Sophie Jewett: I Speak your Name

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A Quick Look

19th Century American Women PoetsI’ve been leafing through an anthology of Nineteenth Century American Women Poets. While none of them equal  Emily Dickinson, there are some truly beautiful gems and lovely passages. Perhaps one of my favorite poets is Sophie Jewett. There is something wistful, haunting, otherworldly and almost faery-like about her poetry – like a Midsummer Night’s Dream. She possessed a lightness of touch and, at her best, a haunting ear for the music of language.

The brief introduction offered by the anthology tells a sad childhood.

Her mother, Ellen Ransom Burroughs, died of acute neuralgia of the heart when Sophie was seven. Together with her three silbings, Sophie was awakened from sleep to witness her mother’s death agony, an event whose impress remained with her all her life. Charles Jewett died two years later when Sophie was nine. After his death, the children moved to Buffalo, where they resided with their uncle and grandmother, both of whom died while Jewett was still in her teens.

The Poems of Sophie JewettJewett’s father was apparently aware that his own life was slipping away. In the introduction to the The Poems of Sophie Jewett (cover at right), [Incidentally, this book has long since gone into the public domain. You can download Google’s digital copy, a PDF document, by clicking here.] the unidentified author of the introduction (written in 1910) writes:

Dr. Jewett, feeling life slipping from him while his children were very young, too every care to impress upon them not only high ideals of conduct for their future guidance, but also the value and the beauty of intellectual pursuits, holding up as a model to his little daughters, after she was gone, their lovely and gifted young mother.

This, at least, tells us that her mother and father must have been caring and protective. One last observation, as far as biographical material goes, The Paula Bennet, the editor of the anthology, also makes a point which will be instrumental in understanding I Speak Your Name. She writes that Jewett is a “transitional poet, opening the way for the more self-conscious work that would be the burden and pleasure of modernist lesbian women to produce.”

The Poem

I Speak Your Name (w Portrait)

What it Means

Or I should write, what it might mean. The images and ideas in this poem are, to me, suggestively elusive. Sometimes I look for other interpretations, just so I don’t embarrass myself. Portrait of Sophie JewettOther times I throw caution to the wind. This time, I thought I’d thread the needle. I looked for interpretations, but was determined not read any until I had written my own. I couldn’t find any. So. I’m winging it. If any readers want to offer other interpretations, changes or improvements, please do so.

I speak your name in alien ways,

This first line is why I fell in love with the poem and it’s also the most elusive of any of the lines. It may or may not be autobiographical. But here are some clues. In the introduction to the 1910 edition of her poems, we find the following:

Much inspiration and counsel came to her from her minister, Dr. Walcott Calkins, whose home in Buffalo, and later in Newton, MA, she called her “second home.” She was the constant comrade of his daughter from the time they met as little girls, and their companioning became a lifelong friendship. In the minister’s study, the two children discussed grave mysteries or bent together over books in strange tongues… [Introduction viii-ix]

Then later:

The friends of her girlhood she steadfastly cherished when time brought the separations constraining them “to go diverging ways.” She was little more than twenty when first she journeyed to England and Italy, an experience which gave new incentive to study and filled her beauty-loving soul with new visions. [Introduction ix]

Although I don’t know, I wonder if Jewett isn’t addressing her childhood friend? The introductory material doesn’t give us a name, but Jewett does – Margaret. Is Margaret her childhood friend? One wonders if Jewett wrote this poem overseas? The poem has an epistolatory feel to it if only because she addresses the poem to you who, in the final lines, becomes Maragert.   At it’s most straightforward, Sophie is saying that she is speaking her friend’s name in an alien tongue – perhaps in Italy. I am talking about you, she seems to say, I can’t stop thinking of you.

[To read some of Jewett’s Sonnets.]

But there’s an elusiveness to the line that I can’t shake and there’s a reason (which I’ll get to later in the poem). Alien had another meaning – in the sense of belonging to someone else. This is an older meaning, one that you will find in the Shakespeare Lexicon, but Jewett was an English scholar (a professor of Anglo Saxon), a student of poetry and (one assumes) Shakespeare, and would surely have been familiar with the subtler, if not older, meaning of words.

[Read some praise by a reader of Jewett, check out Imaginative Women: Lesbian Fiction and Real Lez Life]

Imagine that Jewett has fallen in love with (or has always loved) Margaret, but that Margaret doesn’t reciprocate her love, or rather, another woman’s love.  Margaret has given her name (her last name) to a man. Margaret’s name belongs to another. And so Sophie must speak her lover’s name in an alien way. There is a double in this poem.

Sophie Jewett (by Kimberly Coles)…while yet
November smiles from under lashes wet.

The choice of month and season isn’t haphazard, or least I don’t think so. November, in the northern hemisphere (I say that for my reader from Australia), is the onset of winter, of loss, barrenness, darkness and cold. There is always a lonely feel to November, a turning inward – at least to me. But there is not complete loss. November smile. What does Jewett mean by this?

