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For Such a Small Place:  Poetry by the Sea in Nahant

By Carl Nahant aerial viewCarlsen

Nahant. For such a small place, for just 3600 people, for a place without a stoplight, there’s a lot of poetry. What is it about Nahant that produces so much poetry, that makes Nahant so poetic?

It’s geography that makes Nahant special. Nahant is two islands connected to Lynn by two tombolos (a tombolo is an isthmus that floods at high tide). In the old days, the tombolos made Nahant a sort of magical place, or at least one linked to the rhythms of nature since tide tables determined when to cross to Nahant and when to return. Alonzo Lewis’ poem, “Nahant Song” described the trip this way:

      . . .O’er the shining sand
      Far out in the tide, away from land;
      And we seem in the middle air to go,
      With the sky above and the sky below!

Little Nahant is a forty acre triangle and Big Nahant is a square mile Short Beach Nahant MAboomerang. Theirs is a long shoreline of rocks and sand beaches that has always fascinated poets, and for such a small place, there are a lot of rocks and a lot of beaches.  There’s Long Beach and Short Beach before you even get to Big Nahant, and from there, clockwise around Big Nahant, it’s Stony Beach, Forty Steps Beach, Canoe Beach, Joseph’s Beach, Curlew Beach, Wharf Beach, Tudor Beach, Dorothy’s Beach, Pond Beach, and finally Black Rock Beach.  Then there are the Swallows' Cave, Nahantpoints (protruding rocks), again going clockwise around the boomerang from Short Beach:  John’s Peril, Mifflin’s Point, East Point, Bass Rocks, Bass Point, and Black Rock Point.  Then there are places with poetic names: Egg Rock, Pulpit Rock, Castle Rock, Spouting Horn, Swallows’ Cave, Pea Island.  And then there is Little Nahant with Wolf ’s Cove, Eastern Point, East Cliff, Fox Caverns, Great Furnace, Mary’s Grotto, Simmons Spring, and Little Furnace. For such small islands to have so many place names (and these are not all of them!) suggests a strong connection between Nahanters and their home.

Another thing that’s special about Nahant is all the doubling going on.  Double image of the sunThere are the two Nahants, Little Nahant and Big Nahant, and the two tombolos, one separating Little Nahant from Lynn, and the other connecting Little Nahant to Big Nahant. The two islands and the two tombolos create Long Beach and Short Beach.  And not only is the doubling geographic, it’s visual too.  Alonzo Lewis, in his History of Lynn, provides illustrations of a unique optical illusion seen near Nahant. Image of double ship A double image of the sun or a ship, one in the sky and one in the water, occurs when certain cloud conditions prevail.  In Nahant’s poetry, the image of the double ship appears in Nathan Ames’ epic “Pirates' Glen and Dungeon Rock,” and then there is the double sky in Lewis’ “Nahant Song.”

Doubling is what metaphor, the heart of poetry, is all about.  Metaphor is defined as speaking of one thing as if it were another.   Doubling could also refer, as metaphor does, to the literal (surface) and figurative (hidden) meaning of things, and to the performance of “feats of association,” as Robert Frost capsulized the process of making metaphors.

Castle Rock, Nahant, MAAs a symbol and an island, Nahant stands alone as a separate land embodying beauty and serenity.  The sea and the sky, so prominent in Nahant’s landscape, represent the fluidity and changeability of life, while the rocks of Nahant: Egg Rock, Pulpit Rock, and Castle Rock, evoke stability and permanence.

Nahant’s physical features make it an oasis of Lynn Beach from Little Nahantnature in a modern world.  In the age of industrialization, the reforestation of Nahant, as well as the creation of a “garden” by Ice King Frederic Tudor, illustrate how Nahant was a breath of nature among the smokestacks.  In modern times, the conflict between nature and “civilization” is sometimes won by nature on Nahant, as evidenced by two poems written in the context of World Wars I and II: Charles Hammond Gibson’s “The Forty Steps” and Sara Teasdale’s, “Nahant.”

With geography, physical features, place names, and doubling as a foundation, the poetic traditions of Nahant have been established by the poets whom the islands have inspired.  Chief among these is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who summered on Nahant during most of the last half of the 1800’s, a time that saw the blossoming of American literature and the blossoming of the poetry of Nahant as well.  Although Longfellow’s stature alone may be enough to give Nahant a place in the history and catalog of American poetry, other famous American poets like John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Sara Teasdale wrote poems about Nahant as an island of serenity and beauty in a turbulent ocean. 

Book Cover Written Words by NahantersThroughout Nahant’s history, its poetic qualities and traditions have also inspired its year round residents. Nahant’s most famous homegrown poet, Annie Johnson, known familiarly as “Annie of Nahant,” was a prominent regional poet during the age of Longfellow and of industrialization.  More recently, Nahanters have shown their support for the poetry of Nahant residents by publishing two anthologies: Written Words by Nahanters (1976) and Nahant Voices (1984).  How Nahant inspires the poetic vision of its residents is perhaps best shown by Robert Risch’s poem, “Beach Pebbles,” which tells how a gift from his sons made him regard a beach pebble as more than just a stone.  Today, many practicing poets are inspired by Nahant.

So Nahant in itself is poetic, in its geography and in its natural beauty.  Throughout its history, Nahant’s scenery, serenity, and isolation have inspired its poets, from the most ordinary to the most extraordinary.

Nahant and poetry belong in the same breath.