Poetess Tradition

The Poetess Archive

The Davidsons               TEI-encoded version

"The Davidsons [Lucretia and Margaret]"

by Rufus Wilmot Griswold

[In The Female Poets of America (New York, NY, US: J. Miller, 1873), pp. 152-156: ]


The lives of LUCRETIA MARIA and MARGARET MILLER DAVIDSON, which it is impossible to contemplate without emotions of admiration and sadness, have been illustrated at home by Professor Morse, by Washington Irving, and by Miss Sedgewick, and abroad by Mr. Southey and several other authors of well-deserved eminence in the literary world. An attempt to invest them with any new interest would therefore be in vain. It is doubtful whether the annals of literary composition can show anything, produced at the same age, finer than some of their poems; and the beauty of their characters, which appear to have had in them something of angelic holiness, fitted them as well to shine in heaven, as their genius to win the applauses of the world.

Those who are familiar with our literary history may remember that a remarkable precocity of intellect has been frequently exhibited in this country. The cases of Lucretia and Margaret Davidson are more interesting than any which have received general attention; but they are not the most wonderful that have been shown here. A few years ago I was shown, by one of the house of Harper and Brothers, the publishers, some verses by a girl but eight years of age -- the daughter of a gentleman in Connecticut -- that seemed not inferior to any composed by the Davidsons; and other prodigies of the same kind are at this time exciting hopes of more than one family. Greatness is not often developed in childhood, and where a strange precocity is observable, it is generally but an early and complete maturity of mind. We can not always decide, to even our own satisfaction, whether it is so, but as the writings of these children, when they are from nine to fifteen years of age, exhibited no advancement, it is reasonable to suppose that, like the wonderful boy Zarah Colburn, of Vermont, whose arithmetical calculations many years ago astonished the world, they would have possessed in their physical maturity no high or peculiar intellectual qualities.

The father of Lucretia and Margaret Davidson was a physician. Their mother’s maiden name was Margaret Miller. She was a woman of ardent temperament and an affectionate disposition, and had been carefully educated. Lucretia was born in the village of Plattsburg, in New York, on the twenty-seventh of September, 1808. In her infancy she was exceedingly fragile, but she grew stronger when about eighteen months old, and though less vigorous than most children of her age, suffered little for several years from sickness. She learned the alphabet in her third year, and at four was sent to a public school, where she was taught to read and to form letters in the sand, after the Lancasterian system. As soon as she could read, her time was devoted to the little books that were given her, and to composition. Her mother, at one time, wishing to write a letter, found that a quire or more of paper had disappeared from the place where writing instruments were kept, and when she made inquiries in regard to it, the child came forward and acknowledged that she had "used it." As Mrs. Davidson knew she had not been taught to write, she was surprised, and inquired in what manner it had been destroyed. Lucretia burst into tears, and replied that she did not like to tell. The question was not urged. The paper continued to disappear, and she was frequently observed with little blank books, and pens, and ink, sedulously shunning observation. At length, when she was about six years old, her mother found hidden in a closet, rarely opened, a parcel of papers which proved to be her manuscript books. On one side of each leaf was an artfully sketched picture, and on he other, in rudely formed letters, were poetical explanations.

From this time she acquired knowledge very easily, studying intensely at school, and reading in every leisure moment at home. When about twelve years of age she accompanied her father to a celebration of the birth-night of Washington. She had studied the history of the father of his country,


and the scene awakened her enthusiasm. The next day an older sister found her absorbed in writing. She had drawn an urn, and written two stanzas beneath it. They were shown to her mother, who expressed her delight with such animation that her child immediately added the concluding verses, and returned with the poem as it is printed in her Remains:

     And does not a hero's dust lie here?
     Columbia! gaze and drop a tear!
     His country's and the orphan's friend,
     See thousands o'er his ashes bend!
5     Among the heroes of his age,
     He was the warrior and the sage:
     He left a train of glory bright,
     Which never will be hid in night.
     The toils of war and danger past,
10     He reaps a rich reward at last;
     His pure soul mounts on cherub's wings,
     And now with saints and angels sings.
     The brightest on the list of fame,
     In golden letters shines his name;
15     Her trump shall sound it through the world,
     And the striped banner ne'er be furled!
     And every sex, and every age,
     From lisping boy to learned sage,
     The widow, and her orphan son,
20     Revere the name of Washington!

