He went by sleep that drowsy route To the surmising Inn At day break to begin his race Or ever to remain Emily Dickinson
Let not ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.
Nor you, ye proud, impute to those the fault,
If memory o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where, through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault,
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Into the dusk of the East,
Gray with the coming of night,
This may we know at least–
After the night comes light!
Over the mariners’ graves,
Grim in the depths below,
Buoyantly breasting the waves,
Into the East we go.
On to a distant strand,
Wonderful, far, unseen,
On to a stranger land,
Skimming the seas between;
On through the days and nights,
Hope in each sailor’s breast,
On till the harbor lights
Flash on the shores of rest!
J. H. Jowett.
***featured images by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky
Once upon a time there lived on a Saratoga hillside surrounded by lakes a tragic little family of wealth and privilege. Spencer and Katrina Trask lost every child they ever produced, but gathered countless friends, many of whom were artists and poets drawn to the couple’s generosity and toughness in the face of Job-like losses, year after sad year.
Henry van Dyke was one such friend who wrote the following inscription for Katrina Trask’s garden sundial dedicated to her four dead children:
“Dr. van Dyke is the kind of a friend to have when one is up against a difficult problem. He will take trouble, days and nights of trouble, if it is for somebody else or for some cause he is interested in.” Helen Keller said of him.
“I’m not an optimist. There’s too much evil in the world and in me. Nor am I a pessimist; there is too much good in the world and in God. So I am just a meliorist, believing that He wills to make the world better, and trying to do my bit to help and wishing that it were more.” Wikipedia
There was once a time in America when it was quite fashionable (even among the intellectual elites) to see something good in America. Does this mean there was nothing bad? Surely not, but van Dyke’s poem always tickles my fancy especially when children recite it in schools that still teach that America is a pretty great place to be:
AMERICA FOR ME
‘Tis fine to see the Old World, and travel up and down
Among the famous palaces and cities of renown,
To admire the crumbly castles and the statues of the kings,—
But now I think I’ve had enough of antiquated things.
So it’s home again, and home again, America for me!
My heart is turning home again, and there I long to be,
In the land of youth and freedom beyond the ocean bars,
Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars!
Oh, London is a man’s town, there’s power in the air;
And Paris is a woman’s town, with flowers in her hair;
And it’s sweet to dream in Venice, and it’s great to study Rome;
But when it comes to living there is no place like home.
I like the German fir-woods, in green battalions drilled;
I like the gardens of Versailles with flashing fountains filled;
But, oh, to take your hand, my dear, and ramble for a day
In the friendly western woodland where Nature has her way!
I know that Europe’s wonderful, yet something seems to lack:
The Past is too much with her, and the people looking back.
But the glory of the Present is to make the Future free,—
We love our land for what she is and what she is to be.
Oh, it’s home again, and home again, America for me!
I want a ship that’s westward bound to plough the rolling sea,
To the bléssed Land of Room Enough beyond the ocean bars,
Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars
He had his dream, and all through life,
Worked up to it through toil and strife.
Afloat fore’er before his eyes,
It colored for him all his skies:
The storm-cloud dark
Above his bark,
The calm and listless vault of blue
Took on its hopeful hue,
It tinctured every passing beam –
He had his dream.
He labored hard and failed at last,
His sails too weak to bear the blast,
The raging tempests tore away
And sent his beating bark astray.
But what cared he
For wind or sea!
He said, ‘The tempest will be short,
My bark will come to port.’
He saw through every cloud a gleam –
He had his dream.
Paul’s mother had a dream too. An ex-slave, she taught herself to read just so she could teach young Paul. Paul was a stellar student and popular at his all-white high school in Ohio where he was elected president of the high school literary society. Mother’s dream was to send Paul to law school but lack of funds prevented it. (My son really wanted to live on campus at NYU and assumed he’d go to Columbia Law School–we all have our dreams, don’t we?). Finances are a pain.
