April 18, 2014

Coolbrith's San Francisco: garmented in fire

The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 began on April 18 shortly after 5 a.m. and lasted between 45 and 60 seconds, not including several aftershocks. Though its range was massive, it was labeled as a San Francisco phenomenon because of the massive fires it spawned there. Among the thousands affected was poet/librarian Ina Coolbrith, born Josephine Anne Smith, whose home was destroyed, along with all her possessions (including the manuscript for a tell-all book which is believed would have revealed her affairs with other California writers like Joaquin Miller and Bret Harte). Also among the items lost were some 3,000 books, including signed editions from her friends, as well as correspondence with literary figures like Mark Twain and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She was only able to save her pet cat.

Coolbrith's popularity in the California literary scene inspired several attempts to assist her financially. Twain offered autographed photographs of himself to sell, social clubs sponsored dinners or book sales in her honor, and some even pushed the state legislature to offer Coolbrith a pension. Years later, she was named the first poet laureate of California. The disaster somehow spurred Coolbrith to write more poetry than ever before. Among her lines from this period was a poem inspired by the earthquake and fire, "San Francisco — April 18, 1906":

In ended days, a child, I trod thy sands,
    The sands unbuilded rank with bush and brier
And blossom—chased the sea-foam on thy strands,
    Young city of my love and my desire!

I saw thy barren hills against the skies,
    I saw them topped with minaret and spire,
On plain and slope thy myriad walls arise,
    Fair city of my love and my desire!

With thee the Orient touched heart and hands:
    The world's rich argosies lay at thy feet;
Queen of the fairest land of all the lands—
    Our sunset-glory, proud and strong and sweet!

I saw thee in thine anguish! tortured, prone.
    Rent with the earth-throes, garmented in fire!
Each wound upon thy breast upon my own,
    Sad city of my love and my desire!

Gray wind-blown ashes, broken, toppling wall
    And ruined hearth—are these thy funeral pyre.
Black desolation covering as a pall—
    Is this the end, my love and my desire?

But I —shall see thee ever as of old!
    Thy wraith of pearl, wall, minaret, and spire,
Framed in the mists that veil thy Gate of Gold,
    Lost city of my love and my desire!

April 17, 2014

A Morning Walk: the resurrection and the life

The April 17, 1897, issue of the Criterion in St. Louis published a story titled "An Easter Day Conversion," which its author Kate Chopin later renamed "A Morning Walk." The tale introduces the reader to Archibald, who people believe is in his 50s though he is only 40. It is the beginning of spring, and Archibald is walking amidst in the wind after a fresh rain in his village. "The spring was nothing new to him," writes Chopin, "nor was its sounds, its perfumes, its colors; nor was its tender and caressing breath; but, for some unaccountable reason, these were reaching him to-day through unfamiliar channels." But Archibald is not walking for beauty or sentiment, but for the practicality of imbibing fresh air for his health.

A man of studious habits and "mental preoccupation," he is all the same impressed by the beauty of the morning. He forgets the name of his 20-year old "saucy" neighbor Lucy when he meets her on the side of the road. They walk together, Lucy slightly teasing the older man, and she leads him to the church. It is Easter morning after all. Archibald surprises himself by going in to mass with her. He all but ignores the prayers, the songs, and the mass in general — until he hears the minister say, "I am the Resurrection and the Life." Those words were enough to cause Archibald some kind of religious conversion:

This was his text. It fell upon ears that had heard it before. It crept into the consciousness of Archibald, sitting there. As he gathered it into his soul a vision of life came with it; the poet’s vision, of the life that is within and the life that is without, pulsing in unison, breathing the harmony of an undivided existence.

He listened to no further words of the minister. He entered into himself and he preached unto himself a sermon in his own heart, as he gazed from the window through which the song came and where the leafy shadows quivered.

