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Glimpses from a Study Window of Thomas Bailey Aldrich


The study where Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote some of his daintiest verse looks forth upon a sweet valley. Down this valley prattle clear-eyed brooks that meet and grow, and water lush meadows filled with all lovely things of summer, while low woods beyond set a dark green line against the sunsets. Looking toward these of a day when rosy mists tangle the sun's rays and anon let them slip in arrow flight earthward, we have pictured for us how 

"We knew it would rain, for all the morn,
A spirit on slender ropes of mist
Was lowering its golden buckets down
Into the vapory amethyst." 

Wherever written, this and a hundred other dainty things seem to flock into the tiny valley upon which he looked from the study window of his later life in what was then the quaint old village of Ponkapoag, as if the flowers of fancy to which he gave wings still hovered there. At nightfall it is easy along these meadows to 

"See where at intervals the firefly's spark
Glimmers and melts into the fragrant dark;
Gilds a leaf's edge one happy instant, then
Leaves darkness all a mystery again." 

"The study where Aldrich wrote of his daintiest verse looks forth upon a sweet valley"

The quaint old Ponkapoag of not so very many years ago is changing fast. The trolley car passes and repasses in what was once its one street. The real estate man has come and modern houses grow up over night, almost, in the empty spaces over the old stone walls, while in the surrounding pastures and woodland appear the mansions of those who seek large estates not too far from the city. Suburban life begins to crowd Ponkapoag and the little self-centered country village of the genuine New England type passes. Most, however, of the sturdy old houses of a century or more ago remain and much of the beauty of the country round about them. On Sundays and holidays Ponkapoag Pond teems with an uproarious holiday crowd, but on weekdays one may still enjoy its beauty unmolested, hear the blackbird's music tinkle along the bogs, and see the pond lily, the pure white spirit of Miantowonah, sit on the water. On such days Ponkapoag Pond, "the spring bubbling from red earth," seems still to belong as much to the Indians, whose favorite fishing ground it was, as to us latter-day usurpers, and the outlook across it to the dusky loon of Blue Hill is as wild now as it was in their day.

From the north-facing window of the poet's study you may see the hill again, with all its beauty of color which changes with the whim of the day. At dawn of a clear morning it looms blue-black against the rosy deep of the sky. At noon it looms still but friendly and green, so near that the eye may pick out the shape of each tree that feathers the jutting crags. At noon of such a day Ponkapoag hill with its houses bowered in green seems a part of it, the half mile of intervening space making no impression on the eve. As the sun sinks a haze rises from the rich farming land which lies level between the two hills. The spirit on slender ropes of mist is at work, and through this vapory amethyst the larger hill withdraws into soft colors of blue that grow violet purple with tile coming of dusk below and the rosy afterglow of reflected sunset in the sky above. Captain John Smith named the range "The Cheviot Hills" in recollection of old England, but all the countryside named it Blue Hill because of the changing wonder of its coloring, which is a constant delight to the eye. On stormy days when gray northeasters send torn clouds, fragrant with the tonic smell of the brine, whirling over it, the hill looms misty and vague, as if it might well be a mountain scores of miles distant, instead of the single mile it is along the straight road. On such days all the wild sea myths and northland sagas seem to be blown in over the hill barrier and trail down from the skirts of the clouds into the secluded peace of Ponkapoag valley. Hence, to those who dream, come sea longings. 

"The first world-sound that fell upon my ear
 Was that of the great winds along the coast
 Crushing the deep-sea beryl on the rocks –
 The distant breakers' sullen cannonade.
 Against the spires and gables of the town
 The white fog drifted, catching here and there
 At over-leaning cornice or peaked roof,
 And hung -- weird gonfalons. The garden walks
 Were choked with leaves, and on their ragged biers
 Lay dead the sweets of summer -- damask rose,
 Clove pink, old-fashioned, loved New England flowers.
 Only keen, salt-sea odors filled the air.
 Sea-sounds, sea-odors -- these were all my world.
 Hence it is that life languishes with me inland." 

