Introductory Remarks About Ascha Sprague
by Achsa White Sprague
The unexpected and untimely death of Miss A. W. SPRAGUE, in the summer of 1862, brought a pang of sorrow to many hearts. And there are many still, scattered up and down through fifteen States of the Union, who hold her in loving remembrance, though, in the whirlpool of revolution and civil war that has since convulsed the nation, many a fair reputation has gone down to speedy oblivion. During a brief public career she had travelled extensively, and had everywhere made for herself troops of friends. From Maine to Missouri, from Montreal to Baltimore, there are earnest, truth-loving men and women who will not soon forget the impression they received, as well from her conversation as her public discourses.
Miss Sprague was chiefly known to the world as a trance lecturer under what claimed to be spirit-influence. In this capacity she had for several years been an active laborer. A pioneer advocate of the Spiritual Philosophy in New England, she was also a devoted friend of every philanthropic and reformatory enterprise of the time, ranking with the best of her class, -- with Emma Hardinge, Cora Hatch, and a few others, -- in catholicity of spirit, in large views, and earnest, telling speech. Although speaking in the interest of a faith generally unpopular, and involved in no slight degree in crudities, extravagance, and quackery, she was herself neither fool nor fanatic. And while the reality of spiritual intercourse, the nearness of the angel-world to ours, the certain assurance of unending, ever-progressive life beyond the grave, were themes upon which she often dwelt, she loved most to forget all party watchwords, and, ignoring shallow distinctions of sect or class, push out into the broad realms of truth, regarding hearer and theme alike from the stand point simply of enlightened humanity. In this spirit, she did not fail to criticise with severity any attempt or tendency she discovered among Spiritualists, to erect the new teachings into a dogma or a ritual. She was wont to speak of these teachings as a spiritual philosophy, and chose to regard them as constituting a new dispensation of religious truth to man. A movement now in its infancy, but destined to extend itself far and wide till it encompassed the earth. Though an advance from all previous revelations, the present was but the dawn of the New Era. It was the day of small things, -- mediums were imperfect, conditions unfavorable. Like the seers of all ages, she saw and reported that there are new and fresher gospels waiting to be given, whenever mankind shall be fitted to receive them. She caught glimpses of that illimitable ocean of truth, unfathomable by human thought, but which some bold Columbus shall yet disclose to man.
This does but herald brighter things to come,
Before whose beauty shall the earth sit dumb.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
And known at last shall be God's great unknown,
And man, unshamed, shall claim it as his own.
The Poet, Scene III
She taught a perennial inspiration -- a stream ever gushing forth from the eternal fountain, whether called for or not. It seemed a great poverty of manhood in the human race, that it should have had no model man for eighteen hundred years. There was need of a great religious teacher to do for this age what Jesus did for his. And might it not be that we had impaired our ability to receive new revelations, by looking too closely and too implicitly upon the old? She said: We find the fresh footsteps of Deity always in our path, but such is our traditional timidity that we dare not trust the evidence of our senses, and recognize them as such, till we go and compare them with the footprints of the olden time. But while we are busy thus comparing them the great God has himself passed on.
Her influence as a public speaker was remarkable. Always deeply in earnest, elegant and forcible in her style of speaking, equally removed from extravagance on the one hand and tameness on the other, she rose not unfrequently to a chaste and noble eloquence. She spoke habitually upon the highest themes, with a scope and vigor of thought, and a fertility of illustration rarely equalled. Her speaking was an inspiration. She possessed that power of the true, orator -- of uplifting those she addressed into higher regions of thought and feeling. Some of her periods were very grand, and will not soon be forgotten by those who heard them. Swayed by a pure moral enthusiasm, as she advanced with her subject, the hearer was borne along upon the tide of a robust and persuasive speech. Her manner, meanwhile, partook of the elevation of her thought, and enforced it by appropriate and vigorous action. There was nothing of rant or theatric display, no sacrifice of womanly delicacy; but a simple yet queenly dignity in excellent keeping with the discourse. No studied elegance of posture or movement, but a native majesty of presence, the natural expression of the body possessed and animate with the informing soul. In Vermont, which was her earliest lecturing field, her hold upon the public mind was very deep. Multitudes who never distinctively accepted spiritual intercourse as a fact, were wont to listen to her with unaffected delight. Though prized most in places where she was best known, yet, wherever she went, she was sure of overflowing houses. It was common to see people at her meetings in the smaller towns, who had come eight, ten, or fifteen miles to hear
the preaching woman.
