-path which fancy loves to trace; / Where, veil’d in leaves, thy fruit of rosy hue / Lurk’d on its pliant stem with modest grace.”

This week’s poem, a response to Robert Burns’s To a Mountain Daisy, takes its governing figure from his poem, seeing the poet as the “mountain daisy” and his more privileged rivals as the garden’s “flaunting flowers” (a direct quotation from the Burns). The daisy, though destroyed by the plough in the original poem, will “never die”, Williams asserts, having been “cherish’d by the ray / A poet drew from heav’n”’. But divine inspiration isn’t the sole source of the achievement. While Williams, who knew Burns, doesn’t minimise his struggles with “adverse fortune”, she might suggest, between the lines, that he has nevertheless been invigorated by the confrontation with “each storm that on the mountain blows”. Might “the shelter of the vale” inhibit genius? Some consciousness of the restrictions a female writer needed to challenge, if her gift wasn’t to be smothered, perhaps underlies the energy of Williams’s evocations of raw, cold experience.

Importantly, anger is seen as an enabling force for Burns. The following exuberant lines celebrate indignation as well as passion and originality, and, notably, give Genius a feminine pronoun: “By Genius in her native vigour nurst, / On Nature with impassion’d look he gazed, / Then through the cloud of adverse fortune burst / Indignant, and in light unborrow’d blaz’d.”

Exposure to the “bare soil and bitter gale” may be treated ambiguously at times, but Williams demands “SCOTIA!” herself, in the poem’s concluding lines, to shield the poet from “rude sorrow”. Her emotion seems to blaze in response to the despair expressed by Burns in his last stanza: “Ev’n thou who mourn’st the Daisy’s fate, / That fate is thine – no distant date; / Stern Ruin’s ploughshare drives elate, / Full on thy bloom, / Till crush’d beneath the furrow’s weight / Shall be thy doom.”

Williams, who died in 1827, had a turbulent career, but one that was long and interesting. During her last years she ran an influential salon in Paris. Her collection, Poems on Various Subjects, was published in 1823.

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