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Jean Ingelow by Sarah Knowles Bolton

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The same friend who had given me Mrs. Browning's five volumes in blue and gold, came one day with a dainty volume just published by Roberts Brothers, of Boston. They had found a new poet, and one possessing a beautiful name. Possibly it was a nom de plume, for who had heard any real name so musical as that of Jean Ingelow?

I took the volume down by the quiet stream that flows below Amherst College, and day after day, under a grand old tree, read some of the most musical words, wedded to as pure thought as our century has produced.

The world was just beginning to know The High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire. Eyes were dimming as they read,--

"I looked without, and lo! my sonne
Came riding downe with might and main:

He raised a shout as he drew on,
Till all the welkin rang again,

'Elizabeth! Elizabeth!'
(A sweeter woman ne'er drew breath
Than my sonne's wife Elizabeth.)

 

"'The olde sea wall (he cried) is downe,
The rising tide comes on apace,

And boats adrift in yonder towne
Go sailing uppe the market-place.'

He shook as one who looks on death:
'God save you, mother!' straight he saith;
'Where is my wife, Elizabeth?'"

And then the waters laid her body at his very door, and the sweet voice that called, "Cusha! Cusha! Cusha!" was stilled forever.

The Songs of Seven soon became as household words, because they were a reflection of real life. Nobody ever pictured a child more exquisitely than the little seven-year-old, who, rich with the little knowledge that seems much to a child, looks down from superior heights upon

"The lambs that play always, they know no better;
They are only one times one."

So happy is she that she makes boon companions of the flowers:--

"O brave marshmary buds, rich and yellow,
Give me your honey to hold!

 

"O columbine, open your folded wrapper,
Where two twin turtle-doves dwell!

O cuckoopint, toll me the purple clapper
That hangs in your clear green bell!"

At "seven times two," who of us has not waited for the great heavy curtains of the future to be drawn aside?

"I wish and I wish that the spring would go faster,
Nor long summer bide so late;

And I could grow on, like the fox-glove and aster,
For some things are ill to wait."

At twenty-one the girl's heart flutters with expectancy:--

"I leaned out of window, I smelt the white clover,
Dark, dark was the garden, I saw not the gate;

Now, if there be footsteps, he comes, my one lover;
Hush nightingale, hush! O sweet nightingale wait

Till I listen and hear
If a step draweth near,
For my love he is late!"

At twenty-eight, the happy mother lives in a simple home, made beautiful by her children:--

"Heigho! daisies and buttercups!
Mother shall thread them a daisy chain."

At thirty-five a widow; at forty-two giving up her children to brighten other homes; at forty-nine, "Longing for Home."

"I had a nestful once of my own,
Ah, happy, happy I!

Right dearly I loved them, but when they were grown
They spread out their wings to fly.

O, one after another they flew away,
Far up to the heavenly blue,

To the better country, the upper day,
And--I wish I was going too."

The Songs of Seven will be read and treasured as long as there are women in the world to be loved, and men in the world to love them.

My especial favorite in the volume was the poem Divided. Never have I seen more exquisite kinship with nature, or more delicate and tender feeling. Where is there so beautiful a picture as this?

"An empty sky, a world of heather,
Purple of fox-glove, yellow of broom;

We two among them, wading together,
Shaking out honey, treading perfume.

 

"Crowds of bees are giddy with clover,
Crowds of grasshoppers skip at our feet,

Crowds of larks at their matins hang over,
Thanking the Lord for a life so sweet.

* * * * *

"We two walk till the purple dieth,
And short, dry grass under foot is brown;

But one little streak at a distance lieth
Green like a ribbon to prank the down.

 

"Over the grass we stepped into it,
And God He knoweth how blithe we were!

Never a voice to bid us eschew it;
Hey the green ribbon that showed so fair!

* * * * *

"A shady freshness, chafers whirring,
A little piping of leaf-hid birds;

A flutter of wings, a fitful stirring,
A cloud to the eastward, snowy as curds.

 

"Bare, glassy slopes, where kids are tethered;
Round valleys like nests all ferny lined;

Round hills, with fluttering tree-tops feathered,
Swell high in their freckled robes behind.

* * * * *

"Glitters the dew and shines the river,
Up comes the lily and dries her bell;

But two are walking apart forever,
And wave their hands for a mute farewell.

* * * * *

"And yet I know past all doubting, truly--
And knowledge greater than grief can dim--

I know, as he loved, he will love me duly--
Yea, better--e'en better than I love him.

 

"And as I walk by the vast calm river,
The awful river so dread to see,

I say, 'Thy breadth and thy depth forever
Are bridged by his thoughts that cross to me.'"

