Sunday, May 22, 2016

Rebecca Gratz's Romance. 5. The Poem

This narrative thread begins here.

In 1807,  Rebecca Gratz wrote a poem about lost love, and it dovetails with what we already know.  She begins by stating that it had been two years since she had received a marriage proposal.  In her letter of August 11, 1805, she had implied that Samuel Ewing's proposal had taken place a week or two before; the poem is dated July 23, 1807, which must have been very close to the second anniversary of the event.  She also says in the course of the poem that she had loved him for five years which coincides with the 1800-1805 span when Ewing was the man she most often mentioned in her letters.

So I think we can agree that the poem is referring to the same man and the same proposal.  How do I know it is a proposal?  Rebecca uses a fairly common metaphor of the time for a lover and his beloved.  She calls the man a "votary," that is, a person who has devoted his life to the service of a god (or goddess).  She is then the goddess at whose "shrine" he makes his request.  In some poems which use this metaphor, the "votary" is requesting sex, but here we can be sure it is marriage.

The poem is of more biographical than literary interest,  but the pain and sorrow it expresses have the ring of authenticity.   Rebecca dated the poem and I have used that as the title.

July 23rd, 1807

'Tis two revolving years since thou

A votary at my shrine didst bow.

With melting heart & listening ear I gave thy suit a pitying tear

And Love! who on thy lips still hung

Caught soft persuasion from thy tongue

And what thy passion would impart

Sank glowing to my yielding heart.

The world receded from my view

And nought remain'd but love of you.

I hung with rapture on thine arm

Unconscious that the stern alarm

Of interfering faith must come 

And call the wandering mortal home.

The moment given to joy is o'er

And love and bliss are mine no more!

I with feign'd indifference met thy glance

And seem to fly when thou'st advance

But ah! the lesson duty gives

My breaking heart so weak receives.

That even time whose fabled power

Can take from memory passion's hour

On me cannot such conquest claim

Whose heart and fate are still the same.

My heart! whose sensibility has oft 

When thou hast smiled forgot its (illeg)

To laugh in thy joy--My heart! whose (illeg)

For five long years was faithful unto thee

By interfering fate now torn from thine

is wrecked of joy, of peace, of every dream

Where hope & thou alone were cherished.

The summer eve no more brings joy to me

For thou art fled and the dull hours move on

Unheeded in the lapse of time--The moon

Whose soften'd luster once my soul could wake

Now shines to gild my sorrow and to show

how deep how dark is the color of my fate.  

My yawning grave is lighted by her beauty

And all its horror open to my view

But Hope bright Cherub! lifts the veil beyond

And with seraphic promise points to bliss!

There thou shall meet me and renew thy love!

Mortal pangs shall never reach me more.

[Our souls united shall be blest

Oh blissful promise!]

This seems to be a draft rather than a finished piece.  Rebecca started with rhymed couplets and then dropped the rhyme completely about halfway through.  The tenses of verbs do not always agree and the punctuation is sketchy.  I have put the last two lines in brackets because they appear on the back of the piece of birch bark on which the poem was written. They do seem to be appropriate, and the poem ends rather abruptly without them.

Also on the back of the poem are some crossed-out lines:  "[My] heart!  Thy image faithful bears\ My fate still dooms me to despair\ A prey to both, I languish on\ Uplift my soul, "Thy will be done"\ with holy resignation cry."  Rebecca already had pictured her "yawning grave;" she must have deemed these verses just too much, or simply too direct.

Despite the fact that the verses were unpolished and she had left scribbles on the back of the page,  Rebecca was finished with this poem.  She rolled it up into a scroll and tied it with a pink ribbon.  She then kept it for the rest of her life.

The purpose of the poem?  Depressives sometimes become hypochondriacal and  think they are dying. This could have been  the case with Rebecca, and the poem was a message which she hoped would find its way to Samuel Ewing (it is, after all, addressed to her former love) after she died.  She outlived him by nearly 50 years, but she held on to the poem. Perhaps her intention had changed, and it was for posterity she left her message of love and sacrifice.

