This post is the first of a three-part series on the life and writings of Charles Hammond Gibson, Jr., founder of the Gibson House Museum. Stay tuned for parts two and three in the coming months.
|Gibson in his rose gardens |
at Forty Steps, c. 1910.
How does one measure a life dedicated to poetry, a writing life? Charles Hammond Gibson, Jr. dedicated his entire adult life to the art of poetry, as poet, critic, editor, and literary personality. He published his first poem in the Boston Transcript in 1894, and, toward the end of his career, he quipped to a curious listener at one of his many public readings, “My dear lady, I have been writing poems for fifty years. They are like the droppings of pigeons all over the house.” His manuscripts overflowed from portfolios, closets, desk drawers, cabinets, drawing rooms, and even toolsheds! In some ways, Gibson’s poetry was closely connected to the domestic spaces he crafted, curated, and inhabited--his “Victorian Museum,” the Gibson House, and the spectacular gardens of his family’s exclusive summer residence, Forty Steps, Nahant. Like many traditional poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Gibson’s work is highly context-dependent. His poems tend to be formal, referential, commemorative, and backward-looking--vintage before their time--the kind of poetry that was almost completely obscured by the advent of literary modernism. On the other hand, viewed holistically, there is a compelling sense of quirky humor, passion, historicity, and mystery about Gibson’s writing, a body of work peppered with veiled autobiographical fragments that conceal as much as they reveal.
Early in his career, Charles Gibson lectured and published popular travel books about French architecture: Two Gentlemen in Touraine (1899), penned under the name of Richard Sudbury, a nod to Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, was a novelistic rendering of “French folklife, legend, and gothic architecture,” loosely based on Gibson’s romantic friendship with the (self-styled) Count Maurice Mauny Talvande (1861-1941), an eccentric polymath married to Lady Mary Byng (d. 1946), maid of honor to Queen Victoria. Among French Inns (1905), a humorous and chatty travelogue, was published in at least four editions through 1911. Gibson’s first love, however, was poetry, which he published in tasteful limited editions, individually signed and sold by subscription, a genteel publishing practice with roots in eighteen-century manuscript circulation and nineteenth and early-twentieth private publication. The first printing of The Education of Henry Adams (1907) falls into this category.
In 1906, Gibson published his first book of poetry, The Spirit of Love and Other Poems. A spiritual autobiography in verse, Gibson, repurposing a poem from 1896, dedicated the book
To those who love, yet ne’er have known
Whence their true love hath strangely grown;
To those whose hearts to hear withal
Celestial voices sweetly call,
From far on high, new thoughts of love,
That lift their very souls above;
To all who, or sad, or gay,
To these I dedicate my lay.
In 1908 Gibson unveiled The Wounded Eros, a bitter-sweet sonnet sequence, with an interpretive introduction by the brilliant young African American literary scholar, editor, and poet, William Stanley Braithwaite (1878 – 1962), who would later participate in the Harlem Renaissance, publish scholarship on English Romantic poetry, and write and publish his own verse. Braithwaite described The Wounded Eros as “a series of love-related sonnets” and an “episodic drama of a man’s heart.” Gibson would publish poems in newspapers, annuals, and even read them on Boston radio for the rest of his life.
Like Emily Dickinson, Gibson sought and received feedback on his poetry from Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823 - 1911), who thought the young poet’s work had promise but wanted originality. Writing to Gibson in 1907, Higginson provided harsh but valuable technical advice on rhyme, meter, diction, form, and literary influence. Like Dickinson, Gibson penned a variety of homely garden poems, and his work is suffused with nature imagery. As Gibson matured, he took a leadership role in Boston literary society, serving, for example, as the editor of the American Poetry Association’s Year Book of Poems for 1926. In his lectures and editing work, Gibson promoted the great “cultural and educational value of poetry” but, like William Stanley Braithwaite, staked out a conservative and staunchly anti-modernist aesthetic stance. “If we attempt too much,” he warned his readers in 1926, “either in ‘original sin’ or original virtue, we are more apt to fall to the ground, than if we keep the inspiration of the mind harnessed to reason and good form, rather than allowing liberty to degenerate into license, in our attempts to fly too far afield.” In the end, the “original sinners,” imagists such as Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound, for example, won the day, and Gibson became a poet that time forgot.
And yet there is virtue in remembering. There is wisdom and recompense in not rushing to judgement. Through the lens of Charles Gibson’s life and writing we are able glimpse literary Boston at the turn of the nineteenth century, a lost world, a time and a place where art and poetry were essential aspects of everyday life. If we listen carefully, we can begin to understand what it means to have been a gay artist and intellectual in a Puritan city where social position and appearances mattered, a conservative aesthete in a dramatically changing social world, a genial extrovert and eccentric who became increasingly isolated as he aged in place, and who, in the end, became a “disembodied spirit,” as he put it, inhabiting a wondrous museum of Victorian antiquities of his own design.
- Todd S. Gernes, Ph.D. (Associate Professor, Stonehill College)
To explore Charlie Gibson's life in more detail and in the context of the Gibson House Museum, we invite you to watch Dr. Gernes's short film, "The Wounded Eros: Remembering Charles Hammond Gibson, Jr."