Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
Lydia H. Sigourney (17911865)
MRS SIGOURNEY is a native of Norwich, Connecticut. During the first twenty years of her life she resided in her native town; she has since lived at Hartford, and is now the wife of Charles Sigourney, Esq. of that city.
It is an omen of favorable import to our national literature, that the claims of female talent have been ably advanced, and readily acknowledged. The value of such an accession to its interests, cannot fail of being duly estimated in an age, which is enjoying the pure and delightful breathings of Mrs Hemans poetry and the strong practical sense of Miss Edgeworth. To these cherished names we do no discredit, when we associate with them that of the accomplished lady, of whom we now speak.
It was in the year 1815 that Mrs Sigourney, (then Miss Huntley,) first gave her name to the world, as the authoress of Moral pieces in prose and verse. This volume, which, to adopt her own unpretending account of it, was written solely for the sake of improvement, and to gratify a love of composition owed its publication to a benevolent gentleman, whose pleasure it was to encourage industry, and to raise intellect from obscurity. No ordinary acknowledgments are due to the penetration which thus discovered the latent gem, and to the kindness and liberality with which its purest ray serene was developed to the world. The work itself does not indeed afford any very decided earnest of the present most deserved reputation of its authoress; but every page of it is instinct with that purity of purpose, and fruitful in those sentiments of virtue, which distinguish all her writings; while several of the pieces which it contains, as the Excuse for not fulfilling an engagement, The Dove, The Solitary Star, Morning Prayer, and the First Morning in May, are, in no small degree, honorable to her talents. From the first named of these, the reader will learn, that, like Mrs Barbauld, and Mrs More, Mrs Sigourney has devoted some of her earlier years to the instruction of youth. A more complete refutation of the current slander against this most useful and ennobling employment, as tending to produce morosity and querulousness, need not be desired, than that which is furnished by the playful, contented, and affectionate spirit which animates the Excuse.
In 1816 appeared the Writings of Nancy Maria Hyde, with a sketch of her Life. The motives which induced Miss Huntley to undertake this performance, are alike honorable to her as a friend and as a Christian; and the pious office was discharged with affection and fidelity.
In 1822, Traits of the Aborigines of America, a poem, was offered to the publicthe avails of the work being devoted exclusively to religious charities. Had the author given to this work more of the narrative, and less of the didactic character, better justice might have been done to her subject, and the expectation excited by the title, would have been more completely answered. She also erred, at least in our judgment, in preferring blank verse to rhyme, as the vehicle of her sentiments. Notwithstanding these objections, it evinces much talent and information, and is written in an engaging spirit of Christian philanthropy.
The Sketch of Connecticut, Forty Years Since, is written in prose, and appeared in 1824. It was designed to pourtray, with an allowable degree of embellishment from fiction, the character of the authors earliest benefactress, and the manners of the period in which she lived. Judged by the elevated standard of fictitious composition which has been established in our day, faults and deficiencies will be discovered. Such a judgment of its merits, however, would be unfair. It professes to be no more than a Sketchand though the parts may not always be in perfect keeping, nor the details touched with the exquisite delicacy of a miniature, there is spirit and boldness in the outline, and fidelity in the coloring. A biographical notice of Hannah More, written for the new American edition of her works, in two volumes 8vo. of which it is sufficient to say, that it is worthy of its subject, and of its author, and a volume entitled Poems by the Author Moral Pieces, complete the catalogue of Mrs Sigourneys publications.
Upon none of the volumes, however, which have been the subject of our remarks, does the literary reputation of our author depend. Our specimens, the first excepted, have all been written since 1824. Within that period, she has exhibited a rapid improvement, and we rejoice to say, that this improvement is yet in full career. It is in the department of fugitive poetryan appellation, certainly, most inappropriate, when applied to much which has been written under that name in this, its golden age, that Mrs Sigourney has reaped her most enduring laurels. It is no disparagement to her talents, to say, that this is the field for which they are best adapted. The highest living talent has been exerted in it, and found its recompense. To be classed with Watts, and Hervey, and Bryant, and Halleck, and Mrs Hemans, is an association, of which the most successful votary of the muse, in any age, might justly boast. Only less popular than the last of these gifted minds, the productions of our author have been widely wafted with hers, on the wings of the periodical press. There is indeed, no other shape, in which the widest popularity may so well be combined with the most permanent endurance. We trust, therefore, that Mrs Sigourney will not suffer this rich vein of her genius to lie unworked. The circulation which, in this refined age, its treasures have enjoyed, is the best evidence of their sterling value. And so far from being exhausted, we venture to predict, that as she digs more deeply, the golden ore will be found more rich, and more abundant.
The prevailing attributes of Mrs Sigourneys poetry are tenderness and religious feeling. She is an ardent lover, an accurate observer, and an eloquent revealer of the charms of nature. A most captivating tone of plaintiveness mingles with every breathing of her harpbut it is a plaintiveness which we may safely admire and cherish, for it never sinks into sadness. She loves to sing of decay and deathbut it is that she may mingle with the mournful strains which they awaken, the cheering promise of renovated life and beauty.
We confidently refer the reader, for ample confirmation of all that we have said, to her last volume of poems. Had Mrs Sigourney written no more than our Specimens exhibit, she would still possess undoubted claims to the proud title of the American HEMANS.