Edmond Reuel Smith of our village wrote verse, not poetry, rather as he put it, “a dish of doggerel.” But he enjoyed it and so did many of his contemporaries. At the last meeting of the Skaneateles Lyceum’s 1853-1854 winter season, he presented a portrait of the village in verse. Such was the response that he was persuaded to have the piece printed, and so it was, by William J. Moses’ publishing house in nearby Auburn, N.Y.
Early on, Smith apparently sought to capture his audience with a vision perhaps more typical of a men’s smoker than a Lyceum lecture. In describing how the village had changed since the time of its Native American occupancy, he summons this sensual image:
No more the dusky forest maid
When early morn the rosy orient streaks,
Some placid pool, her only mirror, seeks
To weave her locks in many a cunning braid
With wild flowers gathered in the dewy glade; –
Nor, on the grassy bank her mantle leaving,
Delights her form voluptuous to lave
In the deep crystal wave,
In playful gambols plunging deep, or cleaving
The flood with rounded arm and bosom gently heaving.
In contrast, the “fairer maidens” of 1854 have flowing curls and eyes as blue as the sky, they do not leave their mantle on the grassy bank, and although their bosoms are unmentioned, we can be sure they neither heave nor cleave.
On a safer subject, Nature’s ascendancy over the works of man, Smith writes:
She fears no foe—and laughs in scorn
At the dread spirit of the age,
As to her listening ears are borne
Those good old fashioned rumblings of the stage,
And pealing echoes of the merry horn.
No lengthened train comes thundering near
Our quiet homes—startling the ear
With many a harsh, discordant sound,
To taint the pure, sweet air around—
With vapors foul defile our spotless skies, —
Or fill with dust and smoke our nostrils, mouths and eyes.
The iron horse would never dare,
Full well we know, these hills to climb,
For we have heard his shriekings of despair
As madly sweeps he past, each time,
The boundaries of our fair domain,
Whose pleasant heights he never can attain.
And so the stage coach is celebrated, but the iron horse denied its entry. In a timeless observation, he cites the god of money as a foe of nature, and the buildings along the lakefront come in for special scorn:
E’en Mammon—Nature’s greatest foe,
Is impotent to conquer here,
For though a long, unsightly row
Beside the lake he dared to rear,
Backed by still more unsightly quays,
The speculation scarcely pays.
‘Tis plain the place was never made
For the dull purposes of trade.
In vain our merchants, all along the block,
Display of satins, silks, de laines and laces
A most inviting stock, —
While gentlemanly clerks, with smiling faces,
Kindly supply our sugar, teas and crockery,
The whole thing seems a mockery!
Full well we know they sell at losing prices,
And give away the contents of their shelves
At most unheard of sacrifices;
You doubt? they tell you so themselves!
The thing is easy to be understood—
They only labor for the public good.
Having needled the merchant class, Smith has kind words for the women of the village. Mary Elizabeth Beauchamp noted in 1897 that Smith’s reference to the “busy hive” was a tribute to the Women’s Circle of Industry, where “Fair hands and needles bright are making money” for the public good. And Smith compares the Lyceum’s fare with that of the women’s fund-raisers:
‘Tis true we have not spread,
As the kind matrons do—a plenteous board
With biscuits, dainty meats and gingerbread,
Pickles, preserves and many a brimming bowl
Of fragrant mocha; that we can’t afford, —
But we have given you instead,
The feast of reason and the flow of soul.
My favorite lines are near the end of the piece, wherein we see that Smith is clever enough to find a rhyme for “Kansas”:
You’ve learned the impropriety of whipping slaves,
And heard, amid these walls, the startling cry
Ring for Nebraska and for Kansas;
With other things which we’ll pass by,
Merely because they do no suit my stanzas.
Thank you, Reuel Smith. I could have used a little more of the playful, voluptuous Indian maiden plunging into the crystal deep, but I guess you did all you could for 1854.
* * *
My thanks to the Skaneateles Historical Society for preserving a copy of “Our Village.” And in case you were wondering, “de laines” is French for woolens.