Thursday, March 19, 2009

Guest Posting: The Poetry of Patchwork

Reading between the lines of text and textile, Poetry & Popular Culture correspondent Adam Bradford writes in about mid-19th-century mourning poetry and the poetic wrap (not rap) that Eliza Howells quilted to help stave off the chills of death and grief.

When Mark Twain set about lampooning what he felt was an overly-morbid 19th-century culture of mourning, he did so (in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) via the character of Emmeline Grangerford. As folks in the Poetry & Popular Culture office may recall, Emmeline was known for her “crayons” (hand-drawn pictures of people mourning at the tombs of their deceased) and “tributes” (poems depicting the deceased “sport[ing] aloft in the realms of the good and the great”). Twain’s satire gained traction because some of the age's “popular” poets like Lydia Sigourney and Julia Moore had made their reputations (not to mention a respectable sum) filling best-selling books such as 1847's The Weeping Willow with line after line of “consolation verse.” Consider, for example, Sigourney’s “The Consenting Mother":

"I see the green fields, and glowing flowers;
I see bright streamlets flow,
Sweet voices call to glorious bowers;
Dear Mother! Let me go.”
His cheek grew pale. Had hasting death
Dealt the last final blow?
List! List! Once more the fainting breath,
“Oh Mother! let me go.”
How could her love the soul detain,
That struggled to be free?
Or, leaguing with that tyrant Pain,
Obstruct its liberty?
“Lord! Not my will,” she said, “but Thine,”
And high her darling soar’d,
And from the skies that ever shine
An angel’s descant pour’d.

Sigourney’s poem may strike contem- porary readers as trite or contrived, but for many people in 19th century America — people such as Eliza Howells, whose quilt square appears to the left—such poetry was an important tool for dealing with grief. Sometime in the 1840s, Eliza Howells began accumulating a number of quilt squares as gifts from family and friends. Largely commemorative, these squares mark important events in Eliza’s life such as her wedding in 1843 and her Grandmother’s death in 1845. The same grandmother whose death is commemorated on one square, in fact, produced the square celebrating Eliza’s marriage.

Eliza produced the central, "capstone" square of the quilt herself. The images she penned here—the heavy curtains, the urns with emerging flowers, the clock, the dark dress—are all contemporary symbols of mourning, and the voice she gives the object is, perhaps fittingly for the time, a rather poetic one that testifies to the power of this rather curious text-ile and provides insight into how it became meaningful for Eliza. Together, the poems show that the quilt connected her in two ways to a “spiritual community” of loved ones whose physical presence she no longer enjoyed. The first, which seems the most “memorial” of the two, is entitled “Friendship” and reads:

In Vain—in different paths we tread—
And though no more mayest soothe or cheer;
Yet we have those hours of friendship shed,
A sweetness that still lingers here;
Thy form & look, in memory’s glass,
I still distinctly see;
Thy voice and words, in fancy’s ear
Are whispering still to me.

"Friendship" is followed by the second, more consolatory piece entitled “Eternity":

When the dream of life is fled,
When its wasted lamp is dead,
When in cold oblivion’s shade,
Beauty, power, wealth are laid;
Where immortal spirits reign,
There may be all we meet again;
On the tree of life eternal
Man, let all the hope be staid
Which alone, for ever vernal,
Bears a leaf that shall not fade.

Together, these poems suggest how the quilt enlivens the people who helped produce it while simultaneously prefiguring Eliza's reunion with them in the "ever vernal" afterlife. Crafted as it was by hand (or hands), it quite literally served as a site where Eliza could stitch, bind, and tie herself to those, like her grandmother, who had not only helped produce the blanket's other squares but who were commemorated there as well. Morbid? Maybe. But for Eliza, who could wrap herself in the combination of image, text, and material—and perhaps for more than just a few people in our current day—it was one way to keep warm against chills borne of gale or grief.

Adam Bradford writes in from the University of Iowa where he is finishing a dissertation on the literature of 19th century American mourning practices.