Elizabeth Drew Barrow Stoddard: “One morn I left him in his bed”
The 19th century was a grim time to give birth. Before public health became a significant concern for governments, an estimated 175 deaths occurred for every 1,000 births in the United States, with the number jumping significantly depending on geography, class, and race (according to economist Michael Haines’ statistical work for the Economical History Association). In an era when being a woman was inextricably linked to being a mother, being a mother likely foretold grief. But the devastating regularity with which children died accompanied a very different trend, one that made the grief of mothers visible in a particular way: the rise of the “poetess.”
To a large extent, female poets ruled the popular presses of the Victorian era, publishing and editing poems, stories, and practical advice in ladies’ journals, magazines, and almanacs to reach a wider audience than ever before. In doing so, they helped to establish writing as a paid profession. Often tied to specific forums, their poems addressed a range of “feminine” concerns: childhood, the abolition of slavery, Evangelical religiosity, death, and mourning. To modern readers accustomed to poems that deal almost exclusively with individual subjectivity, such poems can seem undifferentiated, their speakers almost interchangeable. Instead of unique situations or individual speakers, female poets of the 19th century used convention and sentimental appeals to emotions to confront a wide range of social and domestic issues, from abolition to moving households. As Janet Gray notes in her introduction to She Wields a Pen, an anthology of 19th-century poetry by women, Romantic and Modernist modes of thinking about poetry as “a separate field of expertise, unrelated to the world in which it is produced” has meant we often must read these poems differently. They are less examples of an individual, even idiosyncratic, voice, and more manifestations of a commitment to, and engagement with, the world in which their authors lived, worked, and wrote. Because we read such poems for different purposes, the thinking goes, they yield different pleasures.
Is this strictly true? Let’s return to the child elegy, an incredibly popular kind of poem among 19th-century poetesses, and one that had its own fairly rigid conventions. Lydia Huntley Sigourney was one of the 19th century’s most prolific, and savvy, poetesses. Louise Bogan once described Sigourney as “fluent, industrious, and rather pushing”; but Bogan also noted that she “managed to put feminine verse-writing on a paying basis, and give it prestige.” Sigourney did so by adhering to the poetic conventions of her day: often featuring grieving mothers as speakers, her child elegies generally cast children as innocents—“flowers” plucked before their time—who were nonetheless spared the misfortune and sin bound to accompany adulthood. In keeping with conventional Christian beliefs, Sigourney’s poems generally counsel mothers to accept their child’s death as “God’s will” and to look forward to a heavenly reunion. And yet not all of her child elegies can be so neatly summarized. “Death of an Infant,” for example, doesn’t feature a mother-speaker or offer any counsel to grieving mothers; in fact, the main character is not a mother at all, but Death itself:
Death found strange beauty on that cherub brow,
And dash’d it out. – There was a tint of rose
O’er cheek and lip; – he touch’d the veins with ice,
And the rose faded. – Forth from those blue eyes
There spake a wistful tenderness, – a doubt
Whether to grieve or sleep, which Innocence
Alone can wear. – With ruthless haste he bound
The silken fringes of their curtaining lids
Though the omniscient speaker is watching Death at his work, it is unclear from the first line what exactly the speaker is describing. Is the child “strange” because Death finds him beautiful, or does “strange beauty” describe the “cherub brow” as the speaker sees it? Either way, this strange opening by a poet dubbed “the Sweet Singer of Hartford” is matched by the poem’s odd form. Radically forgoing end-rhyme and using caesura in nearly every line, Sigourney achieves a visual and aural binary that matches the divide between life and death that her poem explores.
Of course, in certain ways Sigourney’s poem does conform to the conventions of the child elegy: the child is lovingly described as a relic of Innocence and “wistful tenderness,” complete with a smile that is “the signet-ring of Heaven.” Victorian writers often figured heaven as a comfortable parlor complete with couches and lamps, and Sigourney uses materialism to suggest the cozy familiarity of the afterlife. But the absence of a grieving mother-speaker turns the emphasis away from the mourning conventions of Sigourney’s day and allows the poem to perform a trick possible only in the imaginative realm of poetry: in line after line, the narrator must keep describing and redescribing the supposedly dead child. So even after his veins have been “touch’d . . . with ice,” the little child’s eyes are allowed to speak “a wistful tenderness.” Once Death takes care of those, the baby continues to “murmur” and even smile. Although ostensibly a poem about the death of a child, Sigourney’s lines keep bringing her infant back to life.
In “One morn I left him in his bed,” Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard also tries to use poetry to stave off the awful finality of a child’s death. However, Elizabeth Stoddard is, and was, a much different poet than Lydia Sigourney. The daughter of a prosperous shipbuilder, Elizabeth Barstow married the poet Richard Stoddard in 1851. Their home in New York became a kind of salon for literary figures of the day, including William Cullen Bryant, Horace Greeley, and Alice and Phoebe Cary. Unlike Sigourney, Stoddard did not enjoy commercial success. Extremely conscious of “women’s writing,” she purposefully eschewed or complicated the popular modes available to female poets, forging her own path to little popular acclaim. William Dean Howells said of her, “In a time when most of us had to write like Tennyson, or Longfellow, or Browning, she never would write like anyone but herself.” Stoddard’s assertion of a subjective female self came at a time when the dissolution of the female subject into social or religious groups—or the causes those groups supported—was the norm. As we’ll see in “One morn I left him in his bed,” Stoddard often worked within the very conventions she pushed back against in order to achieve her goals.
