September 24, 2010

Guest post: Mount Auburn Cemetery consecrated

Mount Auburn Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark, was consecrated on September 24, 1831. In his consecration address, Justice Joseph Story (later buried in the cemetery; see image at right) noted that, "Here are the lofty oak, the beech,... the rustling pine, and the drooping willow... All around us there breathes a solemn calm, as if we were in the bosom of a wilderness."

Both literature and horticulture have been important elements at Mount Auburn since its inception. The cemetery's founding drew upon roots from earlier literary proponents of Romanticism expressed in landscape design and it was originally incorporated under the auspices of the then new Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1829. Mount Auburn cultivated necessary early support from Bostonians interested in both horticulture and literature.

Indeed the Cemetery drew upon literature even for its name. In the early 1800s, this rolling, wooded land that once had been a colonial-era farm became known colloquially as "Sweet Auburn." This name drew from Oliver Goldsmith’s nostalgic poem "The Deserted Village" (1770) which references a fictitious town of Sweet Auburn. Founding trustees of the cemetery named its highest hill Mount Auburn.

A visitor today may stop at monuments commemorating dozens of literary figures as well as explore the horticultural diversity of this nationally-acclaimed arboretum. The cornucopia of individuals with literary affiliations at Mount Auburn is varied: novelists, poets, playwrights, historians, editors, publishers, journalists, legal and classical scholars, technical writers and children's book authors, among others.

Many of those writers use horticultural imagery. For example, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow begins his poem "The Village Blacksmith" with, "Under the spreading chestnut tree / The village smithy stands." In "A Gleam of Sunshine" (1845), he writes:

The shadow of the linden-trees
Lay moving on the grass;
Between them and the moving boughs,
A shadow, thou didst pass.

Nathaniel Parker Willis, buried at Mount Auburn in 1867, wrote "City Lyrics" in 1850. The poem includes the stanza:

Oh woman! Thou secret past knowing!
Like lilachs [sic] that grow by the wall,
You breathe every air that is going,
Yet gather but sweetness from all!

Another Mount Auburn notable is Sarah Sprague Jacobs, who wrote poetry and authored several books for young adults including Nonantum and Natick (1853), which notes:

High upon the straight black cherry
The pigeon swings,—
With its fruit he maketh merry,
Flapping his wings;
As, on the neighboring dead ash limbs,
The stealthy hen-hawk watches him.

Oliver Wendell Holmes makes several references to notable trees in his 1858 The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, including:

What we want is the meaning, the character, the expression of a tree, as a kind and as an individual. There is a mother-idea in each particular kind of tree, which if well marked, is probably embodied in the poetry of every language.

While not all of the many literary individuals that are buried here included horticulture in their writings, they certainly chose to be surrounded by horticulture in memorialization at Mount Auburn Cemetery.

*This guest blog was written by Jim Gorman, a certified arborist who is also fond of the written word. He has been a docent at Mount Auburn for the past three years.


  1. Thank you for this. Mount Auburn is a lovely place. I often walk there and think of the wonderful people around me.

  2. Lovely article but it's helpful to mention the state. My dad was born in Mt. Auburn - Iowa. You can imagine my initial surprise that you would be talking about tiny Mt. Auburn of my memory. LOL Thank you for your efforts with this blog. It is always a bright spot in my day.

    1. Sorry for the confusion! I thought the link in the first sentence would clarify enough!


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