Lydia Sigourney's sailors and the limits of sentiment.
Most recent work on Sigourney's poetry implicitly directs readers to reconsider the power of her sentimental verse rather than to focus on her motivations or commitments. (2) For example, Mary Louise Kete argues that many of the poems "[deploy] sentimentality as an agent of homogenization" that provides a foundation for "the imaginative work of national definition" (119, 113). Read this way, Sigourney's work reveals what Joanne Dobson calls a "desire for bonding ... and ... affiliation on the plane of emotion," a desire for an affective union that would mirror the political union of the United States (267). Writing in a similar vein, Eliza Richards argues that the poetry serves a "republican project," since the interiority that is the hallmark of her elegiac verse is purposely generic rather than particular and that such generic sentiments work to "[convert] private suffering into communal bonds" (67-68). Kerry C. Larson also highlights the community-building power of sentiment, claiming that Sigourney (much like Whitman) used poetry to reflect the feelings of the democratic mass. Larson insists that the poet's elegies provide a "common literary idiom" that "cut[s] across lines of gender, class, race, and region" (85). That "literary idiom" idealizes certain identities (the mother), locales (the home), and attitudes (non-doctrinal Christianity) that might cement an affective union among readers. These astute critiques, which move this nineteenthcentury author out of the realm of interiority and into a more public space, still take her sentimental outlook and aesthetic as more or less a given. In fact, only Paula Bernat Bennett departs from this critical consensus. In her reading of "The Lost Lily," Bennett argues that the poem, which tells the story of a white woman who was captured by Native Americans but is unwilling to leave her adopted tribe and return to her biological family, shows the poet "turning her back on a good deal that she once believed and that, presumably, justified much of what she did and wrote" (6o). While I think that Bennett's conclusions are entirely correct, I argue that "The Lost Lily" is but one example of Sigourney's reconsideration of sentiment as a remediative force, a reconsideration that was, in fact, inaugurated years before.
In this essay I discuss this trend in Sigourney's work as I evaluate changes to her well-known "literary idiom" manifest in her several collections of poetry for and about sailors. The sailor--as both audience for and subject of the poetry--serves as a provocative figure, since most antebellum sailors were detached from the faith, home, and family that generated and sustained affective union. In fact, although most antebellum Americans regarded sailors as iconic citizens who deserved the nation's admiration, sailors were also imagined as debauched, unsteady, or even fearsome (Gilje 163-227). The mixed feelings should come as no surprise, for the physical distance between land and sea, as well as the varied experience of nineteenth-century men and women who made their lives and their livings on or near the water, rendered the antebellum maritime world a space very different from that occupied by those Americans who remained ashore. (3) Authors who chose to write for or about sailors were forced to imagine a United States that was larger and more diverse than the bounded, terrestrial realm most of them called home, and their attempts to represent (or speak to) the sailor in literature were, in many cases, attempts to locate a common national language and identity that could connect Americans on land with those at sea. This is why Hester Blum is correct when she claims that "acknowledging the sailor" encourages modern readers to understand American literary history in new ways ("The Prospect of Oceanic Studies" 671). If literary critics look at the antebellum United States from an oceanic perspective they may uncover gaps and schisms that are difficult to see from land.
These schisms appear in stark relief in the four editions of poetry for sailors that Sigourney published between 1845 and 1857. In those collections she suggests some ways that American sailors might connect themselves to the country from which they were physically and psychically separated, but she comes to realize that the ocean's unique character makes it, to use Christopher Connery's words, "fundamentally incompatible with a range of importations from land-based thinking" (687). The poetic rhetorical devices she used to craft her most popular works seem somehow less effective when sent out to sea, since the wide gulf between land and sea weakens the binding power of affection. Moreover, the affective unions so often idealized in the poet's sentimental writing are replaced by commercial links between seamen and landsmen in her poetry for and about sailors: The sailor is away at sea, but the goods he transports from distant shores come to rest in middle-class homes in the United States. Thus, Sigourney's collections--which unite very different poems in a single volume--confirm that she would not ignore the human labor and human suffering that founded a comfortable domestic space. Indeed, in these poems Sigourney does not simply rehearse a "fixed fight" between home and market but, as Douglas points out, maps the larger field on which such battles were being waged (12). (4) In the process, she implicates her readers onshore in the problems faced by American sailors and reveals a marked skepticism in the unifying power of sentimental writing.
In the pages that follow I contextualize and analyze Sigourney's Poems for the Sea, the third of her four editions of poetry for and about sailors, and argue that the collection of poems charts the limits of sentimentalism as a literary mode and an imaginative force. (5) Poems for the Sea begins with works typical of the poet's sentimental oeuvre, but it moves on to highlight many of the challenges faced by antebellum sailors, such as low wages, lengthy separations from home, and social segregation. Although in certain poems Sigourney celebrates the fact that individual sailors can find salvation despite these challenges, in others she seems to acknowledge that heavenly salvation would not eliminate the challenges themselves. And, as she closes her volume with a series of poems that foreground the sailors' commercial mission along with their physical hardships, Sigourney leads her readers to understand that even though land and sea were united by commerce, they were separated by an unbridgeable physical and imaginative gulf. This seems like a very "salient point" indeed, and it suggests that her poetic confrontations with the sailor led her to evaluate her own economic and literary investments and the problems entailed by both.
FROM POETRY FOR SEAMEN (1845) TO THE SEA AND THE SAILOR (1855)
Sigourney published her first book for sailors a few years after her 1841 voyage across the Atlantic, but she became interested in sailors' welfare long before she ever went to sea herself, likely because of her wide-ranging commitments to various reform efforts. As movements aimed at everything from abolition to temperance proliferated during the antebellum period, men and women living in or near port cities developed sophisticated and wide-reaching programs for the rehabilitation of the sailor (Gilje 195-227; Kverndal 407-536). Maritime reformers encouraged sailors to sign the temperance pledge, forgo taverns and brothels that flourished in port towns, take up Bible reading (as opposed to the more pernicious novel reading), and put their money in seamen's banks rather than hand it over to unscrupulous boardinghouse owners. When she began to take an interest in sailors, Sigourney allied herself with organizations like the Boston Society for the Religious and Moral Improvement of Seamen and the American Seaman's Friend Association that encouraged sailors to adopt personal habits that were in keeping with middle-class mores.
