George Justice, Editor

All Things Austen

The Complete Poems of James Austen, Jane Austen’s Eldest Brother

By James Austen.
Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by David Selwyn.
Jane Austen Society, 2003. xvi + 191 pages.
Paperback. £10.50 (from

Reviewed by Emily Hipchen.

About ten years ago, I sat in the Duke Humphrey’s Room at the Bodeleian Library reading manuscripts of James Austen’s verses I’d stumbled over while looking for something else. I thought it was, on the whole, frankly bad poetry—overly didactic, forgettable, clichéd. David Selwyn’s collection hasn’t changed my mind about the quality of James Austen’s poetry. What it has done is raise a particular and very important question: what is the value of publishing such work, and to whom is it valuable?

For as long as we’ve been reading Austen’s novels, we’ve wanted everything Austen accessible to us, even when, if we think about it, it can’t tell us much about Jane Austen or her books. All we have of Jane herself are the six novels, some juvenilia, and an expurgated collection of highly expurgated letters. When we’ve exhausted that, where do we go for information on the life, on the intimate self, of our beloved Jane—the specific life, I mean, the life lived as an individual, as “Jane” and not just as a woman at a certain moment bound by history and geography? We go to her family, of course, to their writing, to their lives, particularly to any intersection we can find between these artifacts and our author. Selwyn’s introduction ends with a statement of recognition that most people will read his poetry for the details of James’ family life it provides: “The interest in reading James’ poetry is bound to be primarily biographical.” But it’s clear that it’s Jane’s and not James’ biography in which we’re ultimately interested—we don’t care (do we?) about James’ life or his poetry except for the access it gives us to his sister’s life and work.

But this is a sticky problem, in particular when we’re looking at James Austen’s poetry for what it can tell us about Jane Austen. Given her vague antipathy to James (acknowledged indirectly in Selwyn’s notes to “Lines Written at Steventon”), can we expect she would have favored James’ aesthetic or principles? Can we tell much about Jane’s life or art from James’ preoccupation with the melancholy, autumnal landscape, or his almost desperate need to wring a Christian moral from even the most innocuous—or unchristian—stories? Should we extrapolate from his emphasis on the poet’s role as the painter of detailed landscapes and the inculcator of right living anything about Austen’s understanding of her role as the writer of prose fiction? I’m not at all certain we ought to, or if we do, to what potentially misleading conclusions we might come. Selwyn’s collection makes me mildly uncomfortable because it implies so much that it doesn’t and can’t state. Its raison d’etre can’t be, maybe shouldn’t be, what it seems to be—what its publication by The Jane Austen Society more than suggests.

I think Selwyn recognizes this and, in his interesting and well-researched introduction and notes, he tries to find other ways for this collection to be useful to readers. His most direct statement connecting Jane’s and James’ writing is early, short, and pretty safe: he mentions the prologues and epilogues to plays Jane certainly saw produced at home and probably helped to enact. This gesture at influence studies quickly subsides into his most developed argument, that James’ poetry has “intrinsic delights” and is “very pleasing”—which occasionally it is, particularly as Selwyn notes, the light verses such as “The Maid of the Moor” (which might not be his), “Tyger’s Letter to Caroline,” and “Address to Tyger,” and the enigmas at the end of the volume.

But try as Selwyn might in his introduction to situate it among the work of Shakespeare, Johnson, Thomson, Gray, and Cowper, much of what James Austen writes, though sincere, isn’t Cowper, let alone Shakespeare. I read much of this volume out loud, thinking I might be wrong, that I might be missing the real poetry here, and this exercise taught me something important about James’ aesthetic, his talent: James was ultimately a prose writer like his sister—his best poetry is prose arranged in quasi-metrical stanzas. Thus what he composed as

Thus year succeeded year, & in due time
His temperate habits, & his frugal life,
Enabled him with provident forecast,
For helpless age, or children, to lay by
A sum, not trifling, for his modest wants

is really better written as “Thus year succeeded year, & in due time his temperate habits, & his frugal life enabled him with provident forecast for helpless age, or children, to lay by a sum, not trifling, for his modest wants” (“The Economy of Rural Life,” 555-59). Read Selwyn’s book for the thorough notes we’ve grown to expect from his editions, for the light and laughing verses, and for well-written prose, both Selwyn’s and James’, but don’t expect poetry or to see Jane more clearly, since I suspect there’s not much of either here. 

Emily Hipchen is Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Tampa

JASNA News v.21, no. 1, Spring 2005, p. 17

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