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Nebraska State Journal

03 March 1901
page 12


WASHINGTON, D. C., Feb. 28.—Miss Helen Hay, the daughter of the secretary of state, whose first published verse appeared two years ago in a little grey volume modestly entitled "Some Verses," has just completed a lengthy romance of the South seas in blank verse. It is said that Miss Hay has no personal acquaintance with the South seas, but that in preparation for her romance she dug industriously among the encyclopedias at the congressional library. This might strike some people as an unorthodox method of procedure, but her friends remind us that Keats had never been to Greece when he wrote "Endymion." I confess I am envious to see the outcome of this method of poetizing. Of one thing I am sure, however, and that is that Miss Hay's romance will not be dull, nor will it contain lines in which one will be compelled to skip or suppress several feet to preserve the metre, as in the general run of feminine verse. Even in her earliest attempts at verse Miss Hay evinced a peculiar gift of rythm, and considerable excellence of form. As she says she wouldn't know a trochee from an anapest and has had no formal training in the rules of prosody, her ear must be acute and her natural feeling for harmony very strong. However, Shakespeare's sonnets are Miss Hay's favority literature, and they are not bad schoolmasters, and are rather more likely to teach a young lady how to write sonnets than are most professors of literature. And Miss Hay can write sonnets of no mean pretentions. I recall one in her first volume which I have heard both Mr. Stoddard and Mr. Spofford pronounce an excellent performance, a true sonnet, admirably done. It is somewhat unusual in both matter and manner to be the work of a very popular and much flattered young woman, and a very young one at that. Much the most admirable features of the sonnet are its melody and its restraint, its distinct lack of any sort of violence or exaggeration:


"Cruel and fair, within they hollowed hand My heart is lying as a little rose. So faint and faded, scarce could one suppose It might look in thine eyes and understand The song they sing unto a weary land. Making it radiant, yet because I dare To love thee, being weak, lose not thine air Of passive distance, fateful and most grand, Pity me not, nor turn away awhile Till absence's cloud has caught my passion up: Ah, be not kind! for love's sake, be not kind! Grant me the tragic deepness of the cup: And when thine eyes have flashed and made me blind, Kill me beneath the shadow of thy smile."

Mr. Kipling was, I believe, the first person who ever encouraged Miss Hay to work seriously, and he is not a gentleman who encourages peop merely to make himself agreeable, nor has he much use for a girl with inky aspirations. The Hays had a summer place near Kipling's in Vermont, and Miss Hay and the irascible Anglo-Indian struck up an acquaintance across the fields. No one ever took life and the things that make life worth living with more gusto than the secretary's daughter. She goes out as much as any young woman in Washington, and she makes no lofty pretenses to despise dinners and teas and theatre parties, but gets a normal enjoyment out of them all, and knows and likes more people than most women meet in a lifetime. She takes life as a school boy takes his holiday, and if you happen to meet her for five minutes, you stop to consider what an exceedingly decent world it is to live in, and how well it is arranged when one young woman, just turned twenty-three, can be so pretty, and so happy, and so gracious, and can write such exceedingly decent verses into the bargain.

Miss Hay's enthusiasm for Washington is altogether refreshing. She had always lived in Cleveland and other cities more or less smoky until she came here and made the acquaintance of the sky. I think no one in this clean, white city enjoys it more than she does: the yellow sunlight, nor the blue skies, nor the white shafts and columns, nor the parks, so full of box and magnolia all the winter, that they conterfeit the spring. Sooner or later Miss Hay ought to write some verse that will be of more than passing moment; she is young enough to wait, happy enough to work—and she can afford to indulge in the most unremunerative of occupations.


