Who IS She?

Are we obsessed with rivers, in English poetry? Matthew Stewart, in his Roguestrands review of my book ‘Following Teisa’ says:

“From Wordsworth to Oswald, water in general is perhaps more present and prevalent as a symbol, an image, a leitmotif or even a theme in itself than in other countries. This might well {be} because the poets in question are living on an island or in a dodgy climate, of course.”

From Michael Drayton’s Polyolbion (1612), through Pope’s Windsor Forest (1704) and Wordsworth’s sonnet sequence The River Duddon (1820), to Alice Oswald’s Dart (2002), the British have been writing about rivers for hundreds of years. I’m aware of poets writing long poems right now about the Medway and the Clyde. Anne Wilson’s poem Teisa – A Descriptive Poem of the River Teese: Its Towns and Antiquities’, fits into that sequence after Pope but before Wordsworth, in 1778, and has something of Pope’s style about it. It’s all rhyming couplets and muses, and appeals to Teisa herself, the genius loci of a feminine river.

We know roughly nothing about Anne Wilson. She wrote this poem and had it published in Newcastle. We don’t know whether she sold copies or just gave them to her friends. We don’t know for certain where she lived or what kind of life she led, but from her comments about families she knew, and tasks she undertook, I’m guessing she’s from the upper part of Teesdale, around Middleton and Eggleston. For example she talks about gathering fuel on the hillsides below High Force (line 125 ff):

“Toil lost its force, when you, my love, was by,
Thy stronger arm, still ready to apply
When mine unequal to the task was found
As we were wont in yonder heathish ground
To dig out fuel for the winter keen;”

This is no gentlewoman. She’s out there on the hillside with her husband, taking part in manual labour. Later in the poem she refers to ‘Lycidas’ (line 400). He was the hero of Milton’s eponymous poem which is an elegy to a friend who died too young. Anne Wilson’s Lycidas is her husband, who seems to have left her a widow at a young age. She speaks of her circumstances saying ‘in a hir’d house all my days are spent’. She is not a homeowner but perhaps a tenant or a lodger, or a widow living with extended family. In other places in the poem she talks about cheesemaking, herb‑gathering and land drainage. Lines 252-300 are really interesting to me, a former home cheesemaker. Wilson looks over the shoulder of a housewife in Cotherstone who is making cheese. She describes the cheese itself, then the heating of whey in what is essentially the process of ricotta-making. This ‘curds and whey’ is then processed further, by draining off the acidic liquid as ‘whig’, a refreshing drink for the poorer people. Of course, a rather marvellous cheese is still made in Cotherstone and I hope that indicates an unbroken history of cheese in the Dale.

Wilson is in tune with the issues affecting the working-class. Somewhere on Morritt’s land below Barnard Castle, some land is drained. Wilson describes exactly how the ditiches are dug, and notes, ruefully:

“This plan wou’d each land-holder but pursue,
England a paradise we then might view
Not then wou’d her own sons, like exiles, seek
More lands to till beyond the foaming deep
Lovers of agriculture all might here
Employment find throughout the circling year”

These days environmental concerns would argue against her, but her sympathies with the farmers’ need to make a living is clear. In her article ‘Writing against the Current, Anne Wison’s Teisa and the Tradition of British River-Poetry’, American academic Bridget Keegan points out Wilson’s rather radical sensibilities. At one point Wilson rails against the cruelty of hunting. In other places, Keegan finds evidence of an anti-authoritarian spirit, even an English rather than British nationalism. But we still don’t know who Anne Wilson was. If I were living in Teesdale now I’d be asking for access to the musty ledgers of village churches to find traces of her there. Wilson is not such a common name in Teesdale. (Thank goodness she wasn’t called Watson, there are dozens of them!). Looking through online parish records, we do find some possible candidates. Here is a plausible timeline:

• 26th June 1727: Anne Allason, born to Richard and Elizabeth Allason in Middleton in Teesdale
• 23rd December 1747: Anne Allason marries William Wilson (born 1722), also from Middleton
• 28th October 1760: William Wilson dies
• 24th September 1788: Wilson, Anne, widow, dies

This would mean Anne was married at twenty and widowed at thirty-three, which seems to fit. She publishes her poem at the age of fifty, and dies at sixty-one.

And with that one poem, Anne Wilson appears in an obscure corner of English literature, and then fades immediately from view. Keegan notes that there also exists a verse drama by one ‘Ann Wilson’ called Jepthah’s Daughter, published in London in 1784. We don’t know whether or not that was our Anne. I hope it was. I happened to note that Anne Wilson mentions the poet Abraham Cowley in Teisa (line 385), and Ann Wilson mentions him in the preface to Jephthah’s Daughter. Coincidence? I don’t know.

Teesdale became quite famous in 1813 when Sir Walter Scott published ‘Rokeby’ a long and dreary (IMHO) poem about the English Civil War. In the tourist guide ‘A Tour of Teesdale, including Rokeby and its Environs’ by Richard Garland, published by Thomas Wilson and Sons of York, 1815, this reference is made to Anne Wilson’s ‘Teisa’ (surely no relation?).It’s very clearly her book that is being referred to but her name is never mentioned. How rude!

Garland is quoting Shakespeare here, which Anne Wilson would have appreciated.

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and give to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Act 5, Scene 1

Keegan calls Wilson a member of the ‘labouring classes’ which might be true, but these are also incontrovertible facts; she had enough education and access to books to have read a lot of poetry, she had enough leisure time to have written a 1600 line poem, and she had enough money to have her poem self-published, presumably at her own expense. More than that. we don’t know, although I like to picture her taking her manuscript up to Newcastle by horse and carriage, with great excitement for seeing her work in print. When trying to position her in society, Wilson’s own words are significant. She decribes the town of Middleton as the home of ‘people neither splendid, rich, nor poor’; the middling sort, in fact.

Keegan also wonders about Wilson’s subject matter. She states ‘That she should also privilege regional over national geography makes her work even more important for its era.’ Having also noted that Wilson was of the ‘labouring classes’, that should not come as a surprise. Wilson didn’t ‘privilege regional… geography’, she could only write about what she knew, and she had probably had no opportunity to travel widely; it is amazing to me that she had travelled as far as the mouth of the Tees, forty-five miles downstream.

Keegan also notes that;

“…eighteenth-century nature writing valued the local only if it functioned metonymically for the national. Emphasis on the regional of and for itself relegated an author to perpetual minor status.”

Oh, Anne Wilson. It was ever thus.

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