Books I’ve Known And Loved

51ruU2pYgFL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_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.

QUOTE: “Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.” Edgar Allan Poe

A portrait of Miss E. Demine, taken by photographer Mathew Brady (courtesy NARA)

A portrait of Miss E. Demine, taken by photographer Mathew Brady (courtesy NARA)

“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 by Paul Laurence Dunbar

William Metcalf--May Night 1906 at Corcoran Art Gallery Washington

William Metcalf–May Night 1906 at Corcoran Art Gallery Washington

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.

Beautiful Librarian–Ina Coolbrith

Beautiful Muse--Ina Coolbrith

What soulful eyes! What great hair! But now I’m being shallow. Ina was so much more than her looks. Her poetry career held much promise, but she put her family first when illness struck. Someone once said that their family lived off of Ina’s poetry to which she replied, “How nice. That’s more than I was ever able to do.”
Her work as a librarian made her most proud. Jack London called her noble and Isadora Duncan remembered her fire and passion.
Although higher education was not open to her she was the first woman to furnish a commencement poem to any university.

She spoke for educational and occupational opportunities for women.
“And as a woman does not live by bread alone any more than a man, I would have in connection therewith libraries and reading rooms, lectures and music, that the mind and the heart might be fed as well as the body, and life be endowed with its greatest humanizing and moral influences, hope and happiness.”

Famous for Riding a Horse Naked

Adah could never remember her lines but rode horses like a circus performer.

Adah could never remember her lines but rode horses like a circus performer.

Adah was a bright girl who told stories about herself. No one really knew where she’d come from in the late 1850’s but it didn’t matter. She’d arrived. She drank with Whitman, wrote semi-bad poetry and had a body . . .  she had some body!

Adah after leaving her husband (maybe her first) in Cincinnati came to New York to be an actress. No one said she had talent, but who cared? She embraced the burgeoning bohemian lifestyle with gusto, drinking at Pfaff’s and donning men’s clothing. But even her short cut hair didn’t take from her sex appeal

Adah’s big break came when she performed in a melodrama with a horse. The part called for her character to lay upon said horse in the nude and in a very awkward and exposed position. Having had some circus experience Adah was game. Attired in a nude colored body suit Adah treated her audiences to every curve of her full-figured self.

But she doesn’t know her lines, you say . . .Lines? What lines? Can we just see the horse-riding part again? Some turned away in disgust (like some turn from a nude Kardashian), but mostly people paid for the breath-taking sight.

menken23Adah went from poor to rich to poor; broke hearts and was broken and had children who died in childbirth before dying herself of either TB or cancer. She never found the acclaim she craved for her poetry–but let’s be honest–her poems were truly bad. Her acting no better, but damn, that body!

MORE about Adah:

ADAH BLOG

ADAH BOOK

Song of Myself

On the Dunes, James Jebusa Shannon

On the Dunes, James Jebusa Shannon

Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d
the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

 

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin
         of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions
         of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
         through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in
         books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the begin-
         ning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.


Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and

        increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.
Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied,
         braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
Excerpt Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

The Beggar Maid

King Cophetua and the Beggarmaid by Daniel Maclise

King Cophetua and the Beggarmaid by Daniel Maclise

“According to tradition, Cophetua was an African king known for his lack of any natural sexual attraction to women. One day while looking out a palace window he witnesses a young beggar (Penelophon) suffering for lack of clothes. Struck by love at first sight, Cophetua decides that he will either have the beggar as his wife or commit suicide.

Walking out into the street, he scatters coins for the beggars to gather and when Penelophon comes forward, he tells her that she is to be his wife. She agrees and becomes queen, and soon loses all trace of her former poverty and low class. The couple lives a “quiet life” but are much loved by their people. Eventually they die and are buried in the same tomb.”  Wikipedia

The Beggar Maid

by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Her arms across her breast she laid;
She was more fair than words can say;
Barefooted came the beggar maid
Before the king Cophetua.
In robe and crown the king stept down,
To meet and greet her on her way;
‘It is no wonder,’ said the lords,
‘She is more beautiful than day.’

As shines the moon in clouded skies,
She in her poor attire was seen;
One praised her ankles, one her eyes,
One her dark hair and lovesome mien.
So sweet a face, such angel grace,
In all that land had never been.
Cophetua sware a royal oath:
‘This beggar maid shall be my queen!’

Good Night

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Good Night

Then the bright lamp is carried in,
The sunless hours again begin;
O’er all without, in field and lane,
The haunted night returns again.

Now we behold the embers flee
About the firelit hearth; and see
Our faces painted as we pass,
Like pictures, on the window glass.

Must we to bed indeed? Well then,
Let us arise and go like men,
And face with an undaunted tread
The long black passage up to bed.

Farewell, O brother, sister, sire!
O pleasant party round the fire!
The songs you sing, the tales you tell,
Till far to-morrow, fare you well!

Robert Louis Stevenson