November 19, 2014

Favorite last words from poets

"Hand me my pantaloons, if you please."

These were the last recorded words of Connecticut-born poet Fitz-Greene Halleck before his death 147 years ago today on November 19, 1867.

In honor of those not-so-glamorous last words, here are a few of my other favorite last words of American writers highlighted on the blog (in no particular order):

"I want to go away."
—Ohio/NY poet Phoebe Cary (died February 12, 1871)

"All is perfect peace with me."
—Georgia poet Thomas Holley Chivers (died December 18, 1858)

"Take me away. Take me away."
—"Poet of the Sierras" Joaquin Miller (died February 17, 1913)

"Your kisses are always sweet to me."
—Painter/poet Thomas Buchanan Read (died May 11, 1872)

—New Hampshire poet Samuel Burnham (died June 22, 1873)

"Moose... Indian."
—Massachusetts writer Henry David Thoreau (died May 6, 1862)
*Note: The above was a guest post by historian Richard Smith

"In spite of it all, I am going to sleep; put out the lights."
—"Bad Boy" and poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich (May 19, 1907)

November 12, 2014

Harris: under the spell of the old town

The people of Eatonton, Georgia were proud of their native son, Joel Chandler Harris, as he rose to literary fame. Best known for his Uncle Remus tales, Harris was then living in Atlanta, in a home he called Wren's Nest. He was some 80 miles from the town of his birth — not so very far, which made it so hard for him to turn down an offer to return to Eatonton. In a letter dated November 12, 1901, he wrote:

I have delayed answering your letter hoping to see my way clear to accepting the invitation which you were kind enough to send me, and which I assure you is very highly appreciated. Though I have been away so many years, I still feel that Eatonton is my home and the people there my best friends. I love them all, so much so that I have never written anything to be published in book form that I did not ask myself if there could be anything in it which my friends there would not approve. Thus, in a way, they have been my most helpful critics. I thank you heartily for the invitation and regret that a pressure of work will prevent me from accepting.

Harris was then working on what would become Gabriel Tolliver, a book which he dedicated to his friend James Whitcomb Riley. He also admitted to Riley that he had allowed the interest of his characters to overshadow the story. Even so, the book was set in Shady Dale, a fictionalized version of Eatonton, which served as an equally important character in Harris's writings.

The book begins not unlike the invitation he received in 1901: "Cephas! here is a letter for you, and it is from Shady Dale! I know you will be happy now." The narrative voice then admits that he far too often spoke of the town of his youth, that his recollections of Shady Dale were "coloured" and that he saw the people only through his "boyhood-eyes." The other character in that opening, Sophia, warns Cephas that if he were to go back, he'd learn they weren't so different from everyone else after all. "This was absurd, of course—or, rather, it would have been absurd for any one else to make the suggestion; for at that particular time, Sophia was a trifle jealous of Shady Dale and its people."

From Gabriel Tolliver's chapter "A Town with a History":

Before, during, and after the war, Shady Dale presented always the same aspect of serene repose. It was, as you may say, a town with a history. Then, as now, there were towns all about that had no such fortunate appendage behind them to explain their origin... Shady Dale is no city, and it may be that its public spirited citizens stretch the meaning of the term when they call it a town. Nevertheless, the community has a well-defined history...

But to set forth its origin is not to describe its beauty, which is of a character that refuses to submit to description... You are inevitably impressed with a sense of the attractiveness of the place; you fall under the spell of the old town... And yet if you were called upon to define the nature of the spell, what could you say? What name could you give to the tremulous beauty that hovers about and around the place, when the fresh green leaves of the great trees are fluttering in the cool wind, and everything is touched and illumined by the tender colours of spring? Under what heading in the catalogue of things would you place the vivid richness which animates the town and the landscape all around when the summer is at its height? And how could you describe the harmony that time has brought about between the fine, old houses and the setting in which they are grouped?

All these things are elusive; they make themselves keenly felt, but they do not lend themselves to analysis.

November 3, 2014

Death of George Arnold: a wasted life

Though scarcely remembered today, the poet George Arnold was mourned by many when he died on November 3, 1865. A contributor to magazines like Vanity Fair, Arnold often wrote under the pseudonym "McArone," with works that crossed a variety of styles and genres but, mostly, he was a humorist.

