In this materialistic age of steam and electricity, when, in the race of life, men and women strive and jostle each other in the endeavor to reach some longed-for goal, and there seems scarce time to take breath, much less to rest, it is a happy and a hopeful augury that there are singers to whom even this jaded and over-eager Nineteenth Century will pause to listen.
Human nature is human nature still, and there are chords in the human heart which ever respond to the touch of the player who understands by an unerring instinct of sympathy the secret of their harmonies.
It is almost a truism that, in the childhood of peoples, poetry was born. When the world was young, when men were untrammeled by the conventionalities that come of age, knowledge and experience, speech became instinctively poetic in its endeavor to express feelings, hopes, desires and passions, and necessarily borrowed its imagery from the varying phenomena of nature. In the development of time, ideas more exact took the place of the old, half-understood impressions which men struggled to make intelligible to one another, and language became less poetic, losing the abundance of metaphor and simile which were its primitive characteristics.
There remain, however, poetic springs deep in human consciousness; and though thought and sentiment may be intelligently expressed in prose, it is the welding of thought to rhythm, the union of the pleasures of intellect and of sense which appeal most strongly to our perception of the beautiful.
In proportion as poetry is spontaneous, as it weans us from the commonplace and calls us to the ideal, it is true to its mission; and the poet, to deserve the name, must lift us out of ourselves and into higher spheres of thinking.
Prominent among the singers of our own time and country, whose verse has such power to awaken thought and aspiration, will be recognized Florence Earle Coates. The publisher of few long poems—for her gift is the lyric one, and she holds, with Edgar Allan Poe, that good poems are almost necessarily short—her work yet appeals in subtle fashion to the hearts of her readers, and has both popular and enduring qualities.
Mrs. Coates is one of the literary women of whom Philadelphia may justly be proud, for in it she was born, in one of the historic streets which, in the olden days, when the city was mapped out in rigid straight lines, received titles from the forest trees, and left us such names as Cedar and Pine and Spruce and Walnut and Chestnut and Mulberry as evidence that the grave founders were fond of nature, though such poetical nomenclature could hardly have been expected from the staid followers of Penn.
The child came into the world with a goodly heritage of honorable repute from ancestors who sought in the New World a liberty of conscience denied them in the Old. The lineal descendant of four of the Pilgrims of the "Mayflower"—of Thomas Angell (one of the five companions of Roger Williams, who, sailing with him from Massachusetts in an open boat, landed at State Rock, and with him founded the city of Providence), of Christopher Hussey, Tristram Coffin, Ralph Earle, Thomas Macey, Peter Folger (grandfather of Benjamin Franklin), of Captain Isaac Wayne (father of Major-General Anthony Wayne), and of the Arnolds of Rhode Island—names all associated with the earliest history of our country, and with the love of political and religious liberty—one would naturally expect from her similar enthusiasms and aspirations; and, in fact, a strong love of personal, political and religious freedom has characterized all the descendants of these men, down to the present day.
Though born in the Quaker City, Mrs. Coates was educated chiefly in New England, under the direction of the distinguished reformer, teacher and orator, Theodore D. Weld, of whom Wendell Phillips once remarked, that he was "the most eloquent man he had ever heard speak." Subsequently she continued her studies in a Convent of the Sacred Heart in France, and later, in the City of Brussels, where she lived for more than a year.
As a child, the Bible and Shakspere formed her favorite reading, and a child brought up on such mental fare, is not apt to go astray in after life in the matter of intellectual food.
While at school she so devoted herself to her studies, availing herself of every advantage offered, that it became matter of comment; and it was written of her by one of her teachers: "She toils terribly." Having exceptional musical gifts, Mrs. Coates gave much attention to that art, studying under the best masters both here and in Europe.
As part of her musical endowment, she had a deep and richly modulated voice and a power of dramatic expression which would have ensured her unusual triumphs had she been attracted toward a dramatic career. To quote the words of a close observer who knew her well: "Her essentially artistic nature first found expression in dramatic representation and in music. For the former, she was especially equipped with a fine memory, a keen appreciation of the subtler poetic qualities of the author she studied, and a quick realization of his more delicate dramatic suggestions. This with a voice of rarely sympathetic and vibrant power, would have given her easy eminence had she devoted herself to histrionic art."
