“O, those were the halcyon days, those days of youth!” the poet wrote. “That sun-bright, dewy morning of my life, / When all around wore the bright garb of truth; / Before I knew that earth with woe was rife.” Woe was to come in great measure to this 19th-century writer, whose life is now chronicled with great intensity by longtime Durham school teacher Linda Sundquist-Nassie of Paradise.
“The Poetess of Song: The Life of Mary Shindler 1810-1883” ($14.95 in paperback from WingSpan Press) weaves together the author’s research among family records with Shindler’s own poetry, much of which was designed to be sung as hymns.
Eventually the research took the author to Texas. “In reading her original poems, stories and articles,” she writes, “many of which have never been previously published, I discovered that here was a soul bolstered and preserved only by an incredible personal faith and strength of character . . . who had found purpose out of tragedy and resolve in the face of complete isolation.”
Mary’s minister father, who began the first Sunday School in South Carolina, was loving but doctrinally demanding. In 1832 she married Charles Dana from Vermont (a cousin, Richard, wrote “Two Years Before the Mast”). Tragedy struck in 1839 with the death of Mary’s brother and then, within two days, of her husband and son. Two years later Mary published “The Southern Harp,” 43 poems and songs “to cheer the heart.” It sold 20,000 copies.
But her “inner turmoil continued.” At the age of 36, “widowed, childless, and uncertain about what to do” her father’s faith had seemed to fail her, and she converted to Unitarianism. In 1848 she married Robert Doyne Shindler, trained in ancient languages, and became an Episcopalian. But he is restless and can’t hold a job. He dies, perhaps from self-inflicted wounds, in 1874.
Earlier, Mary had become intrigued by spiritualism and, facing immense loss with the death of so many loved ones, composed “Mrs. Shindler’s Spirit Band,” a list of those now departed who Mary believed were “watching over her, guiding and guarding her.”
She spent the last years of her life in Nacogdoches, Texas, where Robert had been rector of Christ Church. Her tombstone bears words from her own writing: “Cease from your sorrow and crying / Jesus will wipe every tear!” As Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison writes in her foreword, “Mary lived through plagues, heartbreak and financial difficulties—but left a legacy depicting the indomitable spirit of the women in early America and early Texas.”