[The eery and beautiful snippet at right is by Kimberly Coles. To see the entire illustration and to read an extract from Jewett’s “The Pearl”, visit her site by clicking on the image or her name. The latter link, to The Pearl, is to Gutenberg.Org.]

My feeling is that November refers to both the time of year and to herself. The image could signify a dreary day in November, where there are nevertheless a few remaining embers from summer – a few late flowers or leaves perhaps. Not all the memories of summer are gone, not all its warmth and youthfulness. And November could be Jewett herself, her lashes wet with tears but smiling at the memory of her friend.

In the November light I see you stand
Who love the fading woods and withered land,
Where Peace may walk, and Death, but not Regret.

I don’t interpret this as meaning that Jewett literally sees her friend. She imagines her friend, much as we might say, nowadays, I can just see her there. These are the woods her friend loved. There is the suggestion that her lover enjoyed and accepted autumn’s endings – its fading woods and withered land. There is no regret. I read Peace as meaning acceptance. Death refers not just to the season, but perhaps to the possibility of a greater love – a love between two women. But there is no regret and Jewitt doesn’t tell us to whom she is referring. There is no regret (perhaps not hers) and none, perhaps, on the part of her lover. These are the qualities of the woods they both love.

The year is slow to alter or forget;
June’s glow and autumn’s tenderness are met,
Across the months by this swift sunlight spanned.
I speak your name.

[LibriVox offers an audio recording of Jewett’s God’s Troubadour, The Story of St. Francis of Assisi.]

The year is slow… Whatever memories she has shared, of friendship or love, keep their warmth and glow even across the months. In referring to autumn’s tenderness, the feeling isn’t of barrenness or desolation, but of acceptance and sorrow – her wet lashes;  mixed with joy – her smile.  Perhaps, if her friend cannot reciprocate Sophie’s love, their friendship survives and continues – an autumn that tenderly closes a summer’s joy.

Because I loved your golden hair, God set
His sea between our eyes.

The meaning of these lines is truly elusive. Why would God set a sea between the friends, perhaps lovers, because Jewett loved her golden hair? In these lines, just for a moment, the surface of the poem is disturbed. Is this an outcry? If we read these lines literally, was Jewett sent overseas, to Italy perhaps? Was her travel a kind of self-exile? – her sapphic love having been forbidden? If her friend, Margaret, was the friend of her childhood, then perhaps ‘God” is a reference to her friend’s father.

Yet one doesn’t get the sense, in reading biographical material, that there was every any disharmony between Sophie Jewett and the Minister, Dr. Walcott Calkins. The 1910 biography does say, however,  that she frequently received much counsel from him.

[Archive.Org offers an audiobook of Armistice.]

Perhaps she discussed her preference for women?  Or perhaps her feelings were obvious? If the subject was ever broached, I can easily imagine the Minister’s kind but stern admonishment that love between women was counter to God’s intentions. The true meaning of these lines may have to remain beyond our reach, but Jewett’s phrase, because I loved your golden hair, carries with it a tender connotation that is hard to misconstrue.

Nude by Helen GotlibPerhaps the meaning of the line is figurative. This would be in keeping with the first line, if we interpret alien as meaning that her friend’s name now belongs to another. If her friend has been married, then it is understood that only God can marry a man and woman and only God can sunder them. Perhaps this is what Jewett means when she states that God has set his sea, the bond of marriage between a man and woman, between the eyes of Jewett and her lover, Margaret. But this doesn’t answer why God would have done this because she loved Margaret’s golden hair. Was Margaret married, if she was, to avoid a scandal? The line remains elusive.

[The image at right is by Helen Gotlib. Check out more of her beatuiful drawings by clicking on the image.]

Perhaps both meanings are at play. One feels, perhaps, a subversive double-meaning to the whole of the poem.

…I may not fret,
For, sure and strong, to meet my soul’s demand,
Comes your soul’s truth, more near than hand in hand;

And perhaps, in these lines, we come to understand November’s smiles in the second line. If the lovers’ relationship was ended prematurely for the sake of societal propriety, then perhaps Margaret did reciprocate Jewett’s love. But Margaret married. This is what was expected at the end of the 19th Century. Perhaps this is what they both accept. (There is no regret.) Jewett does not condemn her for it. And perhaps Margaret, though her name now belongs to another, and though there is “a sea” between them, still confesses her love for Jewett. There is still that smile beneath November’s wet lashes. Both joy and sorrow. The sorrow that their love cannot be enacted, but the joy that a different kind of love continues more near than hand in hand. It is her, Sophie Jewett, that Margaret still loves, this is her soul’s truth. Jewett will not fret. Though their love cannot be consummated, there is another kind of love that binds them. Jewett speaks her lovers name in alien ways, while yet November smiles from under lashes wet.

And low to God, who listens, Margaret,
I speak your name.

She knows. I’ll let these last line speak for themselves.

If Sophie Jewett is new to you;  if you have enjoyed this post, let me know…