March 25th, 2011
“Beautiful Dreamer” was Stephen Foster’s last song, published shortly after his death in 1864. What an appropriate title for a final tune, especially at a time when sentimentalists were beginning to liken death to a deep sleep. (Yes, I know Shakespeare also made the comparison, but it fell off for a few centuries, for reasons I shall explain another time.)
This print from Courier & Ives, while illustrating the song, also serves to illustrate the changing ideals of beauty. Compared to the stick-thin models in 21st-century fashion magazines, this Victorian beauty is decidedly zoftig. Also note her neat little “bud-like” mouth — no lip augmentation here! It is very refreshing to see such a natural looking woman idolized, but I must admit her tiny hands are a bit creepy — I guess that’s what Elizabeth Gaskell meant when she described Margaret’s “taper fingers” in North and South. Something unnatural there if you ask me.
I have been learning “Beautiful Dreamer” in anticipation of the next general meeting of the New York Nineteenth Century Society, next Monday, March 28. We decided to have a theme song, and my husband finally convinced me that “Oh! I’d Be a Sailor” wasn’t widely known enough to sing in mixed company. So far, I have learned to play the song on the auto-harp, the ukulele, and the guitar. Now if only I could carry a tune…