Works of Annie Fields
from Authors & Friends by Annie Fields
Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin, 1896
If it were ever intended that a desolate island in the deep sea should be inhabited by one solitary family, then indeed Celia Thaxter was the fitting daughter of such a house.
In her history of the group of islands, which she calls "Among the Isles of Shoals," she portrays, in a prose which for beauty and wealth of diction has few rivals, the unfolding of her own nature under influences of sky and sea and solitude and untrammeled freedom, such as have been almost unknown to civilized humanity in any age of the world. She speaks also of the effect produced, as she fancied, upon the minds of men by the eternal sound of the sea: a tendency to wear away the edge of human thought and perception. But this was far from being the case with regard to herself. Her eyesight was keener, her speech more distinct, the lines of her thoughts more clearly defined, her verse more strongly marked in its form, and the accuracy of her memory more to be relied upon than was the case with almost any one of her contemporaries. Her painting, too, upon porcelain possessed the same character. Her knowledge of the flowers, and especially of the seaweeds, with which she decorated it, was so exact that she did not require the originals before her vision. They were painted upon her mind's eye, where every filament and every shade seemed to be recorded. These green "growing things" had been the beloved companions of her childhood, as they continued to be of her womanhood, and even to reproduce their forms in painting was a delight to her. The written descriptions of natural objects give her history a place among the pages which possess a perennial existence. While White's "Selborne," and the pictures of Bewick, and Thoreau's "Walden," and the "Autobiography of Richard Jefferies" endure, so long will "Among the Isles of Shoals" hold its place with all lovers of nature. She says in one place, "All the pictures over which I dream are set in this framework of the sea, that sparkled and sang, or frowned and threatened, in the ages that are gone as it does to-day."
The solitude of Celia Thaxter's childhood, which was not solitude, surrounded as she was with the love of a father and a mother, all tenderness, and brothers dear to her as her own life, developed in the child strange faculties. She was five years old when the family left Portsmouth, -- old enough, given her inborn power of enjoyment of nature, to delight in the free air and the wonderful sights around her. She gives in her book a pretty picture of the child watching the birds that flew against the lighthouse lantern, when they lived at White Island. The birds would strike it with such force as to kill themselves. "Many a May morning," she says, "have I wandered about the rock at the foot of the tower, mourning over a little apron brimful of sparrows, swallows, thrushes, robins, fire-winged blackbirds, many-colored warblers and flycatchers, beautifully clothed yellow-birds, nuthatches, catbirds, even the purple finch and scarlet tanager and golden oriole, and many more beside, -- enough to break the heart of a small child to think of! Once a great eagle flew against the lantern and shivered the glass."
Her father seems to have been a man of awful energy of will. Some disappointment in his hope of a public career; it has been said, decided him to take the step of withdrawing himself forever from the world of the mainland and this attitude he appears to have sustained unflinchingly to the end. Her mother; with a heart stayed as unflinchingly upon love and obedience, seems to have followed him without a murmur, leaving every dear association of the past as though it had not been. From this moment she became, not the slave, but the queen of her affections; and when she died, in 1877, the sun appeared to set upon her daughter's life. On the morning after Mrs. Thaxter's sudden death, seventeen years later, a friend asked her eldest son where his mother was, with the intent to discover if she had been well enough to leave her room. "Oh," he replied, "her mother came in the night and took her away." This reply showed how deeply all who were near to Celia Thaxter were impressed with the fact that to see her mother again was one of the deepest desires of her heart.
The development wrought in her eager character by those early days of exceptional experience gives a new sense of what our poor humanity may achieve, left face to face with the vast powers of nature.
In speaking of the energy of Samuel Haley, one of the early settlers of the islands, she says he learned to live as independently as possible of his fellow-men; "for that is one of the first things a settler on the Isles of Shoals finds it necessary to learn." Her own lesson was learned perfectly. The sunrise was as familiar to her eyes as the sunset, and early and late the activity of her mind was rivaled by the ceaseless industry of her hands. She pays a tribute to the memory of Miss Peabody, of Newburyport, who went to Star Island in 1823 and "did wonders for the people during the three years of her stay. She taught the school, visited the families, and on Sundays read to such audiences as she could collect, took seven of the poor female children to live with her at the parsonage, instructed all who would learn in the arts of carding, spinning, weaving, knitting, sewing, braiding mats, etc. Truly she remembered what 'Satan finds for idle hands to do,' and kept all her charges busy, and consequently happy. All honor to her memory! She was a wise and faithful servant. There is still an affectionate remembrance of her among the present inhabitants, whose mothers she helped out of their degradation into a better life."
