Danske Dandridge: What is Her Magic?

By Jim Surkamp


See poems, photos, and garden writings at http://www.libraries.wvu.edu/dandridge/index2.htm


Danske Dandridge's writings take root slowly - on a spring's eve. A rose root is to soil as a brilliant word-stroke is to an unlit mind. Only the best, most precious enter Danske's secret garden. A phrase is turned and we wait.


 She has been, since she died, a unique puzzle piece taken from the rich landscape of her historic region. All too different to fit anywhere well.


Danske Dandridge was hailed by some as the greatest of poets; by others, a spinster of "dainty," crumpet-poems, one washes down with tea. The blinkered latter lot cart-wheeled over her oceanic, moonlit railings, assuming them lapses - not in their own fumbling grasp - but in her lady-like manners. If she did not meet their expectations, it was because her expectations were much higher. Victorian culture-police gasped when the more primitive Danske bristled at cabin fevers, "like a caged wild animal." Even more insidious was the damage of being misfiled by the "Harper's" reviewer, squandering praise on this "Dane's excellent second language." (She was born in Denmark while her Virginian father served as his nation's first ambassador to that country).


For me, it began twelve years ago with an article in the local "Good News Paper" by Alexandra Lee Levin, a distant relation of Danske's, who tipped open, for a peek, the heavy, oaken lid on this fairytale world. Then another associate, Dr. Bill Theriault, appealed to my researcher's love for new troves of value, telling me she wrote some 200 gardening articles to add to her three history books I know and use.


My pilgrimage to the some 10,000 documents called the "Bedinger-Dandridge Collection" at Duke University's Rare Books and Manuscripts Division tore off the veil and revealed a trembling, brave, extraordinary woman. Her diaries are present, direct, blunt, droll - all pulsing with an aching heart, wishing for a world beyond and all seamless beauties. As I whispered her diary entries into a micro casette recorder, I felt as if this glistening, shadowy world and Universe was beginning to take me into its enchantment. I was becoming a member of the Dandridge family - Totsie, Stevie, Stephen, Serena, with Tom and Charity Devonshire lifting "the heavy end." They all mixed the mundane, ethereal and every day at the stately home called Rose Brake - coping within "moderate means." The enchantress herself, with Tom behind the spade, waved into being a grove of oaks, a garden with over a hundred varieties of roses and over 500 species of tree and plant life until Rose Brake was a kingdom.


I've seldom found anyone whose faded, pencil markings can still make me laugh and cry from the remote distance of a century and a day's drive from their homestead. Rose Brake lingers in the mind's eye just above the still-standing, garden-less home, a magical world Danske left for us, to tend its unfading flowers, a secret garden of our own.


The following are edited from Ms. Dandridge’s papers at Duke University’s Perkins Manuscript Collection, Durham, North Carolina. - ED








Books as Mediums

By Caroline “Danske” Dandridge (1880-1914)




“When I go out to the hammock in the leisurely afternoon, I debate within myself what spirit shall be my companion. Books are mediums, and by them we live in communion with the spirits of the absent or the departed.


“For the garden I want very choice company. Jeffries, Thoreau, Burroughs, and among poets, Chaucer, Spencer, Wordsworth are favored guests. My test for a book in the summer is - Will it do to read under the trees? Almost all good poetry is adapted to out-of-door reading. All that rings false or hollow, all novels of fashionable life, or ignoble ambition are as out of place in the grave and reverend company of trees as a painted and bedizened woman of the world would be.


“History cannot peacefully be read in the hammock because it is too harrowing. The grove is no fit arena for marchings and counter-marchings, massacres, and bloody victories.


“I choose my companions very carefully for this, my hour or two - of peace, after the work of the day is over. I do not want any book that would jar the quiet harmony of sky and cloud, and tree-tops, or disturb the brooding calm of the hills.


“Pure, not too strenuous love stories gain a fresh charm read in this manner, and so do fairy stories and romances, for which I still have a weakness. I think I will have to complete my shelf with children's books, such as Hans Christian Anderson, and Hawthorne's Wonder Book, and Mrs. Ewing's stories, at least the most cheerful of them. After all, we have to go to the children's bookcases for cheerfulness nowadays.


“It has not yet become the fashion to write pessimistic literature for them, thank heaven! When children's books become morbid, I will no longer have any hope for the human race.


“Lillian Whiting says that it is everyone's duty to be happy. The young ladies scour the country in search of Amusement going ten miles to a dance, and coming home to lie in bed all the morning. I stay quietly in my hammock, and not Amusement; but better far, her sister, Enjoyment, comes to me unsolicited. She floats on the swan-white clouds; glows in the sunsets, rises in the pages of books. She closes my eyes at night, wakes me up with me in the morning, and her other name is Content.”


