January 20, 2010

Birth and death of Nathaniel Parker Willis

There really is no one like Nathaniel Parker Willis (January 20, 1806 - January 20, 1867), the American poet, editor, publisher, travel essayist and, for a time, the highest-paid magazine writer of his day. He was born in Portland, Maine, and raised in Boston, before making his career as a New York writer and a member of the Knickerbocker group. Though barely remembered today (and, when he is, usually for his associations with other writers), he was a powerhouse of the antebellum period. At one point, for example, he was a regular columnist for three different publications, causing even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to be jealous of his income.

A quick read through Pencillings by the Way or Out-doors at Idlewild reveals little substance in Willis. However, he was one of the earliest Americans to travel to Europe and write back about his experiences. His prose drew readers in using a style that addressed them directly as close, intimate friends. He made it seem that he was just a rustic American who happened to get lucky and implied that anyone could trade places with him.

As a poet, he often wrote on stereotypically feminine, wishy-washy subjects (case in point: "The Lady in the White Dress, Whom I Helped Onto the Omnibus"). However, much of his poetry stands the test of time and, what's more, he was writing almost entirely in blank verse in the late 1820s (somewhat impressive for that time period). His "Birth-day Verses" was written while he was traveling in Europe, addressed to his mother:

My birth-day!—Oh beloved mother!
My heart is with thee o'er the seas.
I did not think to count another
Before I wept upon thy knees—
Before this scroll of absent years
Was blotted with thy streaming tears.

My own I do not care to check.
I weep—albeit here alone—
As if I hung upon thy neck,
As if thy lips were on my own,
As if this full, sad heart of mine,
Were beating closely upon thine.

Four weary years! How looks she now?
What light is in those tender eyes?
What trace of time has touch'd the brow
Whose look is borrow'd of the skies
That listen to her nightly prayer?
How is she changed since he was there
Who sleeps upon her heart alway—
Whose name upon her lips is worn—
For whom the night seems made to pray—
For whom she wakes to pray at morn——
Whose sight is dim, whose heart-strings stir,—
Who weeps these tears—to think of her!

I know not if my mother's eyes—
Would find me changed in slighter things;
I've wander'd beneath many skies,
And tasted of some bitter springs;
And many leaves, once fair and gay,
From youth's full flower have dropp'd away—
But, as these looser leaves depart,
The lessen'd flower gets near the core,
And, when deserted quite, the heart
Takes closer what was dear of yore—
And yearns to those who loved it first—
The sunshine and the dew by which its bud was nursed.

The poem goes on to ask if, hypothetically, if his mother misses him and loves him the way he misses and loves her. Of course, he knows in his heart that he does, and the poem looks forward to their reunion. He imagines that meeting as one full of happy tears and expects that he will shed his adulthood and return to the boy nature he once shared with her. These sort of open-hearted domestic scenes certainly endeared him to his American audience.

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