To the esteem in which she was held for her merits as a lecturer, was:added, at least in the vicinity of her home, the interest that attached to the story of her life: Her youth had been one, long struggle with poverty and suffering. Remarkable from her earliest years for an eager, insatiable thirst after knowledge, the circumstances of her family forbade any save the most limited gratification to this her ruling desire. There was a large family of children, and the old tragedy of Want and Have was daily enacted in the home. Sickness came there, a frequent guest. Mr. Sprague, the father, a man gifted by nature with uncommon powers of mind, had long been the victim of an uncontrollable appetite for strong drink:; -- Achsa, his six child, was a sprightly girl, fond of being much in the open air. Opportunities for education were scanty, even for a sparsely-populated country district. A common school of some sort held its sessions during six months of the year. Thither she went, whenever the domestic affairs of the family would permit, until she was twelve, when she began teaching, first in a family in an adjoining town, and the succeeding summer in a common school. Before this, and while she was yet a pupil, she had been used by her teachers to conduct lower classes in school. From thence till she was twenty, she was teaching the larger part of the time when her health was sufficient, having taught in all eighteen terms. Meanwhile, she attended at an academy for a term and a half, which completed the small debt she owed to school education. In private she had doubtless improved every resource to extend the boundaries of her knowledge. There were no circulating libraries within reach, and little access to good books; but she must have missed no opportunity- during this period, of borrowing from individuals whenever practicable. Still, all that could be obtained in this way must have come far short of satisfying that hungry intellect. Society of persons of superior cultivation there was little or none, though the father, in his better hours, felt an honest pride in his daughter, and knew how to encourage her aspiring and ambitious nature.
But now there came an experience so dark and sorrowful as to make all her previous life, checkered by clouds as it was, seem but pure sunshine in comparison. Over-mastering disease laid its heavy hand upon this rare and promising girl. She entered upon the terrible discipline of a seven years' sickness- a period full of agony and gloom, but destined to prove in its results of exceeding import to her future life. Gradual in its approaches as the shades of night fall upon the earth, her disease knew no pause till its victim lay helpless before its ravages. It was of scrofulous nature, and first settled in her joints, rendering them almost useless. Medical assistance brought no relief. For a while the youthful hopes of the sufferer bore up cheerily, and through the aid of crutches she continued to teach for a term or two. But every resource failing, as month after month passed on and she grew steadily worse, hope seemed to fade away and give place to a settled despair. Not the despair that trembles at the view of death, but the hopelessness of living on, of dragging out life in perpetual suffering and helplessness. The
Early Poems printed in this volume, and mostly written during the earlier stages of her sickness, sufficiently portray the state of her feelings at this period, and the load of anguish that weighed down her spirit. Every stanza seems measured by the heavy heartthrobs of the writer. Before her sickness her aspiring mind had doubtless planned for itself a broad field of future activity and usefulness, and it was with difficulty that she could bring herself to renounce at once and forever all that young imagination had painted in fairest colors.
But as the darkness deepened to midnight, and the last hope went out with the passage of weary years, she prayed wildly for death; -- begged and implored that she might not longer cumber the earth, a burden to her friends and to herself.
Speak not of dreaded death, -- she afterwards wrote, --
I wooed the stern Archer as a friend. And yet he passed me by, and, passing, pierced some happy-heart that loved to live. I might have borne the pain (perhaps I might), but oh, the dreary thought of living in vain! Year after year to come and go and yet to leave no, trace that I had ever been, save added wrinkles on my mother's brow! To live and yet not live; to die, and yet not die; to feel the restless thought, the wish to do, the yearning for some active life forever struggling in my soul, and yet to be a captive in my prison-cell! no power to save, and none to roll away the stone from that dark, living tomb, and set me free! Her spirit panted for action. She could not bear and yet be still, but wildly wrestled with her fate in those sad hours. Her disease, though painful in all its stages, was of a nature that left the mind free to range at will and contemplate the activities of life, which, in view of her enfeebled physical condition, seemed to mock her own blighted hopes and crushed aspirations. Cut off from all bodily exercise, her mental faculties became preternaturally active, so that it was an agony to think, and at the same time impossible not to do so. Waves of thought and feeling came and went, and swept her soul like ocean tides. As the billows of the sea when raised by tempests, rush to the land, and with their long roll beat the shores, so the waves of thought, she said, seemed to lash the shores of her being, and beat, beat, against the frail bark of life till it seemed ready to go to pieces before their ever-greatening force.