When he died at age 31, those who remembered him included the group that frequent Pfaff's, a bar in Manhattan known for its Bohemian clientele of artists and writers. For that group, he allegedly first presented one of his most anthologized poems, an ode to beer. One of those who frequented the establishment was Walt Whitman, who once scuffled with Arnold over the question of the Confederacy. One account says their debate grew so heated, Arnold (who supported the secession of the Southern states) assaulted Whitman by grabbing him by the hair. In Whitman's own account, it was merely a loud argument, which resulted in the elder poet's leaving the building.

Another of those who met him at Pfaff's was artist/poet Elihu Vedder. Many years after Arnold's death, Vedder recalled, "He died young; I do not know of what he died, but he seemed to be worn out even when I first met him... He thought his life a wasted life; it was with him a gorgeous romance of youthful despair; but into that grave went a tender charm, great talent, and great weakness."

Also among the Pfaff's crowd was William Winter, who elsewhere recalled Arnold's time in the established: "[He was] one of the sweetest poets in our country who have sung the beauties of Nature and the tenderness of true love; and he never came without bringing sunshine." Winter collected Arnold's poems and published them with a biography. Editor/critic/author Edmund Clarence Stedman memorialized Arnold in verse not long after his burial at Greenwood Cemetery in Trenton, New Jersey. More appropriate than Stedman's poem, however, is Arnold's own, "The Lees of Life":

   I have had my will,
Tasted every pleasure;
   I have drank my fill
Of the purple measure;
   It has lost its zest,
   Sorrow is my guest,
O, the lees are bitter, — bitter, —
   Give me rest!

   Love once filled the bowl
Running o'er with blisses,
   Made my very soul
Drunk with crimson kisses;
   But I drank it dry,
   Love has passed me by,
O, the lees are bitter, — bitter, —
   Let me die!

*Note: At least one source gives the date of Arnold's death as November 9.

October 10, 2014

Chivers: Love, Joy, and Grief

Thomas Holley Chivers knew about love, joy, and grief. The Georgian poet had experienced a troubled life but took great joy in his family, including his parents and siblings, as well as his children. His children, however, all died young, and his first marriage proved disastrous. By October 10, 1839, he knew enough about love, joy, and grief to write a poem appropriately called "The Poetry of Love, Joy, and Grief":

To hang upon his breast by day.
   To lie close by his side by night;
To heed whatever he may say,
   And do it with as fond delight;
To make each thought of him thy sigh,
   To love him more than God above,
And think that he can never die—
   This is the Poetry of Love.

To think him, absent, by thy side-
   Whatever he may do is right;
To love him as when first his bride,
   And think each one thy bridal night;
To live through life unchanged in years.
   With love that time cannot destroy,
And have each thought expressed in tears—
   This is the Poetry of Joy.

To sit down by his dying bed,
   To count each pulse—to feel each pain—
To love him after he is dead,
   And nevermore to smile again;
To love him after as before—
   To find his grave thy sole relief—.
And weep for him forever more—
   This is the Poetry of Grief. 

The poem, written in the perspective of a woman, may also have been a somewhat passive-aggressive reference to his first wife, who had left him not long after their marriage. Or, perhaps, it was more referential to his second wife, who he had married not long before writing the poem. The theme of death or dying was fairly typical for Chivers's poetry. "The Poetry of Love, Joy, and Grief" was included in his self-published collection The Lost Pleiad in 1845.

September 25, 2014

Elmore: Tramping, hurrying, rushing

Indiana poet James B. Elmore earned a reputation writing about ordinary things, from sassafras to mushrooms, and from kittens to cuckoo clocks. His poetry was intentionally jaunty and fun, and he earned a great reputation in his region (they called him the "Bard of Alamo," after his home town in Indiana). He was a layer, a preacher, and carpenter, before retiring as a farmer. He found time to write poetry every fee moment he had, and his themes represented his somewhat unpolished rural background. His poem "Streetcar and Elevator," dated September 25, 1900, took an interesting view of the modernization of society (with tongue in cheek):

I'm in the city;
   I don't know what to do,
Unless I take a street car
   And ride the whole town through.

Buzz — they come a-rushing,
   Buzz — they pass you by;
Tramping, hurrying, rushing,
   The people turn and sigh.

A man that works a lever
   Is sitting on in front;
Another, on the rear end,
   With cash, fare bell, and punch.

The sparks are flying round you,
   And something makes a siz;
Your heart is near collapsing.
   O, what a feeling it is!

