Helen Jackson.

From: Short Studies of American Authors (1880)
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Published: Lee and Shepard 1880 Boston


M’LLE DE MONTPENSIER, grand-daughter of Henri Quatre, is said to have been “so famous in history that her name never appears in it;” she being known only as “La Grande Mademoiselle.” This anonymousness may help the fame of a princess, but it must hurt that of an author. The initials “L. E. L.,” so familiar to some of us in childhood, stood for a fame soon forgotten; and this not so much because her poetry was weak, but because her name was in a manner nameless. However popular might be the poems of “H. H.,” they were still attached to a rather vague and formless personality so long as these initials only were given; to combine with this the still remoter individuality of “Saxe Holm,” was only to deepen the sense of vagueness; and if all the novels of the “No Name” series, instead of two of them, had been attributed to the same shadowy being, every one would have pronounced the suggestion quite credible. To take these various threads of mystery, and weave them into a substantial fame, this passed the power of public admiration. At any rate, an applause so bewildered could hardly be heard across the Atlantic; and it is almost exasperating to find that in England, for instance, where so many feeble American reputations have been revived only to die, there are few critics who know even the name of the woman who has come nearest in our clay and tongue to the genius of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and who has made Christina Rossetti and Jean Ingelow appear but second-rate celebrities.

  When some one asked Emerson a few years since whether he did not think “H. H.” the best woman-poet on this continent, he answered in his meditative way, “Perhaps we might as well omit the woman;” thus placing her, at least in that moment’s impulse, at the head of all. He used to cut her poems from the newspapers as they appeared, to carry them about with him, and to read them aloud. His especial favorites were the most condensed and the deepest, those having something of that kind of obscurity which Coleridge pronounced to be a compliment to the reader. His favorite among them all is or was the sonnet entitled


“O Messenger, art thou the king, or I?
Thou dalliest outside the palace-gate
Till on thine idle armor lie the late
And heavy clews: the morn’s bright, scornful ere
Reminds thee; then, in subtle mockery,
Thou smilest at the window where I wait
Who bade thee ride for life. In empty state
My days go on, while false hours prophesy
Thy quick return; at last in sad despair
J cease to bid thee, leave thee free as air;
When lo I thou stand’st before me glad and fleet,
And lay’st undreamed-of treasures at my feet.
Ah! messenger, thy royal blood to buy,
I am too poor. Thou art the king, not I.”1

  The uncontrollableness of thought by will has never been better expressed by words than in this sonnet; and there are others which utter emotion so profoundly, and yet with such artistic quiet, that each brief poem seems the summary of a life! Take this, for instance, describing a love that, having once found its shore, burns its ships behind it, and absolutely cuts off all retreat:—


“O Love, sweet Love, who came with rosy sail
And foaming prow across the misty sea!
O Love, brave Love, whose faith was full and free
That lands of sun and gold which could not fail
Lay in the west,—that bloom no wintry gale
Could blight, and eyes whose love thine own should be,
Called thee with steadfast voice of prophecy
To shores unknown!

“O Love, poor Love, avail
Thee nothing now thy faiths, thy braveries;
There is no sun, no bloom; a cold wind strips
The hiller foam from off the wave where dips
No more thy prow; the eyes are hostile eyes;
The gold is hidden; vain thy tears and cries:
O Love, poor Love, why didst thou burn thy ships?”2

  “H. H.” writes another class of poems, that, with a grace and wealth like Andrew Marvell’s, carry us into the very life of external nature, or link it with the heart of man. Emerson’s “Humblebee” is not a creation more fresh and wholesome than is


“O marvel, fruit of fruits, I pause
To reckon thee. I ask what cause
Set free so much of red from heats
At core of earth, and mixed such sweets
With sour and spice; what was that strength
Which out of darkness, length by length,
Spun all thy shining thread of vine
Netting the fields in bond as thine;
I see thy tendrils drink by sips
From grass and clover’s smiling lips;
I hear thy roots dig down for wells
Tapping the meadow’s hidden cells;
Whole generations of green things,
Descended from long lines of springs,
I see make room for thee to bide
A quiet comrade by their side;
I see the creeping peoples go
Mysterious journeys to and fro;
Treading to right and left of thee,
Doing thee homage wonderingly.
I see the wild bees as they fare
Thy cups of honey drink, but spare;
I mark thee bathe and bathe again
In sweet uncalendared spring rain.
I watch how all May has of sun
Makes haste to have thy ripeness done,
While all her nights let dews escape
To set and cool thy perfect shape.
Ah, fruit of fruits, no more I pause
To dream and seek thy hidden laws!
I stretch my hand, and dare to taste
In instant of delicious waste
On single feast, all things that went
To make the empire thou hast spent.”3

As the most artistic among her verses I should class the “Gondolieds,” in which all Venice seems reflected in the movement and cadence, while the thought is fresh and new and strong. Then there are poems which seem to hold all secrets of passion trembling on the lips, yet forbear to tell them; and others, on a larger scale, which have a grander rhythmical movement than most of our poets have dared even to attempt. Of these the finest, to my ear, is “Resurgam;” but I remember that Charlotte Cushman preferred the “Funeral March,” and loved to read it in public. Those who heard her can never forget the solemnity with which she recited those stately cadences, or the grandeur of her half-glance over the shoulder as she named first among the hero’s funeral attendants

“Majestic Death, his freedman, following.”

  “H. H.” reaches the popular heart best in a class of poems easy to comprehend, thoroughly human in sympathy; poems of love, of motherhood, of bereavement; poems such as are repeated and preserved in many a Western cabin, cheering and strengthening many a heart. Other women have exerted a similar power; but in the hands of a writer like Alice Cary, for instance, the influence is shallow, though pure and wholesome; she sounds no depths as this later poet sounds them. The highest type of this class of Helen Jackson’s verses may be found in the noble poem entitled “Spinning,” which begins:—

“Like a blind spinner in the sun
I tread my days;
I know that all the threads will run
Appointed ways;
I know each day will bring its task,
And, being blind, no more I ask.”4

No finer symbolic picture of human life has ever been framed: Henry Vaughan, had he been a woman, might have written it.

  If, in addition to her other laurels, Mrs. Jackson is the main author of the “Saxe Holm” tales, she must be credited not only with some of the very best stories yet written in America,— “Draxy Miller’s Dowry,” for instance, but with one of the best-kept of all literary secrets. There has been something quite dramatic in the skill with which the puzzle has been kept alive by the appearance of imaginary claimants—if imaginary they be—to the honor of this authorship: now a maiden lady in the interior of New York; now a modest young girl whose only voucher, Celia Burleigh, died without revealing her name. I do not know whether any of these claimants took the pains to write out whole stories in manuscript,—as an Irish pretender copied out whole chapters of Miss Edgeworth’s “Castle Rackrent,” with corrections and erasures,—but it is well known that the editors of “Scribner’s Monthly” were approached by some one who professed to have dropped the “Saxe Holm” stories in the street, and demanded that they should be restored to him. He was suppressed by the simple expedient of inviting him to bring in some specimens of his own poetry, that it might be compared with that of “Draxy Miller;” but the modest young girls and the apocryphal rural contributors were less easily abolished, though time has abated their demands. The more Mrs. Jackson denied the authorship, the more resolutely the public mind intrenched itself in the belief that she had something to do with the stories, and that at least the verses therein contained were hers and hers alone. There were coincidences of personal and local details, to connect her with the veiled author; and the fantastic title of one tale, “The One-legged Dancers,” had previously appeared in her “Bits of Travel.”5 The final verdict seemed to be that she must have written the books, with enough of aid from some friend to justify her persistent denial; and ingenious critics soon began to see internal traces of a double authorship, while this to other critics seemed altogether absurd.

  The publication of “Mercy Philbrick’s Choice” and “Hetty’s Strange History” only revived the same questions. The plots of these books showed the hand of “Saxe Holm,” the occasional verses that of “H. H.” Both novels brought a certain disappointment: they had obvious power, but were too painful to be heartily enjoyed. After all, the public mind is rather repelled by a tragedy, since people wish to be made happy. Great injustice has been done by many critics, I think, to “Hetty’s Strange History.” While its extraordinary power is conceded, it has been called morbid and immoral; yet it is as stern a tale of retribution as “Madame Bovary” or “The Scarlet Letter.” We rarely find in fiction any severity of injustice meted out to a wrong act done from noble motives. In Jean Paul’s “Siebenkäs” the husband feigns death in order that his wife may find happiness without him: he succeeds in his effort, and is at last made happy himself. In “Hetty’s Strange History” the wife effaces herself with precisely the same object,—for her husband’s sake: but the effort fails; the husband is not made happy by her absence, and when they are re-united the memory of her deception cannot be banished, so that after the first bliss of re-union they find that complete healing can never come. Only a deep nature could have planned, only a very firm pen could have traced, the final punishment of Hetty’s sin.

  One of the acutest critics in America said of Saxe Holm: “She stands on the threshold of the greatest literary triumphs ever won by an American woman.” It must be owned that she still lingers there: we still wait for any complete and unquestionable victory. Who knows but that versatile imagination may already have sought some other outlet, and she may already be mystifying her public under some new name? And of “H. H.” as a poet it must be said that she seems of late to be half shrinking from her full career, and to be turning rather to the path of descriptive prose. She has always excelled in this: her “German Land-lady” is unsurpassed in its way, and her new experiences of Western residence have only added fullness and finish to this part of her literary work. No one has ever written of frontier-life so well as she, in her “Bits of Travel at Home;” with such hearty sympathy, with a tone so discriminating, and with such absence of the merely coarse or melodramatic. All the California writers have not secured for the life of that region such a place in the world of art as she is giving to Colorado; all their work, however brilliant, is encumbered with what is crude, cheap, exaggerated, and therefore temporary; hers is clear and firm and strong; and those who regret her absence from her early home can yet rejoice that she dwells amid scenery so magnificent, and in so absorbing a current of human life.

1 Verses by H. H., p. 121.
2 Verses, p. 71.
3 Verses, p. 166.
4 Verses, p. 14.
5 Bits of Travel, p. 65.

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