Hilda Conkling, Child Poet

Hilda Conkling had a brief, brilliant career as a poet.

Hilda Conkling represents a mystery. Her mother, Grace Hazard Conkling, was an English professor at Smith College in Massachusetts. One fall day Grace and her two daughters were walking through the woods. They stopped to rest, and little Hilda, who had just turned four, climbed into her mother’s lap and announced, “I made up a poem for you, Mother.”

Grace asked, “Can you say it for me?”

“Yes,” Hilda replied, and began:

“The blossoms will be gone in the winter:

Oh apples, come for the June!

Can you come, will you bloom?

Will you stay till the cold?”

Grace was a poet as well as an English professor, so she knew poetry. She recognized at once that this was a very good poem, especially for a four-year-old.

Grace and her daughters led a quiet, pleasant life in Northampton, Massachusetts, a town surrounded by the natural beauty of rural New England. In some ways it was a charmed life. Hilda and her sister Elsa spent many happy hours with their mother, walking in the woods or playing in the garden while she wrote. On snowy days the girls liked to hear their mother play the piano. They also loved to hear her read to them—stories of myths and heroes, nature and the wide world, and of course, poetry. Grace was always patient, caring, and a friend to her daughters as well as a mother. The love and companionship they shared wove a sort of magic web around them.

As time went on, Hilda continued to speak her poems to her mother. She would think of them as they were talking, and Grace, who as a writer often carried around a pen and paper, would always write them down. Hilda had a gift for comparing two different ideas and creating beautiful images from them. Many of her poems were about the natural world she saw around her every day, such as this one:

The chickadee in the appletree

Talks all the time very gently.

He makes me sleepy.

I rock away to the sea-lights.

Far off I hear him talking

The way smooth bright pebbles

Drop into water . . .

Chick-a-dee-dee-dee . . .

Hilda had a sharp eye for details which she used in many poems, such as this one about pansies:

This pansy has a thinking face

Like the yellow moon.

This one has a face with white blots:

I call him the clown.

Here goes one down the grass

With a pretty look of plumpness;

She is a little girl going to school

As Hilda grew older, she made up poems about what she had read. One of her favorite stories was about the hero Siegfried:

The birds came to tell Siegfried a story,

A story of the woods out of a tree:

How the ring was fairy

And there were things it could do for him

Day and night:

How the river flowed green and wavy

Under the Rainbow Bridge

But Hilda’s poetry and her young life really centered around her special relationship with Grace. They were daily companions, sharing stories, thoughts, and feelings, and also sharing Hilda’s poetic gift. And much of Hilda’s poetry was about her deep love for her mother. Hilda wrote this one when she was five:

I will sing you a song,

Sweets-of-my-heart,

With love in it,

(How I love you!)

And a rose to swing in the wind,

The wind that swings roses!

When she was nine, Hilda composed this poem about their special bond:

If I sing, you listen;

If I think, you know.

I have a secret from everybody in the world full of people

But I cannot always remember how it goes;

It is a song

For you, Mother,

With a curl of cloud and a feather of blue

And a mist

Blowing along the sky.

If I sing it some day, under my voice,

Will it make you happy?

Hilda lived in a child’s world of woods and gardens, stories and play. But her poetry reached a very adult world of serious readers. Grace had her poems published in three books: Poems of a Little Girl in 1920 when Hilda was just ten, Shoes of the Wind in 1922, and Silverhorn in 1924. Her poetry was praised by the best authors of the time. Amy Lowell, a noted poet, wrote an introduction to the first book, and said about Hilda’s poems, “The oldest poet in the world could not improve upon them.” In 1922 some of her poems were included in the Bookman Anthology of Verse.

Grace carefully kept Hilda out of the spotlight, though. She knew it was better for Hilda to have a normal, carefree childhood. Amy Lowell, a friend of the Conklings, described Hilda as quiet, preferring reading to rowdy games, but not shy. Hilda went to school, did her schoolwork, and played and roamed in the woods with Elsa. Poetry was a part of her life, but not the most important part, and she was a happy, contented child.

