Anna Cora Mowatt and Her Lyrical Listeners

An ode, as workers of crossword puzzles will know, is a type of poem addressed to a something or someone. This variety of versification was particularly popular with Victorians. They addressed verses to Grecian urns, lonely clouds, and many, many, many, to each other.

I read an article once (none of the particulars of which I can recall or I would cite it properly) that claimed that the Victorian love of odes was based upon this format’s mirror-like function of reflection. An ode calls upon the reader/listener to examine the subject the poem closely. The poet must have first engaged in the same sort of intensely focused gaze in order to compose the text. Throughout the reading/writing process there is an unspoken process of comparison going on between the poet/subject and/or the reader/subject. The ode is always inviting us to ask how is this thing or person like or unlike me?

Victorian society tended to be rather rules-based and focused on controlling and directing human impulses. Observing and comparing behavior and appearance is an essential part of the kind of self-regulation that is necessary to be part of culture that places a high emphasis on etiquette and conformity. So what I think the author of this article I can now only dimly recall was saying was that odes were a little mental game Victorians played that asked them to think things such as: how am I as unrestrained/constrained as a flower? How am I as noble/base as a statue? How am I as emotional/unresponsive as my favorite poet? Is that a good or bad thing?

To look at the popularity of this medium of expression from an entirely different angle, odes are a very old form of poetry. It’s true that the ode received a particularly enthusiastic embrace from the Victorians, however, since the advent of spoken language, lyrical expression has been a vital part of almost all popular culture world-wide. Present-day U.S. culture is more the aberration that requires explanation. Sexism and homophobia have spoiled for many the traditional birthright of pleasure waiting to be claimed by all language making-creatures in the enjoying of a good poem.

This week, we’re going to look at several poems addressed to Anna Cora Mowatt by a variety of individuals at various points in her career and the functions they served. These texts might fall under a category you would perhaps identify as “fan poetry” since they are verses dedicated to admiring descriptions of a popular actress. However, they differ in some significant ways from how that genre exists today. To begin with, several of these were written by other celebrities. (I don’t know about you, but this is a trend I would like to see return. I think it would be quite revealing to see the poetry Anderson Cooper might be inspired to write about Chrissy Teigen and visa versa.)

The first poem is by Frances Sargent Osgood. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, the primary remnant we have of Osgood’s prolific career of a poet was her exchange of flirtatious verses with Edgar Allan Poe. Not to rain on the “Mrs. Poe” parade, but if one is taking the composition of flattering poetry as evidence of a relationship, Fanny Osgood had boyfriends and girlfriends all up and down the eastern seaboard. She was a poet who loved poetry and used her art to reach out and give support to other artists. The poem she wrote for Mowatt on the launch of her socially precarious career of a public reader beautifully demonstrates Osgood’s generosity of spirit as she anticipates and counters the critique she knows the younger woman will be facing.

Video of Osgood Poem

The next poem was published in The Boston Evening Transcript in 1845 as Mowatt commenced a series of appearances at the city’s theaters as she transitioned into her new career as actress. The author of the ode is not given, however, Mowatt’s friend, Epes Sargent, was literary editor for the paper at this time. If Sargent was not the author (which is a very strong possibility) then at least, he selected and approved this poem for publication. To me, it has the flavor of some of his shorter works.

Link to Boston Poem

The city of Boston in general and the literary “Evening Transcript” in particular had reputations for being arbiters of taste and refinement in the U.S. at this time. The move from Public Reader/novelist/playwright to actress that Mowatt was making was socially controversial. Although performers such as Fanny Kemble, Edwin Forrest, William Macready, and Charlotte Cushman were bringing new respectability to the theatre, Broadway playhouses were still being regularly raided by police for allowing prostitutes to solicit clients openly in their galleries during the 1840’s. Therefore this short verse is not merely a jaunty welcoming jingle; it is serving as an protective seal of approval from conservative Boston’s bastion of literary propriety.