Besides the religious message of the poem, the short text is rich with interesting thoughts and symbols. Archibald goes from a practical man who knows nothing of sentiment, a man who lopped the heads off flowers, to a man of faith. And who is Lucy, the woman who he mistakenly calls by several different names (despite having only two lines of actual dialogue in the text)? Though deemed an older man, he is somewhat attracted to her and sees her romantically, or even sexually:  "He looked down into the girl’s face, and her soft, curved lips made him think of peaches that he had bitten; of grapes that he had tasted; of a cup’s rim from which he had sometimes sipped wine." The story also uses the presence of flowers for its symbolism, much like another of Chopin's stories, "Lilacs."

April 14, 2014

Birth of Anna Pierpont Siviter: such running

Francis Harrison Pierpont was known as the "Father of West Virginia" for his toil advocating for the new state split from Virginia. He served as the first provisional governor of those counties in west Virginia who did not side with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Before all that, however, he was a father. In particular, his daughter was born on April 14, 1858, in what was then Fairmont, Virginia, now part of West Virginia. After her marriage in 1886, she was known as the author Anna Pierpont Siviter (pictured here at age 8).

Young Anna went to school in southwestern Pennsylvania at the Washington Female Seminary (the same institution earlier attended by Rebecca Harding Davis). Her husband was the editor of a newspaper in Pittsburgh and an occasional humor writer; she began contributing both poetry and prose to various periodicals as well. She also edited several publications for use in Sunday schools. Possibly her most popular work in her lifetime was the book Nehe, a Tale of the Times of Artaxerxes (1901), a tale set in Persia inspired by the Biblical Nehemiah, and dedicated to her famous father. Several years later, when her father was honored with a statue in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (pictured at left), she wrote a poem for its unveiling which was presented by her daughter. The poem was less of a highlight of her father the governor, and more of an ode to West Virginia itself, including this stanza:

In the shout and din of battle, she was born, the brave, free State;
Humble men stood sponsor for her, but their every deed was great—
West Virginia, child of Freedom, lift your happy head on high;
Truth and Justice are your birthright; you were born to Liberty.

In Pittsburgh, Siviter also worked with several local Red Cross chapters, founded a kindergarten association, was a founding board member of the Pittsburgh Children's Hospital, joined the Daughters of the American Revolution, and various other civic organizations. Among her published books are The Sculptor, and Other Verses, Songs of Hope, Songs Sung Along the Way, and, posthumously, Recollections of War and Peace. She also contributed two recipes for a cook book. Her poem "Doggie and the Burglars" was found in a Wichita newspaper in 1899:

The house was dark and silent
    When Mr. Doggie woke.
"I thought," said Mr. Doggie,
    "For sure that some one spoke.

"I think," said Mr. Doggie,
    "That I will take a walk.
It's very trying in the night
    To think that you hear talk.

"Let's see," said Mr. Doggie;
    "My master's gun I'll take.
I do not mean to use it,
    But for appearance sake."

So forth went Mr. Doggie,
    And how he bowwowed when,
Just getting in the window,
    He found two robber men.

And when the thieves saw coming
    That big dog and his gun
You never saw such running
    As those scared men did run.

*Note: I had difficulty confirming the birth date of Anna Siviter; some sources list her birth year as 1859, only one offered the April 14 date. The image of young Anna comes from a booklet produced by Pierpont Community and Technical College.

April 12, 2014

Birth of Ik Marvel: that great land of the Future

Donald Grant Mitchell was born April 12, 1822, in Norwich, Connecticut, but it would be another couple decades before he became better known under the unusual pen name Ik Marvel. The son of a Congregationalist minister, he went on to study at Yale, and delivered his class's commencement oration in 1841. Shortly after graduating, he took a job in Europe but health brought him back to the United States. While overseas, he wrote a series of letters and dispatches about his experiences in Europe which were published in an Albany newspaper. Back in Connecticut, in 1847, he edited those letters and published a book, Fresh Gleanings. He later returned to Europe to serve briefly as Consul to Venice, a job acquired with the help of Nathaniel Hawthorne, then Consul to Liverpool.