One of the quaint "literary landmarks" of Washington is the little red cottage in Georgetown, where for nearly fifty years Mrs. Southworth planned adventures for self-sacrificing chambermaids and noble, though affectionate factory girls. It is a very humble dwelling, standing on a high bluff overlooking the Potomac, with the grey pile of the academy of the visitation a little way down the river; behind you the "dome city, white and wide still," and across the river Arlington and the wooded hills that every night the sunset fires, I am afraid I went to the place in a spirit of jest, with the cries of queenly servant girls, who were disinherited lords, ringing in my ears. But somehow or other, when one stood on the little porch, where the withered vines swung in the wind, still holding a deserted bird's nest or two, one came into a more respectful frame of mind. It is rather appaling to think of the mere physical labor the poor woman accomplished, sitting in the little library facing on the river, writing thousands upon thousands of pages with a fine pointed pen in her tiny laborious chirography. One feels an ebb of energy at thinking of it. It is easy to see, or at least it is possible to see, why people bitten with the passion for creative experiments and for happy and complete expression as by the craving for a drug should be able to support the Herculean labors and brutal reverses of this ungrateful craft, but what could have made it worth while to her? Worth an unremitting toll of sixty years ending just where it had begun? For it must be understood that this woman was no mere mercenary; I doubt whether Mr. Henry James himself is more sincere, or whether his literary conscience is more exacting than was hers, according to her light. She took herself and her work with entire seriousness, and strange as it may seem, some of her novels were re-written many times, were hoped and dreamed and prayed over. I went to her cottage with a man of such profound literary knowledge that he could afford to be charitable, and his telling of the story of the woman as he knew her made her life seem less grotesquely comic. To this little house for many years each mall brought appreciative letters from thousands of admirers; from young women who aspired to this wonderful craft or from those who merely worshiped from afar, and who declared that her novels were their spiritual and intellectual food. And if this is not fame, what is it, please? How many of us ever think of writing to Henry James when we approve of him, or beg him to be merciful and recall his heroines to life when they perish, or care very much whether they perish or not? There is an element of unabashed romance to the untutored mind and of hearty sympathy that we certainly lose in the course of social and mental evolution. Then we must remember that Mrs. Southworth was not always the butt of jests as now, particularly the jests of the very newly emancipated in the matter of literary taste, who are eager to attest their emancipation. Whenever I hear anyone go out of his way to show his cleverness by jesting of these tales that are quite too pitifully wanting to be subjects for mirth, I am pretty sure that once the gentleman thought them all very fine. There was a time, when the old novelist was young, when she was very much sought after socially, and when it was very much the fashion for all young ladies of the "first families" of the south to read her latest story as they reclined in hammocks on their wide verandas,recuperating after the strain of rural gaieties, which they considered quite the most important social functions in the world. In those days the "gifted authoress" was feted and banqueted in the capitals of the southern states, and young ladies sat at her feet and took counsel, and grey haired men with war records and a family tree took her out to dinner and were proud to do it. If the position of Mrs. Southworth was ridiculous, I should like to know what is left to say of the criterions of American taste. We may talk very knowingly about the structural finesse of contemporary French novelists and air our cosmopolitan culture as we will, but most of us had mothers who in their youth considered this woman the inspired priestess of the softer emotions, and her style the most poetic and intoxicating in the world. In matters of literary taste we are so emphatically of the nouvelle riche that we should be duly humble, and never forget that our grandparents were entirely convinced that the fiction of Mrs. Southworth was more engaging, more elevating, and of far higher literary merit than the stories of Master Edgar Allen Poe. Most of us, in these United States, cannot even claim as much as the Jewish lad whose father, ennobled by the queen for his financial services to the state, undertook to remonstrate with him on his indiscretions, and who replied: "You have nothing to say to me, sir, for I am the gentleman here. At least I have one ancestor, and your father was a tradesman." I am not sure that we have even improved much upon our ancestors, for there are those among us who read Marie Corelli, some in secret and some openly and brazenly. It is true that Miss Corelli has greater facility at her command, a larger variety of adjectives, the advantages of a better education and a more restraining environment, but her literary ideal is much the same as was Edna Southworth's. Her muse is also of the chambermaid variety; a chambermaid who has learned a little French now and who dresses better, who flashes jewels and wears ermine and affects absorbing intellectual interests, but you have only to watch her for a little while to recognize under all this finery the beautiful factory girl of Mrs. Sourthworth, or the virtuous lodgekeeper's daughter, more gaudy and less circumspect than she used to be.