June 9, 2010

Payne: Be it ever so humble

Rufus Wilmot Griswold did not include John Howard Payne in any of his editions of The Poets and Poetry of America, the first major anthology of American poetry. Later, his successor Richard Henry Stoddard added him in an 1870s edition. Stoddard predicted that Payne "will be known only by a single song," though he may have been a bit generous. Payne, who was born on June 9, 1792 (sometimes listed as 1791), has hardly survived into collective memory. The "single song," however, is still memorable, at least in part:

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home!
A charm from the skies seems to hallow us there,
Which seek through the world, is ne'er met with elsewhere.
        Home! home, sweet home!
        There's no place like home!

An exile from home, splendor dazzles in vain,
Oh, give me my lowly thatched cottage again.
The birds singing gayly that come at my call:
Give me those, and the peace of mind, dearer than all.
        Home! sweet, sweet home!
        There's no place like home!

The poem "Home, Sweet Home" was actually a song from Payne's 1823 opera, Clari, Maid of Milan; Payne wrote only the lyrics, not the music.

Payne was born in New York City. Early in his life, he showed an interest in drama and had his acting debut at about 9 or 10 years old. Shortly after, he moved to England and became successful as an actor, playwright, producer, and editor of a journal. His 1823 opera The Maid of Milan was instantly popular. The ballad "Home, Sweet Home" was published separately and sold tens of thousands. Payne himself made little money off it (having sold the rights to the publishers) and eventually returned to the United States, where he took a particular interest in the Cherokee nation.

His fame, however, resulted in an appointment by President John Tyler in 1842 (with help from Secretary of State Daniel Webster). Payne became the American Consul in the African city of Tunis. It was in that city that Payne died in 1852.

Several years later, "Home, Sweet Home" had a major revival when it became widely sung by Civil War soldiers. Legend has it that some commanding officers banned it since it intensified homesickness so much. Supposedly, in December 1862, opposing Confederate and Union troops found themselves amid a "Battle of the Bands," of sorts. On the eve of battle outside Murfreesboro, Tennessee, one officer wrote: "Every soldier on that field knew when the sun went down... on the following day he would be engaged in a struggle unto death, and the air was full of tokens that one of the most desperate of battles was to be fought." Troops were united, albeit temporarily, through Payne's "Home, Sweet Home."

The song's impact during that time period explains Stoddard's choice to include it (and nothing else) to represent Payne in the 1870s anthology. One of Payne's admirers, after all, was none other than Abraham Lincoln himself.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting! And of course Payne's line "There's no place like home!" took on a modern celebrity when Judy Garland as the character Dorothy recites it three times near the end of the film "The Wizard of Oz." They do not, appear in L. Frank Baum's original novel of the same title, however.