Fragrance in Literature of Childhood-A New England Girlhood by Lucy Larcom

A New England girlhood, outlined from memory (1889)
Larcom, Lucy, 1824-1893


The hill behind her house was our general playground; and I supposed she owned that, too, since through her dooryard, and over her stone wall, was our permitted thoroughfare thither. I imagined that those were her buttercups that we gathered when we got over the wall, and held under each other's chin, to see, by the reflection, who was fond of butter; and surely the yellow toadflax (we called it "lady's slipper") that grew in the rock-crevices was hers, for we found it nowhere else.
The blue gill-over-the-ground unmistakably belonged to her, for it carpeted an unused triangular corner of her garden inclosed by a leaning fence gray and gold with sea-side lichens. Its blue was beautiful, but its pungent earthy odor—I can smell it now—repelled us from the damp corner where it grew. It made us think of graves and ghosts; and I think we were forbidden to go there. We much preferred to sit on the sunken curbstones, in the shade of the broad-leaved burdocks, and shape their spiny balls into chairs and cradles and sofas for our dollies, or to "play school" on the doorsteps, or to climb over the wall, and to feel the freedom of the hill.

I thought of the faintly flushed anemones and white and blue violets, the dear little short-lived children of our shivering spring. They also would surely be found in that heavenly land, blooming on through the cloudless, endless year. And I seemed to smell the spiciness of bay berry and sweet-fern and wild roses and meadow-sweet that grew in fragrant jungles up and down the hillside back of the meeting-house, in another verse which I dearly loved:—
"The hill of Zion yields
A thousand sacred sweet,
Before we reach the heavenly fields,
Or walk the golden streets."
We were allowed to take a little nosegay to meeting sometimes: a pink or two (pinks were pink then, not red, nor white, nor even double) and a sprig of camomile; and their blended perfume still seems to be a part of the June Sabbath mornings long passed away.
When the choir sang of
"Seas of heavenly rest,"
a breath of salt wind came in with the words through the open door, from the sheltered waters of the bay, so softly blue and so lovely, I always wondered how a world could be beautiful where "there was no more sea." I concluded that the hymn and the text could not really contradict other; that there must be something like the sea in heaven, after all. One stanza that I used to croon over, gave me the feeling of being rocked in a boat on a strange and beautiful ocean, from whose far-off shores the sunrise beckoned:—
"At anchor laid, remote from home,
Toiling I cry, Sweet Spirit, come!
Celestial breeze, no longer stay!
But spread my sails, and speed my way!"

Then there was the white rock-saxifrage, that filled the crevices of the ledges with soft, tufty bloom like lingering snow-drifts, our May-flower, that brought us the first message of spring. There was an elusive sweetness in its almost imperceptible breath, which one could only get by smelling it in close bunches. Its companion was the tiny four-cleft innocence-flower, that drifted pale sky-tints across the chilly fields. Both came to us in crowds, and looked out with us, as they do with the small girls and boys of to-day, from the windy crest of Powder House Hill,—the one playground of my childhood which is left to the children and the cows just as it was then. We loved these little democratic blossoms, that gathered around us in mobs at our May Day rejoicings. It is doubtful whether we should have loved the trailing arbutus any better, had it strayed, as it never did, into our woods.
Violets and anemones played at hide-and-seek with us in shady places. The gay columbine rooted herself among the bleak rocks, and laughed and nodded in the face of the east wind, coquettishly wasting the show of her finery on the frowning air. Bluebirds twittered over the dandelions in spring. In midsummer, goldfinches warbled among the thistle-tops; and, high above the bird-congregations, the song-sparrow sent forth her clear, warm, penetrating trill,—sunshine translated into music.

It was hardest for me to leave the garret and the garden. In the old houses the garret was the children's castle. The rough rafters,—it was always ail unfinished room, otherwise not a true garret,—the music of the rain on the roof, the worn sea-chests with their miscellaneous treasures, the blue-roofed cradle that had sheltered ten blue-eyed babies, the tape-looms and reels and spinning wheels, the herby smells, and the delightful dream corners,—these could not be taken with us to the new home. Wonderful people had looked out upon us from under those garret-eaves. Sindbad the Sailor and Baron Munchausen had sometimes strayed in and told us their unbelievable stories; and we had there made acquaintance with the great Caliph Haroun Alraschid.
To go away from the little garden was almost as bad. Its lilacs and peonies were beautiful to me, and in a corner of it was one tiny square of earth that I called my own, where I was at liberty to pull up my pinks and lady's delights every day, to see whether they had taken root, and where I could give my lazy morning-glory seeds a poke, morning after morning, to help them get up and begin their climb. Oh, I should miss the garden very much indeed!

The cars rush into the station now, right over our riverside playground. I can often hear the mirthful shout of boys and girls under the shriek of the steam whistle. No dream of a railroad had then come to the quiet old town, but it was a wild train of children that ran homeward in the twilight up the narrow lane, with wind-shod feet, and hair flying like the manes of young colts, and light hearts bounding to their own footsteps. How good and dear our plain, two-story dwelling-house looked to us as we came in sight of it, and what sweet odors stole out to meet us from the white-fenced inclosure of our small garden,—from peach-trees and lilac-bushes in bloom, from bergamot and balm and beds of camomile!

