Friday, December 7, 2012

Profile of a Cantabridgian: Caroline Orne

Recently, my reading has introduced me to Caroline Frances Orne (1818-1905), who was a well-regarded poet in her day, and the first librarian of the Cambridge Public Library. 

The Cambridge Public Library was known as the Dana Library when it first opened in 1858, after its first major benefactor, Edmund Dana. Cambridge residents could pay one dollar a year to be a member of the library, which was initially open one afternoon a week.1 During Orne's sixteen years of leadership, the library became quite popular, and by the time she resigned, it was open every day but Sunday.2

Public libraries were only just starting to become common when Orne took the job. The Boston Public Library had opened five years before.3 At the time, public libraries were expected to provide some guidance about appropriate reading for the general public. In some ways, they were arbiters of taste. Orne was well-regarded for her knowledge of literature and her judgment and taste in selecting books for the library. She was known for taking a personal interest in library patrons and helping them choose books.4

Caroline Frances Orne was friends with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russel Lowell and other women and men of letters.5 While I'm not a scholar of the poetry of the time, I think I hear a bit of Longfellow's influence in her writing, in the lyric, regular but melodic style.

Orne wrote throughout her life. In 1844,  she published a volume of poetry titled "Sweet Auburn and Mount Auburn, with other poems." Mount Auburn cemetery, founded in 1831, is lauded as being the first landscaped cemetery, breaking the tradition of crowded church burial grounds, but Orne was of the generation that had fond memories of that hill when it was just an open natural space, called Sweet Auburn. In the two long poems that begin the volume, Orne celebrates both the past and the present.

As the first landscaped cemetery, Mount Auburn represented a very controlled form of natural beauty. It was, and still is, a place that you visit for pleasure, as well as to visit the dead who rest there. In deliberate contrast, Orne's poem "Sweet Auburn" frequently relates nature and childhood innocence.
It begins,

Far-famed Mount Auburn! in the days of old,
As nature bade thy varied charms unfold,
Ere yet the hand of art had changed thy mien,
And in thy pristine beauty thou wert seen,
A lovelier object wert thou to my view,
Thy name was dearer that my childhood knew.
Sweet Auburn! send the spirit of thy shades
To Iight my song when memory's radiance fades.

The poem also contains some lyric words of Cantabridgian pride.

Lo, where the morning sun shed its first ray,
Boston's bright spires and domes before me lay;
Dorchester's heights, and Charlestown's battle mound,
And many a famous scene lay all around,
Far as the eye might reach, was freedom's hallowed
Hamlet and town shone in the distance bright,
And Charles far-winding glowed a beam of light.
And, where my eye delighted oft would rove,

Stately old Harvard stood in academic grove.

Caroline Frances Orne may not be a household name in Cambridge today, but her work for the library left a lasting mark on the city, and her poetry (which is in the public domain and available online) is worth a read.

1. Doyle, Edward. A Commemorative History of the Cambridge Public Library. Cambridge: Cambridge Public Library, 1989. Page 3.
2. Doyle 6.
3. Doyle 3.
4. History of the Cambridge Public Library, Alfred Mudge and Sons, Cambridge, 1908. Page 13
5. History (1908), 13


  1. What an interesting post, Tegan. Thank you. It's interesting to me that attempts by librarians to be "arbiter(s) of taste" are now considered improper both within and outside of the library community and yet were honored and expected in Caroline Orne's day. I imagine that she was promoting the "European canon," which would be most controversial now.

    I'm glad that Laura sent me the link to your blog. I'll have to read more.

    1. Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Yes, I believe that Orne's reputation for promoting good taste would have largely been based on her favoring the European canon, as well as her steering readers towards "literary"
      works and away from the pulp fiction of the day.