Sunday, August 6, 2017

Family Stories Told in Verse – A Few Revealing Poems Written by Sarah Eva Howe Between 1890 and 1915

The little scrapbook of Sarah's poems
While digging through the piles of scrapbooks this morning, I came across one I hadn't seen before. It is much smaller than the others and has been trapped, maybe for decades, among the larger, thicker books.

"A treasure!" I thought. Sure enough, it was. Sarah Eva Howe Salyers had transcribed into the book some of the poetry she had written between 1890 (when she was 7 years old) to 1915 or so.

To preserve some of the poems for family and for all who care to read them, I am including here a few that tell family stories or offer insight into Sarah's thoughts and observations.

The first poem includes this note, using initials for her own name, Sarah Howe Salyers:
Written the summer S.H.S. was "going on eight" and her first written-down poem.
Her poem includes an asterisk leading to a footnote that refers, I think, to her twin children and their battles over toys.
Two little mice ran out to play
One was brown and the other was gray
One had some cheese, but none had the other,
Who tried very hard to get some from his brother.*
But as they played and frolicked about
A little pussycat then came out.
She "shooed" them away from their quiet play
On that beautiful summer day.

* Even at the age of seven, I was prophetic of conditions seen later in [the] Salyers family –- not only cheese.

A few pages later, I learned something about the Howe family I had never heard, nor had my husband, who is Sarah's grandson. (Read the transcription below the image if you prefer not to decipher Sarah's handwriting.)
Sarah's explanation about the inspiration behind "Chalchuite," a poem she wrote at age 10.
Transcription: When S.H.S. was ten, in the 4th grade, her parents talked of going to live in New Mexico, reading much literature concerning it, and especially enjoying the book The Land of the Pueblos by Mrs. Lew Wallace [Susan Arnold Elston Wallace]. This poem was written under the inspiration of much hearing about turquoise mines in the New Mexico side of the Rockies, called "Chalchuite" by the Indians.
Imagine! This family in Carrollton, Kentucky was seriously considering a move to New Mexico. If they had gone, I wouldn't be reading Sarah's scrapbooks today – and I would likely never have met her grandson. (Note: Mrs. Wallace's book is available to read online or download free in electronic format.) An asterisk within the poem leads to a footnote that tells us more about the family.

Chalchuite (pronounced chälchəˈwētē, says Merriam-Webster) is an Anglicized version of the Aztec word for turquoise, the most valued green stones in the Aztec society.

The cold gray peaks of the Rockies
Look on the peaceful vale
Forming a pathless barrier
Before which the strongest quail.

They guard the chalchuite
In their stern and rocky base
While the stormclouds gather unheeded
Shrouding their tops with lace.

For the beautiful vale, this jewel
Its country's praise has won.
So we call the land "Chalchuite" *
This land of the setting sun.
* That was how we privately spoke of New Mexico, so no one would learn what we were talking about, as the idea of going there was a secret. We didn't go, incidentally.
 In 1894, when Sarah was 11, her pet and constant companion Solon disappeared. (I think she pronounced it like "SOLE'-on.") She wrote this poem and likely posted it in her neighborhood and maybe in the window of her father's department store.

Strayed or Stolen
"Strayed or stolen" – a spaniel, Solon!
White breast, white feet – he's fond of meat – 
(chicken, however, he likes the most).
He's "brown as a berry" and "warm as toast"
And just think, friends, that he's lost or stolen.
Oh friends, dear friends, let me entreat
That should you meet upon the street
A spaniel by the name of Solon
Oh please remember he's lost or stolen!
And then return this small bow-wow
To the house or store of R. J. Howe
and bring back my poor little Solon!

 And now, one of my favorites: a poem Sarah wrote at age 16, casting her father as narrator. She noted in the scrapbook:
This poem was written about 1899, inspired by some of the early art efforts of Leonora. [In the poem, Daddy calls Leonora "Elsie."]
Higher Criticism
From all the absorbing study of a book on Ancient Art
Showing on illumined pages master pieces of the ages
I had turned my thoughts and fancies to things present, with a start,
But there lingered still the glory told in picture and in story
Of all the wonders man had wrought since prehistoric days
When the first man, with his hand, drew strange pictures in the sand
While the woman stood beside him to admire and to praise.

