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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 Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard (1823–1902)

ELIZABETH BARSTOW, the wife of Richard Henry Stoddard, was born in Massachusetts, May 6th, 1823. She was married to the poet in 1851; and a few years later began to write stories and poems so intense and individual, that though anonymous they were recognized at once as the work of a new writer. ‘The Morgesons’ appeared in 1862, ‘Two Men’ in 1865, and ‘Temple House’ in 1867, a new edition being issued in 1888.

In advance of her time by a generation, Mrs. Stoddard belongs to the school of Maeterlinck and Ibsen rather than to the romantic period of fiction of the day in which she wrote. Whether she records humble life in a New England village, as in ‘Two Men’; or the story of an ancestral mansion in an American seaport town, as in ‘Temple House’; or the history of a “queer” family, as in ‘The Morgesons,’—her work is metaphysical like Ibsen’s. Her men and women reproduce types not infrequently found in forgotten New England towns. They are strong self-centerd characters, in whom an active intellect and intense nervous energy, compressed by narrow surroundings, produce numberless idiosyncrasies. In their moral isolation, they are still grim Puritans in everything but creed. Mrs. Stoddard drew them with a wonderful comprehension of the hidden springs of their action. Like Ibsen, she exemplified life and illustrated her dramatic force in breathless tragic episodes.

It is true, however, that before she was a dramatist, she was a psychologist: a sphinx sitting on the stony way to the temple, and looking with unquestioning eyes into life’s problem. That method of suggestion which is our latest fashion in literature, Mrs. Stoddard used when it was not a fashion, but a form of reticence. There are descriptions in her novels cut with a chisel; others in which nature is used as a background to scenes of intense thought, in moments of outward stillness. She was a realist before the word had been defined. She dwells in shadows as grim as those of ‘Wuthering Heights,’ in an atmosphere so dense that we see the movements of her characters as through a thick glass screen; but each person, each scene, is touched with a gleam of poetic light.

It was as a poet, perhaps, that she gained her highest fame; though no book of the time, according to the great English critic, Mr. Leslie Stephen, is more remarkable than her ‘Temple House.’ Mrs. Stoddard had been writing and publishing poems since her girlhood, but they were not collected until 1896. In them is reflected the spirit of her fiction, the tragic atmosphere with which her novels are surcharged. Burning with intensity, if a spirit so hopeless may be said to burn, these strange, reserved, yet passionately regretful lyrics have for their theme the pain of quiet endurance, the disappointment of an ardent fancy, and the sorrow of an unsatisfied heart. Those written in early youth might have been penned by Maeterlinck,—tragical, musical, introspective; Stoddard himself might have taught her the ringing, forcible strains in ‘The House by the Sea,’ or in ‘Xanthos’ and ‘Achilles,’—poems in blank verse, sonorous, dignified, individual. The highest expression of her poetic gift is found perhaps in short poems, like ‘Mercedes,’ where passion, sullen, deep, and pitiless, veils itself in tropical beauty.

In both her poems and her novels is reflected her sense of the beauty and aloofness of nature; of the “dusty answers” to the clamors of impetuous human souls. She died in New York City, August 1, 1902.