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Nineteenth-Century Literary Nature Religion and the American Civil War

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The author is a homemaker and retired medical transcriptionist. She holds a Masters degree in English and loves to write.

Alta Isadore Gould. Photo in author's possession.

Alta Isadore Gould. Photo in author's possession.

"Nineteenth-Century Literary Nature Religion and the American Civil War" looks at an American Civil War text entitled, The Veteran’s Bride and Other Poems: Stories of the Late War (1894), written and published by Alta Isadore Gould, who also happens to be my great-grandmother.1 I contend that her collection of Civil War poetry and stories in verse fits under the purview of a literary nature religion.

nineteenth-century-literary-nature-relgiion

Three driving forces combine to make The Veteran's Bride and Other Poems a distinctive achievement. They are:

--Gould’s immersion in and reverence for nature. As an early pioneer on the American frontier in western Michigan, Gould held an intimate relationship with nature and the land, which culminates in expressions of veneration, love, and respect for nature and the land.

--Gould’s desire for social and spiritual equality with men. Gould also yearns for social and spiritual equality with men, which a nature religion can provide women (but Christianity cannot), given that nature religions honor both male and female principles equally.2

--The impact of the Civil War on her life. The Civil War was a life-changing event in her life, in which her own husband, a Union soldier, lost use of his right arm. An affinity between the female moon and Union soldiers will be a vehicle through which she understands the loss of, and damage to, so many good Civil War soldiers, friends and family, of her generation, and helps to assuage her pain.

Michigan Pine

Gould's creative awareness as a poet is firmly anchored in her affection for the land, as seen by her poem "Michigan Pine.” In the poem her “memory reverts to that pioneer day” when as a child she arrives to Michigan’s Muskegon valley from “the East, where the pines fail to grow.”

"’Twas the Muskegon valley, Oh, beautiful sight!
Whose vast sea of green filled my heart with delight.
How it rose, and then fell with the breath of the breeze,
That great restless sea of gigantic pine trees." (lines 11-14)

Here the “great restless sea” of pine trees conforms to the rolling contours of Mother Earth. When closely examining the four lines above, Gould uses the ambiguous pronoun “it” in line 13 to show that:

--The Earth’s body rises and falls with the breath of the breeze that flows over the Muskegon valley.

--Her own chest rises and falls with the breath of the breeze as she inhales it.

--Her words rise and fall as she speaks them.

This verse shows that Mother Earth and the female poet are one.

Gould compares the Michigan pine to the "stately" cedars of Lebanon, a Christian tree mentioned in the Bible—but appears to prefer the pine, whom she deifies as "lords of the forest" as a different type of god for herself—and whom she secretly worships: "And deep in my heart there is a shrine/ Sacred to the memory of Michigan Pine."

Autumn Idyl

Spiritual affinity with nature resurfaces in her poem “Autumn Idyl,” in which Gould laments the loss of childhood dreams.

Autumn has arrived, and Gould mourns the fact that the birds have all left "to sunny Southern lands," the "flowers are dead," and soon the "brooklets will be bound in icy bands." Unfortunately, her "childhood dreams" have taken the same path, which is the real cause of her melancholy.

Now she is old, and as she approaches death Gould turns to the cycles of nature to find solace. Because she has knowledge that life returns in the spring, Gould is able to imagine a hopeful unseen future.

". . . the breath of springtime
Will be sweet with fragrant flowers,
And the birds, now fleeing southward
Will return to Northern bowers.

Streams released from icy fetters
Will go rippling on their way,
Trees by autumn blasts left leafless
Stand once more in green array.

I am soothed by these reflections,
And there comes to me a thought
That, perhaps, the unseen future
May hold blessings I have sought."

Willie Lee

“Willie Lee” is a fully developed story in rhyme.

The heroine, Ellen, participates as a child in all of the “frolics” of her two brothers and neighbor boy, Willie Lee, for whom she has a romantic attraction. Together they “strolled through the wildwood/ In quest of early spring flowers,/ Or angled for fish in the trout stream/ Beguiling the long summer hours.”

After she becomes a “young lady” Ellen expresses a palpable regret at not being able to engage in the outdoor activities she did as a child, and instead is required to follow the social norms outlined for women. Gould writes:

“I now had become a young lady
And so must not ramble at will,
I longed for my haunts in the wildwood,
And the dashing trout-stream by the mill.
Instead there were picnics and parties,
Which did very well in their way.”

Taking Ellen's tomboy persona into account, this poem demonstrates Gould's desire for social equality with males.

Allan Worth

Gould's underlying desire for social equality with males is illustrated once more in “Allan Worth,” a rhymed narrative about a young woman, Alice North, who disguises herself as a man and serves in the Civil War as a Union soldier.

Alice is able to participate in the war because she is a skilled markswoman and an avid outdoors enthusiast who, as a youngster, was eager to "tramp" across "field and wood" shooting with her brother.

