Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney (1791-1865)
Contributing Editor: Sandra A. Zagarell
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Among the biggest hurdles contemporary readers face when encountering much antebellum poetry is this poetry's appeal to a general readership and its conventionality. I'd begin by discussing the often sentimental and religious character of antebellum public poetry and its accessibility, in form and content, to a broad readership. I'd invite students to think about the cultural functions of such poetry as well as the personal effects it could have had on readers who lived in a society in which mortality rates were high, personal hardships frequent, and social inequities strong. I'd also point out the great antebellum popularity of religious literature and stress similarities between some of Sigourney's poetry and religious meditative essays or tracts. If students are familiar with hymns, they might compare voice, emotions, and language in some of the poems to those in hymns. Finally, I'd encourage students to recognize the social critiques embedded in much of Sigourney's writing--of gender constraints and patriarchy ("The Suttee," "To a Shred of Linen," "The Father"), of the genocide of Native Americans ("The Indian's Welcome to the Pilgrim Fathers," "Indian Names"), of war ("The Needle, Pen, and Sword").
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Sigourney was an educator, an historian, and a devout Christian, and much of her work was, in Nina Baym's phrase, "activist and interventionist." She capitalized on her role as a writer for the general public, producing writing that was often moral and didactic. Her work approached public subjects like social cohesion, social responsibility, nature, and history and encouraged readers' emotional responses to these subjects. Many of her poems, such as "The Suttee" and "The Indian's Welcome to the Pilgrim Fathers," cultivate her readers' sympathy with people from other nations or cultures; often, as in these poems, they also seek to mobilize readers' sympathies on behalf of social betterment (the condition of [all] women in "The Suttee," the nation's treatment of Native Americans in "The Indian's Welcome to the Pilgrim Fathers"). Even in many of her elegies she evokes the experience of death and loss common to all of her readers: "Death of an Infant" is an excellent example.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Sigourney was a prolific and varied writer. I would draw attention to the adroitness with which her work exhibits the stylistic versatility of public verse. Among the forms her poems take are the ode, the nonsubjective lyric, elegy, and narrative and descriptive verse. She wrote in a variety of meters and verse patterns. Her poetry is situated in a sentimental tradition that contrasts with the Romantic one more familiar to, and more highly valued by, readers in the academy. The striking absence of the subjective consciousness of an organizing persona is a feature I would stress. As Annie Finch has observed, Sigourney's poetry gives religious, moral, and emotional truths what seems an independent or nonpersonal voice, or appears to represent nature or natural states without a mediating subjectivity.
I would also emphasize the poetry's focus on sentiments that are communally accepted (or should be, in Sigourney's eyes), and the ways in which it solicits readers' sense of connection with the subjects represented. Her poems often generalize a highly emotional situation in an objective mode that retains emotional coloration, as in "Death of an Infant," or describes natural phenomena in profoundly felt religious terms, as in "Niagara." She also uses the nonsubjective descriptive poem to represent the history or circumstances of members of racial or national groups different from those of her readers in order to invoke readers' sympathies, and frequently portrays constraints within gender with great feeling. Thus, without direct authorial comment, "The Father" dramatizes the extraordinary possessiveness of the lawyer-father and the dehumanizing inability to feel, and to grieve, to which the individualistic masculinity he embraces condemns him. The tears he finally sheds convert him to a selfless ethos, and arguably a communal one, which is similar to that of many of the poems. The implicit critique of antebellum masculinity in "The Father" also compares significantly with the much more direct exposé of patriarchy in a foreign country in "The Suttee."
I also call attention to the wit Sigourney's poems can display: "To a Shred of Linen" elicits an earlier agrarian New England while reflecting wryly on continuing societal ambivalence about women's creativity in a sphere other than the domestic.
Sigourney was antebellum America's most popular woman poet. She wrote for a northern (and, increasingly, a western) general readership. She published her work in newspapers and religious magazines, in anthologies and annuals, and in book form. She wrote using a variety of popular forms, including educational books, histories, and advice manuals as well as poetry, sketches, and autobiography. Her work helped create a community of readers in antebellum America, and much of it can be read as a conscious contribution to the establishment of America as a cohesive, humane, and Christian nation.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Many connections suggest themselves. The egolessness of Sigourney's highly public poetry can be contrasted interestingly with the subjectivity of Dickinson's very private poetry, just as Sigourney's conventionality contrasts with Dickinson's unconventionality. Similarities between the two can also be explored--their concerns with nature, with religion, and with women's circumstances--as can the use to which both put religious verse forms. Sigourney's work can also be compared fruitfully with that of contemporary male public poets. For instance, the presence of a perceiving persona in the poems of Bryant and the absence of such a persona in hers illuminates the permissible stances of male and female poets, while the use to which each puts these conventions can also be discussed. Additionally, the sympathy she elicits for Native Americans contrasts interestingly with the perspective of his "The Prairies," whereas a comparison of the relative reticence of the religious sentiment of her "Niagara" with the more consistent religious didacticism of his "To a Waterfowl" can show that gendered poetic stances did not absolutely determine the tone or approach writers took.
"The Father" can be taught very successfully with Poe's "Ligeia." Both are gothic short stories, written in the first person, that involve a man's possessive, and obsessive, love for a woman. Poe's stress on psychology contrasts nicely with Sigourney's emphasis on gender.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. How do we read these poems? What reading strategies are effective? (Such strategies might include exploring the trajectory of students' emotional responses to particular poems, discussing the ways in which certain poems elicit connections to students' personal experience, talking about the religious sentiment or the urge toward "humanitarian" connection, which some students may find compelling and others offensive.)
2. What is the effect of the generalized emotion, not tied to a particular speaker or persona, in many of the poems? Does it increase the poems' accessibility? Contribute to their didacticism?
3. How does "The Father" dramatize the self-serving nature of the narrator's fatherhood without overtly commenting on it? (Consider the effects of features such as the prominent "I," the sentence structure, the absence of characters' names, the kinds of analogies the narrator makes.) Why does his friends' concern allow him to cry? What sorts of changes does this expression of grief precipitate in him?