New England Bluestocking

October 1, 2017

During the Enlightenment, that great period of intellectual exploration in the 18th Century, a group of educated Englishwomen, tired of being excluded from “masculine” literary and artistic discourse, banded together to form a celebrated salon known as the Blue Stockings Society.  It flourished for about half a century, attracting prominent guests such as Samuel Johnson and Horace Walpole. But by the 19th Century, its popularity had waned, and the term “bluestocking” became a pejorative one for any intellectual woman — stereotyped as a frumpy spinster with literary pretensions.


Louise Imogen Guiney as St. Barbara,
by Fred Holland Day.

As with all stereotypes, that view did a profound disservice to its targets. In 19th Century America, New England produced a rich vein of female literary talent. While those like Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott take center stage today, there were others of great ability but lesser renown whose works deserve a revival. The poet and essayist Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920) is one of them.

Guiney was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, the daughter of an Irish-born Civil War hero and lawyer. She was educated at a Catholic convent school, but her father’s death in 1877 forced her to work to support herself and her mother, taking jobs as a postmistress in a small Massachusetts town and a cataloger at the Boston Public Library. Meanwhile, at 19, she launched her literary career with a poem, “Charles Sumner,” published in a Boston newspaper. Her critically acclaimed poetry collections, Songs at the Start (1884) and The White Sail (1887), soon followed.

Guiney also garnered a reputation as an incisive and learned essayist. Her first essay collection, Goose-Quill Papers (1885) shows off her scholarship as well as her wit and flair. The amusing essay “On Teaching One’s Grandmother How to Suck Eggs” gives us a tongue-in-cheek survey of the subject:

In the days of the schoolmen, when no vexed question went without its fair showing, it seems incredible that the proposition hereto affixed as a title provoked no labyrinthine reasoning from any of those musty and hair-splitting philosophers. Aristotle himself overlooked it; Duns Scotus and the noted Aureolus Philip Theophrastus Bombast de Hohenheim Paracelsus were content to repeat his sin of omission. Even that seventeenth-century English essayist and scholar, “whose understanding was wide as the terrene firmament,” neither unearthed the origin of this singular implied practice, nor attempted in any way to uphold or depreciate it. The phrase hath scarce the grace of an Oriental precept, and scarce the dignity of Rome. It might sooner appertain to Sparta, where the old were held in reverence, and where their education, in a burst of filial anxiety, might be prolonged beyond the usual term of mental receptivity.

After her initial successes, Guiney became a key part of Boston’s aesthetic revival of the 1890s, and counted among her friends the poet and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes (to whom Goose-Quill Papers is dedicated), the architect Ralph Adams Cram, the poet Bliss Carman, and the photographer Fred Holland Day. Her third poetry collection, A Roadside Harp (1893) sealed her reputation as a fine aesthetic poet, with some flourishes harking back to an earlier time, as in “Tryste Noel”:

The Ox he openeth wide the Doore
And from the Snowe he calls her inne,
And he hath seen her Smile therefore,
Our Ladye without Sinne.
Now soone from Sleepe
A Starre shall leap,
And soone arrive both King and Hinde;
Amen, Amen:
But O, the place co’d I but finde!

Guiney began a new epoch in her life and work when she moved to England, where she liked “the velvety feel of the Past underfoot,” in 1901. She gave up poetry — her last collection, Happy Ending, was published in 1909 — and refocused much of her literary work on biographies of prominent English Catholics (Blessed Edmund Campion) and Irish historical figures (Robert Emmet). Her work was not lucrative, however, and she often went without food or coal in order to have enough money to buy books. She died of a stroke at her home in Gloucestershire in 1920.

Consistent with the stereotype of the bluestocking spinster, Guiney never married, and was said to share a “Boston marriage” with the writer Alice Brown. But, inconsistent with the stereotype, so far from being a frump, she was “tall and lithe. . . given to such outdoor pursuits as hiking,” as Douglass Shand-Tucci describes her in Boston Bohemia: 1881-1900. Guiney was not only “pretty, with beautiful dark gray eyes,” but also “warm and affectionate, even flirtatious, and altogether a buoyant free spirit with an irrepressible sense of humor.”