If it was not in Celia Thaxter's nature to teach in this direct way herself, she did not fail to appreciate and to stimulate excellence of every kind in others. Appledore was too far away in winter from the village at Star Island for any regular or frequent communication between them. Even so late as in the month of May she records watching a little fleet beating up for shelter under the lee of Appledore to ride out a storm. "They were in continual peril…. It was not pleasant to watch them as the early twilight shut down over the vast weltering desolation of the sea, to see the slender masts waving helplessly from one side to another…. Some of the men had wives and children watching them from lighted windows at Star. What a fearful night for them! They could not tell from hour to hour, through the thick darkness, if yet the cables held; they could not see till daybreak whether the sea had swallowed up their treasures. I wonder the wives were not white haired when the sun rose and showed them those little specks yet rolling in the breakers!" How clearly these scenes were photographed on the sensitive plate of her mind! She never forgot nor really lost sight of her island people. Her sympathy drew them to her as if they were her own, and the little colony of Norwegians was always especially dear to her. "How pathetic," she says, "the gathering of women on the headlands, when out of the sky swept the squall that sent the small boat staggering before it, and blinded the eyes, already drowned in tears, with sudden rain that hid sky and sea and boats from their eager gaze!"
What she was, what her sympathy was, to those people, no one can ever quite express. The deep devotion of their service to her brothers and to herself, through the long solitude of winter and the storm of summer visitors, alone could testify. Such service cannot be bought: it is the devotion born of affection and gratitude and admiration. Speaking of one of the young women who grew up under her eye, she often said: "What could I do in this world without Mine Burntssen? I hope she will be with me when I die." And there indeed, at the last, was Mine, to receive the latest word and to perform the few sad offices.
To tell of the services Mrs. Thaxter rendered to some of the more helpless people about her, in the dark season, when no assistance from the mainland could be hoped for, would make a long and noble story in itself. Her good sense made her an excellent doctor; the remedies she understood she was always on hand to apply at the right moment. Sometimes she was unexpectedly called to assist in the birth of a child, when knowledge and strength she was hardly aware of seemed to be suddenly developed. But the truth was she could do almost anything; and only those who knew her in these humbler human relations could understand how joyous she was in the exercise of such duties, or how well able to perform them. Writing to Mine from the Shoals once in March, she says: "This is the time to be here; this is what I enjoy! To wear my old clothes every day, grub in the ground, dig dandelions and eat them too, plant my seeds and watch them, fly on the tricycle, row in a boat, get into my dressing-gown right after tea, and make lovely rag rugs all the evening, and nobody to disturb us, -- this is fun!" In the house and out of it she was capable of everything. How beautiful her skill was as a dressmaker, the exquisite lines in her own black or gray or white dresses testified to every one who ever saw her. She never wore any other colors, nor was anything like "trimming" ever seen about her; there were only the fine, free outlines, and a white handkerchief folded carefully about her neck and shoulders.
In her young days it was the same, with a difference! She was slighter in figure then, and overflowing with laughter, the really beautiful but noisy laughter which died away as the repose of manner of later years fell upon her. I can remember her as I first saw her, with the seashells which she always wore then around her neck and wrists, and a gray poplin dress defining her lovely form. She talked simply and fearlessly, while her keen eyes took in everything around her; she paid the tribute of her instantaneous laughter to the wit of others, -- never too eager to speak, and never unwilling. Her sense of beauty, not vanity, caused her to make the most of the good physical points she possessed; therefore, although she grew old early, the same general features of her appearance were preserved. She was almost too well known even to strangers, in these later years at the Shoals, to make it worth while to describe the white hair carefully put up to preserve the shape of the head, and the small silver crescent which she wore above her forehead; but her manner had become very quiet and tender, more and more affectionate to her friends, and appreciative of all men. One of those who knew her latterly wrote me: "Many of her letters show her boundless sympathy, her keen appreciation of the best in those whom she loved, and her wonderful growth in beauty and roundness of character. And how delightful her enthusiasms were, -- as pure and clear as those of a child! She was utterly unlike any one in the world, so that few people really understood her. But it seems to me that her trials softened and mellowed her, until she became like one of her own beautiful flowers, perfect in her full development; then in a night the petals fell, and she was gone."
The capabilities which were developed in her by the necessities of the situation, during her life at the Shoals in winter, were more various and remarkable than can be fitly told. The glimpses which we get in her letters of the many occupations show what energy she brought to bear upon the difficulties of the place.
