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"The Burning Forest: A Tale of Miramichi, New Brunswick," Marianne Prowse

Marianne Prowse

Marianne (Jeffery) Prowse (poet) was born in Teignmouth, England, on 11 January 1798 and died in Torquay, England, on 13 January 1850.

Marianne Prowse was the eldest daughter of William and Margaret Jeffery. She had one sister named Sarah Frances, who was born on 7 December 1799 (Ashfield 144; Rollins, “Jefferys” 78). Christened on 11 February 1798, Prowse was born into the seaside community of Teignmouth in the county of Devon. While the specific address of the Jefferys' residence cannot be verified, a letter from John Keats to a Mr. John H. Reynolds places the family at “35, The Strand,” in Teignmouth (Rollins, “Jeffreys” 79).

In 1817, Prowse and her family became acquainted with George and Tom Keats, who had moved to “20, The Strand,” now known as Northumberland Place in Teignmouth (79). The brothers had moved to the area from London so that Tom, who was afflicted with consumption, could rest during the winter months (Graham-Campbell 40). In that year, the two brothers became close friends with the Jeffery family (they engaged in light-hearted flirtation with the sisters), and Prowse is documented as having nursed Tom during a period of sickness (Graham-Campbell 41; Rollins, “Jefferys” 79).

It is through Prowse’s acquaintance with George and Tom that she became associated with their older brother, the poet and writer John Keats. Upon Keats’s arrival in Teignmouth, George wrote to Prowse and her sister urging them in a slightly flirtatious and teasing manner to get along with his brother: “‘How do you like John? Is he not very original? He does not look by any means so handsome as four months ago, but is he not handsome? I am sure that you must like him very much, but don’t forget me’” (qtd. in Graham-Campbell 41). This was the beginning of Prowse’s acquaintance with John Keats: a significant event, since she allegedly fell in love with the poet. After Keats’s departure from Teignmouth in the spring of 1818, he fell out of correspondence with Prowse and her sister for just under a year, but reopened communication with them through a letter sent on 31 May 1819, which inquired about inexpensive lodgings in Teignmouth (Rollins, Letters 2: 112). As none of Prowse’s letters to Keats are extant, historians must rely on the letters written by Keats—which indicate that Prowse earnestly sent him numerous letters—as proof of her respect and affection for the poet. Critic Graham-Campbell suggests a reciprocal affection: “His two letters of 1819 show Keats writing to a woman of understanding, both when it came to personal difficulties and to literary matters” (43). However, while there may be evidence of mutual affection, Keats showed no interest in having a deeper involvement with her (43). Prowse’s correspondence and friendship with Keats ended with his death on 23 February 1821.

On 21 June 1829, Marianne Jeffery married Isaac Sparke Prowse, a wine merchant in Kenton, Devon County (Ashfield 144). They had one child, William Jeffery Prowse, who was born on 6 May 1836 in Torquay, Devon. In 1830, just one short year after her marriage, she published her first and only collection of poems under her married name, Mrs. I.S. Prowse. The book was well receievd by the public and had a considerable list of subscribers from across the country. This collection of poems also serves as evidence of a significant connection between Prowse and Keats. Many of the poems within the collection use literary techniques similar to Keats’s poetical style: one such poem, “Ada,” employs a “juxtaposition of opposites, which is, of course, a characteristic of Keats’s poetry” (Graham-Campbell 43-4). The book of poems also supports the theory that Prowse was potentially the “mysterious Teignmouth benefactor” of Keats, who sent a sonnet and twenty-five pound note to the poet in November 1819 under the alias of “P. Fenbank” (Graham-Campbell 43; Ashfield 144).

Prowse’s collection of poems contains themes preoccupied with nature and impending disaster. Graham-Campbell identifies this tendency as typically Romantic: “The poems are often about Nature, in which case it is usually autumn—a season that stimulates in the poet thoughts of the transience of life and love, and the rapid approach of death—or they are long narrative poems about lovers who come to untimely ends” (43). One of the notable poems in the collection, entitled “Nature,” proclaims Prowse’s love for the majesty and silence of the forest:

Eternal Nature! I have ever vowed
My worship unto thee; thy changeful moods
Of summer loveliness and wintry cloud,
The majesty of thy deep solitudes,
My soul has loved: then, while the toiling crowd
Bow unto Fortune for her fancied goods,
Give me the silence of thy pathless woods. (22-8)

These lines are indicative of Prowse’s love for the English landscape, a love reinforced by the Romantic undertones in the passage. The themes of gloom and melancholy are prominent throughout Prowse’s collection, as are preoccupations with love, heart-ache, and lovers who come to untimely ends. “The Fatal Gift,” says Graham-Campbell, “tells the story of Lisa, who dramatically commits suicide having been deserted by Sir Lindorf. Amongst her other heroines Leila, Lizana, and Ada all die of broken hearts” (43).

For the purposes of Canadian literary studies, the most important poem in the collection is “The Burning Forest, A Tale of Miramichi, New Brunswick.” This poem references the Great Miramichi Fire, which began on 7 October 1825. At the time, the fire was the largest to overwhelm any country (Manny, Historical 2). The forest fire destroyed 6000 square miles, one fifth of the province of New Brunswick, and anyone who was caught in it and who did not make it to the Miramichi River was condemned to death: “A careful estimate which was prepared after the fire, shows that 160 persons were either burned to death, or drowned in their efforts to escape the flames. Five hundred and ninety-five buildings were consumed, and eight hundred and seventy-five head of cattle were destroyed” (Hannay 403). In A Narrative of the Late Fires at Miramichi, New Brunswick, published by the Office of P.J. Holland (Halifax, NS), a copy of a formal letter sent to England requesting aid is copied: “we still feel ourselves unable to repair the losses of our fellow subjects laboring under so great a misfortune, in the manner that we could wish, without that assistance from the mother country” (Narrative 44). Published in the Maritime Broadcaster on the 110th anniversary of the disaster, the shock and devastation that was wrought by the fire still reverberates: “The Miramichi fire struck such a paralyzing blow that Great Britain and other countries were appalled when the news was heard” (“Legend Bred” 17). Indeed, the devastation and loss exacted by the Great Fire cannot be overstated. The province of New Brunswick was forever changed by the disaster. Both its society and its economy were deeply affected: the lumber industry, predominant in the province, suffered severely from the disaster. Louise Manny confirms that the fire “destroyed the magnificent pine forests which had furnished masts and square timber to Britain for over fifty years” (Historical 2).