As part of her work for these organizations, Sigourney published a host of sentimental and didactic poems in periodicals such as the Sailor's Magazine and the Friend of Honolulu. She included some of these poems in volumes she published during the 183os and 184os and collected many of them in her first volume of sailor poetry, Poetry for Seamen, published in 1845. In the preface to this volume she attests to her "interest in those whose exertions" kept passengers safe at sea. Remembering her own voyage across the Atlantic, she writes that she found the sailors' "patient endurance of hardship, and generous for-getfulness of self ... deeply affecting" and offers the book as an outpouring born of her own emotional debt (v). Poetry for Seamen is a slim duodecimo volume bound between pink boards; its simple cover and lack of ornamentation suggest that the book was, indeed, intended for the sailors' workplace and not for the parlor. In her autobiography, Sigourney recalls that Martin Brimmer, the former mayor of Boston, purchased the entire run of one thousand copies and that the Rev. J. C. Robertson, a minister in a Boston seamen's chapel, distributed them to sailors (Letters of Life 351).
Sigourney moved in an entirely new direction when she revised and expanded her first volume into Poems for the Sea, published five years later. Poems for the Sea sold on the open market, as did subsequent editions of the book. Gone was the cheap binding between paper boards and the simple, unadorned text; the new octavo volume featured graphic "embellishments" designed by W. R. Lawrence (a school friend of the author's son Andrew) and an epigraph from Psalm 107: "Those who go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep," Bound between embossed cloth covers, Poems for the Sea swelled from 64 to 154 pages and included forty-two poems (twenty-four that had not appeared in the earlier volume). In her preface, Sigourney makes clear what the material changes to the collection suggest: This book was not just for sailors, but for all sea travelers. She notes that the "book is the result of some personal acquaintance with the element whose name it bears" and suggests that it "go forth with the voyager." The first part of the book speaks explicitly to novice travelers. The final portion, however, is, Sigourney claims, "more particularly adapted to those, whose life is on the sea" (vii). This division between the two segments of the text is marked by a page break in the table of contents, a partition that reflects the many other separations in the volume: land and sea, home and abroad, female and male, and Christian and sinner. Responding to these cleavages, contemporary readers seemed uncertain about the audience for the book. Whereas the reviewer for the Hartford Daily Courant noted that the book was "a beautiful little work, in a beautiful dress" ("New Publication"), a reviewer for Mrs. Whittelsey's Magazine for Mothers focused more on the seafarer as the intended audience, claiming that a sailor who read the poems would "feel double gratitude that it is the taste, and talent, and affection of a woman, that has dedicated to him this memento" (Rev. of Poems for the Sea 196).
When she subsequently republished these poems as Voices front Home; or, Poems for the Sea (1852) and The Sea and the Sailor (1855 and 1857), Sigourney added only a new preface and/or epigraph to each volume. Like Poems for the Sea, these later editions were printed in Hartford and bound between embossed cloth covers. Their appearance and apparatus reinforce the separation inherent in the earlier edition; like their predecessor, these volumes are not just for the forecastle but for all readers at home and at sea. Thus, the later collections allow for (or even encourage) reciprocal literary interloping among sailors, captains, passengers, businessmen, and housewives. All of the intended audiences read from the same script and read poems written from others' perspectives. One might argue that the design of the book testifies to the author's confidence in her poetry's accessibility and effectiveness. The book is directed to just about everyone, because Sigourney believed it could speak to just about everyone. Larson, the only modern critic who so much as acknowledges Sigourney's sailor poems, emphasizes her desire to attract (and unite) a wide readership when he argues that cobbled-together volumes like Poems for the Sea remind readers that Sigourney's poems were more or less "interchangeable." According to Larson, no matter what topic the poet confronted, she responded with a stock set of poetic images and predictably affective themes that could be grouped together according to her or her publishers' whims (84).
This assessment of Sigourney's topical collections, as least as it applies to those with a maritime theme, may need some reevaluation. First, Larson's critique implies that the meaning and effect of the collections were coextensive with the poems therein. Conversely, I argue (as most scholars do when they analyze Leaves of Grass and various other nineteenth-century collections) that a book of poetry that collects, organizes, and introduces previously published poems might lead readers to new interpretations of the poems themselves. Since Sigourney selected, revised, and ordered the contents of Poems for the Sea, as well as arranged for their illustration, I analyze this edition as an edition and not simply as a group of "interchangeable" poems. My reading of Poems for the Sea as an edition begins with my assumption that such a book must have been intended to do something for its readers that the individual uncollected poems could (or did) not. Thus, in the pages that follow I provide an overview of the book itself--an intratextual contex--as well as close readings of several provocative poems.
As one might expect, in most of these poems Sigourney highlights the ways that faith and sympathy might remedy problems like sailors' intemperance, rambunctiousness, and irreligion, but this brings me to my second point about Poems for the Sea as an edition. Because the book features so many poems that work in very similar ways, slight variations in character, tone, and affect seem to be especially pronounced; skepticism stands out. Moreover, the recurring presence of peripatetic lower-class seamen throughout the volume transforms Sigourney's sailors into something more than they appear to be in her uncollected poems, wherein they serve as handy symbols of derring-do, debauchery, or difference. Indeed, the pantheon of imagined sailors in Poems for the Sea seems far more human than objects of disdain or compassion, and their stories sound with the same force as the poet's earnest calls for reform. In fact, when these maritime laborers tell their stories, readers learn that the hearthstone is not just the preferred alternative to the forecastle but also is a site that depends on sailors' labor, that comfort by one hearthside likely entails want and privation by another. Ultimately, because of its subject matter and wished-for audience(s), Poems for the Sea sketches the limits of sentimental poetry as a unifying force.
