May 21, 2011

Birth of Isaac McLellan

Isaac McLellan was born in what is now Portland, Maine on May 21, 1806, though his family moved to Boston while he was still a boy. After studying at Phillips Academy at Andover (with fellow Portland-born poet Nathaniel Parker Willis) then Bowdoin College (with fellow Portland-born poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), he attempted a career as a lawyer but was quickly pulled towards literature. He served as an associate editor for a magazine while contributing poems to various others. He spent equal time engaged in "sportsman" activities — bird-hunting, in particular. Eventually, McLellan published three books of poetry and moved to New York.

Most of McLellan's poems are nature-focused, many highlight the unique aspects of American culture: the frontier, Native Americans, and hunting for moose and bison. He set poems in the plains of Illinois, in the Wyoming territory, along the coast of Florida, and in parts of Canada. More exotic poems featured elephant hunts in Africa. Amid all of it, he often had a more philosophical message. From the opening stanzas of "Mount Auburn" (1843):

What is Life? — a bubble dancing
   On the sparkling fountain's brim,
Painted by the sunbeam glancing
   O'er its evanescent rim.
Soon its soft reflected glories,
   Images of colored skies,
Vanish — when the haze of evening
   O'er the panorama dies.
Life, with all its bliss and troubles,
Melts like unsubstantial bubbles!

What is life? — a little journey,
   Ending ere 't is well begun;
'Tis a gay disastrous tourney,
   Where a mingled tilt is ran;
And the head that wears a crown
   'Neath the meanest lance goes down.
Walk, then, on life's pathway, mortal!
   With a pure and steadfast heart;
So that through death's frowning portal,
Peacefully thou may'st depart!

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