Jing-a-ling! You're stopping,
   And then you pass along,
While holding to some straps
   That dangle o'er the throng.

As soon as you have started
   They ask you for your fare;
If you don't a nickel have,
   You're trotted off the car.

Yet there is another thing
   Which is not very clear—
How the fleeting elevator
   Goes up and down so queer.

It is always ready;
   You just step in and on.
You can't say your baby prayers
   Until your heart is gone.

You're going up so very fast
   You cannot see about,
And you feel so awful queer,
   As though the bottom was out.

I saw a great big fellow
   A-standing proud and stiff,
And at his first experience
   You should have seen him twist.

He crouched down in one corner
   And expressed himself: "By grit!
I believe I'll take that flight of stairs
   For fear the thing may slip."

I saw him going down the stairs,
   Three hundred pounds avoirdupois,
And by the time he'd reach the ground
   You'd be in Illinois.

September 11, 2014

Davidson: But your fame shall never die

The Battle of Lake Champlain during the War of 1812 took place on September 11, 1814. Many of the sailors who were killed during that military engagement were buried in a mass grave on Crab Island, just outside the town of Plattsburgh, New York.

About eight years later, the young Plattsburgh-born poet Lucretia Maria Davidson traveled across Lake Champlain in a steamboat and saw Crab Island. Remembering the dead that remained interred and unmarked there, the 14-year old poet wrote "Reflections, on Crossing Lake Champlain in the Steamboat Phoenix":

Islet on the lake's calm bosom,
    In thy breast rich treasures lie;
Heroes! there your bones shall moulder,
    But your fame shall never die.

Islet on the lake's calm bosom,
    Sleep serenely in thy bed;
Brightest gem our waves can boast,
    Guardian angel of the dead!

Calm upon the waves recline,
    Till great Nature's reign is o'er;
Until old and swift-winged time
    Sinks, and order is no more.

Then thy guardianship shall cease,
    Then shall rock thy aged bed;
And when Heaven's last trump shall sound,
    Thou shalt yield thy noble dead!

Davidson was already sick with the tuberculosis that would kill her about two years writing the above poem. She was 16. Her sincere interest in poetry, coupled with her young innocence, lent credence to the belief that her tuberculosis inspired her to have a strong poetic sensibility. Her supporters after her death included Samuel F. B. Morse and Catharine Maria Sedgwick each of whom assisted with posthumous publications of her work.

September 5, 2014

Cooper and Wyandotté: Merciful Providence!

With the last of his Leatherstocking novels two years behind him, James Fenimore Cooper turned to another historical period for his novel Wyandotté, or, The Hutted Knoll: the American Revolution. Published on September 5, 1843, Wyandotté was not the first of Cooper's books set in that era, though it had been some twenty years since his previous books The Spy (1821) and Lionel Lincoln (1825)

The action of Cooper's book takes place in a remote valley in Otsego County (where Cooper lived much of his life), a bit removed from the main events of the period. Despite not focusing on famous real events, the author couched his story in reality; as he noted in his preface, the stories he told in this book were "distinctive in many of their leading facts, if not rigidly true in the details." He noted his concern about the proliferation of American Revolution related stories which were quickly becoming more legend than truth because of "pseudo-patriotism." Cooper warned, "Nothing is really patriotic, however, that is not strictly true and just." He was particularly concerned about the hard-line distinction between "good guy" Revolutionaries and "bad guy" Tories, which he intended to complicate. Here is how one Tory breaks the news of the rebellion to his family in the novel:

"Merciful Providence!" exclaimed Mrs. Willoughby—"What can you mean, my son?"

"I mean, mother, that civil war has actually commenced in the colonies, and that the people of your blood and race are, in open arms, against the people of my father's native country—in a word, against me."

"How can that be, Robert? Who would dare to strike a blow against the king?"

"When men get excited, and their passions are once inflamed, they will do much, my mother, that they might not dream of, else."

"This must be a mistake! Some evil-disposed person has told you this, Robert, knowing your attachment to the crown."

"I wish it were so, dear madam; but my own eyes have seen—I may say my own flesh has felt, the contrary."

In fact, the Willoughbys are somewhat torn in deciding their allegiance in the novel. Part of Cooper's sympathy for Tories and those who were loyal to England during the Revolution may have been personal: some of his ancestors were counted among that group. Several reviews of Wyandotté focused on whether or not the history in the book was accurate.