The Keepsake

In the summer of 1974 I came across a handwritten Album belonging to Elizabeth Garrett Atwood (1800-1833).  It was nestled in a box of books, which I bought for a dollar at a farm auction, in Emerald, Wisconsin. Elizabeth acquired this object in October of 1828, indicated by her signature on the opening page. Uniquely, it served as a place for her to transcribe verses reflective of her inner feelings. She also carried the Album when she traveled to see friends in neighboring towns of Ohio, where she shared her Album with her social circle to record their favorite lines.[1] On these visits Elizabeth’s book functioned as a literary space, facilitating communication of friendship, empathy and sympathy among her friends, and sometimes family.  In its entirety, the collection of verses acted as a metaphor for the events, and tragedies in her life e.g. marriage, in 1829, human loss, especially the death of her brother John,[2] and that of her two-years old daughter Ellen, in 1832. And finally, for her own death in 1833. 

A few months after having the Album Elizabeth inserted a poem of an unknown author, called “The Keepsake.”[3] I came to realize that “The Keepsake” represented the Album itself.  The Album was, and still is the keepsake mentioned in the poem, as follows.

Oh! Know it thou why, to distance driven

When friendship weeps the parting hour

The simplest gift that moment given

Long, long retains a magic power.

Still when it meets the musing view

Can half the theft of time retrieve.

The scenes of former bliss renew

and bid each dear idea live.

It boots not if the pencil’d rose

Or severed ringlet meet the eye.

On India’s spark’ling gems enclose

The talisman of sympathy.

Keep it, yes keep it for my sake

On fancy’s ear still breathes the sound

Nor time the potent charm shall break

Nor lose the spell by nature bound.

New Lisbon Feb. 8th 1829                    Elizabeth Y. Garrett

“A small memento left behind – Recalls an absent friend to mind.”

As the quote at the foot of the poem suggests, the purpose of her Album was to remember absent friend(s). The irony of Elizabeth’s choice to include “The Keepsake” in her Album lies in the idea that her Album blossomed into ‘a talisman of sympathy,’ even after her own death.

The powerful tone of this very old poem, probably of British origin, is in my estimation, the reason why the Album survived.  Someone close to Elizabeth brought her book halfway across the country from Ohio, to Wisconsin.  By surprise it ended up in a box of books at an auction for me to buy, for a dollar, when it could have ended up out in the rain. (I was the only person to bid on the box.)  I knew when I unearthed the book from the box that it was special if not a little too gloomy for a nineteen-years old. I kept it anyway and preserved it in memory of Elizabeth and her long-gone community of friends, who live on in 2023. I guarded Elizabeth’s Album, her keepsake, as the words in the poem suggested, “Keep it, keep it for my sake.” I still have it today, almost 200 years after her writing. 

Elizabeth brilliantly, if not unknowingly, reshaped aspects of her own life in the totality of her book.  The Album, probably a gift of friendship as the first verse of poem states, remained as a ‘charm that time would not break,’ and ‘its spell was bound by nature.’  Its impermeable quality calls into question whether or not our objects hold a ‘magic power’ long after we are gone. but not just magic for magic’s sake.  For Elizabeth, the value of her book lay in the power of a gift given out of friendship. Elizabeth, a religious Baptist was also exposed to a variety of secular literature of Asian influence, suggested by the idea that a keepsake was akin to the mystery hidden within ‘India’s sparkling gems.’ If we don’t believe in gems and magic, we might concur that our possessions can at least hold memories that live on in the minds of others, if others choose to keep them, making clear that our possessions outlive our own fragile existence.  The Album honors Elizabeth and the people in her life, but it also honors the writers and poets whose work they chose to transcribe, ‘to bid each dear idea live.’  These poems help us today to understand the universal complexity of grief and sorrow that our ancestors felt.  As an object, the Album sustains its impact primarily because of the written words put down inside it, by curious minds of people long gone, with the ability to express feelings and thoughts. Elizabeth truthfully spoke about the importance of feelings at the beginning of her book:

“The feelings of the heart leave traces on the memory more sweet as well as more indelible,

than any action of the Mind _ and a glance of the eye which awakens one chord of affection,

will be remembered, when the brightest sallies of intellect-the happiest strokes of wit, are banished forever- EYG”

Words are put down to preserve our everlasting feelings, a testimony to our existence. No one felt this more deeply than Elizabeth.   

