A portrait of Robert P. Tristram Coffin by photographer Lotte Jacobi.
If I had not tripped over the footstone of Robert Peter Tristram Coffin’s tombstone, one of three elegantly simple granite slabs in a family plot, I would not have discovered him, at least not for a long time. He lies beside his wife, Ruth, and his daughter, Margaret, in Cranberry Horn Cemetery, on a hilltop at the edge of the road to Cundy’s Harbor. Drawn by the name Coffin, a Colonial Nantucket name, I read that Coffin died in 1955. The stone is inscribed with this poem:
This my country, bitter as the sea
Pungent with the fir and bayberry.
An island meadow, stonewalled, high, and lost,
With August cranberries touched red by frost.
A juniper upon a windy ledge,
Splendor of granite on the world’s bright edge.
A lighthouse like a diamond, cut and sharp,
And all the trees like strings upon a harp.
I, made of clay inflamed with sun,
Something solid still have done.
I have kept the ancient Law,
I have written what I saw.
I was moved by the final lines. He had borne witness to his observations.
Although I discovered that Coffin’s grave had been included in a list of the top 15 graves of U.S. poets by the Dead Poets Society of America, I could not initially locate any of Coffin’s writing. His poems were not included in the current American literature anthologies, though I found three poems in Maine poet Wesley McNair’s “The Maine Poets” and one in the Maine Literature Project’s “Maine Speaks: An Anthology of Maine Literature.”
Only five of Coffin’s 46 books remain in print. Through an online search, I located and ordered from a Midwestern bookstore a 1939 copy of “Collected Poems of Robert P. Tristram Coffin.”
Though most of Coffin’s work is out of print, a Brunswick elementary school and a local pond are named after him; several neighbors are distantly related to him; and in both the Bowdoin College and University of New Hampshire libraries sit troves of letters and memorabilia from this Bowdoin alumnus and long-serving faculty member, including, in the UNH archives, a well-known portrait photographed by Lotte Jacobi.
Robert P. Tristram Coffin’s headstone in Cranberry Horn Cemetery, Harpswell. (LYNN KILCHENSTEIN PHOTO)
Coffin, a direct descendant of the Nantucket Puritan Tristram Coffin, was born in 1892 and grew up on Great Island. One of 10 children, he and his family lived and worked on a saltwater farm. He went to Bowdoin on a scholarship, then later to Princeton, and finally to Trinity at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, winning accolades at each college. Before his year away at Princeton, he had never been out of Maine, and he maintained ties to his Maine home for the rest of his life.
While away at Trinity, Coffin wrote to his mother regularly, urging her to be careful about when to put the cows out to the marshland and when to harvest the hay. Though he spent a decade teaching at Wells, New York, he returned in 1934 to teach at Bowdoin, where he remained until he died in 1955.
A friend of Robert Frost’s, he had many close friends in the literary and scholarly worlds, as well as within his family and community. He was considered a first-rate scholar, and by the time he won the 1936 Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection “Strange Holiness,” he had already published two biographical works, two essay collections, several histories (one area of study was the 17th century), and four books of poems.
Until he died at age 63, he maintained a prolific output that included writing, drawing, engraving and lecturing. In a 1955 memorial edition of The Bowdoin Orient, Coffin was referred to as a man who “knew what should go into an epic and into a fish chowder” and as one who counted himself fortunate to experience the “satisfaction of being a successful writer, teacher, family man, and of living on the coast where he could fish as he had as a child.”
Despite his popularity, Coffin was criticized for his sentimentality. “I am accused of Optimism by critics,” which “I resent,” he said in a lecture. In his introduction to the 1939 edition of “Collected Poems of Robert P. Tristram Coffin,” he riffed on criticism and his sense of purpose in writing poetry.
“Poetry is saying the best one can about life. … Optimism is as suspect now as silence and patience and charity,” he wrote. “But times may improve, as they always have had the habit of doing in the past. And I think I can account for my feeling as I do in my poetry. I write most of it late at night, between midnight and two or three in the morning. It is hard for a man to be cynical or bitter when he is alone in the middle of the night. It is hard for him to be despondent then, too.”
In the middle of the night, when many people feel vulnerable and lonely, Coffin was savoring life, noting that, “When a man sees one after another of the lights go out in his neighbors’ houses … a man feels honor bound, then, to put his best foot forward and to say all the best things he can for his sleeping neighbors and friends.”
Coffin’s “Christmas in Maine,” first published in 1935 and 1941, remains in print, seasonally. The 2015 version is illustrated with colorful woodblock prints by Portland artist Blue Butterfield, published with permission from the Coffin estate by Islandport Press. The book tells of the gathering of generations of family, food baking and simmering, children playing, old stories retold, with danger kept at a distance this night when shelter and love surround the family.
I recommend that you read the book to see if you agree that Coffin succeeded in, as inscribed on his tombstone, writing what he saw.
Lynn Kilchenstein and her family discovered Harpswell in 1996 and divided their time between Harpswell and Concord, New Hampshire, until 2019, when they sold their little farm to move here full time. She had the great pleasure of teaching English in and serving as president of a community college, while pursuing interests in diverse areas of the community.
(Correction: An earlier version of this essay online and in the April print edition contained three errors. Coffin was one of 10 children, not seven; he authored 46 books, not 37; and five of the books remain in print, not one, according to the literary agent for his estate. The Harpswell Anchor regrets the errors.)