“The Quaker Widow”: A diverting poem for our moment?

The Quaker Widow,

By Bayard Taylor

THEE finds me in the garden, Hannah,—come in! ’T is kind of thee
To wait until the Friends were gone, who came to comfort me.
The still and quiet company a peace may give, indeed,
But blessed is the single heart that comes to us at need.

Come, sit thee down! Here is the bench where Benjamin would sit
On First-day afternoons in spring, and watch the swallows flit:
He loved to smell the sprouting box, and hear the pleasant bees
Go humming round the lilacs and through the apple-trees.

I think he loved the spring: not that he cared for flowers: most men
Think such things foolishness,—but we were first acquainted then,
One spring: the next he spoke his mind; the third I was his wife,
And in the spring (it happened so) our children entered life.

He was but seventy-five; I did not think to lay him yet
In Kennett graveyard, where at Monthly Meeting first we met.
The Father’s mercy shows in this: ’t is better I should be
Picked out to bear the heavy cross—alone in age—than he.

We ’ve lived together fifty years: it seems but one long day,
One quiet Sabbath of the heart, till he was called away;
And as we bring from Meeting-time a sweet contentment home,
So, Hannah, I have store of peace for all the days to come.

I mind (for I can tell thee now) how hard it was to know
If I had heard the spirit right, that told me I should go;

For father had a deep concern upon his mind that day,
But mother spoke for Benjamin,—she knew what best to say.

Then she was still: they sat awhile: at last she spoke again,
“The Lord incline thee to the right!” and “Thou shalt have him, Jane!”
My father said. I cried. Indeed, ’t was not the least of shocks,
For Benjamin was Hicksite, and father Orthodox.

I thought of this ten years ago, when daughter Ruth we lost:
Her husband’s of the world, and yet I could not see her crossed.
She wears, thee knows, the gayest gowns, she hears a hireling priest—
Ah, dear! the cross was ours: her life’s a happy one, at least.

Perhaps she ’ll wear a plainer dress when she ’s as old as I,—
Would thee believe it, Hannah? once I felt temptation nigh!
My wedding-gown was ashen silk, too simple for my taste;
I wanted lace around the neck, and a ribbon at the waist.

How strange it seemed to sit with him upon the women’s side!
I did not dare to lift my eyes: I felt more fear than pride,
Till, “in the presence of the Lord,” he said, and then there came
A holy strength upon my heart, and I could say the same.

I used to blush when he came near, but then I showed no sign;
With all the meeting looking on, I held his hand in mine.
It seemed my bashfulness was gone, now I was his for life:
Thee knows the feeling, Hannah,—thee too, hast been a wife.

As home we rode, I saw no fields look half so green as ours;
The woods were coming into leaf, the meadows full of flowers;
The neighbors met us in the lane, and every face was kind,—
’T is strange how lively everything comes back upon my mind.

I see, as plain as thee sits there, the wedding dinner spread:
At our own table we were guests, with father at the head;
And Dinah Passmore helped us both,—’t was she stood up with me,
And Abner Jones with Benjamin,—and now they ’re gone, all three!

It is not right to wish for death; the Lord disposes best.
His Spirit comes to quiet hearts, and fits them for His rest;
And that He halved our little flock was merciful, I see:
For Benjamin has two in heaven, and two are left with me.

Eusebius never cared to farm,—’t was not his call, in truth,
And I must rent the dear old place, and go to daughter Ruth.
Thee ’ll say her ways are not like mine,—young people now-a-days
Have fallen sadly off, I think, from all the good old ways.

But Ruth is still a Friend at heart; she keeps the simple tongue,
The cheerful, kindly nature we loved when she was young;
And it was brought upon my mind, remembering her, of late,
That we on dress and outward things perhaps lay too much weight.

I once heard Jesse Kersey say, a spirit clothed with grace,
And pure almost as angels are, may have a homely face.
And dress may be of less account: the Lord will look within:
The soul it is that testifies of righteousness or sin.

