Mrs. Iliff, Poems, 2nd ed., Malta, 1818

According to our publication place data, Mrs. Iliff published Poems, Upon Several Subjects, 2nd ed., in Malta in 1818. We were very intrigued and wanted to learn more about this title and author since it’s the only one in the catalog (we know of at this time) published in Malta.

We had no trouble finding this title in Google Books or Worldcat. There is even an encoded digital edition of this book in UC Davis’s British Women Romantic Poets Project

The title page specifies that the work was “Printed for the Author, at the Government Printing Office, 1818”. 

The first thing I noticed about the volume, using the Google Book edition, is that it has an extensive subscribers list divided by those who received the book in Malta and those who received the book in Corfu. At the very top it lists Sir Thomas Maitland, Commander in Chief of His majesty’s Forces in the Mediterranean, Governor of the Island of Malta and its Dependencies, and His Majesty’s Lord High commissioner in the United States of the Ionian islands” ordered 50 copies. Whoever Mrs. Iliff was, she was well-connected in politics and the militia.

The author uses her preface to recount the publication history of the volume, which I found useful. The first edition was published in London with the support of many “friends.” (again: read, well-connected)

I read this entire volume of poetry save one or two poems. It contains a wide variety of topics and themes, from politics to nature to the domestic and the spiritual. The second edition contains a section of poems added to the first edition, and these include translations of Maltese songs, which I found interesting, so the author should also be considered a translator. While none of these poems struck me as brilliant, I found “The Crazy Maid” to be an entertaining light Gothic tale, and I found “On Revisiting a Former Habitation” thoughtful. “To Walter Scott, on reading ‘Lord of the Isles’” has a very punchy ending in which we get a dose of the author’s sass:  

I think I hear thy sex exclaim / When one such wonder shall expire / There’ll spring to keep the race alive / A Phoenix from her funeral pyre / No rather from her ashes rise /  A creature still more strange and new / A silent Woman may be rare / But rarer still a Man who’s true

The author was far more difficult to find information about, and it appears that perhaps we can learn the most about her from her texts. She has no record in VIAF, Orlando, or the ODNB. I did find a Jane West in Orlando whose maiden name is Iliffe, but she is not our Mrs. Iliff as the spelling difference indicates. I’m glad I caught the spelling difference so that we don’t lose knowledge of an author that needs to be recovered simply because she shares a name, or almost shares a name, with one that is far more documented.

What was most puzzling was the fact that two authors of books on politics and history, one recent and one from the early 20th century, having very little or nothing to do with literature, decided to excerpt the same stanza from Mrs. Iliff’s poem “England’s Defenders.” Why did they wind up using this excerpt by this author, of all the well-known nationalist stanzas?

In The History of English Patriotism, published in 1913, Esmé Cecil Wingfield-Stratford quotes her in a discussion of anti-Napoleon British satire. He is not very generous. First, he quotes four of John Ashton’s English character satires of Napoleon in verse. After them, he writes:

“Or to quote the lines of that very inferior poetess Mrs. Iliff:

Let Buonaparte his legions boast,

We tremble not with coward fears,

Our tars shall keep the sea, our coast

Be guarded by our volunteers”

(Wingfield-Stratford 121)

Then, in 1962 in a multivolume study of the history of party politics, Ivor Jennings uses the same stanza to discuss patriotic English poets. He mentions Wordsworth first and then suggests that both Coleridge and Illif were “inspired by danger” before including the above-quoted stanza by Iliff. Jennings doesn’t cite Iliff directly but instead cites Wingfield-Stratford as his source, which is a shame. It’s ironic that such an ungenerous reference to Iliff as a “very inferior poetess” could help transmit knowledge of her from the early 1900s to the later half of the century.

Last, I found a mention of Iliff in Charlotte Smith and British Romanticism (2015) by Jacqueline Labbe, where she is addressed as an influence on the sonnet writing culture. However, Labbe does not analyze any of Iliff’s poems in her book.

(Note: both of the authors who quote Iliff get her punctuation wrong. In the 1818 edition, the comma after sea is actually an em-dash, and the comma after “fears” is actually a semi-colon.)



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