American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Of True Work

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Lucy Larcom (1824-1893)

To celebrate May Day and mark a tentative return to the pleasurable labor of this blog, I thought to share a passage from Lucy Larcom’s unjustly neglected An Idyl of Work (1875), a long poem in blank verse — or mostly in blank verse; a small number of ballads, hymns, sonnets, and the like are embedded in the narrative.

For a few weeks now, I have been rereading the Idyl, taking notes on the complexities generated by its simple story — a simplicity long denigrated by those who judge a narrative entirely by its plot — and I hope at a later date to write about the text at length. For now, let me introduce and comment upon a single passage, a quiet moment in the story, in which a great many of Larcom’s themes — labor, poetry, memory, nature, religion, vocation — are woven together, with an ease that is at once a crucial aspect of the narrative and a fitting confirmation of the justness of Larcom’s argument.

Set in the 1840s, An Idyl of Work concerns the material, moral, intellectual, and emotional lives of five women laboring in one of the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. To speak of a weaving of themes in this context is thus to situate the labor of writing within a factory of the imagination; is to equate Larcom’s narrative facility with the skills of her mill girls. Saying so might seem to be a cheapening of what the poem celebrates, a generalizing of the factory that empties out mill work — and the poem — of its historical specificity. But this equation of one kind of work with another is how Larcom celebrates factory labor. Lowell’s mills were famous in their own day as sites of literary activity, as represented in The Lowell Offering, “A Repository of Original Articles, Written by Females Employed in the Mills.” The journal was founded in 1840 and continued for five years, “a life span” — as Sylvia Jenkins Cook notes — “almost identical to that of the Dial.”[1] Nor was the former journal overshadowed by the latter, not during their years of mutual operation. Praised by Charles Dickens in his American Notes, the Offering was as much a part of transatlantic literary culture as the organ of Transcendentalism, a fact alluded to in the Idyl in Book X, in a conversation that moves easily from Brook Farm to the equally profound experiment of Lowell.[2] Thus one of the five women, Eleanor Gray, says of another, Esther Hale: “Esther, and our one little room, is more / To me than ten Brook Farms.”[3] And soon after, another of the five, Minta Summerfield, says this in support of Eleanor’s statement — addressing the aristocrat Miriam Willoughby, “[a] lovely gray-haired … / … single woman with a mother’s heart” (104-5):

“[D]o you know, Miss Willoughby,,
[Esther] studies History, and German, too,
And Moral Science, somehow, between work;
And — do not mind her threatening shake of head —
She can write prose and poetry; I’ve seen both
In the ‘Offering’ — you know the magazine
That the girls publish. …”

Dedication page for An Idyl of Work

Larcom knew whereof she spoke: she herself had been a contributor to the Offering, having gone to work in the mill at age 11. But her equation of writing and factory work was not limited to formal publication; active reading, energetic conversation, and the life of the mind were also involved. As Mary Loeffelholz notes in her fine essay on the poem, “it is the mill girls’ improvised technologies of literacy, not the technologies of manufacturing, that occupy the foreground of An Idyl of Work.”[4] In this sense, the poem, untroubled by the ordinary concerns of labor literature — and so apolitical to some readers — is implicitly engaged in seizing the means of production. Not the production of cloth, but of people; a democratic nobility of working-women.[5]

This seizing occurs above all through education, in language. Larcom’s use of protest words is pointed when she has Esther say, in the midst of the conversation cited above:

“I came to agitate this very theme, …
I long for — what I know not! — to strike out
For something new, — to learn what’s in me. Work?
As well quit living as quit work, and yet
Heads like to be employed, as well as hands” (138, emphasis added)

— which is Larcom’s argument in nuce.

But the conversation in Book X is not the passage I wanted to give for May Day. In keeping with Larcom’s emphasis on mental occupation, I thought instead to share a still moment from Book III. Here Esther, who, in addition to her intellectual virtues, looks out for the other women, has gone to comfort Ruth Woodburn, first met in Book II, a stranger whose “words, /[whose] every tone, showed culture” (we learn in Book VII that Ruth writes poetry), and who seems to Esther and the others “as one by trouble stupefied” (30). At this point in the narrative very little is known of Ruth, but the biblical origin of her name — made explicit in the passage below — suggests a story of loss, fidelity, and wandering.[6] As if in response to the biblical suggestion, Esther, contemplating the stranger, lets her mind wander, so that “Ruth” becomes quite naturally a quality of existence that pertains to Esther’s own life:

Poor Ruth! There was no need
Of many words. To Esther’s pleasant voice,
She yielded, like a child, and let herself
Be dressed, and led to Esther’s room, and laid
On Esther’s bed, who sat beside her there,
With kind pretence of book and sewing-work…,

Ruth lightly dozed. Esther, intent to keep
The slumberer undisturbed, let drop her work,
And yielded herself partly to her book
(Poems of Wordsworth, Eleanor’s New-Year’s gift),
And partly to the south-wind’s tenderness,
While memory led her back beside the sea,
Where she had played with many little ones
In childhood, on a sunny homestead-slope.
The deep, eternal murmur of the waves
Upbearing on its monotone the song
Of bluebird, wren, and robin, blending all
In a wild, sweet entanglement. Home-dreams,
As in all womanly souls, made undertone
To her life’s music. But her hopes and plans
And fancies were a garden builded in
Behind great walls of duty. Her true work
She sought the clew of, here, ‘mid endless threads
Shaped from crude cotton into useful cloth.

