The Literary Maiden

A compendium of obscure 19th century writing.

Tag: 19th century literature

Elizabeth Oaksmith’s “The First Leaf of Autumn”

“…for the breath of autumn had passed over them changing their color, but as yet few were displaced. The distant hills, and slopes of the river, looked as if some gorgeous drapery had been drawn over the rich earth.”—The Western Captive and Other Indian Stories by Elizabeth Oakes Smith, pg. 139

How glorious is this time of transition? I never feel I can exhaust my delight with autumn and its artistic presentation. I am grateful for poets of the past who are able to adequately describe the rich beauty of the season and its fruitful splendor. Thus, Elizabeth Oaksmith is today’s spotlighted poet, due to her skillful representation of Fall. Was there no end to her other-worldly abilities as a writer?

However, before the poem—although I do not usually pair music with my transcriptions, I happened to be listening to this song by South Korean musician Yiruma whilst transcribing Oaksmith’s poem, and I feel it sonorously echoes her words.

“The First Leaf of Autumn”

I SEE thee fall, thou quivering leaf, of faint and yellow hue,
The first to feel the autumn winds, that, blighting, o’er thee blew—
Slow-parted from the rocking branch, I see thee floating by,
To brave, all desolate and lone, the bleak autumnal sky.

Alas! the first, the yellow leaf—how sadly falls it there,
To rustle on the crispéd grass, with every chilly air!
It tells of those that soon must drop all withered from the tree,
And it hath waked a sadder chord in deathless memory.

Thou eddying leaf, away, away, there’s sorrow in thy hue;
Thou soundst the knell of sunny hours, of buds, and liquid dew—
And thou dost tell how from the heart the blooms of hope decay;
How each one lingers, loath to part, till all are swept away.

Charles Fenno Hoffman’s “Indian Summer, 1828”

Although we are many months and several forecasts away from experiencing an “Indian Summer”—should mother nature bestow one upon us this year—I feel this poem is worthy of my “Autumn” series. (Regardless of my bias, being that this was written by my favorite author—) Charles Fenno Hoffman delicately and accurately spins golden worded-webs and autumnal threads throughout this romantic poem. Connecting with personal recollections of childhood, he paints nostalgic images of the woodlands, and strives to remind the reader of nature’s beauty and unchanging devotion. -Ann Neilson

“Indian Summer, 1828”

LIGHT as love’s smile the silvery mist at morn
Floats in loose flakes along the limpid river ;
The blue-bird’s notes upon the soft breeze borne,
As high in air he carols, faintly quiver ;
The weeping birch, like banners idly waving,
Bends to the stream, its spicy branches laving.
Beaded with dew the witch-elm’s tassels
shiver;
The timid rabbit from the furze is peeping.
And from the springy spray the squirrel gayly leaping.

I love thee. Autumn, for thy scenery, ere
The blasts of winter chase the varied dyes
That richly deck the slow declining year ;
I love the splendor of thy sunset skies,
The gorgeous hues that tint each failing leaf
Lovely as beauty’s cheek, as woman’s love too,
brief;
I love the note of each wild bird that flies.
As on the wind he pours his parting lay,
And wings his loitering flight to summer climes
away.

O Nature ! fondly I still turn to thee
With feelings fresh as e’er my chilhood’s were;
Though wild and passion -tost my youth may be,
Toward thee I still the same devotion bear ;
To thee — to thee — though health and hope no more
Life’s wasted verdure may to me restore —
Still — still, childlike I come, as when in prayer
I bowed my head upon a mother’s knee,
And deem’d the world, like her, all truth and purity.*

*It was indicated to me by Netherlands historian Ton F— that an alternative version of the last stanza exists, for which I thank him earnestly. Upon research, I found said stanza in the New York Mirror of September 22, 1832, on page 91, under the pseudonym “H,” a pseudonym (if it may be called one) used frequently by Hoffman in both the New-York Mirror and the American Monthly Magazine (which I will discuss in a later post).

The stanza is as follows,

“Oh, nature! still I fondly turn to thee,
With feelings fresh as e’er my boyhood’s were,
However cold my reckless heart may be,
To thee I still the same devotion bear.
In all life’s changes yet my feelings will
To thee be true, as to his office still
Is he who fixed by right prescriptive there—
(Though even thou shouldst break thy wonted order)—
In every party change yet finds himself “recorder.”