She continued to write with much industry from this period. In the summer of 1923, her health being very feeble, she was withdrawn from school, and sent on a visit to some friends in Canada. In Montreal she was delighted with the public buildings, martial parades, pictures, and other novel sights, and she returned to Plattsburg with renovated health. Her sister Margaret was born on the twenty-sixth of March, 1823, and a few days afterward, while holding the infant in her lap, she wrote the following lines:

     Sweet babe! I can not hope that thou'lt be freed
     From woes, to all since earliest time decreed;
     But may'st thou be in resignation blest,
     To bear each evil howsoe'er distressed.
25     May Hope her anchor lend amid the storm,
     And o'er the tempest rear her angel form;
     May sweet Benevolence, whose words are peace,
     To the rude whirlwind softly whisper -- cease!
     And may Religion, Heaven's own darling child,
30     Teach thee at human cares and griefs to smile --
     Teach thee to look beyond the world of wo,
     To Heaven's high fount whence mercies ever flow.
     And when this vale of years is safely passed,
     When Death's dark curtain shuts the scene at last,
35     May thy freed spirit leave this earthly sod,
     And fly to seek the bosom of thy God.

In the summer of 1824 she finished her longest poem, Amir Khan, and in the autumn of the same year was sent to the seminary of Mrs. Willard, at Troy, where she remained during the winter. In May, 1825, after spending several weeks at home, she was transferred to a boarding-school at Albany, and there her health, which had before been slightly affected, rapidly declined. In company with her mother, and Mr. Moss Kent, a gentleman of fortune, who had undertaken to defray the costs of her education, she returned to Plattsburg in July, and died there on the twenty-seventh of August, one month before her seventeenth birthday. She retained, until her death, the purity and simplicity of her childhood, and died in the confident hope of immortal happiness.

Soon after her death, her poems and prose writings were published, with a memoir by Mr. S.F.B. Morse, of New York, and an elaborate biography of her life and character has since been written by Miss C.M. Sedgwick, the author of Hope Leslie, etc. The following verses are among the most perfect she produced. They were addressed to her sister, Mrs. Townsend, in her fifteenth year:

     When evening spreads her shades around,
               And darkness fills the arch of heaven;
     When not a murmur, not a sound,
40               To Fancy's sportive ear is given;
     When the broad orb of heaven is bright,
               And looks around with golden eye;
     When Nature, softened by her light,
               Seems calmly, solemnly to lie;
45     Then, when our thoughts are raised above
               This world, and all this world can give:
     Oh, sister, sing the song I love,
               And tears of gratitude receive.
     'Twere almost sacrilege to sing
50               Those notes amid the glare of day --
     Notes borne by angels' purest wing,
               And wafted by their breath away.
     When sleeping in my grass-grown bed,
               Shou'dst thou still linger here above,
55     Wilt thou not kneel beside my head,
               And, sister, sing the song I love?

At the same age she wrote these lines To a Star:

     Thou brightly glittering star of even,
     Thou gem upon the brow of heaven,
     Oh! were this fluttering spirit free,
60     How quick't would spread its wings to thee


     How calmly, brightly, dust thou shine,
     Like the pure lamp in Virtue's shrine:
     Sure the fair world which thou may'st boast
     Was never ransomed, never lost.
65     There, brings pure as heaven's own air,
     Their hopes, their joys, together share;
     While hovering angels touch the string,
     And seraphs spread the sheltering wing.
     There, cloudless days and brilliant nights,
70     Illumed by Heaven's refulgent lights --
     There seasons, years, unnoticed roll,
     And unregretted by the soul.
     Thou little sparkling star of even,
     Thou gem upon an azure heaven,
75     How swiftly will I soar to thee,
     When this imprisoned soul is free.

