American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

A Thanksgiving

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Celia Thaxter's Cottage, Appledore, Isles of Shoals, N.H. (image courtesy NYPL Digital Gallery)

Celia Thaxter (1835-1894) is best known today for her prose (An Island Garden and Among the Isles of Shoals, two beautiful works of observation and description, set off the coast of New Hampshire), and for her friendships with other writers, most notably Sarah Orne Jewett. She was also a very fine poet, able to convey in verse the same attention to detail one finds in her prose. Her best poems are more or less free of the effusion and gentility and deliberate anachronism that marked so much verse of the Gilded Age, which is why I’m surprised her reputation hasn’t rebounded. Perhaps it will in the coming years, especially with the growing interest (pardon the pun) in ecopoetics.

Here, in any case, for Thanksgiving Day, is an example of her work. The text comes from The Poems of Celia Thaxter (Houghton Mifflin, 1896); the poem was first published in Atlantic Monthly, November 1871:

A Thanksgiving

High on the ledge the wind blows the bayberry bright,
Turning the leaves till they shudder and shine in the light;
Yellow St. John’s-wort and yarrow are nodding their heads,
Iris and wild-rose are glowing in purples and reds.

Swift flies the schooner careering beyond o’er the blue;
Faint shows the furrow she leaves as she cleaves lightly through ;
Gay gleams the fluttering flag at her delicate mast;
Full swell the sails with the wind that is following fast.

Quail and sandpiper and swallow and sparrow are here:
Sweet sound their manifold notes, high and low, far and near;
Chorus of musical waters, the rush of the breeze,
Steady and strong from the south, — what glad voices are these!

O cup of the wild-rose, curved close to hold odorous dew,
What thought do you hide in your heart? I would that I knew!
O beautiful Iris, unfurling your purple and gold,
What victory fling you abroad in the flags you unfold?

Sweet may your thought be, red rose, but still sweeter is mine,
Close in my heart hidden, clear as your dewdrop divine.
Flutter your gonfalons, Iris, the paean I sing
Is for victory better than joy or than beauty can bring.

Into thy calm eyes, O Nature, I look and rejoice;
Prayerful, I add my one note to the Infinite voice:
As shining and singing and sparkling glides on the glad day,
And eastward the swift-rolling planet wheels into the gray.

Though offered as a poem for the holiday (hence the November publication in Atlantic Monthly), the poem is surely set sometime before Thanksgiving Day. But how long before remains an open question. To answer it, I thought I’d look into Thaxter’s prose. In Among the Isles of Shoals, she describes the late fall on her island as a time of unlikely beauty.

Sometimes it is as if the order of nature were set aside in this spot; for you find the eyebright and pimpernel and white violets growing side by side until the frost comes in November; often October passes with no sign of frost, and the autumn lingers later than elsewhere. I have even seen the iris and wild-rose and golden-rod and aster in blossom together, as if , not having the example of the world before their eyes, they followed their own sweet will, and bloomed when they took the fancy.

And later she writes:

If summer is a laggard in her coming, she makes up for it by the loveliness of her lingering into autumn; for when the pride of trees and flowers is despoiled by frost on shore, the little gardens here are glowing at their brightest, and day after day of mellow splendor drops like a benediction from the hand of God. … Through October and into November the fair, mild weather lasts. At the first breath of October, the hillside at Appledore fires up with the living crimson of the huckleberry-bushes, as if a blazing torch had been applied to it; the slanting light at sunrise and sunset makes a wonderful glory across it. … In December the colors seem to fade out of the world, and utter ungraciousness prevails. … Some sullen day in December the snow begins to fall, and the last touch of desolation is laid upon the scene; there is nothing any more but white snow and dark water, hemmed in by a murky horizon.

Thanksgiving Day falls somewhere in a zone she neglects to describe: after the “fair, mild weather” of late October, early November; before the “sullen day” of first snow in December.

Reading these descriptions, one might almost imagine a miraculously blooming Thanksgiving Day. But the presence of birds in the poem poses a more serious problem. Or so I assume. According to Thaxter, birds make their last appearances on her island as part of their southern migration; they don’t linger. Here is a scene from An Island Garden set in late September:

The whole garden is a mass of bloom and fragance, still haunted by birds, bees, butterflies, and dragonflies; the humming-birds are gone, I know not whither, not to return this year. The withering vines are alive with many little creepers and warblers and flycatchers; indeed, the island is full of distinguished bird-strangers on their way south. Scores of golden woodpeckers, or flickers, or yellow-hammers (they have dozens of striking names) are here, and just now two great ospreys perch on the vane above the highest ridge-pole, and soar and perch again, uttering strange, harsh cries. This morning a large flock of wild geese flew over toward the south, so low we could see the colors and the markings of their plumage. … The clumps of wild Roses glow with their red haws in the full light; the Elder bushes are laden with clusters of purple berries; Goldenrod and wild Asters bloom, and a touch of fire begins to light up the Huckleberry bushes, “Autumn laying here and there a fiery finger on the leaves.” The gray rocks show so fair in the changing lights, and all the dear island with its sights and sounds is set in the pale light summer-blue of a smiling sea as if it were June, with hardly a wave to break its happy calm.

What I don’t know is if the quail and sandpiper and swallow and sparrow are also migratory birds. And if they are, when they tend to leave.

As I type this, it’s an unnaturally warm November in Maine. I’m looking out my window at lush, green grass, but also at bare branches and shriveled flowers. Thaxter’s New Hampshire is a good three hours drive from here. Are the flowers any less shriveled there? And does it matter? Whatever day it was that Thaxter was describing, it ended with the planet wheeling into gray. It’s certainly a gray day in Maine, with December wheeling into view…

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 26, 2009 at 12:46 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Interesting poem! I got very hung up on the meter, that dactylic tetrameter that often strongly resembles a long iambic ballad line. I frequently felt like the poet’s voice was rushing past the medial caesura, while I was getting caught back in it. A slightly alarming effect, as if the poet had gotten ahead of me and the sound itself, but I liked it, sort of, and got more used to it as the poem went on–I think I adjusted by counting syllables more and using my count to adjust my expectations.

    But then I was shocked again by the degree to which the meter of the last two lines aims to subordinate, or minimize, the strong stress of “glides” and “wheels” (which, in the dactylic scheme, are each the second unstressed syllable of the third foot)–there seems to be something implied there, tied to the seasonal, world-turning theme, about the power of a greater motion to subordinate smaller motions to itself.

    Stan Apps

    November 28, 2009 at 4:23 pm

  2. Thanks for this, Stan. I can do meter, but it brings back memories of grade school (counting on my fingers, looking up vocabulary words), so I’m sort of in awe of those who can do it with confidence, and say something meaningful, as you do.

    Speaking of which: your comment about getting ahead of the sound came back to me today. I was thinking about an Emily Dickinson poem that compares the ringing of a church bell to a winter storm that draws a lost neighbor out of hearing. Except it’s not the sound of the bell that Dickinson is trying to evoke, but it’s meaning. The message seems to be that the church is just another muffling snow leading us into the terror of timelessness. Which made me imagine bringing this poem to class and having my students dutifully scan it, like good Christians called to church by bell. Would they be amused, angry, or indifferent if I pointed out the irony? I.e., that meter, like religion, is a pacifying lie, at least in this one poem.

    Dickinson, of course, is famous for using hymn meter. In fact, I just read a really helpful post on that subject:

    Anyway, what you wrote really seems to fit Thaxter’s work.

    Ben Friedlander

    November 29, 2009 at 9:21 pm

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