Paul ended up an elevator operator and though a good poet, he wasn’t very good with money and always ended up in debt. People liked his work, but poetry can’t always pay the bills.
Paul met a nice girl and married, but sadly three years later was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The doctor recommended whiskey to alleviate the symptoms of the disease. We all know how this ends, don’t we? His depression and growing dependence on alcohol caused trouble between him and wifey. She left him and Paul died a destitute alcoholic.
When Harriet Hanson Robinson explained to her busy (and presumably happy) single friend that she felt sorry for her because she wasn’t married and could not be a complete woman there was no hint of bitchiness.
Harriet was a contented creature of her time. In my early feminist days I would have found this hard to believe. I’d have crept around looking for the crumbling facade, the misery, the bitterness of a woman who spent her days washing heavy laundry and sewing for the entire months of May and June each year.
Harriet married a morally upright man who for the life of him could not keep from stepping on toes–landing him often out of work or underpaid. It seems Harriet was drawn to Mr. Robinson by his integrity, but I suspect she loved his ability to make light of life’s trials as well.
Harriet, who mingled with some of the famous families of Concord, Massachusetts (and had strong opinions about them all–she thought HENRY DAVID THOREAU a fake and a hypocrite and guessed his mother kept him well-fed by the pond), was the sort of strong woman who could make something from nothing without complaint. In fact she prided herself on running a household without the help of “an Irish.” She’d experimented with house help briefly when her husband was making some money but found after a few attempts that teaching young Irish girls how to work up to her standards was impossible.
So here’s the thing: I expected this book to be about an exception to the rule. I expected Harriet to be this modern woman in disguise. Maybe the author Claudia L. Bushman had expected that as well for she seems at times baffled by Harriet’s pride and devotion to her dreamer husband, average children and life of housework.
There is a sense that the author of A GOOD POOR MAN’S WIFE had hoped Harriet in her private diaries might let loose against the order of her times. How is it she remained so cheerful? Why wasn’t she devastated when it became clear she would not be a world famous poet? Her honest appraisal of her rather lackluster children is seen as an ambivalence to motherhood (as a mother I find this a real stretch).
In the year after the death of her beloved son Harriet wrote a bittersweet poem of life and marriage:
My Choice–to William Robinson (her husband)
In shady paths, serene, content I grew,
Nor knew for me what gifts fair life enclosed:
When sudden–with her gilded lyre held forth,
Came Poesy–bright maid, who smiling said:
“Take me, dear child, take me and Heaven espouse”
I struck the lyre, and knew ambition’s joys,–
The praise of men, and all the world’s applause.
The love,–with soft beseeching arms appeared,
And said with low drooped eyes; “Come thou to me!”
In doubt I stayed, in sorrowing tears, I moaned.
But god-like still he waited long and sought.
Till I, forgetting men’s applause, my dreams
of high renown, with cries to him I fled.
And now, serene, content, with him I roam
In sunlit paths. Nor care what life contains.
Since love I keep, which holds embraces all.
Unlike the narrator in Robert Frost’s THE ROAD NOT TAKEN Harriet has taken the trodden road of 19th century womanhood, but like Frost’s narrator she is happy about the choice she’s made even knowing the dreams left behind on the other road. Again the author sees this as a telling sign of Harriet’s possible regrets despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary scrawled across the pages of her journal. I see this poem– in the context of Harriet’s life– as one about the choices we all make–leaving some good things behind for things that are better (hopefully). In Harriet’s case there’s no reason to believe she wasn’t quite happy with her choices.
“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes…”
George Gordon Byron
SUMMER IN THE SOUTH
The oriole sings in the greening grove
As if he were half-way waiting,
The rosebuds peep from their hoods of green,
Timid, and hesitating.
The rain comes down in a torrent sweep
And the nights smell warm and pinety,
The garden thrives, but the tender shoots
Are yellow-green and tiny.
Then a flash of sun on a waiting hill,
Streams laugh that erst were quiet,
The sky smiles down with a dazzling blue
And the woods run mad with riot.