Friday, February 24, 2017

Augusta Melville on the poetry of Felicia Hemans

Felicia Hemans via Wikimedia Commons
At least ten different school compositions by Herman Melville's sister Augusta Melville (1821-1876) survive in the Gansevoort-Lansing collection in the Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. Call number MssCol 1109, Box 308. When she began writing them Augusta was fifteen years old, in the 3rd Department at the Albany Female Academy. Her usually untitled essays treat the following topics:
  • Exemplary human exertion
  • Character of Christ
  • History of a Hat
  • Execution of Lady Jane Grey
  •  Mourners
  • The Sabbath
  • Childhood
  • The Lark (two separate drafts)
  • Sufferings of Christ 
  • Poetry of Mrs. Hemans
The Albany Female Academy gloried in its "particular attention" to Composition during the period of Augusta Melville's attendance there:

Composition has received particular attention in this institution; and it is believed that the plan pursued in teaching this important branch, has resulted in producing many correct and elegant writers. Instruction in this branch of study is commenced in the fifth department, where the pupils are daily required to incorporate in sentences, to be written by themselves, words given them by their teachers. This exercise is continued in both divisions of the fourth, and occasionally in addition to regular essays in the third department, and experience has demonstrated it to be, an efficient mode of teaching the definition and use of words, as well as the structure of language. In the first and second departments, this productive system is continued. The teachers of composition devote one hour a day to each of these departments, in correcting the essays which are given in once in every two weeks. The composition of each pupil is read aloud in her presence., and all the faults in orthography, incorrect sentences, improper use of words, &c. &c., carefully pointed out. 
Themes are occasionally given to the scholars, with an analysis or sketch of the outline, to be pursued in the construction of the essay. After the composition is corrected, the scholar is required to make a copy of the same, and return it to the teacher to be preserved in the institution.  --Documents of the Senate of the State of New York
As reported in the Albany Argus on July 22, 1836, one essay titled "The Character of Christ" (Augusta's?) nearly won 3rd prize but lost out to another student's composition on the "Genius of John Milton." The big prize-winners:
  1. Constitution of Man
  2. Traits of Indian Character
  3. Genius of John Milton
Albany Argus - July 22, 1836
In Melville Unfolding (University of Michigan Press, 2008), John Bryant devotes a couple of pages to Augusta's writing and her brother Gansevoort's editing, helpfully summarizing their relative strengths:
In 1836, Gansevoort was himself an exuberant stylist developing his own rhetorical skills; Augusta, a clearly talented by inexperienced writer in need of (and grateful for) fraternal "correction." He was twenty years old, and she fifteen. 
--Melville Unfolding, 186
In the first volume of The Melville Log, Jay Leyda gave excerpts from two of Augusta's compositions, the one about Childhood dated October 15, 1836; and the one on Mrs. Hemans, submitted according to Leyda on January 15, 1837.
None can exceed her, and few can equal her writings in their ethereal purity of sentiment. None can do justice to them, and they will ever remain a bright meteor in the sky of fame to humble all who dare cope with her and bind undying laurels round her brow. --The Melville Log, 1.67-8
Besides getting editorial help from Gansevoort, Augusta utilized the influential criticism by Francis Jeffrey in The Edinburgh Review, excerpted in some editions of The Poetical Works of Mrs. Hemans. For instance, the canceled phrase "touching and accomplished," is Jeffrey's.

Augusta Melville's essay on the poetry of Felicia Hemans is transcribed in full below. The strike-through and highlighted portions indicate revisions made by Augusta's older brother Gansevoort Melville. Stray words and fragments aim to represent text only, not exact spatial position or arrangement on the manuscript page. Two draft headings are blotted over in dark ink, the longer and more central of which appears to have read "Mrs. Heman's Poetry."
Mrs. Heman's Poetry

A sweet A sweet
        A sweet A sweet
sweet        A Sweet

A sweet tenderness and loftiness of feeling characterizes all the poetical productions of Mrs Hemans. They possess "a purity of sentiment which could only emanate from the soul of a woman" [Francis Jeffrey in The Edinburgh Review]. In her descriptions, taste, and elegance enriched with varied images of beauty, which leave an impress like that of natures handiwork a soothing impresssion upon the mind, And they are not merely placed there for ornament, but they possess a meaning, a full decided meaning. And some peices that seem at first but mere descriptions have a fine moral attached, which shows a thorough acquaintance with human nature. Her style is fine. It paints the virtues and the vices in their true light, and condemning the vicious, applauds the virtuous. Her choise of subjects shows an acquaintance with the human mind, and an extent of knowledge which few possess. She is ever bright and beautiful in her illustrations., some have a sweet, pathetic expression which paints its image upon the mind.
"Oh! ask of them stranger!—send back the lost!
"Tell them we mourn by the dark blue streams,
"Tell them our lives but of them are dreams!
"Tell how we sat in the gloom to pine,
"And to watch for a step,—but the step was thine!"
[The Stranger in Louisiana]
Her vivid descriptions bring the scenes before our minds eye, with a force which is not equeled [underlined spelling error] by any other female writer, for she is by all means the most touching and accomplished. Her writings are preeminently distinguished for their touching simplicity & exquisite pathos.
Most of her poetry is peculiarly adapted to musick., There is a softness and delicacy of sentiment, contained in it, combined with such perfect euphony,
that it breaths a sweet unison with
dream dreams
any musical instrument. "Bring flowers," "the tyrolise evening hymn" "the captive knight" and many others
are sweetly warbled by young voices in all their native purity. But her sweetest poem is "Gertrude Von Der Wart." None but a woman could have described the tenderness, the enduring love, even unto death of that frail but heroic woman,! Who could watch by the tortured
vivid her vivid vivid her her her
form of him she loved, and pour forth her voice in prayer for his soul, beneath the pale stars, alone and in darkness. She strengthens him to bear his agony 
"And show my honoured love, and true,
Bear on bear nobly on,
We have the blessed heaven in view,
Whose rest shall soon be won."  [Gertrude]
And how touching the conclusion when death has at length arrived to put a period to his agonies.
"While e'en as on a martyrs grave,
She knelt on that sad spot,
And weeping blessed the God who gave,
Strength to forsake him not."
"The Better Land," the "messenger bird," and "hour of prayer" are sweet effusions from a pious soul. The "childs first grief" breaths a touching symplicity and innocence which which we seldom meet with. "The Sisters," too abounds with beautiful ideas, most beautifully expressed. The broken hearted one is about to leave the tender and devoted sister, the companion of her childhood, who is using every persuasion that ardent love can suggest to wean her back, how touching her answer. 
"Oh! woul'dst thou seek a wounded bird from shelter to detain,
"Or woul'dst thou call a spirit freed to weary life again?  [The Sisters]
And of an and
This is but a single example of the numerous beauties of pathetic description. None can exceed her, and few can equal her writings in their ethereal purity of sentiment. None can do justice to them, and they will ever remain a bright meteor in the sky of fame to humble all who dare cope with her and to bind such undying laurels round her fair brow. which will do her the honours too well deserved. Yes! hers is an enduring fame, a fame which all might covet which shall last as long as refinement and pure taste remain. In lamenting her death that exquisite passage which she composed comes forcibly to mind. 
Bring flowers pale flowers o'er the bier to shed,
A crown for the brow of the early dead.
For this through its leaves hath the white rose burst
For this in the woods was the violet nursed,
Through this look in vain for what once was ours
They are love's last giftbring flowers, pale flowers.
undying       lau
laurels lau

Miss A. Melville
--Gansevoort-Lansing collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

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