Mary Mollineux

Mary Mollineux (1651-96) was perhaps the best-known Quaker poet, prior to Whittier. Her book forbookFruits of Retirement was widely-known among Friends.

Born into the Lancashire, English gentry, Mollineux was well-educated for her time and gender, having been taught languages, science, mathematics and philosophy. Reportedly she was raised a Catholic but became a Quaker. In 1684 she was arrested for worshiping at Warrington Meeting and imprisoned in Lancaster Castle. Mollineux was known as a gentle, caring person. Dying young, upon her deathbed, she told her husband, “don’t worry about me too much”. She also said she hated to leave her sons, “her little lads”. She could also be strong, however. In 1690 she publicly debated the Bishop of Chester when her husband was jailed for refusing to pay tithes to the established church.

Mollineux wrote poetry that offered moral instruction. Her subjects ranged widely, though the Bible, contemplation and compassion for others were touchstones. Her style was reminiscent of other Restoration poetry. She began writing verse in 1663, at the age of 12, and composed poetry for the rest of her life. (She recited a couplet in Latin to her husband while on her deathbed). While she was alive, her writings circulated in manuscript, but she declined to have them published, feeling it was vanity to do so. After her death, her husband asked Frances Owen, her cousin, to collect her work. In 1702 Fruits of Retirement was published. It contained 87 poems, six prose epistles, 12 poetic epistles and three letters. Her cousin also included a defense of poetry since Quakers rarely wrote verse. The book went through six editions in the 18th century. Along with the Bible, Fox’s Journal and Barclay’s Apology, Fruits of Retirement was to be found in most Quaker homes.

Mollineux’s poetry was moving, if a bit earnest at times. Occasionally it was very good. An excerpt about her search for the Presence from “Meditations in Trouble”:

O whither is He gone? Or where/Shall I go mourn, till He appear,/Who is my Life, my Love?/Alas, how shall I move/Him to return, that’s secretly retir’d;/Like unto one displeas’d,/Who, till He be appeas’d,/My Heart cannot be eas’d;/He is one lovely, and to be admir’d!

October 2017

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