In Early Fall – Bertha’s Poem

Cardinal Flowers
Cardinal Flowers

A few signs suggest that, before she left Mount Holyoke College, Bertha tried to join in the conversation around her.  There is, for example, her contribution to a list of favorite quotations published in the yearbook—the Llamarada— in March 1897: “Man delights me not—no—nor woman either,”  Hamlet, Act II, Scene II.  Bertha would have been in the second term of her sophomore year, just before her summer at the mill, when she chose that melancholy motto. The other day, I happen across a public forum on the internet while searching for this quotation, and find the following confession, which makes me worried for Bertha, and, even, more for the person who made it:  “I feel like [Hamlet] too, all alone and f**ked in the head, with no hope of change.”

And then there is Bertha’s poem, published in the college magazine in October 1897. Judging from its title, I suspect it was written soon after Bertha’s return to school in September, a few months before her disappearance. The cardinals she mentions are not birds, but flowers that grow along the banks of brooks and streams:

In Early Fall

When after searching all the gorgeous autumn fields,
I found three cardinals within a ferny nook,
I could not pluck them lest they lose their fullest charm
In parting with their background of the ferns and brook.

I am very grateful to the poet Elizabeth Spires, who identified the poem’s meter as iambic hexameter, and judged it more unusual than the typical iambic pentameter. Beth said the poem told a little story, not overwritten, but direct and understated, and suggested that Bertha might have been reading Emily Dickinson, or Shakespeare, or the Romantics. And—with no knowledge of Bertha’ story beyond the barest bones, and absolutely no prompting from me–Beth said that she thought the poem was more symbolic than literal, that it was about isolation, about the desire to make connections, about the impossibility of making those connections while remaining true to oneself.  A quotation from Hamlet and a four-line poem; these are not much to build a theory on but, in hindsight, I wonder if Bertha used them—like her story, La Petite— to confess a state of mind she could not communicate in person.