When she reviewed her entire literary corpus in Letters of Life, Sigourney noted that she had compiled Poetry for Seamen and its subsequent editions because her "voyages had given [her] an interest in that class of persons who buffet the ocean-billows and through whose hardships the commerce of the world is sustained" and that she "wished to testify sympathy and friendship by a little book of poetry" (351). Here (although not in her prefaces to the several collections of sailor poems) the poet acknowledges the importance of the commercial mission that took sailors to sea, but she goes on to hint that shipboard diversity may have stymied some of her initial goals for the book. She explains that some of her poetry was not simple enough for sailors, and [other poems were] too simple for those in command, so that it falls short of both classes. Still, as a parting gift for the sea, it has been often welcomed, lighting the dim forecastle with a ray from the hearthstone" (352). Whereas Poems for the Sea, when given as a sign of affection or esteem, signifies in a particular way and may "[light] the ... forecastle," Sigourney fears that the poems themselves "[fall] short." Rather than commenting, then, on what the poems in her volume say, she suggests that the volume itself "testif[ies] sympathy" and then goes on to fix Poems for the Sea squarely within a gift economy (351).
Invoking the gift-giving ritual and its meanings, Sigourney recalls the economic connections between land and sea that reappear throughout her volume, but she studiously avoids the question of whether her poems engendered the emotional connections she hoped they would. Of all the reviews of her published works she collected in Letters of Life, only Poems for the Sea comes in for such criticism, and, if we take her at her word, it was one of a very few books in her canon that did not perform as she had intended. Her dissatisfaction with the book may have stemmed from both the enormity of the problems she confronts in her collection as well as her lofty ambitions for Poems for the Sea, a book she hoped would extend the comforting and disciplining power of the domestic into a space far removed from the middle-class home. The poems that give the volume its shape, though, reveal the inadequacy of that disciplining power and the connections between land and sea that undermined affective union.
"HEAVEN'S ETERNAL GEM"
As she indicates in the preface, Sigourney intended the first section of Poems for the Sea to be for all ocean voyagers, and her poems directed at this broad audience celebrate behaviors and attitudes familiar to readers of sentimental fiction and poetry. Piety, temperance, faithfulness, and sympathy take center stage, and the poet links these habits of mind with the hearthside, a site that serves as a metonym for the larger domestic sphere and its salubrious influences. Images of hearth and home appear again and again in poems that describe the feelings of a (presumably) female speaker encountering the rigors of life at sea for the first time. In these poems, Sigourney advances a sentimental mode of understanding maritime experience, likely with the intention of joining all of her shipboard readers in a single interpretative community. She may have hoped that if sailors came to imagine the sea as a site for religious meditation or as a symbol of God's power--that is, if they adopted the reading habits of those whose perspective she uses in the first part of Poems for the Sea--they might recall forgotten lessons that could, in turn, yoke them to the hearthside they forsook when they first took to the sea.
The voyage away from home begins in "Parting," spoken in the voice of a woman as she witnesses "eyes so dear" and a "voice beloved" depart to the sea (13, 17). The animating fear in the poem (and through the first part of the volume) appears in the third stanza when the speaker wonders,
Art Thou a God at home, Where the bright fireside smiles, And not abroad upon the deep, Mid danger's deadliest wiles? (9-12)
Embedded in these lines is not only the speaker's hope for the seafarer's safety but also a real question about the power of the God who reigns by the fireside at home. Sigourney goes on to affirm the power of this one God by imagining the ocean as a teacher who helps the faithful learn about God's power and grace. Similarly, the speaker of "To the Ocean," begs, "Met me be thy pupil, mighty Deep! / Yet speak thou gently to me, for I fear / Thy voice of terror" (1-3). Although she claims, "My Mother Earth imparts / An easier lore," the speaker thrills because "[e]ach breaking billow speaks that One Dread Name" and thus brings her even closer to God (7-8, 37). The female speaker of this and other poems enjoys her sea journeys because they show God as the ruler over both land and sea and because they enable her to prove herself as a faithful Christian subject.
While these poems offer readers a way to understand maritime experiences within a particular religious context, the hermeneutic Sigourney offers ignores the facts of sailors' labor and occupational knowledge. She suggests that when the reader at sea confronts God's might in the form of an ocean storm, the only thing that can save him or her is God's benevolence, his willingness to stay the waves or guide the ship. This is especially evident in "Icebergs," wherein the speaker's ship passes through a field of bergs and floes while the "sleepless Captain at his post / Firm and undaunted stood" (33-34). The captain neither navigates, nor gives orders, nor steers; he just stands there. The ship survives thanks to "[t]he Great Deliverer's power ... Him, who foiled that frigid host," while the brave and immovable captain is but an impotent spectator subject to God's dispensations (40, 61).
Sigourney's minimization of the sailors' agency, which emphasizes the division between sailors and other readers, reappears in "The Trusting Child," wherein a storm strikes a ship and "the boldest mariner" blanches with horror for he knows that he has led a "sinful life" and is therefore ill-prepared to die (13, 38). The sailors quake with fear as they confront God's terrible power, but they seem to do nothing to deal with the tempest he has sent. Meanwhile, the young child belowdecks confronts the storm with remarkable placidity and reminds his mother, "We're not afraid to die" (24). After the storm passes, the young child remains calm and faithful, but the sailors are "faint as they I Who with giant foes have striven" (45-46; emphasis added). The simile obscures the facts that the sailors actually have striven to guide the sailing vessel through a squall and that the trusting child may well have remained calm because he knew that the mariners working above were more than competent to perform their appointed tasks. Sigourney never broaches this possibility and instead presents both storm and deliverance providentially. In fact, throughout Poems for the Sea she insists on rendering the material metaphorical, as maritime terminology becomes the basis for a series of religious meditations. "Reef Sails" reconceptualizes the captain's order to take in sail in the face of a storm as an urging to refrain from immoral behaviors. "Oracle for Seamen" installs the Bible (and not the chart) as the sailor's "pilot, while he ploughs the brine" (16). This pilot does not steer seamen away from physical danger, but it does offer "|a|guide to immortality" even when the pious tar finds himself "[m]id oath and bacchanalian song" (28, 22). In other poems, stars, charts, and rudders (all important to navigating or steering the ship) become spiritual guides, records of sin, and moral compasses that prepare seamen to face--but not to avoid-impending disaster.
