Sponsored by Linda Hyatt Young.
Born in June of 1835 in the Portsmouth home of Thomas and Eliza Laighton, Celia Thaxter began her life nearby the coast that would hold her love, loyalty, and dedication for the rest of her life. Though the celebrated poet, magazine writer, and painter who today still holds large regional appeal died on Appledore Island in 1894, she first moved to the Isles when her father became lighthouse keeper on White Island in 1841.
By 1847, Celia's father had grand plans for a hotel, which he opened on what was then known as Hog Island but is today referred to as Appledore Island. Though living in a remote environment, Celia Thaxter cultivated literary and artistic friendships throughout her life, bonds that were far-reaching, sustaining, and of historic note. By 1852, Celia and Appledore Island were the subject of writing by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Later, Celia Thaxter would become close friends with the American Impressionist painter Childe Hassam and would correspond regularly with her friend Sarah Orne Jewett. Appledore would also serve as the hub of a literary and artistic circle that would include writers and painters.
Though she remained married until her husband, Levi, died in 1884, Celia and her husband lived apart for long periods. In 1880, they ceased living together at all. In her later years, Celia spent more and more time at Appledore. She is buried there, and her island garden, a plot that measures 15 feet by 15 feet, has been re-created and is open for visitors on Wednesdays during the months of July and August.
In addition to publishing magazine articles in Audubon and the Atlantic Monthly, Thaxter is known for her children's poem, "The Sandpiper." In her lifetime she saw individual poems and prose pieces appear in magazines like The Atlantic Monthly, and a collection of poems, Driftwood , come out in (1878). In 1894, just months before her sudden death on Appledore Island, An Island Garden, with illustrations by Childe Hassam, was published. Recently, An Island Garden was re- printed by Houghton Mifflin, and the past decade has seen a revival of interest in Thaxter's art, letters, and life. Among the publications that have sprung up around Thaxter are Sandpiper: The Life and Letters of Celia Thaxter, a biography written by family member Rosamund Thaxter; Island Queen: Celia Thaxter and The Isles of Shoals by Julia Older; and One Woman's Work: The Visual Art of Celia Thaxter by Sharon Paiva.
As I write this small essay, humid air has engulfed the New England coast and inland in 94 percent humidity and tropical air. The sweltering day has just faded, and in the morning, I am about to embark on a long overdue pilgrimage to Portsmouth and Appledore Island off the tiny coast of New Hampshire, not far from where I spent my college years. Not only does Appledore have family significance for me as my husband's aunt spent some of her growing up years there as the daughter of a lighthouse keeper, but the island was the home of Celia Thaxter, the New Hampshire poet, painter, and early ecofeminist whose life has served this past decade as a lighthouse for me: part inspiration, part transcendence, all light.
I first discovered Celia Thaxter, who grew up on the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast, in college at the University of New Hampshire, which houses a Celia Thaxter collection. Then I spent dusty days in the rare books section, writing papers on Thaxter. As I struggled in the late 1980s to claim my identity as a fledgling poet just taking her work seriously, Thaxter's example served as an inspiration. Nearly one hundred years after her death, Thaxter helped me to find confidence in my desire to write about wilderness, to share my work, to find a voice. Then, as now, Thaxter remains a powerful writer of the natural world. Her Island Garden (1893) describes movingly her spiritual, physical, and emotional connection to her flowers cultivated in a tiny garden on Appledore Island:
"Often I hear people say, "How do you make your plants flourish like this?" as they admire the little flower patch I cultivate in summer, or the window gardens that bloom for me in the winter; "I can never make my plants blossom like this! What is your secret?" And I answer with one word, 'Love.'" (Thaxter, An Island Garden)
Thaxter's engagement with the natural world--and her dedication to living a meaningful, deliberate life--puts me in mind of the transcendentalists of the mid- 19th century. Thaxter, living only a state away from Thoreau, puts into practice his idea that one must live deliberately to 'suck out the marrow of life.' When I read Thaxter, I sense her deliberation, passion, and active mind:
"Ever since I could remember anything, flowers have been like dear friends to me, comforters, inspirers, powers to uplift and to cheer. A lonely child, living on the lighthouse island ten miles away from the mainland, every blade of grass that sprang out of the ground, every humblest weed, was precious in my sight, and I began a little garden when not more than five years old. From this, year after year, the larger one, which has given so much pleasure to so many people, has grown. The first small bed at the lighthouse island contained only Marigolds, pot Marigolds, fire-colored blossoms which were the joy of my heart and the delight of my eyes. (Thaxter, An Island Garden)
Conflated with her passion runs Thaxter's love that she describes in the passage above, a tender love that encircles art, the power of words, the natural world, and community, a love that I find cheering, uplifting, and reassuring. At times, her humble text reminds me of Whitman's large love and passion as evoked in the passage above in her line, 'every blade of grass that sprang out of the ground, every humblest weed, was precious in my sight.'
Perhaps above all else I prize her for her ecofeminsim; for she is a pioneer in that movement as Sarah Klein, who reviewed a recent edition of An Island Garden in 1999, denotes particularly effectively:
" Thaxter is significantly linked to what we now know as ecofeminism. In the first issue of Audubon Magazine in 1887, she raged against women's collusion with abuses of nature through their support of the burgeoning feather trade and its connection to the fashion industry. The essay was titled "Woman's Heartlessness." Almost a century before the term ecofeminism was born, Thaxter began to consider, and to write about, the intersections of gender and the natural world. She looked carefully, she considered thoughtfully, her times and her environment, and she wrote with passion. Thus Thaxter was no isolationist in her love of nature. Her creative sensibility and her spiritual awareness combined with a moral imperative and an acute awareness of her historical moment and its dilemmas. She made important connections in her writing, and her work represents a substantial voice in late 19th century New England. " (taken from http://www.womenwriters.net/bookreviews/kleined1.htm)
Indeed Thaxter made 'connections in her writing' some of them quite literal. A close friend of Sarah Orne Jewett, Thaxter drew artists and writers to her Appledore hotel, where she cultivated an energetic artistic circle that included the American impressionist painter Childe Hassam, who painted Thaxter and her garden. See the links below to access some of Thaxter's publications, including the prose An Island Garden, paintings of Thaxter and her island garden by Childe Hassam, and Thaxter's account of a brutal murder of two women that took place on nearby Smuttynose Island in 1873. In addition to publishing poetry, Thaxter published prose pieces in publications like Audubon and Atlantic Monthly.
As I prepare to immerse myself in Thaxter's life by visiting her garden for the first time, I am reminded of her haunting words, written the year before she died on Appledore Island in 1894: 'Ah me, when the Mallows wither in the garden, and the green Parsley, and the curled tendrils of the Anise, on a later day they spring, in another year; but we men, we, the great and mighty, or wise, when once we have died, in hollow earth we sleep, gone down into silence.' Luckily for us, Thaxter has not gone down into silence. These words remind of those of Adrienne Rich, who wrote, 'If language and naming are power then silence is oppression, is violence.' In her humble way, Thaxter paved the way for women to trust their creativity, power, community building, and voices. Thaxter gives me strength. As Klein writes in her review of the recent reprint of Thaxter's An Island Garden,
"nature is the very face of God, filled with mystical potentials. 'In immortal rapture, I, another of his creatures, less obedient in fulfilling His laws of beauty than are these lovely beings, do humbly share, reflecting it with all the powers of my spirit and rejoicing in his work with an exceeding joy' Thaxter plays, throughout the text, with the lines of "nature," "God," "self," and "other." But her imagery is intensely spiritual, her tone reaches for the mystical, even in its most unadorned turns."