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Visit the Celia Thaxter & Friends themesite

By Olive Tardiff

Celia Thaxter New Hampshire's best-known poet of the nineteenth century was Celia Thaxter, who was born in Portsmouth. When Celia was four years old, her father, Thomas Laighton, was appointed lighthouse keeper. He took his family across ten miles of open sea to make their home on White Island.

It was a lonely spot, and Celia's only playmates were her younger brothers, Oscar and Cedric. She once wrote, "One of the first things a settler on the Isles of Shoals has to learn is to live as independently as possible." She learned to love what the islands had to offer. (See Also Isles of Shoals site)

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A Child Bride

At the age of sixteen, Celia married Levi Thaxter, a Harvard graduate eleven years her senior. Levi had come to the Isles hoping to make his fortune in the hotel Thomas Laighton was building on Appledore Island. For a time, Levi acted as tutor to the Laighton children. He was the first educated young man Celia had met, and she was quite ready to give up her independence for him.

The Thaxter marriage was never very harmonious. Levi and Celia had quite different natures, and they had divergent goals. Levi quickly tired of his responsibilities on the Isles of Shoals and wanted to return to the mainland. He finally persuaded his child bride, his "Mermaid", as he called her, to move to a house built by his father in Newtonville, Mass.

Celia was bewildered and frustrated in her new role as homemaker without her mother's help. She felt imprisoned in a city environment and longed for summer to come so that she could return to Appledore. The Thaxters' first son, Karl, was born on the island in the summer of 1852 with the help of a midwife, when Celia was barely seventeen. It was a difficult birth, and Karl was apparently injured during the delivery. All his life he walked with a limp and was extremely nervous and temperamental. Although a bright child, he could never live completely independent of his mother's care.

Levi believed his wife to be over-protective of Karl, and after the birth of two younger sons, Levi devoted himself to them. When they were old enough, he took the boys on long trips to collect specimens of bird and animal life for museums.

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Secret Poetry

Celia resented Levi's absences and once wrote to a friend in despair, ''The boys and Levi have guns and go murdering round the country in the name of science till my heart is broken into shreds." After the death of Thomas Laighton in 1866, Celia spent more and more time on Appledore with her mother and Karl.

Celia complained bitterly about her life in Newtonville. She called her home a "household jail," and described in a letter the "hideous ironing. ..the trinity of the soapkettle, the ashcan and the cookstove." She secretly wrote a poem called "Land-locked" which expressed her longing for her beloved islands. When Levi discovered the poem, he took it without her knowlege to his friend James Russell Lowell, editor of The Atlantic Magazine.

The poem was printed in the next issue and was an immediate success. Celia became widely known as a poet of nature and the sea. Her "Little Sandpiper and I" was, for decades, a popular favorite with schoolchildren. Celia's essays in later years were considered by critics to be of even more literary value than her verse.

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Fame At Appledore

With her new-found talent, Celia attracted Ihe leading literary and artistic figures of Boston to the Laightons' popular resort on Appledore. She began to hold a "salon" each summer with poetry readings, story-telling, and music. Among her guests were John G. Whittier, James and Annie Fields, Ole Bull, Appleton Brown, Childe Hassam, and William Morris Hunt.

"You are not afraid," Hunt once said to Celia, "therefore you will be able to do anything. " She was a genius at gardening, a bird expert, an accomplished seamstress, an excellent cook, and a painter of china and tiles. Her hands were never idle .

During Mrs. Laighton's last illness, Celia and Karl spent many momhs on Appledore, and after her mother's death in 1877, Celia was inconsolable. In 1880, the Thaxters moved to a new home at Kittery Point, Maine, where Celia could look across the water to the Isles of Shoals. The farm, "Champernowne," has been occupied by Thaxter descendants ever since.

When Celia died during a summer on Appledore at the age of fifty-nine, she was surrounded by her dearest friends. In accordance with her wishes, they heaped her garden flowers around her coffin. It was a fitting farewell. At the funeral, a friend remarked, "We have seen the passing of a large and beneficent mind".

From: "They Paved The Way - A History Of NH Women", Women for Women Weekly Press, 1980
Illustrations by Richard Donovan.
Reprinted by permission of the author

See Also:
"A Memorable Murder" by Celia Thaxter
Smuttynose Murder Letter by Celia Thaxter

© 1997

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