Davidson, Lucretia Maria
DAVIDSON, Lucretia Maria
Daughter of Oliver and Margaret Miller Davidson
After her early schooling at home, Lucretia Davidson was sent to Troy Female Academy. Coming from a household "with the sickbed as focal point," Davidson's delicate health was further undermined by the school's excessively ambitious curriculum; by the eight to ten hours' daily study in ill-ventilated rooms; by the virtual absence of outdoor exercise; and by insufficient sleep, further curtailed, before examinations, by rising at two a.m. or midnight to study until four. Despite her mother's concern, her father approved of sending her back to school, this time at Miss Gilbert's Albany Academy. Within three months Davidson returned home to die.
Restricted by her inexperience, Davidson sensibly drew her writing subject matter either from her daily life or from her studies. From history, biblical and national, came "David and Jonathon," "Ruth's Answer to Naomi," the prose "Columbus," and the spirited "Vermont Cadets"—from the classroom, the humorous "Week Before Examination" which was deservedly popular with her schoolmates; from her brief but poignant personal encounters with suffering, mental and physical, poems like "Headache" and "Fears of Death." These latter, especially, have the ring of sincerity, transcending her usual level of stock images and poetic diction.
Amir Khan and Other Poems, selected by her mother and with a biographical introduction by the artist and inventor Samuel Morse, was published in 1829. Copies were sent by Morse to a number of leading writers. In his covering letter to Robert Southey, poet laureate of England, Morse invited comparison with other youthful prodigies such as Chatterton and White, of "this new genius which sprang up and bloomed in the wilderness, assumed the female form and wore the features of exquisite beauty and perished in the bloom." Southey's response was an 11-page review in the prestigious London Quarterly (1829), the conclusion of which, Poe protested, was "twice as strong as was necessary to establish her fame in England-fearing America." Within 30 years, no less than 15 editions appeared on both sides of the Atlantic, all but the first preceded by the biographical sketch by Catherine Sedgwick, the first American woman novelist. A German translation was published in 1844, and an Italian edition in 1906.
Washington Irving, in his introduction to the poetry of the younger Davidson sister, Margaret, confessed to finding "a popular font of tears…in the blissful agony…of these lovely American girls who after giving promise of rare poetic excellence [were] snatched from existence."
Had these sophisticated and otherwise discerning contemporaries, upon encountering the romantically tragic young poet, abandoned all sense of proportion and critical judgement to wallow "like mawkish donkeys" in sentimentality, asks Irving's biographer? His own explanation is the reasonable one that attuned as they were to the mind of their generation, they responded to the prevailing philosophy of sentiment as we do to that of criticism. But how is Davidson's permanent contribution to literature to be determined? Edgar Allan Poe's review, challenging Southey's ipse dixit, suggests one reasonable line of approach. We must, he says, distinguish a heart-felt love of her "worth" from an intellectual "appreciation of [her] poetic ability." Additionally, this "distinction, would have spared us much twaddle on the part of commentators."
But such a distinction is one very difficult to make. In the case of Davidson, writing before there was much American poetry to judge by and dying before her own poetic skills and critical powers could be properly formed, it is virtually impossible to be so completely objective.
Poetical Remains of the Late Lucretia Maria Davidson (edited by M. Davidson with biography by C. Sedgwick, 1846, revised edition with Biographical and Poetical Remains of the Late Margaret Miller Davidson, 1857, revised 1860). Poems by Lucretia Maria Davidson (edited by M. O. Davidson, 1871).
Brooks, V. W., The World of Washington Irving (1944). Curry, K., ed., New Letters of Robert Southey (1965). Dewey, M. E., Life and Letters of Catherine Sedgwick (1871). Lutz, A., Emma Willard: Daughter of Democracy (1929). Mabee, C., Samuel Morse; The American Leonard (1944). Poe, E. A., Complete Works, Harrison, J., ed. (1902). Sparks, J., ed., The Library of American Biography (1837). Williams, S., Life of Washington Irving (1925).