Each year for the past seven, genealogist bloggers have been invited to post a bit of poetry about a region, historical event, legend, or a person related to one of their ancestors. If you would like to participate, you can read more about the challenge on Bill West’s blog, “West in New England.”
Although National Poetry MONTH in the United States is in April, today (October 6th) is National Poetry Day in the United Kingdom [per another friend Heather Wilkinson Rojo] I am posting my poetry submission today in honor of poetry and poets everywhere.
Here is the West In New England wrap up post with all the folks who participated in the challenge. Always fun to read them!
Now no longer the little fleet goes forth; for the greater part of the islanders have stout schooners, and go trawling with profit, if not with pleasure. A few solitaries fish in small dories and earn a slender livelihood thereby.
The sea helps these poor people by bringing fuel to their very doors; the waves continually deposit driftwood in every fissure of the rocks. But sad, anxious lives they have led, especially the women, many of whom have grown old before their time with hard work and bitter cares, with hewing of wood and drawing of water, turning of fish on the flakes to dry in the sun, endless household work, and the cares of maternity, while their lords lounged about the rocks in their scarlet shirts in the sun or “held up the walls of the meeting-house,” as one expressed it, with their brawny shoulders. I never saw such wrecks of humanity as some of the old women of Star Island, who have long since gone to their rest. In my childhood I caught glimpses of them occasionally, their lean brown shapes crouching over the fire, with black pipes in their sunken mouths, and hollow eyes, “of no use now but to gather brine,” and rough, gray, straggling locks: despoiled and hopeless visions, it seemed as if youth and joy could never have been theirs.
A WOMAN OF STAR ISLAND
Isles of Shoals, 1844
Over the embers she sits,
Close at the end of the grave,
With her hollow eyes like pits,
And her mouth like a sunken cave.
Her short black pipe held tight
Her withered lips between,
She rocks in the flickering light
Her figure bent and lean.
She turns the fish no more
That dry on the flakes in the sun;
No wood she drags to the door,
Nor water,– her labor is done.
She cares not for oath or blow,
She is past all hope or fear;
There is nothing she cares to know,
There is nothing hateful or dear.
Deep wrong have the bitter years
Wrought her, both body and soul.
Life has been seasoned with tears;
But saw not God the whole?
O wreck in woman’s shape!
Were you ever gracious and sweet?
Did youth’s enchantment drape
This horror, from head to feet?
Have dewy eyes looked out
From these hollow pits forlorn?
Played smiles the mouth about
Of shy, still rapture born?
Yea, once. But long ago
Has evil ground away
All beauty. The salt winds blow
On no sorrier sight to-day.
Trodden utterly out
Is every spark of hope.
There is only left her, a doubt,
A gesture, half-conscious, a grope
In the awful dark for a Touch
That never yet failed a soul.
Is not God tender to such?
Hath he not seen the whole?
She was known only as Elinor, this brave, ancient woman of New Hampshire. She had been born in England about 1624. By 1646 she was living near what is now Portsmouth, New Hampshire, married to a fisherman named William Urin/Vrin. She had four children by him, and lived with her mate on that desolate ‘heape of rocks,” known as the Isles of Shoals. Her existence would have been hard. The Celia Thaxter poem reminded me of her, as I sometimes wonder how terrible it must have been to live and raise children where she did.
A lifetime was often short in those days, and when William died at the age of 39 she still had children to raise. The Shoalers were known for their drinking and swearing, including the women. The then “Widow Urin” was engaged in selling spirituous liquors on Star Island to residents and transient fishermen. “Large numbers among the fishermen were arraigned and convicted of being drunk, cursing and swearing; and among that number are, naturally, enrolled the names of those hapless husbands, whose wives had been punished as ‘notorious and common scolds.’ Was Elinor one of those hard drinking, swearing, tough old women?
Elinor married a second time, to Richard Wellcomb, another Shoaler fisherman, and she bore him two children. Elinor died in September 1699 at the age of 75 in Boston, Massachusetts. She was my 8th great-grandmother.