Published posthumously in 1811 by Archibald Constable, Anna Seward’s literary correspondence surveys the development of British literature from Shakespeare and Spenser to Robert Burns and William Wordsworth. It is also a remarkable record of literary culture in the Midlands. As Seward conveys an encyclopedic knowledge of British literature, she also relates the accomplishments of the Midlands writers who were her friends and neighbors. Although still a marginal figure in recent studies of the long eighteenth century, her status as a literary authority was recognized-albeit begrudgingly by contemporaries such as Samuel Johnson, Walter Scott, and Robert Southey.1 Throughout her letters, Seward uses her considerable knowledge to make a convincing case for vernacular literature’s role in cultivating national identity. In defining a vernacular canon, she draws on familiar English poets such as Alexander Pope and John Milton, in addition to Scots and Welsh poets, and the provincial writers who moved within her Lichfield circle. Seward’s circle comprised well-known poets such as Erasmus Darwin and Thomas Day, as well as writers of lesser note, including Brooke Boothby and Willie Newton, also known as the Peak Minstrel. Her circle also contained all-but-forgotten poets such as Francis Mundy, whose Needwood
Forest (1776) Seward hailed as “the first entirely local poem in our language.”2 It would be easy to dismiss Seward’s hyperbolic praise of Mundy and his poem as an over-enthusiastic response to a neighbor’s scribbling; and, admittedly, his verse is both clunky and cloying. Yet Seward’s extensive knowledge of British literature, as well as her position as the leader of an important coterie of provincial writers, makes Needwood Forest significant for discussions of eighteenth-century local poetry.