June 22, 2012

Cooke: daily, hourly, loving and giving

The graduation exercises for Smith College on June 22, 1881 included the reading of an original poem by Rose Terry Cooke. Cooke, a Connecticut-born poet and short story writer, did not read the poem herself; that honor was performed by elocution professor John Wesley Churchill. The poem, "The Flower Sower," features a young woman who approaches a priest with the simple question, "What shall I do?"

The young woman in the poem has become so troubled by the world, overwhelmed by its "earthly strife," that she has begun to isolate herself from it. The priest, an older man who has had his own share of difficulty, is first stunned into silence before finally answering:

Softly he spoke: —
                                "I give to thee
A daily service for God to do:
Work that shall keep thee safe and true,
Whatever evil shall walk abroad.
When loss and passion beset thy road,
And prayer and penance have no avail,
This shall hold thee with bands of steel..."

The task that the priest assigns to the young woman is simple: plant flowers on a daily basis.

"Scatter them daily up and down,
In the dirty lane and glittering town,
By every path where the children play,
By every road where the beggars stray,
By the church's door, and the market stall,
By peasant's hut, and by castle wall:
Let not one sun go down and say
'She hath not planted a flower today.'"

Sure enough, Cooke writes, she plants lavender, violets, poppies, larkspurs, and more. The effort not only brings happiness to the woman's life, but also to the lives of many others, "for toil and trouble were all forgot." The poem concludes with another question, "Is there a moral?" Simply, Cooke writes, sadness is offset by happiness, no matter how small the effort:

Not to every soul is given
To do some great thing under heaven.
But the grass-blades small and the drops of dew
Have their message to all of you,
And daily, hourly, loving and giving,
In the poorest life make heavenly living.

*For the text of this poem and some additional information, I am grateful to Nanci A. Young, College Archivist at Smith College.

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