In what choice but simple language we are thus told that two loving hearts cannot be divided.

Years went by, and I was at last to see the author of the poems I had loved in girlhood. I had wondered how she looked, what was her manner, and what were her surroundings.

In Kensington, a suburb of London, in a two-story-and-a-half stone house, cream-colored, lives Jean Ingelow. Tasteful grounds are in front of the home, and in the rear a large lawn bordered with many flowers, and conservatories; a real English garden, soft as velvet, and fragrant as new-mown hay. The house is fit for a poet; roomy, cheerful, and filled with flowers. One end of the large, double parlors seemed a bank of azalias and honeysuckles, while great bunches of yellow primrose and blue forget-me-not were on the tables and in the bay-windows.

But most interesting of all was the poet herself, in middle life, with fine, womanly face, friendly manner, and cultivated mind. For an hour we talked of many things in both countries. Miss Ingelow showed great familiarity with American literature and with our national questions.

While everything about her indicated deep love for poetry, and a keen sense of the beautiful, her conversation, fluent and admirable, showed her to be eminently practical and sensible, without a touch of sentimentality. Her first work in life seems to be the making of her two brothers happy in the home. She usually spends her forenoons in writing. She does her literary work thoroughly, keeping her productions a long time before they are put into print. As she is never in robust health, she gives little time to society, and passes her winters in the South of France or Italy. A letter dated Feb. 25, from the Alps Maritime, at Cannes, says, "This lovely spot is full of flowers, birds, and butterflies." Who that recalls her Songs on the Voices of Birds, the blackbird, and the nightingale, will not appreciate her happiness with such surroundings?

With great fondness for, and pride in, her own country, she has the most kindly feelings toward America and her people. She says in the preface of her novel, Fated to be Free, concerning this work andOff the Skelligs, "I am told that they are peculiar; and I feel that they must be so, for most stories of human life are, or at least aim at being, works of art--selections of interesting portions of life, and fitting incidents put together and presented as a picture is; and I have not aimed at producing a work of art at all, but a piece of nature." And then she goes on to explain her position to "her American friends," for, she says, "I am sure you more than deserve of me some efforts to please you. I seldom have an opportunity of saying how truly I think so."

Jean Ingelow's life has been a quiet but busy and earnest one. She was born in the quaint old city of Boston, England, in 1830. Her father was a well-to-do banker; her mother a cultivated woman of Scotch descent, from Aberdeenshire. Jean grew to womanhood in the midst of eleven brothers and sisters, without the fate of struggle and poverty, so common among the great.

She writes to a friend concerning her childhood:--

"As a child, I was very happy at times, and generally wondering at something.... I was uncommonly like other children.... I remember seeing a star, and that my mother told me of God who lived up there and made the star. This was on a summer evening. It was my first hearing of God, and made a great impression on my mind. I remember better than anything that certain ecstatic sensations of joy used to get hold of me, and that I used to creep into corners to think out my thoughts by myself. I was, however, extremely timid, and easily overawed by fear. We had a lofty nursery with a bow-window that overlooked the river. My brother and I were constantly wondering at this river. The coming up of the tides, and the ships, and the jolly gangs of towers ragging them on with a monotonous song made a daily delight for us. The washing of the water, the sunshine upon it, and the reflections of the waves on our nursery ceiling supplied hours of talk to us, and days of pleasure. At this time, being three years old, ... I learned my letters.... I used to think a good deal, especially about the origin of things. People said often that they had been in this world, that house, that nursery, before I came. I thought everything must have begun when I did.... No doubt other children have such thoughts, but few remember them. Indeed, nothing is more remarkable among intelligent people than the recollections they retain of their early childhood. A few, as I do, remember it all. Many remember nothing whatever which occurred before they were five years old.... I have suffered much from a feeling of shyness and reserve, and I have not been able to do things by trying to do them. What comes to me comes of its own accord, and almost in spite of me; and I have hardly any power when verses are once written to make them any better.... There were no hardships in my youth, but care was bestowed on me and my brothers and sisters by a father and mother who were both cultivated people."

To another friend she writes: "I suppose I may take for granted that mine was the poetic temperament, and since there are no thrilling incidents to relate, you may think you should like to have my views as to what that means. I cannot tell you in an hour, or even in a day, for it means so much. I suppose it, of its absence or presence, to make far more difference between one person and another than any contrast of circumstances can do. The possessor does not have it for nothing. It isolates, particularly in childhood; it takes away some common blessings, but then it consoles for them all."

