|The Mystery of Maud Irving (the “Wildwood Flower”)
– Eric M. Bram
“I’ll twine ’mid the ringlets
Of my raven black hair,
The lilies so pale
And the roses so fair”
Maud Irving is the name usually given as the author of the lyrics, or of the poem from which the lyrics derived, for the 19th century ballad I’ll Twine ’Mid the Ringlets, originally published by Joseph Philbrick Webster but most famously recorded in 1928 by the Carter family as the familiar folksong Wildwood Flower. For many decades, country music lovers have wondered who she was, this “wildwood flower” who penned the poignant words to this haunting song.
“The myrtle so bright
With an emerald hue,
And the pale aronatus
With eyes of bright blue”
No one has been able find a published copy of the original poem by Maud Irving to which composer J.P. Webster is said to have put the music for I’ll Twine ’Mid the Ringlets, and until now there didn’t seem to be any information available at all about Maud Irving the person. Was that even the lyricist’s real name, or was the name “Maud Irving” a pseudonym? Here’s what was known previously:
In 1860, the Library of Congress recorded a copyright filed for I’ll Twine ’Mid the Ringlets (LC Classification M1621.W, copyright renewed in 1888), listing J.P. Webster as composer and Maud Irving as lyricist.
In 1872, Maud Irving, or, The Little Orphan, an operetta in five acts (said to be “suitable for school exhibitions, festivals, concerts, & c.”), by George Cooper and William Dressler, and including Webster’s song Little Maud, was published by the Oliver Ditson Company (C.H. Ditson & Co.)
A poem attributed to Maud Irving, entitled Mildred, was published in 1860 in a very popular periodical of the day, Godey’s Lady’s Book. Here’s an image I obtained of the poem.
Maud Irving, “Mildred,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, Vol. LXI (July-December 1860), p. 416.
The Lyracist’s True Identity
I recently located several more poems attributed to Maud Irving and published in the 1860s. I found them published in a kind of religious/spirutual/home schooling periodical entitled Home Monthly. And from these it seems that the mysterious author of the beloved song wasn’t a woman at all, but a man. As you will see from the below illustrations of the poems, the final four reveal that “Maud Irving” was a pseudonym used by J. William Van Namee, a poet, spiritualist and “trance speaker” (what we today would call a medium, or channeler of spirits), and author of Driftwood on the Sea of Life (1860), Poems (1868), etc. (Other Maud Irving poems, not reproduced here, may be found in Peterson’s Magazine.) The thumbnail at right is from a photo of Van Namee by a noted portrait photographer of the time, Jeremiah Gurney.
Maud Irving, “Gentle Words Fall on the Heart,” The Home Monthly; Devoted to Literature, Religion, and Home Education, Vol. II, Edited by Rev. Wm. M. Thayer. D. C. Childs & Co., No. 11 Cornhill, Boston (1860), p. 162.
Maud Irving, “Contentment,” Home Monthly; Devoted to Home Education, Literature, and Religion, Vol. IV, Edited by Rev. Wm. M. Thayer. D. C. Childs & Co., No. 11 Cornhill, Boston (1861), p. 176.
J. William Van Namee (Maud Irving), “Lillie’s Grave,” Home Monthly; Devoted to Home Education, Literature, and Religion, Vol. IV, Edited by Rev. Wm. M. Thayer. D. C. Childs & Co., No. 11 Cornhill, Boston (1861), p. 237.
J. William Van Namee (Maud Irving), “A Leaf,” Home Monthly; Devoted to Home Education, Literature, and Religion, Vol. IV, Edited by Rev. Wm. M. Thayer. D. C. Childs & Co., No. 11 Cornhill, Boston (1861), p. 307.
J. William Van Namee (Maud Irving), “A Shadow,” Home Monthly; Devoted to Home Education, Literature, and Religion, Vol. V, Edited by Rev. Wm. M. Thayer. D. C. Childs & Co., No. 11 Cornhill, Boston (1862), p. 83.
J. William Van Namee (Maud Irving), “I’m Waiting For Thee,” Home Monthly; Devoted to Home Education, Literature, and Religion, Vol. VI, Edited by Rev. Wm. M. Thayer. D. C. Childs & Co., No. 11 Cornhill, Boston (1862), p. 96.
Note the lyrics in the final poem, I’m Waiting For Thee, about “…roses and lilies so pale,” and blue-eyed flowers, reminiscent of I’ll Twine ’Mid the Ringlets / Wildwood Flower.
Since American magazines of the day like Godey’s, Home Monthly, and Peterson’s that published spiritual, romantic, and sentimental poetry were considered “ladies’ magazines” (some issues were devoted entirely to articles and poetry written by women), it’s not surprising that a man might take a woman’s name as a pseudonym to get his poetry published in those magazines; the more famous songwriter Septimus Winner contemporaneously did the same.
Nor was Maud Irving the only pseudonym Van Namee used; he published voluminously under the pseudonym Willie Ware as well.
Advertisement, Lancaster Intelligencer, Lancaster, PA (Vol. LXIII: 18 March 1862), p. 4.
“Review of New Books,” Peterson Magazine, Vol. 39 (Jan.-June 1861), p. 180.
“Literary Notices,” Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, Vol. LXXXII, Philadelphia (March 1871), p. 575.
Van Namee wasn’t especially particular about keeping his pseudonyms straight. For example, the poem shown above entitled Gentle Words Fall on the Heart by Maud Irving, which appeared in the magazine The Home Monthly in 1860, also appeared (with minor changes) as Gentle Words in Van Namee’s 1860 book Driftwood on the Sea of Life under the byline Willie Ware. Van Namee even operated as both Willie Ware and Maud Irving simultaneously (and perhaps as “Foster Foreens” as well). For instance, in the 12 April 1860 issue of the Rockland County Messenger, an ad for the Literary Casket, a paper published by “J. W. Van Namee & Co.” in Brooklyn (where Van Namee lived) declares,
The Editorial Department, will be under the charge of Foster Foreens and Willie Ware – names well known to the Northern and Eastern Literary World. Ladies’ Department – This department will be under the charge of Maud Irving, well-known as a Contributor to many of the Literary Magazines, and Weekly Papers published in this Country. All the articles in this department will be the product of Ladies’ pens, exclusively. [sic]
As time went on Van Namee acknowledged and began to phase out the Maud Irving pseudonym, initially adding it parenthetically to his real name, as we’ve seen above, and eventually dropping it entirely. His 1868 book of poetry was published under his real name alone, and by at least 1871 (see the above notice for The Faithless Guardian) he was publicly acknowledging that he was Willie Ware as well.
Questions remain. For example, what exactly was the connection between the 1872 operetta Maud Irving and the author/poet whose pseudonym graced its title? One obvious connection is that J.P. Webster, the composer who wrote the music to Maud Irving’s I’ll Twine ’Mid the Ringlets, also wrote the music to the song Little Maud, and the latter song (with credit given to Webster and lyracist Aldrich) was later used as part of the operetta Maud Irving. Did Van Namee (who was alive during the publication of that operetta) give away use of his pseudonym for the operetta because he was no longer using it, or is it possible that Van Namee appropriated his pseudonym, and the writers of the operetta (and the author of the poem Little Maud) took their title, from a (presumably fictional) “Maud Irving” character that would have been familiar to readers of that era?
A Patronymic Irving?
A more likely explanation, and in my opinion the correct one, is that in the nineteenth century Irving could be a middle name for both boys and girls. For example, the woman pictured at the top of this article, Maud Irving Cassidy (maiden name Mary Irving Kane), was given Irving as a middle name when she was born in 1879. Irving was likely familial in origin since one of her sons, Lawrence Irving Cassidy, was given that middle name as well. Accordingly, Maud Irving could be a two-word given (first and middle) name combination for a girl that could be used to refer to her in conversation, much like like today’s Mary Ann or Anne Marie or Peggy Sue, and not necessarily a first and last (family) name.