As the years went by, it struck Grace that Hilda never wrote down any of her own poems. Wishing to foster her independence, Grace stopped recording Hilda’s poetry. But the result was that Hilda made fewer and fewer poems. By the time she was in high school, she had stopped creating poems altogether.

How was Hilda able to produce such high-quality poetry at her young age, and why did she stop? It’s a mystery. But it seems that much of the magic of Hilda’s poetry was the love and communication between herself and her mother. The magic spell was woven from the special bond between them. When Grace was no longer part of Hilda’s poetry, the spell was broken.

Hilda’s childhood was over, and so was her life as a poet. She produced no poetry as an adult and dropped from the public view for the rest of her life. She never married and lived with her mother until her mother’s death in 1958. Hilda passed away in 1986 at the age of 76.

Picture by Kathleen Murphy

4 comments

Add a comment

0 answers +0 votes
Post comment Cancel
This comment has 0 votes  by
Posted on Dec 7, 2010
Guest
This comment has 0 votes  by
Posted on Dec 7, 2010
This comment has 0 votes  by
Posted on Apr 17, 2010
This comment has 0 votes  by
Posted on Apr 17, 2010

Related Articles

The Emperors New Sonnet by Jose Garcia Villa: An Analysis

In: Books
A critical analysis of Villa's classic wordless poem.

The Poem:

The Emperor’s New Sonnet

Background/Analysis:

Just a background on the author, Jose Garcia Villa was a Filipino poet, short-story writer, painter, and literary critic who was awarded the National Artist of the Philippines for literature in 1973. He was known for being one of the renowned “artsakists” of his time who believed that art should be for art’s sake. And although he advised his students that poems are “written with words, not ideas,” he released poems such as The Bashful One, which consists only of a comma, and of course, The Emperor’s New Sonnet, which contains nothing at all, other than the title.

On normal circumstances, I would go through a poem line per line in analyzing one, and see how every line would contribute to the overall meaning. However, the poem to be tackled has no meter, no extended metaphors, no symbolisms, nor any text whatsoever. All we are banking on is its title, which alludes to the popular children’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes, which was written by Hans Christian Anderson.

Hans Christian Anderson / Wikimedia

The story is an attack on snobbery and pretension, and makes fun of people who do not have their own say on what is beautiful and tend to rely on other people’s judgments before making their own. It tells its readers that sometimes, we need to view things as innocent as a child would so that we could plainly see what true beauty is, free from all social conditioning that often warps their perspective on things.

With this in mind, let us now tackle the poem by Jose Garcia Villa, which has no words at all. What we have here is something that tells readers that it is a poem, although in reality, there really is nothing. There is no beautiful weaving of words, and it seems like the poet is mocking the reader by telling them to accept the blankness as poetry, in the same way that the weavers the emperor in the story hired expects him to accept his invisible suit as one of the most beautiful in the world.

In all objectivity, there really is no poem in The Emperor’s New Sonnet, although it calls itself one. Although there are literary critics and intellectuals who can extract some meaning from the blankness, there would undoubtedly be that child in us that wants to shout out that this is not a poem, and that it is only a blank page.

We can probably borrow the moral lesson in the story and put it into the context of this poem. There are probably times when, like the characters in the story, we have felt the need to convince ourselves that a work of art is beautiful, just because some ruling body deemed it so, even though we ourselves did not genuinely appreciate it. There must have been some time when you came across some abstract painting and thought that it was something a child could have done, and yet you just kept mum about it, because it was supposedly created by a world-class painter. Or a time when an artsy-fartsy friend asked you what you thought about this foreign film you totally found boring, and answered that it was nice. Or a time in English class where you were forced to nod and say that you liked a certain short story, even though you did not understand a single thing from it.

Oftentimes we are too quick to suppress our own judgments; for fear that other people may find us “less-cultured” or even downright stupid if we would not agree with them. In effect, we no longer practice our critical thinking, thinking that anyway, there are authorities who can decide for us, and we wouldn’t mind being enslaved to their judgments because we can readily dismiss that they are right.

