Nora Perry: What outlasts summer’s decay

First, an overly defensive explanation.

Not all poetry has to accommodate itself to the rules laid down by the Aesthetes (who in any event, as we’ve seen, run the gamut from the those who, like Samuel Johnson, require a carefully controlled system of emotional rather than intellectual poses stuffed into a strictly constructed metrical pattern to one like Ezra Pound, who also has very strict standards of “musical” rendering but who is almost incapable of explaining those standards in prose beyond giving of recommended readings (see ABC of Reading (c1934)).

Sometimes the value of poetry is simply in the record it leaves (in heightened language perhaps) of how a people of a particular time viewed things (or were capable of viewing things). Or perhaps a poem is worth reading because the poet himself was an influence on other writers or thinkers. Or even because the writer was otherwise notable as a statesman or critic or even a wit. I thought a little along these lines after I cited John Hay’s letter to poet Nora Perry in a different context. And I concluded that maybe we should take a look at a minor poet in the late nineteenth century New England—a time when people generally felt that all contributions to literature were something to be celebrated. So I will postpone Hölderlin for another time.

Nora Perry was not notable to any great degree for any of the three alternatives I offered as a reason to preserve poetry. But she did provide encouragement to other writers. She was a great friend to many, notably Whittier and Wendell Phillips. She considered her poem on Phillips’ death (in New Songs and Ballads (Boston: 1887), at 76) one of her best. She was known as an engaging personality, a favorite party guest, and something of an independent wit in New England society at the time. “They had one great bond of union” she once said of a couple, “they disliked the same people.” She believed in Art and Literature (she quoted in her notebook: “It was the supremely practical Napoleon Bonaparte who placed literature above science as containing above all things the essence of human intellect.”) and Inspiration (“[T]he things we know best of all are precisely the things which no one has told us.”) But she was neither a sufficient wag nor a prolific enough aphorist to gain renown in those ways.

She was, in addition, a widely read author, most notably of girls’ literature, but a popular poet as well. In her day there certainly was a lot of popular, sentimental dreck passing as poetry. And it was unfortunate that her initial popularity arose from the poem “Tying her Bonnet under her Chin” (in After the Ball, pp119ff (Boston: 1875)) with its six stanzas of cloying rhyming couplets and forced meter, which began:

She tied her raven ringlets in;
But not alone in the silken snare
Did she catch her lovely floating hair,
For, tying her bonnet under her chin,
She tied a young man’s heart within.

She grew to hate being associated with the poem, which the public never failed to associate with her. But a woman, even in New England, could hardly expect to become read without offering something “charming” as an introduction. So she never saw a reason to rail at the system whether for its commercialism or for its patronizing of women. “I don’t quite understand Mrs. Cooke’s experience with ‘fraud and oppression’ of publishers,” she wrote about a friend whose sketches of New England could never find a publisher. “I don’t know, but it seems to me that magazines and publishers pay for what they want regardless of sex.”

“Eminent Women 1884.” Lithograph by Eugene L’Africain. Perry is standing middle right in the light dress. The other women: Mary A. Livermore, Sara Jewett, Grace A. Oliver, Helen Hunt, Lucy Larcom, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Louise Chandler Moulton, Louisa M. Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Julia Ward Howe.

The world of New England poets was not the world of French poets. New England intellectuals did not have the luxury of examining ennui. They had spent a generation fighting a war. It was a revolution of the industrial middle class over a slavocracy with its odd form of aristocratic privileges and its grasping politics. The French intellectuals tried to fight such a revolution twice but lost both times. New England Brahmin won, or so they thought. And so New England literature concerned itself with man’s proper relations to men and nature and the universe, subjects no longer the province of French intellectuals. John Greenleaf Whittier, for example, would never have understood Baudelaire. Whittier spent his quiet Quaker life returning the abuse he received for his abolitionist beliefs with kindness. Baudelaire was something quite different. When New England worshipped Art it was not thinking of flowers of evil. Nora Perry, of course, was not Whittier, but she provided him some relief and received some of his wisdom:

“Her friendship with Whittier may be particularly emphasized, for she possessed his love and confidence to a rare degree, and the bond of intimacy, which extended over many years, was a very strong one. The serious poet thoroughly enjoyed her sparkling wit, which awakened his own lighter vein of thought. He told her stories, exchanged jests with her, and delighted in the gay and audacious speeches which she alone among his friends would have dared venture. It is doubtful if any of Whittier’s friends were vouchsafed quite the same ingenuous good-comradeship as that bestowed upon the flippant ‘Nora,’ beneath whose flippancy he discerned the same directness and sincerity which characterized his own mental standpoint.” Caroline Ticknor, “A New England Singer,” 26 The Lamp 363, 370 (June 1903).

