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of Hartford: Poems and Prose on the Early American Deaf Community|
Edna Edith Sayers and
Alice Cogswell (1805–1830) was naturally the subject, the addressee, or the impetus for many of Sigourney’s poems about deaf people. Her early childhood and seven years as a student at the Asylum are relatively well documented, but we know nothing about her life between the time she completed her studies under Clerc and Gallaudet and her early death, just as we know nothing of her mother’s life. Sigourney wrote only of Alice’s childhood, perhaps out of personal nostalgia for those happy years as a teacher before her marriage, as well as sentimentalist avoidance of educated, middleclass adults as subjects. Alice’s portrait was never painted, although a childhood silhouette was made and has survived. Even the obituary poem (in this section) that Sigourney wrote on her seems to place her back into her childhood family. Why she did not marry, as so many of her classmates did, or what she did with her time in her parents’ home, whether needlework or charitable pursuits, are complete mysteries, never mentioned in the historical record. Perhaps she was already suffering the early stages of tuberculosis when she completed her course of study at the Asylum.
“For Alice” (1815)
This poem was composed when Sigourney was twenty-four-year-old Miss Lydia Huntley, during her first year of teaching Alice and fourteen other Hartford girls in Mrs. Wadsworth’s house. It is not clear whether Sigourney first met Alice in her new schoolroom in the fall of 1814 or whether the first meeting had occurred earlier that year, or even on one of her earlier trips to Hartford. In any case, this seems to be Sigourney’s first effort to write about Alice.
“For Alice” includes two conventional conceits about deaf people. One, expressed in stanza 3, is the notion common among all types of Romantics that the deaf person is protected against the possibility that “mad folly” might take control of her thoughts and actions, and she is therefore, “perchance,” in possession of a purer soul, a soul that more closely reflects the conditions of heaven. The other conventional conceit, expressed in stanza 5, is that the deaf person will speak and hear in the afterlife, and that her voice will be all the “brighter” and her enjoyment of the “harmony of Heaven” all the greater by virtue of her having been deaf in life. Notice, though, that in true sentimentalist fashion, what the deaf hear in heaven is music and the sound of a loved one’s voice—they do not communicate in speech per se because spoken language is an aspect of our fallen world and is not needed when one is free of this earthly existence.
The first two stanzas, in contrast, present fresh ideas deriving from observation of the little deaf girl: the expressive power of her “glance,” and her ability by means of facial expression to form affectional bonds with the poet, that is, to excite and reciprocate feelings of “tenderness.” At this point in her relationship with Alice, Sigourney most likely did not have much ability to communicate with the little girl in her home signs.
“For Alice” seems never to have been published, or titled—“For Alice” is the inscription that precedes the poem in the manuscript. This text is from a handwritten and undated “copy of Manuscript poem by Miss Huntley, 1815. Loaned by Col. Norton” in the Gallaudet Archives, Balfour MSS160, Box 15, Folder 9.