Guiney’s free spirit shines through in the dozen or so of her works available at Project Gutenberg. Her biographer, Henry G. Fairbanks, called her the “lost lady of American letters.” She deserves to be found again.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

The Cambridge Book of Poetry for Children

March 31, 2016

Cambridge Poetry coverShakespeare, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Dobell, Stevenson, Tennyson, Scott, Blake, Shelley … did you have a favourite poet when you were a child? A century ago, Kenneth Grahame put together a collection of poems from some of the most well-known and packaged them as The Cambridge Book of Poetry for Children. In his preface he explains how he chose the titles and concludes that the collection “is chiefly lyrical.” He says, “it is but a small sheaf that these gleanings amount to; but for those children who frankly do not care for poetry it will be more than enough; and for those who love it and delight in it, no ‘selection’ could ever be sufficiently satisfying.” I couldn’t agree more—there is something for everyone, even the not-so-young-anymore.

Take a look at the Contents of both Parts 1 and 2 and see if your favourites are there. Some of mine are—Blake’s “The Lamb” and “The Tiger”; Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”; Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”; Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot” … let’s face it, there aren’t many that I don’t like. There are some I hadn’t recalled for a long time, and some I don’t remember, but it’s been fun reading them all. Here are some samples.

For the Very Smallest Ones, “I Saw a Ship a-sailing”:

I saw a ship a-sailing,
A-sailing on the sea;
And it was full of pretty things
For baby and for me.

And “Kitty: How to Treat Her”—I remember it word for word:

I like little Pussy, her coat is so warm,
And if I don’t hurt her she’ll do me no harm;
So I’ll not pull her tail, nor drive her away,
But Pussy and I very gently will play.

Do you remember “The Butterfly’s Ball,” by William Roscoe?

“Come, take up your hats, and away let us haste
To the Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast;
The Trumpeter, Gadfly, has summoned the crew,
And the revels are now only waiting for you.”

Or “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” by Eugene Field?

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe—
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew.

Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”—

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

and perhaps Charles Kingsley’s “The Old Buccaneer,” a great one for reading aloud:

Oh England is a pleasant place for them that’s rich and high,
But England is a cruel place for such poor folks as I;
And such a port for mariners I ne’er shall see again
As the pleasant Isle of Avès, beside the Spanish main.

This book summons up visions of family and friends, sitting around an open fire, each taking a turn at reading his or her favourite verse and perhaps talking about what makes it a favourite … is it the story, the words, the rhythm, the metre, the rhyme, the magic?… It’ll be something different for all of us. Hope some of you reading this will enjoy the book as much as I have.

This post was contributed by a DP volunteer.

Because We Remember

November 11, 2014

Rookie Rhymes cover

At Distributed Proofreaders we are all about preserving history. We believe in saving the classic, the good, the dry, the funny, and even the bad. A few years ago, it was my honor to pick up Rookie Rhymes to post-process for Veteran’s Day.

Written by The Men of the 1st. and 2nd. Provisional Training Regiments, Plattsburg, New York, May 15—August 15 1917, it is a short book. Some of these poems and songs are funny:


When I applied for Plattsburg I stood for hours in line
To get a piece of paper which they said I had to sign;
When I had signed I stood in line (and my, that line was slow!)
And asked them what to do with it; they said they didn’t know.

And when I came to Plattsburg I had to stand in line,
To get a Requisition, from five o’clock till nine;
I stood in line till night for the Captain to endorse it;
But the Q. M. had one leggin’ left; I used it for a corset.

We stand in line for hours to get an issue for the squad;
We stand in line for hours and hours to use the cleaning-rod;
And hours and hours and hours and hours to sign the roll for pay;
And walk for miles in double files on Inoculation day.

Oh, Heaven is a happy place, its streets are passing fair,
And when they start to call the roll up yonder I’ll be there;
But when they start to call that roll I certainly will resign
If some Reserve Archangel tries to make me stand in line.

They are poignant:


Your lips say “Go!”
Eyes plead “Stay!”
Your voice so low
Faints away
To nothing, dear—
God keep me here!

God end the war,
And let us two
Travel far
On Love’s road, you
And I in peace,
Never to cease.

Your lips say “Go!”
Eyes plead “Stay”—
Ah, how I know
What price you pay.



It may be from hot Tallahassee,
It may be from cold northern Nome,
But there’s nothing that can be compared with
That BIG little letter from home.

They are even dark at times, with a glimpse of the blackness of war, with temptations such as desertion found in “The Ballad of Montmorency Gray,” and far worse found in “The Three,” and falling beneath what you know is right. (But he doesn’t.)