However, this shouldn’t be the case, and The Emperor’s Sonnet tells us this in its own eccentric way. It plays on how readers would think of it, on whether the blank space is a poem or not, while reminding them of the message in the story The Emperor’s New Clothes.

On why Jose Garcia Villa wrote this (if you would call that writing), I could make a guess. He was known to be one of the harshest critics of Filipino poetry in English in his time, and has angered many of those who received his critiques. And I wouldn’t exactly blame the subjects of his critiques for their reactions. To one literary collection, for example, he wrote: “The poetry you print is unforgivable. It stinks. My God, if I had judicial power, I’d throw you in jail for publishing such rot and exemplifying them before the public as good poetry, thus submerging the public still more.”

In one essay, he wrote that there wasn’t anyone who was educated enough in poetry in the Philippines. The country, according to him, was “deluged with poet-simpletons—triflers in verse, poets without crania—the producers of featherweight poetry.”

Perhaps it was his frustration with Philippine poetry in English that drove him to create The Emperor’s New Sonnet. Frustrated, or maybe even disgusted, with the praise that some of the Filipino poets were getting from the critics, he may have written the poem to target those who readily accept the so called “featherweight” poetry of his time, who were, perhaps, reading poetry in the same way that the emperor’s ministers and the townspeople were looking at the emperor’s “suit.” Perhaps with this poem of his, he sought to serve as the child in the story to challenge what he felt was a sorry state of Philippine poetry in his time.

Whether you’re still debating with yourself if this is a poem or not, it is undeniable that Villa’s The Emperor’s New Sonnet shall continue to provoke and baffle its readers for many years to come.

Sources:

http://www.literaryhistory.com/20thC/Groups/Villa.html

http://www.bookrags.com/wiki/The_Emperor%27s_New_Clothes

The Critical Villa: Essays in Literary Criticism by Jose Garcia Villa, compiled and edited by Jonathan Chua

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Plot Summary of Volume Two

In: Books
The tale of Frankenstein touches on issues of bioethics, morality, religion and existentialism. Here is a summary of Volume II of the three volume story of Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was written in three volumes. Links at the bottom of the article will take you to the summaries of Volume one and two as well as to an introduction and character summary.

Plot Summary Volume II

After a time of grieving with his family over the death of William, Victor sets out on a journey, not to pursue the monster but to find relief from his despair. He sets out toward the Swiss Alps on horseback and finds that his spirit is lightened by the magnificence and beauty of the mountains. It has been two months since the execution of Justine.

Victor decides to make an ascent to a glacier field during a particularly cloudy day. It is an invigorating and soul satisfying climb and his heart is overwhelmed with joy over the sight of the mountains beyond. As he sits in a recess of the rock he utters these words “Wandering spirits, if indeed ye wander, and do not rest in your narrow beds, allow me this faint happiness, or take me, as your companion, away from the joys of life.” It is at this moment that he sees the figure of a man approaching him across the ice at superhuman speed. As the man gets closer Victor realizes with rage and horror that it is the monster. He resolves to wait and engage the monster in mortal combat.

When the monster arrives Victor threatens to kill him. The monster responds, “All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!” “You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.

Victor lunges at the monster intending to kill him but the monster is superior and eludes him. The monster declares that his life is precious to him and he will defend it but he has no wish to be in opposition to his creator. “I am thy creature”. He tells Victor that he will be docile and mild to his natural lord and king if Victor will only fulfill his duty. He asserts that he is due the justice, clemency and affection of his creator. “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed” He claims that he was, in the beginning, benevolent and good but that the exclusion from the joys of life has made him a fiend. His desolation and pain are apparent as he begs compassion and goodness from Frankenstein. 

A long dialog ensues between the monster, as he defends himself and asserts his rights to compassion and joy. Frankenstein rejects and curses him. The monster insists that Victor accompany him to his hut to hear the tale of how he came to gain the knowledge of language and life and joy. Victor complies with the request out of a sense of duty and indeed begins to feel his responsibility to his creature.