Society for the Suppression of Nuisances


“I wish that a Society for the Suppression of Nuisances could be formed in every country neighborhood and that it would take stringent measures to suppress the Unwelcome Guest. In this part of the world the door of one's house is supposed to be always wide open to all comers. We have to keep up the traditions of our ancestors before the war and because the southern planters were flooded with visitors all summer, we, too, in spite of changed conditions of things, must observe the sacred laws of hospitality, however inconvenient they may be. In the North they are wiser than we, and do these things better. You are invited for a certain number of days and you don't overstay your time. You don't go unless you are asked, and, presumably, you are not asked unless you are wanted.


“It is far otherwise with us. If a relation, no matter how distant, or a friend of a relation; or a friend of a friend; or a friend of a friend's relation, comes within fifty miles of you, you are bound to invite him or her - it almost always her - to your house for an indefinite stay. The cook may be ill or non-existent; the children may all have the measles, you may be half-dead yourself, but no matter. Nothing matters, except that the laws of hospitality be not infringed.


“When your guest after driving you to the verge or over the verge of nervous prostration, finally wearies of you, and proposes to depart in search of new victims, you must set your teeth and urge her to stay as if your future salvation depended upon it.


“When you have guests you must not leave them to their own devices an hour. You cannot go and shut yourself into your room for a quiet morning's work; you cannot laze in the hammock through a long afternoon; you must exert yourself to be entertaining every minute of the day and half the night, except when you are preparing delicacies in the kitchen over a steaming stove. It is always in the hottest weather that the Unwelcome Guest makes her appearance.


“It is so easy for husbands to be hospitable!! When time is up, he insists upon a longer stay and that so urgently that he will not take no for an answer. He does not have to keep house, nor instruct the cook in the art of dessert-making when the kitchen thermometer marks 98 degrees. He is only conscious of an agreeable listener to the stories his wife got tired of so many years ago. And he enjoys eating the desserts.


“The Unexpected Guest is almost always the Unwelcome Guest.


“The wish to escape from the untimely visitor has often inspired me with the desire to live in a tree. Everyone should have some safe refuge from the cares and trials of housekeeping. If I could manage it, I would have a secret stair built in the heart of our giant Oaks, which should lead to an eyrie at the summit, hidden from all eyes. Into this peaceful nest I would disappear upon occasion; say just as undesirable carriage wheels were heard approaching the house. From my airy perch I would calmly survey the coming and going of the curious, myself unseen, unheard. How cool, how carefree, how bird-like! I would be, in my safe seclusion! I am afraid I should burst into song for very glee and thus betray my secret.”






“Last night, I lay alone in the darkening garden. It was very still except for the shrilling of the crickets and cicadas and the beat of hoofs and rolling of wheels on the high roads, that came up to me, softened by distance.


“The head of the house was away; the servants had gone to their cabins.


“The moths flitted about the Evening Primroses and the Four-o-clocks; the climbing Rose on the fence bloomed in many white clusters, with a faint odor of musk. The Jasmine near by made the air heavy with fragrance, and many groups of white Speciosum Lilies and white Phlox glimmered in the growing dusk.


“It grew late, and I waited for the moon to rise. She came at last, sending her white radiance in advance, blanching the thin clouds above her in the eastern sky. It seemed a fire on the mountains at the first glimpse of her. Slowly, she rose, shedding her waning light upon the garden.


“The night was so beautiful and so calm, that I felt awed. And as I lay in the stillness, I thought of all the old house had known, and of my life there, step by step. How I had played under the Oaks of the grove, and wandered about the fields with my brother, all the long careless days of childhood.


“We invented games for every part of the place, a special one for the back piazza, another for the front verandah, a most exciting one called "Deer and Lion" for the upstairs passage and communicating bedrooms, on rainy days. The rock brakes in the fields were our kingdoms, and a field of corn a mighty unexplored forest in which we lost our way. And then they all came back to me, all the dear faces that I had loved, long since, and lost awhile.


“The garden was peopled with them, my friends of the long ago, they were all there, father mother, sister, and radiant child, and many others, friends, playmates, teachers, They moved about softly, with gentle steps, they filled the circle of vacant chairs by the hammock, left by the guests of the afternoon.


“I was not troubled nor afraid: The dim white figures came and went so tranquilly, they smiled at me so tenderly, and all their faces wore a look of pitying love.


“It was an exalted dreaming, but it seemed to me that each one had brought me a blessing, and that I received consolation and uplifting from each.  I thought of the broad charity, the warm-hearted generosity, and unsullied honor of one; the beautiful helpfulness and unselfishness of another, the brother's heroic spirit; the sister's nobility; and the joyous innocence of the child. And I besought them to help me to grow every day worthier to be one of them. They nodded gravely and kindly, and then it was as if they joined hands and sang together, words of heavenly promise and benediction.


“They faded slowly away, up, up, where the white clouds waited for them, and the pure voices sounded fainter, and fainter and I awakened from my reveries, and went very slowly and softly into the house, and left the old garden to watch, in the moon's company, through the tranquilly summer night.”