Celia Thaxter in her Island Garden, painted by Childe Hassam.
Dear Celia Thaxter: I discovered the incredibly beauty of your poetry inspired by your life on Appledore, one of the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire, which I visited so long ago. Your island garden so painstakingly maintained by the Portsmouth Horticultural Society brings to mind the patience and endurance of a woman whose love for the minutest detail of nature found its way in your poetry and also your watercolors and ceramics. Every flower, leaf, bug, slug, sandpiper, seabird and the mighty gray rocks were your friends and blossomed into poems of joyful recognition for their amazing contribution to a life well lived by the sound of the sea.
THE SOUND OF THE SEA
At first glance the Isles of Shoals seems very sad, stern and bleak, but to you Appledore, where you lived, it was enchanting. You perhaps ascribe your poignant poetry to the sound of the sea to the fact that people forget the hurry and worry and fret of life after living there awhile, and, to the imaginative mind, all things become a dreamy tableau of never ending beauty. The eternal sound of the sea on every side seemingly wears away the edge of preoccupation with the mainland; sharp images become blurred and softened like a sketch in charcoal and tranquility takes over the senses.
A SEASIDE SONNET
By Celia Thaxter: As happy dwellers by the seaside hear In every pause the sea’s mysterious sound, The infinite murmur, solemn and profound, Incessant, filling all the atmosphere, Even so I hear you, for you do surround My newly-waking life, and break for aye About the viewless shores, till they resound With echoes of God’s greatness night and day. Refreshed and glad I feel the full flood-tide Fill every inlet of my waiting soul; Long-striving, eager, hope, beyond control, For help and strength at last is satisfied; And you exalt me, like the sounding sea, With ceaseless whispers of eternity.
AN ISLAND GARDEN
Celia reminisces “All flowers had for me such human interest, they were so dear and precious. I wondered how every flower knew what to do and to be; why the morning-glory didn’t forget sometimes, and bear a cluster of elder-bloom, or the elder hand out pennons of gold and purple like the iris; or the goldenrod suddenly blaze out a scarlet plume, the color of the pimpernel, was a mystery to my childish thought. And why did the sweet wild primrose wait till after sunset to unclose its pale yellow buds; why did it unlock its treasure of rich perfume to the night alone? Few flowers bloomed for me upon the lonesome rock; but I made the most of all I had, and neither knew of nor desired more. Ah, how beautiful they were!” (From “Among the Isles of Shoals, by Celia Thaxter, 1873, J.R. Osgood publisher)
A LIFE SANCTIONED BY THE SEA
Life on the Isles of Shoals, in its remote and pristine beauty vividly colored Celia’s poetry and prose. As I witnessed this sea-locked vista I can tell you that the landscape of the Isles of Shoals has changed little since the time when Thaxter lived there. First as daughter of the lighthouse keeper on White Island Lighthouse and then later on Appledore where her family had the finest island hotel which became an intellectual and literary Mecca drawing artists like Willam Morris Hunt and Childe Hassam to the Shoals as well as well known authors. The burden of caring for her brain-damaged child, Karl, and an invalid husband, Levi, must have weighted heavily on her and would surely have been enough to discourage any writer, but Celia was committed to her role as a poet. She wrote with quiet passion of the place and land that she loved most and gave poetry readings daily throughout the summer season at Appledore.
AMERICA’S FAVORITE POET
Celia Thaxter (1835-1894) reputation as the most popular of America’s women poets far surpassed many other poets’ names better known today. Yet Celia’s fame began to wane around 1894 but is regaining its place with new legions of followers today who have come to appreciate her poignant sentiments. And now I leave you with an excerpt from Celia Thaxter’s poem “Land-Locked.”
O Earth! Thy summer song of joy may soar
Ringing to heaven in triumph. I but crave
The sad, caressing murmur of the wave
That breaks in tender music on the shore.