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Alice and Phebe Cary.

Horace Greeley.
Years ago — a full score, at least — the readers of some religious, and those of many rural, newspapers first noted the fitful appearance, in the poet's corner of their respective gazettes, of verses by Alice Cary. Two or three years later, other such-like, and yet different-also irradiated, from time to time, the aforesaid corner, purporting to be from the pen of Phebe Cary. Inquiry at length elicited the fact that the writers were young sisters, the daughters of a plain, substantial farmer, who lived on and cultivated his own goodly but not superabundant acres, a few miles out of Cincinnati, Ohio. He was a Universalist in faith, and they grew up the same,--writing oftener for the periodicals of their own denomination, though their effusions obtained wide currency through others, into which they were copied. I do not know, but presume, that Alice had written extensively, and Phebe occasionally, for ten years, before either had asked or been proffered any other consideration therefor than the privilege of being read and heard.

This family of Carys claim kindred with Sir Robert Cary, a stout English knight, who, in the reign of Henry V., vanquished, after a long and bloody struggle, a haughty chevalier of Arragon, who challenged any Englishman of gentle blood to a passage-at-arms, which took place in Smithfield, London, as is chronicled in “Burke's heraldry.” Henry authorized [165] the victor to bear the arms of his vanquished antagonist, and the crest is still worn by certain branches of the family. The genealogy is at best unverified, nor does it matter. From Walter Cary — a French Huguenot, compelled to flee his country, upon the revocation by Louis XIV. of the great Henry's Edict of Nantes,and who, with his wife and son, settled in England, where his son, likewise named Walter, was educated at Cambridge — the descent of the Ohio Carys is unquestioned. The younger Walter migrated to America, very soon after the landing of the “Mayflower” pilgrims, and settled at Bridgewater, Mass., only sixteen miles from Plymouth Rock, where he opened a “grammar school,” claimed to have been the earliest in America. Walter was duly blest with seven sons, whereof John settled in Windham, Connecticut; and of his five sons, the youngest, Samuel, was great-grandfather to the Alice and Phebe Cary of our day.

Samuel, educated at Yale, becoming a physician, settled and practised at Lyme, where was born, in 1763, his son Christopher, who, at eighteen years of age, entered the armies of the Revolution. Peace was soon achieved; when, in default of cash, the young soldier received a land grant or warrant, and located therewith the homestead in Hamilton County, Ohio, whereon was born his son Robert, who in due time married the wife who bore him a son, who died young, as did one daughter. Two more daughters have since passed away, and three remain, of whom the two who have not married are the subjects of this sketch. Their surviving sister, Mrs. Carnahan, is a widow, and lives in Cincinnati. Two brothers, sturdy, thrifty farmers, live near the spot where they first saw the light.

Alice Cary was born in 1820, and was early called to mourn the loss of her mother, of whom she has written:

My mother was of English descent,--a woman of superior [166] intellect, and of a good, well-ordered life. In my memory, she stands apart from all others,--wiser, purer, doing more, and living better, than any other woman.

Phebe was born in 1825; and there were two younger sisters, of whom one died in youth, greatly beloved and lamented. A few weeks before her departure, and while she was still in fair health, she appeared for some minutes to be plainly visible in broad daylight to the whole family, across a little ravine from their residence, standing on the stoop of a new house they were then building, though she was actually asleep, at that moment, in a chamber of their old house, and utterly unconscious of this “counterfeit presentment” at some distance from her bodily presence. This appearance naturally connected itself with her death, when that occurred soon afterward; and thenceforth the family have lent a ready ear to narrations of spiritual (as distinguished from material) presence, which to many, if not most, persons are simply incredible.

The youngest of the family, named Elmina, was a woman of signal beauty of mind and person, whose poetic as well as her general capacities were of great promise; but she married, while yet young, Mr. Swift, a Cincinnati merchant, and thenceforward, absorbed in other cares, gave little attention to literature. She was early marked for its victim by Consumption,--the scourge of this, with so many other families,--and yielded up her life while still in the bloom of early womanhood, three or four years since. I believe her marriage, and the consequent loss of her society, had a share in determining the elder sisters to remove to New York, which they did in 1850.

