The Literary Maiden

A compendium of obscure 19th century writing.

Category: prose

“The Christmas Gathering” by Mrs. Joseph Clay Neal (Alice B. Neal)

The Christmas Gathering
By Mrs. J. C. Neal (Alice B. Neal, née Bradley)
From Godey’s Lady’s Book, December, 1849, pp. 440-441

     The people of New England rejoice in their “Thanksgiving;” but we of the Middle States make Christmas the holiday of the year, the anniversary on which long-separated friends meet once again, and families gather together to renew the bond of sympathy by social intercourse.
     They have gone out from the household one by one. The boy, who once hailed this merry morning by shouts and glad wishes, that roused the sleepers from their pleasant dreams, wakes not to hear his own little ones clamoring for a kiss, in return for a like salutation.
     His favorite sister has arranged her own Christmas Tree beneath another roof, and for children that smile with soft, blue eyes, so like her own; and the youngest, the pet, the darling of all, has waited until now to
         “Lay aside her maiden gladness,
         For a name and for a ring.”
     And on Christmas morn, memories will intrude of those who return no more. We should not say intrude, for a tender and softened recollection is ever present, of the dear ones who shared with us the blessings of childhood, who slept with arms entwined by ours, though now, alas, covered by the cold clod of the valley! No, it is not an intrusion, when these gentle spirits return, voiceless and viewless, with a presence felt in our inmost souls. Their seat by the fireside may be filled by another; but in our hearts we can still “keep a niche to hold our idols.”
     Why should such thoughts—for they are mournful, though sweet—rise up when we speak of this merry holiday? There is nothing of sadness, save this, in the gathering of children and children’s children in the old home. No seariness is the mellow light that glows through the cheerful room, that flashes outward from the ample hickory fire, or streams in subdued lustre upon broad mirrors and the gorgeous carpet, from the lofty chandelier. Christmas evergreens, with their shining berries, are wreathed about the picture-frames, and branches of fir loop back the heavy curtains. There sits the grandsire, with the child of his favorite daughter clasped to his heart, even as she had nestled in her babyhood; and the last namesake of his wife has crept to the good lad’s knee, with the confidence of an assured favorite.
     “Bless the child!” says the good dame to the mother, who is complacently listening to the praises of another juvenile member of the group. She can scarce believe that her own Mary is now the sedate, matronly woman, who counsels her young married sister with sage experiences in “teething” and the “whooping cough.” But so it is; and Annie has also little ones growing up beside her, who cling about her neck, or stand quietly at her side, with the shy, half timid air, that grandmamma can so well remember in their mother.
     And no one heeds the lovers. They are as much alone as though only their low whisper broke the silence of the room. And Lillian blushes and looks down, while those fond words are poured into her ear. She is thinking that, when another Christmas arrives, she will be among those who “come home” for its festivities. It is not a sorrowful thought—oh no!—but her heart flutters when she thinks of the bridal veil and the marriage service, and she heartily wishes it were all over.
     Her cousin Marie has also her own reveries, there close to grandpapa’s easy-chair, her favorite station. She knows she is not beautiful, and is less attractive than any of those by whom she is surrounded. But she is young and hopeful, and she is wondering if any one will—can love her well enough to overlook her lack of beauty, and cherish her for the earnest nature hidden under this plain exterior. Ay, dream on, maiden, for the meek and quiet spirit which cheers the lonely hours of old age so unselfishly, is an ornament outshining many graces, and sooner or later it shall have its reward. The orphan shall find a new home, and be loved for herself alone.
     Some one has said: “Christmas may well be the holiday of children, for it is the anniversary of that blessed day when our Lord became as one of them.” Little Alice has heard this, and as she basks in the firelight, with the kitten in her arms, her thoughts are far away from the pet she is caressing, or the gambols of old pussy at her feet. She has been trying to recall all that Aunt Lillian has said about Christmas this morning, and the beautiful tales she read from the large, old-fashioned Bible, with those curious pictures. It is a great thing for the little ones when they are permitted to look into that family relic, where their own birthday is recorded below that of their parents. “How beautiful it must have been,” thinks Alice, softly, “to look up into the sky and see all those angels, who came to tell that our Saviour was born! Oh, how sweetly they must have sun; like Aunt Lillian! I think she must be an angel, sometimes. And then our Saviour was laid in a manger, when my little brother has such a beautiful cradle, with white pillows instead of the hay. I wonder why he was not rich, when he might have been with wishing it!”
     Dear child, she will learn as she grows older, the lesson of our Master’s humility, and that he was the friend and the companion of the lowliest. And perhaps this is the reason why Christian people, on whom heaven has showered the gifts of fortune, feel a deeper sympathy, when this happy morning arrives, for the sufferings of those who “do lack, and suffer hunger,” for the wanderer and the homeless, who, like Him, “have not where to lay their heads.” It may be the remembrance of His poverty that opens their hearts to devise liberal things, to clothe the shivering little ones that have almost lost the image of His blessed childhood in the want and squalidness by which they are surrounded; to comfort the desolate mother who, like Mary of Bethlehem, watches over a new-born babe—though still unlike, inasmuch as she has no joyful hope, no blessed anticipations.
     Ah, yes, it must be this; and those who chide the celebration of this high Christian festival, or pass its social hours without a thought abstracted from the dull routine of business toil, have never felt their hearts beat high with the glow of gratitude and benevolence which such contemplations bring. They gather up the wealth of this world, but lose its keenest enjoyments; and while they forbear to recognize the coming of our Master as a little child, they are likewise in danger of forgetting, while the season brings it home forcibly to other hearts, that He has said, “The poor ye have always with you.”