The third ode is also a celebrity admires celebrity affair. In it, poet Camilla Dufour Crosland paints a portrait of Mowatt at the very height of her success:

Video of Crosland Poem

This poem makes me a bit sad because, as far as I have been able to discover, it was published only in Mowatt’s autobiography. This may have been because this was a personal poem not intended for publication. The text was just a gift between friends. Mowatt included it in her autobiography as a reminiscence of her “white days” in London before the Watts Scandal and the many black days of depression and despair that would follow on the heels of those tragic events.

Mowatt’s London friends did not, to use the U.S. phrase popular at the time “cut her acquaintance” after the Watts scandal. They simply were not as public or as vociferous in their support of her. Thus, this poem, which might have otherwise graced one of the Howitts’ publications or a collection of Crosland’s works, languished.

Victorian poets used odes dedicated to other literati in much the same way that today’s rappers use samples of other musicians’ work. Sampling can derive from a sincere attitude of admiration and respect, but also allows the sampler to borrow on the power of the other artist. Then as today, a poem, song or any other sort of tribute that makes reference to a popular performer allows the referrer to demonstrate that they have the taste an insight it takes to appreciate this artist. In other words, a tribute accrues “coolness points” by the very act of recognizing another artist’s unique cool.

This poem, then, is represents melancholy story of a happy connection made between two artist, but not fully exploited because of most unhappy circumstance.

The next poem is another entry from Epes Sargent’s Boston Transcript. This one is attributed to “Ellen” and was published on September 13, 1851, shortly after Mowatt’s return to the U.S.

Video of Pauline Poem

Mowatt had been changed by her time in England. She was now a widow. She was recovering from a serious illness that I think was – at least in part – a nervous breakdown. She was heavier. She had cut off her trademark waist-length curls. She had been through emotional and financial devastation.

Although Mowatt had many critical successes in England and was generally very popular with audiences, she worked non-stop for four years on a staggeringly ambitious range of projects. Not everything she tried was a hit. After the tidal wave that was the Watts scandal hit her, it wasn’t difficult for an English critic to dig up a bad review to confirm their opinion that she was a no-talent pretender.

When Mowatt returned to the U.S., it was possible – no, probable – that the scandal would follow her and continue to poison her prospects. Instead, her talent, sheer willpower, help like this poem provided from a friendly press, and positive spin from her autobiography helped re-frame the bad years in England as a growth experience that instead helped her move forward on her own terms.

The next poem, I think, was an effort by someone to get Mowatt to see things on his own terms.

Video of Coleman Poem

This text was published in William Foushee Ritchie’s paper, The Richmond Enquirer in 1860. The official story was that Ritchie was being considered for a diplomatic post in Naples and Anna Cora was going to look for places for them to live. The truth was that their personalities and politics may have clashed from the very beginning. Conservative Richmond society never fully embraced the former actress and French-born Northerner despite her best efforts. She ended up spending much of the hot summers at her father’s house in New York and the rest of the year distracting herself with the Mt. Vernon society and writing her novels. The approach of the Civil War seems to have brought tensions to a head in the Ritchie household.

In light of how near the country and the Ritchie marriage was to dissolution, I am struck by the aggressively upbeat, patriotic tone William Emmette Coleman takes for this poem. Although he was a native of Richmond, for the abolitionist Coleman, perhaps this was an appropriate time to be thinking of hopeful new beginnings instead of irrevocably diverging paths. If he was writing on behalf of William Foushee Ritchie, who was still at this point hopeful of reconciliation with his wife, it seems a politic tone to adopt.

The last poem was also printed in The Boston Transcript. Written in 1854 after the publication of Mowatt’s Autobiography of An Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage, it is tribute to the broad appeal of that work. Rather than simply being a standard collection of backstage anecdotes, Mowatt framed her life story as defense of the cultural value of theatre and an argument against the prevailing prejudice against overworked and underpaid theatrical workers.

Video of Autobiography Poem

Therefore, as you can see, these poems were not simple paeans of admiration from anonymous fans. Victorians did love poetry. They were much fonder of it than we are today. At that time, poetry was a vital element of popular culture citizens — both rich and poor, highly educated or completely illiterate — consumed at a rate and intensity it is hard for us appreciate. Changing tastes however, should not prevent us from appreciating the sophisticated uses for social promotion, public persuasion, and peer-to-peer networking to which poetry could be utilized.