May 10, 2010

Sprung up like wild flowers

Sometimes nicknamed the "Sweet Singer of Hartford," Lydia Huntley Sigourney wrote the preface to her Poems on May 10, 1834. In it, she claims that the poems "have sprung up like wild flowers in the dells, or among the clefts of the rock; wherever the path of life has chanced to lead."

Mrs. Sigourney, as she often signed her works, proved incredibly popular even outside her home state of Connecticut. Several women's book clubs and literary salons were named in her honor. A good wife and mother, as was expected of her, she only turned to writing to reverse financial problems in the family. Self-educated, she focused on poetry with pious themes and domestic topics.

Modern feminist scholars often  decry this aspect; "the mere mention of Sigourney's name invokes a caricature: a mildly comical figure exemplifying the worst aspects of domestic sentimentalism," according to Nina Baym, who seeks to reclaim her work. Those who support her suggest that her poetry was written especially for an audience expecting certain social roles, not that Sigourney herself did not challenge them. Perhaps that is why her 1834 collection of Poems went through 25 editions during her lifetime. Even so, she did get an anti-slavery poem into this edition — impressive for such an early, public stance.

Form your own opinion, perhaps from her poem "The Mother," part of this 1834 collection:

I saw an aged woman bow
  To weariness and care,
Time wrote his sorrows on her brow
  And 'mid her frosted hair.

Hope, from her breast had torn away
  Its rooting scathed and dry,
And on the pleasures of the gay
  She turned a joyless eye.

What was it that like sunbeam clear
  O'er her wan features run,
As pressing toward her deafened ear
  I named her absent son?

What was it? Ask a mother's breast
  Through which a fountain flows
Perennial, fathomless and blest,
  By winter never froze.

What was it? Ask the King of kings,
  Who hath decreed above
That change should mark all earthly things,
  Except a mother's love.


  1. Rob,

    Having visited my own aged, and recently-frail, mother for Mother's Day yesterday, I gleaned a lot from Sigourney's poignant poem. The description of the old woman is haunting--and how sweetly powerful those two final lines.... Thanks.

  2. But this is just the same sentimental schlock typical (and expected) of women writers from this period. What if the aged woman was not a mother but a woman who avoided marriage in exchange for a lifetime of intellectual pursuits? Would the sentiment be the same?

  3. To me, the avoidance of marriage "in exchange for a lifetime of intellectual pursuits" would be an equally noble calling for a woman. However, I don't understand how the sentiment could be "the same" when the situations would be different; it seems sort-of apples and oranges. And yes, the verse is sentimental, but it is of its times: in some cases today's "schlock" was yesterday's substance, especially given the inequality between the genders.

  4. I think another aspect worth considering is what Mrs. Sigourney did outside of the sentiments in her poetry. The fact is that she wrote poetry. Regardless of the sentimentality, whether you agree with it or not, the fact that she became an established and well-known poet is fairly impressive - and qualifies as a lifetime of intellectual pursuits. And, yes, the hypothetical poem about a non-mother who became, say, a scholar would have a different sentiment because, obviously, it would be a very different poem.

  5. I think that it is interesting to have the perspective of women who supported what is sometimes now called the "Cult of Domesticity." There were women who rejected this sentimentality and argued for different roles for women, but many did not, and I find it very interesting to read. I teach a unit on this, and the first question my students ask is "Why did women put up with this"? This gives us the answer. There is a story "Angel Over the Right Shoulder" by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps that also offers this point of view.

  6. This "heated" discussion, of a woman and poet, about-whom I had never-before heard, is interesting. Rob's mention of the self-taught (so many women were in those days) Lydia Huntley Sigourney turning "to writing to reverse financial problems in the family," adds yet-another dimension to the mix. And obviously, she was successful in what she did. One has to admire these women writers, despite the limits of their times--and whatever one's own philosophies.