With this poetic temperament, that saw beauty in flower, and sky, and bird, that felt keenly all the sorrow and all the happiness of the world about her, that wrote of life rather than art, because to live rightly was the whole problem of human existence, with this poetic temperament, the girl grew to womanhood in the city bordering on the sea.

Boston, at the mouth of the Witham, was once a famous seaport, the rival of London in commercial prosperity, in the thirteenth century. It was the site of the famous monastery of St. Botolph, built by a pious monk in 657. The town which grew up around it was called Botolph's town, contracted finally to Boston. From this town Reverend John Cotton came to America, and gave the name to the capital of Massachusetts, in which he settled. The present famous old church of St. Botolph was founded in 1309, having a bell-tower three hundred feet high, which supports a lantern visible at sea for forty miles.

The surrounding country is made up largely of marshes reclaimed from the sea, which are called fens, and slightly elevated tracts of land called moors. Here Jean Ingelow studied the green meadows and the ever-changing ocean.

Her first book, A Rhyming Chronicle of Incidents and Feelings, was published in 1850, when she was twenty, and a novel, Allerton and Dreux, in 1851; nine years later her Tales of Orris. But her fame came at thirty-three, when her first full book of Poems was published in 1863. This was dedicated to a much loved brother, George K. Ingelow:--

"YOUR LOVING SISTER
OFFERS YOU THESE POEMS, PARTLY AS
AN EXPRESSION OF HER AFFECTION, PARTLY FOR THE
PLEASURE OF CONNECTING HER EFFORT
WITH YOUR NAME."

The press everywhere gave flattering notices. A new singer had come; not one whose life had been spent in the study of Greek roots, simply, but one who had studied nature and humanity. She had a message to give the world, and she gave it well. It was a message of good cheer, of earnest purpose, of contentment and hope.

"What though unmarked the happy workman toil,
And break unthanked of man the stubborn clod?

It is enough, for sacred is the soil,
Dear are the hills of God.

 

"Far better in its place the lowliest bird
Should sing aright to him the lowliest song,

Than that a seraph strayed should take the word
And sing his glory wrong."

 

"But like a river, blest where'er it flows,
Be still receiving while it still bestows."

"That life

Goes best with those who take it best.

--it is well

For us to be as happy as we can!"

 

"Work is its own best earthly meed,

Else have we none more than the sea-born throng

Who wrought those marvellous isles that bloom afar."

The London press said: "Miss Ingelow's new volume exhibits abundant evidence that time, study, and devotion to her vocation have both elevated and welcomed the powers of the most gifted poetess we possess, now that Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Adelaide Proctor sing no more on earth. Lincolnshire has claims to be considered the Arcadia of England at present, having given birth to Mr. Tennyson and our present Lady Laureate."

The press of America was not less cordial. "Except Mrs. Browning, Jean Ingelow is first among the women whom the world calls poets," said the Independent.

The songs touched the popular heart, and some, set to music, were sung at numberless firesides. Who has not heard the Sailing beyond Seas?

"Methought the stars were blinking bright,
And the old brig's sails unfurled;

I said, 'I will sail to my love this night
At the other side of the world.'

I stepped aboard,--we sailed so fast,--
The sun shot up from the bourne;

But a dove that perched upon the mast
Did mourn, and mourn, and mourn.

 

O fair dove! O fond dove!
And dove with the white breast,

Let me alone, the dream is my own,
And my heart is full of rest.

 

"My love! He stood at my right hand,
His eyes were grave and sweet.

Methought he said, 'In this fair land,
O, is it thus we meet?

Ah, maid most dear, I am not here;
I have no place,--no part,--

No dwelling more by sea or shore!
But only in thy heart!'

 

O fair dove! O fond dove!
Till night rose over the bourne,

The dove on the mast as we sailed past,
Did mourn, and mourn, and mourn."

Edmund Clarence Stedman, one of the ablest and fairest among American critics, says: "As the voice of Mrs. Browning grew silent, the songs of Miss Ingelow began, and had instant and merited popularity. They sprang up suddenly and tunefully as skylarks from the daisy-spangled, hawthorn-bordered meadows of old England, with a blitheness long unknown, and in their idyllic underflights moved with the tenderest currents of human life. Miss Ingelow may be termed an idyllic lyrist, her lyrical pieces having always much idyllic beauty. High Tide, Winstanley, Songs of Seven, and the Long White Seam are lyrical treasures, and the author especially may be said to evince that sincerity which is poetry's most enduring warrant."

Winstanley is especially full of pathos and action. We watch this heroic man as he builds the lighthouse on the Eddystone rocks:--

"Then he and the sea began their strife,
And worked with power and might:

Whatever the man reared up by day
The sea broke down by night.

