Book submission: The Waif: A Collection of Poems

Title: The Waif: A Collection of Poems
Author: Wadsworth, Henry Longfellow
Publication date: Cambridge, Mass., 1845
Library: University of Miami
Call number:
Submitted by: Jamie Rathjen
A book of poetry from 1845, The Waif, is only subtitled “A Collection of Poems,” and perhaps deserves such a simple caption, as its contents are indeed eclectic. The material comes from a variety of sources, and firstly some of the poems are given an author of “Anonymous,” yet retain their titles. This means that in many cases the sources can easily be resolved with Google using the title or a line; for example, one is “The Awakening of Endymion” by English poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon. The book also counts selections from, among others, Emerson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Browning, and Felicia Hemans, and an epigraph from Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene;” all of these combine to indicate the book’s range, as some of the 17th century metaphysical poets are included alongside those contemporary to the period. An editor or compiler is not named inside the book, but the anthology is attributed to Longfellow, who also contributed the introductory “Proem.”

This copy of The Waif was originally published in Cambridge, Mass., in 1845, and currently resides in the libraries of the University of Miami. The book contains many markings and other additions, but the only verbal (i.e. containing words) inscription is in the front. It simply says “Deborah F. Adams, from her brother William, Feb. 17, 1845.” The Adams family lived nearby Cambridge, in Dedham, but any connection between the Adams family and the university is unlikely to be discovered without a bookplate, which the book does not appear to contain. Besides the inscription, many poems contain a small cross-like mark to the left of the poem’s title, either directly next to it or slightly below. These marks correlate well with the existence of other markings in the body of the poem, but are not necessarily a signal of it; that is, not every otherwise marked poem has a cross mark next to the title. The marks in the body of the poems consist largely of lines or brackets to the sides of stanzas: sometimes on the left side, sometimes on both sides, and sometimes a mark on the left side extends the entire length of a stanza while the mark on the right lasts only a line or two.

The other markings in the book are all florally themed: a small drawing of some flowers is found at the beginning of Horace Smith’s “Hymn to the Flowers,” as if to decorate the space between the title and the text. Similar drawings are found at the beginning and the end of “Autumn,” to create a sort of initial and to repeat the effect at the end. Finally, fainter drawings can be found in the same positions in other poems: “Why Thus Longing,” “The Lament of the Irish Emigrant,” and “The Death-Bed.” While these don’t seem to resemble anything in particular, except perhaps some vines at the beginning of “Why Thus Longing,” they are again placed either directly next to the beginning or ending words of the poem or below the last line. “The Lament of the Irish Emigrant,” a popular ballad of the day by the English writer Helen Blackwood, Lady Dufferin (also commonly and here known as Mrs. Blackwood; 1807-1867), additionally has what is clearly a small hand drawn above and to the left a stanza that is already marked, pointing at the text. This could be in addition to the vertical line below it, a reference to the vertical line, or a reference to the text (perhaps the incorrect “your’s” with which the stanza opens). These markings continue the pattern of existing next to yet not quite commenting on the text; they are an enigma that is both close to and distant from the poems themselves.

The multiple insertions in the book reach their climax at the end of the poem “Death of a Child,” where a large leaf is truly fastened into the page. This was achieved by cutting two small slits in the page and putting the stem through the gap created, such that a small part (and the leaf’s outline) is visible on the reverse side of the page, but the leaf is kept in place by the page itself. The same effect can also be seen at the beginning of the poem “No More,” but in this case only the stem and a small part above remains; it is surrounded by an outline that hints at this second leaf’s, or flower’s, original size. The marked stanzas refer to a mother (“to know the sweetness of a mother’s voice… No more!”); likely Adams’ mother Dorothy Alleyne (1788-1843), as she would have been the most recent family member to pass away as of the date of the inscription. “Hymn to the Flowers,” fittingly, has the outline of some kind of plant visible on all of its pages. Whatever it was, it is no longer there, but the same slits in the pages are visible at the bottom of page 17, so the plant must have been taken out. Perhaps Adams discovered that flowers don’t work as well for this purpose as leaves, and meanwhile whatever was used bled through to the other pages of the poem. The other botanically related insertion occurs in “The Lament of the Irish Emigrant,” where a small bit of leaf is visible in a position as if it was secured in the crevice between the pages, rather than using the same method with holes as the others. Again, an outline hints that the leaf was once larger than it currently appears, so while the book’s insertions have mostly not survived intact, they have literally made their mark on the pages on which they once laid.

As mentioned, the inscription in the book identifies it as belonging to a Deborah F. Adams (1813-1879), who I have identified as living in Dedham, Mass., and who received it from her brother, William Chickering (ca. 1814-1873). Little can otherwise be discovered about the family just from the inscription; however, a more eminent member of the family was one of Deborah’s sons, Dr. James Forster Alleyne Adams (1844-1914), a Harvard graduate who became a doctor in the area. The source of the insertions and markings – at least the ones clustered around the theme of death, which is not necessarily all of them – may be the death of two other family members, the first being a son, Horatio (1836-1850). The family had three children die young, but only Horatio after the book was published and received in 1845. One subtle way of referring to this may be that the only example of a passage that has pencil lines running down both sides of an entire stanza, creating a bracket-like effect, is in “Death of a Child.” The other markings of this kind are either only on the left side, or with a stanza-length line on the left side and a shorter one on the right. The poem itself, also called “My Child,” is by New England poet and minister John Pierpont (1785-1866), and the theme lies somewhere between denial and disbelief, expressed right from the opening line: “I cannot make him dead!” The end of each of the ten stanzas also contains a refrain, always some variation on “he is not there!” except at the very end, when it changes to “he is there!” i.e. in Heaven. Pierpont captures the feeling of the speaker expecting to see the boy around, offering up the refrain when the speaker realizes otherwise.

The notes in this copy of The Waif are in some places as mysterious as the subtitle of the book itself: “A Collection of Poems.” Aside from poems such as “Death of a Child,” one can sometimes only wonder at non-verbal annotations. The same questions can be asked of them as the selection of poems itself: why were the specific poems chosen? What context or message is the author trying to create? The word “waif,” as of the early 20th century, could have meant “goods found of which the owner is not known,” giving the impression of the book as a curious collection of poems happened upon by the reader, without any context. The Waif, and the annotations of this copy, might even be the idea of Book Traces in book form: when presented with a list of poems, it’s up to the reader to try to make sense of them.

Works Cited “Deborah F. Adams.” Massachusetts, State Census, 1855 [database on-line]. Provo, Utah: Operations, Inc., 2014.

⸺. “William F. Chickering.” Massachusetts, Death Records, 1841-1915 [database on-line]. Provo, Utah: Operations, Inc., 2013.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, ed. The Waif: A Collection of Poems. Cambridge, Mass.: John Owen, 1845.

Thayer, William Roscoe, et al. “Non-Academic: Dr. James Forster Alleyne Adams.” The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine 23 (1914-15): 334.

“Waif.” Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam, 1913. Project Gutenberg. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.

One thought on “Book submission: The Waif: A Collection of Poems

  1. Does this book have a poem starting ‘Afar in the desert I love to ride.’ If so this is the little book of my parents which i treasured in the 1960’s and which i lent to a friend, and which was subsequently stolen (with other things) from her car. I still think of that book and have several times tried to track it down. Can it be obtained in some form or other?
    Gwen Maka

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