The Poetess Archive
Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney
Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney
[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
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,
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.
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
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.
From the same volume we select some other pieces a specimens of her lyrical poetry.
Mrs. Sigourney lived to pass the "three-score years and ten;" she became a widow,
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.
1. Do not speak ill of the dead. [PT Editor.] BACK