Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Marguerite St. Leon Barstow Loud: An "Imagination of No Common Order"

Marguerite St. Leon Barstow Loud, poet (born 17 April 1812)

In the preface to Wayside Flowers: A Collection of Poems by "Mrs. M. St. Leon Loud," editor Park Benjamin describes the volume's intended readers as those who "love tenderness and purity of thought, joined to simplicity and grace of expression." 

Marguerite St. Leon Barstow Loud,
frontispiece from Wayside Flowers, 1851
The poems are "like those 'wildlings of nature,' from which they borrow their title" (by the way, Benjamin has created the title). They are "the spontaneous productions of a fertile soil," "the free growth of an unartificial mind." They represent "nature's growth," not "exotics." And thus are better than "cultivated efforts."

Oh, dear. No work at all, then, right? The poems just happen????? Without intention, work, craft, effort?

In his last months of life, Edgar Allen Poe happily accepted the "relatively lucrative opportunity" to edit Wayside Flowers--he writes to a correspondent that he is on his way to Philadelphia to edit the work of the "poetess," whose wealthy husband had hired him. Poe writes, "[t]he whole labor will not occupy me 3 days." (Poe had been offered $100 by Marguerite Loud's husband--Poe had earned only $166 the entire year before.)*

Oh, dear. On the website of the Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore, Marguerite St. Leon Barstow Loud is identified as a "minor American poet."

Aside from this rather disparaging information--and from Benjamin's preface in the volume of poetry, Wayside Flowers--not all that much is known about Marguerite St. Leon Barstow Loud. No Wikipedia entry, for example!!!

Marguerite St. Leon Barstow was born in Wysox, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Seth T. Barstow and his wife, Clarissa Woodruff. According to Benjamin, both parents were from New England, and Marguerite's father was a successful physician. 

In his preface to Wayside Flowers, Benjamin also indicates that Marguerite St. Leon's education was an informal one--her mother was her teacher, her parents both loved poetry, and the home had an "ample library

Her date of birth has been variously given. She died in Kenyon, Minnesota, and her gravestone indicates that she was born on 17 April 1812, but there are questions about this date, principally the fact that some sources indicate she was married in 1824--which would make her only twelve years old at the time of her marriage. Thus other dates for her birth are suggested--even a date of "ca. 17 April 1800" (see the University of Virginia's Collective Biographies of Women database)!

But the preface to her volume of poetry specifically addresses the date of her marriage as well as explaining the source of the confusion--Marguerite St. Leon Barstow was married in 1834, not 1824, an erroneous date that appeared in Caroline May's 1848 The American Female Poets.**

Title page of the 1851 Wayside Flowers
So there's no need for anyone to twist themselves into pretzels or question the date of birth on her headstone. Marguerite Barstow was born in 1812, and she married in 1834. Her husband, John Loud, was a successful piano manufacturer in Philadelphia. The couple had three daughters: Caroline, was born in 1834, Clara in 1837, and Darwina in 1842. 

Edgar Allen Poe died before he could travel to Philadelphia to edit Wayside Flowers. The book was finally published in 1851, and it did not sell well. Of the 550 copies that were printed, 360 copies were returned, unsold, to the Louds.

In his discussion of Poe's intention to edit Wayside Flowers and Poe's death, Matthew Pearl notes that "according to electronic library database Oasis, only fourteen original copies of the book are held by American libraries."

Which may account for the fact that Loud's elegy, "The Stranger's Doom," one of the earliest poems that seems to be about Poe's death, has "attracted little critical attention."

But, thankfully, you don't have to search out one of the few print copies of Marguerite St. Leon Barstow Loud's Wayside Flowers. It is now readily available online (this link takes you to a copy made available by the HathiTrust Digital Library).

Poe himself seemed to think well of Marguerite Loud as a poet. Of her he wrote in 1841:
Mrs. M. ST. LEON LOUD is one of the finest poets of this country; possessing, we think, more of the true divine afflatus than any of her female contemporaries. She has, in especial, imagination of no common order, and unlike many of her sex whom we could mention, is not content to dwell in decencies forever. 
While she can, upon occasion, compose the ordinary metrical sing-song with all the decorous proprieties in which are in fashion, she yet ventures very frequently into a more ethereal region. We refer our readers to, a truly beautiful little poem entitled the “Dream of the Lonely Isle,” lately published in this Magazine. 
Mrs. Loud’s MS. is exceedingly clear, neat and forcible, with just sufficient effeminacy and no more.
Marguerite St. Leon Barstow Loud died on 4 November 1889. She was seventy-seven years old. 

