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In Kittery Churchyard

Kittery Churchyard Cemetery /

Seacoast poet Celia Thaxter was moved in to write this sad poem while wandering through a cemetery, likely not far from her Kittery, Maine home. Little did she know that, one day, all of her children and her husband would lie nearby, while she was buried ten miles out to sea.






MORE seacoast POETRY

There is, perhaps, a double irony here. This poem about a Kittery, Maine cemetery appeared soon after the publication of Celia Thaxter’s popular prose work Among the Isles of Shoals (1873). In the poem she is moved by the death of a woman from Kittery who died more than a century earlier at age 24. A few years later, in 1879, Celia and her husband Levi purchased 186 acres in Kittery for $9,000, not far from the seaside cemetery in her poem. The year following, Levi and Celia separated, not officially, but they stopped living under the same roof. Levi often traveled, but spent time in the Kittery house on land that had once been the Champernowne property, which had been in the Cutts family from 1686 to 1879.

Levi died in 1884, ten years after the poem was published, and was buried in the same cemetery in Kittery. All three of their sons – John, Karl and Roland – were also buried in the Kittery churchyard. Her grandaughter and biographer Rosamund, whom she never met, is buried her also. Celia, however, was buried on Appledore Island in family plot with her parents and brothers.

TOUR THAXTER GRAVES in Kittery Cemetery 

Celia had no way of knowing that the cemetery that inspired such an outpouring of sadness, would become her family plot. And it seems unlikely that the loss of her estranged husband carried the impact of the stricken widower she conjures up in the poem.


This poem is similar in theme to "The Spaniard’s Graves" in which Celia imagines a distant lover mourning a lost spouse while she, the writers, stands at the grave, weeping in sympathy for the absent partner. The Spaniard’s Graves focuses on a more dramatic story – the wreck of a ship on Smuttynose Island. -- JDR

SEE ANOTHER seacoast poem with a similar theme


Kittery Cemetery on the Piscataqua River/


Celia Laighton Thaxter (1874)

"Mary, wife of Charles Chauncy,
died April 23, 1758,
in the 24th year of her age."

CRUSHING the scarlet strawberries in the grass,
I kneel to read the slanting stone. Alas!
How sharp a sorrow speaks! A hundred years
And more have vanished, with their smiles and tears,
Since here was laid, upon an April day,
Sweet Mary Chauncy in the grave away, —
A hundred years since here her lover stood
Beside her grave in such despairing mood,
And yet from out the vanished past I hear
His cry of anguish sounding deep and clear,
And all my heart with pity melts, as though
To-day’s bright sun were looking on his woe.
"Of such a wife, 0 righteous Heaven! bereft,
What joy for me, what joy on earth is left?
Still from my inmost soul the groans arise,
Still flow the sorrows ceaseless from mine eyes."
Alas, poor tortured soul! I look away
From the dark stone, — how brilliant shines the day!
A low wall, over which the roses shed
Their perfumed petals, shuts the quiet dead
Apart a little, and the tiny square
Stands in the broad and laughing field so fair,
And gay green vines climb o’er the rough stone-wall,
And all about the wild birds flit and call,
And but a stone’s-throw southward, the blue sea
Rolls sparkling in and sings incessantly.
Lovely as any dream the peaceful place,
And scarcely changed since on her gentle face
For tIme last time on that sad April day
He gazed, and felt, for him, all beauty lay
Buried with her forever. Dull to him
Looked the bright world through eyes with tears so dim
"I soon shall follow the same dreary way
That leads and opens to the coasts of day."
His only hope! But when slow time had dealt
Firmly with him and kindly, and he felt
The storm and stress of strong and piercing pain
Yielding at last, and he grew calm again,
Doubtless he found another mate before
He followed Mary to the happy shore!
But none the less his grief appeals to me
Who sit and listen to the singing sea
This matchless summer day, beside the stone
He made to echo with his bitter moan,
And in my eyes I feel the foolish tears
For buried sorrow, dead a hundred years!

Celia Thaxter.

Source – This poem first appeared in The Atlantic monthly, Volume 33, Issue 195, January 1874, pp. 58-59




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