Coolbrith, Ina Donna

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Born Josephine D. Smith, 10 March 1842, Nauvoo, Illinois; died 29 February 1928, San Francisco, California

Daughter of Don Carlos and Agnes Coolbrith Smith; married Robert B. Carsley, 1859 (divorced)

Ina Donna Coolbrith was four months old when her father died and with his death, Coolbrith's mother moved the family to St. Louis, Missouri, where she married printer William Pickett. In 1849, two years after the gold rush began, Pickett took his wife and children to California. They settled in Los Angeles where Coolbrith spent her early teens and twenties. At eleven, she began writing verses and publishing in the local paper, the Los Angeles Star. The California Home Journal also printed many of her early poems.

After a disappointing marriage to Robert Carsley, a partner in the Salamander Iron Works, Coolbrith divorced her husband and moved to San Francisco. Here she broke all associations with her unpleasant past and adopted her pseudonym, Ina Coolbrith. Soon her writings attained a local reputation, and when, in 1868, Bret Harte founded the Overland Monthly, he named her as one of the coeditors. Primarily a poet, though she did write reviews on occasion, Coolbrith wrote for the Californian, Harper's Weekly, Century, Scribner's and other magazines and became a close associate and friend of Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Joaquin Miller. With George Stoddard and Bret Harte, she was said to complete the "Golden Gate Trinity" of authors.

After being acclaimed by critics in England and America, Coolbrith planned to go to New York and eventually to London. However, she was suddenly left with the responsibility of rearing a niece and nephew, and was forced to stay in California where she worked for the Oakland Library, the San Francisco Mercantile Library, and the San Francisco Bohemian Club. In 1915 Coolbrith was summoned to a World Congress of Authors, and named poet laureate of California.

Despite Coolbrith's rich personal history, she wrote little of her poetry from autobiographical or topical experiences. An early poem about the ambush of Sheriff Barton, written when she was sixteen and published in the Los Angeles Star, is a rare exception to her later sentimental lyrics. Of Coolbrith's mature work, done primarily for the Overland Monthly and her books, only four poems refer to her personal past: "Retrospect," "Fragment of an Unfinished Poem," "Unrest," and "A Mother's Grief."

"Fragment of an Unfinished Poem" (Poetry of the Pacific, 1867) illustrates the unfortunately brief retrospective period when Coolbrith molded a sensuous perception of her disillusioning past: "The soft star closes to the golden days /I dreamed away, in that far, tropic clime, /Wherein Love's blossom budded, bloomed and died." In "Unrest" Coolbrith's topic is her failed marriage; the poet "cannot sleep" for the "mourning memory /Her dream domains." She searches for hopes that have perished on "ruined footpaths" and "by the grave of Love" kneels and "sheds no tear." No doubt Coolbrith could make such resolves by forging a new identity in San Francisco where she kept her past a secret, even from close friends. Yet a poem like "A Mother's Grief" (Outcroppings, 1866), which mourns the loss of an infant, perhaps Robert Carsley's child, hint that the wounds were permanent.

Because of her reticence on subjects of her past, Coolbrith's "Blossom Time," her second published poem in the Overland Monthly, is viewed as typical of the majority of her work in theme and style; it celebrates the coming of spring. What was a personal passion in the autobiographical poems becomes a wistful sadness mixed with love of nature. These lines from "Longing," published in 1868, exemplify this sadness:

And I could Kiss, with longing wild,
Earth's dear brown bosom, loved so much,
A grass-blade fanned across my hand
Would thrill me like a lover's touch.

Coolbrith continued to pipe this same theme—unhappiness abated in the simple pleasures of nature—in her books, A Perfect Day, and Other Poems (1881), The Singer by the Sea (1894), and Songs from the Golden Gate (1896), a collected edition of her work. But despite the single-mindedness of her poems, she emerges as a top writer of the San Francisco literary group. When evaluating Coolbrith, one must remember the fixed literary tastes that influenced the poetry of the period and the attitudes that conditioned women writers. There is a strength in Coolbrith's imagery which takes her beyond the sentimental lyricists of her day. In fact, many of her images—sensuous, yet wistful—are analogous to Theodore Roethke's perception of man and nature in the 20th century. As George Stoddard said of her work: "She has no superior among the female poets of her own land, and scarcely an equal. Her poems are singularly sympathetic; I know of none more palpably spontaneous. The minor key predominates; but, there are a few lark-like carols suffused with the 'unpremeditated art' of heavenly inspiration."


Rhodehamel, J., and R. Wood, Ina Coolbrith, Librarian and Laureate of California (1973). Walker, F., SanFrancisco's Literary Frontier (1939). Walker, F., A Literary History of Southern California (1950).

Other reference:

Pacific Historian (1973). Westward (1928).