TONGE, GRIZELDA ELIZABETH COTTNAM, poetess; b. c. 1803 in Windsor, N.S., third child of William Cottnam Tonge and Elizabeth Bonnell; d. 19 May 1825 in Demerara (Guyana).
Few details are known about the life of Grizelda Elizabeth Cottnam Tonge, but some general conclusions may be drawn from the kind of social and cultural environment in which she grew up. She was born and spent most of her brief life at Windsor, the rural retreat of a number of distinguished Nova Scotian families and the site of King’s College, the first provincial university. After Halifax, Windsor afforded the most refined and sophisticated society in the province. In addition, there was a strong tradition of intellectual and literary activity within Grizelda’s own family: her father, William Cottnam Tonge, was a noted orator; and both her grandmother, Martha Grace Cottnam (Tonge), and her great-grandmother, Deborah How* (Cottnam), wrote respectable poetry. Although her formal education was probably negligible, there is no doubt that she was raised in a genteel atmosphere which fostered intellectual perceptiveness and artistic sensitivity while promoting the social proprieties and the domestic duties of a gentlewoman. Of her personal appearance, all that we know comes from the reports of people writing after her death. According to Joseph Howe*, who based his comments on the testimony of one who had known her, she “was about the middle height, with dark hair and eyes, a figure singularly elegant and graceful, and features beaming with sweetness and intellectual expression.”
In the spring of 1825 Grizelda sailed from Nova Scotia to join her father in the West Indies. He had gone there in 1808 with Lieutenant Governor Sir George Prevost*’s expedition against Martinique and had subsequently settled at Demerara. Shortly after arriving she died of a tropical fever, leaving behind a few short poems as her literary legacy. Her importance to Nova Scotian literature, however, lies not in her poetry, but in what she came to symbolize to a generation of Nova Scotian writers concerned with creating a native literary culture. Following her premature death, Grizelda Tonge emerged as the epitome of the young, beautiful, gifted poet tragically struck down just as her talent had begun to bloom. She thus symbolized both the promise of a Nova Scotian literature and the tragic fragility of such genius amid the harsh realities of 19th-century colonial life. This perception of her was based partly on her poem “Lines composed at midnight . . . occasioned by the recollection of my sisters,” which she wrote during her passage to the West Indies. Her description of her feelings at being separated from her sisters appears to be almost a premonition of her unexpected but imminent death.
I’m borne along the mighty sea,
With dangers all around;
Sweet Sister blossoms, where are ye?
Still clinging to the parent tree,
Upon your native ground.
Long may you thus together grow –
And still Contentment’s sunshine know,
While you expanding rise;
And she – the graceful bending bough –
When God sees fit to lay her low,
He’ll raise her fallen flowers, I know,
And train them to the skies.
The apparent sensitivity of mind revealed in this poem caught the imaginations of young writers who, in their concern for the quality of life in Nova Scotia, sought to establish a native literature as an integral part of their social and cultural environment.
Grizelda Tonge’s special status as the “highly-gifted songstress of Acadia” was initiated by Maria Morris in an elegiac poem published shortly after the news of Grizelda’s death reached Halifax: “Acadia, o’er thine early tomb / Shall hover and deplore the doom, / That tore her songstress far away / To mingle with a foreign clay.” But her imaginative significance was best expressed by Joseph Howe. In his “Western Rambles,” published in the Novascotian, or Colonial Herald in 1828, Howe became lyrical when reflecting upon Grizelda, ignorant of the fate that awaited her, sailing to the West Indies: “Oh! God, that a thing so lovely and exquisite, so full of high and pure thoughts, so radiant with maidenly bloom and beauty, should be hurrying away to the grave. . . . But . . . she shall not die, while Acadia’s lyre has a string – or a kindred spirit to mingle her memory with its silver tones.” Many years later – in a Novascotian article of 1845 entitled “Nights with the muses” – Howe underlined Grizelda’s symbolic importance to the cultural life of the province. “There is one,” he wrote, “. . . who has left to her native land little more than the tradition of a gentle spirit and high poetic imagination, shrined in a form of exquisite loveliness. For twenty years Grizelda Tonge, has, in our moments of literary liberty and poetic abandon, stood before us again and again, as if to tempt us to embody, in language, the impressions made in 1825, by the publication of one or two of her productions, and by all that, in answer to our anxious enquiries, we could then learn from those to whom she was known.”
[A few poems by Grizelda Tonge were published in Nova Scotia newspapers and magazines, in most cases after her death, although an ode addressed “To my dear grandmother, on her 80th birth day” appeared in the Acadian Recorder on 5 March 1825. The poem is unsigned, but a letter preceding it describes it as the work of “a young lady of Windsor”; it was subsequently reprinted in the fourth instalment of Joseph Howe’s “Nights with the Muses . . . ,” Novascotian, 16 June 1845, and in another tribute to her in the uncredited series “Half hours with our poets,” Provincial: or Halifax Monthly Magazine, 1 (1852): 45–49, 273. Tonge’s “Lines composed at midnight, on my passage to the West Indies, occasioned by the recollection of my sisters” has likewise been printed under various titles in several articles including “Half hours with our poets” and the fifth instalment of Howe’s “Nights with the Muses . . . ,” Novascotian, 23 June 1845. A broadside version of this poem with no date or place of publication was also issued after her death; a copy of this is preserved in PANS, MG 100, 204: 3s.
Howe’s article of 23 June 1845 also prints a number of her manuscript poems, including “A hymn of praise” and two elegies, “Lines . . . composed in the church yard of Windsor, N.S., . . .” and “Extempore lines, occasioned by seeing the corpse of Mary, youngest daughter of the Hon. James Fraser. . . .” Manuscripts of some of Tonge’s poems, including the “Hymn of praise” and “Lines composed at midnight,” are among the Joseph Howe papers at Harvard College Library, Houghton Library, Harvard Univ. (Cambridge, Mass.), ms Can. 58 (mfm. at PANS).
Comments on Grizelda Tonge after her death include those of Maria Morris, whose elegy “Verses occasioned by the death of a young lady” appeared under the pseudonym M in the Acadian Recorder for 9 July 1825 (pre-dating the paper’s formal obituary, which appeared in the issue of the 16th); Peter & Paul, “Characteristics of Nova Scotia, no.1,” Acadian Magazine (Halifax), 1 (1826–27): 433–35; [Joseph Howe], “Western rambles,” Novascotian, or Colonial Herald, 14 Aug. 1828, and the fourth and fifth instalments of his “Nights with the Muses . . .”; and “Half hours with our poets.”
Further details concerning the Tonge family were obtained from the Anglican church records of Trinity parish (Digby, N.S.) in PANS, MG 4, 23, and from Judith Tulloch of Halifax, whose sharing of genealogical information from the Tonge family correspondence is gratefully acknowledged. t.b.v.]