The Peculiar Background to L.M. Montgomery’s “The Alpine Path” (L.M. Montgomery Series) #LMMI2018

One of the more poignant aspects of Montgomery’s work for readers is how she charts her path as a writer in Emily of New Moon. Universally recognized as the book that most encoded her personality, it is also the one that imaginatively captures the challenges and joys of being a writer. There is one poem–or a part of a poem–that is captured in both Emily of New Moon and Montgomery’s memoir of the craft, originally published as a serial in a Canadian magazine in 1917 and later published as The Alpine Path in 1974. In Emily of New Moon the poem is sent to Emily as a selection from “The Fringed Gentian,” and includes this stanza:

Then whisper, blossom, in thy sleep
How I may upward climb
The Alpine Path, so hard, so steep,
That leads to heights sublime.
How I may reach that far-off goal
Of true and honoured fame
And write upon its shining scroll
A woman’s humble name.

In little Emily, this triggers “the Flash”–a mystical moment of thrilling clarity where her everyday life connects to an immortal or heavenly beauty, which she then works out as a vocation of writing. It is not hard to see, for a budding author, how this would be an inspirational verse. Emily of New Moon sets up Emily’s journey in the following two books, as she weighs her vocation as a writer against the sufferings she encounters as well as the pressures from society, family, and friends. She is warned that the author’s life is indeed an uphill climb whose sublime heights are for much of life out of reach. And yet, for those of us called to the Alpine Path, we climb.

Montgomery recognized the hardness, and in the introduction to her memoir she wrote:

It is indeed a “hard and steep” path; and if any word I can write will assist or encourage another pilgrim along that path, that word I gladly and willingly write (The Alpine Path, ch. 1).

From childhood, Montgomery had braced herself for the steep, hard climb. She had encountered the verses quoted above in a magazine when she was a child and pasted them in a writing book she used for her own poems and school essays. This poem was a great comfort to Lucy Maud Montgomery. Her classic book, Anne of Green Gables, was rejected at least five times. By the time Montgomery had a book deal she had a hundred stories in print and was making a living (about $500 per year) by her pen. But a lot of that work was what she called Sunday School stories–moralistic tales that were limited by the essential lesson built into the tale. She yearned to be a real storyteller, and more than a decade after she began in earnest to be an “author” she had published a bestseller.

Being the peculiar person that I am, I thought I would look up the poem, “To the Fringed Gentian.” The Poetry Foundation provided the full text by William Cullen Bryant:

Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,
And colored with the heaven’s own blue,
That openest when the quiet light
Succeeds the keen and frosty night.
Thou comest not when violets lean
O’er wandering brooks and springs unseen,
Or columbines, in purple dressed,
Nod o’er the ground-bird’s hidden nest.
Thou waitest late and com’st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are flown,
And frosts and shortening days portend
The aged year is near his end.
Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye
Look through its fringes to the sky,
Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.
I would that thus, when I shall see
The hour of death draw near to me,
Hope, blossoming within my heart,
May look to heaven as I depart.

So, yeah, I know I am not an internationally renowned poetry critic, but it strikes me that this is an entirely different poem. There is a blossom in both poems, and a journey. But there isn’t much else that connects them. I don’t think I am being overly literal when I suggest that either Montgomery has misattributed the original poem, or that her version is a pretty radical interpretation.

And maybe a better one. I am perhaps not the best judge, but it seems to me the gritty upward-way poem is better than the floral lift to heaven. Bryant, however, is a celebrated poet, and Montgomery merely an interesting poet. My personal connection to the upward way and my own struggles to work out my vocation might bias me.

