Fourteen years ago there came from the famous press of Ticknor
& Company, a small volume of Poems, whose first page, beside the imprint of the publishers, bore only the simple title-line
An anonymous book of poetry does not commend itself to the reading mob, and not many copies were sold.
But the critics read it, and the scholars, and that small public which had heard that it was Mrs. Howe
's book, and desired to know what sort of verses a woman of society, a wit, a housewife, and a mother of children would write.
It was a book that invited, and received, and defied criticism; a book powerful, pungent, and unripe.
Its personalism was terrible.
In every page it said, “Lo, this thing that God has made and called by my name!
What is it?
Why is it?
Behold its passions and temptations; its triumphs and its agonies; its fervors and its doubts; its love and its scorn; its disappointment and its acquiescence!”
Here at last, in America, was a woman-poet; not an echo, nor a shadow, nor a sweet singer of nothings.
Another Sidney, chivalrous, gracious, and eager for her part in the battles of life; to whom, also, the muse said, “Look into thy heart
, and write!”
She was not an artist, for her song had mastered her, but it must
needs have been strong-winged, and bold to do that.
Clearly she was a many-sided woman, whom heart and imagination alone would have made a devotee, and her keen intellection alone a free lance, and who thus alternately believed much and nothing, alternately accepted and defied destiny.
So much one might read of her history in this book.
Society knew also that she was born and reared in New York, her father being a wealthy banker, well-bred, and scholarly.
Determined that this pet daughter — a wise little atom even in her babyhood — should not be merely a fashionable girl, he gave her teachers and books, appealed to her ambition, aroused her artistic instinct, and kindled her religious nature.
The quick spirit responded to every touch.
A wise and loving man meant only to mould a wise and loving woman; but day by day the steady eyes grew more intent in their questioning; day by day the broad brow wore lines of deeper thought; day by day the elder mind caught glimpses in the younger of that strange, ineffable gift which men call genius.
The brilliant girl had written verses almost as soon as she could write at all. French and Italian
she readily mastered, and in time, leaving behind her the waste and weary land of German grammar, she came into such a shining inheritance of German literature as seemed to create in her new faculties of comprehension.
were her prophets and kings, and she received with large welcome the subtile philosophers of their speculative nation.
While a school-girl she published first, a review of Lamartine
's Jocelyn, with translations in English verse, and afterwards a more thoughtful review of Dwight
's translation of the minor poems of Goethe
So she grew to ripe girlhood,--reading, writing, dreaming; fiery within, as her warm tints and rich bright hair declared her, but cold without, under the repression of her education.
To this day it is plain that she cannot easily reconcile her
That her reason accepts the strictest formulas of life, her energetic intellect works well and thoroughly in the harness of existing laws and limits, while her “red temperament” sometimes besets her to set all bonds at naught, and scatter heresies of thought and conduct like firebrands.
At twenty, sentimental, romantic, longing for the actual vivacity of life, and finding only the dulness of routine, she was subject to seasons of passionate and profound melancholy.
Her German studies had made her indifferent to the formal worship in which she had been bred, and no vital belief offered itself to her. Into this vague, hungry, and dark mood of hers came the awful kindness of death.
The idol of her heart-her father-died, and within a brief time a dear brother also, and the questioning heretic became a religions and spiritual enthusiast.
This exaltation lasted for two years. During that time the young devotee read little else than the Bible
, which she undertook as a meritorious religious exercise.
One day a friend put into her hand “Guizot
's history of civilization,” and then her new life began.
She studied it with all the force of her vigorous mind, and its large thought aroused her from her dream of holiness to a life of use, while it lent wings to her self-centred imagination.
She was now a liberal in politics,--in religion a thoughtful inquirer.
She studied Paradise Lost
, and felt its gloomy grandeur, while it nevertheless compelled her reason to reject an eternal hell as impossible.
At twenty-three she married Dr. Samuel G. Howe
, of Boston
,--a man whose heroic labors for Greece
in her struggle for independence, whose beautiful devotion to the blind, and whose anti-slavery crusades made men speak of him as the new Bayard
They went abroad immediately.
the petted child, the young heiress, the idol of her own circle, the haughty belle, found that her only claim to social distinction was her husband's fame, which the recent
publication of Dickens
's “American notes” had made dear to all noble English hearts.
To a woman of her strong, self-centred nature, of her conscious power, and stately pride, this acceptance of her as the appendage of another, this carelessness of what sovereignty might be in herself, was an abasement as bitter as salutary.
She had dreamed of literary fame; but this sudden humiliation, the new cares, the alien interests that crowded upon her, postponed her career for years.
She came to the Old World as a queen comes to her own. Its beauty, its maturity, its solemn antiquity seemed her inheritance.
, magnificent and desolate, made her life a rapture.
There her first child was born, and her passion of mother-love was hardly deeper than her passion of sad tenderness for the supreme city.
Now for the first time her firmament was high enough to let her stand upright.
She lived in this divine atmosphere for months, and then came back to the cold clearness of New England
days, settled into the prosaic round of house-keeping, and gave herself much to society.
In spite of household cares and baby hands tugging at her priceless hours, she saved time for the hard study which was the breath of her life.
She read Swedenborg
, and the tough difficulties she encountered only stimulated her. She toiled at Comte
, and made new resolves of thoroughness and breadth of culture.
In 1850 she again went abroad, returning to her beloved home, where she wrote most of the poems included in “Passion flowers,” and where art, and books, and her precious children made that winter her golden prime.
Coming back to Boston
, Dr. Howe
undertook the charge of “The Commonwealth,” --a newspaper dedicated to free thought, and zealous for the liberty of the slave.
And now Mrs. Howe
's opportunity was come.
