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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Longfellow and Cleeves and Peaks Island


This post about Longfellow and Cleeves and Peaks Island is reposted here today for Bill West's Great American Local Poem Genealogy Challenge. Click > HERE < to find links to each of the blogs that participated in this challenge.

The story behind the 1987 movie, The Whales of August, was based on the memories of the author, David Berry, regarding time spent at the family cottage on Peaks Island. The water-themed postcards on this collage are images of Peaks Island, which is the most populated of the multiple islands that dot the surface of the waters of Casco Bay. Clockwise from the upper left, the captions on these postcards are as follows --

  • S.S. Merryconeac landing at Pier, Peaks Island, Me.
  • General view of water front, Peak's Island, Maine
  • The Steamboat Landing, Peaks Island
  • On the float, Peaks Island, Me.

Based on the few words scribbled on the back of some old family photos, it is apparent that my New England maternal kinfolk spent time on Peaks Island at least through the 1920s. The sepia-toned image in the lower right corner is a photo of my maternal grandma -- the words on the back simply say, "Elizabeth and Beauty, Peaks Island, June 25, 1925."Another photo from the same collection, dated the same day, is the black and white image towards the left which is simply inscribed with the date and the words, "5th Me." When I first saw those words, I had no idea what they meant, or what the building in the photo was. But after some detective work, I found that this is a photo of what is now known as the Fifth Maine Regiment Museum on Peaks Island. Elizabeth's maternal grandpa, Peter Brackett (1838-1927), had enlisted in Co. B of the Fifth Maine infantry in 1861.Regarding Peaks Island itself, A history of Peaks Island and its people . . . by Nathan Goold (1897) says that --

The history of Peaks Island commences almost with the settlement of Portland, and perhaps before. . . . George Cleeve and Richard Tucker settled Portland in 1633 and built themselves a log house near the spot where the poet Longfellow was born in 1807. . . . In 1637, by a commission from Sir Fernando Gorges, for letting and settling of lands and the islands, Cleeve leased Pond (Peaks) Island to Michael Mitton for sixty years, and stated that the name should be Michael's Island for Mitton, who had married his daughter, Elizabeth Cleeve. . . .

George Cleeve is a 9th great-grandpa of our Elizabeth (1912-1932), and his daughter, Elizabeth, and son-in-law, Michael Mitton, are our Elizabeth's 8th great-grandparents.


At a meeting held in Portland on Monday evening, February 27, 1882, the Maine Historical Society celebrated the seventh-fifth birthday of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was the desire of the members that Mr. Longfellow himself might honor the Society by his presence on that occasion, but he was prevented by illness from attending (he died less than a month later). The following is excerpted from a tribute read by James Phinney Baxter on that evening. I quote it here because it waxes poetic about the sea (water) as well as about our great-grandpa Cleeves --

. . . Dear Master let me take thy hand a space,
And lead thee gently wheresoe'er I may;
With the salt sea's cool breath upon thy face,
And in thine ears the music of the spray,
Which rapt in days agone thy sould away,
Where hung full low the golden fruit of truth,
Within the reach of thy aspiring youth.

Thou knowest well the place: here built George Cleeves
Almost two centuries before thy birth;
Here was his cornfield; here his lowly eaves
Sheltered the swallows, and around his hearth
The red men crouched, -- poor souls of little worth:
Thou with clear vision seest them, I know,
As they were in the flesh long years ago.

Surely the shrewd, persistent pioneer
Built better than he knew: he thought to build
A shelter for himself, his kith and gear;
But felled the trees, and grubbed and ploughed and tilled,
That in the course of time might be fulfilled
A wondrous purpose, being no less than this,
That here a poet might be born to bliss.

Ah! could he but have tracked adown the dim
Long, weary path of years, and stood to-day
with thee and me, how would the eyes of him
Have flashed with pride and joy to hear men say,
Here Cleeves built the first house in Casco Bay;
Here, too, was our Longfellow's place of birth,
And sooth, God sent his singers upon earth. . . .

Here will I bid thee, Master, fond good-by,
Wishing thee soul-health and full many a day
Of blissful living, ere thou mayest try
The scope of other joys. And now I may
This wreath from Deering's Woods, O Master! I lay
Upon thy brow. God speed thee while the sun
Shines on the faithful work which thou hast done!