“Life: An Allegory” by James Gates Percival

Here we have a sampling of Percival’s prose work! Feel free to comment below if you have thoughts on what his allegory might be. Mum’s the word on my own analysis. I’ll just leave it here for your pleasure and contemplation.

Life: An Allegory
James Gates Percival
From the Knickerbocker, Volume 7, January, 1836, pg. 48.

IT is now morning. Still and glassy lies the lake, within its green and dew-sprent shores. Light mist hangs around, like a skiëy veil, and only reveals the uncertain outlines of woods and hills. The warm vernal air is just stirring in the valleys, but has not yet ruffled the water’s mirror. Turns the eye upward, the misty vault opens into the calm, clear heavens, over which there seems suffused a genial spirit’s breath. Far distant on the horizon flash out the gilded and reddening peaks, and from yonder crown of snow, a sudden radiance announces the risen sun. Now in the east stream the golden rays through the soft blue vapor. The breeze freshens, and comes loaded with fragrance from the woods. A faint, dark curl sweeps over the water; the mist rolls up, lifts itself above meadow and hill, and in gathered folds hangs light around the mountains. Away on the level lake, till it meets the sky, silvery gleams the sheeted wave, sprinkled with changeful stars, as the ever-rising breeze breaks it in ripples. Now the pennon, that hung loose around the mast, rises and fitfully floats. We spread the sail, and casting off from the shore, glide out with cheerful hearts on our voyage. Before us widens the lake; rock after rock receding back on either hand, and opening between, still bays, hung round with sparkling woods, or leading through green meadow vistas to blue sunny hills.

——

IT is now noon. In the middle lake speeds the bark over light glancing waves. Dark opens down the clear depth. White toss the crests of foam, and as the sail stoops to the steady wind, swift flies the parted water round the prow, and rushing pours behind the stern. The distant shores glow bright in the sun, that alone in the heaven looks unveiled with vivifying goodness over the earth. How high and broad swells the sky! The agitated lake tosses like a wide field of snowy blossoms. Sweep after sweep of the long-retiring shores; hill gleaming over hill, up to the shadowy mountains; and over these, Alpine needles, shooting pearly white into the boundless azure—all lie still and happy under the ever-smiling sun.

