March 18, 2016–Eliza Cook, Poet
I first read one of Eliza Cook’s poems in an old poetry anthology (We Who Are the Quick) I bought from an antique shop. The book, falling apart and smelling of history, has an inscription in it from the 1890s to two young girls, Ruby and Garnet, from their grandparents. Now when I read from this book, I feel like I’m sitting with my long ago sisters, Ruby and Garnet, reading to each other by the light of a lantern in an attic somewhere.
One of our favorite poets in the book is Eliza Cook.
Cook was born on Christmas Eve in 1818 in Southwark, England. Daughter of a brass worker, she was the youngest of 11 children. Cook’s mother encouraged her daughter’s imaginative nature. Despite this, Cook was almost entirely self-taught and started to write verses when she was 15. She published her first volume Lays of a Wild Harp in 1835, when she was 17.
From there, her career took off, and she became a regular contributor to the Weekly Dispatch, The Metropolitan Magazine and The New Monthly Magazine. As a poet, she was associated with the Chartist movement, a working class movement in England from 1838-1858. The Chartists wanted reforms to make the political system more democratic for the working man–demands like a vote for every single man over 21 (but not women, not yet!) and the secret ballot, among others.
Throughout her life Cook was a proponent of political and sexual freedom for women. She believed in the social necessity of “leveling up,”–the ideology that anyone could improve their lot in life and themselves through education. She was a favorite of the working class readers in England and America.
She became the close friend, and then lover to American Actress Charlotte Cushman (aha!–subject of tomorrow’s profile!).
Here is her love poem to “Grey-eyed Mabel”:
Grey Eyed Mabel
I gazed on orbs of flashing black;
I met the glow of hazel light;
I marked the hue of laughing blue,
That sparkled in the festive night.
But none could fling a lasting spell
To hold me with unchanging power–
The chains they cast were never fast
Beyond the gay and fleeting hour–
Till Grey-eyed Mabel’s gentle glance,
With blushing sense and beauty rife,
Bade my soul cry with burning sigh,
‘I’m thine, and only thine, for life.’
Black, blue, and hazel stars have set,
But Mabel’s grey eyes lead me yet.
What was it in sweet Mabel’s eyes
That told me what no others told,
That roused the dull, that pleased the wise,
That charmed the young and cheered the old?
What was it held my world-worn breast
In holy thrall–unknown before?
What was it those grey eyes expressed
That made me worship and adore?
It was the pure and tender ray
That filled those eyes in joy or woe;
It was the beam that could not play
Without the fountain stream below;
It was the beam of simple truth,
Of Woman’s faith and trusting Youth.
Those soft, grey eyes were watched by mine
With earnest, deep, and secret prayer;
I knew, I felt, my earthly shrine
Was found and fixed for ever–there.
I poured my heart one moonlit night
Into sweet Mabel’s listening ear;
Our mutual vow, from then till now,
Bound each to each–fond, firm, and dear.
Our boys and girls are growing round,
And all give promise, brave and fair,
But one, young cherub form is found
First in my love, my hope, my care.
And why?–ah! why? My soul replies,
‘She has dear Mabel’s soft, grey eyes.’