I was as fond as ever of reading, and somehow I managed to combine baby and book. Dickens's "Old Curiosity Shop" was just then coming out in a Philadelphia weekly paper, and I read it with the baby playing at my feet, or lying across my lap, in an unfinished room given up to sea-chests and coffee-bags and spicy foreign odors. (My cherub's papa was a sea-captain, usually away on his African voyages.) Little Nell and her grandfather became as real to me as my darling charge, and if a tear from his nurse's eyes sometimes dropped upon his cheek as he slept, he was not saddened by it. When he awoke he was irrepressible; clutching at my hair with his stout pink fists, and driving all dream-people effectually out of my head. Like all babies, he was something of a tyrant; but that brief, sweet despotism ends only too soon. I put him gratefully down, dimpled, chubby, and imperious, upon the list of my girlhood's teachers.

THERE were only two or three houses between ours and the main street, and then our lane came out directly opposite the finest house in town, a three-story edifice of brick, painted white, the "Colonel's" residence. There was a spacious garden behind it, from which we caught glimpses and perfumes of unknown flowers. Over its high walls hung boughs of splendid great yellow sweet apples, which, when they fell on the outside, we children considered as our perquisites. When I first read about the apples of the Hesperides, my idea of them was that they were like the Colonel's "pumpkin-sweetings."
Beyond the garden were wide green fields which reached eastward down to the beach. It was one of those large old estates which used to give to the very heart of our New England coast towns a delightful breeziness and roominess.

The last window in the row behind me was filled with flourishing house-plants—fragrant leaved geraniums, the overseer's pets. They gave that corner a bowery look; the perfume and freshness tempted me there often. Standing before that window, I could look across the room and see girls moving backwards and forwards among the spinning-frames, sometimes stooping, sometimes reaching up their arms, as their work required, with easy and not ungraceful movements. On the whole, it was far from being a disagreeable place to stay in. The girls were bright-looking and neat, and everything was kept clean and shining. The effect of the whole was rather attractive to strangers.

In reading this, "Swiss Minstrel's Lament over the Ruins of Goldau," I first felt my imagination thrilled with the terrible beauty of the mountains—a terror and a sublimity which attracted my thoughts far more than it awed them. But the poem in which they burst upon me as real presences, unseen, yet known in their remote splendor as kingly friends before whom I could bow, yet with whom I could aspire,—for something like this I think mountains must always be to those who truly love them,—was Coleridge's "Mont Blanc before Sunrise," in this same "First Class Book." I believe that poetry really first took possession of me in that poem, so that afterwards I could not easily mistake the genuineness of its ring, though my ear might not be sufficiently trained to catch its subtler harmonies. This great mountain poem struck some hidden key-note in my nature, and I knew thenceforth something of what it was to live in poetry, and to have it live in me. Of course I did not consider my own foolish little versifying poetry. The child of eight or nine years regarded her rhymes as only one among her many games and pastimes.
But with this ideal picture of mountain scenery there came to me a revelation of poetry as the one unattainable something which I must reach out after, because I could not live without it. The thought of it was to me like the thought of God and of truth. To leave out poetry would be to lose the real meaning of life. I felt this very blindly and vaguely, no doubt; but the feeling was deep. It was as if Mont Blanc stood visibly before me, while I murmured to myself in lonely places—
"Motionless torrents! silent cataracts!
Who made you glorious as the gates of heaven
Beneath the keen full moon? Who bade the sun
Clothe you with rainbows? Who with lovely flowers
Of living blue spread garlands at your feet?"
And then the
"Pine groves with their soft and soul-like sound"
gave glorious answer, with the streams and torrents, and my child-heart in its trance echoed the poet's invocation,—
"Rise, like a cloud of incense from the earth!
And tell the stars, and tell the rising sun,
Earth, with her thousand voices, calls on GOD!"
I have never visited Switzerland, but I surely saw the Alps, with Coleridge, in my childhood. And although I never stood face to face with mountains until I was a mature woman, always, after this vision of them, they were blended with my dream of whatever is pure and lofty in human possibilities,—like a white ideal beckoning me on.

As I think back to my childhood, it seems to me as if the air was full of hymns, as it was of the fragrance of clover-blossoms, and the songs of bluebirds and robins, and the deep undertone of the sea. And the purity, the calmness, and the coolness of the dear old Sabbath days seems lingering yet in the words of those familiar hymns, whenever I bear them sung. Their melody penetrates deep into my life, assuming me that I have not left the green pastures and the still waters of my childhood very far behind me.
There is something at the heart of a true song or hymn which keeps the heart young that listens. It is like a breeze from the eternal hills; like the west wind of spring, never by a breath less balmy and clear for having poured life into the old generations of earth for thousands of years; a spiritual freshness, which has nothing to do with time or decay.