October 18, 2010

Birth of Thomas Holley Chivers

On a cotton plantation outside of Washington, Georgia, Thomas Holley Chivers was born on October 18, 1809. He witnessed the death of his sister while in his teens (a traumatic experience that should have forewarned a life full of the loss of loved ones). He married his 16-year old cousin Frances Elizabeth Chivers in 1827 but, within a year, she left him along with their infant daughter.

Chivers left Georgia shortly after, enrolling at Transylvania University in Kentucky, where he earned his M.D.  Returning to his home state, Dr. Chivers hoped to reconcile with his wife. He was wrong, but demanded his legal right to a portion of his wife's estate. She tried to divorce him but he would not allow it, resulting in a major scandal. Georgia law eventually dissolved their marriage; Chivers likely never saw his daughter again. The trouble inspired his first book of poems, The Path of Sorrow (1832), which he self-published.

He soon remarried and with his second wife, Harriet Hunt of Springfield, Massachusetts, he had four children. Each of them died young. Dr. Chivers's life was full of enough suffering that his poetry almost exclusively focuses on themes of death, mourning, and loss. Inspired in part by his friend Edgar Allan Poe (who he later suggested plagiarized from him), his poetry also emphasized the quality of sound... to much less success. Evert Augustus Duyckinck called Chivers formulaic — and even broke down the formula, including 20% "mild idiocy," with another 10% of "gibbering idiocy." It is difficult not to agree. From "Threnody, Composed on the Death of My Little Boy":

By the Waters of Salvation,
  Christ's Salvation, full of pain —
Christ's Salvation, in probation,
I sit down in tribulation,
And now write this Lamentation
  For the lost, the early slain!
Waiting, (hoping for salvation,)
  For his coming back again.

But, as awful as some of his poetry is, he writes with enough sincere melancholy that it's hard not to appreciate what he's doing. From "Song to Isa":

Upon thy lips now lies
  The music-dew of love;
And in thy deep blue eyes,
  More mild than heaven above,
  The meekness of the dove.

More sweet than the perfume
  Of snow-white jessamine,
When it is first in bloom,
  Is that sweet breath of thine,
  Which mingles now with mine.

*Recommended reading: Thomas Holley Chivers by Charles M. Leland, if you can find it. Last year, for Chivers's bicentennial, the magazine Georgia Backroads had a great article by Ellen Firsching Brown on the doctor-poet. Another source of information, including a better list of books to look for, is here.

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