December 19, 2010

Taylor: one so strong in hope, so rich in bloom

The poet Bayard Taylor died on December 19, 1878. Perhaps the worst part of his death was that he could no longer defend himself from being called "James Bayard Taylor" — never his legal name, though his parents did name him after politician James A. Bayard. The error comes from anthologist Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who encouraged the younger man to publish his poems. Taylor, certainly unable to predict the confusion over his name, dedicated that 1844 volume of poems to Griswold, "as an expression of kind gratitude for the kind encouragement he has shown the author." Griswold, who assisted in the publication of that book, also had "James Bayard Taylor" put on the title page, an error which continues to this day.

Perhaps on a happier note, Taylor's friend Christopher Pearse Cranch paid a posthumous tribute through a sonnet:

Can one so strong in hope, so rich in bloom
   That promised fruit of nobler worth than all
   He yet had given, drop thus with sudden fall?
   The busy brain no more its worth resume?
Can Death for life so versatile find room?
   Still must we fancy thou mayst hear our call
   Across the sea, with no dividing wall
   More dense than space to interpose its doom.
Ah then—farewell, young-hearted, genial friend!
   Farewell, true poet, who didst grow and build
   From thought to thought still upward and still new.
Farewell, unsullied toiler in a guild
   Where some defile their hands, and where so few
   With aims as pure strive faithful to the end.

Another poetic tribute came from Southern writer Paul Hamilton Hayne (appropriate, considering Taylor's attempts to reunite North and South through poetry). Hayne said this poem was inspired in part by a letter Taylor wrote to him only weeks before his death:

"Oft have I fronted Death, nor feared his might!—
To me immortal, this dim Finite seems
Like some waste low-land, crossed by wandering streams
Whose clouded waves scarce catch our yearning sight:
Clearer by far, the imperial Infinite!—
Though its ethereal radiance only gleams
In exaltations of majestic dreams,
Such dreams portray God's heaven of heavens aright!"

Thou blissful Faith! that on death's imminent brink
Thus much of heaven's mysterious truth hast told!
Soul-life aspires, though all the stars should sink;—
Not vain our loftiest Instinct's upward stress,—
Nor hath the immortal Hope shone clear and bold,
To quench at death, his torch in Nothingness!

More from another of Taylor's Southern admirers will be posted in a couple days.


  1. Thanks for remembering Bayard, a fascinating figure, perhaops the first American writer to travel in order to write about it, as Larzer Ziff claims. He would travel the country to talk about his travels and lecture on "The Arabs" wearing a turban. I discovered the autograph a few years ago in an archive--it's a fascinating piece and quite empathetic in ways that seem almost modern today. It is said that a surly hippopotamus in Barnum's museum cheered up when Taylor addressed in Arabic. I think that is what Cranch means when he talks about a "life so versatile."

  2. I've written a surprisingly large lot of articles on Taylor. Here's one about his trip to Africa:

  3. I like the two different accounts of his last words, uttered this day: I must away vs I want, oh you know what I mean, more of that stuff of life! The first presents the departure of a famous travel writer; the second reveals the writer who depended so much on the charitable reading of friends and his appetite for life more than his eloquence.