by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893-1986) is mostly remembered now as a very successful and honored children’s author. She won the 1931 Newbery Medal
from the American Library Association for The Cat Who Went to Heaven, and in 1968 she was a highly commended runner-up for the prestigious biennial international Hans Christian Andersen Award for children’s writers. She wrote stories and books for adults as well.
Elizabeth Coatsworth was also a poet, who published three poetry collections for adults, and two books of poems for children. In all, she published over 90 books between 1910 and 1976. Many of her books are out-of-print, but some have been re-issued in newer editions, including Poems, one of her books for children, and Fox Footprints, her first poetry collection, originally published in 1912.
Her poetry has been almost forgotten, regarded as old-fashioned. The majority of the poems rhyme, they often tell a story, and many are mythical, even macabre. I enjoy poems which tell a story, especially ones that give readers the shivers. I grew up reading “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes, “The Little Ghost” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and “The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare. If you like story poems, and tales of things that go bump in the night, then you’re very likely to enjoy Elizabeth Coatsworth’ s poems too.
Wise Sarah and the Elf
“Is there anything,”
asked the goblin,
“you would like for yourself?
Should you like a little pony
or a gold ring?”
asked the elf.
“Should you like a jewelled bird
or a pair of magic shoes?
I like your looks extremely,
and you have only to choose.”
But Sarah, very wisely,
kept walking down the path.
She fixed her eyes upon the ferns,
she would not look to see
where step by step beside her
walked the little gentleman
with a feathered cap upon his head
and buckles at his knee.
But still his voice
“A pretty child like you
must surely know a thousand things
that she would like to do.
Should you care to dance with a fairy prince
or see the stars at play?
I like your looks extremely,
and you have only to say.”
But Sarah, very wisely,
said nothing in reply.
She saw the house beyond the woods
with her mother at the door
and walked a little faster
till soon she walked alone —
but those pretty foolish questions
Sarah heard forevermore.
Elizabeth Coatsworth was born May 31, 1893 in Buffalo, New York. Her father was a flourishing grain merchant, and she was sent to Buffalo Seminary, a private girls’ school, and spent summers with her family on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie, and on trips abroad. By the time she was five, she had already seen the Alps and Egypt.
She graduated from Vassar College in 1915 as Salutatorian, and earned a Master of Arts from Columbia University in 1916. Upon completing her college education, she traveled to Asia, riding horseback through the Philippines, exploring Indonesia and China, and staying at a Buddhist monastery. Experiences from these travels, and other trips taken later in her life, inspired many of her poems and stories.
Coatsworth began her career as a writer by publishing her poetry in magazines, and became a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. Her first published book was a poetry collection for adults, Fox Footprints. In 1919, Louise Seaman, a friend of hers from Vassar, started the first children’s book publishing department in the United States at Macmillan Publishers. Seaman encouraged her to write children’s books. Macmillan published The Cat and the Captain, a book of poems, in 1927, beginning Coatsworth’s long association with the publishing house.
She was an animal lover, particularly of cats, a recurring theme in Coatsworth’s work. Here are two of her poems about them.
The Bad Kittens
You may call, you may call
But the little black cats won’t hear you.
The little black cats are maddened
By the bright green light of the moon;
They are whirling and running and hiding,
They are wild who were once so confiding,
They are crazed when the moon is riding
You will not catch the kittens soon.
They care not for saucers of milk,
They think not of pillows of silk;
Your softest, crooningest call
Is less than the buzzing of flies.
They are seeing more than you see,
They are hearing more than you hear,
And out of the darkness they peer.
With a goblin light in their eyes!
On a Night of Snow
Cat, if you go outdoors, you must walk in the snow.
You will come back with little white shoes on your feet,
little white shoes of snow that have heels of sleet.
Stay by the fire, my Cat. Lie still, do not go.
See how the flames are leaping and hissing low,
I will bring you a saucer of milk like a marguerite,
so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet —
stay with me, Cat. Outdoors the wild winds blow.
Outdoors the wild winds blow, Mistress, and dark is the night,
strange voices cry in the trees, intoning strange lore,
and more than cats move, lit by our eyes’ green light,
on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar —
Mistress, there are portents abroad of magic and might,
and things that are yet to be done. Open the door!