Fresh Gleanings marked the beginning of Marvel's long career in writing and journalism that would last until his death in 1908. Much of his life was spent at a house he purchased and named Edgewood; that area in Connecticut is now named for his home. Two books were inspired by his agrarian lifestyle at Edgewood, My Farm of Edgewood (1863) and Wet Days at Edgewood (1865). He also started his own weekly journal, The Lorgnette, which was mostly satirical, also later published as a book. Perhaps better known was his series of "semi-humorous sketches" titled Reveries of a Bachelor, which went through several editions.

In that collection, which he described as "those floating Reveries which have, from time to time, drifted across my brain," he included a sketch titled "Evening." In it, he imagines the Future as a place presided over by Pride and Ambition where "Fame beckons, sitting high in the heavens." He goes on:

The Future is a great land ; a man cannot go round it in a day; he cannot measure it with a bound; he cannot bind its harvests into a single sheaf. It is wider than the vision, and has no end.

Yet always, day by day, hour by hour, second by second, the hard Present is elbowing us off into that great land of the Future. Our souls indeed, wander to it, as to a home-land; they run beyond time and space, beyond planets and suns, beyond far-off suns and comets, until like blind flies, they are lost in the blaze of immensity, and can only grope their way back to our earth, and our time, by the cunning of instinct.

Cut out the Future—even that little Future, which is the Evening of our life, and what a fall into vacuity! Forbid those earnest forays over the borders of Now, and on what spoils would the soul live?

Richard Watson Gilder later said that Ik Marvel was someone that younger authors looked up to. "His literature was not powerful, but serene and delightful," according to Gilder.

April 10, 2014

Birth of Forceythe Willson: faint, white fire

It seemed prophetic that the boy born in Little Genesee, New York, on April 10, 1837 would some day become a poet when he was named Byron. The poetic name notwithstanding, he went by his middle and last name as an adult, Forceythe Willson. He was born in a log cabin in what was then a rural area in far western New York. Soon, however, the Willson family sailed downriver into Kentucky before settling in Indiana. The eight Willson children (including future Kentucky governor Augustus Willson) were orphans by 1859, however, and each received a sizable inheritance.

Forceythe Willson attempted to study at Antioch College in Ohio and at Harvard in Massachusetts. He was unable, however, due to the onset of tuberculosis, which physicians said was immediately terminal. He survived longer than expected, however, and returned to his family in New Albany, Indiana. He married Elizabeth Conwell Smith (herself a poet) and contributed to a journal across the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky. He also wrote poetry, advocated for the Union cause during the Civil War, and dabbled in spiritualism and clairvoyance before finally dying in 1867.

Willson published his only book of poems the year before his death during a temporary sojourn living in Massachusetts. One of Willson's most famous poems, the lengthy "The Old Sergeant," was praised by notable people including Abraham Lincoln, John James Piatt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Willson's poem "Mystic Thought" (which he listed as with the musical term "Arpeggio") shows his unusual use of form as well as his interest in spiritualism:

There came a Mystic Thought to me;
    If any soul should ask me, "Whence?"
I can but say, I could not see,
    Nor hear nor feel, in any sense.
As the glory of the rising moon
Is duplicated in the lagoon,
Or gleams on the old tower and its spire,
Till the cross becomes a cross of fire, —
So that strange Thought, serene and lone,
Rose on my dark soul, and it shone!

Shouldst ask me, if an Angel brought
This strange, this sweet and secret Thought?
I could but say, I do not know!
It came as comes the guiding glow
From Heaven's high shrines; or as the snow
On the dark hill-tops; or as bloom
    The intimations of a God
In every violet of the tomb,
    And every pansy of the sod.

It came, unbidden, — as it went, —
A wing├ęd, wandering Sentiment,
That for a moment fanned my lyre
With passing wings, of faint, white fire:
Five finger-tips were touched to mine,
Most lightly: and a drop of wine,
Or dew, fell on my lips. At last,
A breath, — a seeming kiss —
                                               it passed!