Brokenhearted Elizabeth wrote her final transcription “Is it well with the child?” on the evening of Dec. 31st, 1832, interestingly on the last day of the year.  This poem reflected Elizabeth’s desire to communicate with her dead child, baby Ellen.  The importance of the Album lived on for her friends, even after this entry. On January 20th, and 23rd, 1833, a mysterious friend named O Stoughton wrote three separate verses within. These were called, “oh still as the circle of social affection,” “Oh if there is no human tear,” and “The flower is not whithered, it is only transplanted.” All written in honor of Elizabeth’s loss, and losses.

Elizabeth died from consumption on November 3, 1833, 15 months after the death of Ellen.   Four months after her death, on April 20th, 1834, the book’s final verse, “The close of life,” was inserted by E. A. Wardlane, Nelson.  The initials E.A. likely stand for her husband Edwin Atwood, and Wardlane may have been a place name in Nelson, unless it is the person’s last name. Not totally clear, but it’s my sense that the Album remained in the home of her husband Edwin Atwood and from there made its way west. One final time, the ‘talisman of sympathy’ served as a mouthpiece for Elizabeth, and for her society.   

Elizabeth is a legitimate author, and editor of this small meaningful book.[4]  In the first quarter of the 19th century illness and death were the norm, and grieving was ever present in people’s lives. The keeping and creation of her Album was an extension of her grieving, the importance of relationships in her life, and of her need to share her feelings with her friends through literature. She had a natural, and uncensored tendency to express herself freely and the Album was a vehicle for her to engage her friends, in joy and in grief. Relationships mattered to Elizabeth.  They were the breath of her existence and she gave them relevance in her Album. In modern times, the Album is a magnificent example of a 19th century process of social media. 

In the words of her Death Notice, ‘Elizabeth was a woman of uncommon intelligence.’ This could not be further from the truth.  She had a magnetic personality, which followed her wherever she went, and continues to emanate from her Album to this day.   She was an ingenious and creative writer, an editor, promoter and preserver of literature, as witnessed in her keepsake, the Album. She should be remembered for her contributions.

[1] Of interest is how Elizabeth and her friends gained access to a variety of literature in Nelson, Ohio, in 1833.  Her early handwriting samples from 1815-1816 contained a wide variety of transcriptions of English poetry.  These were done in Mercer, which was part of Ohio at the time.  But in Nelson, did the family library have books and magazines?  When she traveled to the homes of friends, where she would stay for several days or even weeks, it appears they shared selections from their own library, in her Album.  How this literature reached the frontier of Ohio is another point of research.

[2]  She mourned John’s death for an entire year, but the sorrow over his loss never left her.     

[3] In my internet search, I found “The Keepsake” with an unknown author, published in “A Lover’s Dictionary; A Poetical Treasury,” 1867, thirty-eight years after Elizabeth chose it for her book.    I believe the author was British, rather than American, evidenced by the use of the expression in the third stanza, first line, ‘It boots not…’ meaning ‘it serves not, or isn’t useful.  This phrase was spoken by William Shakespeare’s King Richard to Mowbray in the following: “It boots thee not to be compassionate.” By the same token, it’s not impossible that an early American poet re-coined the words to fit his or her poem, but that would mean the expression, in use since before the 17th century, reached the pen of a colonial writer.

[4] Elizabeth, coinciding with her Album, kept a personal journal during the last seven years of her life. It’s hard to believe that Elizabeth didn’t keep a journal as a young girl, though no surviving papers exist to my knowledge.