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Celia Thaxter: ‘So Still and Heavenly and Fresh and Full of Promise’

Celia Thaxter's Garden, by Childe Hassam (detail.

Celia Thaxter's Garden, by Childe Hassam (detail).

On April 15, 1894, Celia Thaxter sat down in her cottage on the Isles of Shoals and wrote a letter  to her friend Rose Lamb. She was back in her childhood home, and she was happy.

She was born Celia Laighton on June 29, 1835, in Portsmouth, N.H. Her father, Thomas Laighton, was appointed lighthouse keeper on White Island, one of nine tiny islands off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. Celia only had her two brothers, Cedric and Oscar, to play with. Of her island life, she once wrote,

One of the first things a settler on the Isles of Shoals has to learn is to live as independently as possible.

When she was 16, she married her tutor, Levi Thaxter, a Harvard graduate 11 years her senior. He had come to the islands hoping to make money from the hotel Thomas Laighton was building on Appledore Island. Soon he tired of island life and persuaded Celia to move to the mainland.

They moved to Newtonville and immersed themselves in Boston’s literary circles. At 17 Celia gave birth to her son Karl, who was injured during delivery. He was bright, but nervous, temperamental and dependent. Her second son, Roland, became a prominent mycologist.

Levi took the boys on long hunting trips, which Celia resented. She also hated living in Newtonville. She called her home ‘a household jail’ and complained of the ‘hideous ironing. ..the trinity of the soapkettle, the ashcan and the cookstove.’ She wrote a poem called Landlocked, which Levi discovered and took to publisher James T. Fields.  He published the poem, and many others by Celia, in the Atlantic. Celia became friends with his wife, Annie Adams Fields, who ran a literary salon on Beacon Hill.

In 1866, Celia’s father died and she spent more time on Appledore Island, helping her family with the hotel. Her growing literary fame attracted artists, writers and intellectuals, including  Ralph Waldo EmersonNathaniel HawthorneHenry Wadsworth LongfellowJohn Whittier, Thomas Bailey AldrichSarah Orne Jewett, James and Annie Fields, William Morris Hunt and Childe Hassam, Hassam painted several pictures of her in her garden.

Celia Thaxter

Celia Thaxter

Her cutting garden in front of her cottage was famous in itself, with 57 varieties of flowers that filled the rooms at Appledore House. She wrote a book about it called An Island Garden, illustrated by Childe Hassam.  It has been recreated by the Shoals Marine Laboratory, now at the Isles.

Celia Thaxter was 58 when she wrote the letter to Rose Lamb. She would die suddenly later that year on August 25. Her coffin was covered with flowers from her garden.

To Rose Lamb. April 15, 1894.

I cannot tell you how beautiful it is to be here, and I wish for you every day. It is so still and heavenly and fresh and full of promise. I work all day long, mostly out of doors, and there are so many pleasant things to do. Not easy, there is a great deal of hard work, but I love it all; and Karl is so good and helps me with the heaviest, and we have such a good time together.

The garden is a wilderness of sticks and stalks and rubbish from last year, and it is a job to begin, after pruning the roses, to clear all this away, to dig up the hollyhock roots that have sowed themselves outside and transplant in the inside of the fence, to fork over and manure all the earth, etc.

I have my mother's big, sunny room, with one opening out of it for Karl; and the large bay window is full of tables, and boxes of seeds that I am watching with as much delight as if I had never done it before. It is such a pleasure.

I am busy every instant, so glad and thankful to be here. No tongue can tell it; just to be here, it is all I ask. Sometimes I am afraid I enjoy it too much, and wonder what ever would become of me if I had to be away.

There are many storms and much cold weather, but there is plenty of work for outdoors and in, and the days are never long enough.

I feared we should get March weather at the wrong time.

I'm so sorry for all the buds that must have been chilled and spoiled.

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