Accordingly, Van Namee may have taken that two-word given name as his pseudonym for writing “ladies’ poetry,” just as the other authors of fiction who used the name Maud Irving as titles and character names (see below) may have chosen it for the same reason, i.e., that it was a girl’s name, and thus the various Maud Irvings we find in the literature need not have been related or otherwise connected.
Here, for example, is an excerpt from an 1898 book of recitations. This doesn’t seem to be a reference to the Maud Irving of the 1872 operetta, in which Maud lived in poverty as a girl and no reference was made to a wax doll or a playhouse.
Stanley Schell, “Dialogues for Girls: Edith’s Complaints,” Werner’s Readings and Recitations for Children
of Primary Grades, No. 17, Edgar S. Werner & Company (New York, 1898, 1904), Fourth Edition, p. 110.
A novel entitled Maud Irving by Audrey de Haven (Dreda Boyd) was published in 1905. This Maud Irving apparently also had little in common with the Maud Irving of the 1872 operetta, as can be seen below. [Audrey de Haven was the pseudonym of Etheldreda (Dreda) Boyd of Edinburgh, Scotland.]
The Publishers’ Circular and Booksellers’ Record, London, p. 426 (Oct. 14, 1905)
Ibid, p. 704 (Dec. 16, 1905)
Samuel Halkett, Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous English Literature, Haskell House Publishers Ltd. (New York, 1926-1934) LoC 72-171323, p. 175
Since naming a girl Maud Irving was not unknown in the 19th century, it’s not surprising to find more than one fictional character named Maud Irving in 19th century fiction, none of them otherwise related to one another.
I’ve located sheet music for two songs whose lyrics, considering the dates published, may have been written by the lyricist for I’ll Twine ’Mid the Ringlets. The spelling of the poet’s name is different (Mand Irving) on one, likely a misprint. Their lyrics are not in Van Namee’s 1868 book of poems, but several phrases in them (sad, forlorn – dark clouds – flower(s) of love and hope, etc.) are repeated more than once in the poems found there.
One Fond Heart, words by Mand Irving, music by R. McCoy McIntosh. Published by Henry McCaffrey (Washington DC, 1860). Located in Digital Collections, Duke University Libraries.
Broken Harp, poetry by Maud Irving, music by N.P.B. Curtiss. Published by Russell & Tolman (Boston, 1861). Located in the Music & Dance Special Collection, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
Sheet music to I’ll Twine ’Mid the Ringlets has been very hard to find because the publisher’s Randolph Street office and warehouse burned in the great Chicago fire. I’ve only recently located a printed copy of the 1860 sheet music, found in Box 38, Folder 4 of the “pre-fire Chicago” section of the William R. and Louise Fielder Sheet Music Collection at Stanford University. With the permission of that library I’ve uploaded a copy of the sheet music at the link above.
Now that I’ve fairly well demonstrated that poetry written by “Maud Irving” and “Willie Ware” was actually written by J. William Van Namee, and possibly established myself as the amazing musical sleuth who discovered the true identity of the author to the lyrics of I’ll Twine ’Mid the Ringlets, I’m going to go ahead and ruin it all by telling you that this entire Maud Irving exercise has given me a giant nagging doubt, not only as to whether J. William Van Namee actually wrote the lyrics to that famous song, but also as to whether the “words by” attributions of mid-19th century sheet music were all that accurate in general. Could it be that lyrics of published nineteenth century parlor songs were routinely written by the music composers, or others, but falsely credited as a matter of course to currently popular (or at least well-known) poets?
In the case of Maud Irving, the reasons for my suspicion are, first, that I’ve looked at a lot of Van Namee’s poetry now, and I think it’s awful, mostly maudlin drivel. The lyrics of the J.P. Webster song are much better, and (more significantly, I think) of a fundamentally different character from anything else Van Namee wrote. And second, given Van Namee’s rather obvious habit of publishing every poem he ever wrote as many times and in as many magazines as he possibly could (not only have I found many of the poems in his 1860 book reprinted in various magazines thereafter, but the preface to that book states that many of those poems had been published before in various newspapers and magazines), I find it highly suspect that I’ve been unable to find the lyrics to any of the songs attributed to “Maud Irving” in any other nineteenth century book or periodical published before or since.