While very early showing unusual ability in music, she yet had, according to her teachers, "particular disabilities to overcome in order to gain mechanical or technical perfection. The flexibility of her voice was not shared by her hand, and it was only by indomitable perseverance and a capacity for work which is the heritage of genius, that she attained to such a degree of mastery over the piano, that she made it the medium for poetic expression." A discriminating musical critic once wrote of her: "Who can wonder that to her poetic temperament, Chopin's music made such a strong appeal. Here was found the greatest opportunity for freedom of interpretation and expression of individual fancy, which are to a certain extent denied to the student of composers of the more formal classical school."
It was often said of her at this time, "that her rendering of Chopin was different from, and practically superior to, that of other performers."
Again, of her musical gifts it was written by Mrs. Ellen Olney Kirk: "In addition to technical skill and delicacy and precision of style, she possessed an insight and power of interpretation of the great masters denied to all but real artists."
Mrs. Coates is the wife of "the well-known and influential man, who is connected with a number of the charitable and other institutions of Philadelphia, Edward H. Coates. He is President of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and is one of the most generous patrons of art and artists."
With all the allurements that the world of fashion, literature and art offer to her, Mrs. Coates has singularly domestic tastes, and enjoys her own beautifully ordered home more than any of the gay scenes of a more worldly life. Her exquisite sense of the fitness of things is displayed in perfection in the management of her household affairs, every detail of which speaks to the observant stranger or friend who may chance to be within her gates, of the rare charm of harmonious repose, a charm which is usually entirely overlooked in the modern house, with its rooms filled to overflowing with an endless and incongruous variety of senseless bric-a-brac. A literary woman like Mrs. Coates is naturally drawn into the companionship of many of the foremost men and women of the day, and she dispenses under her roof a gracious and generous hospitality. Thus Matthew Arnold was her guest during his sojourn in America, and a cordial and enduring friendship existed between him and Mr. and Mrs. Coates, which terminated only with Mr. Arnold's death. As was said by Mrs. Kirk, "From him she received sympathy and encouragement, and his writings were a great inspiration to her, and she has acknowledged her debt to Mr. Arnold in many ways, and has perhaps in manner of treatment and in large utterance gained something from him."
Edmund Clarence Stedman is another well known literary man who is numbered among the friends of Mrs. Coates, on whose appreciative and discriminating sympathy she can always count.
Her life is a very full one, for she has her home duties, paramount in her estimation, her literary work, her charities, her social ties, and all the other pursuits and occupations that go to fill the lives of nineteenth century women, and as in these days of clubs it would be almost impossible, even if a woman so desired, to refrain from being allied to one or more such societies, so Mrs. Coates is a member of the Civic Club, of the Society of the Colonial Dames, an honorary member of the New Century Club of Philadelphia, of the Woman's Literary Club of Baltimore and also a member of the Browning Society of Philadelphia, of which she has recently been elected President.
But Mrs. Coates is before all a poet, and it is chiefly as a poet that she touches the public and the world at large. Of her work a literary critic thus writes: "In her poetry she is still the artist, making her material serve her turn in the most effective way. Her verse changes with her mood and theme, as in the 'Sonnet to Columbus' where it is calm and dignified with something of power called forth by the subject. Again, in 'Siberia' she brings before our very eyes the long dreary stretches of that cruel land. The sonnet is indeed a favorite form of expression with her and in spite of the narrow bounds to which it confines her, she makes it sing high, sing low,' at her will.
"But no versification is so intricate or so simple that it does not turn to music in her hands, and her range is a wide one, although the slightly introspective tendency of her mind makes her choice of lighter forms not so frequent. Sympathy with the sorrows of the lowly and the suffering of the oppressed, indignant hatred of wrong and scorn of injustice are often voiced in her lyrics, while the theme of all themes, the supreme subject of verse through all ages, love, finds in her, if not passionate utterance, yet a thrilling tone in consonance with her earnest nature."
We conclude this slight sketch of this gifted Philadelphia woman by giving a few examples of her poems which have appeared in the various periodicals of the day, such as the Atlantic, Harpers, The Century, Lippincott's, The Cosmopolitan, or The Independent, all short, yet having that distinct living quality which insures their enduring properties.
I will be still;
The terror drawing nigh
Shall startle from my lips no coward cry;
Nay, though the night my deadliest dread fulfill,
I will be still.