These men opened their notebooks and let the rest of the world see their thoughts, their fears, and their strength. Because of men and women like these, most of us do not have to face these same fears. So, thank you men of the Regiment, thank you those who are willing to stand, thank you for facing your fears so that I can whine about the cost of eggs, the weather, and kiss those I love goodnight every night. We remember.

This post was contributed by a DP volunteer.

In Pursuit of Poetry

October 8, 2010

Whenever I explain what Project Gutenberg is, one question that frequently arises is, “How do they decide which books to publish?” The easy answer, of course, is that we’ll prepare any public domain text that we can get our un-grubby, white-gloved archival hands on.  Like most easy answers, though, it doesn’t hold up well to closer scrutiny. If all of us content providers really spent our time chasing every book we came across, we’d never finish any one of them. So what really happens is that we find our niche. We choose an era; we choose a language; we choose an earthly (or otherwise!) region. Or, we choose a genre–some broad topic or style that falls just a little nearer and dearer.

I should confess up front. The majority of my content providing is done to finish up existing, but incomplete projects–lost illustrations, torn pages, that sort of thing. I call it entropy control. I also enjoy helping to proofread books that are slated to be published for Project Gutenberg. A few weeks ago, it happened, I was spending some time on a volume called The London Mercury–a kind of catch-all for literary reviews, much like the New York Time’s bestseller list of today. This is a fun kind of project to work on because it offers short articles that are easy to follow and finish, even if I only have a few minutes to spare for proofreading that day. And naturally, the works that are reviewed are almost universally qualified as potential Gutenberg works, too. I try to keep an eye open for works that look interesting to me, but most of the biographies, natural histories, and public policy reports just slide right by me. However, one review stood out.

More Translations from the Chinese, by Arthur Waley, received a glowing review for its “[skillfully] handled unrhymed verse,” and “rhythm and flow of sound…amazing in translations.” Several excerpts were included–eloquent, unadorned blank verse. I’ve always enjoyed the misleading simplicity of Japanese haiku, and these excerpts quickly captivated me. So naturally, I searched for More Translations on Project Gutenberg. And I found it.

The full volume does not disappoint. Beyond the limitations of a half-page review, Waley’s chosen poems really shine. “The Great Summons,” by Ch‘ü Yüan, was described by the Mercury’s review as “[t]he finest thing in the book.” According to the book’s notes, it was written by Ch‘ü during his nine-year exile from the Court, as a cry against his own depression. Being separated from his beloved homeland, Ch‘ü called to his soul to “come back again and go not east or west, or north or south!” He tells of the terrors, the “treacherous voids” that lie beyond the borders, tempting his soul back with beguiling lures of favorite foods, wine, song, and service to his king. Each new stanza unveils a happiness that is only found at home; it’s enough to lure anyone’s soul back time and again.

Shorter poems are not as layered, but instead evoke the quiet moods of the scenes described:

I sat drinking and did not notice the dusk,
Till falling petals filled the folds of my dress.
Drunken I rose and walked to the moonlit stream;
The birds were gone, and men also few.
“Self-Abandonment,” by Li Po

Having read that and others like it, I see why so many great artists of ancient Asia seem to incorporate such writings right into their paintings and woodcuts (such as Green Hills and White Clouds, by Gao Kogong). The poems themselves bring pictures to mind, and some of them simply cry out to be represented in pigment or fiber. Spanning from the eleventh century back to the fourth century B.C., the eight poets represented address timeless subjects that still capture the human condition. I was repeatedly reminded of Robert Frost’s poems–natural, evocative, and just a hint of humor to balance out the lyric pace and occasionally melancholy subject. Not coincidentally, Po Chu-I’s “Going alone to spend a night at the Hsien-Yu Temple” is a dead ringer for “Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening,” but older by over a millennium.

I now have More Translations from the Chinese permanently bookmarked in my browser, and drift back to it whenever I’m seeking a contemplative moment. Even the ebook number, #16500, has a nice round completeness to it. But this volume is simply More Translations, which implies that another volume came before. The London Mercury is kind enough to shed some light on this: “The new collection should not be missed by anyone who has the old one; those who have not should get the old one…which, on the whole, covers better poems.” As it happens, one of my local libraries has a copy of 170 Chinese Poems, by Arthur Waley, so as soon as I have the chance, I’ll borrow it and begin preparing it for Project Gutenberg. After all, I’m a content provider. It’s what I do.

%d bloggers like this: