This is Jane Austen's last poem, written on July 15, 1817, only days before her death on July 18, 1817. The light tone belies the serious state of her health at this time. Venta was another, older name for Winchester, the town where Austen spent her last days under the care of her physician, Mr. Lyford. As you may surmise, July 15 is St. Swithin's day, sacred to the memory of St. Swithin, Bishop of Winchester and a day long associated with rain. Not the finest condition for a race!
When Winchester Races
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 Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint.
The races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined
And nobody saw any future alarming.–
But when the old Saint was informed 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 then he addressed them all standing aloof.
‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal! By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinned and must suffer, ten farther he said
These races and revels and dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighboring Plain
Let them stand–You shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.
Ye cannot but know my command o’er 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–‘.
- Jane Austen
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[…] And finally for the Jane Austen News this week, we bring you a lovely performance by actress Rebecca Hare (who has just finished playing the role of Lizzy Bennet on a national stage tour of Pride and Prejudice), reading Jane Austen’s poem, When Winchester Races. We hope you enjoy it. A transcript and some background on the poem, which was the last poem Jane wrote before her death, is available here. […]