March 3, 2013

Sigourney in England: With careful footsteps

In the summer of 1840, Lydia Huntley Sigourney went on a tour through Europe. Considered by some as the most famous woman writer in the United States in the first half of the 19th century, she found her reputation was no less substantial across the Atlantic. Visiting England, Scotland, and France, she took advantage of the inspirational trip to write a book, Pleasant Memories of Pleasant Lands, the next year.

Among the sites she honored in her book was Hampton Court, London, written as the poem "Hampton Court" on March 3, 1841. "Twas with a bridal party," Sigourney wrote, "that we went / To Visit Hampton Court." The day was full of vows, music, and kind words:

...But all too soon the fond leave-taking came,
The parent's benediction, and the embrace
Of loving kindred; for impatient steeds
Curving their necks, by white-gloved coachmen reined,
Waited the bridge, and lo! her silvery veil
And lustrous satin robe, gave sudden place
To traveller's graver costume.
                            Thus doth fleet
Woman's brief goddess-ship, and soon she takes
The sober matron tint, content to yield
Tinsel and trappings, if her heart be right,
That in her true vocation she may shed
A higher happiness on him she loves,
For earth and heaven.

Sigourney muses on the transition from maiden to matron before exploring Hampton Court, the "lordly manor" with its birds and trees. Sigourney notes her attempts to describe the experience in verse will be in vain. Recalling the stories and history of the place, she continues for several hundred non-rhyming lines, ultimately thinking of Thomas Wolsey, a religious leader who amassed great power and influence in the 16th century, and for whom Hampton Court was originally built. Wolsey had used his power for personal gain and, as he himself allegedly admitted, more carefully did the work of his monarch, King Henry VIII, than the work of God. Sigourney wonders if, now that he is dead, Wolsey has had his faith restored and been forgiven:

Is pride for man? the crushed before the moth?
Is it for angels? Answer, ye who walked
Exulting on the battlements of Heaven,
And fell interminably. Dizzy heights
Suit not the born of clay. Oh, rather walk
With careful footsteps, and with lowly eyes,
Bent on thine own original nor mark
With taunt of bitter blame thy brother's fall.
In dust his frailties sleep. Awake them not,
Nor stir with prying hand the curtaining tomb,
But lead the memory of his virtues forth
Into the sun-light.
                           So shalt though fulfill
The law of love.

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