October 27, 2011

O life, and light, and gladness

Maria White was 32 years old when she died of tuberculosis on October 27, 1853. In her short life, she outlived three of her children, who all died in infancy. Her doting husband James Russell Lowell, whom she married in 1844, was devastated by her death. Just before she was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, her coffin was opened so that her daughter Mabel could take one final look.

Shortly after, the still grieving husband oversaw the publication of a posthumous edition of White's poetry. Its 50 copies were privately distributed, though they ensured that her work survived long enough that a new edition was republished in 1907. No doubt Lowell would have further suffered editing this book, especially when preparing her poem "The Sick-Room" (White had suffered for years before her death):

A spirit is treading the earth,
     As wind treads the vibrating string;
I know thy feet so beautiful,
     Thy punctual feet, O Spring!

They slide from far-off mountains,
     As slides the untouched snow;
They move over deepening meadows,
     As vague cloud-shadows blow.

Thou wilt not enter the chamber,
     The door stands open in vain;
Thou art pluming the wands of cherry
     To lattice the window pane.

Thou flushest the sunken orchard
     With the lift of thy rosy wing;
The peach will not part with her sunrise
     Though great noon-bells should ring.

O life, and light, and gladness,
     Tumultuous everywhere!
O pain and benumbing sadness,
     That brood in the heavy air!

Here the fire alone is busy,
     And wastes, like the fever's heat,
The wood that enshrined past summers,
     Past summers as bounteous as fleet.

The beautiful hanging gardens
     That rocked in the morning wind,
And sheltered a dream of Faery,
     And life so timid and kind,

The shady choir of the bobolink,
     The race-course of squirrels gay, —
They are changed into trembling smoke-wreaths,
     And a heap of ashes gray.

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