* * * * *

"A Scottish schooner made the port
The thirteenth day at e'en:

'As I am a man,' the captain cried,
'A strange sight I have seen;

 

"'And a strange sound heard, my masters all,
At sea, in the fog and the rain,

Like shipwrights' hammers tapping low,
Then loud, then low again.

 

"'And a stately house one instant showed,
Through a rift, on the vessel's lea;

What manner of creatures may be those
That build upon the sea?'"

After the lighthouse was built, Winstanley went out again to see his precious tower. A fearful storm came up, and the tower and its builder went down together.

Several books have come from Miss Ingelow's pen since 1863. The following year, Studies for Stories was published, of which the Athenaeum said, "They are prose poems, carefully meditated, and exquisitely touched in by a teacher ready to sympathize with every joy and sorrow." The five stories are told in simple and clear language, and without slang, to which she heartily objects. For one so rich in imagination as Miss Ingelow, her prose is singularly free from obscurity and florid language.

Stories told to a Child was published in 1865, and A Story of Doom, and Other Poems, in 1868, the principal poem being drawn from the time of the Deluge. Mopsa the Fairy, an exquisite story, followed a year later, with A Sister's Bye-hours, and since that time, Off the Skelligs in 1872, Fated to be Free in 1875, Sarah de Berenger in 1879, Don John in 1881, and Poems of the Old Days and the New, recently issued. Of the latter, the poet Stoddard says: "Beyond all the women of the Victorian era, she is the most of an Elizabethan.... She has tracked the ocean journeyings of Drake, Raleigh, and Frobisher, and others to whom the Spanish main was a second home, the El Dorado of which Columbus and his followers dreamed in their stormy slumbers.... The first of her poems in this volume,Rosamund, is a masterly battle idyl."

Her books have had large sale, both here and in Europe. It is stated that in this country one hundred thousand of her Poems have been sold, and half that number of her prose works.

Miss Ingelow has not been elated by her deserved success. She has told the world very little of herself in her books. She once wrote a friend: "I am far from agreeing with you 'that it is rather too bad when we read people's works, if they won't let us know anything about themselves.' I consider that an author should, during life, be as much as possible, impersonal. I never import myself into my writings, and am much better pleased that others should feel an interest in me, and wish to know something of me, than that they should complain of egotism."

It is said that the last of her Songs with Preludes refers to a brother who lies buried in Australia:--

"I stand on the bridge where last we stood
When delicate leaves were young;

The children called us from yonder wood,
While a mated blackbird sung.

* * * * *

"But if all loved, as the few can love,
This world would seldom be well;

And who need wish, if he dwells above,
For a deep, a long death-knell?

 

"There are four or five, who, passing this place,
While they live will name me yet;

And when I am gone will think on my face,
And feel a kind of regret."

With all her literary work, she does not forget to do good personally. At one time she instituted a "copyright dinner," at her own expense, which she thus described to a friend: "I have set up a dinner-table for the sick poor, or rather, for such persons as are just out of the hospitals, and are hungry, and yet not strong enough to work. We have about twelve to dinner three times a week, and hope to continue the plan. It is such a comfort to see the good it does. I find it one of the great pleasures of writing, that it gives me more command of money for such purposes than falls to the lot of most women." Again, she writes to an American friend: "I should be much obliged to you if you would give in my name twenty-five dollars to some charity in Boston. I should prefer such a one as does not belong to any party in particular, such as a city infirmary or orphan school. I do not like to draw money from your country, and give none in charity."

Miss Ingelow is very fond of children, and herein is, perhaps, one secret of her success. In Off the Skelligs she says: "Some people appear to feel that they are much wiser, much nearer to the truth and to realities, than they were when they were children. They think of childhood as immeasurably beneath and behind them. I have never been able to join in such a notion. It often seems to me that we lose quite as much as we gain by our lengthened sojourn here. I should not at all wonder if the thoughts of our childhood, when we look back on it after the rending of this vail of our humanity, should prove less unlike what we were intended to derive from the teaching of life, nature, and revelation, than the thoughts of our more sophisticated days."

Best of all, this true woman and true poet as well, like Emerson, sees and believes in the progress of the race.

"Still humanity grows dearer,
Being learned the more,"

she says, in that tender poem, A Mother showing the Portrait of her Child. Blessed optimism! that amid all the shortcomings of human nature sees the best, lifts souls upward, and helps to make the world sunny by its singing.

* * * * *

Jean Ingelow died at her home in Kensington, London, July 19, 1897, at the age of sixty-seven, having been born in Boston, Lincolnshire, in 1830. Her long illness ended in simple exhaustion, and she welcomed death gladly.


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