THE MOURNER A-LA-MODE.
By John G. Saxe
I saw her last night at a party
(The elegant party at Mead’s),
And looking remarkably hearty
For a widow so young in her weeds;
Yet I know she was suffering sorrow
Too deep for the tongue to express.
Or why had she chosen to borrow
So much from the language of dress?
Her shawl was as sable as night;
And her gloves were as dark as her shawl;
And her jewels that flashed in the light,
Were black as a funeral pall;
Her robe had the hue of the rest
(How nicely it fitted her shape!)
And the grief that was heaving her breast,
Boiled over in billows of crape.
What tears of vicarious woe,
That else might have sullied her face,
Were kindly permitted to flow
In ripples of ebony lace!
While even her fan, in its play,
Had quite a lugubroius scope,
And seemed to be waving away,
The ghost of the angel of Hope!
Yet rich as the robes of a queen
Was the sombre apparel she wore;
I’m certain I never had seen
Such a sumptuous sorrow before;
And I couldn’t help thinking the beauty,
In mourning the loved and the lost,
Was doing her conjugal duty
Altogether regardless of cost!
One surely would say a devotion
Performed at so vast an expense,
Betray’d an excess of emotion
That was really something immense;
And yet as I viewed, at my leisure,
Those tokens of tender regard,
I thought:—It is scarce without measure
The sorrow that goes by the yard.
Ah! grief is a curious passion,
And yours—I am sorely afraid—
The very next phase of the fashion
Will find it beginning to fade.
Though dark are the shadows of grief,
The morning will follow the night,
Half-tints will betoken relief,
Till joy shall be symbol’d in white!
Ah, well! It were idle to quarrel
With Fashion, or aught she may do;
And so I conclude with a moral
And metaphor—warranted new.
When measles come handsomely out,
The patient is safest, they say;
And the sorrow is mildest, no doubt,
That works in a similar way!
The Spiritual Magazine 1 August 1871
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Widows were often, alas, fair game for the Victorian press. Many marriages were not love-matches and many women were widowed quite young. In addition, there might be economic incentive to remarry. These circumstances led to the cliche of the “merry widow,” a woman who delighted in mourning finery and thought of nothing except bagging another husband. Tragically, the author, John G. Saxe [1816-1887] poet, wit, and satirist, knew too much about mourning. Only three years after this light-hearted poem was published, he began to suffer a series of losses: his youngest daughter Laura died of consumption aged 17 in 1874. His daughter Sarah died in 1879; his mother in 1880; another daughter, Harriet, his eldest son, John, and John’s wife also died of the disease in quick succession in 1881. In 1880, his wife collapsed with an apoplexy and died, worn out from nursing her sick children and husband. Saxe himself suffered head injuries in a train accident in 1875, sank into a reclusive melancholy and died in 1887.
Mead’s is “Paul Mead’s” a chop house in Brooklyn popular with lawyers and sporting men. The last stanza refers to the belief that if the rash of measles was somehow supressed or turned inward, it would go ill with the patient.
You may read more about mourning in The Victorian Book of the Dead, now available. A recent post satirizing the fashionable widow was this one.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.
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