You couldn’t hold on to the bright things. They slipped away out of your hands…..No you couldn’t expect to hold on to the
bright farm days. You might have known they would slip away.
Peter remembered a fish he had seen under water, with rainbows pulsing under each fin. His scales were like sapphires and his eyes
bulged out like diamonds on each side of his head. Peter could see clean through them. Peter hardly breathed. Then the fish swam down hill into the dark ocean, out
With these words Maine poet, author, and scholar Robert Peter Tristram Coffin closed his 1934 autobiography, Lost Paradise A Boyhood on a
Maine Coast Farm, an elegiac paean to a rapidly vanishing rural New England life in Maine’s seacoast town of Brunswick.
The name of Robert Peter Tristram Coffin has fallen into neglect in literary circles, though this son of a venerable New England
family was the author of some forty works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in this lifetime, as well as being a noted teacher and
scholar and a skilled visual artist. His remarkable career included many honors from institutions such as the National
Arts Club, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Coffin is perhaps best remembered outside of Maine for having won the
1936 Pulitzer Prize for his collection of poetry, Strange Holiness, but here in Brunswick, his home town, there is still a reverence
which surrounds the author, his ancestors and their roots in 18th and 19th century seafaring tradition, his boyhood on a salt
water farm in a bygone rural age, and his long career as an educator, spending almost twenty years as a Bowdoin college professor.
Summer residence for RPTC Family
Born in 1892 in Brunswick, Maine, Coffin grew up on a saltwater farm in nearby Harpswell. His somewhat cumbersome name was
a reflection of his proud ancestry. The Coffins had roots throughout New England with branches of the family as far away as Nantucket and were renowned as whaling captains and
seafaring souls. The Brunswick Coffins were related by marriage to that town’s great shipbuilding family, the Pennells, who
dominated the age of tall ships in the mid- nineteenth century before the age of steam, just as they were pillars of local business and town life.
Always an imaginative and bookish young man, Robert P.T. Coffin attended local schools and then Bowdoin College,
graduating in 1915, before earning graduate degrees at Princeton and Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar. After a
brief stint of teaching at Wells College, he returned to his alma mater Bowdoin as a professor of literature in 1934, where he
remained until his untimely death from a heart attack in 1955, and it was in these years that he produced most of his published
works. Through his Pennell connections he felt himself linked to the proud history of this Midcoast Maine town, and he grew up
amidst stories of his ancestors’ exploits at sea and their associations with Brunswick’s prominent citizens like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who is said to have written Uncle Tom’s Cabin in
a room rented from a Pennell relative in the house adjacent to the one in which Robert P.T. Coffin grew up.
Pennell Family home where H.B.Stowe rented a
room to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin
The most ordinary words have amazing life in them, Coffin once wrote, and, indeed, this epithet could easily have been the
mantra for his entire opus. For R.P.T. Coffin’s genius lay in discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary – not only in
words, but in the simple, earthbound experiences of a small town life lived close to nature.
Like so many other writers and artists who have lived and worked in Maine, Coffin drew his inspiration from a deeply
ingrained sense of place. He spoke with the voice of a Mainer, a New Englander – rather like Robert Frost –but also with the
intellectual conciseness and metaphysical bent of Emily Dickinson. If the land and the sea and their creatures, the
seasons, and the colors and smells, and people of coastal Maine filled his work with concrete images, these were as much
realities as they were departure points for more transformative meditations. A classical scholar, his writing, especially his
poetry, often adheres to structure and form, at the same time that his prose has a remarkable vernacular quality to it. Like the
writers of Antiquity whom he studied, Coffin understood that the mythic was to be found in the material.