But relief came at last to her sufferings, and in a way little expected. In
The Angel's Visit, at the end of this volume, her own pen has described the manner of her release, and the aims and purposes with which she went forth once more to mingle in the active world. This is not the place to enter upon a philosophical discussion as to the nature of the occult influence there operating, nor would it be profitable, since the subject must be finally left, as it still exists in the mind of the writer, an unsolved enigma. Whatever may have been the agency in her cure, -- and wonderful it certainly was, -- no one who knew her, ever imputed dishonesty to her, or intention to deceive. It required some severe mental struggles before she was persuaded fully to trust the mysterious influence that was more and more clearly manifesting itself. But in it was her only hope; and following out a course of treatment prescribed by the invisible intelligences, she was in six months restored to comparative health. Meanwhile, it began to be intimated to her by the same influence, that there was an important public work waiting for her to do, -- a work for humanity required of her in return for the service she had herself received; that this was the result had in view from the beginning. She was put in training for public speaking, detailed instructions being given, and exercises prescribed, such as it is difficult to suppose could proceed from her own mind. Her thoughts were at the same time turned strongly towards religious and ethical subjects, and, as her health improved, she was moved to write frequently upon the same. Gradually it was broken to her that she must take the field as a public speaker. At first she had a strong repugnance to anything of the kind; but finally, after some sacrifice of feeling, she acquiesced in what many considerations, and especially gratitude, seemed to demand of her. A decision that she never regretted. This was in the spring of 1854. She gave her first public discourse at South Reading, Vermont, on the 16th of July of the same year. From that day onward till her death, at Plymouth, Vermont, July 6th, 1862, her life was full of busy work. What that work was we need not rehearse here, nor tell the joy she found in her new vocation. With a brief allusion to a few of the less familiar aspects of her career as a lecturer, we will pass to a conclusion of these remarks. Those who knew her best, can testify with what willing earnestness she labored, speaking, much of the time, from three to five or six times a week, and travelling constantly, in order to give evening lectures in places out of the way of her regular Sunday appointments. There was always a large demand upon her services, and she was reluctant to refuse calls so long as there was a prospect of doing any good.
From the beginning of her public life, she had felt an earnest desire to speak to the inmates of the Prisons. Her sympathies were strongly moved in behalf, of this class of persons, often quite as much the victims of society, as characterized by any special depravity of nature. At Providence and Philadelphia, permission was obtained at her solicitation, to address the prisoners, and a standing invitation extended to renew her visits at any time. At Boston she was less successful in getting access to the Charlestown State Prison, though her efforts were seconded by several members of the legislature, then in session. In Philadelphia, she went several times to the penitentiary, for private conference with the females confined there. Sometimes she came away quite disheartened from these visits.
It is sad, she wrote,
to look upon such an abandoned class of people, sad to to see their condition, both of mind and body; and I sometimes wonder why I wish to go among them, when, at best, one can do so little good. But somehow my soul cries out for the privilege of doing that little, at the expense of the dark scenes that the lifting of the curtain must reveal to me. Wherever she journeyed, she was accustomed-to give frequent benefit-lectures, the proceeds to be applied for the relief of the poor, and for other charitable purposes. Many also were the cases of individual destitution in cities, that she sought out and helped to relieve. She had herself drank deep of poverty's cup, from earliest childhood, and knew well its bitter taste. Meeting once at Troy, N. Y., Laura Edmonds, daughter of the judge, giving free sittings for the investigation of spiritual manifestations, she is seized with regret that she cannot go about the country lecturing in like manner without money and without price.
But, ah me! I am poor, she says.
Still, I never have a stated price, but leave it to the means or generosity of the people to do by me as they think proper. I should like it if I had money, that I might do more good. Yet I cannot make Spiritualism a stepping-stone to wealth; it seems like debasing the most beautiful things.
