I am fully and intensely aware that plants are conscious of love and respond to it as they do to nothing else. —Celia Thaxter
Last year, I picked up a book called An Island Garden by Celia Thaxter. I’m not interested in gardening—I can’t keep a plant alive—but I’d loved her Among the Isles of the Shoals, a sort of informal travelogue. An Island Garden conjures the same passion for a remote and challenging and fiercely beloved place. It evokes a sense of belonging, too.
Thaxter was a successful and prolific poet in the second half of the nineteenth century, and much of her (admittedly old-fashioned) work dealt with the remote Isles of the Shoals, which span the Atlantic waters of Maine and New Hampshire. Thaxter’s father had been a hotelier and lighthouse keeper, and she had grown up on White, Smuttynose, and Appledore Islands. Later, after an unhappy stint on the mainland, she returned to Appledore and lived out her life there, running her father’s inn and garden on a generous scale. This hotel became the site of a sort of summer New England artists’ colony: guests included Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Jewett, and Whittier. The painter Childe Hassam recalled that the salon was composed of a “jolly, refined, interesting and artistic set of people … like one large family.” Hassam wrote that he spent some of his “pleasantest summers” there, “where I met the best people in the country.”
Hassam made a series of vivid paintings of Thaxter’s garden—thriving despite or because of the rocky soil. My favorite is The Room of Flowers, from 1894, the year Thaxter had died suddenly: the painting was a tribute. Apparently Thaxter’s parlor served as an informal gallery for buyers, too; Hassam’s painting shows the work of Thaxter’s many artist friends and protégés.
I remember seeing The Room of Flowers at a Childe Hassam show many years ago and buying a postcard of it to invoke its sense of peace and light and creativity and outdoors brought inside. I loved the comfortable untidiness, the piles of books and the scattered cushions. One thing that struck me at once was the sheer number of small vases clustered on tables and books—flowers carefully chosen and arranged, that would need to be discarded and replaced with near-obsessive care, I thought then. It didn’t occur to me that it was a sort of floral tribute to the friend whose absence probably filled the cluttered, warm room.
“Like the musician, the painter, the poet, and the rest,” Thaxter wrote, “the true lover of flowers is born, not made. And he is born to happiness in this vale of tears, to a certain amount of the purest joy that earth can giver her children, joy that is tranquil, innocent, uplifting, unfailing.”
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.