As a writer of fiction, he had an uncanny ability to draw colorful characters from his experience and imagination. There is the
garrulous, often inebriated Captain Pye of Lost Paradise or the troubled young man William Orr who kills his mother’s lover and drowns himself in Red Sky in the Morning, or perhaps his most
memorable, Captain Abby and Captain John (Pennell), in the novel of that title. Perhaps his most well-known and beloved work of longer fiction, Captain Abby and Captain John tells the
story of Pennell ancestors who sailed their family built schooners around the globe as merchants. The novel is an extraordinary
portrait of a married couple sharing the hardships of a life at sea, giving birth to a child on shipboard, and traveling around the
Horn to China together, where John fell ill and died, leaving Abby to captain the ship home, bearing his body preserved in
rum to be buried in the family plot at Pine Grove Cemetery in Brunswick. Based on diaries and family oral history, Coffin tells
the story in a series of first person letters and journal entries, many fictionalized or embellished to give a dramatic and humanizing dimension to the story.
Monument in Pine Grove Cemetery
to Abby & John Pennell
Often Coffin’s “characters” are non-human creatures, the fireflies, the mythic unicorn, the majestic heron, the cows, the
sheep, the family dog Schnoozer. And his reverence for these fellow living beings gives luminousness to his writing. Of the great blue heron taking flight, he writes:
Blue light on blue sky, he shot,
Something more complete than thought.
Grace created at a bound,
A burning bush without a sound.
Up and gone an instant’s space,
Godhead passed before my face.
Or he describes the tactile, yet almost mystical boyhood experience of milking the family cow:
The pail in place, I lean my head
Against her flank above me spread.
I feel my blood and hers as one,
Full of contentment and of sun.
Over the ridgepole whirls new snow,
And I bow my head and know
Middle Bay, site of the former Pennell Shipyards
It was this sense of kinship with nature that bound Coffin emotionally to the lost paradise of his boyhood on the farm.
Coffin’s parents had originally owned a house on small island in Middle Bay where they tilled the rocky soil and raised the
livestock in Maine’s harsh climate. Eventually, his father moved the house by boat to Gurnet Landing on Great Island, Harpswell,
- land connected by a bridge, thus not really an island -where Robert P.T. and his brothers and sisters spent their early years.
It was here that young Coffin reveled in his farm chores and in the simple pleasures and games of the rural life. Peter, or
Tristram, as he liked to call his autobiographical characters, enjoyed fishing through a trap door in the kitchen floor, chasing
fireflies, watching the oxen pull huge carts laden with wood and supplies from Fort Andross down to Mere Point, taking the little
skiff out into Middle Bay past the ways where the Pennells once launched their ships, or playing among the marsh grasses with old Schnoozer.
Painting of Coffin boyhood home, no long standing
For some years he and his siblings were sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Brunswick during the week so they could attend the
District 7 school, and it was this “exile” as Coffin perceived it that he wrote about so eloquently in Lost Paradise. The very
separation created a sense of longing and an appreciation for the transience and preciousness of the experience, so much so that
when, at the end of the memoir, Coffin’s parents sell the farm and move the entire family to town (to 26 College Street) so the
children can complete their education and go on to college, the author remembers the parting as a traumatic and irrevocable loss.
Peter knew he wouldn’t be part of things here any more. He wouldn’t be part of the house. He’d be like a caller in
somebody else’s house. Things wouldn’t mean what they had meant to him before. The Norway pines wouldn’t mean
the same to him…You couldn’t have everything. People had to choose…You chose the apples of knowledge and you had
to leave the place where the trees were, and the flowers were that you loved.
Children’s Book by RPTC with
Robert Peter Tristram Coffin did get that education and, as he would come to understand as an adult, never really lost the
paradise of childhood innocence and experience. Instead, as a writer, he discovered that he was able to give voice to those
memories, to preserve them as his essential spiritual core, and transform them, as he wrote in Strange Holiness, into a mythos
that connected him to the greater universe.
There is a strange holiness around
Our common days on common ground.
I have heard it in the birds
Whose voices reach above all words.
Going upward, bars on bars
Until they sound as high as stars.