The interpretative divide between passenger and sailor reappears in "The Angel of the Waters," wherein Sigourney encourages readers' benevolence toward sailors. As she closes the poem with a plea for put-upon seamen, she reminds readers of the limits of charitable giving:
And for our brethren of the Sea, Who oft neglected pine, Incite our sympathizing ear And wake a zeal divine, Till we, their penury enrich With Heaven's eternal gem. (25-30)
This poem, like many in Poems for the Sea, allows sailors to see what people on land think of them and perhaps encourages them to think of themselves as objects of concern and compassion. In this particularly jarring example of the separation between travelers and sailors, though, Sigourney advances a notion of enrichment that has no material analogue. The divide between cabin and forecastle--between the "we" and the "they" in the poem--was an economic and class divide first and foremost, but it is here refigured as some sort of religious ledger. "The Angel of the Waters" brings to mind Douglas's sharp critique of sentimental literature as an "inevitable part of the self-evasion of a society both committed to laissez-faire industrial expansion and disturbed by its consequences" (12). Indeed, the flaccid benevolence offered by "Heaven's eternal gem" would do little to aid men whose sufferings were mundane as well as spiritual. Elsewhere in this volume, however, Sigourney explicitly acknowledges the economic and social inequalities obscured or ignored in poems like "The Angel of the Waters."
"THE GOLDEN CHAIN"
Sigourney breaks her silence on these economic issues in two intriguing poems that highlight the divisions between the different audiences for Poems for the Sea. In the first of these, "The Geranium Plant at Sea," she indicates that particular objects help seafarers maintain both physical and psychic connections to the hearth. The speaker of "Geranium" looks at a plant she has brought from home and laments the "[s]ad change from thy sweet garden, where the dew / Each morning glistened in thy grateful eye" (4-5). She goes on to apologize for the "trouble I for thee I have made" (11). All of this trouble seems necessary, and she reminds the plant that "in thy life, I keep the golden chain, / Of home, and its delights, here on the lonely main" (13-14). The geranium--like Sigourney's book--is the "golden chain" that binds the voyager or the sailor to home; it is a piece of land that reminds the speaker of the hearth and the many "delights" associated with that place. While the chain connects the voyager to the domestic realm, the golden links of that chain recall the commercial mission that took sailors to .sea in the first place. Sailors are bound with figurative chains of gold that represent the interests of merchants and captains who profit from seafaring laborers. In fact, these chains engender many of the hardships and behaviors Sigourney hopes to remedy with her book. Lurking beneath the placid surface of Poems for the Sea, then, is the troubling specter of global capitalism and its discontents. The several instances where this specter emerges suggest that the author understood--emotionally as well as intellectually--the thorny economic and social issues spawned by the expansion of America's commercial empire.
This understanding becomes especially evident in "Laura," in which the eponymous heroine "lov'd a son of Neptune" for "[h]is generous nature ... land warm devotedness to every friend" (2), (5-6). Immediately after she marries him, the "son of Neptune" leaves to captain a whaling vessel on a three-year voyage. Before he leaves, he "promises to tempt the sea no more, / But after this, one farewell voyage, to rear / A cottage mid their native hills" (14-16). On the one hand, maritime labor (or, in this case captaincy) can provide the money needed to finance a quiet and peaceful home life; on the other hand, the fact that such labor is performed for long periods and far from land requires the breakup of that home. A woman married to a sailor or a sea captain must have a "well-train'd mind" to endure long separations and wait for the delayed gratification concomitant with the life she chose (26).
When Laura's husband returns from his one farewell voyage," he brings bad news:
But the voice That to her ear like richest music seem'd, Announc'd sad tidings. He must tempt again The treacherous deep. never more to "Ah not again. No! No! Think of your promise, roam! The humblest cot, where I might work for you, And hear your voice, and be your comforter, Is all my heart's ambition." "Laura, love, Fain would I place you in a loftier home, Such as your merits claim." (43-54)
Sigourney stresses the verb "tempt" to describe the captain's voyage and thereby emphasizes his violation of a marital promise; indeed, the captain not only breaks a promise to remain at home with Laura but also destroys their shared vision of home. He wants to go on this next trip not so he can buy a simple cottage but so he can make her rich and place her in a "loftier home." This is not at all what Laura desires, and she begs that they simply be "content" (63). Unwilling to endure more "days of widowhood," she decides to join her husband on the next voyage (42). The poet's description of Laura's choice foreshadows her demise, for "[a] marble paleness o'er her features stole, / And when it fled, left a fix'd purpose there / To go with him" (65-67). Already having become a corpse before she sets foot on the ship, Laura ultimately meets her end in California, the land of gold.