“Autumn” by Nathaniel Parker Willis

The following is a transcription of Nathaniel Parker Willis’ gorgeous article, entitled “Autumn,” taken from the September 30, 1837 issue of The New York Mirror. It was too stirring not to share. —Ann Neilson 

The first severe frost had come, and the miraculous change had passed upon the leaves, which is known only in America. The blood-red sugar-maple, with a leaf brighter and more delicate than a Circassian lip, stood here and there in the forest, like the Sultan’s standard in a host—the solitary and far-seen aristocrat of the wilderness; the birch, with its spirit-like and amber leaves, ghosts of the departed summer, turned out along the edges of the woods like a lining of the palest gold; the broad sycamore and the fan-like catalpa flaunted their saffron foliage in the sun, spotted with gold, like the wings of a lady-bird; the kingly oak, with its summit shaken bare, still hid its majestick trunk in a drapery of sumptuous dyes, like a stricken monarch, gathering his robes of state about him, to die royally in his purple; the tall poplar, with its minaret of silver leaves, stood blanched, like a coward, in the dying forest, burdening every breeze with its complainings; the hickory, paled through its enduring green; the bright berries of the mountain-ash, flushed with a more sanguine glory in the unobstructed sun; the gaudy tulip-tree, the Sybarite of vegetation, stripped of its golden cups, still drank the intoxicating light of noon-day in leaves, than which the lip of an Indian shell was never more delicately tined; the still deeper-dyed vines of the lavish wilderness, perishing with the noble things whose summer they had shared, outshone them in their decline, as woman, in her death, is heavenlier than the being on whom in life, she leaned; and, alone and unsympathising in this universal decay, outlaws from nature, stood the fir and hemlock, their frowning and sombre heads darker and less lovely than ever, in contrast with the death-struck glory of their companions.

The dull colours of English autumnal foliage give you no conception of this marvellous phenomenon. The change there is gradual; in America it is the work of a night—of a single frost!

Oh! to have seen the sun set on hills bright in the still green and lingering summer, and to wake in the morning to a spectacle like this!

It is as if a myriad of rainbows were laced through the tree-tops—as if the sunsets of a summer—gold, purple and crimson—had been fused in the alembick of the west, and poured back in a new deluge of light and colour over the wilderness. It is as if every leaf in those countless trees had been painted to outflush the tulip—as if, by some electrick miracle, the dyes of the earth’s heart had struck upward, and her crystals and ores, her sapphires, hyacinths and rubies, had let forth their imprisoned colours to mount through the roots of the forest, and, like the angels that, in olden times, entered the bodies of the dying, re-animate the perishing leaves, and revel an hour in their bravery.

The Tragic Case of Henry William Herbert, America’s Unruly “Forester”-Part Two

After a month long hiatus of this series, I have decided to finally raise it from the dead and commence with the tragic tale of Henry William Herbert. Before we continue, please feel free to either acquaint or reacquaint yourself with the first part of this biographical tale.

Before his arrival in Canada, it is noteworthy that Herbert spent a couple of months in New York, where he became acquainted with the sporting crowd and was “admired [as being a] Byronic young Englishman for his horsemanship and for the cavalier boots and King Charles spurs that he affected” (White 20). White continues, “The earliest recorded incident of his life in the new world is a horse race in which he defeated a professional jockey” (20).

The United States seemed promising to Henry, despite any prejudiced sneers he may have received due to his British lineage. Author Luke White explains this in a thorough manner,

Into the hard, hostile environment of New York in the spring of 1831 stepped the twenty-four-year-old Henry William Herbert, a tall, muscular young man, fashionably dressed, who was a charming gentleman when he wanted to be, but an arrogant, overbearing brawler when opposed. He was aggressively proud of his aristocratic background, extremely sensitive to any criticism of himself or his country, and quick to take offense (19).

Ultimately, after two months in the States, he left to find prospects in Canada. Upon his arrival in Canada, Herbert took advantage of the warm summer climate to familiarize himself with the woodlands and wilderness of this new foreign country. Although it is surmised that he wanted to establish himself amongst the Canadians of the region, he ultimately left to return to the United States. He did not leave in vain, for David Judd, editor of Frank Forester: Life and Writings Volume 1, states, “Despite his short sojourn, the future sporting author gleaned much valuable information with regard to the game and field sports of British America,” information that would be pertinent in his future sport and nature writings (13).

His return to the United States fared seemingly well, for, although initially harboring ill feelings towards his new job prospect, he accepted a position in New York City as a Greek and Latin preceptor in the Reverend Townsend Huddart’s Classical Institute, a school established to “operate as a rival to the Grammar School of Columbia College” (14). Regardless of Herbert’s resentment towards his new position, it is said his students praised their professor and his elocutionary skills, especially when reading translations from various texts. Not only did Herbert inspire literature, language, and translation in the minds of his students, but his pupils would progressively follow in his steps, and he would form especial bonds with a few, namely Philip Hone Anthon.

