Land-locked With Celia Thaxter
We think the "Island Queen"
Portsmouth is finally laying claim to "island poet" Celia Thaxter. She was born, we are told, at 50 Daniel Street, just down from the post office. We're told that because no one can find the poor baby's birth certificate. Her parents, Thomas and Eliza Laighton, were living there just off Market Square at the time of Celia's birth on June 29, 1835.
This year Celia gets a plaque for her birthday. A group called ISHRA (Isles of Shoals Historic and Research Association) has lobbied long and hard for this symbolic event. The plaque will be attached to City & Country, a specialty housewares shop. Before that, according to ISHRA, it was called the "Cantoon" building and once housed a Navy uniform shop and the chamber of commerce. I remember when it was Moe's Sandwiches. After the ceremony, we're all going on an evening cruise to the Isles.
More than a century after her death, Isles of Shoals poet and hotel-keeper Celia Thaxter is still a hot property growing hotter. Even in that matronly Victorian dress, she exudes star appeal, enough to draw Dr. Jane Vallier and her husband Fred all the way from Iowa to Portsmouth, NH for a recent theatrical performance of Celia's life. Jane wrote "Poet on Demand," the ground-breaking study that dared to take Celia Thaxter's writing seriously. Nearly two decades later, her book is the bible of a whole new generation of Celia students.
Before the show at the Music Hall a small group of dedicated "Celia people" were chatting about their heroine at Bella Luna's in Market Square. We were talking about Celia the pop star, not the poet. Her poetry is critically all over the map, sometimes awful, occasionally brilliant. But Celia's life story, Jane was saying as her lobster ravioli arrived, is a drama by itself. Two decades into her Celia research, Jane has not lost her passion for the tale of a little girl raised in a lighthouse and married at 16. Celia struggled to mother three children and an unemployed husband, nursed her ailing parents and became the family breadwinner. By the final chapter of Celia's life, she had published popular books and poems, become a painter and a famous island gardener. Home-schooled in the light house on White Island, Celia eventually drew the brightest stars of the educated Boston scene to her distant hotel salon, positioning herself as both hostess and peer in a male-dominated world of popular writers, artists and musicians.
As much as any rock star, Celia and her publishers crafted that island image. In the most popular photographs we see her alone, often at her writing desk, or posing in her famous Appledore Island garden for American Impressionist Childe Hassam. In one popular painting, she stands, not puttering on her knees in horse manure among the flowers, but erect and independent in a white gown like --- well, like a lighthouse. It is Celia's mythic equivalent of George Washington Crossing the Delaware.
Just in the last few years that Hassam painting has reappeared in Yankee Magazine, in Coastal Living and on the front of Historic Preservation magazine. Not exactly the covers of Time or Rolling Stone, but better than most minor Victorian poets such as Portsmouth's Thomas Bailey Aldrich, whose writing, like old club soda, has lost its effervescence. Where Celia's writing falls flat, her life story still percolates.
Celia enthusiasm, meanwhile, is on the rise. No less than four New Hampshire women have donned velvet and lace to stage impersonations of the bard of Appledore. A woman's group has honored her in Texas, another rebuilt her garden in Colorado. Celia's works, autographed pictures and letters are hot sellers on the Internet. And every summer thousands of tourists board the ferry Thomas Laighton, named for her beloved father, and take the magical history tour to her craggy planet ten miles out to sea.
Like everyone, I love the archetypal "Island Celia." Nathaniel Hawthorne called her a "Miranda" after the island character in Shakespeare. Her husband Levi, who was ten years her senior when he asked the 14-year old to marry him, affectionately called her his "mermaid." Archetypes are well and fine when you're selling books or drawing tourists to a distant hotel, but there's so much more to Celia than this charming stereotype.
Call me a heretic, but I think we should stop worshipping the island gardener and get to know the landed Celia -- for her good as well as our own. I'll bet you starfish to seashells that Celia spent one half of her 59 years on the mainland. That may be a jarring image for her acolytes, but that's my uneducated guess.
Celia's father had purchased three of the desolate Isles of Shoals from Sam Haley before her birth, but was not sure what to do with them. We know she left for White Island from Portsmouth at age four when Thomas Laighton became lighthouse keeper there. (Celia wrote that she was five, but modern scholars say she's wrong.) Then she spent two years on their islands at Smuttynose (and little Malaga), where they ran the first guest house, and three years at Appledore (formerly Hog Island) where they built the grand hotel. Celia then spent a culture-shock term at a girl's finishing school in Boston before the marriage to her island tutor Levi Thaxter.
Here comes the critical off-island period. Originally an investor in the hotel, Levi came to dislike the Isles as much as he disliked earning a living. The couple played nomad, apart and alone, for most of their lives. At first they stayed at Curzon Mills in Massachusetts with Levi's family, then briefly on Star where Levi was a short term minister to the ungodly "shoaler" fishing village. Then one day Levi had a close call in a storm at sea, nearly drowned, and moved his wife to Newtonville, MA on the Charles River. Celia's early joy faded. By 21 she had three children and endless hours of housework.
So she began to write poems. She wrote them out of homesickness, longing, domestic exhaustion and marital depression. Her first published poem, "Land-locked," is one of her best because it was not written from the Shoals, but written toward the Shoals. In the poem, her heart sails down the Charles River and returns to her childhood islands.
Celia Thaxter's island poetry is her best, not necessarily the work she wrote while on the Isles, but the words she wrote about them. That's why the unknown "Mainland Celia" is so crucial to an understanding of her work. It balances her, makes her human. We need to know it like the slave-owner Thomas Jefferson or the scatological Jonathan Swift. Without their landed sides, writers risk adoration. I know. I studied literature in college and I've seen the adulation up close. It isn't a pretty thing. Adulation is a form of possession, and no one owns Ceilia.
I prefer the idea of a snow-drenched Celia Thaxter huffing up to her winter apartment at 41 State Street, on the edge of Portsmouth's red light district near the turn of the century. The idea of bumping into her, like anyone else in town, is refreshing. In fact, Celia wrote clearly that she loved the bustle of "that dear old town" where she was born. She had more than her share of isolation, Celia told a friend once; even the Shoals, like her marriage, could be a cold and lonely place.
What we need here is one of those thesis-hungry literature grad students to bear me out and create a great timeline of Celia's travels, logging her on and off the Isles and tallying up the days. There was her lengthy tour of Italy don't forget. That time balances against months on the island running the hotel, nursing her parents, and always taking care of Karl, her handicapped son.
Levi sometimes migrated south to Florida or the Carolinas, taking sons John and Roland while Celia cared for Karl. Although they never divorced, the Thaxters lived like many "modern" disconnected families. Despite Celia's image as an island queen, it was her parents and brothers who often stayed for the brutal Shoals winter, while Celia migrated with the seasons like the seabirds she wrote about. She and Karl clocked a lot of winters in Boston at a series of old hotels -- ending her days the way she began them -- as a nomad. There was the farm at Kittery Point, Maine she owned with Levi, but rarely stayed at. There was off-island time to visit friends. I'll bet that grad student comes up with a "Celia Domestic Dispersion" ratio of 50% surf to 50% turf.
Celia, ultimately, preferred the island, standing alone as Levi hugged the shore. She died on Appledore not long after the publication of her second book of prose, "An Island Garden." That's the book with the Hassam painting of Celia as the great white lighthouse. Her superstardom rests on it, and on "Among the Isles of Shoals," on a handful of superior poems and some painted teacups. But Celia's wonderfully complex personality is what interests me, not the myth. That fascinating part of her still travels on some risky ferryboat, pulled toward the mainland, then drawn to the sea, artfully negotiating every tide and turn -- a Victorian woman charting out a whole new age.
Article by J. Dennis Robinson
Article and page design
© 1999 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.
Primary source: "Sandpiper" by Rosamund Thaxter, republished 1998 by Peter E. Randall Publishing. Photo of birthplace from "Sandpiper" used with permission. Photo of Celia courtesy of Portsmouth Public Library collection.
For more Celia Thaxter writing read:
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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