For, oh! I know
Though suffering hours delay,
Yet to eternity they pass away,
Carrying something onward as they flow,
Yes, something won;
The harvest of our tears—
Something unfading, plucked from fading years;
Something to blossom on beyond the sun,
From sorrow won.
So hopeless now of balm,
Shall sleep at last, in light as pure and calm
As that wherewith the stars look down on thee,
I am the key that parts the gates of Fame:
I am the cloak that covers cowering shame;
I am the final goal of every race;
I am the storm-tossed spirit's resting-place:
The messenger of sure and swift relief,
Welcomed with wailings and reproachful grief;
The friend of those who have no friend but me,
I break all chains, and set all captives free.
I am the cloud, that when Earth's day is done
An instant veils an unextinguished sun;
I am the brooding hush that follows strife,
The waking from a dream that Man calls—Life!
Although the faiths to which we fearful clung
Fall from us, or no more have might to save;
Although the past, recalling gifts it gave,
O'er lost delights a doleful knell have rung.
Although the present, forth from ashes sprung,
Doth day by day postpone what most we crave;
And promising, beguile us to the grave,—
Yet, towards the future, we are always young!
It smiles upon us in last lingering hours,
If with less radiance, with a light as fair,
As tender, pure, as in our childish years,
It is the fairy realm of fadeless flowers,
Of songs and ever-springing fountains, where
No heart-aches come, no vain regrets, no tears!
The friend I loved betrayed my trust,
And bowed my spirit to the dust.
I keep the hurt he gave, yet know
He was forgiven long ago.
From him I did not merit ill,
But I would bear injustice still,
Content, could years of guiltless woe
Undo the wrong I did my foe.
When Spring comes tripping o'er the lea,
And grasses start to meet her,
The bluebird sings
With quivering wings
Brief rhapsodies to greet her;
And deems—fond minstrel!—none may be,
The wide world over, blithe as he.
And where the brooklet tinkles by,
And the yellow snow-drop dances;
The wind-flowers frail
And blood-roots pale
Lift up appealing glances,
The flute-voiced meadow-lark on high
Sings, "None on earth so glad as I!"
Laughs Corydon, "Your hearts are bold,
Yet little ye can measure,
Poor, silly birds,
Spring's sweetest words,
Or guess at my proud pleasure;
When Phyllis comes, and all the wold,
For sudden joy buds into gold!"
I was born as free as the silvery light
That laughs in a Southern fountain;
Free as the sea-fed bird that nests
On a Scandinavian mountain,
Free as the wind that mocks at the sway
And pinioning clasp of another—
Yet in the slave they scourged to-day
I saw and knew—my brother!
Vested in purple I sat apart,
But the cord that smote him, bruised me;
I close my ears, but the sob that broke
From his savage breast accused me;
No phrase of reasoning judgement just
The plaint of my soul could smother,
A creature vile, abased to the dust,
I knew him still—my brother.
And the Autumn day that had smiled so fair
Seemed suddenly overclouded;
A gloom more dreadful than nature owns,
My human mind enshrouded;
I thought of the power benign that made
And bound men one to the other,
And I felt in my brother's fear afraid,
And ashamed in the shame of my brother.
For me the jasmine buds unfold,
And silver daisies star the lea,
The crocus hoards the sunset gold,
And the wild rose breathes for me.
I feel the sap through the bough returning,
I share the skylark's transport fine,
I know the fountain's wayward yearning—
I love, and the world is mine!
I love, and thoughts that sometime grieved,
Still, well remembered, grieve not me;
From all that darkened and deceived
Upsoars my spirit free.
For soft the hours repeat one story,
Sings the sea one strain divine,
My clouds arise all flushed with glory;
I love, and the world is mine!
The night-wind drives across the laden skies,
And fans the brooding earth with icy wings,
Against the coast loud-booming billows flings,
And soughs through forest deeps with moaning sighs,
Above the gorge, where snow, deep fallen lies,
A softness lending e'en to savage things—
Above the gelid source of mountain springs,
A solitary eagle, circling, flies.
O pathless woods, O isolating sea,
O steppes interminable, hopeless, cold,
O grievous distances, imagine ye,
Imprisoned here, the human soul to hold?
Free in a dungeon—as yon falcon free,—
It soars beyond your ken, its loved ones to enfold.