Alice had begun to write verses at eighteen, Phebe at seventeen, years of age. Their father married a second time, and thence lived apart from, though near, the cottage wherein I first greeted the sisters in 1849; and, when the number [167] was reduced to two by the secession of Elmina, Alice and Phebe meditated, and finally resolved on, a removal to the great emporium.

Let none rashly conclude to follow their example who have not their securities against adverse fortune. They were in the flush of youth and strength; they were thoroughly, inalienably devoted to each other; they had property to the value, I think, of some thousands of dollars; they had been trained to habits of industry and frugality; and they had not merely the knack of writing for the press (which so many mistakenly imagine sufficient), but they had, through the last ten or twelve years, been slowly but steadily winning attention and appreciation by their voluntary contributions to the journals. These, though uncompensated in money, had won for them what was now money's worth. It would pay to buy their effusions, though others of equal intrinsic merit, but whose writers had hitherto won no place in the regard of the reading public, might pass unread and unconsidered.

Being already an acquaintance, I called on the sisters soon after they had set up their household gods among us, and met them at intervals thereafter at their home, or at the houses of mutual friends. Their parlor was not so large as some others, but quite as neat and cheerful; and the few literary persons or artists who occasionally met, at their informal invitation, to discuss with them a cup of tea and the newest books, poems, and events, might have found many more pretentious, but few more enjoyable, gatherings. I have a dim recollection that the first of these little tea-parties was held up two flights of stairs, in one of the less fashionable sections of the city; but good things were said there, that I recall with pleasure even yet; while of some of the company, on whom I have not since set eyes, I cherish a pleasant and grateful remembrance. As their circumstances gradually [168] though slowly improved, by dint of diligent industry and judicious economy, they occupied more eligible quarters; and the modest dwelling they have for some years owned and ill-proved, in the very heart of this emporium, has long been known to the literary guild as combining one of the best private libraries, with the sunniest drawing-room (even by gaslight) to be found between King's Bridge and the Battery.

Their first decided literary venture — a joint volume of poems, most of which had already appeared in sundry journals — was published in Philadelphia early in 1850, before they had abandoned “Clovernook,” their rural Western home, for the brick-and-mortar whirl of the American Babel. Probably the heartiness of its welcome fortified, it did not stimulate, their resolve to migrate eastward; though it is a safe guess that no direct pecuniary advantage accrued to them from its publication. But the next year witnessed the “coming out” of Alice's first series of “Clovernook papers ;” prose sketches of characters and incidents drawn from observation and experience, which won immediate and decided popularity. The press heartily recognized their fresh simplicity and originality, while the public bought, read, and admired. Several goodly editions were sold in this country, and at least one in Great Britain, where their merits were generously appreciated by the critics. A second series, published in 1853, was equally successful. “The Clovernook children” --issued in 1854 by Ticknor & Fields, and addressed more especially to the tastes and wants of younger readers — has been hardly less commended or less popular. Lyra and other poems, published by Redfield in 1853, was the first volume of verse wherein Miss Cary challenged the judgment of critics independently of her sister. That it was a decided success is sufficiently indicated by the fact that a more complete edition, including all. the contents of [169] Redfield's, with much more, was issued by Ticknor & Fields in 1855. “The maiden of Tiascala,” a narrative poem of seventy-two pages, was first given to the public in this Boston edition.

Her first novel-“Hagar; a story of to-day” --was written for and appeared in “The Cincinnati Commercial,” appearing in a book form in 1852. “Married, not mated,” followed in 1856, and “The Bishop's son,” her last, was issued by Carleton, in 1867. Each of these have had a good reception, alike from critics and readers; though their pecuniary success has, perhaps, been less decided than that of her poems and shorter sketches.

Of her “Pictures of country life,” brought out by Derby & Jackson in 1859, “The literary Gazette” (London), which is not accustomed to flatter American authors, said:--

“Every tale in this book might be selected as evidence of some new beauty or unhackneyed grace. There is nothing feeble, nothing vulgar, and, above all, nothing unnatural or melodramatic. To the analytical subtlety and marvellous naturalness of the French school of romance she has added the purity and idealization of the home affections and home life belonging to the English; giving to both the American richness of color and vigor of outline, and her own individual power and loveliness.”

