Poetry Wednesday: Helen Hunt Jackson

In my poetry folder, I have a verse written by an “H.H.”

It’s a melancholy little poem and I’m still not sure whether it wants me to take my time or get off my duff, or if it’s simply saying, with a stoic little meh, that it doesn’t matter which in the long run.

Maybe that’s why I like it, aside from the beauty of the language and the way the sentences are offset with the scansion:


These things wondering I saw beneath the sun:
That never yet the race was to the swift,
The fight unto the mightiest to lift,
Nor favors unto men whose skill had done
Great works, nor riches ever unto one
Wise man of understanding. All is drift
Of time and chance, and none may stay or sift
Or know the end of that which is begun.
Who waits until the wind shall silent keep,
Will never find the ready hour to sow.
Who watcheth clouds will have no time to reap.
At daydawn plant thy seed, and be not slow
At night. God doth not slumber take nor sleep:
Which seed shall prosper thou shalt never know.

I found it, I think, in one of the venerable and oddly-barcoded volumes I was supposed to be checking against the online catalog as part of my graduate internship, so it’s been with me for a while.

But I didn’t know—and wasn’t particularly curious about—the poet’s identity until this past weekend, when I read a description of the 1884 novel Ramona, which apparently did as much to focus attention on the plight of Native Americans in California as Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the injustices of African slavery.

According to the description, Ramona was written by author Helen Maria Hunt Jackson, who was by all accounts furious at the federal government’s disregard and frequent breaking of the treaties with Native Americans and the abuses the tribes suffered at the hands of Indian Agents.

She was so vocal about these injustices and so scathing with her letters that she was appointed an Interior Department agent by Hiram Price, the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Her documentation of the treatment and conditions of the Mission Indians in Southern California led to the writing of Ramona, which has, over the last hundred years, gone through three hundred reprintings.

Interesting lady.*

The article also mentioned—so briefly I missed it the first time—that Ms. Jackson was a poet.   So naturally, I did a little research . . . and found that she’d written the above poem.

That kind of thing just makes my day—and this one made today’s post just a little easier, because “Chance” wasn’t a fluke. Mrs. Jackson wrote some good stuff:

The Poet’s Forge
(Helen Hunt Jackson)

He lies on his back, the idling smith,
A lazy, dreaming fellow is he;
The sky is blue, or the sky is gray,
He lies on his back the livelong day,
Not a tool in sight, say what they may,
A curious sort of smith is he.

The powers of the air are in league with him;
The country around believes it well;
The wondering folk draw spying near;
Never sight nor sound do they see or hear;
No wonder they feel a little fear;
When is it his work is done so well?

Never sight nor sound to see or hear;
The powers of the air are in league with him;
High over his head his metals swing,
Fine gold and silver to shame the king;
We might distinguish their glittering,
If once we could get in league with him.

High over his head his metals swing;
He hammers them idly year by year,
Hammers and chuckles a low refrain:
“A bench and a book are a ball and a chain,
The adze is a better tool than the plane;
What’s the odds between now and next year?”

Hammers and chuckles his low refrain,
A lazy, dreaming fellow is he:
When sudden, some day, his bells peal out,
And men, at the sound, for gladness shout;
He laughs and asks what it’s all about;
Oh, a curious sort of smith is he.

Turns out that Ms. Jackson, who was born to a Amherst professor of Latin, Greek, and philosophy in 1830, was a lifelong friend of Emily Dickenson, which might explain a few things about her style, which is quirky and blunt and embroidered by turns.

It might explain a few more to know that she married Edward Bissell Hunt, an army captain, at twenty-two, was widowed at thirty-three, and lost her only surviving child** to diphtheria a year later. It was only then that she started to write, publishing much of her work anonymously.

Crossed Threads
(Helen Hunt Jackson)

The silken threads by viewless spinners spun,
Which float so idly on the summer air,
And help to make each summer morning fair,
Shining like silver in the summer sun,
Are caught by wayward breezes, one by one,
Are blown to east and west and fastened there,
Weaving on all the roads their sudden snare.
No sign which road doth safest, freest run,
The wingèd insects know, that soar so gay
To meet their death upon each summer day.
How dare we any human deed arraign;
Attempt to recon any moment’s cost;
Or any pathway trust as safe and plain
Because we see not where the threads have crossed?

Ralph Waldo Emerson liked her stuff well enough to include five of her poems in his 1874 Parnassus anthology, again, under her customary initials, with which, he states, she was “content.”

I’m thinking that this is probably true, up to a point.  Emerson and his publisher obviously didn’t mind that  H. H. was female—it’s mentioned outright in his introduction.***   Perhaps, as a single woman, she didn’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention; a year later, after her marriage to William Sharpless Jackson, a wealthy banker and railroad executive,^ she began consistently publishing stories and poems under her full name.

If I’m right, this was the only concession she seems to have made to her gender, which she never allowed to slow her down.

Not much did, until stomach cancer took her in 1885.  At the time, she was still investigating the struggles of Native Americans to keep the lands promised to them by the treaties they signed in good faith.

Again, interesting lady.  And a damn fine poet besides.

My Tenants
(Helen Hunt Jackson)

I never had a title-deed
To my estate. But little heed
Eyes give to me, when I walk by
My fields, to see who occupy.
Some clumsy men who lease and hire
And cut my trees to feed their fire,
Own all the land that I possess,
And tax my tenants to distress.
And if I say I had been first,
And, reaping, left for them the worst,
That they were beggars at the hands
Of dwellers on my royal lands,
With idle laugh of passing scorn
As unto words of madness born,
They would reply
I do not care;
They cannot crowd the charméd air;
They cannot touch the bonds I hold
On all that they have bought and sold.
They can waylay my faithful bees,
Who, lulled to sleep, with fatal ease,
Are robbe. Is one day’s honey sweet
Thus snatched? All summer round my feet
In golden drifts from plumy wings,
In shining drops on fragrant things
Free gift, it came to me. My corn,
With burnished banners, morn by morn,
Comes out to meet and honor me;
The glittering ranks spread royally
Far as I walk. When hasty greed
Tramples it down for food and seed,
I, with a certain veiled delight,
Hear half the crop is lost by blight.

Letter of the law these may fulfil,
Plant where they like, slay what they will,
Count up their gains and make them great;
Nevertheless, the whole estate
Always belongs to me and mine.
We are the only royal line.
And though I have no title-deed
My tenants pay me royal heed
When our sweet fields I wander by
To see what strangers occupy.


*The Nineteenth Century produced some amazingly strong American women, including Annie Wittenmyer  (the country’s  first female Sanitation Agent during the Civil War), Phebe Sudlow (the country’s first female superintendent of schools), and Alice French (the best paid author in America at a time when Mark Twain was still paying to get his stuff published).  It can’t be a coincidence that they were all writers.

** Her first died of brain disease as an infant shortly after her marriage.

***Knowing Emerson, he was probably making a point about it, though I’m sure he chose her work on its own merits.

^Which I suspect is exactly the kind of second spouse it’s handy for a poet to have.