One finds the strangest flotsam in the backwash of the early nineteenth century. I found this gem while sifting through the private papers of Sarah Hale, to whom it appears to have been submitted while she was editor of The Ladies’ Magazine and Literary Gazette in the 1830s. Unsurprisingly she never published the poem, and I couldn’t find a copy of any accompanying correspondence, either from the author or from Mrs. Hale rejecting the work. The poem thus remains untitled and anonymous.
The poem, in (mostly, if occasionally somewhat addled) heroic couplets, tells the tragic story of a “humble maid” who gives life and limb to save an apple tart. It’s at once charming and simply dreadful. Its palpably oozing sincerity evinces a giggle from the modern reader. It goes on, as we would say now. The verses strain under the weight of its overwrought verbiage (“gossamer gauze of alabaster skin”? Seriously?) And it’s hard to know how to read it — as a cautionary tale, about the dangers of women’s work? As a love letter to a departed domestic? Or as a simple paean to a damn fine apple tart? The poem’s meaning sleeps with its author, or did, at least, until I dredged the thing up last week.
In any case, until I can manage to write something of my own for this space, enjoy. And don’t be too hard on our departed would-be Byron. No doubt he meant well.
‘Twas Candlemas, and winter lingered long.
The snow lay piled deep, the wind blew strong.
Upon this frigid morning dark and drear,
A humble maid awoke in need of cheer.
She lit the fire, made porridge by its light,
Ate this spare repast, put all to right,
Then with basket ventured forth to meet
The fruitiers who lined the frozen street
Each raising voice to hawk his simple wares
And fill the busy town with warming airs.
Our maiden, shiv’ring, drew tight round her shawl
And passed unsatisfied each cart and stall
With Russets, Gravensteins, Sheepnose,
Pippins, Beauties, Blenheims — none she chose
Until her sparkling eyes had finally seen
The perfect orbs of mottled red and green,
Wintered o’er unblemished, crisp and chaste.
A bite of one confirmed her mind’s true taste.
From pocket she withdrew a single coin,
“A pennyworth, if’t please you,” she enjoined,
Then back to waiting hearth she turned with haste
To set her hands to work and make the paste.
She sifted flour, rinsed the butter pure,
Of each component’s quality made sure
Made dough with fingers lithe and rolled it thin
And when ’twas finished, pressed it in the tin,
Then pared each apple, sliced away its core
Pounded sugar, drew from pantry’s store
A nutmeg, stick of cinnamon, and mace
The scent of which perfumed her pretty face
As patiently she pounded them to dust,
Combined with slivered fruit, set into crust,
And laid by warming hearth awhile to bake,
Heavenly aromas rising from its wake.
When crust turned gold and juices bubbled forth
She made retrieve her treasure from the hearth
But then — alack! poor maiden’s cruel luck—
Tragedy’s dark scimitar now struck—
The hot tin slipped from in her weary fist
And slid its weight upon her slender wrist.
Fierce pain like lightning swelled throughout her arm,
Yet knowing that the heat would do her harm,
She would not drop the precious burning treat!
Not after morning’s walk through frigid street,
Her industry, the dear-bought fruit and spice,
Too frugal she to bake it over twice—
Or not to taste it! Compound the tragedy!
She winced, but held its balance carefully
And set the tart upon the trivet safe.
Then fearful saw where searing pan had chafed
Now red, with blisters rising from within
The gossamer gauze of alabaster skin.
O dreadful pain! Yet not a single cry
Escaped her lips. With nary but a sigh
She ladled water so it cooling kissed,
Tied fast a cloth around her aching wrist,
And then to bed to sleep away the pain.
But rest, if not her labor, proved in vain.
With fever she awoke upon the morn,
And oozing pus whence tender skin was torn.
The crones arrived to salve her wrist with teas
They brewed from secret herbs and bark of trees.
The black-clad doctors brought their draughts and knives
With which they saved and claimed as many lives.
And those who held her dear lifted their prayer
To Him who holds us in His tender care,
Yet still she weakened. Rosy cheeks grew pale,
She laid in agony, this maid once hale
Drew breaths but shallow. Fading as she lay
She opened crackéd lips once more to say,
“If it please you, while still beats my heart,
One morsel of my humble apple tart?”
The doctors dithered. Naught must pass her lips
Lest death her young life’s light would sure eclipse!
But physick’s clever formulas had failed,
So to the kitchen loving family hailed
To fetch the pan and cut a narrow slice
Which filled the room with lusty fruit and spice.
Beneath the fork the tender crust gave way
In flakes, and juices flowed. Did hopeful voices say
If aught might yet restore her bright complexion
The cure must lie within this sweet confection!
So she with effort raised her head and ate
A single forkful from the blessed plate—
Alas, too late to save her failing breath,
Yet brought some comfort to a tragic death
For touched by this confectionary grace,
She closed her eyes, a smile upon her face.
Now in the churchyard stands a stone on her behalf
And in her memory reads this epitaph:
She gave her very life to save a tart.
No truer manifest of baker’s art
Was e’er in earth or heav’n above displayed.
Her lies a humble, noble, virtuous maid
Whose dimpled smile and bright cerulean eyes
Will sore be missed — but not more than her pies.