But granted these are different poems, we are left with the curious problem of where Montgomery found the Alpine Path poem. Surprisingly, after reading a dozen or so academic articles on Emily of New Moon and Montgomery’s vocation as an author–as well as a couple of good biographies–scholars have not pinned down the reference. After an extensive internet search, it seems to me that blogger Faith Elizabeth Hough may have begun to work it out. She includes the longer version of the poem here:

“The Fringed Gentian,” Author Unknown
Lift up, thy dewy fringed eyes,
Oh, little Alpine flower,
The tear that trembling on them lies
Has sympathetic power
To move my own, for I, too, dream
With thee of distant heights
Whose lofty peaks are all agleam
With rosy dazzling lights.
Who dreams of wider spheres revealed
Up higher near the sky
Within the valley’s narrow field
Cannot contented lie.
Who longs for mountain breezes rare
Is restless down below
Like me for stronger purer air
Thou pinest, too, I know.
Where aspirations, hopes, desires
Combining fondly dwell,
Where burn the never-dying flowers
Of Genius’ wondrous spell.
Such towering summits would I reach
Who climb and grope in vain,
Oh, little flower, the secret teach
The weary way make plain.
When whisper blossom in thy sleep
How I may upward climb
The Alpine path, so hard, so steep
That leads to heights sublime.
How I may reach that far-off goal
Of true and honored fame
And write upon its shining scroll
A woman’s humble name.

Like Bryant’s poem, this verse is about autumnal flowers. With some searching I found this poem in the 1884 New Year’s edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book. “Tam! The Story of a Woman” by Ella Rodman Church and August De Bubna includes this poem. In the story the verses are found in a copy of Bryant’s poetry–hence Montgomery’s connection to the poem–but in the (relatively boring) story they are actually written on a slip of paper that was found in the Bryant book–and written by a woman who tentatively hopes to make a career as a poet in a male’s publishing world. Intriguingly, Montgomery seems to have forgotten the original context of the verse, but herself emulated the desire of “Miss Powell” in the story.

It seems to me that Montgomery selects out the best bit of the poem, but again you see my bias. I am that “blossom,” I hope–but if all four verses are included it becomes rather silly to press the metaphor. Still, I think Montgomery was on the right track with her idea of “The Alpine Path.” It is a peculiar provenance that brings us this poem, but it has been an interesting journey. Once I found the names of Ella Rodman Church and August De Bubna I found that others have followed my path of curiosity. The Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown has some of L.M. Montgomery’s scrapbooks, including her copy of the poem. But the search has been interesting, nonetheless.

Update: A reader sent in this note: A Carol Gaboury, a member of the literary society until her death in 1998, identified this information about the poem, The Fringed Gentian from the Winter 1989 issue of Kindred Spirits Newsletter of Vermont. See the note in The L.M. Montgomery Literary Society.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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2 Responses to The Peculiar Background to L.M. Montgomery’s “The Alpine Path” (L.M. Montgomery Series) #LMMI2018

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Well researched! Fascinating – but complicated to look into further, readily, I am finding! For instance, the Wikisource transcription of the “Gentian” article from The New International Encyclopædia (1906) includes, “Of the fringed gentian species Gentiana crinita is particularly celebrated for the beauty of its flowers, which are large, blue, and fringed on the margins. It has a branched stem and grows in wet ground. The brilliancy of the flowers of the small Alpine species has led to many attempts to cultivate them, which have generally proved unsuccessful, apparently from the difficulty of imitating the climatic and soil conditions of their native heights.” Does that mean Gentiana crinita is a “small Alpine species”? Because Gene Mirro tells us, “The fringed Gentian, Gentianopsis crinita, is native over a vast area of eastern North America”!

    https://nargs.org/reference/gentianopsis

    Dr. Lena Struwe, a professor at Rutgers and Director of the Chrysler Herbarium, there, seems to be one of the world experts on gentians – and has collected some “Poetry and quotes about gentians” and ” Popular literature and novels that include gentians in one way or another”:

    http://gentian.rutgers.edu/ethno_poetry.htm

    http://gentian.rutgers.edu/ethno_literature.htm

    but has not updated these lists during the last seven years, and does not include LMM or Ella Rodman Church and August De Bubna! You ought to send her an e-mail with a link!

    While the Alpine path imagery in general makes me think of that associated with the ascent of the poetry-loving Margaret Anstruther in Charles Williams’s novel, Descent into Hell (1937), the particular character makes me think of Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle (written c. 1938-39, published Jan. 1945).

    Like

  2. Pingback: Emily of New Moon’s Visitation of Beauty with Father Cassidy (L.M. Montgomery Series) #LMMI2018 | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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