——

AND now it is evening. The sun is sinking behind the dark mountains, and clouds scattered far in the east, float soft in rosy light. The sun is now hidden, and strong and wide sweeps up its golden flame, like the holy blaze of a funeral pile. The breeze slackens, the waves subside in slumber, and slowly the bark steers into its sheltering bay. Long shadows stretch from hill to valley, fall like dark curtains on the lake, and a solemn, subdued serenity broods, like a protecting spirit, over the hushed and quiet earth. Only the far summits yet retain their brightness. Faint blushes stain the eternal snows, recalling the first dawning roses, like the memory of early joys in the tranquil moments of departing age. These, too, fade; but the evening star looks bright from the blue infinite, and like the herald of a better world, leads us softly to our haven.

Guest Post: “Withered Flowers”-by Levi L. Leland

I am very excited to introduce my first guest post on this site. This article was written by my good friend and colleague, Levi Leland. Mr. Leland’s expertise concerning Poe studies is outsanding, and I am grateful to produce this original article by Mr. Leland on the topic of Sarah Helen Whitman—specifically an awe-inspiring firsthand encounter at her grave. Thank you, Mr. Leland, for preserving Whitman’s name and legacy, and thank you for allowing me to share your personal encounter on this website. -Ann

 

(Photos posted with permission from and credit to the author.)

It was a dim summer day on June 27, 2018. The air was humid and still. With a dozen roses in my hand and a polaroid camera strapped around my shoulder, I made my way out of my car and over to the grave of Sarah Helen Whitman. I was at the North Burial Ground in Providence, Rhode Island, just a short drive from my apartment in West Warwick. I had a purpose on this particular day, for it was the 140th anniversary of the death of Mrs. Whitman. My association to the Providence Poetess was based solely on my infatuation with Edgar Allan Poe, but as I began to learn more about her as an individual and not just as the love interest of Poe, my affection grew deeper.

Upon first inspection of the grave I quickly noticed an arrangement of white poinsettia-looking faux flowers that have been stuck in the ground since my last visit in the autumn of 2017, and even my visit the summer prior. Although the flowers made the overall appearance of the grave a bit homely, I always marvelled at the tribute as well as the mysterious admirer who left them. My other questioning thought was how the flimsy things withstood the weather and the discretion of the maintenance crew all this time! You see, I’ve left tributes at Helen’s grave before, and they always seemed to get either lost or thrown away relatively quickly. Regardless, I made up my mind to remove them from the grave and dispose of them once and for all. They satisfied their purpose there long enough, had they not? Besides, I had a proper dozen of real roses to leave for Helen.

As I pulled them from the earth and placed them aside, I gave the stone a few strokes with my hand, removing some dirt from the letters inset in the marker. I arranged my roses on the stone and took out my camera to take a few photos. As the third or fourth polaroid began printing, a man came out from behind me as if he emerged from thin air. He was shorter in height, a bit haggard, wearing your average pedestrian clothes with a cap. I noticed a hospital bracelet on his wrist, and he had an “At Home Care Sheet” in his hand that more than likely attested for the bracelet. “I thought I was the only one that came here!” he exclaimed with a smile. Returning him with a grin, I told him I was here to pay my respects to Sarah Helen Whitman on the 140th anniversary of her death. The significance of the day was unknown to him and it was purely coincidence that he decided to stop by. Strangely enough, he knew everything about the Power family (Whitman’s maiden name) and he began to give me a little tour of the family plot. He asked me if I’ve ever visited their home on Benefit Street (which of course I had) and I returned with a question in regards to the rose bush in the rear yard of the house. There’s speculation that those roses are the great-great grandchildren of the roses planted by Helen herself; the same roses that Poe first spotted her in under a midnight moon in July of 1848. The gentleman confirmed that he had heard this rumor as well, and even picked one of the roses as a keepsake! We exchanged facts, stories, and questions for quite some time among the final resting places of the deceased in subject.  

