Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Weight of Water in Elizabeth Oakes Smith's Poetry

Among the many interesting sonnets and miscellaneous poems in The Poetical Writings of Elizabeth Oakes Smith, two standouts are The Drowned Mariner and The Acorn. Both poems allude to the power of the sea. Sadly, the ocean was the source of much sorrow in the life of this writer. Her poetry expresses a combination of awe and dread in relation to the ocean.

In The Acorn, the reader journeys through the life of an oak tree. Vivid descriptive language personifies the sapling. The reader fears for its safety as the "hollow boughs" of the old oak protect its growth. The tree becomes "king" of the forest and is chosen by ship makers. Then, the ocean swallows the majestic oak in a storm.

"She ploughs the deep-throughed wave;
A gurgling sound- a frenzied wail-
And the ship hath found a grave." (1)

The Drowned Mariner takes the reader on a ship as it enters a storm. Rather than focusing on the fate of the boat, this poem's protagonist is the sailor who ends up at the bottom of the sea. Eerily, his horrific fate is mixed with a sense of peace and calm.

"A peopled home is the ocean bed, The mother and child are there-The fervent youth and the hoary head, The maid with her locks outspread, The babe with its silken hair, As the water moveth they lightly sway, And the tranquil lights on their features play; And there is each cherished and beautiful form, Away from decay, and away from the storm." (2)

Born in North Yarmouth, Maine in 1806, Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s fate was tied to the ocean before she was out of diapers. Her father, David Prince, a direct descendant of the first governor of the Plymouth Colony, (the Honorable Thomas Prince), drowned at sea when Elizabeth was about two. (3) In her book The Shadow Land; Or The Seer, the author admits that in her dreams a father figure often takes her by the hand. Smith believed that her father one of her spiritual guides.

Smith experienced a storm at sea while a young mother of four boys, ranging in age from two to ten years old. In the winter of 1839 the Smiths boarded the packet-ship King Philip for Charleston. Elizabeth’s husband, Seba and his brother-in-law planned on introducing a machine to plantation owners that could clean Sea Island cotton. Seba put a fortune into this idea. On their way south, the family encountered a frightening storm. Elizabeth recounts the excitement of it, and how it renewed her.

“It is beyond me to describe the grandeur of the scene. We were “laying to” under close reefed canvas, the wind howling and shrieking and we, now engulfed in the bottom of the abysm of sea, and anon riding upon the crest. I needed just this little tonic. Looking to the top mast there was a pale blue flame, spectre–like, shining through the darkness. It was terrible, but how much better than the dull, desponding hours of everyday care. It was luxury to feel heroic even for a short space of time. The rain came down in torrents, and I was wet to the back-bone, but joyous.” (4)

The machine was rejected, considered too slow and impractical, and the family was forced to leave Portland and relocate with relatives in New York until they could get on their feet financially.

Later in life, during the 1860’s Smith’s son Appleton, a trade ship captain and poet noted for his bravery at sea, was accused of slave running. His ship, The Early Bird, which was constructed in Northport, was cornered by authorities near the Fire Island Inlet. Elizabeth Oakes Smith appealed to President Lincoln aggressively to pardon Appleton. (5)

Smith’s son Sydney perished at sea in 1869 and she lost most of her possessions in a shipwreck in 1874 on her way to her son Appleton’s home in North Carolina. (6)

In 1879 Smith lost four grand-daughters, Bessie, Corinne, Mildred and Pauline when their boat overturned in the Beaufort Harbor. Appleton was able to save his two sons, but the four girls drowned. Rumor had it that Appleton let his daughters drown. The family did not hold this opinion. According to Beth Oakes, a great grand-daughter of Appleton Oaksmith, the weight of their water-saturated petticoats made it difficult to save them. Oakes has inherited a diary belonging to little Bessie. The last entry in the journal is dated July 4th, 1879, the day of the accident. Appleton’s health soon declined after the incident and he passed away in 1887 in a New York hospital.

Elizabeth Oakes Smith wrote about her devastation over losing her grandchildren in the September 1879 issue of The Baltimorean.

“In one sad note, unknown till now, In tragic cadence, telling how These golden heads were merged below, In silent caves no more to be A gladness and a hope to me, An echo of life’s mystery. A tender link is broke in twain- Forever hushed in sweet refrain- And in its stead a note of pain.” (7)

It is clear that Elizabeth Oakes Smith had a connection to the ocean and a sense of its mystery and power that she reflects in her writings. Her life experiences are linked to the sea. Like a ship’s journey across the ocean, Elizabeth’s path on Earth was both exhilarating and tragic.

Image is a painting by South Shore Artist Leola Walker. Loren thinks it is awesome!!

1&2. Oakes Smith, Elizabeth. The Poetical Writings of Elizabeth Oakes Smith. New York. J. S. Redfield, Clinton Hall. 1845. p. 132, p. 189.
3. Custead, Alma. J. “Elizabeth Oakes-Smith, Period Piece” The Long Island Forum. February 1941.
4. Selections From the Autobiography of Elizabeth Oakes Smith, p. 76
5. Custead, Alma. J. “Elizabeth Oakes-Smith, Period Piece” The Long Island Forum. February 1941.
6. The Elizabeth Oakes Smith webpage maintained by Timothy Scherman. Chronology.
7. In Memoriam. Box 2. F.17. MSS. & Archives Section N.Y.P.L.


Putz said...

i bet he went for the boys first no matter what anyone else says...back then , you know, back then

Loren Christie said...

I don't know. There were six people to save. From what I have read he was never the same and truly broken after the accident. I can not imagine losing one daughter, let alone four. I think people liked to gossip back then, just like today.

Anonymous said...

excellent points and the details are more specific than somewhere else, thanks.

- Murk

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