It is easy to see that her sympathies widened year by year, and her mind liberalized as she came into larger contact with the world. She was too large-natured to live shut up to the influence of a single idea. She warmly interested herself in the chief reforms and humanitary movements of the day. Her discourses, while losing nothing of their former spirit, grew more direct and practical in their character, as from a broader observation she studied the actual condition of society and its deepest needs. She became acquainted, either personally or through their writings, with many of the leading-minds of the age, with the strong, earnest soul of Theodore Parker, with the quaint wisdom of Emerson, with the impassioned poetry of Mrs. Browning, whose, Aurora Leigh was long a book of especial significance to her. Her poems, written both before and since the outbreak of the rebellion, attest the patriotic interest she always felt in republican ideas. That last, printed before her death, she inscribed to the Union Volunteers, dedicating it, with her deepest gratitude and earnest prayers,
to the brave and loyal hearts offering their lives at the Shrine of Liberty.
As respects the Poems contained in this volume, little needs be said here. The world will judge of the degree of merit they possess. They can never, of course, have that interest for a stranger, as for those who knew the author, and saw the excellence of her character in public and private. To such, these poems, though genuine products of the writer's individuality, are but chance bubbles on the stream of a life, deep, pure, earnest, and strong. Characteristic, and suggestive of much, they are but the chip of granite from the top of Mount Washington. And there is reason to believe that these are unimportant, as compared with what would have been produced had the author been spared to reach the full maturity of her powers. Though from an early age she had occasionally attempted the writing of poetry, she had but just entered upon her career as an author. She was writing extensively, with no special view to publication, and regarded these productions for the most part as experiments and exercises in the art of writing. They should be judged, therefore, somewhat as the juvenile efforts of authors are estimated, -- not only for what they are, but for the better promise they contain. The rapidity with which they were composed, is not the least remarkable feature in their history.
The Poet, containing, as written, over 4, 600 lines, was finished within three weeks from the time of its commencement, and actually required not more than seventy-two consecutive hours in being committed to paper.
The Child of Destiny, a dramatic poem of about 3, 000 lines, still unpublished, was completed in five and a half days from its commencement. Such facility in composition, it is thought, is hardly surpassed in the whole history of literary composition. From two to three hundred lines were usually thrown off at an evening's sitting. Sometimes, in a state of high mental exaltation, she would walk the room, dictating for an amenuensis to write, whose ready pencil not unfrequently found it difficult to keep pace with her rapid recitation. This extraordinary development of writing, began in January, 1862, as she was recovering from a severe illness at Oswego, N. Y. Her health continued slowly to improve until the first of May following, when she returned to her home in Vermont, as it proved, to die. Her physical strength was still low; but she continued to write, when engaged with a long poem, often at the rate of five hundred lines per day. She seemed impelled by an irresistible power to undertake new projects, and then to finish what had been began. On the 10th of June, in a letter to a friend, she said that her health was decidedly better, that she was getting much engaged in writing, that it rested her, and that she enjoyed it as a pastime. Near the end of the month she rode to Rutland and back in a carriage, from which time she declined rapidly, until a violent brain fever set in, and, on the 6th of July, the last earthly change had taken place.
Her death seems untimely, and many found it hard to acquiesce in an event that removed one so young, so active, and so anxious to do good, while the world needed her so much. This feeling was heightened by the impression that she needlessly overworked herself, and did not prudently husband her strength. She used up life too rapidly, in violation of physiological law. She knew no moderation in work, and did not often take counsel of prudence, so long as there was a call upon her services. It seems scarcely less than madness to attempt such mental labor as she performed during the last months of her life, and with physical strength so much reduced. Indeed, there is reason to think, that from the time of her first sickness, before her mediumship, her mental activity had been excessive, and incompatible' with a permanently healthy condition of body. Various causes conspired to prolong this tendency, till it was manifest at last as an-inflamed intellectualism. Be this as it may, she died after all, perhaps, in a way that it befitted her to die. To put a restraint upon the mobility of the mind's powers, it must be remembered, is precisely the thing that people of her intensely active temperament find it hardest to do. Could such an eager, ambitious soul bear to outlive its activity, bear to see its faculties fail one by one, and sink into imbecility and second childishness? Does not the eagle that is wont to mount to the sun on free and joyous wing, beat the bars of his prison-cage, when captured, till he dies, spurning life on such terms? So our friend, having once tasted the joy that comes of the large, free exercise of our noblest powers, could never again content herself with the dull, plodding life that suffices for most of us. Or, from a higher plane of thought, might she not have answered one who thought to chide her for her want of moderation:
I am set at my post, like a soldier, for a certain duty. Like a true soldier, I will stand at my post. If danger and death confront me there, I will meet them as I ought, cheerfully; I shall never, never desert my place, or betray the trust.