Despite her popularity not much more than 100 years ago, one would be hard pressed today to find any evidence in most libraries that Nora Perry existed, much less her actual work. Not too long after her death Thomas William Herringshaw’s National Library of American Biography (Chicago: 1914), summarized that work (vol 4, p436):

Perry, Nora, author, poet, was born in 1841, in Massachusetts. Her poems include After the Ball, and Other Poems; Her Lover’s Friend, and Other Poems; New Songs and Ballads; and Legends and Lyrics. She was the author of The Tragedy of the Unexpected, and Other Stories; For a Woman, a novel; The Youngest Miss Lorton, and Other Stories; A Book of Love Stories; A Rosebud Garden of Girls; A Flock of Girls and Their Friends; A Flock of Girls and Boys; Another Flock of Girls; Three Little Daughters of the Revolution; and Hope Benham. She died in 1896, in Massachusetts.” (Hyperinks to digitalized versions of the complete books on Google Book.) [Note: The actual title of the 1891 book of poems is Lyrics and Legends.]

It would be surprising if one could find any of these volumes in any public library outside of Massachusetts. (The Boston Public Library has many, but not all of the above.) And unless you were in the strongest of academic research libraries, you are unlikely to find more than one or two of these volumes in any typical university library.

Caroline Ticknor was a granddaughter of Hawthorne’s publisher and close friend, William Ticknor.  His Boston publishing house, Ticknor & Fields, owned and printed Atlantic Monthly and North American Review and published a veritable Who’s Who of American authors. The name changed with the succession of partners but it would eventually become Houghton Mifflin. When William Ticknor died in 1864 Caroline’s uncle Howard M. Ticknor until 1868 and then her father Benjamin Holt Ticknor became partners. That firm published Perry, and Caroline Ticknor knew her from childhood: “Nora Perry spent many weeks at the home of her publisher; she was a vivid and intense personality, absolutely frank and uncompromising, loyal to her friends, sharp and satiric toward her enemies.” Ticknor, Glimpses of Authors, 62 (Houghton Mifflin: 1922). Caroline Ticknor was the only person who acknowledged her passing, although it was seven years after her death that the article in The Lamp, “A New England Singer,” cited above, first appeared; it is from this article that almost everything we know about Perry comes. Perry’s fame suffered as a result of Perry outliving her associates.

Perry was born in Dudley, Massachusetts in 1841 but was early moved to Providence, Rhode Island. It was there that she became one of the literary circle of Sarah Helen Whitman. Whitman was nearly 40 years older than Perry and had an entire lifetime before they met. Whitman was widowed in 1833 from the publisher of a minor women’s magazine, in which some of Whitman’s poems appeared. She developed a taste for the occult, practiced séances and wore a coffin “charm” around her neck. She became devoted to the writing of Edgar Allen Poe, and he chanced to see her when walking the streets of Providence at midnight after his poetry recital at the Lyceum. Over the next three years the sort of relationship that one would expect between Poe and a woman who wore a coffin around her neck developed. It involved sending poems to each other, a suicide attempt (by Poe, he tried to overdose of laudanum), the tragic mismatching of friends, engagement and vows by Poe to remain sober which were broken on the day before the wedding in such a way to require police intervention. Her home remained a center of literary gatherings thereafter, owing to her interest in then-fashionable spiritualism (even Horace Greeley consulted her on it), her ageless beauty, but mostly to her free spirit. Her friend, Sarah S. Jacobs, described it:

“As she came flitting into the room and gave you her small, nervous hand, you saw a slight figure, a pale, eager face of fine spiritual expression and irregular features, the dreamy look of deep-set eyes that gazed over and beyond, but never at you. Her movements were very rapid, and she seemed to flutter like a bird, so that her friends asserted that she was in the process of transformation either to or from the condition of a lapwing.

“Her spell was on you from the moment she appeared (and she generally kept you waiting a little), but when she spoke, her empire was assured. She was wise, she was witty, she was interested in the things which we call ‘the topics of the day,’ making them fresh and fair.

“But it was not her imagination that chiefly bound her friends to this brilliant woman. Her qualities of heart were as engaging as her intellectual gifts were impressive. No one could be long with her without being aware of her quick, generous sympathy, her sweet unworldly nature, her ready recognition of whatever feeble talent, or inferior worth another possessed.” Caroline Ticknor, Poe’s Helen, p5 (NY: 1916).

