I have always been interested in strong, female artists. I admire their tenacity to create, regardless of obstacles they may face. Every time I purchase a new car I name it after one, which helps me feel safer on the highway. My current car, purchased a year ago, a white SUV with a panoramic sunroof, is named after Celia Laighton Thaxter, a poet, prose writer, painter, and island gardener. I chose Celia because Thaxter regularly wore white dresses, had a fervent love of nature, and was an avid gardener, as I am. My alma mater, Cornell University, works in conjunction with the University of New Hampshire to manage the Isle of Shoals Marine Laboratory. They worked with a group of volunteers on the restoration of Thaxter’s garden, which had been destroyed by fire in 1914. How could she not be the artist I would choose to protect me as I commute every day?
I am regularly reminded of the synchronicity of life. PEM is planning a new exhibition, American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isle of Shoals, scheduled to open July 16, 2016. While assisting the American Art Curator and the Curator for Exhibitions and Research, I have acquainted myself more thoroughly with Hassam and his contemporaries, one of whom was Celia Thaxter. Hassam, a personal friend, was also the illustrator of her most famous work, An Island Garden. Many interesting items were located to share with the curators. In this post, I will share those that pertain to Thaxter’s island garden, the Isles of Shoals, and her love of nature. A future post will provide insight into her poetry and her love of painting.
Some relevant biographical information: Thaxter was born on June 29, 1835, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to Eliza (Rhymes) and Thomas Laighton. Four years later, disenchanted by life in Portsmouth, Laighton moved his family to White Island, one of the eight islands comprising the Isles of Shoals, to take charge of the lighthouse. When Laighton resigned his post he moved his family permanently to Appledore, which he had purchased, along with several islands in the shoals group, starting a fishing business with his brother Joseph. He eventually built a hotel on Appledore to house the many visitors to the island. In Sketches from Concord and Appledore, Frank Preston Stearns writes that the hotel was a three-story building, almost square, the parent stem of that great banyon-tree which has since spread over a large portion of the island. Sailing and fishing attracted visitors, along with Mrs. Laighton’s doughnuts, of which there was always an unfailing supply, so that numbers of people came there.
Thaxter lived on Appledore until 1851 when she married Levi Thaxter, her tutor, eleven years her senior, and a graduate of Harvard College. She and her husband settled near Boston, returning to Appledore in 1852 for the birth of their first son, Karl, injured at birth, requiring Thaxter to be his full-time care giver. In his American Notebooks, Nathaniel Hawthorne, writes about his visit to the Isles of Shoals in August 1852. According to Hawthorne,
We found Mrs. Thaxter sitting in a neat little parlor, very simply furnished, but in good taste. She is not now, I believe, more than eighteen years old, very pretty, and with the manners of a lady, —not prim and precise, but with enough of freedom and ease.
Hawthorne visited again 11 years later.
Mrs. Thaxter had grown to a bright, self-possessed woman with three small boys to look after, and with her reputation as a poet now well assured to her both by critics and the general public. Her face, figure and manner all gave evidence of a concentrated personality.
Thaxter and her husband eventually lived apart; she returned to Appledore much more often, spending long periods of time on the island until her death in August 1894.
One cannot write about Thaxter, the island gardener, without reference to her love of the islands on which she was raised. R. H. Stoddard describes Thaxter’s affinity for the sea and the Isles of Shoals in his book, Poets’ Homes, Pen and Pencil Sketches of American Poets and Their Homes. He writes:
The great sea was her beloved companion. She passionately loved the sky, and clouds, and stars, and the sun that made glory in the east and west, the changing moon, the streaming northern lights – the very winds seemed human things, that laughed or played with, that chided or caressed her.
John Greenleaf Whittier, editor of Child Life in Prose, included Thaxter’s essay, On White Island, in which she reveals that her love of gardening began on that island.
I remember in the spring kneeling on the ground to seek the first blades of grass that pricked through the soil, and bringing them into the house to study and wonder over. Better than a shop full of toys they were to me! Whence came their color: How did they draw their sweet, refreshing tint from the brown earth, or the limpid air, or the white light?