Not always to be here among the looms, —
Scarcely a girl she knew expected that;
Means to one end their labor was, — to put
Gold nest-eggs in the bank, or to redeem
A mortgaged homestead, or to pay the way
Through classic years at some academy;
More commonly to lay a dowry by
For future housekeeping. But Esther’s thought
Was none of those; unshaped and vague it lay, —
A hope to spend herself for worthy ends.
Aliens were in her childhood’s home. No past
Could be revived for her, and all her heart
Went forth into the Future’s harvest-field,
A Ruth who never of a Boaz dreamed.
Whatever work came, whoso crossed her path,
Lonely as this pale stranger, wheresoe’er
She saw herself a need, there should be home,
Business, and family. She raised her eyes,
As her soul said Amen to this resolve,
And saw Ruth languidly peruse her face
Through mists of thought; who murmured “Read aloud.”

A smile from Esther answered. (33-35)

Mind amongst the Spindles: A Selection from The Lowell Offering, a Miscellany Wholly Composed by the Factory Girls of an American City (London: Charles Knight & Co., 1844)

Reading Larcom’s poem through our own mists of thought, we might surmise, before coming to the end of this passage, that Esther, wisest among the girls, is the biblical Naomi to Ruth’s Ruth, though Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, is not figured, or not primarily, as a caregiver, but is featured instead as one to whom care is given. In this sense, Esther — a queen in the Bible — is more Ruth-like than Ruth Woodburn. Which is precisely what makes Esther a queen among the mill girls: her ability to establish “home, / Business, and family” wherever she sees “a need.” She is a queen who labors, without thought of the reward Ruth receives in the Bible. As Larcom puts it in a passage that gives me a pang whenever I read it, “No past / Could be revived for her, and all her heart / Went forth into the Future’s harvest-field, / A Ruth who never of a Boaz dreamed.”

How noteworthy that “Business” comes between “home” and “family” in Esther’s resolution (a prayer of sorts, since her soul says amen to it). Work in this Idyl (a pun, as Loeffelholz notes, on idle) has an ambiguous role, at once dividing life and joining its different parts together. One way to read this poem, then, is as a pilgrim’s progress in which the search would lead from work as division to work as joining. That quest is hinted at in the passage above, in Esther’s dropping of her “sewing-work” to muse upon the nature of her own “true work,” a musing that is itself modeled on sewing-work: a search for clues “‘mid endless threads / Shaped from crude cotton into useful cloth.”

Esther’s prayer-like resolution brings a similar moment to mind from Book VI, a more literal entangling of manual and mental labor. Here Eleanor, sitting by her factory window, turns from troubled thoughts (inspired, like Esther’s, by concern for another) to her work at the loom, taking comfort from some surreptitious reading:

The shuttles clattered on. The red rose leaned
Out toward the wonder of the open sky;
And Eleanor leaned out too, and longed for light
That souls might see by. Bending then again
Over her work, she spread a little book
Open, beneath a warp-fringe from her loom, —
A book of hymns she loved; and as she toiled,
Her voice made music, hid within the noise, —
A bird’s note in a thicket; and her heart
Rose, with her voice, in singing that was prayer. (83)[7]

Notes

1 [Back to text] Sylvia Jenkins Cook, Working Women, Literary Ladies: The Industrial Revolution and Female Aspiration (New York: Oxford UP, 2008), 41. Reading the Offering and Dial in relation to one another (Cook neatly calls them “two regional yet curiously cosmopolitan little magazines”) rectifies the more partial accounts of literary and labor historians, the former represented for Cook by Lawrence Buell, the latter by Philip Foner. Her book also includes a chapter on Larcom’s Idyl.

2 [Back to text] Charles Dickens visited the mills during his 1842 tour of America, noting in his subsequent account: “I brought away from Lowell four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.” And he adds: “Of the merits of the Lowell Offering as a literary production, I will only observe, putting entirely out of sight the fact of the articles having been written by these girls after the arduous labours of the day, that it will compare advantageously with a great many English Annuals.” American Notes, ed. Patricia Ingham (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 78-79.

3 [Back to text] Lucy Larcolm, An Idyl of Work (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1875), 139. Further references to the poem will be given parenthetically.

4 [Back to text] Mary Loeffelholz, “‘A Strange Medley-Book’: Lucy Larcom’s An Idyl of Work,” The New England Quarterly 80.1 (March 2007): 22.

5 [Back to text] This democratic nobility is the first subject of conversation in the poem. In Book I, the girls argue playfully over the meaning of lady, with Esther — described as “a walking dictionary” — citing the original meaning, “Giver of loaves,” so as to give “excellence and sweetness” as he definition: “‘Lady,’ though / Can slip its true sense, leaving an outside / Easy to imitate” (15).

6 [Back to text] Like Ruth in the Bible, who supports herself and her mother-in-law by going to work in the fields, Ruth Woodburn, who describes herself when first met as “homesick,” is, in her own words, “a hireling” (30).

7 [Back to text] There is a passage in Larcom’s autobiography that reads like a postscript to this passage; it speaks, in any case, to the poetry-labor relationship so central to the poem:

Since I am writing these recollections for the young, I may say here that I regard a love for poetry as one of the most needful and helpful elements in the life-outfit of a human being. It was the greatest of blessings to me, in the long days of toil to which I was shut in much earlier than most young girls are, that the poetry I held in my memory breathed its enchanted atmosphere through me and around me, and touched even dull drudgery with its sunshine.

A New England Girlhood, Outlined from Memory (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1889), 134.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

May 1, 2012 at 11:12 pm

2 Responses

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  1. _Idyl of Work_ is a fascinating poem – thanks for sharing!

    Robin Smith

    May 5, 2012 at 6:37 pm

  2. Many thanks for reading!

    Ben Friedlander

    May 6, 2012 at 9:15 am


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