Longfellow used words to paint visions of the New England coast and its waters, a talent which is well illustrated in an unpublished passage of blank verse from his journal dated the 18th August 1847 --

O faithful, indefatigable tides,
That evermore upon God's errands go,
Now sea-ward, bearing tidings of the land,
Now land-ward, bearing tidings of the sea,
And filling every frith and estuary.
Each arm of the great sea, each little creek
Each thread and filament of water-courses,
Full with your ministration of delight!
Under the rafters of this wooden bridge
I see you come and go; sometimes in haste
To reach your journey's end, which being done
With feet unrested ye return again,
But recommence the never-ending task,
Patient, with whatever burdens ye may bear,
And fretted only by impending rocks.

Another Longfellow poem -- A Gleam of Sunshine -- simply states that . . .

This is the place. Stand still, my steed,
Let me review the scene,
And summon from the shadowy Past
The forms that once have been.

The Past and Present here unite
Beneath Time's flowing tide,
Like footprints hidden by a brook,
But seen on either side. . . .

P.S. To my ancestors and loved ones . . . see you on the other side . . .


The above postcard collage -- featuring postcards with a water theme -- was originally prepared in August of 2009 for the 4th edition of Evelyn Yvonne Theriault's Festival of Postcards.


9 comments:

Evelyn Yvonne Theriault said...

Vickie, you're outdoing yourself each time! I'll be back to read your full article but in the meantime I clicked on your artwork and it's just spectacular.
Festival readers are going to love this.

Beth Niquette said...

I've always loved Longfellow--and I agree with Evelyn, your artwork is fabulous--it fills my eyes.

BeNotForgot said...

Evelyn & Beth, thank y'all so much for stopping by and reading and commenting on what I share here. I do enjoy yall's visits.

Before working on this particular blogpost, I did not have a clue that there existed a poem that mentioned some connection between great-grandpa Cleeves and Longfellow.

When I saw the theme for the month of August would be water, I immediately thought of The Whales of August (luv that movie), and of Peaks Island.

As per my usual tendency to try to genealogize everything I blog about, I knew I had 1920's family photos from Peaks Island to supplement the Peaks postcards. And I knew our family connections to Peaks went all the way back to great-grandpa Cleeves during the 17th century.

While reading about Peaks Island, I came across an anonymous quote that I liked, so I Googled it to see who penned those words about "footprints hidden by a brook, but seen on either side." That search led me to Longfellow's poem, "A Gleam of Sunshine."

Then I remembered mention of some connection between great-grandpa Cleeves and Longfellow, so I started Googling their names. And that led me to the Longfellow tribute poem that was read on Longfellow's 75th birthday in 1882 -- which alludes to the story that the land of Longfellow's birth at one time belonged to great-grandpa Cleeves.

And then I started reading other Longfellow poems and remembering how much I love his work. I had to drag myself back to the 21st century to finish this blogpost, but I have several sites bookmarked for going back and endulging in a little Longfellow reading. Note to self . . . make a trip to Half-Price Books this weekend . . . V. . . .

P.S. to Beth . . . I L-U-V the comment . . . "it fills my eyes" . . .

BeNotForgot said...

It is now 11:58 pm here in Texas, and I am watching "The Whales of August" on the encore channel!

Evelyn Yvonne Theriault said...

F.Y.I.
A Festival of Postcards(Water)containing your entry was published here:
http://wp.me/pp92w-45h
Thank you for sharing your creation with us,
Evelyn

Evelyn Yvonne Theriault said...

Hello again Vickie,
I'm just dropping by to leave you a link to the next Festival of Postcards (October issue - Quadrupeds)
http://wp.me/pp92w-4Xm
I hope you'll be able to take part again,
Evelyn in Montreal

Les said...

Another amazingly detailed post! I just returned from 3 months in Maine and miss it already. P.s. The lobster men on Peaks Island were in the news last week standing on the pier.

Bill West said...

Vickie,
What a great story and what a
beautiful site!

Thank you for taking part in the Poetry Challenge!

Pam Schaffner said...

Vickie, your blog is my inspiration...having grown up on Casco Bay, and spending many idyllic hours on Peaks Island, as well as being a long-time Longfellow devotee, I especially loved this post. It made me miss home even more...

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