Infinite variance of changing moods has the hill which lifts such abrupt crags above the Ponkapoag plain. At times the poet may have seen it as it was one day not long ago, when a great thunderstorm, born of the sweltering, blue haze of a fiercely hot July day, swept across it. On that day the hill withdrew itself into the menacing black sky, looming against it, then vanishing, becoming part of a night like that of the apocalypse, in which hung the observatory and the higher houses of Ponkapoag hill "as glaring as our sins on judgment day." The storm in which the miracle of "The Legend of Ara-Coeli" was wrought could not have been blacker than the sky, nor the face of the monk, when he saw the toes of the bambino beneath the door, whiter than gleamed those houses. The weirder, greater things of nature loom often through the poems of the man who looked upon such scenes from the study window in what was "The Bemis Place" of the elder days of Ponkapoag village. It seems as if all the lighter, sweeter fancies that laugh or slip, tear in eye, through his verse, whirled like rose petals on summer winds or danced like butterflies into the little valley on which the westward study windows looked. Through this, right in the foreground, flows Ponkapoag brook, and on it falls slowly into decay an ancient mill, a relic of the early days of the village. The old dam no longer restrains the water which gurgles along the stones below it, humming to itself a quatrain which never was meant for it, but which voices the fate of the shallow mill pond, which has been empty for so many long years that it is no longer a pond but a tiny meadow in which cattle cool their feet and feed contentedly. Here the spendthrift brook sings contentedly: 

"The fault's not mine, you understand;
God shaped my palm, so I can hold
But little water in my hand
And not much gold." 

In the meadow and along the brookside blooms to-day the Habenaria psycodes, the smaller purple-fringed orchid, its dainty petal-mist rising like flower steam of an August noon, a shy child of woodland bogs, which often runs away out into the open meadow to hear the blackbirds sing. This year I have not found the larger fringed orchid, the Habenaria fimbriata, which comes to the meadow less often, a flower which one might fancy the mother of the other, coming to lead the truant home again to the seclusion of the woodland shadows. In all the fairy nooks of this valley ferns spring up like vagrant, delicate fancies that are real while you hold them in close contemplation, yet vanish into the green of the surroundings, as the form of a poet's thought fades when you take your eye from the printed page, though the thought itself lingers long in your memory. In the shallow meadow that was once the tiny pond stands, shoulder high to the feeding cattle, a solid, serried phalanx of the tall sagittaria, its heart-shaped, lanceolate, pointed leaves aiming this way and that, as if to fend it with keen tips from the eager browsers. These wade through it indeed, but do not feed on it, plunging their heads deep amoung the spear points to gather the tender herbage beneath. While I watched them two of these, half-grown Holstein heifers, bounded friskily to the hard turf of the cedar-guarded pasture above and raced in a satyr-like romp over the close turf and among the cedars for a time. It was as if they knew that Corydon had just vanished up that roadside in Arcady in pursuit of the maiden that the Pilgrim described to him, and the valley was free from all supervision for a time. The white spikes of bloom on the water-plantain nodded to let them pass, and nodded again as if they too knew why the satyrs frisked and on what errand the shepherd had gone.

"The study window in what was 'The Bemis Place' of the elder days of Ponkapoag"

Daintiest of embodied thoughts which flit along this sequestered valley are the butterflies. This is their feasting time of year, for now the milkweed blooms hang crowded umbels of sticky sweetness that no honey-loving insect can resist. Commonest of these by the brookside is Asclepias cornuti with its large pale leaves and its dull greenish-purplish flowers. It is rather odd that out of the same brook water and the salts and humus in the black earth through which it flows one plant should grow these dull, heavy, loutish flowers, while just beside it, perhaps, the Habenaria psycodes gets its misty delicacy of purple bloom from the same source. With plants as with people it is not that on which we feed nor the spot on which we stand that counts in the final moulding of character. Some subtle essence, some fire of spirit within the orchid makes its bloom. Some grosser ideal within the milkweed matures in the dull, sticky umbels. Thus within the town, attending the same schools, and fed by the same butcher and baker, one boy grows up a poet and another a yokel. Even in the same family you may see it, for the milkweeds are not all alike. Along the dry hillsides the Asclepias tuberosa gives us bright orange flowers, exudes little if any stickiness, and even gets a better name from the botanist, being called the butterfly-weed.

