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Literary men and women of Somerville.

By David Lee Maulsby.

Three persons remain to be briefly considered. Mrs. Mary A. Pillsbury, the daughter of Edwin Leathe, and connected by blood with the Weston family of Reading and the Brooks family of Medford, was born in Lynnfield in 1838. She was married in 1863 to L. B. Pillsbury. Of the four children, Harry N. Pillsbury, it is safe to say, is known as a chess player throughout America and Europe.

Mrs. Pillsbury early began to write poems, ‘for her own amusement and for the gratification of her friends.’ In 1888, shortly before her death, a volume of her pieces was published, called ‘The Legend of the Old Mill, and Other Poems.’ The title poem is a story of Mallet's old wind-mill, still looking down upon us from the Nathan Tufts Park, perhaps the most venerable landmark of our city. An Acadian maiden, fleeing from one who would have tarnished her honorable name, takes refuge, disguised as a man, in the old mill, by permission of the old miller. Her pursuer finds here there, runs up the steep ladder after her, but by a misstep falls through a hole in the floor, and meets a horrible death. The poems in this volume include rhymed anecdotes, verses suggested by the children, reflections of natural beauty, and thoughts on religious themes.

Mrs. Katherine B. W. Libby, who died within a year (March 7, 1902), was born and educated in Chelsea, but lived in Somerville since shortly after her marriage. Mrs. Libby was remarkable for her patriotism, as well as her predilection for poetry. A ‘Daughter of the Revolution,’ a member of this society, and of several social and philanthropic bodies, she bore her part in practical affairs. Her writing, however, was to her of supreme importance: she would drop instantly whatever she might be doing when a thought came to her, that she might not lose its appropriate expression. Her writings have not been collected into book form. They include poems of nature, patriotism, and religion. [67]

Spring, summer, and autumn are celebrated in turn, the autumn garnering

The bearded grain in sheaves upon the wold,
Like armored sentinels in coats of gold.


Through heaven's blue sea soft clouds of billowy fleece
Float calmly onward to the port of peace.

The sinking of the Maine, which stirred the whole country, finds response in ‘War's Bugle Call’:—

Shall sons of freedom falter?
     Shall coward footsteps lag?
Vile insult has been offered
     Our country's honored flag.

March on! our country's heroes!
     War's bugle call will cease
When stainless floats our banner
     In golden light of peace.

Christmas and Easter are occasions of joy, one the joy of mortal life, the other of immortal—

Ho for the merry Christmas tide!
     Replete with warmth and cheer;
Old Santa Claus, that jolly elf,
     Is swiftly drawing near.
Then roll the Yule-log to the hearth,
     And light the fires aglow,
With holly deck the festal board,
     Hang up the mistletoe.

Unveil thy blushing face!
     Awake, glad Easter day!
An angel from the sepulchre
     Hath rolled the stone away. [68]
Ye bells, thy silver tongues
     These tidings sweetly tell,
And from the wind-harp's throbbing strings
     Doth joy's glad anthem swell.

It is clear that Mrs. Libby had a feeling for metrical language, and also, in her best work, a measure of that essential impulse which makes poetry what it is.

A still more recent loss is that of Mrs. Lowe, who died May 9, 1902. Mrs. Martha Perry Lowe for many years was known as one of the most public-spirited women in this city, active in all good wcrk. Her literary productions include a ‘Memoir’ of her husband, Rev. Charles Lowe, who from 1859 to 1865 was pastor of the First Unitarian church here, and afterward Secretary of the American Unitarian Society. It is said that, in the midst of her numerous deeds of practical beneficence, Mrs. Lowe yet cherished the name of poet above all others. She has left four volumes of verse, and one longer poem unpublished. It is safe to say that, of the published books, ‘The Olive and the Pine’ and ‘The Immortals’ contain the poems by which Mrs. Lowe will be remembered. The former includes verses that are the outcome of travels in Spain, when her brother was secretary of the American Legation at Madrid. It also includes poems of New England. Among the former is a vivid description of a Spanish bull-fight, closing with this address to the reigning princess:—

Go, fair Infanta, dream
     Of bloody death to-day!
Thy little children seem
     To see it when they pray.
And, lo! the nations far
     Do point, with warning hand,
To yonder stains that are
     Upon thy native land!

The glimpses of picturesque Spain were not more lovely to the writer's young eyes than the homely beauties of New England, [69] as the following lines from ‘The Road Over the Hills’ will show:—

The squirrel quick hath run
Across the track unto the old gray wall,
Wreathed o'er with thorny vines, while brambles tall
Beset it 'round; and 'neath the summer sun
Floats the bronzed butterfly until—behold!—
His wings are turning all to burnished gold!
And all day, in the wild young cricket's ear,
The locust proseth; but she will not hear.
And, hark! a sudden stream of melody
Comes quivering through the calm and silent wood;
Tis the sweet thrush, far from the gazing eye,
Who swelleth now her little gushing throat
Alone for her dear mate and tender brood;
And, ere the air hath caught that lovely note,
Tis gone, and all the woods are dark and lone.
And long they wait expectant of that tone,
Nor know they where she sits, until again
Her music runneth quick through all their bowers,
And ceaseth. Ah! no nightingales of Spain,
That sing at night around Grenada's towers,
So fondly all my ear and heart did gain.

There is a reflection of considerable variety of experience in this volume. The organist in the Spanish cathedral, compelling into his notes the image of his dead wife, gives place to the vastness and awe of the desolate ocean seen from the shore at Beverly. Here is a German lesson, inspiring the young teacher with a hopeless passion for his fair pupil. There is a sympathetic portrayal of a sick woman, waiting patiently from day to day, and from season to season, for the death that is so long in coming, but that comes at last. Glimpses of natural beauty relieve the sadness of such scenes. Take, for example, ‘The Silent Way,’ describing a woodland path so thickly guarded that neither the winds of March nor the midsummer sun, nor even November frost, can enter. [70]

But go at sweet Midsummer night;
The pines with showers are spicy yet,
The birches tremble at the set
Of sun, in pale, transfigured light,
And low the savin clusters wet.

Go on between the tangled walls
Of shining twigs, that drop the rain;
Then 'round the hill, to greet again
The purple day before it falls,
And breathe the clover on the plain.

Such bits from Nature occur on the background of country life. ‘The Quilting’ and ‘The Husking’ are two companion poems, through both of which a single love story runs, troublous, but with a happy ending.

In ‘The Immortals,’ Mrs. Lowe celebrates heroes and friends that have gone from sight. Charlotte Bronte, Mrs. Browning, Chatterton, Shelley represent the English poets; Lowell, Emerson, Whittier, and E. R. Sill, the Americans; Channing and Brooks and Charles Lowe, her husband, the ministers; to say nothing of the several friends commemorated, dearer than any stranger. Let us choose a few stanzas from ‘Sleepy Hollow,’ written on the occasion of Emerson's funeral:—

They bore him up the aisle,
     His white hands folded meekly on his breast;
He had the very smile
     He wore the night he gently sank to rest.

The words of love were said,
     We prayed and sang together; all was done;
And then the way they led
     Along the street, the people following on.

We covered him with green—
     He loved the hemlock branches and the pine,—
And there he lay, serene,
     And yet not he, not there the spark divine.

[71] Be thou not over sad,
     Dear ancient town in thy affliction sore;
Think that what thou hast had
     Is thine to keep and give forevermore.

I think I have read enough to show those of us who had not the privilege of Mrs. Lowe's acquaintance that she was a woman of genuine love for nature and for man, of fine perceptions, and of a considerable degree of skill in the art of verse-making. If her muse responds more readily to the melancholy than to the joyous note in human life, we can remind ourselves of what one of the greatest American poets and critics has urged: that a ‘certain taint of sadness is inseparably connected with all the higher manifestations of true beauty.’

And so the end is reached of our roll of authors that have passed away. If we have not found rivals of the greater poets of America, if our story writers have still something to learn from those of England and France, surely a beginning has been made, and the end is not yet. The living writers of our city are as numerous, as industrious, as well equipped in endowment and literary art as their predecessors. We will not boast of our achievement, past or present. But it is safe to say that in history, in fiction, and in poetry, Somerville has authors whom she well may cherish. We need not name them; we know them. Let us expect that they will try themselves by high standards, that they will not be content with what they have already done, that they will strive to lift our city among those rare historic places where men and women have lived who have uttered in the best way the best that was in them.

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