In "Among the Isles of Shoals" she says: "After winter has fairly set in, the lonely dwellers at the Isles of Shoals find life quite as much as they can manage, being so entirely thrown upon their own resources that it requires all the philosophy at their disposal to answer the demand…. One goes to sleep in the muffled roar of the storm, and wakes to find it still raging with senseless fury…. The weather becomes of the first importance to the dwellers on the rock; the changes of the sky and sea, the flitting of the coasters to and fro, the visits of the sea-fowl, sunrise and sunset, the changing moon, the northern lights, the constellations that wheel in splendor through the winter night, -- all are noted with a love and careful scrutiny that is seldom given by people living in populous places…. For these things make our world: there are no lectures, operas, concerts, theatres, no music of any kind, except what the waves may whisper in rarely gentle moods; no galleries of wonders like the Natural History rooms, in which it is so fascinating to wander; no streets, shops, carriages; no postman, no neighbors, not a door-bell within the compass of the place!… The best balanced human mind is prone to lose its elasticity and stagnate, in this isolation. One learns immediately the value of work to keep one's wits clear, cheerful, and steady; just as much real work of the body as it can bear without weariness being always beneficent, but here indispensable…. No one can dream what a charm there is in taking care of pets, singing birds, plants, etc., with such advantages of solitude; how every leaf and bud and flower is pored over, and admired, and loved! A whole conservatory, flushed with azaleas and brilliant with forests of camellias and every precious exotic that blooms, could not impart so much delight as I have known a single rose to give, unfolding in the bleak bitterness of a day in February, when this side of the planet seemed to have arrived at its culmination of hopelessness, with the Isles of Shoals the most hopeless spot upon its surface. One gets close to the heart of these things; they are almost as precious as Picciola to the prisoner, and yield a fresh and constant joy such as the pleasure-seeking inhabitants of cities could not find in their whole round of shifting diversions. With a bright and cheerful interior, open fires, books and pictures, windows full of thrifty blossoming plants and climbing vines, a family of singing birds, plenty of work, and a clear head and quiet conscience, it would go hard if one could not be happy even in such loneliness. Books, of course, are inestimable. Nowhere does one follow a play of Shakespeare's with greater zest, for it brings the whole world, which you need, about you; doubly precious the deep thoughts which wise men have given to help us, doubly sweet the songs of all the poets; for nothing comes between to distract you."
It was not extraordinary that the joy of human intercourse, after such estrangement, became a rapture to so loving a nature as Celia Laighton's; nor that, very early, before the period of fully ripened womanhood, she should have been borne away from her island by a husband, a man of birth and education, who went to preach to the wild fisher folk on the adjacent island called Star.
The exuberant joy of her unformed maidenhood, with its power of self-direction, attracted the reserved, intellectual nature of Mr. Thaxter. He could not dream that this careless, happy creature possessed the strength and sweep of wing which belonged to her own sea-gull. In good hope of teaching and developing her, of adding much in which she was uninstructed to the wisdom which the influences of nature and the natural affections had bred in her, he carried his wife to a quiet inland home, where three children were very soon born to them. Under the circumstances, it was not extraordinary that his ideas of education were not altogether successfully applied; she required more strength than she could summon, more adaptability than many a grown woman could have found, to face the situation, and life became difficult and full of problems to them both. Their natures were strongly contrasted, but perhaps not too strongly to complement each other, if he had fallen in love with her as a woman, and not as a child. His retiring, scholarly nature and habits drew him away from the world; her overflowing, sun-loving being, like a solar system in itself, reached out on every side, rejoicing in all created things.
Her introduction to the world of letters was by means of her first poem, "Land-Locked," which, by the hand of a friend, was brought to the notice of James Russell Lowell, at that time editor of the "Atlantic." He printed it at once, without exchanging a word with the author. She knew nothing about it until the magazine was laid before her. This recognition of her talent was a delight indeed, and it was one of the happiest incidents in a life which was already overclouded with difficulties and sorrow. It will not be out of place to reprint this poem here, because it must assure every reader of the pure poetic gift which was in her. In form, in movement, and in thought it is as beautiful as her latest work.
Black lie the hills; swiftly doth daylight flee;
And, catching gleams of sunset's dying smile,
Through the dusk land for many a changing mile
The river runneth softly to the sea.
O happy river, could I follow thee!
O yearning heart, that never can be still!
O wistful eyes, that watch the steadfast hill,
Longing for level line of solemn sea!
Have patience; here are flowers and songs of birds,
Beauty and fragrance, wealth of sound and sight,
All summer's glory thine from morn till night,
And life too full of joy for uttered words.