April 8, 2014

Field praises pie: That viand all-inspiring!

Eugene Field was a prolific writer with a wide range, particularly in his poetry. But he never took himself too seriously and, as a result, plenty of the work of the Missouri-born Field is humor writing. Few other poets would dare tackle such a serious topic as baked goods, but such is the case in his poem "In Praise of Pie," dated April 8, 1890:

I'd like to weave a pretty rhyme
   To send my Daily News.
What shall I do? In vain I woo
   The too-exacting Muse;
In vain I coax the tyrant minx,
   And this the reason why:
She will not sing a plaguy thing,
   Because I've eaten pie.

A pretty pass it is, indeed,
   That I have reached at last,
If I, in spite of appetite,
   Must fast, and fast, and fast!
The one dear boon I am denied
   Is that for which I sigh.
Take all the rest that men hold best,
   But leave, oh, leave me pie!

Field sings the praises of pie in an even more poetic way when he names fellow poets and authors who equally enjoy the treat:

I hear that Whittier partakes
   Of pie three times a day;
And it is rife that with a knife
   He stows that pie away.
There's Stoddard—he was raised on pie;
   And he is hale and fat.
And Stedman's cry is always "pie,"
   And hot mince-pie at that!

Of course I'm not at all like those
   Great masters in their art,
Except that pie doth ever lie
   Most sweetly next my heart,
And that I fain would sing my songs
   Without surcease or tiring
If 'neath my vest and else could rest
   That viand all-inspiring!

What I object to is the harsh,
   Vicarious sacrifice
I'm forced to make if I partake
   Of fair and proper pies;
The pangs I suffer are the pangs
   To other sinners due.
I'd gladly bear my righteous share,
   But not the others', too.

How vain the gift of heavenly fire,
   How vain the laurel wreath,
If these crown not that godlike spot,
   A well-filled paunch beneath!
And what is glory but a sham
   To those who pine and sigh
For bliss denied, which (as implied)
   Is pie, and only pie!

Well, since it's come to such a pass,
   I boldly draw the line;
Go thou, O Muse, which way you choose,
   While I meander mine.
Farewell, O fancies of the pen,
   That dazzled once mine eye;
My choice may kill, but still, oh, still,
   I choose and stand for pie!

April 7, 2014

Campbell: Every book ought to have a preface

"My printer says that every book ought to have a preface," wrote Alfred Gibbs Campbell from Newark, New Jersey in his requisite preface dated April 7, 1883. The passage opened his Poems, which was apparently his first (and only) book compilation. Not much is known about the New Jersey born African American poet who also ran a paper mill and edited a newspaper. The book was released shortly before his death. As he states in his preface:

I will therefore simply say that, acting upon the suggestion of personal friends and in accordance with my own inclination, I have here gathered in a volume, (rather promiscuously it must be confessed,) various pieces in verse which I have written during the past thirty years or so. For want of a more distinctive name, I call them "Poems," which possibly, in a minor sense, they may be. I claim for them no literary excellence. If in them there is anything worthy of living, it will live... Should their appearance in this form afford pleasure to my friends, I shall be gratified.

Campbell also notes his anti-slavery poems in the collection, showing his role in the great "moral warfare," as he calls it, against "the giant crime against human nature and its Divine Author." Certainly, the book includes more than this theme. Throughout the book, Campbell explores man's relationship with God, his role on Earth, his devotion to his country (flawed though it may be), and frequently searches for moral guidance. Most evoke his deep religious beliefs. His poem "Ships at Sea":

All of us have our ships at sea;
   Will they ever reach port, I wonder.
A few may sail in merrily,
   But most will the wild waves sunder.

And some which do reach port, I guess,
   Will discharge only damaged cargoes;
Better had they been kept by stress
   Of weather, or Fate's embargoes.

Trust not thy treasures on the sea,
   Nor idly expect joy to-morrow:
Take what to-day doth offer thee.
  Nor pleasure nor trouble borrow.