Before departing, we shook hands and finally exchanged names. Just as he started to walk away, I stopped him with one last question as I pointed at the ragged cloth petals peeking out from the side of my camera case on the ground, “Do you happen to be the one that left those flowers here?” He replied, “Yeah, I left those here years ago! I don’t know how the dingy things have lasted so long.” I grabbed the arrangement and pushed my roses aside. As I began to pierce the ground with the wire stem, I replied, “Nothing wrong with withered flowers!” And the man disappeared into the clutter of stones in the graveyard.  

WITHERED FLOWERS by Sarah Helen Whitman

Remembrances of happiness! to me
Ye bring sweet thoughts of the year’s purple prime,
Wild, mingling melodies of bird and bee,
That pour on summer winds their silvery chime
Of balmy incense, burdening all the air,
From flowers that by the sunny garden wall
Bloomed at your side, nursed into beauty there
By dews and silent showers: but these to all
Ye bring. Oh! sweeter far than these the spell
Shrined in those fairy urns for me alone;
For me a charm sleeps in each honeyed cell,
Whose power can call back hours of rapture flown,
To the sad heart sweet memories restore,
Tones, looks, and words of love that may return no more.


About the Author

I’m a Rhode Island-based Edgar Allan Poe aficionado and member of the Poe Studies Association. My focus is representing Poe’s ties to lil’ Rhody and the “Providence Poetess” Sarah Helen Whitman. If I’m not sipping coffee and creating art of some sort, I’m probably exploring an old cemetery (consider me a Taphophile). I’m a dog-dad to the adorable shar-pei/pitbull mix, Ginny Poe! I’m a penpal as well, and if you’re interested in corresponding via snail mail, please contact me through any of my social media outlets and let me know! They are as follows:

“A Child’s Ghost Story” by Bret Harte

I am indebted to Mr. Velella for introducing this poignant story to us in his article, “Harte: goblins and ghosts,” on his website, the American Literary Blog (which I cannot recommend enough).

A Child’s Ghost Story
By Bret Harte
From Stories and Poems and Other Uncollected Writings by Bret Harte, pp. 33-36.

