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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.

Venta
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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Comments

( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
juliakarr
Mar. 13th, 2009 01:11 pm (UTC)
Jane, Jane, Jane... is it any wonder that I love her? (And the comment on Mrs. Hill's tragedy... the sort of thing one can only say to a sister or a bff.)
kellyrfineman
Mar. 13th, 2009 01:58 pm (UTC)
In Jane's case, Cassandra filled both roles.
tessagratton
Mar. 13th, 2009 01:46 pm (UTC)
That's kind of adorable! Thanks.

(also - "I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband." *dead*)
kellyrfineman
Mar. 13th, 2009 01:59 pm (UTC)
The real Jane could be quite ascerbic, as you might expect. It's her that keeps me enchanted with my Jane project. Some of her comments keep me laughing for days.

*icon love*
tessagratton
Mar. 13th, 2009 02:01 pm (UTC)
Hehe - when I was watching Becoming Jane and that scene happened, ALL I could think was: "That needs to be an icon!" And then I realized I'm a little too obsessed with LJ and my icons!
p_sunshine
Mar. 13th, 2009 01:48 pm (UTC)
What a great line - "By vice you're enslaved"
kellyrfineman
Mar. 13th, 2009 02:00 pm (UTC)
I like how she manages to be both funny and serious all at the same time.

*icon love*
jamarattigan
Mar. 13th, 2009 02:50 pm (UTC)
What a cool poem! Fascinating to see Jane's last work.
kellyrfineman
Mar. 13th, 2009 03:33 pm (UTC)
Isn't it interesting? Her mind remained pretty facile up to the end. Poor Jane.
yatyeechong.blogspot.com
Mar. 13th, 2009 03:38 pm (UTC)
There is something a little bit...other-wordly... reading the last known penned words of an author, like listening to Mozart's Requiem, especially if we know a little about the circumstances surrounding the moments they created their work.
kellyrfineman
Mar. 13th, 2009 04:09 pm (UTC)
It's these lines that slay me:

When once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me Immortal.


She attributes them to St. Swithin, but I believe they apply to Jane as well. Maybe moreso.

(And oh! Mozart's Requiem. The Lacrymosa is enough to do me in.)
liz_scanlon
Mar. 13th, 2009 04:35 pm (UTC)
sattin'd & ermin'd

Do you just LOVE that????
kellyrfineman
Mar. 13th, 2009 04:41 pm (UTC)
I do. I love so much of it, in fact - particularly the lines "When once we are buried you think we are dead/But behold me Immortal". They apply well to Jane, methinks.

In her day, the "-eds" at the end of words would have been pronounced like the name Ed, so the contracted forms are used to be certain that the reader pronounces them as we would today. (E.g., not "use-ed" by "used", not "satin-ed" but "satind", only she used a double t, so I left it in.)
(Deleted comment)
kellyrfineman
Mar. 13th, 2009 09:45 pm (UTC)
It appears that St. Christopher is the patron saint of sports played with balls (of the detached variety), which would include tennis, but it is possible that Wimbledon offends some other saint (aside from Swithin) as a means of explaining rain.
wordsrmylife
Mar. 16th, 2009 01:07 am (UTC)
I love this! and I don't think I've read it before. I love the way the rhythm lets the reader feel the horse race. Good on Jane!
kellyrfineman
Mar. 16th, 2009 04:18 am (UTC)
Jane was a clever woman indeed.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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