Friday, March 13, 2009

"Venta" by Jane Austen - a Poetry Friday post

One of the things it may surprise you to know (because it surprised me when I learned it) is that Jane Austen wrote poetry on occasion. Mostly doggerel, although she wrote a panegyric to a dead friend at one point in time.

Jane Austen died on July 17, 1817 in Winchester, England. She had gone to Winchester to seek better medical attention than was available to her at Chawton, where she was then living, but she was doubtless fully aware that she was dying, having written her will back in April on the sly. Nevertheless, three days before her death, she picked up her pen and wrote this poem about the Winchester races, which took place on July 15th of each year on what was, historically, St. Swithin's day. The Winchester races were often interrupted by rain. Austen called the poem "Venta", the old name for Winchester dating from Roman times.

The poem, which is written in cross-rhymed quatrains, was initially suppressed by her Victorian-era family, and later released in edited versions that changed words and punctuation (including one version that altered the word "dead" to "gone". They thought that joking about St. Swithin and horse racing and death would be dimly viewed by the public. It was entirely in keeping with Austen's personality, however, in a time when many illnesses had no decent medical treatment and death was seen as a commonplace event that was not always discussed seriously. For instance, she relayed news of a neighbor's stillbirth to her sister as follows: "Mrs. Hill of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband."

Here, the last known piece of Jane Austen's writing.

by Jane Austen

When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of St. Swithin
And that William of Wykham's approval was faint.

The races however were fix'd and determined
The company met & the weather was charming
The Lords & the Ladies were sattin'd & ermin'd
And nobody saw any future alarming.

But when the old Saint was inform'd of these doings
He made but one spring from his shrine to the roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And thus he address'd them all standing aloof.

Oh subject rebellious, Oh Venta depraved!
When once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me Immortal. — By vice you're enslaved
You have sinn'd and must suffer. — Then further he said

These races & revels & dissolute measures
With which you're debasing a neighbourly Plain
Let them stand — you shall meet with a curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I'll pursue with my rain.

Ye cannot but know my command in July.
Henceforward I'll triumph in shewing my powers,
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers.

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