* Cleophas and His Own used by permission, The Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library,
MARSDEN HARTLEY IN NOVA SCOTIA
The Story of Cleophas and His Own
Early in the fall of 1935 Marsden Hartley met the Francis and Martha Mason family. He had traveled to Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, in search of a friend, whom he could not locate. After a short time there, he moved to nearby Blue Rocks, where he met the Masons. In early November he moved to their home on East Point Island, across an inlet from Blue Rocks. He was quickly enthralled by the family, especially by Alton and Donald, the Masons' sons, who he told a friend "nearly devoured me with affectionate devotion." For the lonely artist the Masons were "the real thing . . . for a fisherman is more of a 'thing' than a shut in farmer-that is a N[ew] E[ngland] one-and it's so new to me and enveloping."
Meeting the Mason family marked the beginning of one of the most significant episodes in Hartley's life. He found a communal love such as he had rarely, if ever, experienced before, and from that point on his art reflected the effect the Masons had on him: a heightened awareness of love, compassion, and of humanity's frailty in the face of the fierce power of nature.
In June 1936 he returned to East Point Island and for two months enjoyed an idyllic time, poking around the Masons' house, walking about the island, occasionally sunbathing in solitude along the shore, and even accompanying the Masons on a fishing trip. "There is no hunger," he wrote in his journal about life with the Masons and their neighbors. "No one is idle-no one will ever need assistance & fail of receiving it-the pulse of the community is full and responsive-no one is surprised-they know each other for generations-no one deceives." He wrote his close friend, the gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, that he was "all but imbedded" in the Mason family. By this time he had begun to write about his experiences with them, in a letter dated early September, referring to Francis as Cleophas. Then, or soon thereafter, he gave fictitious names to the others: Martha became Marie Saint Esprit; Alty, Adelard; Donny, Etienne; their sister Alice, Madeleine (later to become Marguerite) Felice; and another sister, Ruby, became Jeanne Marthe.
In Cleophas and His Own, the piece Hartley wrote about his Nova Scotia experiences before he left in November, he declared that "It had been such a long lyrical summer." But September came "crashing down upon our hearts and souls like earthquake upon ruin." On the twenty-third he wrote a friend that "a terrific tragedy has fallen on our house here & the two big lovely boys of the family & their pretty young cousin were drowned Saturday night in the teeth of the gale that swept up from Florida all along the Atlantic seaboard." Donny, Alty, and their cousin Allen had been drinking a lot in Lunenburg on Saturday night, the nineteenth. Instead of remaining ashore they decided to cross over from Blue Rocks to East Point Island that night during the violent storm. Even though they were excellent seamen, the attempt was utterly foolhardy. The waves were huge; a swift current raced between the island and the mainland, and jagged rocks lined the coastline. Alty's punt, round-bottomed and hence unstable, in which they tried to cross, was far too small for three people. They made it across to a first island, portaged that, but then perished as they struggled toward home, no more than five minutes from where they died.
When the three did not appear the next morning, clear and bright after the storm, the family immediately began to worry. Everything pointed to the boys having been lost. A few days later the punt was found washed ashore twenty miles away, and six days after the drowning the bodies of Alty and Allen were found on the beach of one of the small islands nearby. Donny's, mutilated, surfaced three days later.
The Masons' grief was almost unbearable for Hartley. "O the wrench even to me who had grown to love them dearly & been so proud to know them," he wrote a friend. "Fool-hardy Alty-so lovable & so terrific-so affectionate-so theatric-dear sweet gentle lyrical Donny who never had a dark thought or an exaggerated one about anything has left his little gold-finch girl in misery as they were heading strong toward marriage & another life. . . . The sea outside the door now might be a quiet little pool in a green meadow it is so calm." Hartley understood fully the pathos of the situation, but more, the fierce contrariness of man's relation to the harsh yet beautiful north sea and to the rugged land behind it.
He thought he should leave the island, but Ruby Mason urged him to stay to comfort her parents. He did, all the while sensing that he could not bring himself to return another time. "The place is nothing without them," he told a friend, adding that he had not felt such despair since the death of a young German, Karl von Freyburg, who was killed early in World War I. Alty had "wanted to build a little shack with me & live in it with me," he asserted. Never again would he experience as deep a love for someone, and his main outlet was to paint, which he did almost feverishly, rendering more than twenty pictures and numerous drawings before he departed in November. Somber seascapes and such detailed studies as that of two dead ducks caught the pathos and the beauty of life that he felt deeply.
He wrote often, so that by the time he left Nova Scotia he had completed first drafts of two poems, one of which was Cleophas and His Own. Not until 1940 did he make his final revisions; it was first published in 1982. The long piece conveyed with great emotion that with the Masons everything had come together to make emphatic what he called "the quality and principle of life itself." This "everything" consisted of a "life spent in plain beliefs, in despairs, understanding, and with more or less sudden vision accepting experience." Nova Scotia-the human community, the island, and the ocean-had made his vision more lucid, and finally the deaths of the Mason boys and the responses of the other members of the family had made that vision crystal clear, so that it allowed him to accept life as before he could not.
- Townsend Ludington
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