She would go outside to explore before everyone else was awake:
Infinite variety of beauty always awaited me, and filled me with an absorbing, unreasoning joy such as makes the song-sparrow sing, – a sense of perfect bliss. Coming back in the sunshine, the morning-glories would lift up their faces, all awake, to my adoring gaze. It seemed as if they had gathered the peace of the golden morning in their still depths even as my heart had gathered it.
Thaxter began a very supportive relationship with poet John Greenleaf Whittier, beginning the first time he had visited Appledore; he was a guest at the same time Hawthorne returned to the island for his second visit. Samuel T. Pickard’s, Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier, includes a reminiscence written by Thaxter about her relationship with Whittier and his role in persuading her to write about the Isles of Shoals. Thaxter writes:
I cannot express the pleasure I have had in knowing Mr. Whittier so intimately for so many years . . . He never gave me any peace till I wrote the book about the Shoals. “It is thy kismet,” he said; ‘thee must do it.”
She continues, writing about how Whittier would begin his letters to her, referring to Po Hill in Amesbury, where he lived, in relationship to Appledore:
“Po Hill sends Appledore good-morning,” was a favorite way he had of beginning his letters. His very last letter to me, dated a year ago, said, ”I want to go to the Shoals once more, if possible, this summer.” But when the last crowd thinned toward autumn, and I wrote to him that a comfortable room was ready for him, he had gone out on an unknown sea upon a longer voyage, and I saw him no more . . . Our correspondence continued from the first year of his coming here through the whole thirty years, and the sonnet which I enclose was written the second summer on his way home to Amesbury, as he left the Shoals.
The sonnet written by Whittier reads:
Under the shadow of a cloud, the light
Died out upon the waters, like a smile
Chased from a face by grief. Following the flight
Of a lone bird that, scudding with the breeze,
Dipped its crank wing in leaden-colored seas,
I saw in sunshine lifted, clear and bright,
On the horizon’s the Fortunate Isle
That claims her as it fair inhabitant,
And glad of heart I whispered, ‘Be to her,
Bird of the summer sea, my messenger;
Tell her, if Heaven a fervent prayer will grant,
This light that falls her island home above
Making its slopes of rock and greenness gay,
A partial glory midst surrounding gray,
Shall prove an earnest of our Father’s love,
More and more shining to the perfect day.”
The Atlantic Monthly printed a series of articles written by Thaxter about the Isles of Shoals. These articles, published in 1869 and 1870, were very well received by the public. Whittier wrote to Thaxter on March 5, 1870, in which he states:
The other evening I went into a confectioner’s shop in Amesbury, and the man and his wife immediately questioned me as to the author of the articles on the Shoals . . .”Why,” said the man, “they made me feel as if I was a boy again, rocking in my boat, or climbing the bluffs of Orr’s Island and Matinicus.” His wife said she had always felt there was poetry in that island life, but nobody before had written it out. So I told them something about thee, to their great delight. . .
In 1873, Thaxter combined these articles to publish Among the Isles of Shoals. She wrote about her love of flowers as a young child:
Later the scarlet pimpernel charmed me. It seemed more than a flower; it was like a human thing. I knew it by its homely name of poor-man’s weather-glass. It was so much wiser than I, for, when the sky was yet without a cloud, softly it clasped its small red petals together, folding its golden heart in safety from the shower that was sure to come! How could it know so much? . . . I wondered much how every flower knew what to do and to be; why the morning-glory didn’t forget sometimes, and bear a cluster of elder-bloom, or the elder hang out pennons of gold and purple like the iris, or the golden-rod suddenly blaze out a scarlet plume, the color of the pimpernel, was a mystery to my childish thought. And why did the sweet wild primrose wait till after sunset to unclose its pale yellow buds; why did it unlock its treasure of rich perfume to the night alone? Few flowers bloomed for me upon the lonesome rock; but I made the most of all I had, and neither knew of nor desired more. [image of the rock-strewn island]
She described the small garden she had as a child, quoting John Keats’ poem, I Stood Tip-toe Upon a Little Hill, line 47:
I had a scrap of garden, literally not more than a yard square, wherein grew only African marigolds, rich in color as barbaric gold. I knew nothing of John Keats at that time . . . but I am sure that he never felt their beauty more devoutly than the little, half-savage being who knelt, like a fire-worshipper, to watch the unfolding of those golden disks. When, later, the “brave new world” of poets was opened to me, with what power those glowing lines of his went straight to my heart,
“Open afresh your rounds of starry folds,
Ye ardent marigolds!”
And she wrote about her custom of hiding withered flowers found in the garden:
All flowers had for me such human interest, they were so dear and precious, I hardly liked to gather them, and when they were withered, I carried them all to one place and laid them tenderly together, and never like to pass the spot where they were hidden.
The July 1873 issue of the Atlantic Monthly reviewed the book:
Mrs. Thaxter’s beautiful volume, Among the Isles of Shoals, is written with a fine, desultory, loitering grace, which lends itself to the business of the book with an insurpassable charm . . . It is a succession of exquisite studies of the island scenery and the character, actual and traditional, of the islanders; the local legends and the tragedies of tempest and shipwreck which give the Shoals their dark, romantic memories . . . It is full of the sea, like Mrs. Thaxter’s poems; but this delightful prose has charmes which one does not find in them.
When Thaxter returned to the island as an adult, she lived in her family cottage. R. H. Stoddard describes the cottage in Poets’ Homes:
The cottage . . . is as plain a house as ever you saw. No bay-windows, balconies, or other pretty appendages; no fanciful gables, or Gothic points; no newness of paint; no vines or trees. Only a plain, two-storied house, with its dormer-windowed attic. A homely house built on the rock, and perched in severe relief against the sky . . . At the front of the cottage is a small yard, enclosed by a picket fence. It is full of flowers. I do not mean prim and decorous beds, and flowers staying where they are put, within their well-clipped borders. But a yard full of flowers – full to the fence-top and covering every inch of ground with their glad luxuriance. Not a weed anywhere – quite crowded out by these burning, blowing, starry, gladsome creatures. Somehow, by reason of the soil and air, all flowers here have a freedom of growth and brilliancy of hue not elsewhere found, – an intense loveliness! In this yard nasturtions, pansies, marigolds, sweet-pease, mignonette, and other homely flowers, live out their very best life. It is a pleasure to see something live at its very best – gladly, generously, and undwarfed!
Towards the beginning of An Island Garden Thaxter writes, Like the musician, the painter, the poet, and the rest, the true lover of flowers is born, not made. She enjoyed sharing the flowers in her garden, making corsages for guests in the hotel to purchase, and picking flowers daily to place in her home. In the Prefatory to the text, Thaxter notes that she had been asked many times about the success of her garden – Tell us how you do it! Write a book about it and tell us how it is done, that we may go also and do likewise. Later in the book she writes that it felt strange to write about a garden that is only fifty feet long by fifteen feet wide. But . . . it extends upward . . . what it lacks in area is more than compensated by the large joy that grows out of it, and its uplifting and refreshment of the ‘Spirit of Man.’ Gardeners will appreciate the fact that Thaxter included a detailed plan of her garden for those who want to do likewise.
She further explains how much can be accomplished within such a small space:
I have made a plan of this minute domain to show how it may be possible to accomplish much within such narrow compass, and also to give an idea of the advantageous method of grouping in a space so confined. I have not room to experiment with rockworks and ribbon-borders and the like, nor should I do it even if I had all the room in the world. For mine is just an old-fashioned garden where the flowers come together to praise the Lord and teach all who look upon them to do otherwise.
She writes about her choice of flowers:
. . . they are the strongest growers, the freest bloomers, and the most beautiful of their kind. They never disappoint you if you give them the right care. The list of flowers in my island garden is by no means long, but I could discourse of them forever! They are mostly the old-fashioned flowers our grandmothers loved . . . These are enough for a most happy little garden.
Front yard gardens were typical of the time period. Sarah Orne Jewett, a close friend of Thaxter, writes about such gardens in her book, Country By-Ways.
There are few of us who cannot remember a front yard garden which seemed to us a very paradise in childhood. Whether the house was a fine one and the enclosure spacious, or whether it was a small house with only a narrow bit of ground in front, the yard was kept with care, and was different from the rest of the land altogether . . . People do not know what they lose when they make way with the reserve, the separateness, the sanctity, of the front yard of their grandmothers. It is like writing down family secrets for anyone to read; it is like having everybody call you by your first name or sitting in a pew at church.
May Brawley Hill, author of Grandmother’s Garden, The Old-Fashioned American Garden 1865-1915, writes about Thaxter’s garden overflowing towards the front porch of her cottage and tumbling down the bank towards the sea:
The long porch overlooking the garden, as well as the fence that enclosed the garden, was draped with vines – honeysuckle, wisteria, nasturtiums, sweet peas, wild cucumber, clematis, passionflowers, hops and Dutchman’s-pipe . . . In most beds pansies, verbenas, Drummond phlox, and other low, spreading flowers were planted among the taller perennials for bloom when the earlier flowers had finished. Late bloomers . . . were placed in the corners of annual beds to take over in their turn. Thaxter’s generous plantings overflowed the garden and tumbled down the bank toward the sea, where artemisias and California poppies bloomed.
As beautiful as her garden was, Thaxter struggled with garden pests and did much to prevent their impact on her flowers. I was intrigued by the process she went through to remove slugs from her garden, a pest that challenges many of us.
It seems to me the worst of all the plagues is the slug, the snail without a shell. He is beyond description repulsive, a mass of sooty, shapeless slime, and he devours everything. He seems to thrive on all the poisons known; salt and lime are the only things that have power upon him, at least the only things I have been able to find so far. But salt and lime must be used very carefully, or they destroy the plant as effectually as the slug would do. Every night, while the season is yet young, and the precious growths just beginning to make their way upward, feeling their strength, I go at sunset and heap along the edge of the flower beds air-slaked lime, or round certain most valuable plants a ring of the same,—the slug cannot cross this while it is fresh, but should it be left a day or two it loses its strength, it has no more power to burn, and the enemy may slide over it unharmed, leaving his track of slime. On many a solemn midnight have I stolen from my bed to visit my cherished treasures by the pale glimpses of the moon, that I might be quite sure the protecting rings were still strong enough to save them, for the slug eats by night, he is invisible by day unless it rains or the sky be overcast.
And, I was so pleased to learn that Thaxter talked to her flowers, as I do every time I am in the garden.
As I work among my flowers, I find myself talking to them, reasoning and remonstrating with them, and adoring them as if they were human beings. Much laughter I provoke among my friends by so doing, but that is of no consequence. We are on such good terms, my flowers and I!
Although her garden was beautiful, Thaxter’s main joy was the placement of flowers in her parlor, a refuge for personal comfort and a place for music and literary gatherings (more about this in the next blog post). Maud Appleton McDowell was befriended by Thaxter when she visited Appledore as a young girl. In her essay, Childhood Memories of Celia Thaxter published in The Heavenly Guest (public library source; text on order for Phillips Library) McDowell recalls a discussion she had with Thaxter about the placement of flowers in her parlor:
My dear, it means the work of a ploughman. I get up at five in the morning and pick my flowers; and then, with the help of my faithful maid, who fills the many vases for me, I begin to arrange, changing vases many times until I get just the effect I want.”
When Thaxter was asked about the tangled mass of flowers in her garden, she responded:
Yes, I plant my garden to pick, not for show. They are just to supply my vases in this room.
McDowell recalls counting 110 vases at one point, arranged in color groupings in one end of the parlor known as the Altar. The other end, known as the Throne, allowed Thaxter to recline on a sofa, surrounded by many of her favorite things. McDowell also recalls the walls of the room being covered with paintings by Childe Hassam, J. Appleton Brown, Ross Turner, and others. The first verse of Thaxter’s poem, Schuman’s Sonata in A Minor, beautifully describes her parlor:
The quiet room, the flowers, the perfumed calm
The slender crystal vase where all aflame
The scarlet poppies stand erect and tall,
Color that burns as if no frost could tame,
The shaded lamplight glowing over all,
The summer night a dream of warmth and balm.
The reconstruction of Thaxter’s garden is not as densely filled as her original garden but it does include many of her favorite flowers. The garden is open to the public and the focal point of many tours on Appledore Island.
Please take advantage of the links assigned to titles and images in this post to learn more about Celia Thaxter, Childe Hassam, and the Isles of Shoals and to enter Philcat, our online catalog. An Island Garden, in its entirety, is also available online.