In her sixteenth year she wrote Three Prophecies, of which the following is one:

     Let me gaze awhile on that marble brow,
     On that full, dark eye, on that cheek's warm glow;
     Let me gaze for a moment, that, ere I die,
80     I may read thee, maiden, a prophecy.
     That brow may beam in glory awhile;
     That cheek may bloom, and that lip may smile;
     That full, dark eye may brightly beam
     In life's gay morn, in hope's young dream;
85     I know by that spirit so haughty and high,
     I know by that brightly flashing eye,
     That, maiden, there's that within thy breast
     Which hath marked thee out for a soul unblessed:
     The strife of love with pride shall wring
90     Thy youthful bosom's tenderest string;
     And the cup of sorrow, mingled for thee,
     Shall be drained in dregs of agony.
     Yes, maiden, yes, I read thine eye
     A dark and doubtful prophecy:
95     Thou shalt love, and that love shall be thy curse:
     Thou wilt need no heavier, thou shalt feel no worse.
     I see the cloud and the tempest near;
     The voice of the troubled tide I hear;
     The torrent of sorrow, the sea of grief,
100     The rushing waves of a wretched life:
     Thy bosom's bark on the surge I see,
     And, maiden, thy loved one is there with thee.
     Not a star in the heavens, not a light on the wave:
     Maiden, I've gazed on thine early grave.
105     When I am cold, and the hand of Death
     Hath crowned my brow with an icy wreath;
     When the dew hangs damp on this motionless lip;
     When this eye is closed in this long, last sleep:
     Then, maiden, pause, when thy heart beats high,
110     And think on my last sad prophecy.

In a more sportive vein is the piece entitled Auction Extraordinary, written about the same period:

     I dreamed a dream in the midst of my slumbers,
     And as fast as I dreamed it, it came in numbers;
     My thoughts ran along in such beautiful metre,
     I'm sure I ne'er saw any poetry sweeter:
115     It seemed that a law had been recently made,
     That a tax on old bachelors' pates should be laid
     And in order to make them all willing to marry,
     The tax was a large as a man could well carry
     The bachelors grumbled, and said 'twas no use --
120     'Twas horrid injustice, and horrid abuse,
     And declared that to save their own hearts' blood from spilling,
     Of such a vile tax they would not pay a shilling
     But the rulers determined them still to pursue,
     So they set all the old bachelors up at vendue:
125     A crier was sent through the town to and fro,
     To rattle his bell, and his trumpet to blow,
     "Ho! forty old bachelors sold here today:"
     And presently all the old maids in the town,
     Each in her very best bonnet and gown,
130     From thirty to sixty, fair, plain, and pale,
     Of every description, all flocked to the sale.
     The auctioneer then in his labor began,
     And called out aloud, as he held up a man,
     "How much for a bachelor? who wants to buy?"
135     In a twink, every maiden responded, "I, -- I."
     In short, at a highly extravagant price,
     The bachelors all were sold off in a trice:
     And forty old maidens, some younger, some older,
     Each lugged an old bachelor home on her shoulder.

A few months before her death she wrote this address to her mother:

140     Oh thou whose care sustained my infant years,
               And taught my prattling lip each note of love;
     Whose soothing voice breathed comfort in my fears,
               And round my brow hope’s brightest garland wove:
     To thee my lay is due, the simplest some,
145               Which Nature gave me at life's opening day;
     To thee these rude, these untaught strains belong,
               Whose heart indulgent will not spurn my lay.
     Oh say, amid this wilderness of life,
               What bosom would have throbbed like thine for [me?]
150     Who would have smiled responsive? -- who in grief
               Would ere have felt, and, feeling, grieved like thee?
     Who would have guarded, with a falcon eye,
               Each trembling footstep or each sport of fear?
     Who would have marked my bosom bounding high,
155               And clasped me to her heart, with love's bright tear!
     Who would have hung around my sleepless couch,
               And fanned, with anxious hand, my burning brow?
     Who would have fondly pressed my fevered lip,
               In all the agony of love and wo?
160     None but a mother -- none but one like thee,
               Whose bloom has faded in the midnight watch.
     Whose eye, for me, has lost its witchery;
               Whose form has felt disease's mildew touch.
     Yes, thou hast lighted me to health and life,
165               By the bright lustre of thy youthful bloom --
     Yes, thou hast wept so oft o'er every grief,
               That wo hath traced thy brow with marks of gloom.
     Oh, then, to thee this rude and simple song,
               Which breathes of thankfulness and love for thee,
170     To thee, my mother, shall this lay belong,
               Whose life is spent in toil and care for me.