Except her later novels, Miss Cary's works have in good part appeared first in periodicals,--“The Atlantic Magazine,” “Harpers',” “The New York Ledger,” and “The independent ;” but many, if not most of them, have generally been afterward issued in her successive volumes, along with others not previously published. Lyrics and Hymns issued in 1866 by Hurd & Houghton, “The lover's diary,” admirably brought out by Ticknor & Fields in 1867, and “Snow Berries; s [170] Book for Young Folks,” by the same house, are her latest volumes. Nearly all of her prose works have been reprinted in London, and have there, as well as here, received a cordial and intelligent welcome.

Few American women have written more than Miss Cary, and still fewer have written more successfully. Yet she does not write rapidly nor recklessly, and her works evince conscientious, painstaking effort, rather than transcendent genius or fitful inspiration. Ill-health has of late interrupted, if not arrested, her labors; but, in the intervals of relative exemption from weakness and suffering, her pen is still busy, and her large circle of admiring readers may still confidently hope that her melody will not cease to flow till song and singer are together hushed in the silence of the grave.

From her many poems that I would gladly quote, I choose this as the shortest, not the best:--

We are the mariners, and God the sea;
And, though we make false reckonings, and run
Wide of a righteous course, and are undone,
Out of his deeps of love we cannot be.

For, by those heavy strokes we misname ill,
Through the fierce fire of sin, through tempering doubt,
Our natures more and more are beaten out
To perfecter reflections of his will!

Phebe has written far less copiously than Alice; in fact, she has for years chosen to bear alone the burden of domestic cares, in order that her more distinguished sister should feel entirely at liberty to devote all her time and strength to literature. And, though she had been widely known as the author of good newspaper prose, as well as far more verse, I think the critical public was agreeably surprised by the quality of her “Poems of faith, hope, and love,” recently issued by Hurd & Houghton. There are one hundred pieces [171] in all, covering two hundred and forty-nine pages; and hardly one of the hundred could well be spared, while there surely is no one of them which a friend would wish she had omitted from the collection. There are a buoyant faith, a sunny philosophy evinced throughout, with a hearty independence of thought and manner, which no one ever succeeded in affecting, and no one who possesses them could afford to barter for wealth or fame. The following verses, already widely copied and relished, are here given, as affording a fair chapter of wholesome, bracing autobiography:--

A woman's conclusions.

I said, if I might go back again
To the very hour and place of my birth;
Might have my life whatever I chose,
And live it in any part of the earth;--

Put perfect sunshine into my sky,
Banish the shadow of sorrow and doubt;
Have all my happiness multiplied,
And all my suffering stricken out;

If I could have known, in the years now gone,
The best that a woman comes to know;
Could have had whatever will make her blest,
Or whatever she thinks will make her so;

Have found the highest and purest bliss
That the bridal wreath and ring enclose;
And gained the one out of all the world
That my heart as well as my reason chose;

And if this had been, and I stood to-night
By my children, lying asleep in their beds,
And could count in my prayers, for a rosary,
The shining row of their golden heads;--

Yea I said, if a miracle such as this
Could be wrought for me, at my bidding, still
I would choose to have my past as it is,
And to let my future come as it will! [172]

I would not make the path I have trod
More pleasant or even, more straight or wide
Nor change my course the breadth of a hair,
This way or that way, to either side.

My past is mine, and I take it all;
Its weakness — its folly, if you please;
Nay, even my sins, if you come to that,
May have been my helps, not hindrances

If I saved my body from the flames
Because that once I had burned my hand;
Or kept myself from a greater sin
By doing a less — you will understand;

It was better I suffered a little pain,
Better I sinned for a little time,
If the smarting warned me back from death,
And the sting of sin withheld from crime.

Who knows its strength by trial, will know
What strength must be set against a sin;
And how temptation is overcome
He has learned, who has felt its power within!

And who knows how a life at the last may show?
Why, look at the moon from where we stand
Opaque, uneven, you say; yet it shines,
A luminous sphere, complete and grand

So let my past stand, just as it stands,
And let me now, as I may, grow old;
I am what I am, and my life for me
Is the best — or it had not been, I hold.

If I have written aright this hasty sketch, there are hope and comfort therein for those who are just entering upon responsible life with no more than average opportunities and advantages. If I have not shown this, read the works of Alice and Phebe Cary, and find it there!

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