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Baby Bell

Baby Bell by Thomas Bailey Aldrich / SeacoastNH.com

SEACOAST POETRY

Can a poem be so totally sentimental that, despite its sickening sweetness, it is still a great poem? This classic verse about the loss of child set 19-year old Portsmouth author TB Aldrich on a lifelong road to fame and fortune. To answer our question, try reading this poem aloud without crying.

 

 

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Thomas Bailey Aldrich made his national debut at the age of 19 when this poem appeared in the Journal of Commerce in 1856. It was an unlikely venue for a poem about the death of a child, but no other publication wanted it. Yet the tragic poem caught fire with its 19th century audience in which infant mortality was high. With the arrival of photography, families had even begun to adopt the practice of taking farewell pictures of deceased children. These "post mortem" photos seem macabre today, but the practice may be no stranger than framing fetal monitor images or videotaping a live birth.

According to one Portsmouth historian, Aldrich penned the 100-line poem on the back of bills of lading while working on the docks of New York for his Uncle Frost. It was inspired by the death of his Uncle’s infant child. The poem spread throughout the nation nearly as fast a viral video clip on Google does today. Clearly it struck a chord in the decade just before the Civil War. "Baby Bell" has appeared in endless anthologies, and even in book form and is frequently found glued into Victorian scrapbooks among old cards, pictures and family letters. Following is the poem accompanied by a few of engravings from an 1877 gilt-edged edition we recently purchased on eBay. Have a tissue handy. -- JDR

READ: Two versions of The Changeling 

Baby Bell 1877 edition/SeacoastNH.com

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