Thursday, September 1, 2016

Lydia Sigourney

One of the most widely-read poets in her time, Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney (September 1, 1791 - June 10, 1865) published fifty-nine books of poetry and prose. She was born in Norwich, Connecticut. the daughter of a gardener, and one of his wealthy employers paid for her education at a private school.  She opened a school for girls in Norwich (sources date its founding to either 1809 or 1811) and she taught there and in Hartford until her marriage in 1819 to Charles Sigourney. She had already published her first book, Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse (1815), but her husband requested that she now publish anonymously.

Lydia agreed to this stipulation and continued to submit to magazines and publish books of her prose and poetry. She initally donated the proceeds from her writing to organizations advancing such social causes as temperance, peace, and abolition, but by the 1830s her husband was no longer entirely able to support their family and she became the primary breadwinner. At that time, she also began to publish under her own name. Her writing was so well known that the publisher of the popular magazine Godey's Lady's Book paid her an honorarium for the use of her name in the masthead beside its other editors (including Sarah Josepha Hale), though Sigourney had no editorial duties. The social concerns that she supported continued to appear in her writing, and she was an early advocate for Native American causes.

A number of hymns later identified as hers first appeared in Village Hymns (1824), a Congregationalist collection assembled by Asahel Nettleton for the General Association of Connecticut, and over the years Sigourney's hymns appeared in several other hymnbooks, including Maria Weston Chapman's abolitionist collection, Songs of the Free (1836).

I found today's hymn in a collection titled Lyra Sacra Americana: or, Gems from American Sacred Poetry (1868), and though it probably appeared earlier I do not know whether Sigourney considered it a poem or a hymn.  As you know, hymnal editors have often believed such authors' intentions to be relatively unimportant.

Prayer is the dew of faith,
Its raindrop, night and day,
That guards its vital power from death
When cherished hopes decay.
And keeps it 'mid this changeful scene
A bright, perennial evergreen.

Our works, of faith the fruit,
May ripen year by year,
Of health and soundness at the root
An evidence sincere;
Dear Savior! grant your blessing free,
And make our faith no barren tree.

Lydia H. Sigourney, 19th cent.; alt.
Tune: BATH (
William Henry Cooke, 19th. cent.

(Apparently this meter is rather unusual, as I could only find one tune with a sound file available online. BATH by William Cooke is somewhat acceptable, but probably not the best match.)

Sigourney's autobiography, Letters of Life (1866) was published after her death. Fortunately, she did live to see the end of slavery and the Civil War. Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a memorial poem, including these lines:

She sang alone, ere womanhood had known
The gift of song which fills the air to-day:
Tender and sweet, a music all her own
May fitly linger where she knelt to pray.

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