Letter of Maria White (Mrs. James Russell) Lowell to Sophia (Mrs. Nathaniel Hawthorne; with remarks by F. B. Sanborn

Letter of Maria White (Mrs. James Russell) Lowell to Sophia (Mrs. Nathaniel Hawthorne; with remarks by F. B. Sanborn  (1912) 
Maria White Lowell and Franklin Benjamin Sanborn

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.





With Remarks by F. B. Sanborn

Mr. Bixby, with his usual good taste and good fortune, has obtained one of the most charming letters of Maria White, the early love and first wife of the poet Lowell, to her slightly elder friend, the wife of the prose poet, Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was written from Philadelphia, whither the young couple had gone the year after their marriage in 1844, as a favorable city for Lowell's chosen pursuit of poet and magazine writer. At their marriage, Lowell was twenty-five and Miss White (of Watertown) was twenty-three. They did not become acquainted until in 1839-40, though their homes were hardly more than a mile apart—Lowell living with his father, the Reverend Doctor Lowell, at Elmwood, an old Tory mansion, which had become the property of Gerry, one of the Signers of the Declaration, after the Revolution; and from his family it came to Dr. Lowell. Miss White lived at home, in a house with a fine garden, along the highway from Mount Auburn to Watertown Village. Before Lowell met her, he was inclined to be a gay and thoughtless youth, who had neglected his duties in Harvard, where he graduated in 1838, a year after Thoreau; and, as Class Poet, had satirized Emerson and the serious reformers of the period, in verse of the traditional type, but with far less point than Doctor Holmes used in similar satire.

I met in after years, at Peterboro' in rural New York, a classmate of Lowell who did not graduate, having carried neglect of study even farther than Lowell could venture, in a town so bookish as Cambridge. This Charles Dudley Miller, the son-in-law of Gerrit Smith, told me of the gayeties and songs of his boon companion in those days. For no very serious offense, but for some public indecorum, the college faculty sent Lowell to spend his last term in Concord, under the tutelage of the village pastor, Barzillai Frost; and there the fluent Muse dictated to him the Class Poem, which he was not permitted to deliver, or even to hear; but, during the Class Day amusements in the college yard, Lowell, according to tradition, sat outside the wooden fence in a "one-horse shay" of the kind immortalized by Holmes, in which he had driven down along the Cambridge Turnpike, from "Emerson's Corner" in Concord, and past the birthplace of Theodore Parker in Lexington, five miles from Concord Village, that summer morning. In course of his attempts at wit, Lowell set down this lament over Emerson's theology:

Alas! that Christian ministers should dare
To preach the views of Gibbon and Voltaire!
Alas! that one whose life and gentle ways
E'en Hate could find it in its heart to praise,
Whose intellect is equalled but by few,
Should strive for what he'd weep to find were true!

Lowell had lived in Concord near Judge Hoar and Colonel Whiting, and had frequented Emerson's house, at the east end of the village, where the Turnpike left the main Lexington road (now Massachusetts Avenue), up and down which the Redcoats had marched on that eventful 19th of April, which, opened the War of Independence. In years ensuing, Lowell followed Emerson in that path of literary independence which led New England away from servile imitation of English models; but in 1838 the hour for him had not struck. It dawned in the light of love when (possibly at Concord, where she sometimes visited, in the home of Miss Anne Whiting, or at Squire Hoar's) Lowell first appreciated the gentle beauty of Maria White. She had accepted the extreme views of the emancipationists, like Anne Phillips, Maria Weston Chapman, Augusta King, Jane Whiting and Sophia and Helen Thoreau; and it was not long before her lover joined the ranks of the same party, and became the junior laureate of the Abolitionists,—Whittier being his senior in office, but not so enthusiastically Garrisonian.