This straightforward ballad showcases a number of problems that goad much of Poems for the Sea. First, there is the captain's inability to interpret appropriately certain important terms that Sigourney uses throughout the first section of the book, terms like home, content, riches, and wealth. If, as June Howard claims, sentimentality marks "moments when the discursive processes that construct emotion become visible," then the sea captain's failure to understand the emotional (rather than economic) resonances of these loaded words signals his inability or unwillingness to join in the interpretative community Sigourney constructs in Poems for the Sea (69). Second, through her depiction of the economically minded sea captain, the poet invokes what Christopher Castiglia terms the "eroticization of speculation" (212). The man who takes to sea in search of excessive gains or unlimited profits is actually pursuing something far more seductive than wealth. His lustful desire for gold--a desire that originated while he was separated from wife and home--gets the best of him and threatens to destroy the foundations of middle-class contentment. This last point is especially important, for it suggests that the threat posed by the captain, like the threat posed by sailors, is not limited to a single home or a single wife.
As "Laura" ends, the captain stands onshore in San Francisco staring at his wife's coffin:
Amid the pangs With which that stricken husband bow'd him down, Was no remorseful sorrow o'er his haste To gather gold?--no painful imagery Of a sweet cottage mid New England's hills ... ? (109-13)
Here the poet limns the boundaries of appropriate behavior for her seafaring readers and cautions them to renounce excessive gain in favor of modest contentment at home. But by assigning the greedy captain all of the responsibility for Laura's death, Sigourney misplaces the burden of guilt and elides the problem hinted at in "The Geranium Plant at Sea," for the men who profited most from seafaring were the merchants and shipowners who almost never went to sea. While it is easy (and appropriate) to criticize the captain who, in his "haste / To gather gold," violated certain tenets of domestic ideology and thereby destroyed much of what the poem's speaker values, it is not so easy for Sigourney to criticize the men who "gather gold" by remaining ashore and building the homes in which wives, mothers, and children could live comfortably. Her hesitation to engage in a critique of these capitalist ventures presents a stark contrast to the sentiments expressed in an anonymously authored article published in the February 1829 Sailor's Magazine and Naval Journal, the writer of which argues that "[t]he owner, the merchant, the landsman reaps the benefit of the sailor's perils and toils, grows rich by his hardships, builds himself a spacious house, and lays up substance for his children. But the poor sailor, to whom he is indebted for it all, is forgotten and despised" ("Claims of Seamen" 185). Sigourney's criticism, which was quite commonplace in sentimental writings, attacks the personal failures evident in many of the verses in Poems for the Sea. The second critique, however, would assault the very foundations of the economic and social world in which the poet herself lived and worked.
"THOSE, WHOSE LIFE IS ON THE SEA"
In the second part of Poems for the Sea, a "portion ... adapted to those, whose life is on the sea," Sigourney claims to abandon the landed vision and female speakers that occupy the first section of her book and presents several poems voiced by working sailors (vii). In the first poem of the section, though, she returns readers to the shore (a place where the poet herself may have been more comfortable) to receive the decidedly elegiac "The Mother's Blessing, on Her Sailor Son" before the son boards his ship:
SON of my love, farewell! Farewell! On the wide watery plain I yield thee to a life of toil, And Him, who rules the main. And by those pure and speechless joys When cradled on my breast, I met thy waking infant smile, Or loll's thy woes to rest, I bless thee, wanderer of p. (1-8, 15)
Although the son is taking to the sea, the mother has already given him up to God, much like the mourning mothers in many of Sigourney's child elegies.(7) The helpless woman can offer only a blessing, and she regrets that she cannot provide "gems, or hoarded gold / To swell [his] stores" (17-18). Whether this sailor ships out in order to assist his mother or because of a greedy compulsion is not made explicit (the phrases "hoarded gold" and "swell thy stores" suggest the desire for excess), but the import of the poem is quite clear: The sailor is pulled from home and family by economic concerns, and this pull imperils both his body and his soul. "The Mother's Blessing," like "Laura," hints at the many dangers of money lust, and in the rest of her poems for sailors Sigourney alternates between emphasizing the economic and emotional dangers of seafaring and offering positive models of sailors who take steps to avoid both.
The sailing men Sigourney seems to favor employ many of the same interpretative strategies used by non-sailors in the first portion of the book. For example, in "The Happy Mariner" the poet employs a righteous and temperate speaker who avoids the deleterious behaviors and habits that characterize other sailors and pities his landed "friends, who lead such stupid lives" and require his "wages ... / To cheer their gloomy hours" (17, 20). He even claims that "in our small forecastle / Where there's scarcely room to spare / To stow away the chest and cot, / There's none for spite or care" (29-32). Although the forecastle was a dank, dirty, miasmic place that offered sailors neither comfort nor privacy, the sailor-speaker recasts those material discomforts as the very conditions that might shape a domestic space unmarred by "spite or care." And when the speaker explains that "heavenly grace" keeps his "chart without a blot" and his "log-book clear," the happy mariner (like Sigourney herself) presses maritime experience and nautical accoutrement into service as metaphor, suggesting that he has learned to interpret maritime experience much like the female speakers he might have encountered while reading the first part of Poems for the Sea (45, 35, 44). Another worshipful sailor prone to using nautical metaphor is the eponymous hero of "Tom Hardy," whose dying words make up the middle stanzas of the poem. Hardy's religion makes him a steady sailor: He is always cheerful, friendly, and honest. Before he dies, Hardy hands over his Bible (given to him by his mother) to a fellow seaman, claiming it to be his "compass o'er the wave." He then exhorts his shipmates to "make God [their] choice, / And to His haven steer" (32, 59-6o). By transforming themselves into Christians and by using reading and interpretative strategies familiar to women on land, these two sailors have secured their personal salvation. Yet their salvation serves no end but itself. Their virtues do not undo any of the problems Sigourney highlights in the rest of Poems for the Sea, particularly the breakup of the family and the economic hardships of those left on land.