Neither am I ungrateful; but I dream
Deliciously how twilight falls to-night
Over the glimmering water, how the light
Dies blissfully away, until I seem
To feel the wind, sea-scented, on my cheek,
To catch the sound of dusky, flapping sail,
And dip of oars, and voices on the gale
Afar off, calling low, -- my name they speak!
O Earth! thy summer song of joy may soar
Ringing to heaven in triumph. I but crave
The sad, caressing murmur of the wave
That breaks in tender music on the shore.
With the growth of Mrs. Thaxter's children and the death of her father, the love and duty she owed her mother caused her to return in winter to the Shoals, although a portion of every summer was passed there. This was her husband's wish; his sense of loyalty to age and his deep attachment to his own parents made such a step appear necessary to him under the circumstances.
But she had already tasted of the tree of knowledge, and the world outside beckoned to her with as fascinating a face as it ever presented to any human creature. It was during one of these returning visits to the Shoals that much of the delightful book from which I have quoted was written; a period when she had already learned something of the charms of society, -- sufficient to accentuate her appreciation of her own past, and to rejoice in what a larger life now held in store for her.
Lectures, operas, concerts, theatres, pictures, music above all, -- what were they not to her! Did artists ever before find such an eye and such an ear? She brought to them a spirit prepared for harmony, but utterly ignorant of the science of painting or music until the light of art suddenly broke upon her womanhood.
Of what this new world was to her we find some hint, of course, in her letters; but no human lips, not even her own exuberant power of expression, could ever say how her existence was enriched and made beautiful through music. Artists who sang to her, or those who rehearsed the finest music on the piano or violin or flute, or those who brought their pictures and put them before her while she listened, -- they alone, in a measure, understood what these things signified, and how she was lifted quite away by them from the ordinary level of life. They were inspired to do for her what they could seldom do for any other creature; and her generous response, overflowing, almost extravagant in expression, was never half enough to begin to tell the new life they brought to her. The following lines from a sonnet addressed to the tenor singer William J. Winch, a singer who has given much pleasure to many persons by his beautiful voice, will convey some idea of the deep feeling which his ardent rendering of great songs stirred in her:
"Carry us captive, thou with the strong heart
And the clear head, and nature sweet and sound!
Most willing captives we to thy great art.
. . . . . . . . . .
Sing, and we ask no greater joy than this,
Only to listen, thrilling to the song,
. . . . . . . . . .
Borne skyward where the wingèd hosts rejoice."
Mrs. Thaxter found herself, as the years went on, the centre of a company who rather selected themselves than were selected from the vast number of persons who frequented her brothers' "house of entertainment" at the islands. Her "parlor," as it was called, was a milieu quite as interesting as any of the "salons" of the past. Her pronounced individuality forbade the intrusion even of a fancy of comparison with anything else, and equally forbade the possibility of rivalry. There was only one thought in the mind of the frequenters of her parlor, -- that of gratitude for the pleasure and opportunity she gave them, and a genuine wish to please her and to become her friends. She possessed the keen instincts of a child with regard to people. If they were unlovable to her, if they were for any reason unsympathetic, nothing could bring her to overcome her dislike. She was in this particular more like some wild thing than a creature of the nineteenth century; indeed, one of her marked traits was a curious intractability of nature. I believe that no worldly motive ever influenced her relation with any human creature. Of course these native qualities made her more ardently devoted in her friendships; but it went hardly with her to ingratiate those persons for whom she felt a natural repulsion, or even sometimes to be gentle with them. Later in life she learned to call no man "common or unclean;" but coming into the world, as she did, full grown, like Miherva in the legend, with keen eyes, and every sense alive to discern pretension, untruth, ungodliness in guise of the church, and all the uncleanness of the earth, these things were as much a surprise to her as it was, on the other hand, to find the wondrous world of art and the lives of the saints. Perhaps no large social success was ever achieved upon such unworldly conditions; she swung as free as possible of the world of society and its opinions, forming a centre of her own, built up on the sure foundations of love and loyalty. She saw as much as any woman of the time of large numbers of people, and she was able to give them the best kind of social enjoyment: music, pictures, poetry, and conversation; the latter sometimes poor and sometimes good, according to the drift which swept through her beautiful room. Mrs. Thaxter was generous in giving invitations to her parlor, but to its frequenters she said, "If people do not enjoy what they find, they must go their way; my work and the music will not cease." The study of nature and art was always going forward either on or around her work-table. The keynote of conversation was struck there for those who were able to hear it. We were reminded of William Blake's verse: -- -
"I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate,
Built in Jerusalem wall."
