Before the murder, a sad
portrait of homesick Karen
Three Norwegian Poems by Celia Thaxter
Celia Thaxter was fascinated by the Norwegian emigrants who found a year round home on the harsh Isles of Shoals. She was drawn to their friendly, long-suffering nature and the fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair of women like Thora. At least three of them became topics for her poems, including a verse portrait of Karen Christensen, one of the Smuttynose murder victims from 1873.
Karen was the sister of Maren Hontvet and Ivan who lived on Smuttynose nearby. She had been working for the Thaxter's on Appledore Island for two and half years, but through a twist of fate, was fired by Celia Thaxter's mother Eliza just two weeks before. According to a letter by Cedric Laighton dated February 23, 1873, Mother Laighton had shouted to Karen, "Depart and never come my way again!" Karen had returned to stay with her family on Smuttynose and was sleeping in the kitchen when Louis Wagner's botched robbery turned into a double murder. Celia implies that it was Karen's severance pay from the Appledore Hotel that Wagner was after when he broke into the house that night.
In a letter to a friend written the week after the murder, Celia writes the following to a friend: " Karen was quite one of the family here; it was she of whom I wrote the little spinning ballad, you know. Now I 'm afraid these dear people will all be frightened away from here and no more will come."
Assuming it is accurate, Celia's poem reveals much about Karen's state of mind. Celia describes her as depressed, homesick and sullen. She is not pretty and not young, the poet says bluntly. As Karen runs her spinning wheel, we learn that she had thin hands. She owned a blue dress with a snow white collar.
Celia describes Karen in more detail in her powerful essay "A Memorable Murder." She soft-pedals Karen's departure from the Laighton employ in these words:
Karen left our service in February, intending to go to Boston and work at a sewing machine, for she was not strong and thought she should like it better than housework, but before going she lingered awhile with her sister Maren-fatal delay for her!
Karen was not the only Norwegian to appear in Celia's poetry. In "Thora" she writes about the young Ingebretson girl who family lived in an Appledore house rented by the Laighton's,. It was Thora's father who first discovered Maren the day after the murder and rowed to rescue her. Another poem tells the story of Thora's beau Lars who was lost adrift at sea with a dead companion in a hurricane. This is the first time the three poems have been printed together so readers can see and compare them.
In "Karen" Celia notes that Karen had left a lover in Norway. The poet also refers to a mysterious Isles of Shoals suitor named Waldemar. We have no surviving images of Karen, but in the poem Waldemar carries a portrait of Karen. Although younger than her, he seems to be in love with Karen, but she seems not to know or want him, locked in her sadness, pining for her native Norway. According to one Smuttynose legend, it was Louis Wagner himself who pined for Karen. He too was reportedly young and handsome. Could Waldemar be Wagner? Writers have suggested that Wagner was later attracted to Ivan's wife Anethe, a gorgeous blonde with long flowing hair and Karen's sister-in-law. Wagner was tried, convicted and hanged for the murder of the two Norwegian women.
Notes by J. Dennis Robinson
Copyright (c) 2000 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.
By Celia Thaxter
At her low quaint wheel she sits to spin,
Deftly drawing the long, light rolls
Of carded wool through her finders thin,
By the fireside at the Isles of Shoals.
She is not pretty, she is not young,
Poor homesick Karen, who sits and spins,
Humming a song in her tongue,
That falters and stops, and again begins,
While her wheel flies fast, with its drowsy hum,
And she makes a picture of pensive grace
As thoughts of her well-loved Norway come
And deepen the shadows across her face.
Her collar is white as the drifted snow,
And she spun and wove her blue gown fine
With those busy hands. See, a flitting glow
Makes her pale cheek burn and her dark eyes shine!
Left you a lover in that far land,
O Karen sad, that you pine so long?
Would I could unravel and understand
That sorrowful, sweet Norwegian song!
When the spring wind blew, the "America wind,"
As your people call it, that bears away
Their youths and maidens a home to find
In this distant country, could you not stay
And live in that dear Norway still,
And let the emigrant crowd sail West
Without you? Well, you have had your will.
Why would you fly from your sheltering nest?
O homesick Karen, listen to me:
You are not young and you are not fair,
But Waldemar no one else can see,
For he carries your image everywhere.
Is he too boyish a lover for you,
With all his soul in his frank blue eyes?
Feign you unconsciousness? Is it true
You know not his heart in your calm hand lies?
Handsome and gentle and good is he;
Loves you, Karen, better than life;
But do consider him, can't you see
What a happy woman would be his wife?
You won't be merry? You can't be glad?
Still must you mourn for that home afar?
Well, here is an end of a hope I had,
And I am sorry for Waldemar!
By Celia Thaxter
Come under my cloak, my darling!
Thou little Norwegian main!
Nor wind, nor rain, nor rolling sea
Shall chill or make thee afraid.
Come close, little blue-eyed maiden,
Nestle within my arm;
Thought the lightning leaps and the thunder peals,
We shall be safe from harm.
Swift from the dim horizon
The dark sails scud for the land.
Look, how the rain-cloud drops its fringe
About us on either hand!