The Peabody sisters, Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia (Mrs. Hawthorne), went part way along the same radical road, but not so far in all directions; and they were intimate with the White family, as also with the Channings and Parkers and Phillipses. Mrs. Hawthorne was married in July, 1842, two years before Maria White, and her first child, Una (referred to in the letter), was born in March, 1844, at the Old Manse, which, in Autumn, 1845, the Hawthornes were about leaving for Boston and Salem. Nothing could surpass the delicacy and elegance of Maria Lowell, as testified by her friends, of whom I knew scores, though I never saw her. She was an invalid when I first knew the Lowell family, and was abroad when I went to reside at Cambridge in 1852-3; and she died in 1853. But the portraits of the young wedded poets had been painted by their friend, the artist Page; and in one of the rooms of Mrs. Anna Lowell, the mother of Charles Lowell, whom I knew in college, and of his brother James,—both killed in the Civil War,—hung for a year or two the picture of Maria White. I often visited there, and became familiar with her features. She wrote verse easily, and with deep sentiment and a certain feminine grace, not always found in her husband's poems. Few, perhaps none, of her poems were published in her lifetime, but in 1855, her bereaved husband privately printed a thin volume, now lying before me; and occasionally, while editing the Atlantic Monthly, from 1857 onward, he allowed one to appear there. Here is one I have always esteemed the best, though others were more elaborate, more profound, or more moving:—


Here blooms the legend, fed by Time and Chance,
Fresh as the morning, though with centuries old;
The whitest lily in the shield of France,
With heart of virgin gold.

Along this square she moved, sweet Joan of Arc,
With face more pallid than a daylit star,
Half-seen, half-doubted,—while before her dark
Stretched the array of war.

Swift passed the battle-smoke of lying breath
From off her path, as if a wind had blown,
Showing no faithless King,—but righteous Death
On the low wooden throne.

He would reward her: she who meekly wore
Alike the gilded mail, the peasant gown,
As meekly now received one honor more,
The formless fiery crown.

A white dove trembled up the heated air,
And in the opening zenith found its goal;
Soft as a downward feather dropped a prayer
For each repentant soul.

The complicated wrongs and woes disclosed in the following letter from William Black to Osgood (the Boston publisher and companion of Dickens in London, where he had a branch office), can hardly be unraveled in one short page.

Black himself was a man of Celtic genius, who wrote things good and bad,—but apt to be good reading. He was publishing a novel in Harper's Magazine between my two visits to Greece, in 1890-93; and he took his modern Greek heroine to Athens, where, if I remember rightly, he hid her from observation in the Queen Amelia Orphanage for Girls, which the late Michael Anagnos took me to see in 1890. I recognized the place from Black's description, for he had the art—which Cherbuliez had in his Cheval de Phidias, and which Richard Harding Davis had not—of so describing the atmosphere and locations of Athens, that the visitor might traverse the small city by his faithful pages.

Black's curses on the editors who changed his manuscript will be echoed by all authors,—though sometimes the editor keeps the author out of a blunder or a scrape.

F. B. Sanborn.

Paston House, Paston Place, Brighton.

February 28.

My dear Osgood,

I don't think these sheets will be of any use to Messrs. Harpers. The "Snow Idyll" they are themselves publishing next month; and the two other stories have been published before. However, if they care to make a volume of them, well and good: only, I must not be paid anything for it.

The proofs you have are uncorrected and I can't get them put straight before the end of next week. But perhaps the ingenious devil in Franklin Square who is always altering my work will exercise a fatherly care over them. I notice this morning that in the House—Boat he has changed "Carry me back to Tennessee" into "Carry me back to old Virginny." Fancy an American not knowing the familiar banjo-song of "Elsie Fee, or carry me back to Tennessee!" And, damn him, if he didn't know it, why didn't he leave it alone! However, that is not so ludicrous as his exploit in changing, in Harpers' Bazaar, the motto of the Leucanian Republic, which I had quoted in "Sunrise" into modern school-girl Italian!!

Yours very faithfully,

William Black.