She had a lofly ambition, -- daring yet pure. In the windows of the picture-shops, the reader may some time have seen a print illustrating Longfellow's spirited little poem --
Excelsior. A youth with outspread banner in his hand, is struggling up the slippery ascent of a huge Alpine mountain. Above him rise the steeps of mighty glaciers, their summits hid in clouds. Darkness is coming on, -- the last rays of the setting sun gild the snowy peaks far, far above. Just beneath, in a little vale, lies a hamlet, and from a cottage by the wayside has come out an old man, whose silver hairs speak of wisdom and experience, who is warning the youth not to proceed further, cautioning him against the madness of attempting to scale the mountain. Near to the old man stands his daughter, with shining ringlets falling upon her neck, who modestly but earnestly adds her entreaties to the sage admonitions of the sire. But the youth is deaf to both; and standing proudly upon the cliff above them, with one hand, he displays his banner and its glittering inscription, and with the other points upward to the dizzy heights that rear themselves aloft in wild grandeur. No dangers can daunt, no appeals move him. No cheerful light of blazing hearths can detain him from his self imposed task. In the cold twilight he presses on through a waste of drifting snows. Next morning he is found by the pious monks of the hospital upon the mountain-top,
lifeless but beautiful, with the cherished banner closely wrapped about his stiffened form. I am strangely reminded of this picture whenever I think of our departed friend, -- her indomitable, ever forward-pressing spirit, and her early fall. Its significance is, of course, in its symbolic meaning. It is the consecration of youthful heroism, -- a heroism deterred by no obstacle, seduced by no blandishments, and intent only upon the execution of a lofty purpose. It is the self-immolation of genius at the shrine of a pure ambition.
Somebody has said that it might be well for all poets, if nothing more were known of their lives than appears in their poetry. This may be true of such as Edgar A. Poe, of whom it was especially said, but it is not true of her whose name stands upon the title-page of this volume. No one, in extending his knowledge of her, ever had occasion to lessen his esteem for her as a person, or accept a lower estimate of her character.
I have not sought to pass an indiscriminate eulogium upon her; but want of space compels me rather to pass over in silence many admirable traits. Hence I may not speak of her steadfast earnestness of purpose, her tireless industry, her indomitable energy, -- whether teaching school on crutches, or rising from a sick-bed to fulfil an appointment to lecture; her ardent love of Nature, that opened every sense to the perception of the beautiful and sublime in mountain and lake, in stream and dell, in woods and waterfall. She was a true child of nature, direct and simple in her manners, and impatient of the artificiality and formal etiquette of fashionable society. In her public ministrations she was earnest yet liberal, zealous but tolerant. With a large vein of mysticism in her composition, she would have the truths of Religion made clear to the understanding also. She left a name upon which detraction sought in vain to find a blot; and though much admired, she had too much good sense to be spoiled by flattery. Beginning life a victim of poverty, in youth a child of suffering, she was lastly, in her adult years, a dispenser of benefits to many a grateful mind. The writer of these pages first made her acquaintance when he was a young collegian, full of the conceits of knowledge without the reality. Heretofore inclined to despise the intellectual capacities of the gentler sex, she quite revolutionized his estimate of woman. It was a surprise to meet so much originality of character, so much mental vigor and independence, where one was wont to expect only subserviency to low social standards and fashionable follies. She was the noblest woman it has been my lot to know, and the impress of her spirit is left too deep upon my memory ever to be obliterated. Whatever changes may come, however low I may fall, I can never quite forget that, in the impressible years of my youth, I knew, and walked for a while in the radiance of, a pure and lofty character. And now that she has closed her earthly career, and is added to that ever-greatening host that have passed beyond the dark valley, she is well entitled to the hospitality and fellowship of those master spirits
who have labored to impregnate the minds of men with bold and lofty conceptions, who have taught the men of their generation to crave after the unseen, to pine after the ideal, and rise above the visible world of sense.
Source:The Poet And Other Poems.
Boston: William White And Co.,
158 Washington Street.