“Beauty” and “Duty”

Driving through Burlington, NJ, recently we decided to don our facemarks and do a quick run through of Philip’s, one of our favorite antique shops.

“Maybe my needlework is still there,” I noted hopefully to Tyler.

After we parked, I took a peak through the shop’s windows to make sure there weren’t a lot of people inside and also to see if the framed needlework had sold already. I saw no one, and the needlework was, in fact, still there. We made the purchase and left, excited to have cautiously and carefully engaged in one of our favorite activities – antiquing – during month five of the COVID-19 Crisis.

Where to hang these new acquisitions?

This is a color photograph of two pieces of framed needlework on a white wall. They are having above a dresser that has a ceramic wash bowl and basin on it as well as blue and white platter.
Pillow shams made by a “mother” in the family of E. Budd Marter in 1884.

The needlework, which was, according to the provenance note, completed in red thread on white linen or cotton in 1884 by someone in Judge E. Budd Marter’s family. An 1897 Sears catalogue featured these lines in patterns for pillow covers (which is likely what these are). The two lines…

I slept and dreamed that life was Beauty
I woke and found that life was Duty

…were not some snarky response to late nineteenth-century domestic drudgery, though. They actually come from an 1840 poem by Ellen Sturgis Hooper.

I SLEPT, and dreamed that life was Beauty;
I woke, and found that life was Duty.
Was thy dream then a shadowy lie?
Toil on, sad heart, courageously,
And thou shalt find thy dream to be
A noonday light and truth to thee.

According to a Virginia Commonwealth University web site, Surgis’s poem was published in the first issue of the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial: A Magazine of Literature, Philosophy, and Religion (Boston) in July of 1840. The Dial published the poem with no attribution. I’m not sure when Sturgis came to be associated with it, but I am happy to match her name to her work now.

Out of context of the entire poem, the lines on the pillow shams can be read as a downer (Tyler’s take). Or a quip (my take). One of the reasons I wanted to buy the needlework was because I thought the lines would be funny to read on the walls of our bedroom. Tyler vetoed that, proclaiming, “they’re too sad.” And so instead, the framed finds ended up in the guest bedroom.

People have deployed the poem and the lines only in different ways over the years. Some people saw the poem in its entirely as a relatively hopeful–or, at least, didactic–poem. For example, in 1892, Douglas P. Putnam included the poem in a March 17, 1892, issue of The New York Evangelist essay called “Duty Versus Pleasure” in which he suggested the poem meant people who “do God’s will…come to know the truth and like it” (2). But when you see these two lines only on some needlework–particularly on pillow covers–you might draw less positive conclusions as Tyler and I did. Indeed, the President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home curators display antique pillow cases with the same poetry on them to represent the fact that Clinton’s parents may not have had the most happy marriage, according to one 2016 article by Maggie Martin in the Shreveport Times.

The lines–again, presented with no reference to their origins–remain popular today. I did a quick search and discovered that, within the last twenty years, several newspapers have printed those lines as “quotes of the day” or “thoughts for the day” with no reference to their origins. If you come across the lines and not the poem, now you know where they came from.

How do the lines make you feel when you read them?

I’m also not sure what the 1884 maker was thinking when she took up her needle, but she certainly was keen for the pillow cases–like the poetry she worked into them–to mean something to someone for years to come.