March 12, 2011

Birth of Thomas Buchanan Read

In the rural world of Chester County, Pennsylvania, Thomas Buchanan Read was born on March 12, 1822. Early on, he recognized his drive for creativity, and became both an artist and a poet. After an unsuccessful stint apprenticed to a tailor, he moved to Cincinnati in his teen years. There he first learned sculpture. By 1840, he had a benefactor and had produced both poetry and sculpture to modest acclaim.

Read determined, nonetheless, that the United States was not the best place for such occupations. He determined that Rome, Italy was "the only city in the world for an artist or poet," let alone one who was both. In 1841, however, he moved to Boston, where he discovered that Washington Allston was already doing exactly that. Allston's influence was short-lived, however, when the elder man died in 1843. Read moved to Philadelphia and finally visited Italy, where he then spent much of his adult life.

Among his more famous works of art is the portrait of the daughters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, often used to illustrate the poem "The Children's Hour." As for his poetry, one critic thought well enough of Read to refer to one of his poems as "unquestionably the best American poem we have." That poem is "The Closing Scene." Excerpted from that poem:

Within his sober realm of leafless trees,
   The russet year inhaled the dreamy air;
Like some tanned reaper in his hour of ease,
   When all the fields are lying brown and bare...

There was no bud, no bloom upon the bowers;
   The spiders wove their thin shrouds night by night;
The thistle-down, the only ghost of flowers,
   Sailed slowly by, passed noiseless out of sight...

Amid all this, the center of the scene,
   The white-haired matron, with monotonous tread,
Plied the swift wheel, and with her joyless mien,
   Sat, like a Fate, and watched the flying thread.

She had known Sorrow, — he had walked with her,
   Oft supped, and broke the bitter ashen crust;
And in the dead leaves still she heard the stir
   Of his black mantle trailing in the dust.

While yet her cheek was bright with summer bloom
   Her country summoned and she gave her all;
And twice War bowed to her his sable plume, —
   Re-gave the swords to rust upon the wall.

Re-gave the swords, — but not the hand that drew
   And struck for Liberty its dying blow,
Nor him who, to his sire and country true,
   Fell 'mid the ranks of the invading foe...

At last the thread was snapped, — her head was bowed;
   Life dropped the distaff through his hands serene; —
And loving neighbors smoothed her careful shroud,
   While Death and Winter closed the autumn scene.

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