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Friday, June 11, 2010

Poetry Friday--New Hampshire's Own, Celia Thaxter

New Hampshire is, and was, home to many poets of note. One, was Celia Thaxter. In the first sentence of her introduction to The Poems of Celia Thaxter [811 THA], Jane E. Vallier writes, "Celia Laighton Thaxter, the most widely published woman writing poetry in America in the last half of the nineteenth century, lived a life of mythic dimensions."

Doesn't that draw you right in? Don't you want to learn more? If so, we have Jane E. Vallier's Poet on Demand: The Life, Letters, and Works of Celia Thaxter in our biography section [B THA].

Thaxter's work is a product of its time--largely overwrought rhyme, without much depth. But, that's not to say there is no value to it! As a matter of fact, if I were a teacher, I might use the following poem in a science unit on the chemistry of soil, or, one on color.

I'm not a teacher, though, so I'll simply lead you to the poem and leave you to your own thoughts!

Here is a problem, a wonder for all to see.
Look at this marvelous thing I hold in my hand!
This is a magic surprising, a mystery
Strange as a miracle, harder to understand.

What is it? Only a handful of earth: to your touch
A dry rough powder you trample beneath your feet,
Dark and lifeless; but think for a moment, how much
It hides and holds that is beautiful, bitter, or sweet.

Think of the glory of color! The red of the rose,
Green of the myriad leaves and the fields of grass,
Yellow as bright as the sun where the daffodil blows,
Purple where violets nod as the breezes pass.

Think of the manifold form, of the oak and the vine,
Nut, and fruit, and cluster, and ears of corn;
Of the anchored water-lily, a thing divine,
Unfolding its dazzling snow to the kiss of morn.

Think of the delicate perfumes borne on the gale,
Of the golden willow catkin's odor of spring,
Of the breath of the rich narcissus waxen-pale,
Of the sweet pea's flight of flowers, of the nettle's sting.

Strange that this lifeless thing gives vine, flower, tree,
Color and shape and character, fragrance too;
That the timber that builds the house, the ship for the sea,
Out of this powder its strength and its toughness drew!

That the cocoa among the palms should suck its milk
From this dry dust, while dates from the self-same soil
Summon their sweet rich fruit: that our shining silk
The mulberry leaves should yield to the worm's slow toil.

How should the poppy steal sleep from the very source
That grants to the grapevine juice that can madden or cheer?
How does the weed find food for its fabric coarse
Where the lilies proud their blossoms pure uprear?

Who shall compass or fathom God's thought profound?
We can but praise, for we may not understand;
But there's no more beautiful riddle the whole world round
Than is hid in this heap of dust I hold in my hand.
This poem is found in An Island Garden, illustrated by another NH notable, artist, Childe Hassam [635.9 THA]. A digitized copy of the book is available online (complete with illustrations) from the University of Pennsylvania. The above-mentioned The Poems of Celia Thaxter [811 THA], also contains the poem, "Dust."

Despite the inclusion of "Dust" in An Island Garden, Thaxter includes no other of her poems in the book. It is largely commentary on her garden--its layout, its flowers, and the non-human visitors to it. "All kinds of strange and remarkable creatures find their way here, and I am surprised at nothing."

Make your way over to Kelly Polark's blog for this week's Poetry Friday Round-Up.


  1. Okay. I promise never to take dirt for granted again!

  2. So happy to read this, Diane. My husband and I just spent two days in Portsmouth, NH to celebrate our 27th wedding anniversary, and some of that was spent looking out at the Isles of Shoals and me telling Peter about Celia. I am determined to get, at last, to that island this year!

  3. Lovely rhymes. I could take some hints from her, I'm a terrible gardener, but I love the nature around me!