April 22, 2011

Field: Charmed by the graces

The poet Eugene Field met the Polish actress Helena Modjeska in St. Louis in the 1870s, years before she moved to California and became an American citizen. On April 22, 1886, Field — himself born in St. Louis but more readily identified with the West — read a poem at a breakfast in her honor, referencing many of the Shakespearean characters she played:

In thy sweet self, dear lady guest, we find
Juliet's dark face, Viola's gentle mien,
The dignity of Scotland's martyr'd queen—
The beauty and the wit of Rosalind.
What wonder, then, that we who mop our eyes
And sob and gush when we should criticise—
Charmed by the graces of your mien and mind—
What wonder we should hasten to proclaim
The art that has secured thy deathless fame?
And this we swear: We will endorse no name
But thine alone to old Melpomene,
Nor will revolve, since rising sons are we,
Round any orb, save, dear Modjeska, thee
Who art our Pole star, and will ever be.

Field also wrote "The Wanderer" in dedication to Modjeska. The attention he paid to the married actress inevitably led to some rumors. In her autobiography, Modjeska described him this way:

I admired him for his genuine poetic talent, his originality and almost childlike simplicity, as much as for his great heart... The author of exquisitely dainty poems, and withal a brilliant and witty humorist, he was equally lovable in all these various characters. He was full of original ideas which often gave a quaint touch to his receptions. In later years, when he lived in Chicago, I remember a dinner en forme, which he called a "reversed one," beginning with black coffee and ice-cream, and ending with soup and oysters. After the first course he delivered a most amusing toast. We were laughing so much that tears stood in our eyes.

On another occasion, Modjeska recounts, several friends were invited to Field's house to meet a friend from abroad. That friend never appeared. As the guests were getting ready to leave, a donkey appeared at the window, braying loudly. "This is my belated friend!" Field exclaimed, "He is, indeed, a great donkey!" She notes that one of the guests wondered who the satirical scene really referred to. As Modjeska wrote, "Thus are commentaries written, looking for some deep, hidden meaning in a simple joke."

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