She died with her "singing robes" about her, having composed, while confined to her bed in her last illness, these verses, expressive of her fear of madness:

     There is a something which I dread,
               It is a dark, a fearful thing;
     It steals along with withering tread,
175               Or sweeps on wild destruction's wing.
     That thought comes o'er me in the hour
               Of grief, of sickness, or of sadness:
     'Tis not the dread of death -- 'tis more,
               It is the dread of madness.
180     Oh! may these throbbing pulses pause,
               Forgetful of their feverish course;
     May this hot brain, which burning glows
               With all a fiery whirlpool's force
     Be cold, and motionless, and still --
185               A tenant of its lowly bed;
     But let not dark delerium, steal……

The Poem is unfinished, and it is the last she wrote.

MARGARET DAVIDSON, at the time of the death of Lucretia, was not quite two years old. The event made an impression on her mind. She loved, when but three years old, to sit on a cushion at her mother's feet, listening to anecdotes of her sister's life, and details of the events which preceded her death, and would often exclaim, while her face beamed with mingled emotions, "Oh, I will try and fill her place -- teach me to be like her!" She needed little teaching. In intelligence, delicacy, and susceptibility, she surpassed Lucretia. When in her sixth year, she could read with fluency, and would sit by the bedside of her sick mother, reading, with enthusiastic delight and appropriate emphasis, the poetry of Milton, Cowper, Thomson, and other great authors, and marking, with discrimination, the passages with which she was most pleased. Between the sixth and seventh years of her age, she entered a general course of education, studying grammar, geography, history, and rhetoric; but her constitution had already begun to show symptoms of decay, which rendered it expedient to check her application. In her seventh summer she was taken to the springs of Saratoga, the waters of which seemed to have a beneficial effect, and she afterward accompanied her parents to New York, with which city she was highly delighted. On her return to Plattsburg, her strength was much increased, and she resumed her studies with great assiduity. In the autumn of 1830, however, her health began to fail again, and it was thought proper for her and her mother to join Mrs. Townsend, an elder sister, in an island town of Canada. She remained here until 1833, when she had a severe attack of scarlet fever, and on her slow recovery it was determined to go again to New York. Her residency in the city was protracted until the summer heat became oppressive, and she expressed her yearnings for the banks of the Saranac, in the following lines, which are probably equal to any ever written by so young an author:

     I would fly from the city, would fly from its care,
     To my own native plants and my flowerets so fair,
     To the cool grassy shade and the rivulet bright,
190     Which reflects the pale moon in its bosom of light;
     Again would I view the old cottage so dear,
     Where I sported, a babe, without sorrow or fear:
     I would leave this great city, so brilliant and gay,
     For a peep at my home on this fair summer-day.
195     I have friends whom I love, and would leave with regret,
     But the love of my home, oh, 'tis tenderer yet;
     There a sister reposes unconscious in death,
     'Twas there she first drew, and there yielded her
     A father I love is away from me now -- [breath.
200     Oh, could I but print a sweet kiss on his brow,
     Or smooth the gray locks to my fond heart so dear,
     How quickly would vanish each trace of a tear:
     Attentive I listen to Pleasure’s gay call,
     But my own happy home, it is dearer than all.

The family soon after became temporary residents of the village of Ballston, near Saratoga, and, in the autumn of 1835, of Ruremont, on the sound, or East river, about four miles from New York. Here they remained, except at short intervals, until the summer of 1837, when they returned to Ballston. In the last two years, Margaret had suffered much from illness herself, and had lost by death her sister Mrs. Townsend and two brothers; and now her mother became alarmingly ill. As the season advanced, however, health seemed to revisit all the surviving members of the family, and Margaret was as happy as at any period of her life. Early in 1838, Dr. Davidson took a house in Saratoga, to which he removed on the first of May. Here she had an attack of bleeding on the lings, but recovered, and when her brothers visited home from New York, she returned with them to the city, and remained there several weeks. She reached Saratoga again in July; the bloom had for the last time left her cheeks; and she decayed gradually until the twenty-fifth of November


when her spirit returned to God. She was then but fifteen years and eight months old.