But however gross and homely the milkweed blooms the butterflies find rich pasturage there and sip and cling till they fairly fall off in satiety. Winging to the milkweed out of the chestnut and maple shade of the deep wood comes Papilio turnus, striped tiger-wise with rich yellow and black. Out of the long saw-edged grass that grows long in the meadow and bows before the wind as do fields of grain sails Argynnis cybele, the great spangled fritillary, the fulvous glory of his broad wings spangled beneath with silver, as if he carried his coin of a fairy realm with him wherever he goes. Over the very pine tops soars the monarch, his rich dark red and black borne on wings that are the strongest in butterfly flight. These three, most conspicuous sprites in the meadow tangle, give rich coloring and the poetry of motion as they bear down upon the milkweed blooms, to leave them no more save for short flights taken merely to secure a better strategic position on the umbels, till they are cloyed with the rich nectar, and smeared with the sticky exudation which the plant puts out on the blooms for purposes of its own. I fancy the butterflies are vexed and indignant at this stickiness which smears their legs and makes yellow pollen masses cling to them when, satiated and lazy, they next take flight. Yet the whole is cleverly arranged. On the smeared legs as they sail away cling pollen masses which the insect is not likely to get rid of till it lights on another head of bloom, very likely one of some distant plant. There the sticky masses cling closer to the quaint horns which each bloom protrudes from behind the anthers, there to drop pollen grains on the stigma and insure the cross-fertilization of the flower. Thus unwittingly butterfly and bee as they sail about the sun-steeped meadow suffer discomfort for their own good, insuring vigorous crops of milkweed for another summer, for themselves or their descendants.

With these comes the smaller, Colias philodice, the sulphur, bringing with him the very gold of the sunlight. Colias philodice has many changes. Sometimes the black margins of his wings are missing and his gold melts into the sunshine and vanishes before your eyes. Another may come that is white instead of gold, a wan ghost of a colias that seems born of the mist instead of the sunshine and to vanish into nothing when he flies away, as mist does. Sometimes the colias flies up into the wood and lights, and as I come to the spot where I think I saw him stop I find nothing but a single bloom of the golden gerardia which now slips from glade to glade all along where the hardwood growth comes down to meet the meadow grasses. The gerardia might very well explain all this if it would, but it is born close-mouthed. If you will look at the yellow buds which later open into the golden bells into which the bumble-bees love to scramble, humbling as they go, you will see how tightly their lips are pressed together. No word can you get from these by the most insistent questioning, and even when they open it is easy to see that they have learned that silence is golden.

The Baltimore butterfly, wearing Lord Baltimore's colors of orange and black, is a common visitant to these meadows, too. He loves to tipple the lees of the milkweed blooms, but he does not frequent the meadow for that. It is because along its shoreward edges where the cool water oozes from black mud grows his home plant, the turtlehead. On this he was born and to it he goes for the housing and feeding of his children. Like Gerardia flava, Chelone glabra is close-mouthed, but its silence is a wan white one which only blushes pink with embarrassment when questioned, but yields no reply. You cannot learn any mysteries of the meadow from these.

Palest and most ghostlike of all flowers that one finds as he climbs from the meadow to the woods beyond is that of the Monotropa uniflora, or Indian pipe. Round about it its cousins, the pyrola and the pipsissewa, grow green leaves and show waxy white or flesh-pink blossoms. The only color in the Indian pipe is that of the yellow stamens, which shrink in a close circle within the wax-white bloom that stands on a scaly, wax-white stem. A very ghost of a flower is this, nor may we account for its ghostliness. When, long ago, Miantowonah fled to drown her grief in the lake and later rise from it the spirit of a flower which is the regal white pond lily that scatters incense all along the borders of Ponkapoag Pond, her Indian lover followed, too late to prevent the sacrifice. Did he drop his peace pipe in the race through the wood, and did this ghost flower spring from the spot, a faintly fragrant, almost transparent ghostly reminder of it? If so, it has passed into no legend. Coming back through the meadow, with its butterfly sprites of fancy dancing among the flowers, I find one which always seems a reminder of the poet's work at its daintiest and best. That is the bloom of the wild caraway. Here is a mist of delicate thought which speaks to you with lacelike beauty. Nor does the closest inspection reveal any fault. The bloom appeals as a delightful bit of sentiment, at first glance. It is only as you examine it minutely that you marvel at its exquisite workmanship. However carefully you pick it to pieces you find each part perfect and as admirable in its ingenuity as in its appeal to the imagination. And after you have done this you pass on, touched with the white purity of it and bearing far a gentle, aromatic pungency which is the essence of the parent stem that bore the bloom.

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