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Caroline Swan House,
57 School Street

One evening Dr. Schumann took Robinson to “a stately house overlooking the lower town, where a stoutish, compact spinster named Caroline Swan absorbed languages, radiated literature and wrote poems, essays and controversial articles. She was a precise lady, dark of eyes and hair, a little stooped and crab-like in her walk, keeping house meticulously for an invalid mother, and fighting, in New England’s own way, for her right to her own life.” Schumann had learned the technicalities of versification from her when he was her pupil in high school. With him and another local poet, Judge Henry Sewall Webster, she formed the Gardiner Poetry Group, meeting weekly at her house. When Dr. Schumann brought Robinson to a meeting, Miss Swan expressed doubts about his qualifications. “Why he’s only a school boy!” she exclaimed. “What does he know about literature?” “Well,” remarked the doctor, “he seems to think he has something in his head that he don’t know how to get out.” (Hagedorn, pages 35–6) When Schumann presented new poems of his protégé, the young Robinson squirmed as he was made the center of discussion. Swan discerned that he was eager to learn, she was perplexed that he had his own ideas and was not easily budged. The weekly meetings deepened Robinson’s realization that technical perfection was important and that he must compress thought and emotion within the confines of historic poetic forms.

Henry Richards (1848–1949), who lived in the Yellow House directly across School Street from Caroline Swan’s house, maintained that the character Flammonde was based upon William Henry Thorne (1839–1907), a defrocked priest from New York City, who turned literary publisher. After one of Thorne’s financial failures, he lived for an extended period with Caroline Swan while he established a literary journal, The Globe, supported by Swan. When that venture also failed, Thorne fled Gardiner and left Swan in debt. Robinson had the opportunity to meet Thorne many times when he attended the meetings of the Gardiner Poetry Club, and Thorne published several of Robinson’s early poems in The Globe. There are copies of all the Globe issues that contain poems by Gardiner residents in the Gardiner Library’s Special Collections.

The statement by Henry Richards, found in the Yellow House Papers, is so important and reveals information never published such that it is presented in its unabridged form here. Rosalind Richards transcribed her father’s oral history in this transcript.

Many of the likenesses and part-likenesses throughout the poems may have been unconscious; flowering from tiny, half-caught seeds; but Flammonde is a photographic likeness.

With firm address and foreign air,
With news of nations in his talk,
And something royal in his walk.
Erect, with his alert repose,
About him, and about his clothes,
He pictured all tradition hears
Of what he owed to fifty years.

And again,

And what he needed for his fee
To live, he borrowed graciously.

About him, and about his clothes …

Dear me, I can see Henry Thorne, strolling about Miss Swan’s grounds, across the street from ours, as when I was a child; in H. R.’s words, when I asked him for a description the other day, “A tall, good-looking man, with a close-cut beard, in markedly English-looking clothes, gray tweeds, unusual at that time. He used to stroll with his cigar about Miss Swan’s lawns, during the long stays when he was her unasked guest.”

“It was Miss Vannah who introduced Thorne to Miss Swan; Kate Vannah wished also, and pressed, to bring him here, but we avoided the acquaintance. Miss Vannah’s enthusiasms were apt to be tiresome, sometimes distasteful; and it became evident soon that Thorne was a thoroughly discredited man. He had been a minister, and left his calling (perhaps not wholly voluntarily; no one now would know); he had deserted a devoted wife and five children. He imposed on poor, credulous Miss Swan—he sponged upon her for years, and in the end made away with all her comfortable little fortune.”

I quoted from H. R. at greater length in an earlier letter about Thorne.

“He was so patently a wrong ’un that Judge Webster, and even Dr. Schuman, cut his acquaintance; and yet, he was a good-natured, helpful person, and often tireless in helping others. He straightened out many difficulties; but chiefly, he was sincerely and persistently devoted to good literature, working with devoted enthusiasm for years with his little magazine; and perhaps gave the first actual help and encouragement to E. A. R. in publishing his poetry.”

Before going over all this with H. R., I read him “Flammonde” aloud (he had not looked at it for years); then asked him who Flammonde was. He shouted, “Henry Thorne!” and roared with laughter.

It should be said that E. A. R. never knew—no one here did, till after her death—all or half of Thorne’s ill-treatment of Miss Swan; or that it was he who made away with her substance. That was a special villainy that E. A. R. would never have forgiven or condoned.

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The man Flammonde, from God knows where,
With firm address and foreign air,
With news of nations in his talk
And something royal in his walk,
With glint of iron in his eyes,
But never doubt, nor yet surprise,
Appeared, and stayed, and held his head
As one by kings accredited.
Erect, with his alert repose
About him, and about his clothes,
He pictured all tradition hears
Of what we owe to fifty years.
His cleansing heritage of taste
Paraded neither want nor waste;
And what he needed for his fee
To live, he borrowed graciously.
He never told us what he was,
Or what mischance, or other cause,
Had banished him from better days
To play the Prince of Castaways.
Meanwhile he played surpassing well
A part, for most, unplayable;
In fine, one pauses, half afraid
To say for certain that he played.
For that, one may as well forego
Conviction as to yes or no;
Nor can I say just how intense
Would then have been the difference
To several, who, having striven
In vain to get what he was given,
Would see the stranger taken on
By friends not easy to be won.
Moreover, many a malcontent
He soothed and found munificent;
His courtesy beguiled and foiled
Suspicion that his years were soiled;
His mien distinguished any crowd,
His credit strengthened when he bowed;
And women, young and old, were fond
Of looking at the man Flammonde.
There was a woman in our town
On whom the fashion was to frown;
But while our talk renewed the tinge
Of a long-faded scarlet fringe,
The man Flammonde saw none of that,
And what he saw we wondered at—
That none of us, in her distress,
Could hide or find our littleness.
There was a boy that all agreed
Had shut within him the rare seed
Of learning. We could understand,
But none of us could lift a hand.
The man Flammonde appraised the youth,
And told a few of us the truth;
And thereby, for a little gold,
A flowered future was unrolled.
There were two citizens who fought
For years and years, and over nought;
They made life awkward for their friends,
And shortened their own dividends.
The man Flammonde said what was wrong
Should be made right; nor was it long
Before they were again in line,
And had each other in to dine.
And these I mention are but four
Of many out of many more.
So much for them. But what of him—
So firm in every look and limb?
What small satanic sort of kink
Was in his brain? What broken link
Withheld him from the destinies
That came so near to being his?
What was he, when we came to sift
His meaning, and to note the drift
Of incommunicable ways
That make us ponder while we praise?
Why was it that his charm revealed
Somehow the surface of a shield?
What was it that we never caught?
What was he, and what was he not?
How much it was of him we met
We cannot ever know; nor yet
Shall all he gave us quite atone
For what was his, and his alone;
Nor need we now, since he knew best,
Nourish an ethical unrest:
Rarely at once will nature give
The power to be Flammonde and live.
We cannot know how much we learn
From those who never will return,
Until a flash of unforeseen
Remembrance falls on what has been.
We’re each a darkening hill to climb;
And this is why, from time to time
In Tilbury Town, we look beyond
Horizons for the man Flammonde.

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