Not only did this position favor Herbert in the way of allowing a passage to establish himself in New York and alongside what would be future peers, but it also placed him in contact with the head of Huddart’s English department, A. D. Patterson [sometimes spelled “Paterson,” which is how it will thus be spelled in these articles]. This connection was a pivotal point for Herbert in his literary and editorial career, for Paterson was “an elderly gentleman of superior education, whose popularity as a journalist commanded universal respect among the mercantile classes…” (14). While completing a total of eight years at Hudart’s, Henry was introduced by Paterson to the literary publishing world, where he found budding success in submitting theatrical criticisms to The Courier and Enquirer, a rival newspaper of The Herald in New York.

Although this will be discussed in my next post, it is worth noting ahead of time that the latter newspaper is of importance, for Henry would find both humiliation and an enemy in the editor of The Herald, James Gordon Bennett, a ruthless gentleman with great intolerance for anything that walked or breathed. Not only will my next post discuss how their rivalry, a shocking encounter, and public humiliation are connected between Herbert and Bennett, but we will emphasize how 1832 and 1833 proved to be both pivotal and slightly degrading years for Henry. Finally, I will discuss, in depth, the deep-rooted, respected partnership between Herbert and Paterson and their creation of the American Monthly Magazine in 1833.

Elizabeth Oaksmith’s “The Acorn”

Called “one of her most imaginative and faultless productions” by Caroline May in American Female Poets, “The Acorn” stands out as being one of Elizabeth Oaksmith’s* especially significant and enjoyable poems.

Oaksmith’s poem follows the birth, transition, and demise of an acorn—simple. However, what the reader gains from the poem is a rich, omniscient viewpoint of an acorn’s environment, travels, and growth, as well as mystical elements and commentary on religion, a theme that frequently recurs in her works (see “The Sinless Child”).

In the beginning of her poem, we see these mystical elements take hold as “Fay” creatures are introduced: “For the woodland Fays came sweeping past / In the pale autumnal ray,/” (Stanza II, lines 1-2). They are reincorporated throughout the poem, paired beside “spirits” and “sprites” (Stanza 4). The incorporation of these mystical elements are important, as they add ethereal flesh to the story of this acorn. The elements lend realism, and possibly credence, to the slightly relatable, anthropomorphic features of the acorn, allowing the reader to not only believe, but also draw qualities, and therefore morals and themes, from the acorn.

Of these morals and themes, the aforementioned “religious” inclusion is especially dominant and worth discussing. Several phrases immediately jump out, including “holy mystery” and “blessed fate,” which undoubtedly imply a presence and higher workings beyond that of earth. Not only do these keywords give us clues of a Godly/godly presence, but also the following lines imply a higher, unearthly presence, “His [a schoolboy’s] hand was stay’d; he knew not why: / ‘Twas a presence breathed around— / A pleading from the deep-blue sky, / And up from the teeming ground” (stanza 11). Stanza 12 ends this brief interaction with a Higher Being by exclaiming, “There’s a deeper thought on the schoolboy’s brow, / A new love at his heart, / And he ponders much, as with footsteps slow / He turns him to depart.” The unearthly presence is now given a pronoun, “He,” which genders the presence which “breathed around,” pleaded, and teemed. Also, because this omniscient presence knows our acorn’s backstory, as it tells the schoolboy in these two stanzas “of the care that had lavish’d been / In sunshine and in dew— / Of the many things that had wrought a screen / When peril around it grew. / It told of the oak that once had bow’d, / As feeble a thing to see;”, we may infer this is a higher presence that is in accordance with the acorn’s fate, which unravels throughout the story.

As the story unfolds, a final theme, “nature,” makes itself blatantly apparent and quite literally embodies the poem. However, what is worth noting is the stunning and carefully woven imagery that solidifies our hero’s tale. Both forest and sea imagery fill the poem and add atmosphere to the piece. Regarding sea imagery, there is a fascinating article that I had stumbled across while researching “The Acorn,” (of which there is not much to be found) which you can find here. Miss Russell-Christie’s observations are astute and especially relevant. Although, I will quote a stanza that especially resonated with me, strictly regarding the maritime theme:

Thou wert nobly rear’d, O heart of oak!
In the sound of the ocean roar,
Where the surging wave o’er the rough rock broke
And bellow’d along the shore—
And how wilt thou in the storm rejoice,
With the wind through spar and shroud,
To hear a sound like the forest voice,
When the blast was raging loud!