The monster and Frankenstein arrive at the hut that the monster calls home. A fire is lit and the monster begins his monolog of remembrances of his creation and the dawning of his awareness and enlightenment. He reflects on the joy of living and the excitement of discovering and experiencing his sensory faculties and his growing comprehension of the world into which he has come.

He turns then to the dark and hateful experiences that have caused him to flee into isolation. He has been chased and attacked with stones and weapons and reviled whenever he has sought contact with humans. It is in fear that he has sought refuge in a hovel adjacent to a cottage where the De Lacey family dwells. He dwells on his isolation “no Eve soothed my sorrows nor shared my thoughts; I was alone. I remembered Adam’s supplication to His Creator. But where was mine? He had abandoned me, and in the bitterness of my heart I cursed him.”

In hiding, he begins his observation of the family through a hole in the wall between his hovel and the main cabin and learns a great deal about the normal relationships among people. He observes a poor but gentle family and learns about reading and music and affection. He is able to learn language through his close observation. He becomes fond of the family and finds ways to help them secretly. He dreams of the day that he can reveal himself to them and win their affection in spite of his dreadful appearance.

The day arrives when he decides to reveal himself. He first approaches the blind father when the others are gone. He appeals to his sense of charity and love for others. The old man is warm and encouraging to the monster. In the midst of their conversation the others return and upon entering the cottage are horrified. Felix strikes out at the monster beating him while the women scream and faint. Although the monster could easily break the bones of Felix and destroy him, he flees instead in sorrow and pain.

The failure of his efforts to connect with the family has driven him to deep despair and rage at his creator. As he processes the events he decides that he will make one more effort to win the hearts of the De Lacey’s. He returns to the cottage but finds that they have moved out. In a rage he burns it and destroys the garden that was regularly tended by Felix. He leaves the region to find Victor Frankenstein.

As he reaches Geneva he encounters a young boy playing and decides that perhaps he can make friends with the child. When he reveals himself to the child the child begins screaming and the monster picks him up and tries to quiet him. The child tells him that his father is M. Frankenstein and that he will come to rescue him. When the monster discovers the child’s identity he kills him and finds pleasure in the revenge he has taken upon Victor. He leaves the dead child and flees into the mountains.

Now that the monster has told his story to Victor he makes his demand. He tells Victor that he wants a wife. The wife is to be similar in nature to himself. When Victor completes this task the monster promises he will disappear to the jungles of South America and he will never bother mankind again. He pleads with Victor to grant this request out of mercy and compassion. Victor is reluctant to relent to the monster’s request and argues that if he creates a second monster then they will bring more destruction and grief to humanity. The monster vows that he will kill everyone that Victor loves if he does not undertake this task.

Victor relents and he and the monster part company. Victor and the monster have spent the entire day together on the glacier and it takes Victor until late at night before he makes his way back to the village and ultimately home to his family and to make plans for the commencement of his task.

Proceed to Summary of Volume III

Return to Summary of Volume I

Proceed to Introduction to Frankenstein

Proceed to Character Summary of Frankenstein

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Plot Summary of Volume Three

In: Books
The tale of Frankenstein touches on issues of bioethics, morality, religion and existentialism. Frankenstein was written in three Volumes - here is the summary of Volume Three with links to the others.

Frankenstein Plot Summary Volume III

Victor Frankenstein travels to Scotland and takes up residence on one of the remote Orkney islands to begin his task of making a mate for the monster. He has already dawdled at home and traveling with his friend Henry Clerval and he fears that the monster is watching him. He is afraid that the monster might kill Henry as a warning. The monster has promised Victor that he will watch him and will come for his mate when she is ready.

As he begins his task of yet another creation Victor is again horrified and disgusted with the task at hand. He ruminates about the promise of the monster to leave civilization but reasons that this new creature has made no such promise. He fears that she may hate the monster and be repulsed at his appearance and suffering another rejection the monster may in the end still pursue vengeance upon humanity.

