August 29, 2011

Jewett and Thaxter: quite heavenly

Sarah Orne Jewett was particularly devastated by the death of her friend Celia Thaxter in 1894. Along with Annie Fields, Jewett visited Thaxter at the Isles of Shoals in the summer; Thaxter, in turn, visited the shared homes of Fields and Jewett in Boston and in South Berwick, Maine during the winter. Jewett wrote to the artist Sarah Wyman Whitman on August 29, 1894:

I must write you out of loneliness and pretty deep-down sadness tonight. I had a telegram Monday morning that Celia Thaxter had died... We were more neighbours and compatriots than most people. I knew the island, the Portsmouth [Thaxter's birthplace] side of her life, better than did others, and those days we spent together last month brought me to know better than ever a truly generous and noble heart... Life had come to be quite heavenly with her.

Whitman (no relation to poets Walt Whitman or Sarah Helen Whitman) designed the cover to an edition of her book An Island Garden. Jewett edited Thaxter's book Stories and Poems for Children, remarking in its preface that the book (and its dedication to Thaxter's grandchildren) showed "her beautiful generous kindness and delightful gayety" as well as "her gift of teaching young eyes to see the flowers and birds." Jewett used to call her friend "Sandpiper," and it is appropriate that the first poem in that book is titled "The Sandpiper":

Across the narrow beach we flit,
   One little sandpiper and I;
And fast I gather, bit by bit,
   The scattered driftwood bleached and dry.
The wild waves reach their hands for it,
   The wild wind raves, the tide runs high,
As up and down the beach we flit,—
   One little sandpiper and I.

Above our heads the sullen clouds
   Scud black and swift across the sky;
Like silent ghosts in misty shrouds
   Stand out the white light-houses high.
Almost as far as eye can reach
   I see the close-reefed vessels fly,
As fast we flit along the beach,—
   One little sandpiper and I.

I watch him as he skims along
   Uttering his sweet and mournful cry;
He starts not at my fitful song,
   Or flash of fluttering drapery.
He has no thought of any wrong;
   He scans me with a fearless eye.
Stanch friends are we, well tried and strong,
   The little sandpiper and I.

Comrade, where wilt thou be to-night
   When the loosed storm breaks furiously?
My driftwood fire will burn so bright!
   To what warm shelter canst thou fly?
I do not fear for thee, though wroth
   The tempest rushes through the sky:
For are we not God's children both,
   Thou, little sandpiper, and I?

*For information in this post, I am indebted to Beyond the Garden Gate: The Life of Celia Laighton Thaxter (2004) by Norma H. Mandel.

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