I cannot help but especially hear Oaksmith’s voice echo within the first four lines of this stanza a personal, nostalgic time in her life. Having been born and raised in North Yarmouth, Maine, in its own respects a town significantly close to the ocean, it comes as no surprise that Oaksmith would have experienced this mariner life and heard the “sound of the ocean roar,” or have seen the “surging wave o’er the rough rock [as it] broke.” And, while we’re on the topic of her personal, potentially autobiographical touches in the stanza (and poem in general) is it any wonder that the species of tree used in this poem is none other than the “oak” tree? I digress.

Forest imagery makes up nearly three-fourths of the poem, and we are blessed with Oaksmith’s descriptions of seasonal variations. For example, in stanza six, she states, “The spring-time came with its fresh, warm air, / And its gush of woodland song; / The dew came down, and the rain was there, / And the sunshine rested long;” In turn,

The autumn came, and it stood alone,
And bow’d as the wind pass’d by—
The wind that utter’d its dirge-like moan
In the old oak sere and dry;
And the hollow branches creak’d and sway’d
But they bent not to the blast,
For the stout oak tree, where centuries play’d
Was sturdy to the last (stanza nine).

Not only do these stanzas paint luscious scenes, but they also brilliantly drive the narrative of the story.**

Although regarded at the beginning of this article as being “imaginative and faultless,” writer and critic Edgar Allan Poe had the following to say about her poem:

“The Acorn” is perfect as regards its construction — although, to be sure, the design is so simple that it could scarcely be marred in its execution. The idea is the old one of detailing the progress of a plant from its germ to its maturity, with the uses and general vicissitudes to which it is subjected. In this case of the acorn the vicissitudes are well imagined, and the execution is more skilfully managed — is more definite, vigorous and pronounced, than in the longer poem. The chief of the minor objections is to the rhythm, which is imperfect, vacillating awkwardly between iambuses and anapæsts…(The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volumes 5 & 6, 211-212).

Editor Rufus Griswold, an associate of Oaksmith’s, exclaimed, “Mrs. Smith’s most popular poem is ‘The Acorn,’ which, though inferior in high inspiration to ‘The Sinless Child,’ is by many preferred for its happy play of fancy and proper finish” (The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volumes 5 & 6, 202).

In regard to Poe’s criticism, I cannot discredit his opinion as his is of the grammatical and poetically mechanic nature, of which I am not an expert (nor do I claim to be regarding any of my opinions in this post, for that matter). I disagree with Griswold’s opinion of the poem lacking in “high inspiration,” at least in comparison with “The Sinless Child,” however, which may be evinced from my ideas presented earlier on in this blog post. The poem clearly contains several “high” qualities, or deeper qualities than Griswold seems to perceive, although I wish he had expanded upon his opinion. If his opinion be just as is, I find myself disappointed by his inequitable statement. Also, to compare Oaksmith’s prose-poem “The Sinless Child” with “The Acorn” is an unfair judgemental call in and of itself, as the two are incomparable in length and subject.

All of this being said, “The Acorn” deserves far greater credit and remembrance than it is given today, particularly because of its deeply rooted themes.

For convenience and the sake of scrolling through my blog page, I have included only a preview of the poem below. The rest of the poem can be found at the link provided at the end of my preview.

“The Acorn”

AN acorn fell from an old oak tree,
And lay on the frosty ground—
“O, what shall the fate of the acorn be!”
Was whispered all around,
By low-toned voices, chiming sweet,
Like a floweret’s bell when swung—
And grasshopper steeds were gathering fleet,
And the beetl’s hoofs up-rung—

For the woodland Fays came sweeping past
In the pale autumnal ray,
Where the forest leaves were falling fast,
And the acorn quivering lay;
They came to tell what its fate should be,
Though life was unrevealed;
For life is holy mystery,
Where’er it is conceal’d.

They came with gifts that should life bestow:
The dew and the living air—
The bane that should work its deadly wo—
Was found with the Fairies there.
In the gray moss-cup was the mildew brought,
And the worm in the rose-leaf roll’d,
And many things with destruction fraught,
That its fate were quickly told.

But it needed not; for a blessed fate
Was the acorn’s doomed to be—
The spirits of earth should its birth-time wait,
And watch o’er its destiny.
To a little sprite was the task assigned
To bury the acorn deep,
Away from the frost and searching win,
When they through the forest sweep.

[You can read the rest of this poem here.]

*She is more commonly referred to as Elizabeth Oakes Smith.

**I was unsure as to how and where to incorporate this particular stanza in this post; however, because I enjoy this particular stanza greatly, here is an honorable mention from the poem,

The stout old oak—! ‘Twas a worthy tree,
And the builder marked it out;
And he smiled its angled limbs to see,
As he measured the trunk about.
Already to him was a gallant bark
Careering the rolling deep,
And in sunshine, calm, or tempest dark,
Her way she will proudly keep.

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