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Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney               TEI-encoded version

Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney

by Catherine Beecher

[In Hours at Home: A Popular Monthly of Instruction and Recreation (1865-1870) vol. 1, no. 6 (October 1865), pp. 559-565: ]


"Nil do mortuis nisi bonum,"1 is an oft-quoted maxim that has much embarrassed the honest biographer. In many cases where it ahs been strictly obeyed, the result has been a sketch as false to the reality as would be a landscape painted with every deep shadow left out. Often have biographies of domestic saints, and especially of precocious children, so falsified realities, by exaggeration of virtues and omission of failings, that a widely-extended distrust prevails in regard to such writings which is to be lamented.

And yet, when the great and good depart, every loving heart buries in their grave the memory of frailties, and dwells only on what was pure and good. To avoid this difficulty this sketch is offered, not a complete portrait, but only to present portions of the life and character of a distinguished lady, whose claims as an authoress are surpassed by her private virtues, and chiefly those portions which offer shining examples, some of them rare as they are beautiful.

The opening period of her life was in a humble cottage, in Norwich, Connecticut, where her poetic impulses were cherished by some of the most picturesque and beautiful scenery in our country. Here, till womanhood dawned, was hidden a "gem of purest ray serene." When it was discovered and appreciated by a venerable lady, who now doubtless wears the treasure in her heavenly crown.

The virtue of gratitude was one of Mrs. Sigourney's distinguishing traits, and to her latest day the memory of this maternal patroness of her early life was cherished with the warmest love and veneration.

In the family of this aged friend (Mrs. Lathrop) she was brought into the society of the most distinguished men of our country. Here she also met her devoted friend and patron, Daniel Wadsworth, whose wealth and family placed him at the head of society in Hartford. By his influence, she secured a flourishing school in that city, embracing the daughters of the most leading citizens. Soon after, aided by the counsel and criticism of this warm friend, her first poetical effusions were collected in a volume which met with general favor.

At this time, America offered few competitors for fame in this divine art, and soon Lydia Huntley was known all over the land as a poetess -- a title then borne by no other lady in the nation.

As it respects the enjoyment of earthly good, these were the palmy days of her life. Cherished as a child in a most amiable family, surrounded by all the refinements of wealth, the cynosure of one of the most polished literary circles in the nation, employed in training the finest and most influential female minds, and the object of their enthusiastic admiration and love; this was, in after-life, often referred to, by her, as the happiest period of her life.

Five years passed in these pleasing duties, and then, in 1819, she was married to Charles Sigourney, a gentleman of culture and refinement, and a prosperous merchant.

Here she assumed the arduous responsibilities of a step-mother to one son and two younger daughters, all under twelve years of age. Four or five years after this event, the writer, as a teacher of young ladies in that city, received a poetic effusion, introducing her step-daughters to the school, calling them her "darling buds of hope and love." And during the year that followed, no mother seemed more tenderly interested or more faithfully devoted to young daughters; while there ever seemed the appropriate return of filial love.

The period from her marriage to her husband's death was that in which her literary success culminated, and her position as a popular writer was most flatteringly acknowledged.

Placed by her husband at the head of


one of the most beautiful establishments in the city, it became the resort of multitudes of strangers, led to her at once by her own wide reputation and the goodwill of her admiring friends around.

Her grateful appreciation of this homage, and her unaffected and gracious manners, won the hearts of all who came, even more than her acknowledged genius. By the consent of all, wherever she moved, at home or abroad, she was a conspicuous object of attention and honor.

It was during this period that the writer proposed a literary gathering, in which each should personate some distinguished character of a given period. As the first reunion, the period chosen was that of Queen Anne, while by previous unanimous choice, the company selected Mrs. Sigourney as the Queen. Surrounded by her mimic court, with the warriors, statesmen, and literati of that brilliant period, her nice appreciation of the character she was to enact, and the quiet humor with which she exhibited the stupidity and weaknesses of her British Majesty, afforded unbounded mirth and admiration to her friends around.

