Poets' and artists' most poignant work is oft inspired by the impact of life-changing crises. Poet Susanna Blamire was struck three times by such tragedy which undoubtedly shaped her character and verse.
When Susanna was only seven years old her mother died. She and her sister were well looked after at home, first at Cardew Hall near Dalston and then by her widowed Aunt Mrs Simpson at Thackwoodnook and Stocklewath (as Stockdalewath was then known). They read, embroidered, drew, spun and sang. A shilling a quarter bought her a good schooling at Raughton Head and from a young age Susanna, daughter of a yeoman farmer, would exercise her literary talent, scribbling lines on anything that came to hand, whether scraps of paper, old envelopes or the back of bills.
She would compose her verses sitting beside the stream at Thackwood, then post them to trees for passers-by to read or circulate them privately. This lack of published exposure probably explains why she didn't make her mark more deeply in her own lifetime.
By all accounts she was a vivacious young woman, joining wholeheartedly in the local 'merry neets' and noted as a 'varra bonnie and lish young lass.' Her passion for dancing was so intense that if she met travelling musicians on the road she would dismount and join in dancing a jig or hornpipe. It was perhaps no surprise that she made a strong impression on the young men whom she met, but this was to have desperate consequences.
As an eighteen year old she visiting her Aunt - a curate's wife - at Chillingham, where she was introduced to Earl Tankerville. Susanna and Lord Charles Ossulston, the Earl's son and heir, developed a powerful mutual attraction. Susanna's joi de vivre had made her a firm favourite with the Lord's family but the match was above her station and Charles was sent abroad to avoid any innappropriate developments. For her part Susanna was utterly devastated. In the adversity of being despatched back to Thackwood however she found inspiration and refused to give up on life.
The following year sister Sukey married Colonel Graham of the 42nd Highland Regiment and Susanna went to live with the newly weds at Gartmore in Perthshire. There she began to write the Scottish songs that first brought her to popular attention. The poignancy and passion they embody was fired by a confrontation wtih Lord Ossulston, by then married and the 4th Earl. Many who encountered her songs believed that they had been composed by a native Scot, so true were they to the Scottish language and culture. A posthumous degree of fame was granted when her song 'And Ye Shall Walk In Silk Attire' was referenced by Charles Dickens in the Old Curiosity Shop nearly fifty years after her death.
Susanna was undoubtedly politically aware and an unequivocal supporter of the French Revolution, drawing on powerful themes such as the rights of man as her poetry developed. 'Stocklewath - or the Cumbrian village' is perhaps her most famous poem and confidently bears comparison with the work of her successors, the romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. Without exaggeration it could be said to display prescient ecological and political perspectives as the Cumbrian village of the title is secluded from the metropolis but intimately connected to the worlds of nature and human community.
From her mid twenties Susanna began to struggle with serious illness, the third of the calamities that marked her life. Her later work suggests that it was written in precious, pain-free interludes between debilitating bouts of rhuematic heart disease. Even then however, the lines embodied her good nature and joyful hedonism. In the years before her untimely death she spent time lodging in Finkle Street, Carlisle, where she shared her enthusiasm for writing poetry and songs with the equally passionate Miss Catherine Gilpin of Scaleby Castle. Susanna was just forty seven when she was buried at Raughton Head near her dear Aunt and was joined by her widowed sister just 4 years later.
Decades passed before the poems finally received the exposure they deserved as collections were published in 1842 and 1866. The printed page reflected her close friendship with Miss Gilpin as their respective work was published side by side. With the ongoing passage of time her reputation has gradually grown so that Wikipedia now describes her as 'unquestionably the greatest female poet of the Romantic age.' Perhaps a more worthy acclamation came from Wordsworth's nephew who described Susanna evocatively as 'the poet of friendship.'
In March 1994, 200 years after her death, the Muse of Cumberland was commemorated in Carlisle Cathedral - the third of a triumvirate of Cumberland poets, following male counterparts Norman Nicholson and Robert Anderson.