Sigourney attends to these problems in a cluster of poems following "The Happy Mariner" and "Torn Hardy," especially" The Sailor's Sick Child," wherein a failing youth speaks to his weary mother in the hours before his death. (8) The tale he tells is clearly meant to be both heart-wrenching for readers and emasculating for the sailor. Beginning with a plea to hear of his father loin the deep ocean far away" (3), the sick child immediately moves to discuss the problems caused by the father's departure:
Mother, it troubles me to see Those stranger-ladies come, And urge you so to leave my side, And work for them, at home. (9-12)
But go the mother must, for the child "should have no food or fire" without her moneymaking efforts (23). The child goes on to admit,
How happy are those children dear, Who, on their couch of pain, Behold a mother always near, But still, I'll not complain. (29-32)
The absent sailor-father of this poem is not indicted for being a drinker, an' irreligious man, or a bad parent: He is just poor and elsewhere. This is sufficient, for the poet leaves no doubt that the sailor has contributed to the child's failing health and, even worse, has turned the mother into a laborer when she should be ministering to her child's wants. Thus, through this poem and some of those that precede it, Sigourney implicitly connects sailors' physical and emotional separation from their families to the commercial links of the golden chain that connected land and sea. In fact, the very presence of the sailor in Poems for the Sea foregrounds the problem of economic injustice so often obscured or ignored in sentimental writing. As Lori Merish explains, sentiment could "neutralize the relations of political inequality" it displays for readers (3). Sigourney's sailors, however, make such neutralization impossible.
"WHAT COULD THEY DO WITHOUT US?"
As readers come to the end of Poems for the Sea, the tensions Sigourney has explored throughout the book--the breakdown of sentiment as a unifying agent, the commercial links between ship and shore, the threat to the home created by sailors' absences and economic failures--explode on the surface in a troika of surprising poems. The first of these is a version of "The Whaler's Song." which had first appeared in Poetry for Seamen. In the earlier version, the poet recounts the exploits of the daring men who hunt and kill whales and render whale blubber. When the whaler's ship is finally homeward bound for Nantucket, the speaker directs a pointed request to those he has left behind:
There when the fair whom we love to please, Sit by the fireside at their ease, Let them remember, if they will, The hardy tar, who on far Risked his life their lamp to fill. (45-49)
The pleasant scene (the "fair" relaxing by the "fireside") mirrors many of the settings conjured by Sigourney in some of her most popular poems, yet this domestic space depends on the labors of a faraway sailor. The speaker of "The Whaler's Song" acknowledges that he "love[s] to please" the "fair" ones he has left behind on land, but he wants those friends to know that their comfort entails the whaler's endurance of certain dangers.
Much like the original "Whaler's Song," the version of the poem published in Poems for the Sea describes the work of a whaler and comes around at last to implicate readers at home in the labor that enables certain domestic comforts. The poem is identical to the earlier version but for the closing stanza, which offers a slightly different critique:
There, when the fair with brilliant eyes In evening circles sit, While the shining needle plies Or the merry laugh replies To pleasant wit, Let them think, if they will, Of the hardy tar On seas afar, Who risks his life, their lamps to fill. (45-53)
No longer does the whaler serve the particular home populated by those "whom [he] love[s] to please," those from whom he fled to go to sea; now he serves all women, the "fair with brilliant eyes" whose laughter makes the hearth such a pleasant place. Irrespective of his personal failings or religious disposition, irrespective of his own ability to provide for his family, this whaler helps to maintain the home life Sigourney idealizes in contradistinction to seafaring life.
He represents the economic interests (perhaps emphasized by the addition of the words "brilliant" earlier in the poem and "shining" in the final stanza) of the United States and abets the comfort of the people who live there, but his moral fitness seems to matter not a bit. The poet heightens the contrast between home and sea by using the present tense in this version of "The Whaler's Song." This whaler sings his song during an ongoing whale hunt, and the "risk" he invokes is not in the distant past but the immediate present. This change, along with Sigourney's move to obscure the affective ties that might spur a sailor to take to sea, emphasizes the relationship between comfort at home and privation at sea. Unlike its earlier counterpart, the later version of "The Whaler's Song" implies that the only thing uniting the comfortable and the uncomfortable is their common membership in a worldwide economic system.
This rebuke of landed readers is just the beginning. In her next poem, Sigourney reflects on the importance of all sailors to the sustenance of a flourishing domestic economy. "What Could They Do without Us?" is one of a few previously unpublished pieces to appear in Poems for the Sea. Unlike many of the sailor-voiced poems, it was not in Poetry for Seamen, nor does it appear in the Sailor's Magazine between 1828 and 185o. In the poem, the proud sailor-speaker acknowledges that he walks like a "porpoise," talks with a strange "lingo," and "Spin [s] out ... yarns so coarse and long" that they are unendurable (8, 27, 3). The speaker unabashedly celebrates the differences between sailing men like himself and the "lubbers" whose "gloved and lily hands" are unsuited for seafarers difficult work 13). The speaker here chooses the synecdochal "lily hands" to characterize Sigourney's social and economic circle, those people who have the time, money, and status to keep their hands clean and white, unlike those of the tawny sailor. Of these shore-bound legions the sailor asks, "What could you do without us?" and provides a list of people dependent on sailor labor (28). This poem, like "The Whaler's Song," is all about what sailors do and why it matters to those who live on land.
Here, for the first time, Sigourney points out that merchants depend on sailors to distribute their product (interestingly, that product is cotton, which raises the specter of more insidious labor systems farther south) and turn their profits. The merchants, however, are but one link in a ponderous golden chain:
And how would all his ladies fret, For eastern toys and teas, Unless our sails we sharply set Across the Indian seas? The farmer toils to plant his corn, And then to hill and hoe it, An honest-hearted man is he, His sun-burnt features show it, Yet when he takes his grain to town, With loads of golden cheese, And buys those notions from the shops His womankind that please, Do any of them ever think What blasts the seamen bore, To bring their mace and nutmegs home From a far tropic shore? (37-52)
The merchants' profits and the farmers' "golden cheese" purchase the "notions" brought from distant shores. These luxury items--spices, toys, teas--that make up a cozy, middle-class home are also reminders of global capitalism and of the labor systems that support it. Sigourney erases any division between the spheres of home and market and reminds her readers why they must interest themselves in the American sailor: Not only is he a national representative, but his labor brings the goods that make the hearth-side appealing. Although the self-deprecating sailor-speaker adopts a playful tone throughout most of the poem, his final declarative sentence directs readers to acknowledge an important truth: " [I]n your inmost hearts you know / You cannot do without us" (59-60).
