Born in 1893, in upstate New York, Elizabeth Coatsworth grew up to be one of the most well traveled and beloved poets in American history. Her wealthy family traveled extensively through out her childhood and the short children’s novel “Bess and Sphinx” is a near autobiography of the travels. Before the age of 5, Elizabeth had spent time in the Alps and the Egyptian Desert. When not traveling, Elizabeth attended Buffalo Seminary and became known as an “ardent student” (“Globe” 1).
Elizabeth grew to be 18 and went off to school at Vassar. Before she could graduate with her BA in 1915, Elizabeth’s father died and the family home was sold. While her family traveled from place to place on their wealth, Elizabeth graduated from Vassar and then acquired her MA from Columbia in 1916. Following this achievement, she traveled through Asia for a year alone. This was not at all odd for Elizabeth Coatsworth who continued to travel often and alone (“Globe” 1). The Maine Writer’s Index points out that Elizabeth incorporated many of her traveling memories into her writings (1). For example, the influence Asia had upon Elizabeth is reflected in the 1931 Newbery Award winning book, “The Cat Who Went To Heaven,” a story about a Buddhist painter and his cat set in Japan.
In 1927, three years before her marriage to fellow wordsmith Henry Beston, Elizabeth’s first children’s book was published. This book of children’s poems was called “The Cat and The Captain.” That October, Henry proposed to Elizabeth who turned Beston down. Her explanation for turning down the man she loved? She claimed the journal of his life would make a perfect novel. “No book, no wedding.” Beston tinkered with his journal and it was published under the title “The Outermost House” a year later. 9 months later, the two married and moved into a house together in Boston.
Only a year later, Elizabeth took on another role: mother. Her first daughter, Meg, was born exactly a year after their wedding. Because Beston didn’t think the Boston area was good for raising children, the couple and their child spent the majority of their days living in a cottage on Cape Cod. 2 years later, their second daughter, Catherine, was born and the family moved to Maine permanently.
Raising their two daughters inspired Beston to publish two books of children’s fairy tales and Elizabeth to write more and more children’s books. However, during this time, Elizabeth also discovered new and different forms of writing. She wrote prose, poetry, adult novels, how-to books, and stories for kids, teenagers and the elderly. Elizabeth Coatsworth, on top of being an amazing children’s poet, was a literal literary virtuoso.
When her husband died in 1968, Elizabeth continued to write for about 10 more years and continued to travel. In her last book, an autobiography, at more than 80 years of age, Elizabeth wrote, “My sense of wonder has not dulled with all of these years. I am as happy as an old dog stretched out in the sunlight . . . outwardly, I am 83, but inwardly I am every age, with the emotions and experience of each period.” (“Creative” 1)
Elizabeth died a couple of years later in 1986. She was buried next to her husband behind their farm. Her death ended a career that boasted more than 90 published books and never a rough time with a publisher.
With the exception of “The Cat Who Went To Heaven,” all of Elizabeth’s books are out of print but most of them can still be found in libraries nationwide. The seeming favorite of Elizabeth’s fans is a certain book of children’s poetry about field mice called “The Mouse Chorus.” Another favorite seems to be the Sally series. These stories were written from 1935 to 1946, while Elizabeth’s own daughters were growing up, and follow the life of an orphan in post-Revolutionary Maine.
Fans claim that, even though her work spanned more than 60 years, “her voice seems remarkably the same: direct, fresh, with words carefully chosen and characters cherished.” Others agree, apparently, because, on top of her Newbery Award, Elizabeth Coatsworth also won a Hans Christian Anderson Award for her body of work.
In the story “Away Goes Sally,” an untitled poem unfolds while the family sleeps. The poem has a very simple “ABAC” rhyme scheme and an unmistakable beat that is hard to keep from drowning in. The words are slightly advanced, I think, for children who probably wouldn’t know what a swallow, meteor or an ember is. But, with an adult to explain the complex words, the poem is very nice reading for children and adults. It points out the beauty in all of nature, the fast, the slow and the seemingly destructive. I especially love the imagery in lines like, “and lightening that falls/blue-veined and clear.” It is also very easy to visualize it when Coatsworth writes, “the pause of the wave/that curves downward to spray.” I think the beauty of these lines, and the entire poem, is that it is so simple and so readily accessible to anyone. Everyone has seen that one beautiful streak of lightening that made him stop fearing the electrical bolt so much and actually step back in awe. Everyone has felt that splash of a wave as it makes its presence known before returning to the sea.
In her poem “July Storm,” Coatsworth personifies a rainstorm in the most beautiful, romantic of ways. With no rhyme scheme or real caging rhythm, I especially love the freedom of being able to read this poem over several times and, by emphasizing different words, get different images and moods. The words in the poem, I think are a bit advanced for children but, again as above, the poem is so pretty that it is worth the explanation. For me, this poem makes me curse the rain just a little less and makes me able to appreciate the so-called “nasty” weather a little bit more. Coatsworth is really great at making something simple or unpleasant genuinely charming. Who could hate a rainstorm dressed in “crystal and the sun” with a ribbon of rainbow in her hair? Not the chicest of fashions but a lovely image, nonetheless.
“March In New Mexico” is another of Coatsworth’s more beautiful works. About getting home through a “sudden snow” across the desert, this particular poem is easily grasped and lacks the language that the previous two poems flaunt. Another non-rhyming poem, “March In New Mexico” structures itself around repetition. The repetition of words and phrases is very visible in this poem. This poem makes me almost tired because it feels, to me at least, that it is taking place late at night and the sky is dark. But it is also written with the wonderment of a child; one can almost hear Coatsworth exclaim, with childlike delight, about the mountains and the hoof-prints left behind by her horse. But, also, there is the adult imagery that directly follows the excitement over hoof-prints; Coatsworth explains her excitement by stating that, “the trail is a love poem, a little stanza which the desert will erase.” Within Coatsworth’s poetry, everything is beautiful and everything is musical and poetic. Hers is a world that I would love to live it.
With senioritis kicking in, I must admit this project was finished begrudgingly 4 days before it’s due date, even though the research and reading was fresh in my mind when I started the project over a month ago. Because of this, the product is shoddy and I didn’t learn as much as I’m sure I could have.
That said, I did enjoy reading about such a remarkable woman and I certainly enjoyed the poems that I read. Like I said, hers is a world where everything is approached with wonderment and everything is beautiful until proven ugly. Coatsworth had an amazingly fresh outlook on things that made her an amazing, amazing writer. She is very skilled and I will, most likely, eventually, read some of her works geared more towards adults.
Will I remember her in 10 years? Now that is a tough question because, sometimes, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast in the morning. But, perhaps, whenever it rains, I will be reminded of the woman in silvery costume watering the trees and flowers and I will think of Elizabeth Coatsworth and her incredible life and poetry.