I know that there are lots of people who suspect that folks who work in the library have some of the best jobs in the world. Frequently, people will inquire to that effect and, sometimes, I simply demur with a knowing smile and at other times, I’m ebullient.
Be forewarned: this is one of the latter times.
When you are surrounded by over 3 million items, it is a rare day, indeed, when something entirely new doesn’t present itself for your inspection and approval. If you don’t allow yourself to glaze over and you pay close attention, you can learn more by osmosis in a week than you might in a month of concentrated study in your field of choice.
About a week ago, a book came my way, as do many of its mates, because of its poor condition. When this happens, a decision needs to be made and a number of factors considered to arrive at a satisfactory outcome. Is the item of any value, is it of interest, is it outdated, is it readily available elsewhere, particularly locally? If it has no intrinsic value and/or is of no interest or is outdated (i.e. bad medical info, superseded legal info etc.), it’s sayonara. Often, however, a little legwork needs to be done to determine if any of these factors apply. An item may, in fact, be either valuable, relevant, timeless, or unavailable anywhere, particularly locally.
The book that presented itself to me that particular morning was a slim volume of poetry from the 1920s entitled Fiddler’s Farewell, by Leonora Speyer. I had heard of neither the book nor the author. That’s not particularly surprising; though I’ve been in the book business, in one form or another, for well over 30 years, and poetry is my specialty, my base of knowledge is not nearly as overwhelming as it might be. See 3 million items above.
Did I mention that librarianship can be a very humbling profession?
The very first bit of information I found on Leonora Speyer set me back on my heels mightily. It was a painting:
Lady Speyer by John Singer Sargent
After I caught my breath, I quickly began to read that Leonora Speyer was a renowned violinist (hence the John Singer Sargent portrait) who studied music in Europe, attended the Brussels Conservatory (where she won first prize at the young age of 16) and debuted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1890, later appearing as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic.
Oh, and in 1926, she won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for that slim little volume entitled Fiddler’s Farewell.
It is appropriate that this forgotten book should resurface, particularly during the month we celebrate Women’s History. It is difficult to imagine some of the obstacles she must have encountered in the late 19th century worlds of music and literature. Though a woman of independent means, still, the challenges must have been formidable and the battles, it would seem, hard fought.
I looked to the poetry to see if it still spoke to the modern reader; after all, today’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry doesn’t much resemble your great-grandmother’s Pulitzer Prize. And though it is decidedly tougher to measure relevance in art as one does in medical and legal subjects, still, I wondered, would there be any relevance at all?
Indeed, there is; here’s a glimpse at the poet and the woman and, if you listen closely, the musician: Leonora Speyer.
Lordly amid the rotting houses of the street,
It lifts a marble scorn, while at its carven feet
They crowd in ancient filth. It does not look at them,
These crumbling beggars catching at its stone hem.
Here, the poet captures a moment in contrast: she sees and highlights what many a tourist chooses to ignore. In fact the famed Palace of Naples itself, in the poem, chooses not to look upon beggars clutching at “its stone hem.”
Next is a poem of transcendence:
. . . Then I rose up
And swept the dust of planets from my eyes,
And wandered shouting down that shouting hour,
Pausing to pluck a mountain like a flower
That grew against the skies.
This reminded me of something very modern, indeed. Such a cosmic perspective certainly was not an everyday occurrence in early 20th century poetry, particularly early women’s 20th century poetry.
And here is one final poem, which also seems very modern in tone and approach:
I’ll be your Epitaph
Over your dear dead heart I’ll lift
As blithely as a bough,
Saying, “Here lies the cruel song,
Cruelly quiet now.”
I’ll say, “Here lies the lying sword,
Still dripping with my truth;
Here lies the woven sheath I made,
Embroidered with my youth.”
I’ll sing, “Here lies, here lies, here lies-“
Ah, rust in peace below!
Passers will wonder at my words,
But your dark dust will know.
The modern book I thought of was the first book of poetry I remember ever buying for myself, the book that started me on a 40 year pursuit of lyrical truth. Here is the title poem and foreword from that volume, ever so sweetly entitled Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch (selections from which may be found in this book).
It would seem that sisters, over the span of half a century, are like-minded, indeed.