August 31, 2011

Canning: the Peasant Bard

In Gill, Massachusetts, Josiah D. Canning was born on August 31, 1816 (the family had changed the name from Cannon). Though his brothers had the benefit of a college education, young Josiah himself did not. Nevertheless, at age 15, he took his first steps towards a literary career when he built his own printing press and started producing a weekly newspaper. In its first six months, the four-page Village Post featured exceptional coverage of gruesome or violent news. After its second year, the newspaper expanded and began to include poetry — including poems by Canning himself.

Within only a few years, Canning founded or worked with newspapers in Detroit, the Wisconsin Territory, and what is now Wheeling, West Virginia, all to varying degrees of success. Ultimately returning to Massachusetts, he abandoned journalistic pursuits and became a farmer — a role which instantly became his greatest poetic inspiration.

Upon the publication of his book Poems, New York editor Lewis Gaylord Clark announced enthusiastically: "Make way for a farmer's boy... who draws his figures from ever-glorious nature!" It was Clark who bestowed upon Canning the nickname "Peasant Bard."

Canning's poem "Night Watch — August 31":

O thou to whom the rolling years
   Are moments of our time;
Thou whose existence, lone, appears
   Eternal and sublime!

I see Thy star-bespangled sky,
   Thy comet-torches shine,
And wonder if Thine awful eye
   Can notice me or mine!

I hear Thy voice in thunder fill
   The caverns of the sky,
And wonder if the prayer I will
   Comes to Thy hearing nigh.

I see Thy whirling breath uptwist
   And dash the forest down;
And think, how futile to resist
   The anger of Thy frown!

I gaze upon the fields of space
   No mortal foot hath trod,
And in the awful Boundless, trace
   The mystery of God.

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