By Sonja N. Bohm
"...Life was mine !
And I, who pass without regret or grief,
Have cared the more to make my moment fine,
Because it was so brief." 1
A PILGRIM HERITAGE Posterity has not provided us with an abundance of information about the life of Philadelphia poet Florence Earle Coates—one of twenty founders of the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1896—but from the snippets of information I have been able to piece together, it would appear that live indeed belonged to Mrs. Coates, who was born into a well-to-do family with a heritage that goes back to the Mayflower (a 9th generation descendant of Pilgrim John Howland)2 and a family ethic which both encouraged and perpetuated individual acts of philanthropy, personal and social responsibility, patriotism, and virtue among its members. Florence’s grandfather, noted philanthropist Thomas Earle, was characterized as possessing an “ardent love of freedom, hatred of oppression, [and] toiled long...both with tongue and pen for the extinction of American slavery.”3 Throughout her life, Florence would take up her own pen and good name on behalf of those in need, the politically persecuted, and the oppressed.
The eldest daughter of Philadelphia lawyer George H. Earle, Sr. and Frances (“Fanny”) Van Leer Earle, Florence was born on July 1st, 1850 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her family’s affluent station allowed young Miss Earle to be educated in private schools both at home and overseas. Florence’s first love was music, and she studied for a time under tenor Dupre in Brussels; but time and place—and largely as a result of the inspiration and encouragement of English writer and social/cultural/literary critic, Matthew Arnold—would eventually see her navigate more toward the literary arts as she began to express herself through the medium of poetry, being “often invited to give dramatic recitations of her verse, which she accompanied with formal or improvised piano music.”4 Many of Mrs. Coates’ poems were set to song by composers such as Amy Cheney Beach, Charles Gilbert Spross, and Clayton Johns.
PUBLISHED WORK Today you can find Mrs. Coates’ poems dotting internet poetry websites and blogs much like they did 100 years ago in the literary magazines and newspapers of her day such as the Century Magazine, Harper’s, Scribner’s, Lippincott’s, and the Atlantic Monthly. In 1898, her first book of poetry was published—Poems—and was dedicated to the memory of Matthew Arnold, who was a guest at the Coates’ Germantown home—“Willing Terrace”—on his visits to America. Following Poems was the 1904 publishing of Mine and Thine, dedicated to Edmund Clarence Stedman; Lyrics of Life, published in 1909, was dedicated to S. Weir Mitchell; and The Unconquered Air and Other Poems, published in 1912, was dedicated to Horace Howard Furness. In 1915, Florence was elected poet laureate of Pennsylvania by the state’s Federation of Women’s Clubs, and in 1916, a final two-volume set of collected poems—Poems—was published. Mrs. Coates contributed an article dedicated to her appreciation of Matthew Arnold to the April 1894 edition of The Century Magazine5, and also voiced her opinion about the “Godlessness [that] Mars Most Contemporary Poetry” in an article published in the December 10, 1916 issue of The New York Times.6
PATRIOTISM Evidence of Mrs. Coates’ patriotism as well as her dedication to freedom, self-sacrifice, and to ending political persecution and oppression can be found both in her poetry as well as in various archived newspaper articles—which relate Mrs. Coates as having donated her time, effort, money, and name to issues such as the war for the liberation of Cuba (1898)7, the “expression of sympathy on behalf of the [political persecution of the] Prussian Poles” (1908)8, and the national plea for the arming of American merchant ships against German aggressors (1917)9:
“...Over the deeps of a perilous ocean Honor compelling, we still will sail on ;
Giving, unfearing, a loyal devotion, Until, in life—in death, danger is gone..”
The above excerpt is from a poem entitled “Under the Flag,” and is included in Pro Patria—a sixteen-page pamphlet of war verse published privately in Philadelphia in 1917 in support of American involvement in World War I. The pamphlet includes seven poems by Mrs. Coates, as well as excerpts taken from the “Address of President Wilson to the Congress of the United States, April 2, 1917.” A copy currently held by the Library of Congress is signed and dedicated to “...Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, with the respect and loyal regard of Florence Earle Coates.” In the poem, “America Speaks,” also included in the pamphlet, Mrs. Coates declares:
“...We have been
Thank God ! We are awake !
Awake, and ready with a will
The nobler part to take !
No more shall a pretended Peace
Our souls from duty sever ;
We dedicate our lives to God
And Liberty—forever !..”
In addition to her being among the founders of the SMDPA in 1896, Mrs. Coates also helped found the Contemporary Club of Philadelphia in 1886, was twice Browning Society of Philadelphia president from 1895 to 1903 and again from 1907 to 1908, was member of the Colonial Dames of America, and honorary member to organizations such as the Society of Arts and Letters and the Women’s New Century Club.
MARRIAGE, FAMILY & DEATH Mrs. Coates first married William Nicholson, Jr. in 1872, and had a daughter, Alice Earle Nicholson a year later. William, who was deaf, was a member of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange Stock Board from 1868 until his early death in 1877. He had “charge of the board’s clearing house in its infancy.”10 Daughter Alice was also deaf, but would overcome her disability to become a teacher of lip-reading in San Francisco (circa 1915-1922)—and in 1922, would found the Trask School of Lip-Reading in Philadelphia. Florence would later marry Edward Hornor Coates in 1879—a patron of the arts with an interest in the areas of science and education and president of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1890 to 1906. Florence gave birth to a second daughter with husband Edward, but the child—Josephine Wisner Coates—would die in infancy on March 5th, 1881. Edward Coates died in December of 1921, and on April 6th, 1927, Florence Earle Coates passed away in Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia. According to Robert H. Walker, “Mrs. Coates contracted a form of nephritis which led to a cerebral hemorrhage and death... [She] was buried in the churchyard of the Church of the Redeemer (Episcopal) in Bryn Mawr, Pa."11 A newspaper clipping and note found in my copy of The Unconquered Air show that her funeral was held on Saturday, April 9th at her 2024 Spruce Street residence in Philadelphia, and that her poem—“Immortal”—was read during the service.
About the author: Sonja N. Bohm is currently a stay-at-home mother of three, wife of a United States Marine, and lives with her family in northern Virginia. She shares no known relation to the poet, and is not—to the best of her knowledge—of Pilgrim descent. Her interest in the life and works of Florence Earle Coates began in Plattsburgh, New York in the late 1980’s when she purchased Mrs. Coates’ two-volume set of Poems (1916) for $2.50 at the Corner-Stone Bookshop—a local buy/sell/trade bookstore that is still in business today. Inside the front pages of Volume I was pasted a platinum print photograph of a woman that only recently was confirmed to be an image of the poet. With that discovery, Mrs. Bohm set out to uncover what she could about Mrs. Coates, and her research has been documented on her dedication website, The FLORENCE EARLE COATES Project.
1 From Mrs. Coates' poem, "Morning-Glory."
2 “Register of Members” (Philadelphia: Society of Mayflower Descendants in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) 1996, p. 57.
4 Walker, Robert H. “Coates, Florence Earle.” Notable American Women: 1607-1950. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1974.
10 “Deaf William Nicholson, Jr.” Philadelphia Inquirer 11 Sept. 1877:2.