It was not unheard of in the 19th century for publishers of songs to attribute lyrics to famous people in order to increase sales, much the way that many Internet quotations today are misattributed to famous people in order to increase their value in political discussions, via “appeal to authority.” One well known example (of the former) is the Scottish folk song Annie Laurie, the original version of which was attributed to William Douglas, but was probably mostly written by professional “old ballad collector” Allan Cunningham. Could it be that 19th century publishers of songs routinely did the same to increase sales of their sheet music? It may be difficult for today’s public to believe, but back in the days before songwriter celebrity became big business, before the days of iTunes, CDs, cassette tapes, and even phonograph records, aside from opera, orchestra, minstrel show, and band concerts (in which it was only the performance that mattered, not the author of the songs), it wasn’t that big a deal to have written a song – the real money in the popular music business (in fact, practically the only money aside from ticket sales for putting on a live performance) lay in sales of published music, especially sheet music – which was a really big business in those days, when the main musical entertainment in the home usually centered on the piano in the living room and the mother or daughter who could play it. So if a composer or publisher could increase his sales by attributing the lyrics to a famous or familiar sounding pseudonym, why not?
And finally, it’s possible that there may have been an actual woman, as yet unidentified, whose given (first and middle) name was Maud Irving and who wrote the lyrics to J.P. Webster’s music, but did not want her family name printed on the sheet music.
Am I therefore discounting J. William Van Namee as the Maud Irving who wrote the lyrics to I’ll Twine ’Mid the Ringlets? No; there’s an excellent chance it was he because we know he was a sentimental poet publishing as “Maud Irving” at the time. But can we be certain? I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway.
All of which means, essentially, that until we find a published copy of the original Maud Irving poem that became the lyrics, the mystery of who wrote the lyrics to I’ll Twine ’Mid the Ringlets remains just that: A mystery.
Maud Irving Kane in 1898, at age 18
© 2013-15 by Eric M. Bram
NOTE: (the Aronatus)
There is no record of any flower that was known as the aronatus when the song was originally published in 1860. There being many mondegreens (misunderstood or misinterpreted words or phrases resulting from a mishearing of the lyrics of a song) in the Carter family descendent of the song, Wildwood Flower, and the original published lyrics of the song having been lost when the publisher’s warehouse burned down during the great Chicago fire of 1871, it was long thought that aronatus from the known transcription of the original lyrics was just another mondegreen, and that the original lyric was probably some other flower, such as amaryllis or amaranthus. However, when I discovered the original sheet music in an old pre-Chicago fire collection at Stanford University I confirmed that aronatus is actually the original lyric, with amaryllis and amaranthus probably being themselves mondegreens or known flower names borrowed for later versions of the song.
There is no way at present to confirm that the flower pictured above (scientific name Humilis Alba Coerulea Oculata, which means “small white blue-eyed”) is the actual flower referred to by the lyricist. Aronatus may have referred to another flower, or may have been an invented word that referred to no real flower but simply fit the metre of the song.
However, I think this flower, a wildflower also known as “blue-eyed tulip,” now a cultivar, is the best candidate for the flower called aronatus in the lyrics. For one thing, this particular small wildflower is botanically a tulip, which means it would normally bloom only in the spring, consistent with the Latin meaning of aronatus (plow-born) indicating a flower that blooms during the time of spring planting. But more importantly, it looks exactly as described in the song, i.e., “pale with eyes of bright blue.” I don’t know of another flower, let alone a wildflower, that answers that description.
Note: There are more examples of Willie Ware’s Poetry and Prose in Acorns and a more readable copy of this article can be found at www.ergo-sum.net/music/MaudIrving.html