Alice expresses her unhappiness early in the poem at having to repress her male tendencies simply because she is a girl:

“Since Sumter’s sad, eventful morn,
When our proud flag was soiled and torn,
Like Anderson, the staunch and true,
I’ve longed to be a soldier, too;
And, were I not a girl, to-night
Would see me dead or in the fight.”

Alice seeks refuge in the woods after hearing that her only brother was slain in the battle of Shiloh: "And there beneath the forest trees/ Appeared more peaceful and at ease." The forest provides her solace. Again, the female principle is shown to belong out in nature and not in the house.

The forest is also an outpost where societal norms can be disregarded and possibilities can be considered, such as enlisting in the army as a female disguised as a male.

One can only imagine that, as a woman, Gould’s strongest emotions and desires trace back to a time when she was immersed in nature, when she was allowed to be male, when she was a child, and it is from this place in her heart she writes her poetry and her nature religion can be seen.3

Moonlight Musings

Gould expresses her passion for the moon in “Moonlight Musings.” Even though Gould plainly admires the "queen of the night," she first has reservations about her:

“. . . I mark the pale glory, the soft, silver light,
And then I remember this queen of the night,
As fair and as pure as a maiden at prayer
Has witnessed full many a scene of despair;
Has shone on the field where the dying were left,
Has shone on the cot of the orphan bereft,

From her throne at the zenith has coldly looked down
On fields red with carnage, on battle-wrecked town,
On tents of the soldiers who slept on their arms
Environed by danger of sudden alarms.

Her beams often fell on the still open grave
As soldier boys buried a comrade so brave;
Looked in through the casement, illumined the room
Where the widow was sleeping unconscious of doom.
Musing on I grew sad lest this friend of my youth
Had recreant proved to her goodness and truth,

Since she unappalled still her radiance shed,
And gazed so serenely on dying and dead . . . “

Gould is not sure she can abide by the moon: “And if her pure light but a mockery seemed/ When over such scenes as Antietam it streamed,” explains that the spectacle of dead bodies on the landscape makes the goddess appear cruel.

Gould quickly overcomes her misgivings about the moon, aware of the fact that the feminine moon is involved with and cares for human life in other ways.

1. “Her beams often fell on the still open grave/ As soldier boys buried a comrade so brave,” conveys the ritual passing of life into death through the body of Mother Earth.

2. “Yet often it cheered the poor sentry who stood/ On lone picket duty in valley and wood,” shows that the moon appeals to the human spirit and makes people happy.

3. “And I have been told that the soldiers oft read/ Their letters from home by the light that she shed,” shows the moonlight connecting people on land and preserving relationships.

Gould finally concludes, "At length I am comforted, as I reflect/ The moon still has claims to my love and respect."

Drawing Down the Moon

Gould’s love for the moon carries the promise that, as she communes with the moon, she draws down the moon as a means for producing her poetry.4 Gould is sitting on her cot in front of an open door, the moon in her sight, “shedding her radiance over the scene.” From this place Gould writes:

"At length I am comforted, as I reflect
The moon still has claims to my love and respect."

Reflect has a dual meaning in poetry—first, to muse or contemplate, and second, to reflect light, as the moon does.

One might assume Gould is engaging in poetic wordplay. It is impossible to tell here if the poet is thinking over her ideas and therefore reflecting on them, or whether she is more literally absorbing the moon's "radiance" and reflecting the moon's light that bathes her body. Both interpretations are valid.

Thus, it is believable that she is drawing down the moon. Gould channels the goddess’s truth and luster. She is the visible moon.

The Triple Diana

A remarkable representation of the moon goddess is the three-bodied Diana. In his book Polymetis (1747), Joseph Spence writes that the three-bodied Diana “is common among the antient figures of this goddess; and it is hence the poets call her the triple, the three-headed, and the three-bodied Diana. Her distinguishing name under this triple appearance, is Hecate, or Trivia."5

Close examination of the white crocheted brooch fastened to Gould's black gown in the fifth edition author photo reveals what seems to be three full moons. Perhaps they are a manifestation of the Triple Diana.

As a modest form of regalia worn at the neck, the triple moons demonstrate Gould’s reverence for the moon. Gould is the Moon and the Moon is Author.

Because the three moons are touching, this symbol may be a precursor to the more refined triple moon symbol of today, composed of waxing, full, and waning moons, all touching.

Author's portrait

Author's portrait

Brooch

Brooch

Triple Goddess symbol

Triple Goddess symbol

The White Goddess

It is not surprising, therefore, that the White Goddess appears in Gould’s opening dedication.6 Gould addresses her volume to Civil War soldiers—“The Brave Defenders of Our Country.” Thus she writes her dedication:

"Brave Boys in Blue, your camp-fire song
Will soon be hushed, the shadows long
Will merge into the shades of night,
And soon you'll join the Boys in White.
For cruel time’s relentless hand
Is thinning fast the gallant band,
And soon will sleep beneath the yew
The remnant of our Boys in Blue."