There was once a child whom people thought odd and queer. He was a puny little fellow. The only thing big about him was his head, and that was so disproportioned to the rest of the body, that some people laughed when they saw him. And to complete his grotesqueness, his parents, who were very learned people—and foolish as very learned people sometimes are—gave him a strange, queer name, “Poeta,” which meant a great deal, so they said; but his old nurse and his little sister called him “Etty,” which meant only that they loved him, and which I think was a great deal more pleasant, if not as sensible.
Not but that his parents were very proud of his peculiarities and queer ways. But they were very severe and strict with him. He deserved it, for he was fretful, peevish, and impatient. He imagined continually that people did n’t love him as he would like them to, which was partly the case; and he was moody and querulous sometimes; and instead of trying to find out why, and what could be done to help it, he would lie down in his little crib and hate everybody. And then his big head, which was always bothering him, would ache dreadfully.
But when he strayed into the green fields with his little sister, who could tell better than “Etty” what the birds said to each other, what the leaves of the big elms were always whispering, and the strange stories that the brook babbled to the stones as it ran away to the distant sea? And although he was not strong enough to play like larger boys with these things, he was fond of lying under the big elm, with his little sister supporting his head on her lap, watching all this, and telling her about it and many other wonderful things.
But I am sorry to say that he would sometimes tell very queer and strange stories; he would tell of goblins as high as the elm, and of ghosts that haunted the little churchyard where their grandmother slept; and he would continue to repeat them, getting more and more terrifying in intensity, until his little “Gracie” would open her big blue eyes in pretty terror, and catch his gesticulating hand.
“There now, Etty, dear,” she once said, “I don’t believe there are any ghosts.”
“Is n’t there,” said Etty, in deep scorn.
“No! Did you ever see any, Etty?”
(This was another sort of thing, you know, and poor Etty could n’t say that he had, but he was confident that other people had seen them.)
“Well,” said Gracie, “I don’t believe there are any. I know that dead people lie in their graves and make the grass grow; but if I die, I’ll come back to you and be a ghost.”
And so to these little children, the seasons were told over in flowers and fruits and different games; and it was kite time, and the lilacs were in blossom when a great hush and quiet fell upon their home. People walked about whispering to each other, and Etty was kept alone in a room until he was frightened and his head ached. But then Gracie did not come to him to console him. And when he could not stand it any longer he crept into a little bedroom, from which an awe seemed to spread over the whole house, and there was a smell of mignonette, and something white lying on the bed, and on top of that again a pinched little white face that he knew. And Etty cried.
His sister had died in early spring, and now it was the season when the rosy-cheeked apples are piled away in the barn, and the red leaves in the corners of the lane, and the nights were getting chilly, and Etty, whose health was poor, was lying in his crib watching the bright fire, thinking of the flowers that had passed away, when something soft and cool stole over his face and rested upon his forehead. It was a little hand—Gracie’s, and Gracie stood beside him.
He remembered what she had told him, and knew it was Gracie’s ghost and he was not frightened. But he whispered to her, and she soothed his aching head, and told him that when he was weary, and his head ached, she would come to him again, and that she was permitted to visit him only that she might soothe him when in trouble and keep him from harm. This and much more she whispered to him in the quiet little nursery, and at last holding her hand in his, he fell asleep.
He did not dare to tell his father or mother, or the people about him, of Gracie’s ghost. He knew they would look upon it as one of his peculiarities and he dreaded their disbelief. He did not dare to tell it to the Reverend Calvin Choakumchild, who gave him a great many very nice tracts, and talked to him a good deal about the “Holy Ghost.” He did not dare to tell it to Betsy, his nurse, who had frightened him often with hobgoblins and spectres. So he laid away his little secret in a quiet shelf in his memory, just as her toys had been put away in a corner of the great cupboard.
But Etty grew up a man and strong and well proportioned. His head no longer seemed to him so large, and people did not laugh at him. His old name gave place to Mr. So-and-So. But when he would get weary, his head would ache as it did when he was a boy, and the doctors, many of whom had D.D. written to their name, could do him no good. How welcome, then, was Gracie’s ghost, and her cool, soft touch, and her whispered words.
But he fell into wicked courses and among wicked men. And when his head would ache, as it often did from dissipation and excesses, he did not dare to invoke in such company Gracie’s ghost. So he fell sick and grew worse, and at last the doctors gave him up.
At the close of a bright spring day when he lay tossing upon his bed, she came and placed her hand upon his head; the dull throbbing and feverish heat passed away. He heard the whispering of the leaves of the old elm again, and the birds talking to each other, and even the foolish talk of the brook. It was saying, “He is coming.” And then with his hand holding one of Gracie’s, and her other upon his forehead, he floated out with the brook toward the distant, distant sea.
Children, have you ever seen “Gracie’s ghost”?

Plagiarized Poetry: A Literary Dispute Between Elizabeth Oakes Smith and Estelle Anna Lewis

Note: this will most likely be updated, as I am still ardently searching and checking sources to find more information regarding this event.

Nineteenth century poet and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Oakes Smith once found herself in a nasty back-and-forth dispute with poet Sarah Anna Lewis (also known commonly as Estelle, or Stella), for the alleged theft of her poem by Lewis. The newspaper articles that follow explain the situation in greater detail, but I will provide brief background information to supplement the articles. In the first article, Charles Fenno Hoffman is mentioned. Hoffman, whose poetry has appeared numerous times on this blog, was a nineteenth century poet and editor, who was very close friends with Mrs. Smith; therefore, the comment made on Lewis’s part is extremely underhanded. Just a few years before the release of the article, Hoffman was institutionalized for what is known today as bipolar disorder. He and Smith (also known as “Oaksmith,” which is how I will refer to her hereafter) had a falling out due to Hoffman’s disorder; Oaksmith felt very badly about losing her friendship with Hoffman (this is evinced in letters from Oaksmith to editor and anthologizer Rufus Griswold). At the time of the release of this attack made by Lewis on Oaksmith in 1855, Hoffman would have, therefore, still been a tender subject for Oaksmith, thus making Lewis’s accusation that more objectionable.

