Celebrating a poet

March is National Women’s History Month, which celebrates the many different roles played by women throughout history, many of whom pushed beyond the stereotypes of their time.  April is National Poetry Month, during which the role of poetry in our lives is celebrated.  Focusing on Lydia Louise Ann Very (1823-1901), a talented, self-taught artist, educator, and poet, we mark both of these celebrations.

Three Titles Written bhy Lydia Louise Ann Very

Left to Right: An Old Fashioned Garden, And Walks and Musings Therin (1900); Sayings and Doings Among Insects and Flowers (1898); and A Strange Disclosure, A Tale of New England Life (1898)

Lydia was the brother of Jones Very, a transcendentalist poet of the 19thcentury and the oldest child of Captain Jones Very and his wife.  Lydia, named after her mother, was the youngest of six children and although nature pervades many of her poems and novels, she was not a transcendentalist like her brother.  Never married, Lydia was a life-long resident of Salem, Massachusetts. She taught primary school at the Henry Kemble Oliver Classical School for thirty years, during which she wrote poetry and novels, many of which she illustrated herself.  Her writings demonstrate her love of nature and children and the connections she felt between religion and nature.

Image of Lydia Very, from An Old Fashioned Garden

Image of Lydia Louise A. Very, printed on Frontispiece in An Old-Fashioned Garden, And Walks and Musings Therin (1900)

Untitled Drawing depicting children in a group setting, possibly

Untitled drawing depicting children in a group setting, possibly a classroom that was found in one of
Very’s sketchbooks

The Phillips Library collection includes several books of poetry written by Lydia as well two of her novels.  In our manuscript collection, we hold two of her sketchbooks, which include initial drawings for the illustrations in her published works.  We also hold original manuscripts for one of her novels; Christmas cards, which showcase her poetry; a keyboard harmony exercise book demonstrating her interest in music; and an illustrated version of The Painted Columbine, which includes five poems about columbines written by her brother, Jones, that was illustrated by Lydia.

Title Page and Page 5, The Painted Columbine

Title Page and Page 5, The Painted Columbine, poems written by Jones Very, illustrated by Lydia L. A. Very

The Victorian era recognized the developmental stages of children, which created a change in meeting the needs of children.   This new approach ultimately led to a different perspective regarding the publication of books for children.  Prior to this, moral, didactic themes dominated children’s literature with few, if any, black and white illustrations.  Very’s Red Riding Hood, published in 1863 by L. Prang & Co. in Boston, illustrates the inclusion of fanciful themes in children’s literature and the introduction of color printing.  Considered the first shaped book and one of the first toy books to be published, the story is told between a chromolithographed, die-cut image of Red Riding Hood on the front and back covers.  Very’s retelling of the story differs somewhat from the original Grimm’s version; Grandmother is not at home when the wolf arrives, so she is spared and as in the original, the little girl is saved by a hunter.  This title is considered one of Prang’s first publications.  Very tried, but was unable to obtain a patent for this book design.

Front Cover and Page 8-9, Red Riding Hood

Front Cover and Page 8-9, Red Riding Hood, first shaped book created by Lydia L. A. Very, published in 1863.

Very’s second shaped title was introduced in my blog post about poetry on April 11th of last year.  Based on Daniel Defoe’s book of the same title, this book was printed in the shape of the main character and is also classified as a toy and moveable book because of its shape.  The front image depicts Crusoe and his animals; the book includes sixteen illustrated pages between its die-cut image of the main character .  MSS 83, our manuscript collection for the Very Family, includes an illustration that may have served as one of her initial drawings for Crusoe.  Robinson Crusoe is one of a series of five titles in Louis Prang’s Civil War-era Doll Series, the first of which was Red Riding Hood.

Cover and Author's Drawinig

Die-cut cover of Robinson Crusoe with Lydia Very’s initial illustration of the main character.

Very was an avid poetry writer.  Her first volume of poetry, entitled Poems, was published by W. F. Draper of Andover in 1856.  Reprinted in 1890, the book title was changed to Poems and Prose Writings since Very added several essays along with new poems to the volume.   In his book, Poets of Essex County (1889), Sidney Perley writes that Lydia Very  … has an ease of versification and a mannerism which cover up shallow thought with deep-sounding words. She writes because she has something to say.  The religious sentiment is strong in her nature and her poems inspired thereby are most valued …Some of her sweetest lines are wrought from her love of little children and nature.

One of the sketchbooks included in MSS 83 includes many examples of her poetry, some with accompanying illustrations.  One such example is her poem entitled, “Childhood.”

Girl on a Swing, Drawing/Painting

This watercolor illustration created by Lydia Very was found in one of her sketchbooks with an
accompanying poem.

The poem, Childhood, reads:

Living on fair girl,
Your happiest hours
Are fleeting fast away,
Our lives are like the summer flowers,
Fast hastening onward to decay.

Swing on.
While life is bright and dean,
Before these golden moments fly,
Ere lifes bright page is dark and drear,
Ere childhood’s pleasure passes by.

Swing on
While health flows through your cheek,
While pleasure sparkles in thine eyes,
Let every moment pass as quick
As pleasure makes these ones to fly.

A second sketchbook, owned by Catherine Kimball, dated 1840, also includes Lydia’s poems and drawings.  One poem, The Shrimper, is accompanied by a drawing of the fisherman.

The Shrimper, Poem and Accompanying Drawing

This poem, The Shrimper, and its accompanying drawing by Lydia Very was found in an autograph book owned by Catherine Kimball

The poem reads:

“Little fisherman,”
Twas thus I began,
Have you caught any?”
His red lips parted,
And as he started,
He said, “Not many.”

There he stood peeping,
His small hand creeping
Down into his net;
He would not own it,
For nothing he’d thrown it
But sea-weed and wet.

The Lifes’ sea fishing,
Many are wishing
Cold fish to ensnare!
When life is over,
Their nets will cover
But sorrow and care!

One joy of working with an author’s collection of papers is to view their handwritten drafts of future works.  The Phillips Library collection includes most of this author’s pages for Sayings and Doings Among Insects and Flowers, one of Very’s fiction books with a nature theme.  The page included in this posting depicts the beginning of her story, The Little Seed, on which one can see the author’s edits.

Original Manuscript, The Little Seed

Page 77 of the original manuscript for The Little Seed, written in 1897, which was published in Sayings and Doings Among Insects and Flowers in 1898.

The title page of the published book includes a short poem, which provides insight into the Lydia Very’s appreciation of nature:

The tiniest things have language;
Tones to express their joy or pain.
Then pass them not unheeding by—
Lessons from them we oft may gain.

Visit PHILCAT to learn more about this interesting author, who is responsible for enhancing the lives of children through her introduction of the shaped book as well as her love of nature that she most willingly shared with those she taught for thirty years.

Editor’s Note: This first appeared on Conversant, the blog for the Phillips Library at PEM.

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