And high from our plunging bowsprit
Dashes the cold white spray,
And storm and tumult fill the air
And trouble the summer day.
But thou fearest nothing, darling,
Thought the tempest mutter and brood,
Though the wild wind tosses they bright brown locks,
And flutters thy grass-green snood.
I kiss they wise wide forehead,
While the thunder rolls so grand;
And I hold the curve of they lovely cheek
In the hollow of my hand;
And I watch the sky and the ocean,
And I study they gentle face --
Its lines of sweetness and power,
Thy type of they strong Norse race.
And I wonder what thy life will be,
Thou dear and charming child,
Who hast drifted so far across the world
To a home so lone and wild.
Rude and rough and sad, perhaps;
Anxious and full of toil;
But I think no sorrow or hardship
Thine inner peace can spoil.
For better than kingly fortunes
Is the wealth that thou dost hold --
A nature perfectly balanced,
A beauty of heart untold.
Thou wilt open the door of patience,
When sorry shall come and knock;
But to every evil, unworthy thing
Wilt thou the gates fast lock.
So shall thy day be blessed,
Whatever may be thy lot.
But what I am silently pondering
Thou understandest not,
And liftest to me thy steadfast eyes,
Calm as if heaven looked through.
Do all the maidens in Norway
Have eyes so clear and blue?
See, darling, where, in the distance,
The cloud breaks up in the sky,
And lets a ray of sunshine fall
Where our far-off islands lie!
White they gleam, and the sea grows bright
And silver shines the foam.
A little space, and our anchor drops
In the haven of Love and Home!
By Celia Thaxter
"Tell us a story of these Isles," they said,
The daughters of the West, whose eyes had seen
For the first time the circling sea, instead
Of the blown prairie's waves of grassy green:
"Tell us of wreck and peril, storm and cold,
Wild as the wildest." Under summer stars
With the slow moonrise at our back, I told
The story of the young Norwegian, Lars.
That youth with the black eyebrows sharply drawn
In strong curves like some sea-bird's wings outspread
O'er his dark eyes, is Lars, and this fair dawn
Of womanhood, the maiden he will wed.
She loves him for the dangers he has past.
Her rosy beauty glowed before his stern
And vigilant regard, until at last
Her sweetness vanquished Lars the taciturn.
For he is ever quiet, strong, and wise;
Wastes nothing, not a gesture nor a breath;
Forgets not, gazing in the maiden's eyes,
A year ago it was not love, but death,
That clasped him, and can hardly learn as yet
How to be merry, haunted by that pain
And terror, and remembering with regret
The comrade he can never see again.
Out from the harbor on that winter day
Sailed the two men to set their trawl together.
Down swept the sudden snow-squall o'er the bay,
And hurled their slight boat onward like a feather.
They tossed they knew not whither, till at last,
Under the lighthouse cliff they found a lee,
And out the road-lines of the trawl they cast
To moor her, is so happy they might be.
But quick the slender road-lines snapt in twain
In the wild breakers, and once more they tossed
Adrift; and, watching from his misty pane,
The lighthouse keeper muttered, "They are lost!"
Lifted the snow: night fell; swift cleared the sky;
The air grew sharp as death with polar cold;
Raged the insensate gale, and flashing high
In starlight keen the hissing billows rolled.
Driven before the winds incessant scourge
All night they fled, -- one dead ere morning lay.
Lars saw his strange, drawn countenance emerge
In the fierce sunrise light of that drear day,
And thought, "A little space and I shall be
Even as he," and, gazing in despair
O'er the wide, weltering waste, no sign could see
Of hope, of help, or comfort, anywhere.
Two hundred miles before the hurricane
The dead and living drove across the sea.
The third day dawned. His dim eyes saw again
The vast green plain, breaking eternally
In ghastly waves. But in the early light,
On the horizon glittering like a star,
Fast growing, looming tall, with canvas white,
Sailed his salvation southward from afar!
Down she bore, rushing o'er the hills of brine,
Straight for his feeble signal. As she passed,
Out from the schooner's deck they flung a line,
And o'er his head the open noose was cast.
Clutching with both his hands the bowline knot
Caught at his throat, swift drawn through fire he seemed,
Whelmed in the icy sea, and he forgot
Life, death, and all things, -- yet he thought he dreamed
A dread voice cried, "We've lost him!" and a sting
Of anguish pierced his clouded senses through;
A moment more, and like a lifeless thing
He lay among the eager pitying crew.
Long time he swooned, while o'er the ocean vast
The dead man tossed alone, they knew not where:
But youth and health triumphant were at last,
And here is Lars, you see, and here the fair
Young snow-and-rose-bloom maiden he will wed.
His face is kindly, thought it seems so stern.
Death passed him by, and life begins instead,
For Thora sweet and Lars the taciturn.
Source: All three poems from "The Poems of Celia Thaxter", Houghton Mifflin Co , NY & Boston, 1896 edition. The picture of Celia is from "The Woman's Story: Twenty American Women," John B. Alden Publisher,
New York, 1888. (Courtesy of Portsmouth Athenaeum)
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