She wrote editorials, literary articles, and verses, contributing, also, those brilliant paragraphs for which the paper was famous in
its day. This success opened the way for the publication of “Passion flowers,” so overblamed and overpraised.
Two years after came “Words for the hour,” --a book that palpitated, such red heart's blood coursed through the lines.
These poems, like the first, were wayward, inartistic, obscure, defiant, but they were riper, and even more full of promise.
In each the thought was strong, and deep, and true.
The stately rhythm that now and then broke on the ear, the full and passionate expression, the terrible sarcasm, the sudden lyric glimpses, lavished by this intense soul dowered with the love of love, the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn, revealed a power which no woman but Mrs. Browning
The critics decided to accept the new poet; but a nature so intense, a personality so strong as hers, is rarely understood or estimated at its worth.
On the one hand she was assaulted with flattery, and on the other with abuse.
She went steadily on her way, saying such wittily sharp things of her detractors that it argued no small courage in a man to couch a lance at her,--still studying like an undergraduate, still writing with the industry of a country parson,--and in 1857 publishing “The world's own,” --a play produced at Wallack
's Theatre, in New York.
It was brilliant, full of dramatic feeling, and well managed, but lacked a certain theatrical suppleness, a stage-effectiveness, without which it could not succeed.
In 1859 Dr.Howe
and Mrs. Howe
accompanied the dying Theodore Parker
A charming book of travels, witty, brilliant, airy, and graceful, was her account of this journey, published first in the “Atlantic monthly,” and then, with additions, in a volume which she called “A trip to Cuba
Fun is very near feeling, in fine souls, and all through the book, under the ring of the laugh one catches the breathing of a sigh, as the shadows of the glittering island-life, and the shadows of a parting friendship fell on the bright observer.
About these days, or earlier, readers of the “New York Tribune
” were charmed with occasional letters from Boston
, from New York, or Washington
, about the gay world and people and places of note, about summer days and autumn glories, about art and poetry and religion.
Eagerly asking whose they were, such readers came for the first time into glad relations with Mrs. Howe
, and felt her to be a benefactor, for the true thoughts and bright pictures she had given them.
Since 1860 her studies have been principally philosophical, including Swedenborg
, and Hegel
“I am afraid,” she said, naively, to a friend, “I am afraid I believe in each one till I read the next.”
During the last eight years she has written many admirable social and philosophic papers, which she herself values far above her poems.
Six lectures on Ethics were cordially received in the drawing-room, where she read them to an audience of critical listeners.
And at Northampton
, at the time of the meeting of the American Society of Arts and Sciences, she read, before many of the academicians, a remarkable lecture on “Man a priori
, and a posteriori
She has written, also, thoughtful essays, entitled “Polarity,” “Limitation,” and “The fact accomplished.”
She gave last year, to the “Christian Examiner,” three able papers on “The idea and name of God,” on “The ideal Church,” and “The ideal State.”
In 1866 she was daring enough to publish “Later Lyrics,”
-a third volume of miscellaneous verses, and was justified of her courage by the worth of her work.
Her splendid “Battle hymn of the Republic
,” set to the ringing tramp of the “John Brown
song,” was the Marseillaise of the war. Who will forget,--
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where his grapes of wrath are stored:
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read his righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps;
His day is marching on.
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel;
As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.
He hath sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment-seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer him, be jubilant, my feet
Our God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
In this third volume there is much less of the obscure, the fantastic, the forced.
A lyrical series called “Her verses,” says a fine critic, “are so charged with wild passion, that they recall Mrs. Browning
's ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese,’ with more of the Sappho, and less of the saint.”
has not yet mastered her splendid powers.
When she has fully possessed herself America will be yet prouder of her one great woman-poet; for Harriet Prescott
writes too few verses for her fame's sake, and all other women too many.
's last book is just published.
It is called “From the Oak to the Olive
; a Plain Record of a Pleasant Journey,” and is the story of a trip from London
, by way of Paris
, and Venice
This journey was undertaken in 1867, to assist in distributing American supplies to the destitute and heroic Cretans.
The road is old enough, but the traveller had new eyes.
Her book is filled with lovely pictures of scenery and people, of high life, and low life, of clear character-drawing, and quaint fancies.
More than this, it is profoundly thoughtful, and goes
straight to the heart of institutions, manners, and habits of thinking.
With the private life of an author, or a queen, the public has no business at all. Whether Mrs. Howe
stands in the kitchen eating bread and honey, or sits in the parlor counting out her money, may not be told in these pages.
But certain things that any person in society may know are the property of the gentle reader.
She has auburn hair, and large, sad eyes, “where soul seems concentrate in sight.”
Her mouth is her fine and expressive feature, though her whole face is mobile.
Her bell-like voice and her pure enunciation have a charm like music, and the eloquence of her fine hands is irresistible; her wit is brilliant, ready, merciless, and her sarcasm polished and swift as the axe of the headsman Rudolph
Her friends know that music is her passion, swaying her whole being; that the drama is to her the Beautiful Art
, as she has written of it in a noble poem called “Hamlet at the Boston
;” that she found the infancy of her children a constant miracle of beauty, and that now, they pet and rule her as if she were the child; that the dignity of her nature, forcing her to accept simplicity as the best good, makes all luxurious and showy living distasteful to her, while her sense of symmetry and harmony delights in order and elegance.
For the rest, in the winter she dwells in Boston
, abode of the blest, and in summer she lives in an enchanted glade, the loveliest place on the earth, which nobody can enter without the magic password, and about which all that the world will ever know is written in tinted lines, and called “In my valley.”
The lesson of her life is earnest work, and more than any one of her sex in America
, perhaps, she has demonstrated that it is
wisdom for Women to learn the Alphabet.