But lo! I hear a sudden sound, and as I quickly turn
I see my Elsie standing, an audience demanding.
Within the brown eyes starry bright the fire of genius burns.
In fingers fat and fair, a pencil held with care.
She waves a paper masterpiece before my dazzled sight.
"I've drawn a picture. Look! Daddy, please don't ready your book!
See if you know what this is -- all red an' black an' white!"

Still musing on my book, I gaze, and answer dreamily
"Great Heredity art thou! On these pictured pages now
I behold each circling age since Art was in its infancy –-
Thru these hieroglyphs are told stories that are centuries old;
Thus, perhaps the wise Egyptian wrought within his pyramid;
Carved in ebony or jade some Chinese-like monster made
While these lines and curves are like the work the great Assyrians did.

Ah, this gorgeous Art – Byzantine its origin, no doubt
While the frescoes in the tombs of the gloomy catacombs
Find a parallel achievement in these skulls the lie about;
Youthful Michaelagelo –- "

"Daddy, stop! Oh no, no no!" 
My Elsie's lip is trembling, and a frown is on her brow.
Quick tears have filled her eyes and stormily she cries,
"You just don't understand at all!
Why Daddy, that's a cow!
A poem ends with Sarah's little sister's frustration over Daddy's highbrow interpretation of her simple artwork.
Continuing through the scrapbook: What fun to find a 3-stanza poem Sarah wrote as a 25th birthday gift to William Levi Salyers (the man she would marry two years later, in 1905). As noted in the blog posts of Sept. 25 and 29, 2016, William (often called Will) was known as "girl crazy" in his teens. This poem lets us know that Sarah was well aware of his popularity among young women. Sarah included Will's girlfriends by first name in her poem, and in her scrapbook she added a footnote to provide their surnames, just in case future generations wanted to know!

To "Billy"

When Billy was a baby, in the long long years ago
(With big blue eyes, and dimpled cheeks, and golden curls, you know),
He looked about and wondered what this strange queer world could be,
He wasn't altogether pleased with everything, not he!
The great big sun was far too bright, the moon too far away;
And cats scratched when you played with them, and puppy dogs would bite.
But when he saw a little girl, he smiled a dimpled smile.
She suited him exactly his spare moments to beguile.
The years have passed, but strange to say (you'll think I'm joking, maybe),
He likes the little girls as well as when he was a baby! 

The years have passed, a score or more o'er Billy's curly head
He's fluttered like the butterfly from flower to flower, 'tis said;
Cupid, how could you be so mean, you wicked little sprite! –-
To take a good and honest heart and leave it such a sight!
For here your arrows left a scar, and here 'twas but a scratch,
With here and there a gaping wound where Billy met his match!
In many a state and city has your cruel work been done,
and each a chip or splinter as a souvenir has won.
You have brought him many pleasures and perhaps a little pain
And not even Father Time can make his scarred heart whole again. 

And when a "jolly bachelor" he sits before his fire in days to come
and sees the ruddy flames leap higher and higher,
Methinks I see in fancy wondrous pictures thronging[?] fast
In drifting smoke, in glowing coals, sweet memories of the past.
There's little (1)Peggy –- his first love -- and (2)Nellie, young and true.
There's (3)Ella with the golden hair and sprightly (4)Jennie, too.
Three (5, 6, 7)Mabels (one with birdlike voice) and (8)Mary fair and tall;
"Sweet (9)Emily with dreamy eyes," he sees them one and all.
There's (10)Sallie, too (the little scold!) and fair-haired (11)Harriet,
There's (12)Anna with the merry smile and many another yet!
He smiles, then sighs, then turns around, contentedly, to pat
The comrade of advancing years, his old and faithful CAT. 

  1. Peggy Wilkins
  2. Nellie Hafford
  3. Ella Hamilton
  4. Jennie Stringfellow
  5. Mabel Taylor (who lived in Madison, Indiana)
  6. Mabel Burke (who lived in Louisville)
  7. Mabel Myers
  8. Mary Butts
  9. Emily (name illegible; possibly Soos)
  10. Sallie Howe (Sarah herself)
  11. Harriet Smith
  12. Anna Milton
From Sarah's poem "To 'Billy,'" a list of girls dated by William L. Salyers before Sarah and Will became "an item."
The book holds many more of Sarah's writings: lullabies she wrote and sang to her little sister (who, as you may recall from previous posts, was 13 years younger); a verse about a stray cat; poems she wrote as school assignments; poems she wrote after her marriage. I'll hold those for other posts. For now, I will just marvel at the creativity of this girl, who was writing complicated rhymes before her age hit double digits.

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