1856 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lydia Huntley Sigourney

George and Evert Duyckinck, in Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856; 1875) 1:838-42.



LYDIA HUNTLEY, the daughter and only child of Ezekiel Huntley and Sophia Wentworth, was born at Norwich, Conn., September 1, 1791. Her father, who bore a part in the war of the Revolution, was a man of worth and benevolence. His wife possessed those well balanced, unobtrusive virtues of character which marked the New England lady of the olden time.

Among the happiest influences attending the childhood of their daughter, was the cultivated society of Madam Lathrop, the widow of Dr. Daniel Lathrop, and the daughter of the Hon. John Talcott, of Hartford, who held for a succession of years the office of Governor of Connecticut. Mr. Huntley, having charge of her estate, resided with his separate family under her roof, and in that fine old mansion their child was born. Her precocity was exhibited in reading fluently at the age of three, and composing simple verses at seven, smooth in rhythm, and of an invariable religious sentiment. As she grew older, she profited by the society of the distinguished visitors who sought the hospitable home; and received in addition every advantage of education which could then be obtained.

When Miss Huntley was fourteen, she had the misfortune to lose her venerable friend, who died at the ripe age of eighty-nine. She continued her studies until her nineteenth year, when she put into execution a plan she had long contemplated, of engaging in the work of instruction. Associating herself with her most intimate friend, Miss Ann Maria Hyde, who sympathized warmly in her scheme, a school was opened for young ladies, and conducted with great success for two years.

In 1814 Miss Huntley was induced to commence a select school at Hartford, under the auspices of influential relatives of her early friend, Mrs. Lathrop. Removing to that city, she became an inmate in the mansion of Mrs. Wadsworth, the widow of Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth, a lady of high intellectual and moral worth. It was at the suggestion, and under the auspices of a son of this lady, Daniel Wadsworth, Esq., who had known Miss Huntley from her infancy, that a selection from her writings appeared in 1815. Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse, the title of Miss Huntley's volume, affords a good indication to its contents, almost all of the short poems which it contains having a direct moral purpose in view. The prose essays are introduced by the remark, that they were addressed to "a number of young ladies under her care," and the writer, throughout the volume, seems to have had her vocation of teacher in view. A poem on General St. Clair, "neglected and forgotten by his country, poor and in obscurity, on one of the Alleghany mountains," shows the sympathy with patriotic and national topics which has characterized her entire literary career. The volume was well received, and led to the author's engagement as a contributor to various periodicals.

In the summer of 1819 Miss Huntley became the wife of Mr. Charles Sigourney, a thoroughly educated and accomplished merchant of Hartford. They removed to a beautiful rural residence overlooking the city, where they resided for nearly twenty years.

In 1822 Mrs. Sigourney published Traits of the Aborigines, an historical poem, in five cantos. A collection of her miscellaneous poems was made about the same time in London, under the title of Lays from the, West. In 1824 she published a volume in prose, A Sketch of Connecticut Forty Years Since. These were followed in rapid succession by Letters to Young Ladies and Letters to Mothers, a collection of poems and of prose tales, and Poetry for Children. In 1836 Zinzendorff and Other Poems appeared. The opening and chief production of the collection introduces us to the beautiful vale of Wyoming, and after an eloquent tribute to its scenery and historic fame, to the missionary Zinzendorff, doubly noble by ancestral rank and self-sacrificing labor, engaged in his missionary exertions among the Indians. We meet him striving to administer consolation by the couch of the dying chief; beneath the wide-spreading elm addressing the multitude on the subject of his mission, the welfare of their souls; at his quiet devotions in his tent, watched by assassins who shrank back from their purpose as they saw the rattlesnake glide past his feet unharming and unharmed, so calm and absorbed was the good man in his duty, the messengers of death returning to the grim savage prophet who had sent them on their errand, with the reply, that the stranger was a god. The poem closes with the departure of Zinzendorff at a later period from the infant city of Philadelphia, and an eloquent tribute to missionary labor, combined with an exhortation to Christian union.

The remaining poems are descriptive of natural scenery, commemorative of departed friends, versifications of scripture narratives, or inculcative of scripture truth. A warm sympathy with missionary effort, and with philanthropic labor of every description, is manifest in all.

In 1841 Pocahontas and Other Poems appeared. The Pocahontas is one of the longest (extending to fifty-six stanzas of nine lines each) and also most successful of the author's productions. It opens with a beautiful picture of the vague and shadowy repose of nature, which the imagination conceives as the condition of the New World prior to the possession of its shores by the Eastern voyagers. We have then presented the landing at Jamestown, and the worship in the church quickly raised by the pious hands of the colonists. The music, which formed a part of their daily service of common prayer, attracts the ear of the Indian, and thus naturally and beautifully brings Powhatan and his daughter on the scene. The rescue of Captain Smith is but slightly alluded to, the writer preferring to dwell upon the less hackneyed if not equally picturesque scenes before her, in the life of her heroine. We have her visit of warning to the English, her baptism, reception in England, marriage, quiet domestic life, and early death, all presented in an animated and sympathetic manner, frequently interrupted by passages of reflection in Mrs. Sigourney's best vein. The remaining poems are similar in character to the contents of the volumes already noticed.

Pleasant Memories of Pleasant Lands, published in 1842, is a volume of recollections in prose and poetry, of famous and picturesque scenes visited, and of hospitalities received during an European tour in 1840. The greater portion of the "Memories" are devoted to England and Scotland. The poems are descriptive, reflective, and occasionally in a sportive vein. During this sojourn in Europe, two volumes of Mrs. Sigourney's poems were published in London. Among the gifts and tokens of kindness which greeted the author from various distinguished persons, was a splendid diamond bracelet from the Queen of the French.

Myrtis, with other Etchings and Sketches, appeared in 1846. In 1848 a choice edition of the author's miscellaneous poems was published, with illustrations from the pencil of Darley. In 1850, the death of her only son, and, with the exception of a daughter, only child, a youth of much promise. at the early age of nineteen, was followed by the publication of The Faded Hope, a touching and beautiful memento of her severe bereavement. Mrs. Sigourney has since published, The Western Home, and Other Poems, and a graceful volume of prose sketches entitled, Past Meridian.

Mrs. Sigourney has been one of the most voluminous of American female writers, having published fifty-six volumes.

Her most successful efforts are her occasional poems, which abound in passages of earnest, well expressed thought, and exhibit in their graver moods a pathos combined with hopeful resignation, characteristic of the mind trained by exercise in self-knowledge and self-control. They possess energy and variety. Mrs. Sigourney's wide and earnest sympathy with all topics of friendship and philanthropy is always at the service of these interests, while her command of versification enables her to present them with case and fluency....

Mrs. Sigourney died in her seventy-fourth year, at her residence in Hartford, June 16, 1865. The amiable life and cheerful old age, illuminated by deeds of kindness and charity, of this Christian lady, will doubtless find an enduring record in American biography. Her virtues and writings illustrate each other, for she gave life to the religious sentiments of love to God and man which are expressed in her numerous volumes. An interesting tribute to her personal character, celebrating her deeds of charity, has been paid by her friend, Miss Catherine E. Beecher, in a sketch of her career, in a popular magaine [author's note: Hours at Home, October 1865].