During the first half of the 19th century, Mrs. Sigourney wrote such bad poetic obituaries that people said she added a new terror to dying.
Her writing style was popular in her day, and it made her celebrated and rich.
Lydia Huntley Sigourney was pious, overwrought, sentimental. She wrote about cows with satiny sleek coats that filled pails with creamy nectar. Ocean waves were horses of the deep that tossed their white manes. A woman influenced her household like the sunbeam silently educating the young flower.
Fellow Hartfordite Mark Twain complained ‘bad grammar and slovenly English’ flowed from her pen, Her own biographer called her a hack.
One man was said to refuse to take the train from New Haven to Hartford when she was on it because he feared the train would crash and Mrs. Sigourney would include him in a poem about it.
But even her critics conceded she was an extraordinarily good woman and a fine educator. And 150 years after her death, scholars are taking a kinder look at the woman known simply as ‘Mrs. Sigourney.’
Lydia Huntley was born Sept. 1, 1791, in Norwich, Conn., the only child of Ezekiel Huntley and Zerviah Wentworth. Her father, a Revolutionary War veteran, was head gardener to the wealthy widow of Daniel Lathrop, a pharmacist who once employed Benedict Arnold. Mrs. Lathrop, childless and in her 70s, rented half her house to the small family.
Mrs. Lathrop took an interest in Lydia – or, as Mrs. Sigourney later put it, turned ‘the yearning tenderness of a heart which had continued to flow out toward the children of others … on the little one born in her house.’ The widow let her use her library, introduced her to poetry and sent her to Hartford to meet her wealthy relatives, the Wadsworths, who later became her patrons.
Lydia spent her late teens in Hartford’s best female seminaries, learning what young ladies were taught then: drawing, watercolor painting and embroidery. She found it tedious.
In 1811 she and her friend Nancy Maria Hyde started a girls’ school in Norwich – an ambitious and unorthodox venture. Three years later, arts patron Daniel Wadsworth invited her to head a school in Hartford for the daughters of the region’s elite.
Lydia was well-loved and respected by her students, who for the 50 years returned for an annual reunion with her. One of her students was Alice Cogswell, the deaf child who, with Thomas Gallaudet, later changed education for deaf people. Lydia strongly supported those efforts.
Her reputation as an educator might have rivaled Catherine Beecher’s, who opened her Hartford Female Seminary a decade after Lydia began teaching.
In 1819 she gave up her career to marry Charles Sigourney, a well-to-do widower with three small children. It was quite a match for a gardener’s daughter. Charles, a prosperous merchant, built her an elegant mansion and became a bank president, college trustee and church warden.
Before her marriage she published a book, Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse. With poetic cliches, she preached the virtues of piety, frugality, hard work and self-discipline. The moon appears 23 times in the volume: lifting her cheek through a wat’ry cloud, as gentle night’s resplendent queen, as veiled and shrinking from the gazer’s sight. She mentioned quite a lot of dew – dewy lawns, dewy tears, dewy wreaths, the dew of cold oblivion – and even more sighs. There was sighing parental love, a star that seemed to sigh, a sigh from a rent bosom, sighing with pain, sighing with grief. In one poem, a ‘warbling and tremulous sigh’ from some undefined source warned her not to value the things of the earth but to look forward to repose in the grave.
Her husband tried to put a stop to her writing. Over the next decade she published anonymous poems and occasionally a poem signed ‘Mrs. Sigourney.’ In 1827, she published a book of poetry identifying herself without consulting him. It caused a marital crisis and she asked for a separation. He refused and she gave in. In 1828 she had a daughter, Mary Huntley, and two years later a son, Alexander Maximilian.
But she was the sole support of her aging parents, and her husband began to experience, as she put it, ‘obstructions in the course of mercantile prosperity.’ The Sigourneys had to move to a smaller home. She found a way to make money and keep her husband happy. She did it by writing what her husband wanted to hear: A woman’s place was in the home.
Mrs. Sigourney wrote on other acceptably ‘feminine’ subjects. By 1833, she was writing openly and prolifically. She wrote 67 books and more than 2,000 magazine articles over her lifetime. She made money at it, too. Two popular women’s magazines paid her just to have her name on the front cover. In 1844, the town of Sigourney, Iowa, was named after her. She traveled abroad after her husband died and met Queen Victoria, whom she called a ‘sister woman.’
And she wrote poems about people who died. They were described as ‘facile effusions related to the tomb.’
Her critics were merciless.
Yale President Timothy Dwight was one of the harshest. After Mrs. Sigourney’s death, he wrote:
Whenever any person has died in our country during the last score of years, who was of public reputation sufficient to justify it … a kind of calm and peaceful confidence has rested in our minds, that, within a brief season, a poetical obituary would appear in the public prints from the well-known pen of Mrs. Sigourney. Indeed so general has been this confidence among the people of Connecticut, that some persons, who, from peculiar modesty or from some other reason, have desired to escape the notice of the great world after death, have been beset by a kind of perpetual fear that she might survive them, and thus, having them at a great disadvantage, might send out their names unto all the earth.
Dwight complained that she painted a picture of Norwich, where he lived as a boy, so idealized he couldn’t identify places or people.
Twain had Mrs. Sigourney in mind when he created the Huckleberry Finn character Emeline Grangerford, who wrote treacly funeral verses.
“In these faded verses there now appears to be little real thought, still less real poetry,” wrote Francis Parsons in 1922.
Critics have recently rediscovered Mrs. Sigourney. They credit her with establishing herself as the first female poet with a distinctly American voice. Her fame and money inspired many young women to become poets. Her autobiography was the first written by a poet, dramatist or novelist – a forerunner of Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento. She wrote about injustice to Native Americans and advocated an end to slavery. She also remained committed to the education of deaf children, supporting Thomas Gallaudet’s school for the deaf until her death.
In 2010, Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs set her poem Indian Names to music in a 2010 solo album. It begins,
Ye say they all have passed away,That noble race and brave,That their light canoes have vanishedFrom off the crested wave;That ’mid the forests where they roamedThere rings no hunter shout,But their name is on your waters,Ye may not wash it out.’Tis where Ontario’s billowLike Ocean’s surge is curled,Where strong Niagara’s thunders wakeThe echo of the world.Where red Missouri bringethRich tribute from the west,And Rappahannock sweetly sleepsOn green Virginia’s breast.
Lydia Sigourney died on June 10, 1865. Then after her death, reported the tenant living in her house, nice old ladies from the country made pilgrimages to her home. There they plucked a sprig of lilac and viewed the rooms where Mrs. Sigourney ‘mused.’
The Lathrop House is now a bed and breakfast. With thanks to Lydia Sigourney: Selected Poetry and Prose edited by Gary Kelly. This story was updated in 2022.