Given that Sigourney made her poetic reputation (and fortune) imploring readers to probe their "inmost hearts" for a variety of reasons, this final line seems especially important. Directed to a plural "you" that includes almost any reader on land, "What Could They Do without Us?" reverses the speaker/subject relationship that characterizes most of the collection. Although she maintains that Poems for the Sea represents a piece of the hearth sent forth to brighten the forecastle, the poems near the end of the second section of the book bring the seafarer to the hearth and remind those reading with "lily hands" that the golden chain pulls both ways, that tethered to the other end of that chain is a sailor to whom the reader is beholden and for whom the reader is in some ways responsible. Poems like "The Sailor's Sick Child" show that sailors' economic privation and absence create a number of hardships for American families; then, in "What Could They Do without Us?" she shows that those hardships bring the luxuries other (more privileged) families enjoy. Through poems like these, it seems that she pushes her readers with "lily hands" to evaluate the foundations upon which their own homes are built.
It is hard to know why, nearly forty poems into Poems for the Sea, Sigourney uses a sailor-speaker to argue that neither readers of the poem nor, presumably, the poet herself could live without sailors' labor. She could have made this point in a number of ways earlier in the volume, and doing so might have emphasized that sailors were absolutely necessary to the sustenance of life on land and therefore fit subjects for consideration and compassion. Instead, standing as it does at the end of the volume, "What Could They Do without Us?" seems almost a throwing up of hands, a grudging admission that since we need nutmeg, we need sailors, and the price we must pay is their irremediable difference and distance from those on land. Perhaps this is why Sigourney closes her volume with "The Happy Home," in which she highlights what seem to be the best outcomes a sailor might expect were he to follow the prescriptions provided him at certain points in Poems for the Sea. Like the happy mariner and Tom Hardy, the speaker of "The Happy Home" is a Christian, and he lives with the memory and image of his home shining in his heart. His thoughts of shared love with his family are transmogrified into a protective "diamond shield," and he reminds himself, "For them I toil, for them I save" (9, 17). (9) The saving is important here, for it differentiates this speaker from the absent, penurious father in "The Sailor's Sick Child." And, unlike the captain in "Laura," this sailor is no greedy hoarder; he is happy with his "humble home" and promises us that "if it were a palace proud, / It would not be as dear" (19, 21-22).
There are two problems with "The Happy Homer First, the sailor is not there. The home he describes in his poem is imagined, and he continues on his voyage across the sea. Whereas the first section of Poems for the Sea moves from "Parting" to "Farewell to Fellow Voyagers," rehearsing the circuit from land to sea and back again, the second section of the book moves from "The Mother's Blessing, on Her Sailor Son" to "The Happy Home," but the poems do not retrace that same circuit. The trajectory in the second section of Poems for the Sea is ever outward. Even as the sailor-speaker frames his "Happy Home," we should understand that he is one of the men whom landed readers cannot, but must, do without; his home is not truly happy, because he is not there. Second, since Sigourney idealizes the "humble cottage" in "Laura," and since she changed the title of her closing poem from "The Humble Home" to "The Happy Home" in her final revision of the manuscript, we might assume that she imagined "humble" and "happy" as related (if not synonymous) terms (Poems for the Sea MS). If that is indeed the case, then the sailor's willingness to accept the lesser portion--to deny his family the "notions" he and his fellow seamen bring from distant shores--is the very thing that ensures his happiness.
By closing with "The Happy Home," Sigourney announces her hopes for her sailor poems even as she recalls many of the problems revealed in her collection. As she explained in her preface and insisted in her autobiography years later, Poems for the Sea was supposed to bring the hearth to the forecastle, so the sailor who imagines his happy home even when he is far away is a model for other sailor-readers. The poem's speaker unites the Christian outlook, domestic attentiveness, and (presumably) the salubrious reading habits that Sigourney hoped all sailors would adopt. Still, if the speaker of "The Happy Home" is anything like the other sailors in Poems for the Sea, his happy home may well be nothing but a sustaining fiction, for his real home has been endangered by his absence. The fact that so many of the poems in the collection highlight the various systemic problems that plagued seafarers diminishes the effectiveness of poems that offer sailors or their families nothing but an imaginative refuge. Of course, one could point out disjunctions between poetic ideals and socioeconomic realities in any number of nineteenth-century works, but, as I have tried to show, Sigourney does that work herself in Poems for the Sea. Sailors and their families were an unfortunate by-product and a necessary adjunct to the rapidly expanding national economy that was making the middle-class home such a comfortable place to live, as she reveals throughout the collection and acknowledges with special force in "What Could You Do without Us?"
It seems surprising that Sigourney uses the space of a single poetic volume to celebrate the emotional values of the hearth even as she exposes the financial cost of the same, but this sort of dual valuation is not entirely out of place in her poetic canon. After working for much of her life as a housewife and a professional author (a difficult balancing act she projects in her most famous poem, "To a Shred of Linen"), perhaps the poet felt a certain kinship with the seafaring men whose labor was crucially important but often ignored and under compensated. The woman who wrote, "If there is any kitchen in Parnassus, my Muse has surely officiated there as a woman of all work," may have also wanted to say, along with the proud and clever sailor, "What Could You Do without Us?" (Letters of Life 376). In the common experience of thankless and tiring labor, Sigourney may have located the basis for an epistemological union between herself and her sailor-readers. Although she does not press this point in the collection, Poems for the Sea certainly indicates that her audiences were connected not only by emotion and sympathy but also by their membership in an economic system that does more harm than good to sailors and their families. Poems like "The Sailor's Sick Child," "The Whaler's Song," and "What Could You Do without Us?" give ample evidence that Sigourney would not ignore the human labor and human suffering that founded a comfortable domestic space. This message, coupled with her sincere exhortations to her sailor readers, suggests that she may have wanted. to spur mutually sustaining reformations in both sailor behavior and consumer behavior. Poems for the Sea might be understood as a reform tome aimed at both sailors and those who remained ashore, for everyone who picks up the book can see the light of the hearthside and acknowledge the work that keeps it burning.