Detail from headstone of
Marguerite St. Leon Barstow Loud
(photo by Dave Vangsness,
posted at Find a Grave)

*The link here is to a .pdf version of Matthew Pearl's "A Poe Death Dossier: Discoveries and Queries in the Death of Edgar Allen Poe"--using the search function, you will locate all the references to Marguerite St. Leon Barstow Loud.

**The link here is to the edition of 1854, which reprints the 1824 date in its biographical note for "Marguerite St. Leon Loud."

Update, 22 April 2022: I am deeply grateful for a wealth of material sent to me by a descendant of Marguerite St. Leon Barstow, her third great granddaughter. 

The detail Marguerite's descendant provides has allowed me to correct the name of Marguerite's youngest daughter, Darwina. One of the sources I consulted when writing my original post had given the name as "Davina," and I hadn't noticed it correctly spelled elsewhere. 

Darwina, as it turns out, is a family name. On the origin of this name, Marguerite's third great granddaughter writes that Seth Barstow, Marguerite's father, had named his first son (b. 1809) after the English physician and philosopher Erasmus Darwin. But this boy died when he was very young, just a week after the birth of Marguerite St. Leon in 1812, and so Seth Barstow named his next-born child, a daughter, "Darwina" (b. 1815). In 1841, Marguerite St. Leon named her youngest daughter Darwina. (One of Marguerite's brothers, in turn, named two of his daughters after his sisters, a younger Marguerite St. Leon, born in 1837, and a younger Darwina, born in 1843.)

Marguerite's own "seemingly exotic name" is also explained by her descendant, who writes that "Marguerite St. Leon" was a character in philosopher William Godwin's 1799 novel, St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century. (Godwin was the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley.)

Darwina Francis Loud, Marguerite's daughter, is herself a writer, though not a poet (or at least not a published poet). In the midst of the Civil War, she headed south in 1864, engaged in the work of educating black soldiers, recognizing that, in this endeavor, she is "a pioneer." In the summer of 1865, when she was twenty-four years old, Darwina Loud was sent to what she describes as "the lonely camp of a regiment of black soldiers" in the "swamps and woods of Mississipipi." Upon her arrival at Midway Station in August 1865, she decides "to commence a little journal of daily events as they transpire." She continues to record her experiences through September, her "last night in Midway," when she is filled with uncertainty. 

"These ten feet of canvas walls shut in all the home I can call mine in all this beautiful great world, so full of happy homes and loving, generous hearts," she writes. "I wonder why I can't creep into some of them and find rest & shelter." The future is unclear: 
I went down to the branch school house this evening to take a farewell look at the spot where some few pleasant hours were spent. As I looked up into the green glimmering depths of the great oak, I thought of the future--where and how is it all to end?--What has the coming year in store for me?
Despite her feelings of despair (". . . I want something. I don't know what--I think it must be Christ I want. Oh, when shall I find him?"), Darwina closes out her diary with a long narrative "gleaned from the experience of one who for a year shared the interests and the adventures of the 52nd U.S. Colored Infantry." It is something of a summary of the history of the founding of the country, reflecting on the roles of both Christopher Columbus and George Washington--it is a history that requires "a close discrimination . . . between the glowing fancies of traditions and the matter of fact realities of truth."

Whatever doubts this remarkable young woman felt as she faced the future in September 1865, her life soon changed once again, and she found the the home she had thought she might not find. Not long after she packed up her tent in Mississippi, on 22 October 1865, she married Edward Henry Burton in Illinois. Genealogical data posted on FamilySearch shows that the couple had at least seven children (including a daughter, named after Darwina's mother, Marguerite St. Leon). Darwina Loud Burton died in Hallett, Oklahoma, on 21 January 1897.

I have been given the very great gift of a typescript of Darwina F. Loud Barstow's diary sent to me by her third great granddaughter, but an edition by Margie Bearss and Rebecca Drake, published as Darwina's Diary: A View of Champion Hill--1865, is available. You can order it directly (click here), or you can find a used copy from Amazon (click here).