A synecdoche is a figure of speech that represents a widely accepted second name for something.

The phrase “Boys in Blue” typifies a synecdoche, because "Boys in Blue" is a widely accepted second name for the Union soldier.

“Boys in White,” however, is not a synecdoche, because “Boys in White” is not a a widely accepted second name for the Union soldier or for any other known group of people.

The phrase, therefore, poses an unanswered question—who are the “Boys in White?” The answer to the question lies in the true definition of “White,” a term in use that is both content-dependent and syntactic.

Moonlight creates the “shades of night.” Moonlight is also “White.” When the Boys in Blue “merge into the shades of night” (or shadows) to “join the Boys in White,” they merge with moonlight and/or the moon’s whiteness, keeping in mind that nighttime shadows only exist because of moonlight.

Therefore, “White” refers to the moon as an entity or location where old soldiers meet to join with the moon. The souls of Gould’s aged soldiers become one with the night-white-moon, and reside with her (and not a Christian God) in death.

As with Gould's triple moon brooch, another symbol of the Triple Goddess, appearing as three moons (as typeset circles) grouped together, is incorporated in her dedication "to soldiers," just after the words, THE AUTHOR.

nineteenth-century-literary-nature-relgiion

Gould’s special mythos, that emphasizes the importance of both the land and a moon goddess, is a product of her strong spiritual attachment to nature. In her poetry the healing properties of the land and moon function to mitigate the emotional and material losses she experienced as a result of the Civil War in her lifetime.

Conclusion

I am aware that Gould’s domestic poetry falls into the category of “fluff” and that new age religious trends today strive to disengage from fluff. This attitude, however, discounts the possibility that nineteenth-century American farmers were educated and interested in exploring alternative religious ideas.

Gould’s book, although “fluffy” by our standards today, was extremely popular for its day and sold well nationwide to both men and women, going through five editions in four years. In particular, it was heavily marketed to local farmers. It is possible that Gould’s thinking reflected the thinking of isolated rural populations within Michigan who were very in tune with the growing seasons, explaining the popularity of her book and its sale by one agent to 51 farmers within a three-and-a-half day period, as reported in a promotional flyer. The farmers who bought her book had an understanding of the growing cycles of nature required for life, causing them to understand and enjoy Gould’s book, while simultaneously delighting in the puzzles she posed.

nineteenth-century-literary-nature-relgiion

NOTES

1. The 1860 census for the Gould’s childhood family simply records, “Settled on Swamp Land.” A Mecosta County biographical sketch states that Gould’s father, Lemuel Chipman, “secured 40 acres,” “built a log house,” and “passed the career of a pioneer in every sense. The country was scarcely in an organized state, supplies were remote and the labor of clearing the land was burdensome.” Portrait and Biographical Album (Mecosta County, Michigan: Chapman Brothers, 1883) 222.

2. Starhawk writes: “The polarity of the Female and Male Principles should not be taken as a general pattern for individual female and human beings. We each contain both principles: we are female and male both. To be whole is to be in touch with both forces—creation and dissolution, growth and limitation. The energy created by the push-pull of forces flows within each of us.” See Starhawk 52.

3. Gould was either given, or chose, a male name for herself. “Isadore” is a male name that means “gift from Isis.” Also, Saint Isadore was the patron saint of farming. In a letter to her daughter, she instructs Lillie to “Be a good boy and girl all the time,” projecting a similar value or desire. In author’s possession, n.p., n.d.

4. Drawing down the moon is an ancient folklore ritual or practice. When ‘Gould-as-poet’ draws down the moon (by verse, dancing, or charms), she draws the White Goddess into her body. The goddess then has the ability to speak through the body of the poet, inspiring her poetry or imparting wisdom. See Göttner-Abendroth, all.

5. Starhawk writes that the mysteries of the Triple Goddess, birth, life, and death are celebrated on the full moon. See Starhawk 26. She also notes that the Triple Goddess is also the Goddess of poetry. See Starhawk 202. Graves discusses the Triple Goddess as well. See Graves 95-97.

6. Graves argues the presence of a “White Goddess of Birth, Love and Death” who is inspired and portrayed by phases of the Moon. Graves claims that she lurks behind the features of many European and paganism deities. See Graves 95-97.

Bibliography

Gould, Alta Isadore. 1894. The Veteran’s Bride and Other Poems: Stories of the Late War. P. D. Farrell & Co. Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Göttner-Abendroth, Heide. 1991. The Dancing Goddess: Principles of a Matriarchal Aesthetic. Beacon Press: Boston.

Graves, Robert. 2013. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Second Edition: New York.

Rev. Mr. Spence. 1817. Polymetis: Or, An Enquiry Concerning the Agreement Between the Works of the Roman Poets sand the Remains of the Antient Artists. 1817. London at Tully’s Head, Pall-Mall. (page 124).

Starhawk. 1999. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. HarperSanFrancisco.

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