Here it was that Whittier could be heard at his best, sympathetic, stimulating, uplifting, as he alone could be, and yet as he, with his Quaker training to silence, was so seldom moved to prove himself. Here he would sit near her hour after hour; sometimes mending her æolian harp while they talked together, sometimes reading aloud to the assembled company. Here was Rose Lamb, artist and dear friend; and here Mrs. Mary Hemenway was a most beloved presence, with her eager enthusiasm for reform, yet with a modesty of bearing which made young and old press to her side. She loved Celia Thaxter, who in her turn was deeply and reverently attached to Mrs. Hemenway.
The early affection of both Mr. Thaxter and his wife for William Morris Hunt grew to be the love of a lifetime. Hunt's grace, versatility, and charm, not to speak of his undoubted genius, exerted their combined fascination over these appreciative friends in common with the rest of his art-loving contemporaries; but to these two, each in their several ways, Hunt felt himself equally attracted, and the last sad summer of his life he gladly turned to Celia Thaxter in her island home as a sure refuge in time of trouble. It was she who watched him day by day, listening to his words, which came clothed with a kind of inspiration. "Whatever genius may be," said Tom Appleton, "we all feel that William Hunt had it. His going is the extinction of a great light; a fervent hand is cold; and the warmth which glowed through so many friends and disciples is like a trodden ember, extinguished." It was Celia Thaxter's hurrying footsteps which traced her friend to the spot where, in extreme weakness, he fell in death. She wrote, "It was that pretty lake where my wild roses had been blooming all summer, and where the birds dipped and sang at sunrise."
Her gratitude to the men and women who brought music to her door knew no limit; it was strong, deep, and unforgetting. "What can I ever do for them," she would say, "when I remember the joy they bring me!"
Julius Eichberg was one of the earliest friends who ministered in this way to her happiness. Her letters of the time overflow with the descriptions of programmes for the day, when Mr. Paine and Mr. Eichberg would play, together or alone, during long mornings and afternoons. "I am lost in bliss," she wrote; "every morning, afternoon, and evening, Beethoven! I am emerging out of all my clouds by help of it; it is divine!"
And again, writing of Mr. Paine in his own house, she said: "I am in the midst of the awful and thrilling music of the Śdipus Tyrannus, and it curdles my blood; we are all steeped in it, for J. K. P. goes on and on composing it all the time, and the tremendous chords thrill the very timbers of the house. It is most interesting!"
Of Arthur Whiting, too, and his wife, whose musical gifts she placed among the first, she frequently wrote and spoke with loving appreciation. These friendships were a never failing source of gladness to her.
Later in life came Mr. William Mason, who was the chief minister to her joy in music, her enlightener, her consoler, to the end. Those who loved her best must always give him the tribute of their admiration and grateful regard. Mr. Mason must have known her keen gratitude, for who understood better than he the feeling by which she was lifted away from the things of this world by the power of music!
"The dignity of labor" is a phrase we have often heard repeated in modern life, but it was one unnecessary to be spoken by Celia Thaxter. It may easily be said of her that one of the finest lessons she unconsciously taught was not only the value of labor, but the joy of doing things well. The necessities of her position, as I have already indicated, demanded a great deal, but she responded to the need with a readiness and generosity great enough to extort admiration from those who knew her. How much she contributed to the comfort of the lives of those she loved at the Shoals we have endeavored to show; how beautiful her garden was there, in the summer, all the world could see; but at one period there was also a farm at Kittery Point, to be made beautiful and comfortable by her industry, where one of her sons still lives; and a pied à terre in Boston or in Portsmouth, whither she came in the winter with her eldest son, who was especially dependent upon her love and care: and all these changes demanded much of her time and strength.
She was certainly one of the busiest women in the world. Writing from Kittery Point September 6, 1880, she says: "It is divinely lovely here, and the house is charming. I have brought a servant over from the hotel, and it is a blessing to be able to make them all comfortable; to set them down in the charming dining room overlooking the smooth, curved crescent of sandy beach, with the long rollers breaking white, and the shoals looming on the far sea-line…. But oh, how tired we all get! I shall be quite ready for my rest!"