Even if Sigourney did not want to realize such ambitious goals through her maritime poetry, Poems for the Sea certainly leads readers to acknowledge that she did not embrace a simplistic sentimental-republican poetics. As she works to bring the sailor into the imaginative realm occupied by those on land, she also traces the limits of the affective bonds that she so often invokes as an "agent of homogenization." What seems clear, then, is that the very subject matter she selected for Poems for the Sea led her to confront the vexing problems spawned by the expansion of America's commercial empire, and the way she structured the collection indicates that she came to understand the limitations of sentimentalism as a tool that could unite Americans at sea with Americans on land. True, in certain poems--here I am thinking of "Heaven's Eternal Gem" or "The Trusting Child"--Sigourney employs her much-derided poetic habit of "self-evasion" in order to pull sailors into an interpretative community of readers physically and intellectually removed from seafarers' laborious lives. However, by virtue of their proximity to other poems in the volume, such verses lose their starry-eyed hopefulness and become, in a way, elegies for themselves.
Baym, Nina. "Reinventing Lydia Sigourney." American Literature 62.3 (1990): 385-404.
Bennett, Paula Bernat. Poets in the Public Sphere: The Emancipatory Project of American Woman's Poetry, 1800-1900. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003.
Blum, Hester. "The Prospect of Oceanic Studies." PMLA 125.3 (2010): 670-77.
__. The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2008.
Brown, Gillian. Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.
Casarino, Cesare. Modernity at Sea: Melville, Marx, Conrad in Crisis. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2002.
Castiglia, Christopher. Interior States: Institutional Consciousness and the Inner Life of Democracy in the Antebellum United States. Durham: Duke UP, 2008.
"Claims of Seamen." Sailor's Magazine, and Naval Journal 1 (1829): 185.
Cohen, Margaret. The Novel and the Sea. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010.
Cone, Helen Gray. "Woman in American Literature? Century Magazine 40.6 (189o): 921-30.
Connery, Christopher. "Sea Power." PMLA 125.3 (2010): 685-92.
"Critical Notices." North American Review 82 (1856): 576-77.
Dobson, Joanne. "Reclaiming Sentimental Literature." American Literature 69.2 (1997): 263-88.
Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture.1977. London: Papermac, 1996.
Fichtelberg, Joseph. Critical Fictions: Sentiment and the American Market, 1790-1870. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2003.
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Merish, Lori. Sentimental Materialism: Gentler, Commodity Culture, and Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.
Miskolcze, Robin. Women and Children First: Nineteenth-Century Sea Narratives and American Identity. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2007.
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Thanks to Benjamin S. Grossberg, William H. Major, and the Legacy readers; their thoughtful comments helped me to improve this essay. A Paul Cuffe grant from Mystic Seaport enabled me to perform the research for this piece.
(1) For details on Sigourney's literary career and ambition, see Teed. For representative nineteenth-century assessments of Sigourney's work, see Cone 922; Hawthorne 6; Rev. of The Poetry and Poets of America 34. Modern critiques (which also describe negative nineteenth-century views of Sigourney's work) include those in Haight 108-34, Douglas 8o no, and Wood 163-64.
(2) Baym is an important exception here, although her article is more concerned with challenging Douglas's description of Sigourney as a "funerary" author than with evaluating changes in her sentimental poetics (387).
(3) A spate of recent work on maritime literature and culture has spurred scholars to think about the antebellum United States from an oceanic perspective. On the literary' side, see the May 2010 issue of PMLA and a host of books on maritime writings, including Blum, "The Prospect of Oceanic Studies" and The View from the Masthead; Casarino; Cohen; and Miskolcze.
(4) My discussion of the uneasy relationship between sentimental writing and America's expanding commercial empire draws on Brown, Fichtelberg, and Merish.
(5) In chronological order, Sigourney's volumes of poetry about and for sailors are Poetry for Seamen, published in 1845 by James Munroe and Company; Poems for the Sea, an expanded edition based on the first collection, published in 185o by H. S. Parsons; Voices from Home; or, Poems for the Sea, published in 1852 by P. Brockett; and The Sea and the Sailor, published in 1855 and 1857 by F. A. Brown. The final two collections duplicate the 185o text but contain new prefatory and/or epigraphical materials.
(6) I use Poems for the Sea as the central primary text in this essay for several reasons: It is Sigourney's longest volume of maritime poetry, and it includes the text she would use for her next two editions. Most important, it features the several divisions I describe above. As my argument makes clear, I think it is important to consider Poems for the Sea as a book with a definite aim and a certain telos.
(7) Examples of this maternal surrender to God's will can be found in a number of Sigourney's poems. One such example comes from "To a Dying Infant" wherein the mother says to her child,
Shall Love, with weak embrace, Thy heavenward flight detain? No!, seek thy peace Amid yon cherub-train. (Poems 21-24)
(8) Although Sigourney's poem does not indicate the sex of the child, I have used the masculine pronoun here. This choice is largely but not entirely arbitrary, since the graphic embellishment that adorns the poem appears to feature a boy on his sickbed.
(9) Here Sigourney alludes to Arthur's shield in The Faerie Queen (1.7.33), which is itself a sign of God's favor and an instrument of protection. Thus, Sigourney associates familial love with divine grace.
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|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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