June 10, 2010

Sigourney: I never wrote for fame

Lydia Huntley Sigourney was probably the most famous American woman poet in the first half of the 19th century. Her first book of poems, Moral Pieces, was published in 1815. She worked as a teacher in Hartford until her marriage to Charles Sigourney in 1819, when she left her job to focus on domestic duties. The marriage was an unhappy one and, shortly after her husband's business failed, Mrs. Sigourney (as she called herself) turned to writing to support the family, which her husband resented.

Her career saw the production of 46 volumes and 2000 articles (published in 300 journals and magazines). Though today maligned as a sentimentalist, she commanded attention in her lifetime; her name alone was worth $500 to the popular Godey's Lady's Book, which paid her to list her as an editor. She was involved in several political and social issues (abolitionism, the rights of Native Americans, women's education) and wrote her autobiography at the end of her life. She died on June 10, 1865 at the age of 73.

Her autobiography, Letters of Life, was published posthumously and served as a great indication of her popularity. She dedicated ten pages to requests she received from various people (mostly strangers) asking her to write poems for them — those ten pages were merely a sampling. She rarely refused these requests, including memorial poems written for people she never knew, though she never wrote one for her husband at his death in 1854.

One chapter of Mrs. Sigourney's autobiography, "Letters of Love," describes her thoughts on marriage. She originally made a personal oath never to marry, deeming herself "a thing set apart." After ignoring love letters for years, she finally found herself engaged. Years later, she was surprised by how she described it in her journal: "I feel almost astonished as I write the words. I am no more mine own, but another's." The final chapter of the book is titled "Good-Bye." As the author faced death, she wrote what is believed to be her final poem, "The Valedictory":

  Here is my Valedictory. I bring
A basket of dried fruits—autumnal leaves,
And mosses, pressed from ocean's sunless tides.
I strew them votive at your feet, sweet friends,
Who've listened to me long—with, grateful thanks
For favoring smiles, that have sustained and cheered
All weariness.
                    I never wrote for fame—
The payment seemed not to be worth the toil;
But wheresoe'er the kind affections sought
To mix themselves by music with the mind,
That was my inspiration and delight.
  And you, for many a lustrum, have not frowned
Upon my lingering strain. Patient you've been,
Even as the charity that never fails;
And pouring o'er my heart the gentlest tides
Of love and commendation. So I take
These tender memories to my pillowed turf,
Blessing you for them when I breathe no more.
  Heaven's peace be with you all!
                    Farewell! Farewell!

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