Sunday, December 21, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part 21



As the days grew closer to Christmas of 2006, I began to anticipate my daughters' arrival to spend Christmas in Maine. So what better tale than R. P. T. Coffin's classic memoir, Christmas in Maine? Robert Peter Tristram Coffin was a poet, essayist, historian and memoirist who was born in Brunswick and grew up in Harpswell, on a saltwater farm on Great Sebascodegan Island. He is the only native son among the four writers with ties to Brunswick who are honored with plaques in our Maine Street sidewalks. (Can you guess the other three?) We have a school and (I think) a swimming hole named for him, and he still has a number of relatives in the area. His memoir describes a simpler time, when Christmas gifts, food and fun were all handmade at home. It's been anthologized more than once, for example in A Christmas Treasury edited by Jack Newcombe, and there is also available, from used booksellers, a 24-page edition published in 1941 (which would be a nice present for Auntie Knickers).
My father was also reared partly on Great Sebascodegan, in the hamlet of Cundy's Harbor, and one of his aunts who died young is buried in the Cranberry Horn Cemetery there, where R.P.T. Coffin and his wife are also buried. I don't really know how much Daddy cared for poetry as a rule, but I do remember that he carefully copied down and typed out this epitaph, one of Coffin's own poems, from the slate gravestone in Cranberry Horn:
This is my country, bitter as the sea
Pungent with the fir and bayberry.
An island meadow, stonewalled, high, and lost,
With August cranberries touched red by frost.
A juniper upon a windy ledge,
Splendor of granite on the world's bright edge.
A lighthouse like a diamond, cut and sharp,
And all the trees like strings upon a harp.
I, made of clay inflamed with sun,
Something solid still have done.
I have kept the ancient law,
I have written what I saw.
(R.P.T.Coffin)

The song that seemed most appropriate for this reading was God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen -- one of the carols Coffin mentions his family singing. I chose a rendition by the BBC Welsh Chorus as giving the best approximation of the Coffin family's lusty singing. It's on a very nice CD called Celebration: Christmas Fanfares and Carols. (I'd like to mention that I've had very good luck buying used CDs from various sources. This is a nice album, but it's not $50 nice!)
(Note: the sleighride photo is from flickr.com, and was taken by This Handmade Life, who has many other nice photos there; check 'em out!)

3 comments:

Songbird said...

Still loving these posts!

Vera said...

I don't know if you'll ever read this because this post is so old. But this is my favorite poem of all time, but I learned it differently in school, maybe there are two versions. Nothing comes up on a google search except for your website and the gravestone text of the poet. This is how I learned the poem:
THIS IS MY COUNTRY, BITTER AS THE SEA
PUNGEANT WITH THE FIR AND BAYBERRY
AN ISLAND MEADOW, STONEWALLED, HIGH AND LOST
WITH AUGUST CRANBERRIES, TOUCHED RED BY FROST
A JUNIPER UPON A WINDY LEDGE
SPLENDOR OF GRANITE ON THE WORLD'S BRIGHT EDGE
A heron the beach, and one on wing
Wind wrapped round each last and living thing
A LIGHTHOUSE LIKE A DIAMOND, CUT AND SHARP
And all the trees like strings upon a harp
These people are my kindred and my kind
They have a sort of lighthouse for a mind.
Keeping lit inside, because the sun is too low to be a trusted one.

Auntie Knickers said...

Vera, I suspect there are two versions, perhaps Coffin wrote the first one (yours) earlier in life, and then changed the last lines when he wanted to come up with an epitaph. Your version actually hangs together more as a poem, I think. Coffin is a big name around here, there is a school named for him and also on Maine St. we have plaques embedded in the sidewalk for four authors connected with the town: Coffin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (soon to have a school named for her), Hawthorne and Longfellow (the schools named for them will be closing, but the Bowdoin College library is the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library).