Elizabeth Coatsworth also loved being in nature. She fell in love with Henry Beston, a writer and naturalist, who wrote the classic The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, about the time he spent living in “the Fo’castle” a 20′ x 16′ house at Cape Cod, which was published in 1928, the year before he and Elizabeth were married. They had two daughters, Margaret and Catherine (Kate). The family lived in a house in Hingham, Massachusetts, and spent summers at Chimney Farm in Nobleboro, Maine, or traveling. Kate also became a writer under her married name, Barnes, and was named as Maine’s first Poet Laureate. She collaborated with her mother on a children’s book called Horse Stories.
The rain was like a little mouse,
Quiet, small, and gray,
It pattered all around the house
And then it went away.
It did not come, I understand,
Indoors at all, until,
It found an open window and
Left tracks across the sill.
Swift Things are Beautiful
Swift things are beautiful:
Swallows and deer,
And lightening that falls
Bright-veined and clear,
Rivers and meteors,
Wind in the wheat,
The strong-withered horse,
The runner’s sure feet.
And slow things are beautiful:
The closing of day,
The pause of the wave
That curves downward to spray,
The ember that crumbles,
The opening flower,
And the ox that moves on
In the quiet of power.
What could be lovelier than to hear the summer rain
Cutting across the heat, as scythes cutting across grain?
Falling upon the steaming roof with sweet uproar,
Tapping and rapping wildly at the door?
No, do not lift the latch, but through the pane
We’ll stand and watch the circus pageant
Of the rain,
And see the lightening, like a tiger, striped and dread,
And hear the thunder cross the shaken sky
With elephant tread.
But her eerie poems, and those based on her exotic travels are the ones that stick with me.
Spring in China
The earth’s coat is the green of young willows
Beside brown streams.
It is embroidered with flowering trees-
Plum, peach and apricot.
Her sleeves are scented wondrously;
Her hair is unbound in the wind.
Even the moon is so enamoured
That ere dusk he climbs the stairs of heaven to behold her.
Prince Sung built Tsheng-leng tower
From which he might espy
Dame Sik of the smoke-like hair
And willow waist, go by.
When the moon looked full at the sun
In the month that the asters flower,
Prince Sung bade them bring Dame Sik
Into his gay tiled tower.
‘Give thy handmaid leave to bathe
And change her unworthy dress;
She will serve thee with napkin and comb,
As befits thy worshipfulness.’
She bathed and changed her robes,
In a warm slow autumn hour.
She smiled in the face of Prince Sung,
And leapt from the top of the tower.
Always when Absalom returned at night,
Tired from hunting, yet adventure-filled,
‘Twas Michal met him in the darkened court,
Gave him his wine and listened to his tales.
Seldom looked she at him from lowered lids
But slow spoke words of praise he learned to love.
When at bright noon he wandered in the groves
Or lay in meditation ‘neath a tree
Michal would chance to meet him as she walked-
Michal, the queen, daughter of Saul was she.
David, the king, never beheld her face
Since she rebuked him; yet she never wept
For that she lived a widow while a wife-
She never spoke of those her five young sons
Whom David gave to death, nor of her house
Whose very name was seldom on men’s lips
So it had fallen before David’s power – Instead,
She listened to the tales of David’s son,
Her white face near his eager beauteousness-
Or told him he was fair that he was strong,
The people loved him more than the King’s self,
It was a grief to her he was not heir.
And while she spoke with lips that scarcely moved,
Her eyes kept watch of him ‘neath lowered lids.
I find this poem one of her most beautiful.
Light of Love
Nay, bury her in her cloak; she was not one
To prison in a coffin. At her head,
When you have strewn the earth with forest leaves,
Pile apricots and peaches, apples red,
Plums, oranges and grapes in one sweet heap-
There where shall hover breathless-humming bees,
And birds that taste, then sit and preen their wings.
And at the foot, I ask that you leave these-
Her slippers. Then some shepherdess may try
In vain to put them on; or little fay,
Knotting her long green hair, steal near to glance.
So may she know that I forget today,
And think of her as when she used to dance.
Henry Beston died in 1968, and the outermost house he made famous in his book was carried away by a winter hurricane in 1978. Elizabeth Coatsworth began living year-round at their farm, and continued writing.
In Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, she wrote,
“I have a thousand memories. I could, I suppose, travel still, but so cautiously and in such a diminished world! I am content to remember larger times. The world in which I live is enough for me. After so many travels, I am home, and my happiness here is no less than it was in foreign lands and my sense of wonder has not dulled with all these years. I am as happy as an old dog stretched out in the sunlight. I remember other times, other places, but (in the sunlight) I am content with the here and now. . . outwardly, I am 83, but inwardly I am every age, with the emotions and experience of each period.”
Elizabeth Coatsworth died at her home in Nobleboro, August 31, 1986, at the age of 93.
- The Cat and the Captain, illustrated by Gertrude Kaye, Macmillan, 1927
- The Cat Who Went to Heaven, illustrated by Lynd Ward, Macmillan, 1930
- The Golden Horseshoe, illustrated by Robert Lawson, Macmillan, 1935
- Sword of the Wilderness, illustrated by Harve Stein, Macmillan, 1936
- Alice-All-by-Herself, illustrated by Marguerite de Angeli, Macmillan, 1937
- Dancing Tom, illustrated by Grace Paull, Macmillan, 1938
- You Shall have a Carriage,illustrated by Henry Clarence Pitz, Macmillan, 1941
- Indian Mound Farm, illustrated by Fermin Rocker, Macmillan, 1943
- Up Hill and Down: Stories, illustrated by James Davis, Knopf, 1947
- Night and the Cat, illustrations by Foujita, Macmillan, 1950
- Dollars for Luck,illustrated by George and Doris Hauman, Macmillan, 1951; reissued as The Sailing Hatrack, London:Blackie, 1972
- Cat Stories, illustrated by Feodor Stepanovich Rojankovsky, Simon & Schuster, 1953
- Dog Stories, illustrated by Rojankovsky, Simon & Schuster, 1953
- Old Whirlwind: The Story of Davy Crockett, ill. by Manning Lee, Macmillan, 1953
- Horse Stories, by Kate Barnes and Elizabeth Coatsworth, illustrated by Rojankovsky, Simon & Schuster, 1954
- Poems, illustrated by Vee Guthrie, Macmillan, 1959
- Pika and the Roses, illustrated by Kurt Wiese, Pantheon, 1959
- Lonely Maria, illustrated by Evaline Ness, Pantheon, 1960
- The Noble Doll, illustrated by Leo Politi, Viking, 1961
- Chimney Farm Bedtime Stories, by Henry Beston and Coatsworth, illustrated by Maurice Day, Holt, Reinhart, 1966
- The Lucky Ones:Five Journeys Toward a Home, illustrated by Janet Doyle, Macmillan, 1968
- Under the Green Willow, illustrated by Janina Domanska, Macmillan, 1971
- The Wanderers, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, Scholastic, 1972
- Pure Magic, illustrated by Ingrid Fetz, Macmillan 1973; reissued as The Werefox, Collier, 1975
- Marra’s World, illustrated by Krystayna Turska, Greenwillow, 1975
The five historical novels featuring “Sally” were all illustrated by Helen Sewell and published by Macmillan US.
- Away Goes Sally, 1934
- Five Bushel Farm, 1938
- The Fair American,1940
- The White Horse, 1942
- The Wonderful Day, 1946
- Here I Stay, Coward McCann, 1938
- The Trunk, Macmillan, 1941
The Incredible Tales
- The Enchanted, Pantheon, 1951
- Silky: An Incredible Tale, Pantheon, 1953
- Mountain Bride: An Incredible Tale, Pantheon 1954
- The White Room, Pantheon, 1958
- Fox Footprints, Knopf, 1923, poetry
- Country Poems, Macmillan, 1942
- The Creaking Stair, Coward McCann, 1949
- The Sun’s Diary: A Book of Days for Any Year, Macmillan, 1929
- Country Neighborhood, Macmillan, 1945
- Maine Ways, Macmillan, 1947
- Especially Maine: The Natural World of Henry Beston from Cape Cod to the St. Lawrence; (editor), Stephen Greene, 1970
- Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, Stephen Greene, 1976
- Detail from an illustration for Goblin Market
- Kittens by Clare Turlay Newberry
- Malo the cat by Clare Turlay Newberry
- Rain circles
- Red deer doe and fawn
- Lightning storm
- Painting by Yun Shouping
- Detail from a copy of Paul Delaroche’s painting of Herodias
- Ballet dancer
- photo of Elizabeth Coatsworth
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud