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· Serving Students with Special Needs since 1831 ·

Song Bird

 Written by Louis W. Rodenburg
In the Journal: Outlook For The Blind,
Vol. 25, Pages 155-160, December, 1931
Link to Part 2.

Part 1

Is it not worthy of note that the three greatest personalities that have risen from among the blind of America have been woman? Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller, despite their deafness and blindness, proved no only that the light of knowledge could enter behind doors hitherto closed on a portion of mankind but that art and philosophy could there achieve marvelous things. They have newly evinced the infinity of mind. And Fanny Crosby "set more hearts and voices to praising God than any other woman who ever lived"-she sang more songs of hope than any other human being. She has newly attested the infinity of optimism.

"All over this country and, one might say, the world, the hymns of Fanny Crosby are singing themselves into the hearts and souls of the people. They will do so as long as our civilization lasts. There are used in religious meetings today more of her inspired lines than of any other poet, living or dead," says Will Carleton.

Frances Ridley Havergal, a Victorian poetess of England, paid her the following beautiful tribute:

Sweet blind singer over the sea,
Tuneful and jubilant, how can it be
That the songs of gladness, that float so far
As if they fell from the evening star, Image of Crosby
Are the notes of one who may never see
Visible music of flower and tree,
Purple of mountain or glitter of snow,
Ruby and gold of the sunset glow?
Never the ken of mortal eye
Could pierce so deep and far and high
As the eagle vision of hearts that dwell
In the lofty, sunlit citadel
Of faith that overcomes the world
With banners of hope and joy unfurled,
Garrisoned with God's perfect peace,
Ringing with paeans that never cease,
Flooded with splendors bright and broad-
The glorious light of the Love of God!

Part 1. Her Earlier Life and Work

In a little one-story country home in Putnam County, New York, on March 24, 1820, there came to the family of John and Marcy Crosby a daughter whose life (perhaps in answer to their prayer) was to be a blessing to the world. Little matter whence the endowment came to this third daughter-it was to be said almost ninety-five years later that this Frances Jane Crosby never darkened her own or others' life by harboring a pessimistic thought. What a compensation for motherhood the child was to be, the young mother of twenty-one could never have dreamed; seventy years later she left her daughter knowing that fame had come to her child in a beautiful way.

The family was of sturdy New England stock. Her great-grandfather had fought in the Revolution, as also had Enoch Crosby, a relative, whom Cooper made the hero of one of his Revolutionary novels. Her more distant forebears had helped to found Harvard College. Besides two sisters, Frances Jane had a brother. But she was never to recognize their faces, for when she was only six weeks old an inflammation destroyed her sight. A second misfortune came to the family when she was only a year old, for the father was called to the "Bright Forever" about which she later sang so beautifully. But little Fanny was fortunate to have an abundance of relatives with sturdy Christian character and intelligence. One of these was her grandmother, who very soon became a guiding spirit in shaping the life of the handicapped child. Together they spent many hours in the meadows. To Fanny the world seemed filled with beautiful tints and fragrances and sound, and to these vivid childhood experiences she owed what appears to have been a normal comprehension of visible things. What her devoted companion meant to her we may guess from one of her best poems, "Grandmother's Rocking Chair."

When Fanny was five years old she was taken on her first extensive excursion into the wonderful world-by wagon through the mountains and by sailboat down the river to the great city of New York. Of course, she was eager to learn about everything and everybody. She was a fairly pretty child with black hair and frisky disposition. She made friends with the captain of the sloop by singing him a patriotic song, and he made her his "first mate". But the homeward voyage was a sad one and even little Fanny prayed that God might help her to be useful in the world. The doctors in the city had pronounced her blind for life and she knew she would be unlike her companions and playmates. So she prayed, and prayer comforts and relieves children as it does adults.

In these early years, as may be expected, Fanny was read to a great deal from the Bible. Her unusual memory, which later became her pride, early showed itself. She literally absorbed Scripture. It is said that at ten she could recite correctly the first four books of both Testaments. Yet she was not always to be found in grandmother's arms and rocking chair hearing the Songs of Solomon. She romped about as did her playmates, climbing fences and trees, riding horses, and playing with pets. She attended school at times to listen to the readings and recitations and she learned to work with needles quire dexterously. She loved the out-of-doors-the wind, the sunshine, the thunder, the songs of birds, the flowers and brooks.

She had an abundance of vitality which helped to develop her precocity of mind and emotion. "My ambition," she writes in her autobiography, "was boundless and my desires were intent to live for some great purpose in the world and to make for myself a name that should endure." She knew that God would some day answer her prayer and make her useful. Yet such a rich and emotional mind as hers must have its despondent moments, too. "The great world that could see was rushing by me day by day and sweeping on toward the goal of its necessities and desires; while I was left stranded by the wayside."

In the Crosby home poetry was loved and read almost as much as Scripture. Fanny loved it, and at eight wrote her first lines, as followsPhoto of Fanny Crosby

Oh what a happy soul am I
Although I cannot see,
I am resolved that in this world
Contended I will be.

So it happened that not only the Scriptures but the hymns which she heard sung Sabbath after Sabbath made a deep impression on her.

When she was nine the family moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut, leaving behind forever that dear old home about which she wrote:

I am thinking of a cottage
In a quiet little dell,
And a brook that ran beside it
That I used to love so well.

In Ridgefield, she lived for six years, during which time she was blessed with the influence of a highly religious and intellectual association, especially that of a certain Mrs. Hawley of the distinguished family of Senator Hawley. As the years passed, she had the rare advantage of hearing many excellent books which stimulated in her an intense thirst for knowledge and good literature. She enjoyed poetry in particular, and retained much of it in her memory. Now and then she would write verse, and some of these were secretly copied and sent to her grandfather, who so admired them that he made a long journey to commend and encourage her. This of course, elated her youthful spirit beyond measure and, no doubt, helped shape her ambition. So long as the fine old gentlemen lived the though of pleasing him was never quite absent for her when her fledgling talent took to flight. It was in Ridgefield that she met Sylvester Main, who later was to become such an intimate part of her artistic life, not only as a composer of music for some of her best hymns, but also as publisher in the firm of Bigelow and Main.

On March 3, 1835, just three weeks before her fifteenth birthday, Miss Frances Jane made her second voyage to the great city, this time on one of the new steamboats that had begun to ply along the coast, and this time to enter a very new school, The New York Institute for the Blind. Her prayer, "Grant me the light of knowledge," was to be answered. The superintendent of the school was Dr. Russ, from whom she soon received unbounded inspiration, for he had recently been one of the knights-errant of liberty to fight in the cause of the oppressed Greeks. He had known Lord Byron, whose wild and vivid flights of song had already fascinated our young lover of poetry.

Lessons were given to the blind students by reading and lectures, for this was fifteen years before the Braille system was recognized even in the very school where it was invented, and thirty years before Dr. Wait invented New York Point. The first volume in line-letter to be printed in America had just been published at Boston, but it would be more than fifty years before the reading-lecture method would be replaced by embossed books in schools for the blind. Miss Fanny loved all her studies save one and concerning it she wrote:

I loathe, abhor, it makes me sick,
To hear the word, Arithmetic!

As the months and years, passed, more and more did she appreciate and absorb the best in literature, and more and more did her gift for verse-making assert itself, facts which became established among pupils and teachers.

One day the principal of the institution summoned her from a schoolroom to his office, and proud young Miss Frances Jane Crosby confidently expected to be asked to compose another poem for some school or community event. But in a few minutes she was shedding tears, for she was told that making rhymes is a prevailing distraction among young students, that she must think of her general instruction, and that "we have no right to be vain in the presence of the Owner and Creator of all things."

Vacations, which were spent at her home, were enjoyed to the full, for her younger and admiring sisters and many others arranged delightful events and excursions for her. At the Institution she was active in all the social events in which students were granted a part, and also in other adventures, such as the filching of a watermelon from the school melon-patch as an act of indignation on the part of some of the pupils when they heard that the melons were to be sold.

As to her poetry, it was not until a famous phrenologist came to examine the pupils and directed that she be given every encouragement, that she was openly recognized by the authorities as having talent worthy of serious development.

In 1842, when Miss Crosby was twenty-two years of age, she was appointed to be one of the teachers in the Institution, to give instruction in rhetoric and history. This recognition of her ability was indeed a happy and most important event in her career. That she was worthy of the distinction, we cannot doubt. Throughout her life she loved young people, with whom she had a quick and understanding sympathy. Her influence as a teacher has been gratefully testified to by more than one of her pupils. Then, too, she became the recognized "Poet Laureate" of the Institution. When distinguished personages came to visit the school, as they very often did, she would recite original odes to commemorate and honor them. And, since she possessed a real charm of personality and behavior, quite often being appointed to usher these visitors about the Institution, she was fortunate in making flattering and helpful contacts, many of which resulted in after-acquaintance and friendship. Thus it was that she met Ole Bull, the great violinist; Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale"; James K. Polk, the scholarly and refined President; Henry Clay; General Scott; William Cullen Bryant; and Horace Greeley. Mr. Greeley, the famous publisher, invited her to write poems for his great New York paper, the Tribune, and, needless to say, Miss Crosby was beginning to feel that a literary career might be just around the corner.

In 1843 she was one of the small party of pupils and teachers to be sent through the State of New York, to advertise the work of the Institution by giving lectures and entertainment's. The trip was made in a sumptuous passenger boat which was drawn by horses along the newly finished Erie Canal, through the Mohawk Valley, and on to Buffalo. After the exhibition in Oswego, a mother brought her son, a young man who had recently lost his sight, to meet the teachers and asked that he be accepted as a student of the Institution. She admired Miss Crosby and requested that she take him under her personal guidance when he became a pupil. His name was Alexander Van Alstyne. Also about this time the first of several journeys was made to the national capital by a delegation from the Institution, to interest Congress in the education of the blind. Of course, Miss Crosby, who was one of the group, had an original poem for the occasion, which she read before a joint assembly of the two houses. Many of the distinguished audience were moved to tears, and her poem closed with the remarkable line, "Instruction hath a ray to cheer the blind."

Her literary talents were slowly maturing. As she says, "I longed for the crystal streams of literature. I wished to associate with those who, like myself, were winning their way in the face of the fiercest foes and seeking a truer meaning to life. A great life was a wonderful inspiration to me."

President Van Buren became one of her friends and admirers, as also did President Polk, whom she visited in the White House. But the most interesting of her Presidential acquaintanceships was that with Grover Cleveland. Long before he became the head of the nation, he was employed in the modest position of secretary to the Institution of the Blind in which Miss Crosby was a teacher. They became close friends, and he copied many of her poems for her. Long afterward, when he had become President, he wrote her a beautiful tribute, the first paragraph of which we quote:

"It is more than fifty years ago that our acquaintance and friendship began, and ever since that time I have watched your continuous and disinterested labor in uplifting humanity and pointing out the way to an appreciation of God's goodness and mercy."

Is it not inspiring to see how this young woman without sight met and availed herself of every opportunity for social intellectual advancement? While it must be admitted that her development was under favorable conditions of environment, yet we know full well that these in themselves could not have made a Fanny Crosby. Just as she made the most of meeting distinguished authors and statesman, so she availed herself of the best that concerts and lectures in the city could offer her mind and heart. But more than this, by something like self-determination, she was becoming a great soul-she was nurturing that integrity of character without which no lasting good can be accomplished for mankind. And never is such individuality more inspiring than when seen crystallizing in the fine ether of maturing manhood or womanhood.

In 1844, a collection of her school poems was published under the title, The Blind Girl, and Other Poems. A similar volume appeared a few years later, also published at the instance of the authorities of the Institution, and likewise consisting of poems of local or temporary interest. But there were dark days and trials, too, for Fanny Crosby in her work as a teacher. In 1849, the terrible plague of cholera, which spread from India over Europe and America, at last reached New York City, despite the many prayers that rose in the hope of stemming the awful scourge, and claimed thousands of lives. Miss Crosby helped care for the sick at the Institution, and barely escaped the fatal contagion herself. She recalls with horror how she stumbled over the coffins in the corridors. The pestilence vanished almost as quickly as it came. But early in the fifties her health threatened to fail, and there were ominous predictions as to consequences. Somber poems were written in those days, but despite all this, she survived, and in time her full energy was restored. Several of the poems of the minor modes were included in her volume of verse published in 1851, under the title, Monterey and Other Poems. In 1858, another volume was published, Columbia's Flowers, which included a number of prose stories.

Nor was romance left out of Miss Crosby's experience. Alexander Van Alstyne finished his studies at the Institution for the Blind, and was later graduated from Union College in Schenectady. He was now an accomplished musician, a lover of fine literature like Miss Crosby, and by nature a Philosopher. He had an abundance of magnetism and charming manners. In 1855 he, too, became a teacher in the Institution, in which capacity he served only a few years. Cupid, after some sixteen years of wistful effort, shot his final arrows in 1858, when Mr. Van Alstyne and Miss Crosby were married. That this union was discountenanced by the Institution authorities we do not doubt, but that it was the occasion of both their resignations from their positions we seriously question, for no record is given concerning these matters. Mr. Van Alstyne became a very successful teacher of music in the city and organist of one of the New York churches. He was a composer, and set some of this wife's poems to music. Their only child died soon after birth. He died in 1902, in Brooklyn, in which city their married life was lived. We hear almost nothing of him during Fanny Crosby's long and useful life after 1858, for each pursued the special work for which each was fitted without conflicting with the other.
Part 2. Her Later Life and Work