She was aware of her approaching change, and in the preceding September she wrote a short poem, characterized by much beauty of thought and tenderness of feeling, to her brother, a young officer in the army, stationed at a frontier post in the west, in which an allusion to the fading verdure, and the falling leaf, and gathering melancholy, and lifeless quiet of the season, as typical of her own blighted youth and approaching dissolution, is pointed out by Mr. Irving as having in it something peculiarly solemn and affecting. "But when" she says:

205     "But when, in the shade of the autumn wood,
               Thy wandering footsteps stray;
     When yellowing leaves and perishing buds
               Are scattered in thy way;
     When all around thee breathes of rest,
210               And sadness and decay --
     With the drooping flower, and the fallen tree,
               Oh, brother, blend thy thoughts of me!"

Her later poems do not seem to me superior to some written in her eleventh year, and the prose compositions included in the volume of her Remains, edited by Mr. Irving, are not better than those of many girls of her age. One of her latest and most perfect pieces is the dedication of a poem entitled Leonore to the spirit of her sister Lucretia:

     Oh, thou, so early lost, so long deplored!
               Pure spirit of my sister, be thou near!
215     And while I touch this hallowed harp of thine,
               Bend from the skies, sweet sister, bend and hear.
     For thee I pour this unaffected lay;
               To thee these simple numbers all belong:
     Fro though thine earthly form has passed away,
220               Thy memory still inspires my childish song.
     Take, then, this feeble tribute -- 'tis thine own --
               Thy fingers sweep my trembling heart-strings o'er,
     Arouse to harmony each buried tone,
               And bid its wakened music sleep no more!
225     Long has thy voice been silent, and thy lyre
               Hand o'er thy grave in death's unbroken rest;
     But when its last sweet tones were borne away,
               One answering echo lingered in my breast.
     Oh, thou pure spirit! if thou hoverest near,
230               Accept these lines, unworthy though they be,
     Faint echoes from thy fount of song divine,
               By thee inspired, and dedicate to thee!

Leonore is the longest of her poems, and it was commenced after much reflection, and written with care and a resolution to do something that would serve as the measure of her genius, and carry her name into the future. It is a story of romantic love, happily conceived, and illustrated with some fine touches of sentiment and fancy. It is a credible production, and would entitle a much older author to consideration; but its best passages scarcely equal some of her earlier and less elaborate performances.

The following lines addresses to her mother, a few days before her death, are the last she ever wrote:

     Oh, mother, would the power were mine
               To wake the strain thou lovest to hear,
235     And breathe each trembling new-born though
               Within thy fondly listening ear,
     As when, in days of health and glee,
     My hopes and fancies wandered free.
     But, mother, now a shade hath passed
240               Athwart my brightest visions here;
     A cloud of darkest gloom hath wrapped
               The remnant of my brief career:
     No song, no echo can I win,
     The sparkling fount hath dried within.
245     The torch of earthly hope burns dim,
               And fancy spreads her wings no more,
     And oh, how vain and trivial seem
               The pleasures that I prized before;
     My soul, with trembling steps and slow
250               Is struggling on through doubt and strife;
     Oh, may it prove, as time rolls on,
               The pathway to eternal life!
     Then, when my cares and fears are o'er,
     I'll sing thee as in "days of yore."
255     I said that Hope had passed from earth --
               'Twas but to fold her wings in heaven
     To whisper of the soul's new birth,
               Of sinners saved and sins forgiven:
     When mine are washed in tears away,
260     Then shall my spirit swell the lay.
     When God shall guide my soul above,
     By the soft chords of heavenly love --
     When the vain cares of earth depart,
     And tuneful voices swell my heart,
265     Then shall each word, each note I raise,
     Burst forth in pealing hymns of praise:
     And all not offered in his shrine,
     Dear mother, I will place on thine.

In 1843, a volume entitled Selections from the Writings of Mrs. Margaret Davidson, the mother of Lucretia Maria and Margaret Miller Davidson, was published, with a preface by Miss Sedgwick. There is nothing in the book to arrest attention. Mrs. Davidson has some command of language and a knowledge of versification, and the chief production of her industry in this line is a paraphrase of the six books of Fingal. Her writings are interesting only as indexes to the early culture of her daughters.

Date: 1873 (Coding Revisions: 12/31/2005). Author: Rufus Griswold (Coding Revisions: Laura Mandell).
The editorial work appearing here is copyrighted; the page is available according to the terms of fair use.