This note gives a picture of her life. She was always seeking to make a bright spot around her; to give of herself in some way. There is a bit in her book which illustrates this instinct. The incident occurred during a long, dreary storm at the Shoals. Two men had come in a boat asking for help. "A little child had died at Star Island, and they could not sail to the mainland, and had no means to construct a coffin among themselves. All day I watched the making of that little chrysalis; and at night the last nail was driven in, and it lay across a bench, in the midst of the litter of the workshop, and a curious stillness seemed to emanate from the senseless boards. -- I went back to the house and gathered a handful of scarlet geranium, and returned with it through the rain. The brilliant blossoms were sprinkled with glittering drops. I laid them in the little coffin, while the wind wailed so sorrowfully outside, and the rain poured against the windows. Two men came through the mist and storm, and one swung the light little shell to his shoulder, and they carried it away, and the gathering darkness shut down and hid them as they tossed among the waves. I never saw the little girl, but where they buried her I know; the lighthouse shines close by, and every night the quiet, constant ray steals to her grave and softly touches it, as if to say, with a caress, 'Sleep well! Be thankful you are spared so much that I see humanity endure, fixed here forever where I stand.'"
We have seen the profound love she felt for, and the companionship she found in, nature and natural objects; but combined with these sentiments, or developed simply by her love to speak more directly, was a very uncommon power of observation. This power grew day by day, and the delightful correspondence which existed between Bradford Torrey and herself, although they had never met face to face, bears witness to her constant mental record and memory respecting the habits of birds and woodland manners. Every year we find her longing for larger knowledge; books and men of science attracted her; and if her life had been less intensely laborious, in order to make those who belonged to her comfortable and happy, what might she not have achieved! Her nature was replete with boundless possibilities, and we find ourselves asking the old, old question, Must the artist forever crush the wings by which he flies against such terrible limitations? -- a question never to be answered in this world.
Her observations began with her earliest breath at the islands. "I remember," she says, "in the spring, kneeling on the ground to seek the first blades of grass that pricked through the soil, and bringing them into the house to study and wonder over. Better than a shopful of toys they were to me! Whence came their color? How did they draw their sweet, refreshing tint from the brown earth, or the limpid air, or the white light? Chemistry was not at hand to answer me, and all her wisdom would not have dispelled the wonder. Later, the little scarlet pimpernel charmed me. It seemed more than a flower; it was like a human thing. I knew it by its homely name of 'poor man's weather glass.' It was so much wiser than I; for when the sky was yet without a cloud, softly it clasped its small red petals together, folding its golden heart in safety from the shower that was sure to come. How could it know so much?"
Whatever sorrows life brought to her, and they were many and of the heaviest, this exquisite enjoyment of nature, the tender love and care for every created thing within her reach, always stayed her heart. To see her lift a flower in her fingers, -- fingers which gave one a sense of supporting everything which she touched, expressive, too, of fineness in every fibre, although strong and worn with labor, -- to see her handle these wonderful creatures which she worshiped, was something not to be forgotten. The lines of Keats, --
"Open afresh your rounds of starry folds,
Ye ardent marigolds!"
were probably oftener flitting through her mind or from her lips than through the mind or from the lips of any since Keats wrote them. She remembered that he said he thought his "intensest pleasure in life had been to watch the growth of flowers," but she was sure he never felt their beauty more devoutly "than the little half-savage being who knelt, like a fire-worshiper, to watch the unfolding of those golden disks."
The time came at last, as it comes to every human being, for asking the reason of the faith that was in her. It was difficult for her to reply. Her heart had often questioned whether she believed, and what; and yet, as she has said, she could not keep her faith out of her poems if she would. We find the following passage in "Among the Isles of Shoals," which throws a light beyond that of her own lantern.
"When the boat was out late," she says, "in soft, moonless summer nights, I used to light a lantern, and going down to the water's edge take my station between the timbers of the slip, and with the lantern at my feet sit waiting in the darkness, quite content, knowing my little star was watched for, and that the safety of the boat depended in a great measure upon it…. I felt so much a part of the Lord's universe, I was no more afraid of the dark than the waves or winds; but I was glad to hear at last the creaking of the mast and the rattling of the rowlocks as the boat approached."
"A part of the Lord's universe," -- - that Celia Thaxter always felt herself to be, and for many years she was impatient of other teaching than what nature brought to her. As life went on, and the mingled mysteries of human pain and grief were unfolded, she longed for a closer knowledge. At first she sought it everywhere, and patiently, save in or through the churches; with them she was long impatient. At last, after ardent search through the religious books and by means of the teachers of the Orient, the Bible was born anew for her, and the New Testament became her stay and refreshment. At this period she wrote to her friend, Mrs. H. M. Rogers: "K. and I read the Bhagavad Gitâ every day of our lives, and when we get to the end we begin again! It is a great thing to keep one's mind full of it, permeated as it were; and I think Mohini's own words are a great help and inspiration everywhere, all through it as well as in the beautiful introduction. I have written out clearly on the margin of my copy every text which he has quoted from the Scriptures, and find it most interesting. 'Truth is one.'"