Frankenstein questions his right to buy peace at any price by potentially bringing destruction on mankind. At this moment as he is questioning his decision to move forward, the monster appears in the window. At the sight of the monster, Frankenstein is driven to madness and begins to tear apart the creature that was to become the monsters mate.

Wikimedia

The monster howls in despair and withdraws. Several hours later he returns and confronts Frankenstein again. He asks what Frankenstein’s intentions are. “Do you dare to break your promise?” “Do you dare destroy my hopes?” The monster promises to make Frankenstein’s life “so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to [him]”.

He continues, “Man! You may hate, but beware! Your hours will pass in dread and misery, and soon the bolt will fall which must ravish from you your happiness forever. Are you to be happy while I grovel in the intensity of my wretchedness?” He tells Victor that he will be with him on his wedding night. Victor assumes that the threat is toward himself. He believes that his wedding night will be the night of their final struggle.

Victor leaves the island on a boat at night with a basket full of the body parts and material from his destroyed female monster. He dumps it in the deep water and becomes carried away in his boat to England. He is intercepted upon landing and taken to the magistrate where he is accused of murdering a young man who’s body was found on that very shore. He is taken to a room and shown the body of none other than Henry Clerval. The black finger marks around his neck reveal that he has been murdered by the monster. He is taken before the courts and released on proof that he was on the Orkney Islands at the time his friend was murdered.

Victor’s father comes and retrieves him and they travel back to Switzerland and to their home. Victor had decided that he and Elizabeth will be married quickly so that the night of his final battle with the monster will come quickly. He imagines how it will be - the monster attacking him and he defending himself. He imagines that it will be traumatic for Elizabeth to see him engaged in battle with this horrific monster. He is uncertain as to whether he will prevail or be killed by the monster. Either way he will be released from his torment.

The wedding night arrives and Victor is prepared for the inevitable battle. He is nervous and distracted. His bride is concerned about his odd behavior and he sends her to bed alone and asks for her patience. He promises to tell all the next day if she will only wait and not ask any questions this night. As he valiantly waits in the outer chamber prepared for battle he hears his beloved bride scream. He rushes in and finds her dead, lying across the bed.

The monster, still at the window, grins and points at Victor’s dead bride. Victor pulls out his pistol and shoots at the monster and the monster flees diving into the lake beyond. A crowd of people have gathered in Victor’s room and a hunt for the monster ensues. The crowd follows his tracks and throws nets into the lake but he is nowhere to be found.

We are now returned to the present location of Robert Walton’s ship at the North Pole where Frankenstein tells Robert that the rest of the story is tedious. His father has died in his arms, not being able to bear any more sorrow.

As Frankenstein vows at the graves of his loved ones to take vengeance on the monster he hears the voice of the beast speak out “I am satisfied, miserable wretch! You have determined to live, and I am satisfied”

The chase ensues and Frankenstein pursues his nemesis throughout Europe and Russia and to the North Pole. Frankenstein’s rage keeps him from abandoning his pursuits to lands where he is certain he cannot survive. He begins his pursuit on a sledge pulled by dogs but the breaking of the ice separates him from the monster. We come full circle in our story as the ice upon which he floats is brought to the side of Walton’s ship.

In a final revelation of self examination Frankenstein confesses his arrogance and pride in what he has attempted. “like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell.” Knowing that death is imminent, he begs Walton to take up his task of pursuing and killing the beast.

The ice breaks and a path to the south is opened. As Walton’s ship begins it’s journey homeward, Frankenstein passes into eternity. Walton enters the cabin where the body of Victor Frankenstein lies and finds the monster bent over the corpse muttering expressions of grief and repentance.

In the final pages of the book the monster reveals to Walton the struggle and pain that he has suffered in bringing pain and sorrow and death to those loved ones of Victor Frankenstein. He claims that in the beginning of his existence his whole being overflowed with happiness and affection, that he desired love and fellowship but was spurned. He asks the question “Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me?”

He leaves the ship with the promise that he will end his own wretched life.

“But soon I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell”

Return to Plot Summary of Volume Two

Return to Plot Summary of Volume One

Return to Character Summary

Return to Introduction and Brief Summary