Object of the Month

An Unknown Love: the letters of Amy Lowell and Elizabeth Seccombe

Letter from Elizabeth Seccombe to Robert and Sophie Valentine, 17 September 1907 Manuscript

Letter from Elizabeth Seccombe to Robert and Sophie Valentine, 17 September 1907


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    Letter from Elizabeth “Bessie” Seccombe to Robert and Sophie Valentine. In it, she movingly informs her friends that her long-term relationship with poet Amy Lowell has ended.

    Circle of friends

    In his new biography, Amy Lowell Anew, Carl Rollyson reveals that, in about 1902, the controversial American poet Amy Lowell became part of an intimate circle of new friends who shared an interest in poetry and found a new love—Elizabeth “Bessie” Seccombe. The evidence for the relationship between Lowell and Seccombe is found in thirty-two letters and telegrams that form part of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection of Robert Grosvenor Valentine family papers. No other mention of Seccombe survives in Lowell’s extensive personal papers and she is not acknowledged in any previous Lowell biography.

    The Lowell-Valentine correspondence

    Robert Grosvenor Valentine (1872-1916) was a modern day Renaissance man who had taught poetry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and traded bonds on Wall Street before becoming the United States commissioner of Indian affairs in 1909. Amy Lowell was a close personal friend and rigorous critic of Valentine’s poetry, and credited him as an inspiration for her own work. “In fact,” she wrote to him, “if it hadn’t been for the example of you and Mr. [John Gorham] Palfrey, I should never have attempted to write poetry myself.” Lowell's letters to Valentine mention their visits together at “Sevenels,” her family’s estate in Brookline, Massachusetts, and at her Dublin, New Hampshire, summer home; her attempts to write poetry; and her suggestions for his literary work. In later letters she discusses dinner parties, social engagements, impressions of her excursion to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and her enthusiasm about Valentine’s marriage to Sophie French in December 1904. After 1904, in letters addressed to both Robert and Sophie, Lowell discusses plans for visits and trips together that clearly include Bessie Seccombe and indicate their growing personal connection. Lowell and Seccombe send wedding congratulations to the Valentines together, and Seccombe penned a postscript of good wishes to the Valentines on Lowell’s 1905 Thanksgiving note.

    Two years later, the personal attachment of Lowell and Seccombe abruptly—and mysteriously—ended. On 17 September 1907, Seccombe wrote to Robert and Sophie, “I should have written before I went, but I was too sick & sad to do so & have kept putting off the evil day when I have to tell you two dear people I have left Amy we have not seen or written to each other for three months & there seems no chance for our ever meeting again she does not wish it so that ends it.” Distraught, she sought the Valentines’ advice for picking up the pieces of her life, fearing that otherwise she would “fret myself into a grave or lunatic asylum.” About a month after Seccombe sent her letter, the Valentines received one from Lowell. “It is good of you to think that my life will be a success,” she wrote. “I don’t know why you think so as I have never made a success of anything. But it does cheer me up to have you believe so.”

    Amy Lowell

    "It was thought, by some, that Amy Lowell could move the world. She was a source of strength and inspiration to an entire generation that counted on her, and she was determined not to let them down." —Carl Rollyson in Amy Lowell: Anew

    Amy Lowell was born in 1874 in Brookline, Massachusetts, the daughter of prominent Boston Brahmins, Augustus and Katherine (Bigelow) Lawrence. Her siblings included astronomer Percival Lowell and Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who served as President of Harvard University from 1909 to 1933. Lowell began publishing her poetry in 1912 with A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass and saw published nearly one book per year until her death in 1925. Carl Rollyson, her most recent biographer, writes that Lowell "dominated the poetry scene in every sense" and she supported the burgeoning "avant garde journals like Poetry and the Little Review.” Lowell was a leading American Modernist poet whose first volumes formed a core part of the Imagist movement, which "emphasizes the direct treatment of subject matter, a kind of photographic portrayal of objects and senses." Lowell won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously for her volume What's O'Clock in 1926. In addition to her own verse collections, Lowell published several anthologies of Imagist poetry as well as an authoritative and critically acclaimed two-volume biography of the English Romantic poet John Keats. Lowell was the partner of actress Ada Dwyer Russell from 1912 until her death.

    Elizabeth Seccombe

    Elizabeth “Bessie” Seccombe (1877-1915) was the daughter of W. S. Seccombe, a Cunard line sea captain. One of eleven children, she grew up in a literary English family that settled in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in 1897. She worked as a nurse, secretary, and housekeeper, living and traveling with Amy Lowell from about 1905 to 1907. Seccombe died on the Lusitania when it was sunk during the First World War.

    The Robert G. Valentine family papers

    The many letters of Robert G. Valentine (1872-1916) to his wife, aunts, and other family members chronicle his wide-ranging careers as an English instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, banker, commissioner of the Office of Indian Affairs, and a founder of the field of industrial relations. His letters and professional papers from 1906-1912 document his work at the Office of Indian Affairs, describing his travels to reservations across the United States, his mediations with Native Americans, the development of Indian schools, and his frustration with the federal bureaucracy. Valentine’s home in Washington, D.C., lovingly known to his friends as the “House of Truth,” became a collegial salon for the capital’s brightest progressives. The Valentines hosted a revolving cast of roommates and guests, including Felix Frankfurter, Walter Lippmann, Winfred Denison, Loring Christie, Eustace Percy, and Louis Brandeis, all of whom appear in the extensive correspondence of Robert and his wife, Sophie. For additional information, see the guide to the Robert G. Valentine family papers.

    For Further Reading

    Damon, S. Foster. Amy Lowell: a Chronicle with Extracts from her Correspondence. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1935.

    Lowell, Amy. John Keats. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925.

    ________. Selected poems of Amy Lowell. Ed. John Livingston Lowes. Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1928.

    Rollyson, Carl. Amy Lowell: Anew. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

    ________. Amy Lowell Among Her Contemporaries. New York: ASJA Press, 2009.

    Sedgwick, Ellery. Ellery Sedgwick papers, 1898-1969. Ellery Sedgwick, as editor of the Atlantic Monthly, corresponded with Amy Lowell from 1914-1925. There are 39 letters from Lowell and one about her. The letters discuss poetry submissions, Lowell's authorial commentary about her poetry, polyphonic prose, book collecting, D.H. Lawrence, and offers to write prose and book reviews among other subjects.