After her marriage, it was Mrs. Sigourney's practice to assemble in a beautiful grove her former pupils on the anniversary of the commencement of her school. These p[leasing festivals were continued till time and changes rendered them impossible.

The reverses of fortune obliged Mr. Sigourney, near the close of his life, to relinquish the beautiful residence so much honored and adorned by the genius of his wife. Here her two children, a son and a daughter, were born, and spent their early childhood. Her poetic farewell and lament on leaving this rural home is touching and beautiful. From this time her residence was in a small but picturesque cottage within the city limits.

In 1841, she spent a year in visiting the old world. In England and France her reputation preceded her, and she was received in the highest literary circles, as well as the most select private society, with distinguished honor and attentions. She visited the families of Wordsworth, Joanna Baillie, Rogers the poet, Miss Edgeworth, and other distinguished persons in Great Britain.

In France she resided with the now Marchioness de Lavalette, and was received with marked attention by the LaFayette family, and at the court of Louis Philippe. On her departure form Paris, the Queen of France presented her with an elegant bracelet, with words of respectful consideration.

In estimating Mrs. Sigourney's literary claims, we need to refer to the faults of the age in which she lived -- a period in which the desire for distinction and originality betrayed literary men into strange vagaries of language and style, and for a time threatened to barbarize the purity of our language.

Resisting the general tendency to inflation, to hard transpositions, and to rough violation of rhythmic rules, she adhered to the pure standard of our best English classics, both in rhythm, construction, and expression. Some of our modern poets will fall of wide or lasting popularity, because their involved sentences and hard renderings demand a previous exercise in parsing, or the dictionary. To be understood, an exercise to which the great mass of readers will not submit. In contrast to this, Mrs. Sigourney's writings never pain the ear by a foreign expression, a limping foot, a barbarous expression or a missing rhythm. On the contrary, her widely circulated poems, while they charmed the common ear and heart, aided to educate the national taste, and to preserve a love for refined poetry, and a pure and classic use of our mother tongue.

The fault of her writings, to a degree, arose from her very virtues. Not only did her generous and sympathetic nature lead her to constant elegiac and funereal effusions, but she was constantly beset my mourning friends, not only among her acquaintance, but entire strangers,


through the mail, entreating her to consecrate the graves of their dear ones with the flowers of her genius. How much she was thus entreated, and how difficult was the task of refusal to one so sympathizing and kind, few could realize, except those who saw her loaded mails, and the labors of love thus multiplied and generously bestowed.

That Mrs. Sigourney possessed poetic talent of a high order can not be denied. That she did not husband her pearls of thought, and string them in compact forms, her friends may regret. But in that world where love rules supreme, she may for a different estimate, and rejoice that a desire for admiration and fame was subordinated to tender sympathy and far-reaching benevolence.

And yet it must be allowed that prolixity and haste were the faults of her literary career; and that her fifty volumes would have been wisely reduced to half that number.

It has been so often claimed that Mrs. Sigourney was not a poet of a high class, that, as a matter of justice, we introduce a specimen of her best performances, which, in vivid painting, vigorous style, and poetic sentiment, is surpassed but by very few of our highest classics.

Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney

     Ho! city of the gay!
     Paris -- what fosial rite
     Doth call thy thronging millions forth,
     All eager for the sight?
5     By square and fountain side
     Heads in dense masses rise,
     And tower and battlement and tree
     Are studded thick with eyes.
     Comes there some conqueror home
10     In triumph from the fight,
     With spoils and captives in his train,
     The trophies of his might?
     The Arc de Triomphe glows,
     A martial host are nigh,
15     France pours in long succession forth
     Her pomp of chivalry.
     No clarion marks their way,
     No victor trump is blown:
     Why march they on so silently,
20     Told by their tread alone?
     Who rideth on yon car?
     The incense flameth high;
     Comes there some demi-god of old?
     No answer -- no reply!
25     A king is standing there,
     And with uncovered head
     Receives him in the name of France:
     Receiveth whom? the dead!
     Was he not buried deep
30     In island cavern drear,
     Girt by the sounding ocean wave?
     How came that sleeper here?
     Was there no rest for him
     Beneath a peaceful pall,
35     That thus he broke his stony couch
     Ere the strong angel's call?
     Hark! hark! The requiem swells
     A deep soul-thrilling strain;
     The echo never to be heard
40     By mortal ear again!
     A requiem for the dead,
     Whose fiat millions slew;
     The souring Eagle of the Alps,
     The crushed at Waterloo!
45     The banished who returned,
     The dead who rose again;
     And rode in his shroud
     O'er the billows proud
     To the sunny banks of Seine!
50     They laid him there in state,
     That warrior strong and bold;
     The imperial crown with jewels bright
     Upon his ashes cold.
     While round these columns proud
55     The blazoned banners wave,
     Which on a hundred fields he won
     With the life-blood of the brave.
     And sternly there keep guard
     His veterans scarred and old,
60     Whose wounds of Lodi's cleaving bridge
     Of purple Leipsic told.
     A cloud is on their brow:
     Is it sorrow for the dead?
     Or memory of the fearful strife
65     When their country's legions fled?
     Of Borodino's blood,
     Of Beresina's wall;
     The horrors of that dire retreat
     That turned old history pale?
70     A cloud is on their brow:
     Is it sorrow for the dead?
     Or a shuddering at the wintry storm
     By Russian tempest sped?
     Where countless mounds of snow
75     Mark the poor conscript's grave;
     Where pierced by frost and famine, sank
     The bravest of the brave?
     Mysterious once and proud!
     In the land where shadows reign;
80     Hast thou not met the flocking ghosts of those
     Who at thy nod were slain?
     Oh! when the cry of spectral host,
     Like a rushing blast shall be;
      What will the answer be to them?
85      And what thy God’s to thee?


We now revert to the leading aim of this article, which is to exhibit those portions of Mrs. Sigourney's character and example which exhibit virtues, some of them as rare as beautiful, and therefore especially worthy of study and imitation.

The ground-root of these specific virtues was a fine intellectual organization, with the predominance of benevolence and sympathy, which native principles were strengthened and developed by strict conscientiousness and earnest piety. Her native impulses and her religious principles were in perfect harmony. Taking the Almighty and incarnate Saviour as her model, it was her daily aim to follow him who "went about doing good." Especially did her sympathizing nature encounter into his spirit who came to bind-up the broken hearted, to bear the burdens of the weak, and to raise up those that are bowed down. It was thus that she became a most remarkable example of tender reverence and attention to the aged.

It is often spoken of as a mystery that the infirm and apparently useless members of a family are left to drag on a weary existence, while the young, vigorous, and useful are snatched to an early grave. But this apparent mystery ceases, if we reflect that the family state is the preliminary period of training for that kingdom of heaven in which each is living, not for self, but for the best good of the whole great family of God. None are prepared for this kingdom till, like its great Master, the happiness of others is the chief end, and self-denial and self-sacrifice the great means to that end.

"Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." How could the young in each family be trained to follow our Divine Exemplar in this great and difficult duty, were not the sick, the aged, and the poor connected with the family state? Few realize the burdens that the aged bear, especially those who have been parents, or those who have held honor and authority.

Instead of being the loved and respected dispensers of favors, the rulers of the family state, they find themselves either forsaken in their desolate home, or mere appendages to another family. Their opinions and counsels are no longer sought; they become subordinates and subject to the will of those they once controlled; they find that they are burdens rather that helpers, and often suspect hat the family would be much more comfortable without them than with them. Their resources for enjoyment fail; society abroad ceases to attract; their senses begin to fail; their loss of hearing often shuts out social enjoyment; the eye is dimmed, so that reading is no longer a resource. Under all these privations and burdens sometimes the temper fails, so that the "peevishness of old age" has become proverbial. To all this are often added infirmities and sickness that demand constant sympathy, care, labor, and patience. The infirm grandparent, the aged mother, homeless relative, the worn out domestic; these are preserved, often when they would gladly depart, in order that the highest lesson in Christian life may be taught to he young.

