“Your Dark Dust Will Know”: Leonora Speyer

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   Is the item of any value, is it of interest, is it outdated, is it readily available elsewhere, particularly locally?  If it has no intrinsic value and/or is of no interest or is outdated (i.e. bad medical info, superseded legal info etc.), it’s sayonara.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 SpeyerI 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.

Naples
Palazzo
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:

Of Mountains
. . . 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.

– Don

8 Comments

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8 responses to ““Your Dark Dust Will Know”: Leonora Speyer

  1. suzi w.

    Wakoski’s “Thanking my mother for piano lessons” is one of my favorite poems. What a cool discovery.

  2. Hey, Suzi … thanks for the note. I see that the Wakoski poem you like is up on “The Poetry Foundation” website, one of the very best poetry websites going. Wakoski has remained one of my favorite poets all these years.

    Don

  3. Xana Hansen

    Leonora (Von Stosch) Speyer was born 7 November 1872 in Washington, DC. She was the daugher of Count Ferdinand Von Stosch and Julia Scott Thompson. She died 10 February 1956 in New York, New York.

    As you can probably surmise from the above facts about her life, I am a genealogist and gathered information about Leonora for a book I am writing about our mutual ancestor, the Reverend Zenas Thompson, Universalist minister from Maine. She was probably his most well-known descendant.

    Leonora’s first husband was Lewis Meredith Howland. They were divorced (a major scandal at the time!). She later married Baron Edgar Speyer, a German who was knighted and elevated to the English baronetcy, thus allowing her to be called “Lady Leonora.” During World War II, Edgar Speyer was accused of collaborating with the Germans and was expelled from England, without his title.

    My favorite of her poems is “Measure Me, Sky!”

    Measure me, Sky!
    Tell me I reach by a song
    Nearer the stars;
    I have been little so long.

    Weigh me, high wind!
    What will your wild scales record?
    Profit of pain,
    Joy by the weight of a word.

    Horizon, reach out!
    Catch at my hands, stretch me taut,
    Rim of the world;
    Widen my eyes by a thought.

    Sky, be my depth,
    Wind, be by width and my height,
    World, my heart’s span;
    Loneliness, wings for my flight.

    • I’m wondering if you have any birth/death and in-between information about Lady Speyer’s first daughter, Enid Howland Hewitt or if you could aim me in the right direction? She had a beautiful voice and made seven private recordings in 1929-30 and must have studied professionally. All I’ve been able to trace is that she was married in 1919, was very wealthy (thanks to both her step-father and husband) and that she was still living in New York when her mother died in 1956. I don’t know, either, whether or not she had children.
      Any help? Cordially, Larry Holdridge

  4. Xana Hansen

    P.S. Thank you for including the painting of Leonora. I have been looking for a clear image of that picture for a long time. I’ve seen poor reproductions of it in newspapers, but never such a glowing color reproduction. I believe the original is in Texas, isn’t it?

  5. Don

    Xana:

    You are welcome and many thanks for the poem, which I enjoyed and also the additional info.

    According to the 3 volume John Singer Sargent: Complete Paintings by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurry, published by the The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (2003), “Lady Speyer” is in a private collection. I have no record of it being sold after that date so, if you are aware it was in Texas, that is probably were it remains. It did not list location.

    I will check this afternoon with our art person to see if we can do any further background work and report back here.

    Don

  6. Xana:

    We could fine no further provenance for “Lady Speyer.” However, there are two museums which both have substantial Sargent collections in the US that might be helpful: The Musuem of Fine Arts in Boston and The NY Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan. If they don’t have the info, they may know who does.

    The Tate in London also has a large Sargent collection.

    best,
    Don

  7. Carole Nowicke

    I first heard of her as a young soloist playing with John Phillip Sousa! It wasn’t until later that I connected the violinist with the poet.

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