Thee must n’t be too hard on Ruth: she ’s anxious I should go,
And she will do her duty as a daughter should, I know.
’T is hard to change so late in life, but we must be resigned:
The Lord looks down contentedly upon a willing mind.

– Bayard Taylor

Hat-tip to Friend Mitchell Gould

Biographical sketch,
Adapted from Wikipedia

BayardTaylor. (January 11, 1825 – December 19, 1878) was an American poet, literary critic, translator, travel author, and diplomat.

Taylor was born in Kennett Square, southwest of Philadelphia, in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He was the fourth son, the first to survive to maturity, of the Quaker couple, Joseph and Rebecca (née Way) Taylor. His father was a wealthy farmer.

Bayard received his early instruction in an academy at West Chester, Pennsylvania, and later at nearby Unionville. At the age of seventeen, he was apprenticed to a printer in West Chester. The influential critic and editor Rufus Wilmot Griswold encouraged him to write poetry.

In 1849 Taylor married Mary Agnew, who died of tuberculosis the next year. That same year, Taylor won a popular competition sponsored by P. T. Barnum to write an ode for the “Swedish Nightingale”, singer Jenny Lind.

In October 1857, he married Maria Hansen, the daughter of the Danish/German astronomer Peter Hansen.

Taylor traveled widely and published many articles and books about his journeys. In 1862, he was appointed to the U.S. diplomatic service as secretary of legation at St. Petersburg, and acting minister to Russia for a time during 1862-3 . . . .

He published his first novel Hannah Thurston in 1863. The New York Times first praised him for “break[ing] new ground with such assured success”. A second much longer appreciation in the same newspaper was thoroughly negative, describing “one pointless, aimless situation leading to another of the same stamp, and so on in maddening succession”. It concluded: “The platitudes and puerilities which might otherwise only raise a smile, when confronted with such pompous pretensions, excite the contempt of every man who has in him the feeblest instincts of common honesty in literature.”
Nevertheless, the novel proved successful enough for his publisher to announce another novel from him the next year.

His late novel, Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania (1870), first serialized in the magazine The Atlantic, was described as a story of a young man in rural Pennsylvania and “the troubles which arise from the want of a broader education and higher culture”. It is believed to be based on the poets Fitz-Greene Halleck and Joseph Rodman Drake, and since the late 20th-century has been called America’s first gay novel.
[The novel is online, full text & free, here: https://tinyurl.com/s4tsylf]
During March 1878, the U.S. Senate confirmed his appointment as United States Minister to Prussia. Mark Twain, who traveled to Europe on the same ship, was envious of Taylor’s command of German. . . .

A few months after arriving in Berlin, Taylor died there on December 19, 1878. His body was returned to the U.S. and buried in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, hard by the Meeting house of the Longwood Progressive Friends, both of which are near the renowned Longwood Gardens.

The Longwood PA Meetinghouse of the Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends, near Kennett Square, Bayard Taylor is buried nearby.

 

The New York Times published his obituary on its front page, referring to him as “a great traveler, both on land and paper”. Shortly after his death, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a memorial poem in Taylor’s memory . . . .
Taylor’s reputation as a poet has faded, but “The Quaker Widow” is one of a series of “Home ballads” generally regarded as among his most memorable verse.

7 thoughts on ““The Quaker Widow”: A diverting poem for our moment?”

  1. Very interesting, thank you for the diversion and sense of perspective the glimpse of lives long past gives.

  2. Interesting to contemplate this man of the world choosing to write a poem that gives voice to a provincial Friend. She faces widowhood with equanimity, full of sweet memories of life with Benjamin and cheerful optimism about fitting herself with her Quaker ways into her “lost” daughter’s worldly household,. Thanks, Chuck. I appreciate learning about Bayard Taylor who was only a name to me before this.

  3. Thanks SO much for sharing this lovely old fashioned poem. I’d not heard of Bayard Taylor before. So I enjoy knowing of him as well!
    Good work, Chuck. Mickey E.

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