Happy parents who, instead of regarding these dependent inmates as crosses and trials, welcome them suffering ministers of good, aiding in the great and difficult mission of training the young to patient and self-sacrificing benevolence.

In fulfilling these duties, Mrs. Sigourney's example should be preserved, not only as her lasting honor, but as a benefaction to an age and country so untrained and so heedless of these sacred obligations. For even in Christian families, the neglected or even insulted parent often has occasion to exclaim: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is, to have a thankless child!"

Mrs. Sigourney was placed in her elegant mansion and sought after by the first in the land, she removed her infirm parents from their lovely home and gave


them one of her best apartments. Though preserving their rustic tastes and manners, and though plain and unattractive to strangers, no royal personages were ever treated with more care and reverence, while her little children were carefully trained to similar deference and kind attentions.

The writer had occasion repeatedly to notice such manifestations from her little ones. The respectful bow or courtesy every morning at the chamber-door of the grand-parents, the presentation of flowers, the little services needed by the infirm, all were rendered with cheerful alacrity. Once the little boy, taken to a room where was a picture of his paternal grandfather, was instructed to take off his hat and make a bow to the likeness of the aged ancestor.

And when, after years of care and watching, the aged father, dying with a cancer, that most painful and trying of all diseases, was not turned off to hired nurses. His loving child, with her own hands, dressed his wounds, and ministered to all his wants.

These tender ministries to the aged were extended to many beyond her own home. Repeatedly the writer has found copies of her works, with little poetic greetings, sent to aged persons, some of them humble and poor, on their birth-day, of which she kept the memory, when perhaps their own children had forgotten it. In like manner the poor and the such were constantly remembered and ministered to by one who thus followed her Lord, "going about doing good." A physician in an extensive practice in the city, remarked that he found Mrs. Sigourney's cups and baskets for the sick in all directions, and oftener than from any other hand.

So the deserted and forgotten in other directions were numbered by her. One day a friend was present when a decent-looking man was ushered into Mrs. Sigourney's parlor, who came with amusingly republican simplicity to pay her his respects, though just released from State Prison!

It seems that he had been sent there by her instrumentality for stealing some of her jewelry. But during his confinement, she had so ministered to both his spiritual and temporal wants, that he came to tell her that her kindness had changed his character, and that henceforth he hoped to be an honest man and good Christian.

Even to the last hour of her life, these tender ministries were continued. One of her last requests was, that some oranges should be sent to an aged woman, and some of her flowers to a sick young girl.

Another offset from the root of benevolence in Mrs. Sigourney's character, was her tender regard for others in contrasting motives and character. She had much of that charity which "hopeth all things and thinketh no evil."

Still another offset was her habit of expressing her appreciation and good-will toward all who approached her. This was not only an impulse but a principle; and she often lamented the New-England trait of repression so often indicated in the expression: "Really, very kind and affectionate, though cold and undemonstrative."

So in conversation, it was rarely that her kind impulses did not fasten on something in the person or family of her visitor that was pleasant to recall. In her private life Mrs. Sigourney's example was in some other particulars worthy of imitation. She was remarkable for systematic industry. Habitually an early riser, it was in the bright morning hours that her pen was busy, when most of her friends were in slumber. It was her habit also to keep always at hand some article of industry, so that a portrait of her with knitting-needles in her hands is the truest memorial of her diligence, for so she oftenest appeared to her friends.

In the following lines form her pen, another distinctive virtue which she faithfully cultivated is offered as her memorial. It is contained in her work entitled the Daily Counselor, in which a text from the Bible and a poetical elucidation of the text is given for every day of the year.

               Speak not evil. -- James iv. 11
     Speak well of all; 'twill be a medicine
     Unto thine own frail heart.