So devastating was the fire that legends of this event were passed down through generations by song and poetry. New Brunswickers like John Jardine (Black River) wrote the traditional song “The Miramichi Fire” a few days after the disaster (Manny and Wilson, Songs 148), and Michael Whelan (of Renous River) published a collection of fifteen poems about the incident in 1925 titled The Great Miramichi Fire of 1825 in Story and Song, With Other Poems. However, it was Marianne Prowse who published poetry about the incident in the mother country of England. “The Burning Forest, A Tale of Miramichi, New Brunswick,” tells the tragic tale of a young wife who nursed her husband who was dying of fever, only to die herself from the curling flame of the Great Fire (Prowse, “Burning Forest” 129). In her 147-line poem, Prowse speaks of the suffocating heat and devastating flames:

The forest was one blaze; tall patriarch trees
That had withstood the storms of centuries
And mock’d the fury of the lightning’s glare
That pass’d and left them scath’dless—scorch’d and bare
Shiver’d before the wasting flame—or stood
Like Fiery pillars: nor alone the wood
Spread its broad conflagration; fierce and fast
Roll’d on the flaming torrent—soon it cast
Its serpent wreaths about the hapless town. (39-47)

Prowse captures the devastation that overwhelmed the landscape, expressing the extreme sorrow and loss of the centuries old forest. By employing words such as “frightful” (30), “fast” (45), “fierce” (45), “wild” (55), and “choking” (60), she evokes the extreme destruction and terror that resulted. In addition to dramatizing the calamity wrought by the conflagration, Prowse also captures the devastation and loss felt by the people of the Miramichi. She does this at the level of characterization. Unwilling to leave her husband who is dying of fever, the young wife at the centre of the poem becomes a symbol of that loss. Trapped by the Great Fire, she perishes beside her love, who dies just before the fire hits their home:

And she sunk breathless on the quiet dead.
From that cold resting place, her gentle form
She ne’er again uprais’d; — the fiery storm
Spent its dread forde on unresisting clay,
Her patient soul had breath’d itself away
In that last kiss.
The morning sun arose,
And found no trace of all their loves or woes. (139-47)

Prowse spares the reader from seeing the wife die in the fire, “her patient soul” having “breath’d itself away” (144) with her last kiss to her husband. However, the immanent threat of the fire throughout the work fills the reader with dread concerning the young couple’s fate. They die, as the poem ends, in melancholy: the strength of their union a precedent, perhaps, for that of Longfellow’s lovers in “Evangeline,” another poem about ill-fated lovers in New Brunswick that would follow some seventeen years later.

Marianne Prowse died on 13 January 1859 in Park Place, Torquay. While it is unknown and unlikely that she ever travelled to the Miramichi or to New Brunswick, she is an important figure in the literary history of the province, as she paid homage to the greatest natural disaster to occur in the area.

Laura M. Corscadden, Spring 2012
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Prowse, Mrs. I.S. [Marianne]. Poems. London: Smith, Elder and Co. Cornhill, 1830.

---. “The Burning Forest, A Tale of Miramichi, New Brunswick.” Poems. London: Smith, Elder and Co. Cornhill, 1830. 73-8.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Ashfield, Andrew, ed. “Marianne Prowse (née Jeffery) (1798-1850).” Romantic Women Poets 1788–1848. Vol. 2. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998.

Graham-Campbell, Angus. “John Keats and Marian Jeffery.” Keats–Shelley Journal 33 (1984): 40-50.

Hannay, James. History of New Brunswick. Saint John, NB: John A. Bowes, 1909.

“Legend Bred by Big Miramichi Fire: Act of Heaven Claimed Cause of Great Holocaust, Flames Caused Great Loss in New Brunswick 110 years Ago.” The Maritime Broadcaster: The Maritimes’ Feature Weekly. 19 Apr. 1935 [2nd sect.]: 17-32.

Manny, Louise. Historical Background of the Miramichi. N.p.: n.p., 1960.

Manny, Louise, and James Reginald Wilson, eds. Songs of Miramichi. Fredericton, NB: Brunswick Press, 1968.

A Narrative of the late fires at Miramichi New Brunswick: with an appendix containing the statements of many of the sufferers and a variety of interesting occurrences: together with a poem, entitled “The Conflagration.” Halifax, NS: Office of P.J. Holland, 1825.

Rollins, Hyder Edward. “The Jefferys of Teignmouth.” The Letters of John Keats 1814–1821. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1958. 78-80.

---, ed. The Letters of John Keats 1814–1821. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1958.

---, ed. The Letters of John Keats 1814–1821. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1958.

Whelan, Michael. The Great Miramichi Fire of 1825 in Story and Song, With Other Poems. Renous River, NB: n.p., 1925.

---. “The Miramichi Fire: Graphic Description of the March of the Fire Fiend.” The Great Miramichi Fire of 1825 in Story and Song, With Other Poems. Renous River, NB: n.p., 1925. 1-8.