John Hay fell under Whitman’s spell when he attended Brown from 1855 to 1858. Nora Perry was then part of the group. What she thought of Brown’s 1858 class poet can be inferred from the fact that the letters Hay wrote to her from Illinois after he left Brown were kept by her in “a little packet tied with blue ribbon” until her death. Glimpses of Authors, at 63. Caroline Ticknor published the letters in A Poet in Exile: Early Letters of John Hay (Houghton Mifflin: 1910). Hay was truly smitten by Sarah Helen Whitman, was deeply mournful of his lot of leaving the Providence world of letters to return to the money-grasping world of the unlettered midwest, and was duly subservient to the poetic superiority of Perry, who was only three years older than he was. Perry kept up the correspondence, giving him encouragement, asking for his poems and giving copies of hers. The letters ended when he set off to study law with his uncle Milton Hay, whose law office was next door to Abraham Lincoln’s.

Perry’s life thereafter followed the uneventful course of an unmarried woman writer of the day. Her public face was shown principally at social gatherings, where she developed something of a mask. She repeatedly railed against “reformers” in general (notwithstanding her friendship with Phillips who laughingly agreed that many reformers were stiff bores). She always maintained that those of her own class deserved as much charity as those in the “slum.” She tried to fulfill what she considered that duty by consolations that otherwise would seem insignificant. Stephenson Browne, the Boston literary correspondent for the New York Times showed, however, that her kindnesses were not always limited to her “own kind” and believed the following worth remembering after her death (June 20, 1903, Saturday Review of Books and Art section, p12):

“Here is one little instance of kindness shown to a woman who came as near personal insignificance as is possible for mortal woman, being poor, plain, and undistinguished except by being extremely ill-dressed. Upon her, whensoever they happened to meet, did Miss Perry beam with, ‘Now, how did you match that silk with that ribbon?’ ‘What a pretty fold that is!’ Women who praise other women’s ugly clothes are common enough, thanks to Miss Rhoda Broughton and Mrs. Helen Mathers and ‘The Duchess’ and other teachers of bad manners but Miss Perry’s swift glance detected the pretty feature about which her friend had constructed some miracle of ugliness, her nimble apprehension found the precise word for it, and sent the poor thing away smiling and self-complacent. And after she had gone Miss Perry never thought it necessary to explain, as an Edgeworthian person might. ‘I wish,’ said the object of her kindness, the Winter after her death, ‘that Nora could have seen this ribbon! I thought of her when I bought it, and I almost cried right there in the store. Nobody else seemed to care what I wore.’”

Sometimes an act of kindness is itself poetry.

And so now it remains only to consider whether Nora Perry’s poetry itself is worth remembering. And for that purpose I offer up the following (and not just for its timeliness):

Summer’s Decay

from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, November 1885
(collected in Nora Perry, New Songs and Ballads (Boston: Ticknor & Co: 1887))

by Nora Perry

When my first roses shed
Their petals, and lay dead,
I knew my foe Decay
Had struck at my sweet day
Of summer breath and bloom.
I heard my knell of doom
In the soft sighing breeze
That scattered their dead leaves.

And then and there I seemed
To see as one who dreamed
A long procession pass
Across the springing grass—
Sweet ghosts of the dead flowers
That bloomed in last year’s hours.
And stately at the head,
All clad in white and red,

Shedding their dewy scent,
My fair June darlings went;
And following after stept
My lilies, who had kept
Their garments white as snow,
While their warm hearts did glow
With all the golden fire
That summer suns inspire.

All blooms and blossoms fair
Followed and followed there,
Until I did behold,
White as the stars, and cold,
My pale chrysanthemums pass;
And then I knew, alas!
The end had come; and knew,
While still the warm winds blew,

My darlings of to-day
Like this were on their way
To join the ghostly throng;
Like this would move along,
Pale visions, dead and dear,
To haunt another year.
Shuddering, I moaned and wept,
And in that moment crept

Shadows of storm and night
Across my summer light.
“What is my summer pride?”
Moaning, I wept and cried,
“Why do I hold my way,
If only to decay?”
Then suddenly I heard
Amid my boughs a bird

Lifting a heavenly voice.
“Rejoice, and yet rejoice,”
He sang; and sang again:
“Out of this earth-bound pain,
Out of this dread decay;
I lift my heavenly lay.”
Higher and higher still,
Sweet with a sweeter thrill,

Lifted that heavenly song.
Borne on its wings along,
I saw the bloom and birth
Of the new heaven and earth,
And all my flowery host;
Each sweet departing ghost,
Seemed in my ears to sing,
“No fair and beauteous thing,
Nothing of precious cost,
Nothing we love, is lost.”

[A brief textual note: In the version collected for the book the two final lines of the first stanza read: “Sung by the sighing trees / With every wandering breeze.” There are other minor punctuation differences of no consequence.]

  1. This whole essay is fascinating, D. K. Should be in print somewhere, it seems to me, but you wrote it only for this blog? Yes, Perry’s poem on losing gradually all her summer posies has quite the same theme as my description of sad losses in a vegetable garden of another century.

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