Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Something old, something new...

... something borrowed, something blue.  This wedding rhyme has been running through my mind over the past month.  Not because I plan to get married (already am), but because I'm trying to write another installment in The Skimino Cycle.  The poem that I am working on ("struggling with" might be more appropriate) focuses on the marriage of John Ratcliffe and Mary Townsend, my great-great-grandparents, and the subjects of the largest group of poems in The Skimino Cycle.  John and Mary were married in 1848, in West Alexander, PA.  My effort hasn't yielded any useful lines, but the research process has been quite interesting. 

I've been trying to build the poem around the two glasses that I've imagined John made as wedding gifts.  These glasses feature in earlier poems, one of which Mary breaks before leaving John (in "The Glass"); the other that John leaves by her bedside when he visits her just before her death (in "She Will Not Thirst Again").  John was a glass cutter in Wheeling, before they moved to Kansas.  When visiting with a distant cousin of my father's, she showed us a blue glass that, according to the family story, had been passed along to her father (my great-grandfather's brother), and was apparently made by John.  This is the glass that I decided was left by John on the table beside Mary's bed.  The two glasses will be the "something[s] new" in the poem on which I'm working.

So, I got to wondering what the lines in the rhyme refer to.  "Something old" is meant to convey continuity with the bride's family and past.  "Something new" represents good luck and a bright future in married life.  "Something borrowed" should come from happily married woman, lending the good fortune she's experienced to the bride-to-be.  And, "something blue" symbolizes purity, faithfulness, and loyalty.  What was interesting to me was that up until the late-1800s most brides wore blue, and not white.  This bit of information is critical to the development of the poem, and points to the need for research and understanding the people and period about which one writes.  I don't know that I intially thought I would mention anything about Mary's dress, but knowing now that brides wore blue in the mid-1800s saved me from making an erroneous reference to a white dress.  And, the meaning of the rhyme now gives me a framework around which to "build" the poem.  New glasses, made by the groom, perhaps working on the glasses after his shift is done, blowing the glass himself, and the cutting the grooves and designs.  Traveling to the chapel in a borrowed wagon.  Mary wearing a blue gingham dress; John in white shirt and black trousers, a black, broadbrimmed, Quaker style hat.  Mary, her hair tied back with a blue ribbon; John, blue ribbons around his sleeves.  I haven't figured out what the "something old" will be-- perhaps something old from her Uncle Thomas Townsend (a noted, and somewhat eccentric, doctor and amateur botanist and geologist in Wheeling).

Development of the poem required researching other questions.  John and Mary lived in Wheeling, but married in West Alexander, PA, which is about 10 miles to the east.  Why West Alexander?  I don't know exactly why, but West Alexander was where couples went in the 1830s and 1840s to get married quickly-- when they were eloping, whatever the reason.  This is intriguing to me, and I've envisioned that John, raised in a mixed Quaker/Disciples of Christ household, and Mary, perhaps a lapsed Quaker, decided that they didn't want to be married under the care of any Quaker Meeting and didn't want to be married in a Disciples of Christ chapel.  Of course, there could have been other reasons, but we won't go there without any sort of evidence.  I've claimed poetic license and imagined many things in the Skimino Cycle poems, but never imagined scandal where none existed.  Another question:  how do you make blue glass?  Cobalt would have been used in the 1840s; now I can imagine John, or maybe John and Mary, gathering rocks from which to obtain cobalt.  Traipsing around the mountains east of Wheeling collecting geological and botanical specimens was one of the things Thomas Townsend was known for; perhaps Mary accompanied him.  One imagined scene of mine has John in the mountains looking for minerals to color glass when he runs into Mary collecting plants or rocks.  And, of course, because John was a glass cutter, I have had to learn what glass cutters did, and how they carried out their work, which required a deft, artisan's hand when etching and cutting glass.

Much to learn; much to imagine-- but all necessary to constructing a poem that captures the essence of John and Mary and places them in the proper context.  And, in the end, I've added "something new" to my stockpile of esoteric knowledge that makes writing fun.

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