“One morn” begins, like many child elegies, with the death of an infant. Such poems generally move from the death to an aestheticized description of the child, to the funeral and the mother’s final acceptance of God’s will—the resolution is a lesson in faith, not grief. Stoddard’s elegy does some, but not all, of these things; at moments she even seems to rebuke other elegists for trying to do any of them. Here is the opening:
One morn I left him in his bed;
A moment later some one said,
‘Your child is dying – he is dead.’
The surprising speed with which the child’s death happens—it actually occurs midsentence—is a hint at the disruptions in time and space that will follow Stoddard’s speaker throughout the poem. In fact, Stoddard’s mother-speaker at times seems to cause the disjunctions herself, forcing events in and out of sequence in ways that feel similar to Sigourney’s Death-figure. Yet Stoddard’s poem shows us what it means to experience grief as a person, not a personification: things happen suddenly and sequentially, but are experienced in disordered, even repetitious, ways. The next stanza, for instance, describes the dead child being prepared for his funeral in typical 19th-century elegiac fashion, even evoking the conventional use of flower as symbol:
We made him ready for his rest,
Flowers in his hair, and on his breast
His little hands together prest.
But what follows is not the expected funeral scene. Instead, Stoddard flings the poem into an imaginary realm that, by mimicking the terrain of children’s bedtime stories, manages to keep her little boy alive for at least another stanza:
We sailed by night across the sea;
So, floating from the world were we,
Apart from sympathy, we Three.
The wild sea moaned, the black clouds spread
Moving shadows on its bed,
But one of us lay midship dead.
Bringing the child back to life requires a physical as well as temporal relocation: where do these stanzas take place? They both happen after the child’s death and in an alternate reality—a world “floating from the world”—that the speaker has imagined. More interestingly, they show the ways in which reality encroaches upon the imagination. By the time the “wild sea” begins to moan under its “spread” of “black clouds,” the speaker has already imaginatively returned to the “bed” and the “dead” of the child’s bedroom—physically, of course, she never left. Stoddard’s shifts in time and space disorient us as readers in the way grief has disoriented her speaker: we are unsure at the end of the fourth stanza whether we are still in the grieving fantasy, back at the site of the child’s death, or in fact gazing down at the child dressed for burial.
The center of Stoddard’s poem, like other child elegies, is the funeral scene. Yet unlike other funeral scenes, Stoddard’s is actually terrifying:
I saw his coffin sliding down
The yellow sand in yonder town,
Where I put on my sorrow’s crown.
The agency implied in the word “sliding” lends a macabre tone to the proceedings. It’s as if the coffin is burying itself, which might just be how things appear to a mother distracted by despair. The “yellow sand” it slides into brings us back to the sea imagery of the previous stanzas, but also suggests an ephemeral internment, though there is no mention of the heavenly welcome that other child elegies offer as solace. Instead, Stoddard makes her mother-speaker a queen, complete with a “sorrow’s crown” (quite different from Sigourney’s infant, who wears the “signet-ring of heaven”). The ways in which grief isolates mothers from their worlds will plague the rest of the poem. “I thrust aside the living race,” Stoddard’s speaker asserts, emphatically disavowing the community-searching ethos of so much women’s poetry of her time. Stoddard’s speaker will not be consoled by religion; in fact, she doesn’t seem to believe that any mother could be:
Mothers, who mourn with me today,
Oh, understand me, when I say,
I cannot weep, I cannot pray;
Any identification between women comes at the expense of religion. Grief unites even as it separates women into distinct “universes,” and Stoddard’s speaker offers her poem as a representation of lived experience, not a lesson in spiritual or religious attitudes:
Then take, from me, this simple verse,
That you may know what I rehearse –
A grief – your and my Universe!
Stoddard’s insistence on the singular, personal nature of her “rehearsal” doesn’t preclude sympathetic identification from her readers, but it goes about garnering that identification in ways that are unusual for a 19th-century child elegy by a female poet. Within the tyranny of tightly end-rhymed tercets, Stoddard maps out a system of representing grief, one that both takes into account and rejects the popular modes and methods of grieving available to female poets of her era. While using the basic narrative shape of the child elegy, and even gesturing toward some of its best-known conventions, Stoddard constructs an authentic speaking voice that also urges others toward self-knowledge and representation. In Stoddard’s poem grief is as universal as in much sentimental poetry of the era, but how grief is experienced is not. Stoddard’s speaker “mourns with” other mothers, but by describing her own mourning formally, in ways that approach the condition they describe, she also allows that within the total universe of grief, each woman walks in her own world. This unique and private space, according to Stoddard, is one that can and should be shared.
Hannah Brooks-Motl was born in Wisconsin and earned an MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of the poetry collections The New Years (2014) and M (2015). Her criticism has appeared in the Kenyon Review Online and The New Republic/The Book, among other places. With Stephen Burt...