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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885)

THE BRILLIANT woman who bore the pen-name of “H. H.” was endowed with a personality so impressive, a temperament so rich, a mind so charming, that her admirers were ready to prophesy for her as large a measure of immortality as falls to the lot of any preoccupied modern singer who serves the Muse with half-vows. It was only after her radiant presence was withdrawn that they perceived her genius to have been greater than her talent, and saw that, fine as was her ear and delicate as was her taste, her craftsmanship sometimes failed her. Moreover, her strong ethical bias often turned her genuine lyric impulse into forms of parable and allegory, to overtake the meaning of which her panting reader toiled after her in vain. This habit, with a remarkable condensation of structure, occasionally put upon a phrase a greater weight of meaning than it could bear, and gave a look of affectation to the utterance of the most simple and natural of singers.

Yet when all fair abatement is made, H. H.’s place in literature is won. Twenty years ago, Emerson thought it the first place among American woman poets; and he affirmed that no one had wrought to finer perfection that most difficult verse form, the sonnet. Some of her sonnets, like ‘Poppies in the Wheat,’ ‘October,’ ‘Thought,’ and ‘Burnt Ships,’ show great beauty of execution, a fertile fancy, and a touch of true imagination. Other poems display rare felicity of cadence; like ‘Coming Across,’ which holds the very roll and lift of the urging wave, and ‘Gondoliers,’ where a nice ear catches the rhythm of the rower’s oar, whose sound gives back to memory the melancholy beauty of a Venetian night. In another group of verses appears the note of familiar emotional experiences, as in ‘The Mother’s Farewell to a Voyager,’ ‘Best,’ and ‘Spinning,’—a noble and tender lyric which deserves to live. It is no doubt the sweetness and genuineness of these household poems which have gained for H. H. her wide and affectionate recognition. But her meditative, out-of-door verses are most truly characteristic. ‘My Legacy,’ ‘My Tenants,’ ‘My House not Made with Hands,’ ‘My Strawberry,’ ‘Locusts and Wild Honey,’ breathe that love of nature which was with her a passion. In color and definiteness of drawing they recall Emerson’s ‘Nut-hatch,’ or Thoreau’s ‘Mist.’ But their note of comprehension of the visible natural world and of oneness with it is her own. And where she is simply the imaginative painter of beautiful scenes, as in ‘Distance’ and ‘October,’ her touch is faultless. Her last poems were personal and introspective, and the touching ‘Habeas Corpus’ fell unfinished from her slight hands not long before she died.

Helen Fiske was born in the village of Amherst, Massachusetts, where her father held a professor’s chair in the college. Her education was the usual desultory and ineffectual course of training prescribed for well-placed girls of her time. At twenty-one she married Captain Edward Hunt of the United States army, and began the irresponsible, wandering existence of an army officer’s wife. Travel and social experience ripened her mind, but it was only after the death of her husband and her only child that she set herself to write.

From 1867 to her death, eighteen years later, her pen hardly rested. She wrote verses, sketches of travel, essays, children’s stories, novels, and tracts for the time. Her life in the West after her marriage to Mr. William Jackson, a banker of Colorado Springs, revealed to her the wrongs of the Indian, which with all the strength of her ardent nature she set herself at once to redress. Newspaper letters, appeals to government officialism, and finally her ‘Century of Dishonor,’—a sharp arraignment of the nation for perfidy and cruelty towards its helpless wards,—were her service to this cause. Her most popular story, ‘Ramona,’ a romance whose protagonists are of Indian blood, was also an appeal for justice. This book, however, rose far above its polemic intention; the beauty of its descriptions, its dramatic movement, its admirable characterization, and its imaginative insight entitling it to rank among the half-dozen best distinctively American stories. Two novels in the ‘No Name Series’—‘Mercy Philbrick’s Choice’ and ‘Hetty’s Strange History’—show the qualities that infuse her prose: color, brilliancy of touch, grace of form, certainty of intuition, and occasional admirable humor. She had not the gift of construction, and she lacked the power of self-criticism; so that she is singularly uneven, and her fiction may not perhaps survive the generation whose conduct of life inspired it. But it is genuine and full of character.

‘Bits of Travel,’ ‘Bits of Travel at Home,’ and ‘Glimpses of Three Coasts’ are vagabond sketches so brilliantly picturesque as to seem overwrought, perhaps, to the reader who did not know the intensity of her temperament and the vividness of her familiar speech. Her ‘Bits of Talk’ is a collection of brief ethical essays on the homely duties of household life,—essays inspired by a sensitive conscience and written with delightful freshness and humor.

It is as a poet, however, that H. H. is most vividly remembered. Hers was “the vision and the faculty divine,” and it would seem that she might have reached the upper heights had her flight been steadied by a larger knowledge and a sterner self-discipline.