     Think well of all;
90     Nor let thy friendship at the foibles start
     That appertain to one humanity.
     True love hath itself the principle
     Of patience unto death.
     Be pitiful unto the fallen,
95     Nor let the scourging tongue
     Lay bare thy neighbor's faults
     That hide in secrecy -- perchance with penitence.
     Speak lenient words and soften righteous blame.
     So on thy soul shall dwell no slander-spot
100     When it goes forth to judgement.

From the same volume we select some other pieces a specimens of her lyrical poetry.

               He shall gather the lambs with his arm. -- ISAIAH xi. 11.
     I was a straying sheep,
     I wandered from my guide
     Along the broad and flowery road,
105     My lambkin by my side.
     A warning call I heard;
     "Come back to me," it said;
     I knew it was my shepherd's voice,
     But turned away my head.
110     Among the giddy throng,
     I sported far and wide,
     By the green margin of the brooks,
     My lambkin by my side.
     Dark clouds obscured the sky;
115     I stood alone that day;
     I knew it was my shepherd's hand
     That took my lamb away.
     He took it to his fold,
     My eyed with tears were dim;
120     Then through the darkness and the storm,
     I rose and followed him.
     The steep and narrow way
     With humbled heart I took;
     I knew it was the path he went,
125     The path that I forsook.
     Yes! Still I'll climb and pray,
     Till this short life is o'er,
     And strive to find my folded lamb,
     And never wander more.

130               He hath made every thing beautiful. -- ECCLES III. 11.
     Oh God! how beautiful is earth,
     In sunbeam or in shade!
     Her forests with their waving arch,
     Her flowers that gem the glade;
135     Her hillocks white with fleecy flocks,
     Her fields with grain that glow,
     Her sparkling streamlets deep and broad
     That through the valleys flow;
     Her created waves that clasp the shore,
140     And lift their anthem loud;
     Her mountains with their solemn brows
     That woo the yielding cloud.
     O God! How beautiful is life
     That thou dost lend us here!
145     So cheered with hopes that line the cloud,
     And joys that gem the ear;
     With cradle-hymns of mothers young,
     And tread of youthful feet
     That scarce, in their elastic bound,
150     Bow down the grass-flowers sweet;
     With brightness round the pilgrim's staff,
     Who at the setting sun
     Beholds the golden gate thrown wide,
     And all his work well done.
155     But if this earth which changes mar,
     This life to death that leads,
     Are made so beautiful by Him
     From whom all good proceeds;
     How glorious must that region be
160     Where all the pure and blessed,
     From every fear and sorrow free,
     Attain unbroken rest!

               "Unto them that look for him, he shall appear the second time, without sin, unto salvation."
     Night forsakes her ebon seat,
165     Gathered mists in volumes fleet,
     Dawn upon the mountain gray
     Trembles with preclusive ray,
     Till the lifted gate of morn
     Purples where the day is born,
170     And that glorious orb doth rise,
     Eye of earth and sea and skies.
     Thus 'mid shades of ancient time,
     Patriarchs gazed with faith sublime,
     Seers invoked the promised light,
175     Till on Bethlehem's blessed glade
     Burst the beam that ne'er shall fade,
     And the raptured matin song
     Saviour, come! Our spirits wait:
     Enter with thy regal state!
180     If our darkening sins prevail,
     If our dawn of hope be pale,
     Wake that star, whose aspect sweet
     Led the sages to thy feet;
     Wake that sun whose holy ray
185     Brightens to eternal day!

Mrs. Sigourney lived to pass the "three-score years and ten;" she became a widow,


and buried her only son. Her only daughter, with three little grandsons, removed to a distant residence, and she was left solitary in her cottage home.

But the blessings she scattered to others returned to cheer her last day. Many loving friends ministered to her, and in her closing hours, her own and her adopted daughters watched her sick-bed, and were mourners at her grave.

Her end was peace.

     Calmly the day forsook our heaven,
               To dawn beyond the west;
     So may our souls in life's last even,
               Retire to glorious rest.

1. Do not speak ill of the dead. [PT Editor.] BACK

Date: 1865 (Coding Revisions: 12/30/2005). Author: Catherine Beecher (Coding Revisions: Laura Mandell).
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