As this year’s National Poetry Month draws to a close, what better time to revisit the celebrated work and life of Bristol native poet Abbie Huston Evans, 1881–1983.
While now her name most often appears on lists of “poets whose works should be better known”, during her lifetime she was admired and praised by leading critics and writers, including Edna St. Vincent Millay. of Maine and winner Richard Wilbur. , the second poet laureate of the United States.
However, it was not until the age of nearly 80 that she won the prestigious Loines Prize for Poetry and her third collection, “Fact of Crystal”, was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry. from 1962.
A thin book of just 37 poems, it had taken him over 20 years to write. “Words have to ripen for me,” she once explained, saying she was convinced that two or three poems a year was a “quite respectable” rate of production.
In awarding him an honorary Doctor of Letters, also in 1961, Bowdoin College asserted in its recommendation that “his poetic imagery, derived from the harsh landscapes of Maine’s childhood, was disciplined and defined by heritage and New England Education”.
In her preface to Evans’s (at age 47) first collection of poems, “Outcrop”, in 1928, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote: “Read these poems too quickly, or only once, and your heart will “to be still free. Reread them carefully, and they will always get their hands on you.”
In 1982, the year of Evans’ 100th birthday, Down East Magazine honored Evans with an article about his life and work in its February issue, and many other essays and appreciations of his work have appeared in recent years. .
Locally, the name Huston has long been known on the Bristol Peninsula, with his mother’s family first settling there in the 1730s. For example, Huston Landing, a local nature reserve, is located south of Huston Cove, near Hog Island.
The historic Huston House (now The Downeaster Inn) is one mile south of downtown Damariscotta on the east side of Bristol Road, just south of Huston Cove Road. The oldest part of this house, which extends from the dining room in front “to the second lilac bush on the side”, was built in 1790 by Robert Huston, the first justice of the peace in the Lincoln County.
The Hustons were one of the first families to settle on the peninsula along the river from Damariscotta and built several other houses along Bristol Road.
As a teenager, however, Evans moved from her native Bristol with her family to Camden, where her father would pastor First Congregational Church for the next 25 years. She claimed she first realized her desire to be a poet when she heard her father read William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” one Sunday as part of his sermon.
Fate, however, thwarted her plans when she was 18; a sight-threatening illness prevented her from reading and writing for 10 years. She spent much of her time outdoors, particularly walking in the Camden Hills with a young friend who was her Sunday School student, Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Evans became longtime friends with Millay and his mother, Cora B. Millay
Finally recovered from her eye infection, she entered Radcliffe College at age 28, earning a BA (1913, Phi Beta Kappa) and MA (1918). She went to France with the Red Cross during the final months of World War I, then returned home to become a social worker with coal miners in Colorado and Pittsburgh.
She then taught at Settlement Music School in Philadelphia from 1923 to 1953, and at College Settlement Farm-Camp in Horsham, Pennsylvania from 1953 to 1957, but until her death she returned to Bristol and Damariscotta each summer during her holidays.
Louise Bogan, famous poet, literary critic and poetry editor at The New Yorker from 1931 to 1968, published poems by Abbie Huston Evans and defended her work, declaring in 1969 that her poems were “the most unjustly neglected of the last quarter of century “.
Bogan wrote: “In Abbie Huston Evans’ ‘Fact of Crystal’ we discover something intense and rare: mystical apprehension. Miss Evans’ work is small…and its utterly distinctive quality has gone virtually unnoticed. Yet here is a New England woman…whose sensitive and strong perceptions go deep to the heart of things, whose sense of “inscape” can be contrasted with that of Hopkins and Dickinson. His Welsh heritage (his father, Welsh by birth, emigrated to the United States to eventually study for the ministry at Bangor Theological Institute), rooted in the austere landscapes of his childhood, was disciplined and defined, with grandeur and depth. These latter poems, written in the sixties and sixties, include works of such deep inspiration that modern petty categories and classifications fall into confusion before them.
Abbie Huston Evans’ work will be featured among an all-star cast of Lincoln County Women Writers, a Lincoln County Historical Association summer exhibit at its three historic sites. Visit lincolncountyhistory.org for more details and watch this column for more profiles of the exhibit’s featured authors.