Reflections on a Design by Sarah Wyman Whitman

Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842-1904) was one of the most distinct artists of the late nineteenth century. Born in Maryland, trained in Boston and Paris, she integrated her skills as a painter and designer of stained glass into her book cover art for the writer Sarah Orne Jewett and the publisher Houghton Mifflin. It has been said that she began “the golden age of American artist-designed bindings” of the 1880s, and that her particular style of lettering and stylized decorative vignettes anticipated what developed into the Art Nouveau style of the next decade. Contra the elaborate, ornate bindings of an earlier generation, Whitman’s style stressed simplicity and grace, often using hearts or flowers.

One binding representative of her style is The Great Remembrance and Other Poems by Richard Watson Gilder (New York, 1893) (1). In typical fashion, the front cover lists the title and author, along with a flower, perhaps a daffodil, running the length of the book, and the spine has a small heart at the bottom. Even more intriguing, however, are the spine and back cover. On the spine, a long sword can be found, and on the back, two words in Classical Greek (2). How do we explain these occurrences of two otherwise superfluous additions? It has to do with the first poem in this book, “The Great Remembrance.”

Read at the Annual Reunion of the Society of the Army of the Potomac in Boston on June 27, 1893, this poem reflects the emotions of a group of Civil War veterans who are slowly reaching the end of their years. It starts, “Comrades, the circle narrows, heads grow white, as once more by the camp-fire’s flaring light we gather and clasp hands, as we have done these many, many years.” The theme is set: soldiers growing old, coming together for solidarity. Given the very first lines, Whitman’s addition of a sword to the spine makes sense. She has incorporated a major aspect of the literary work into her own artwork, thus reflecting the book’s contents on the binding. To explain the Greek, however, takes much effort.

When translated, ΑΣΦΟΔΕΛΟΣ ΛΕΙΜΩΝ reads as “asphodel mead,” or more generally as “flowery meadow.” Now, these two words next to a flower on Whitman’s back cover seem to be explained. On the surface it appears to be so, but the question remains: Why in Greek? If we look closer at the poem, we see that Sarah Whitman may have been representing an idea from this poem in greater depth. On twelve short pages, Gilder muses of battle cries, valor, honor, and armies. Towards the end of the poem he focuses on the group before him and how they too will soon join in death their brethren who had died on the battlefield. He writes, “Comrades, see, the fire burns low, and darkness thickens. Soon will our brief part on earth forever end, and we shall go to join the unseen ranks; nor will we swerve or fear, when to the silent, great reserve at last we ordered are—as one by one our Captains have been called, their labors done, to rest and wait in the Celestial Field.” Could the “Celestial Field” for Gilder’s dead have a connection to the Greek “flowery meadow”?

The phrase, “asphodel mead,” does in fact have a connection to death. In Homer’s The Odyssey (Cambridge, MA, 1995) the two words are used twice to describe the land where the souls of dead heroes roam (3). In Book XI Odysseus tells of his own comrades who had died long ago, and on lines 538-9 he mentions that “the ghost of the grandson of Aeacus departed with long strides over the field of asphodel.” A ghost over fields of asphodel thus connects to Gilder’s comrades. The reason for Whitman’s use of Greek is emerging.

The second instance of Homer’s use of the phrase, however, is more striking. The narrator begins Book XXIV by telling the story of the passage to the land of the dead. He journeyed “past the rock Leucas, past the gates of the sun and the land of dreams, and quickly came to the meadow of asphodel, where the ghosts dwell, phantoms of men who have done with toils.” Here, we remember that Gilder’s Captains too had been called, “their labors done.” The parallel language between Homer and Gilder then seems to mesh, the latter alluding to a theme develop by the former, but on his own terms. Whether or not Gilder knew The Odyssey so well as to allude so carefully to it is unfortunately unknown, but one cannot deny the similarities in theme and language. To bring the discussion full circle, Whitman incorporated the original Greek on the back cover to solidify the tie between the authors, and bring comrades together.

When Whitman puts the sword on the spine and the Greek on the back, it only goes to show that there is often much, much more to a binding than just a posy on a book cover.

David Gehring
University of Wisconsin-Madison


1. Allen, Sue and Charles Gullans, Decorated Cloth in America (UCLA, 1994), p. 103.
2. To my knowledge, this is the only time Whitman incorporated Greek into her cover art. She did, however, use Latin on her back cover, again, to Two Worlds and Other Poems by Richard Watson Gilder (New York, 1891). Here she placed “Rosa” and “Mundi” around a flower, no doubt because the very last poem of the book is an ode to a woman, “To Rosamond.” Both The Great Remembrance and Two Worlds were published by the Century Company.
3. Liddel, Henry George and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, accessed via