Picture of Windhill Farm


Susan Linher Commentary on Gammy's Poem "The Island of Death"

Every so often I read the little book of poems written by Gammy - SONGS OF JOY. The one titled "The Island of Death" (pg. 4) has been pestering me for quite some time. Quite a few trails of thought have been dancing around in the back of my noggin! Anyway, here it is so you can refer to it:

 Susan Linher


(published by "The Pastorian" - Feb. 1911)

A mystic island rises from the seas, -
     High cliffs of steep bare rocks whereon the waves
Thunder and echo in resounding caves,
     Enclose it on three sides. But here dark trees

Of cypress to the north show grim and tall
     Beneath fair gardens are disclosed to view
With lilacs, lilies pale, on which the dew
    Still lies; and half way up the rocky wall

Dark door-ways hid by ferns and shadows. See
These tiny streams of sparkling water flow
To where that boat has just a landing made.

Ah! mournful Isle of Death! How sadly we
Look foreward to this voyage. We do not know
What fairy sights may be within thy shade!

I suppose most people comtemplate death in various ways at different life-stages for many reasons. This was written by Gammy as a young woman, not yet 18. Her poem seems to fit in well with a very popular series of paintings done by Swiss artist, Arnold Boecklin, 1827 - 1901. He painted 5 different versions on the theme "The Isle of the Dead". It made me wonder if Gammy had seen the paintings. It seems many people were struck by them, (I too when I first saw them long ago somewhere) Hitler also, it seems. To finish my thoughts, as I was driving home from work one day and listening to NPR, I heard a piece inspired by the paintings, but, for the life of me I can't remember whether is was Rachmaninov's version or Elgar's (maybe excerpts from something like The Dream of Gerontius - 1900). I instantly recalled the painting, which had made a very eerie impression on me as a young person long ago. I believe that painting is not a fantasy place, but very real, and the Isle of the Dead actually exists somewhere in the Mediterranean area (Greece?). I think I recall that it had been used for centuries as a burial place for the more affluent, where the bodies were actually placed in holes in the walls of the cliffs. Anyway, one, at least, of Boecklin's paintings can be viewed at the Staatliche Museum in Berlin. You can also see them in books of paintings, and at www.TOTENINSEL.com There was a Boris Karloff film entitled Isle of the Dead (1945) which used the painting's setting for a Greek war in 1912???

Probably no one else bothers with such thoughts about Gammy's writing, but I am quite intrigued by a number of her pieces. Should anyone else in the family, however, be interested in a response to her poem and the possible artistic/musical connections, I'd be happy to hear. If anyone does any research on the musical parts, they can find quite a bit written about the topic of the soul's journey into the next world. It made me wonder whose religious views were responsible for Gammy's thoughts and impressions at that time in her life. The last lines of Gammy's poem seem to be the voice of her innocence and youth intermingled with her knowledge of an intimacy with death - obviously more than for most people of 18 today.

This time in history did seem to be an era when people were open to seances, a neaveau style of free form dance using sprites and fairies in natural settings, etc. Many paintings of the late 1800s through the early 1900s express the genre of fantasy. Check out background settings, including portraiture! The art was a bit sappy, dreamy, and the precurser to Maxfield Parish stuff. I think the art forms and thoughts of the day represented the middle/upper class women's emergence/awakening from protectionism through patriarchy to one of protest and eventual liberation through more educated societal choices. Gammy was fortunate in her position as a female, in that she and Aunt Kitty had no true male contenders. (Their only brother had a serious heart condition, early demise, and could never extend his life in the way they were able.) I think they had quite a subtly powerful mother. Who can comment on Virginia Kinsey's character more? Ginger? Elsa? I especially want to know what these two women knew of her. What was her influence on her two able daughters? What were her spiritual convictions... It was certainly unique for that time that one daughter became a doctor, the other a nurse who went to the Crimea!