Secondly, the Hiram Powers mentioned in the last few newspaper articles is this gentleman (if you’re interested in reading more about him). The statue of which the poem is based is also mentioned, and shown, in the linked article.

From the Cleveland Leader

Saturday, November 24, 1855, Pg. 2
Mrs. E. Oakes Smith and Mrs. Estella A. Lewis, both strong-minded woman [sic] as well as literary notabilities, are pulling hair metaphorically with an earnestness that is peculiarly masculine. Mrs. S. accuses Mrs. L. of having stolen a sonnet of her’s; Mrs. L. retorts that the sonnet was not worth stealing at all, and if it was, that Mrs. S. first stole it from Charles Fenno Hoffman, spicing her allusions to the crazy poet with such embellishing insinuations as would be likely to arouse the gentlest of the sex. Mrs. Smith rejoins with indignant warmth and so on.

The New York Times, pg. 218
Rights of Literary Ladies.
Whatever question there may be as to the abstract rights of woman, there can be none whatever, we presume, that they have no right to commit literary larcenies upon each other. In the notice which we published yesterday, of Graham’s Magazine, our extract was given of a sonnet to the Greek Slave, from an article contributed by Mrs. Lewis, of Brooklyn. But we are informed by competent authority that the sonnet was written by Mrs. E. Oakes Smith, and was published by her some years ago, when Powers’ famous statue was first exhibited in this City. It requires no Solomon to pronounce a judgement in the case of this literary [?], and, we presume, that Mrs. Lewis will admit the mistake.

The New York Times, pg. 239
Reply of Mrs. E. Oakes Smith to Mrs. Estelle A. Lewis.
To the Editor of the New-York Daily Times:
I was very greatly surprised this morning to read a letter in your paper, in which allusion is made to myself, so gross and indecent in character, that, like touching pitch, I shrink from coming in contact with it. The article, however, I regret to say, is signed by a woman.
When Mrs. Estelle A. Lewis took possession of my Sonnet to the Greek Slave, thereby indorsing her sense of its merits, I had hoped it was done by accident or mistake. Her very lady-like article is an admission of petit larceny. I am sorry for it. A man who should be guilty of an act of the kind, would be excluded from our houses,—we should be likely to feel that the “spoons” would be hardly safe.
I am at a total loss to comprehend the force of application of her allusion to Charles F. Hoffman, of whom any one with a spark of human sensibility would not fail to speak with respect and tenderness, in his present unfortunate and melancholy state of mind. Were he able to speak in the premises, he would not only disclaim all knowledge whatever of the article in question, but, as a high-toned gentleman and an honorable man, would blush that a woman could be willing to use his name in so gross and unjustifiable a manner. Men are too wise to insult each other. Women are not yet, it seems, in some cases, entirely beyond the vocabulary elegantly denominated Billingsgate.
I inclose[sic] a letter from Mr. Powers, which you will see by the date was sent me many years ago. I am aware it is neither proper or delicate to publish a private letter, but I am sure Mr. Powers will pardon the informality because of the necessities of the case.
E. Oakes Smith.
No. 46 Stuyvesant-street, New-York, Nov. 2.

[COPY.]
To Mrs. E. Oakes Smith:
Dear Madam—I had the satisfaction, some weeks ago, to receive, by the hand of a friend, the very touching sonnet you composed upon my statue of the “Slave,” also the little volume of your charming poems, and perhaps I ought to apologize for delaying to acknowledge these testimonials of regard from so gifted a source.
The only drawback to the pleasure I felt in reading the sonnet and the accompanying few lines, so complimentary to me, and so honorable to the kind hear that composed and sent them here, was the consciousness that your warm imagination had clothed any work with grace and sentiment not justly its own, and its author with unmerited honors.
Permit me, nevertheless, to thank you with all my heart for the delicate and beautiful compliment I have received; and allow me, my dear Madam, the honor to add my humble name to the list of your admirers and friends. (Signed.)
Hiram Powers
Florence, May 21, 1848