So, yes, Rebecca loved Samuel Ewing and he loved her. It isn't just a pious fable or an exaggeration of the seriousness of their relationship.  She gave him up and it was not easy.  She put the requirements of her religion first, but in this poem she no longer denied her feelings for him.  In fact she continued to believe their love was a good thing; it just took place on the wrong plane of being.  She dared to hope that in heaven it would be blessed.

Rebecca survived her ordeal and went on to live a useful and satisfying life.  To see how she presented herself a quarter of a century after her love affair, go to the post,  "The Rosenbach Acquires Sully Portrait of Rebecca Gratz."

(The poem is in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Philosophical Society.  It is now in two pieces (the birch bark is very fragile) and a conservator used the faded pink ribbon,  with which Rebecca had tied up the poem originally, to bind together some sheets of protective paper into a booklet in which the pieces of the poem now reside.)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Rebecca Gratz's Romance. 4. The Letter

(This narrative thread begins here.)

On vacation in New York State in the summer of 1805, Rachel Gratz, who idealized her older sister, wrote Rebecca to ask her to write a character sketch of herself.  Rachel was probably looking for some guides to conduct without having to solicit advice directly.  She received something more than she expected.

The letter, dated August 11, 1805, which I have excerpted below, lacks the usual salutation -- the first indication that Rebecca is in the midst of an emotional breakdown.  She begins:

 "My character Rachel--yes you shall have it--but do not expect exalted virtues--strength of mind or humility--I have stronger passions than you expect--and weaker resolution....
....I have been a whole week in the most acute agony anticipating a misfortune which has fallen on me and which perhaps may crush my happiness for life--When a little exertion and address might have relieved me from its danger--it was brought on in the first instance by compassion and a wish to spare the bosom of another the pain of disappointment..."
"....God gave me understanding enough to have been better--but a disposition too perverse to profit by it...but adhering too much to the wayward impulse in my own bosom--when the enjoyment of the present conceals the sting of future sorrows.  I press'd on from year to year ...and often quite unconscious till on the brink of a yawning gulph my affrighted soul appall'd--and sorrowing retreats despairing ever to acquire the path to peace....affected modesty more fatal than vanity a thousand times, more curst than coquettes' wiles deludes the judgment--& misleads the heart--its consequences I now must suffer."
 "....I see a bleeding heart my perfidy has wounded...till I see a countenance in smiles which now deep gloom invades, a brow tranquil, torn now with blasted hopes & bitter disappointment--the beauty of creation's finest work here I despoil'd--the seat of reasonable desires in the heart of man--"
She ends her letter to Rachel by addressing the deity: "But thou oh God! has not harden'd me in sin.  Thou willst lead me back to virtue--strengthen in my heart the love of thy holy command.  'Honor thy parents'--'Reverence thy God' shall my soul find grace and be gather'd with my fathers in the day of trial--where thou willet accept my penitence and extend thy Mercy--for the sake of thy faithful servants whose law I will obey."
Rebecca has done something which has hurt someone badly, but she omits the what and the who.  We must suppose that Rachel, better acquainted with the situation, could fill in the holes.

This is my interpretation:  Rebecca had received a proposal of marriage from a man with whom she had been in a relationship  for years ("I pressed on from year to year").  The only candidate is Samuel Ewing.  She had accepted his proposal ("out of compassion"), changed her mind, and then postponed telling him for days, afraid to face the general condemnation which her actions would provoke.  When she did make her refusal, she had to face up to pain she had caused Ewing. Implicit in the prayer at the end is the motive for her change of mind:  it was a matter of religion and she could at least feel that, faltering as her decision was, it was ultimately the correct one.

There is so much not said here -- I could speculate forever on family influence, for example -- but essentially I take Rebecca at her word.  Her commitment to her religion was authentic.

However, there is a great lack of candor in this letter as to her feelings for her suitor.   I do not think that she accepted him "out of compassion," or that an "affected modesty" led to a misunderstanding between her and Ewing about the nature of their relationship.  What could cause a kind, usually thoughtful,  religious young woman to lead a man on for five years?

She loved him, of course, and couldn't bring herself to let him go.  As we shall see in the next post, two years later she finally confessed.

(Rebecca's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Philosophical Society.)

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