Baby Bell
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Written by Thomas Bailey ALdrich

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

CONTINUE to read BABY BELL


 
THOMAS BAILEY ALDRICH   (continued)

Baby Bell title/ SeacoastNH.com

BABY BELL
By Thomas Bailey Aldrich
1856

     I

Have you not heard the poets tell
How came the dainty Baby Bell
Into this world of ours?
The gates of heaven were left ajar:
With folded hands and dreamy eyes,
Wandering out of Paradise,
She saw this planet, like a star,
Hung in the glistening depths of even --
Its bridges, running to and fro,
O'er which the white-winged Angels go,
Bearing the holy Dead to heaven.
She touched a bridge of flowers - those feet,
So light they did not bend the bells
Of the celestial asphodels,
They fell like dew upon the flowers:
Then all the air grew strangely sweet.
And thus came dainty Baby Bell
Into this world of ours.

   

     II

She came and brought delicious May;
The swallows built beneath the eaves;
Like sunlight, in and out the leaves
The robins went, the livelong day;
The lily swung its noiseless bell;
And on the porch the slender vine
Held out its cups of fairy wine.
How tenderly the twilights fell!
Oh, earth was full of singing-birds
And opening springtide flowers,
When the dainty Baby Bell
Came to this world of ours.

     III

O Baby, dainty Baby Bell,
How fair she grew from day to day!
What woman-nature filled her eyes,
What poetry within them lay -
Those deep and tender twilight eyes,
So full of meaning, pure and bright
As if she yet stood in the light
Of those oped gates of Paradise.
And so we loved her more and more:
Ah, never in our hearts before
Was love so lovely born:
We felt we had a link between
This real world and that unseen -
The land beyond the morn;
And for the love of those dear eyes,
For love of her whom God led forth,
(The mother's being ceased on earth
When Baby came from Paradise,) -
For love of Him who smote our lives,
And woke the chords of joy and pain,
We said, Dear Christ! -- our hearts bowed down
Like violets after rain.

CONTINUE to read BABY BELL


 
BALLAD OF BABY BELL   (continued)

Baby Bell / SeacoastNH.com

     IV

And now the orchards, which were white
And pink with blossoms when she came,
Were rich in autumn's mellow prime;
The clustered apples burnt like flame,
The folded chestnut burst its shell,
The grapes hung purpling, range on range;
And time wrought just as rich a change
In little Baby Bell.
Her lissome form more perfect grew,
And in her features we could trace,
In softened curves, her mother's face.
Her angel-nature ripened too:
We thought her lovely when she came,
But she was holy, saintly now…
Around her pale angelic brow
We saw a slender ring of flame.

     V

God's hand had taken away the seal
That held the portals of her speech;
And oft she said a few strange words
Whose meaning lay beyond our reach.
She never was a child to us,
We never held her being's key;
We could not teach her holy things
Who was Christ's self in purity.

     VI

It came upon us by degrees,
We saw its shadow ere it fell -
The knowledge that our God had sent
His messenger for Baby Bell.
We shuddered with unlanguaged pain,
And all our hopes were changed to fears,
And all our thoughts ran into tears
Like sunshine into rain.
We cried aloud in our belief,
"Oh, smite us gently, gently, God!
Teach us to bend and kiss the rod,
And perfect grow through grief."
Ah! how we loved her, God can tell;
Her heart was folded deep in ours.
Our hearts are broken, Baby Bell!

     VII

At last he came, the messenger,
The messenger from unseen lands:
And what did dainty Baby Bell?
She only crossed her little hands,
She only looked more meek and fair!
We parted back her silken hair,
We wove the roses round her brow -
White buds, the summer's drifted snow -
Wrapped her from head to foot in flowers…
And thus went dainty Baby Bell
Out of this world of ours.

19th century post mortem photo/ SeacoastNH.com