Representative women of New England/Edna Dean Proctor
EDNA DEAN PROCTOR.— It is an interesting question how far early environments of place and scene affect gift and character; but with a sympathetic, receptive, aesthetic nature, and surroundings of unusual individuality and beauty, there can be no doubt of their vivid impression and moulding force.
Edna Dean Proctor is of unmixed English ancestry. Her father, John Proctor, a native of Manchester, Mass. (Manchester-by-the-Sea), was a descendant of John Proctor of England, who came to Ipswich, Mass., in 1635, and whoso eldest son, John Proctor, of Salem Village, was one of the victims in August, 1692, of the Salem witchcraft delusion. The Goodhues, the Cogswells, the Appletons, the Choates, of Essex County, were allied with this family. Her mother, Lucinda Gould, of Henniker, N.H., represented the Goulds who had come from Massachusetts to the newer settlement and the Prescotts and Hiltons of Hampton and Exeter, N.H. The Proctor family removed from Manchester-by-the-Sea to Henniker, and chose their home u})on a hill overlooking the Contoocook valley, the "pine-crowned hill" of her poem, "Contoocook River." The wide horizon of this noble elevation, her birthplace and early home—embracing Kearsarge, Monadnock, and the outlying ranges of the White Hills—the broad forests, and the beautiful stream flowing through the meadows, made a grand and picturesque landscape, which is reflected again and again in her poems, and which may have been an inspiration to high themes.
With the exception of less than a year at Mount Holyoke Seminary, her schools were those of her native village and of Concord, N.H.; but she has often said that her best education was had in reading with her mother. Several years of teaching in New Haven, Conn., and Brooklyn, N.Y., followed. In the latter city she made a collection of extracts from the sermons of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher—a book entitled "Life Thoughts"—which was very popular at home and abroad. Meanwhile she was deeply interested, as she has always been, in national affairs. Upon the day of John Brown's execution her poem, "The Virginia Scaffold," was read at a large meeting in New York City, and its prophecy in the stanza:
"They may hang him on the gibbet; they may raise the victor's cry
When they see him darkly swinging like a speck against the sky;
Ah I the dying of a hero that the right may win its way
Is but sowing seed for harvest in a warm and mellow May!
Now his story shall be whispered by the firelight's evening glow,
And in fields of rice and cotton when the hot noon passed slow,
Till his name shall be a watchword from Missouri to the sea,
And his planting find its reaping in the Birthday of the Free!"
has been amply fulfilled. During the war her poems, "Who's Ready?" "Heroes," "The Mississippi," and others, were marked and influential. Her first small volume of verse was published by Hurd & Houghton in 1867. Then came some two years of foreign travel, an outcome of which was "A Russian Journey." Of this book Whittier wrote: "I like it better than 'Eothen.'" Its chapter upon Sebastopol is said to have caused the neglected English cemeteries there to be cared for as their brave dead deserved. Upon the completion of the railway to the Pacific, in 1869, Miss Proctor went with friends to California, and her letters, "From the Narrows to the Golden Gate," in the New York Independent, were pronounced by many the best account of the continental journey. A second collection of her poems was published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. in 1890, and two years later the same house issued her "Song of the Ancient People," which was inspired by the "Hemenway Southwestern Expedition." In the Columbian year of 1892 she wrote the poem, "Columbia's Banner," which was read and recited throughout the schools of the country on Columbus Day; and in September of that year her song, "Columbia's Emblem," celebrating the maize as our national floral emblem, appeared in the Century Magazine. This song has been widely read and sung. As a reviewer said of it, "It has gone straight to the heart of the American people, ... a song which will be more potent than law to give the Indian corn its representative place in the republic." Most of the year 1897 she spent in Mexico and South America. In 1899 she wrote the poem, "The Hills are Home," for the first Old Home Week in New Hampshire, and in 1900 published her New Hampshire verse in a volume entitled "The Mountain Maid."
Miss Proctor's poetry is characterized by strength and fervor, by lofty thought and melodious numbers. Though so patriotic an American, her sympathies enable her to understand the heart of other races. No truer expression of the feeling of a devout, orthodox Russian has been given than her poem "Holy Russia," which Longfellow regretted was not written early enough to be included in his "Russia" ("Poems of Places"), saying, "It would have been a splendid prelude to the volume." Of her "El Mahdi to the Tribes of the Soudan" the late Professor Frederick W. H. Myers, of Cambridge, England, said, "It is so Oriental I can hartUy believe it was written by any one in the AVestern worUl"; and the late James Darmesteter, professor in the College of France, wrote her from Constantinople, asking to include it in a new edition of his brochure of 1885, " The Mahdi." Her "Song of the Ancient People"—the Pueblos of our Southwest—has the dignity and pathos of a race that beholds all it revered and cherished slipping away. The late John Fiske, in his preface to the "Song," says of it: " As a rendering of Moqui-Zuni thought, it is a contribution of great and permanent value to American literature." Yet her sympathies are not alone for matters of race and nation, but are warm and loyal in home and social life, and all express the power and charm of her personality. Appended are two of her poems.
MONADNOCK IN OCTOBER.
Uprose Monadnock in the northern blue,
A glorious minster builded to the Lord!
The setting sun his crimson radiance threw
On crest, and steep, and wood, and valley sward,
Blending their myriad hues in rich accord,
Till, like the wall of heaven, it towered to view.
Along its slope, where russet ferns were strewn
And purple heaths, the scarlet maples flamed,
And reddening oaks and golden birches shone—
Resplendent oriels in the black pines framed,
The pines that climb to woo the winds alone.
And down its cloisters blew the evening breeze,
Through courts and aisles ablaze with autumn bloom,
Till shrine and portal thrilled to harmonies
Now soaring, dying now in glade and gloom.
And with the wind was heard the voice of streams—
Constant their Aves and Te Deums be—
Lone Ashuelot murmuring down the lea,
And brooks that haste where shy Contoocook gleams
Through groves and meadows, broadening to the sea.
Then holy twilight fell on earth and air;
Above the dome the stars hung faint and fair.
And the vast minster hushed its shrines in prayer;
While all the lesser heights kept watch and ward
About Monadnock, builded to the Lord!
BORN OF THE SPIRIT.
She called me a moment before,
And smiled, as I entered the door,
In her gentle way;
A sigh, a droop of the head,
And something forever had fled.
And she was but clay!
Her hand was yet clasped in mine,
And bright, in the golden shine.
Her brown hair fell;
But the marble Psyche there
As soon would have heard my prayer,
My wild farewell.
'Twas the hush of an autumn noon,
So clear that the waning moon
Was a ghost in the sky;
Not a leaf on the lindens swayed,
And even the brook in the glade
Ran, noiseless, by.
What had gone from the room,
Leaving the sunshine gloom,
The soft air chill?
If the tiniest bird had flown,
Its flight had a shadow thrown
On lawn and rill.
But neither a sound nor sight
Disturbed the calm or the light
Of the noontide air;
Yet the friend I loved was as far
As a ghostly moon or star
From my call and care.
Dead, with her hand in mine!
Dead, in the golden shine
Of the autumn day!
Dead, and no note in heaven
Nor a gleam of white wings given
To mark her way!
And my heart went up in the cry,
"How did the swift soul fly ?
What life inherit?"
Then the wind blew sweet and was gone,
And a voice said, "So is one
Born of the Spirit."