Biography of Helen Hunt Jackson, 1830-1885

Biographical Sketch by Donna-Jean Breckenridge

Once I discovered Helen Hunt Jackson, the opening months of our school years were not complete without the poem that included these lines:

"By all these lovely tokens
September days are here,
With summer's best of weather,
And autumn's best of cheer."

Since I always felt rather sad at the conclusion of summer, her words - and a trip to the apple orchard -- helped make the seasonal transition a little easier.

And the next month always involved reciting this gem from Jackson, usually on a day we picked pumpkins:

"O suns and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October's bright blue weather."

But as wonderful as those two poems are, there is so much more to this poet.

Helen Hunt Jackson, one of the best-known authors of her time, was born Helen Maria Fiske in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Yes, she was born the same year, in the same town, as another famous poet, Emily Dickinson. Their warm friendship, though, did not deepen until later in both their lives.

Helen was the daughter of a minister. Her mother died when she was 13, and her father followed in death just a few years later. When Helen was 22, she married Edward Hunt, a captain in the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Their baby boy, Murray, was born a year later--but he died at the age of eleven months, from a brain disease.

A year after that heartbreak, their second son Warren ("Rennie") was born. The Civil War broke out, and two years into the war, Helen's husband Edward was killed during an experiment. Two years later, in 1865, Helen's beloved son Rennie died of diphtheria, at the age of 9.

Helen was overwhelmed with grief. But it was not long before that grief was directed into writing. In the aftermath of the Civil War and its massive losses, no doubt many could share in her pain. In her haunting poem "The Prince is Dead," she writes these words:

"They dare not look where the cradle is set;
They hate the sunbeam which is set on the floor,
But will make the baby laugh out no more;
They feel as if they were turning to stone,
They wish the neighbors would leave them alone.
The Prince is dead."

And in her poem "Best," she writes,

"Mother, I see you, with your nursery light,
Leading your babies, all in white,
To their sweet rest;
Christ, the Good Shepherd, carries mine to-night,
And that is best."

As Helen began to travel to Europe and throughout the United States, she began to write on a variety of topics. Ralph Waldo Emerson called her "America's greatest woman poet."

But Helen was not well, and her doctor advised her to go to Colorado, to avail herself of the clear air. Once in Colorado, Helen met and married William Sharpless Jackson (throughout her life, Helen objected to being called Helen Hunt Jackson. She said that a woman does not identify herself by the names of both of her husbands).

While visiting her sister back east one day, Helen heard a speech by a man from the Ponca tribe, named Chief Standing Bear. He talked about things the United States government had done against his people, about broken promises, and about the government taking their land and forcing them onto reservations.

Helen turned her writing towards the cause of Native people. She wrote a nonfiction book called "A Century of Dishonor." That book talked about the injustice that Native people had suffered. But it was her next book, a work of fiction, that moved people powerfully. The book was entitled Ramona, and it was meant to be a sympathetic telling of the problems Native people faced. Though her expressions are different than those we use today, we can appreciate Helen's sympathy toward Native people. Referring to the impact of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin on the emancipation of the slaves, she wrote, "If I can do one-hundredth part for the Indian that Mrs. Stowe did for the Negro, I will be thankful."

In 1885, the year after Ramona was published, Helen fell and broke her hip. Later that year, she died of cancer, at the age of 55.

In a letter of sympathy to Helen's husband, Emily Dickinson related this last exchange from Helen: "Dear friend, can you walk, were the last words that I wrote her. I can fly -- her immortal (soaring) reply."

AmblesideOnline's free Charlotte Mason homeschool curriculum prepares children for a life of rich relationships with God, humanity, and the natural world.
Share AO with your group or homeschool fair! Download our printable brochure