Thaxter, Celia Laighton (1835–1894)

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Thaxter, Celia Laighton (1835–1894)

American poet. Born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on June 29, 1835; died on Appledore, one of the Isles of Shoals, off Portsmouth, on August 26, 1894; daughter of Thomas B. Laighton (a newspaperman) and Eliza (Rymes) Laighton; married Levi Lincoln Thaxter, on September 30, 1851 (died 1884); children: Karl Thaxter; John Thaxter; Roland Thaxter (1858–1932, who would become a well-known botanist at Harvard, specializing in cryptogamic botany).

Celia Laighton Thaxter was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1835, the daughter of Thomas B. Laighton and Eliza Rymes Laighton . Incensed by political associates and despairing of a political career in state government, Thomas retired to White Island, on the isolated Isles of Shoals, with Eliza and their three children in about 1841. For approximately ten years, he was keeper of the White Island lighthouse. These surroundings—about ten miles off the coast of Portsmouth—would serve to color the best of Celia Thaxter's later verse: the isolation of the winters, the sailing of a boat by ear in fog, the "tall, black-capped giant" of a lighthouse, the birds that flew violently against its lantern, the sound of the guns from the sinking brig Pocahontas, which went down with all hands lost.

In 1845, when her father built a summer hotel on Appledore Island, the first of its kind along the New England coast, many of the leading writers and artists of the period flocked to its doors. There 16-year-old Celia met her future husband Levi Thaxter, a lawyer and Harvard graduate who came as a missionary to preach to the fishermen on Star Island. They were married in 1851. Four years later, in 1855, Levi nearly lost his life in a sailboat accident while crossing to the mainland. He grew fearful of the sea and the islands, and the couple moved inland to Newtonville, Massachusetts, where they raised three sons. Much older than his wife and a retiring scholar by nature, Levi retreated into his books. Celia had an apposite nature. Following a serious illness, in 1868–69 Levi wintered in Florida with the two younger sons, the first in a series of long separations for the couple which eventually led to their living separate lives. Ostensibly a widow, Celia and her eldest son Karl (mentally ill since childhood) joined her brothers who had inherited the summer hotel on Appledore. There she became the center of a salon for the best minds of New England, including John Greenleaf Whittier, William Morris Hunt, and Edwin Arlington Robinson. "Though she never stood with the greatest," wrote Laura Benét , "her simple poems had both power and originality." Celia Thaxter died and was buried on Appledore at the age 59.

Her first printed poem, "Land-Locked," was published by James Russell Lowell in the Atlantic Monthly. Others verses followed. In lyrical form, her poems deal with storms at sea, shipwrecks, beacon lights, striped snails, rock flowers, and sandpipers. She also wrote prose sketches, including Among the Isles of Shoals (1873), Driftweed, a book about floriculture, An Island Garden (1894), and stories and poems for children while contributing articles to St. Nicholas magazine. A complete edition of her poems was edited by Sarah Orne Jewett in 1896.


Benét, Laura. Famous American Poets. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1950.