Nothing was ever "born anew" in Celia Thaxter which she did not strive to share with others. She could keep nothing but secrets to herself. Joys, experiences of every kind, sorrows and misfortunes, except when they could darken the lives of others, were all brought open handed and open hearted, to those she loved. Her generosity knew no limits.
There is a description by her of the flood which swept over her being, and seemed to carry her away from the earth, when she once saw the great glory of the Lord in a rainbow at the island. She hid her face from the wonder; it was more than she could bear. "I felt then," she said, "how I longed to speak these things which made life so sweet, -- to speak the wind, the cloud, the bird's flight, the sea's murmur, -- and ever the wish grew;" and so it was she became, growing from and with this wish, a poet the world will remember. Dr. Holmes said once in conversation that he thought the value of a poet to the world was not so much the pleasure that this or that poem might give to certain readers, or even perchance to posterity, as the fact that a poet was known to be one who was sometimes rapt out of himself into the region of the Divine; that the spirit had descended upon him and taught him what he should speak.
This is especially true of Celia Thaxter, whose life was divorced from worldliness, while it was instinct with the keenest enjoyment of life and of God's world. She liked to read her poems aloud when people asked for them; and if there was ever a genuine reputation from doing a thing well, such a reputation was hers. From the first person who heard her the wish began to spread, until, summer after summer, in her parlor, listeners would gather if she would promise to read to them. Night after night she has held her sway, with tears and smiles from her responsive little audiences, which seemed to gain new courage and light from what she gave them. Her unspeakably interesting nature was always betraying itself and shining out between the lines. Occasionally she yielded to the urgent claims brought to bear upon her by her friend Mrs. Johnson, of the Woman's Prison, and would go to read to the sad-eyed audience at Sherborn. Even those hearts dulled by wrong and misery awakened at the sound of her voice. It was not altogether this or that verse or ballad that made the tears flow, or brought a laugh from her hearers; it was the deep sympathy which she carried in her heart and which poured out in her voice; a hope, too, for them, and for what they might yet become. She could not go frequently, -- she was too deeply laden with responsibilities nearer home; but it was always a holiday when she was known to be coming, and a season of light-heartedness to Mrs. Johnson as well as to the prisoners.
It is a strange fallacy that a poet may not read his own verses well. Who besides the writer should comprehend every shade of meaning which made the cloud or sunshine of his poem? Mrs. Thaxter certainly read her own verse with a fullness of suggestion which no other reader could have given it; and her voice was sufficient, too, although not loud or striking, to fill and satisfy the ear of the listener. But at the risk of repetition we recall that it was her own generous, beautiful nature, unlike that of any other, which made her reading helpful to all who heard her. She speaks somewhere of the birds on her island as "so tame, knowing how well they are beloved, that they gather on the window-sills, twittering and fluttering, gay and graceful, turning their heads this way and that, eying you askance without a trace of fear." And so it was with the human beings who came to know her. They were attracted, they came near, they flew under her protection, and were not disappointed of their rest.
Four years before Mrs. Thaxter left this world, when she was still only fifty-five years old, she was stricken with a shaft of death. Her overworked body was prostrated in sudden agony, and she, well, young, vigorous beyond the ordinary lot of mortals, found herself weak and unable to rise. "I do so hate figuring as an interesting invalid," she wrote. "Perhaps I have been doing too much, getting settled. But oh, I used to be able to do anything! Where is my old energy and vigor and power gone! It should not ebb away quite so soon!" She recovered her wonted tone and sufficient strength for every-day needs, and still found "life so interesting." But her keen observation had been brought to bear upon her own condition, and she suspected that she might flit away from us quickly some day.
Except for one who was especially dependent upon her she was quite ready. The surprises of this life were so wonderful, it was easy for her to believe in the surprises of the unseen; but her letters were full as usual of the things which feed the springs of joy around us in thisworld. One summer it was the first volume of poems of Richard Watson Gilder which gave her great happiness. She talked of them, recited them, sent them to her friends, and finally wrote to Mr. Gilder himself. Since her death he has said, "I never saw Mrs. Thaxter but once, and that lately; but her immediate and surprising and continuous appreciation and encouragement I can never forget." How many other contemporaneous writers and artists could say the same!
The transparent simplicity of her character and manners, her love and capacity for labor, were combined with equal capacities for enjoying the complex in others and a pure appetite for pleasure. It would be impossible to find a more childlike power of enjoyment.
A perfect happiness came to her, during the last eight years of her life, with the birth of her grandchildren. The little boy who surprised her into bliss one day by crying out "I 'dore you, I 'dore you, granna! I love you every breff!" was the creature perhaps dearest to her heart; but she loved them all, and talked and wrote of them with abandonment of rejoicing. Writing to her friend Mrs. Rogers, she says: "Little E. stayed with his 'granna,' who worships the ground he walks on, and counted every beat of his quick-fluttering little heart. Oh, I never meant, in my old age, to become subject to the thrall of a love like this; it is almost dreadful, so absorbing, so stirring down to the deeps. For the tiny creature is so old and wise and sweet, and so fascinating in his sturdy common sense and clear intelligence; and his affection for me is a wonderful, exquisite thing, the sweetest flower that has bloomed for me in all my life through."
Her enjoyment of art could not fade nor lose its keenness. Her life had been shut, as we have seen, into very narrow limits. She never had seen the city of New York, and life outside the circle we have described was an unknown world to her. She went to Europe once with her eldest brother, when he was ill, for three months, and she has left in her letters some striking descriptions of what she saw there; but her days were closely bounded by the necessities we have suggested. Nevertheless the great world of art was more to Celia Thaxter than to others; perhaps for the very reason that her mind was, open and unjaded. Her rapture over the great players from England; her absolute agony, after seeing "The Cup" played by them in London, lest she could never, never tell the happiness it was to her, with Tennyson's words on her own tongue, as it were, to follow Miss Terry's perfect enunciation of the lines, -- these enjoyments, true pleasures as indeed they are, did not lose their power over her.
Gilbert and Sullivan, too, could not have found a more amused admirer. "Pinafore" never grew stale for her, and her brothers yielded to her fancy, or pleased it, by naming their little steamer Pinafore. She went to the theatre again and again to see this, and all the succeeding comedies by the same hands. She never seemed to weary of their fun.
But the poets were her great fountain of refreshment; "Siloa's brook" was her chief resort. Tennyson was her chosen master, and there were few of his lines she did not know by heart. Her feeling for nature was satisfied by the incomparable verses in which he portrays the divine light shining behind the life of natural things. How often have we heard her murmuring to herself, -- -
"The wind sounds like a silver wire,"
"To watch the emerald-colored water falling,"
"Black as ash-buds on the front of March."
Whatever it might be she was observing, there was some line of this great interpreter of nature ready to make the moment melodious. Shakespeare's sonnets were also her close companions; indeed, she seized and retained a cloud of beautiful things in her trustworthy memory. They fed and cheered her on her singing way.
In the quiet loveliness of early summer, and before the tide of humanity swept down upon Appledore, she went for the last time, in June, 1894, with a small company of intimate friends, to revisit the different islands and the well-known haunts most dear to her. The days were still and sweet, and she lingered lovingly over the old places, telling the local incidents which occurred to her, and touching the whole with a fresh light. Perhaps she knew that it was a farewell; but if it had been revealed to her, she could not have been more tender and loving in her spirit to the life around her.
How suddenly it seemed at last that her days with us were ended! She had been listening to music, had been reading to her little company, had been delighting in one of Appleton Brown's new pictures, and then she laid her down to sleep for the last time, and flitted away from her mortality.
The burial was at her island, on a quiet afternoon in the late summer. Her parlor, in which the body lay, was again made radiant, after her own custom, with the flowers from her garden, and a bed of sweet bay was prepared by her friends Appleton Brown and Childe Hassam, on which her form was laid.
William Mason once more played the music from Schumann which she chiefly loved, and an old friend, James De Normandie, paid a brief tribute of affection, spoken for all those who surrounded her. She was borne by her brothers and those nearest to her up to the silent spot where her body was left.
The day was still and soft, and the veiled sun was declining as the solemn procession, bearing flowers, followed to the sacred place. At a respectful distance above stood a wide ring of interested observers, but only those who knew her and loved her best drew near. After all was done, and the body was at rest upon the fragrant bed prepared for it, the young flower bearers brought their burdens to cover her. The bright, tear-stained faces of those who held up their arms full of flowers to be heaped upon the spot until it became a mound of blossoms, allied the scene, in beauty and simplicity, to the solemn rites of antiquity.
It was indeed a poet's burial, but it was far more than that: it was the celebration of the passing of a large and beneficent soul.
Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College
Works of Annie Fields