December 8, 2012

Death of Berryhill: It was best to die

Born in Alabama, S. Newton Berryhill was only 38 when he died in Mississippi on December 8, 1887. In his youth, he lost the use of his legs due to polio; in his adulthood, he became a beloved, well-liked teacher, an editor, and the author of a single book of poetry. Backwoods Poems, published in 1878, includes deeply emotional verse, celebrations of Mississippi culture, political poems, and even a few humorous pieces. The book, printed in Columbus, Mississippi, included a quote from English poet Felicia Hemans on its title page: "I'd leave behind / Something immortal of my heart and mind."

In his preface, the author claimed it included poems written over a period of 30 years (including those written when he was still a boy). Berryhill asserts that the title was first conceived when he was still young, but promises it was quite appropriate due to his rural background (an area which, he claims, he rarely ever left in his lifetime). His poems, he admits, are of varying degrees of merit, but the book was collected to keep his work from falling into oblivion. In fact, he hopes "in the years to come... that I will have many, very many, readers." Remarking on their variety, he notes his intent that every reader will find "something to please, something to while away a passing hour, and somewhere in these pages — I pray God! — something to incite to a nobler, better life." His poem "The Poet's Grave":

On the hill-top cold and bleak,
Where the North winds howl and shriek,
    Let his grave be made;
There among the tangled vines —
There beneath the stunted pines,
    Let his form be laid.

Cold and dreary is the spot,
But the world which knew him not
    It was colder still;
And the poor short life he led
Bare of flowers as his bed
    On the rocky hill.

Ah! ye knew not — could not know
What he suffered here below;
    How his spirit yearned
For one kindly spoken word —
For one look that might have cheered
    The poor heart ye spurned.

Ye knew not, dull sons of earth,
There were gems of priceless worth
    In that poor boy's mind —
Gems of beauty that might now
Crown his pale and lofty brow,
    Had ye been more kind.

Never throbbed in human breast
Nobler heart than he possessed —
    Heart more warm and true;
But alas! ye never strove
To awake its latent love
    For mankind and you.

Ever longing but in vain
For the love it sought to gain —
    Love ye would not give,
It had withered, like a flower
Shut out from the summer shower,
    Ere he ceased to live.

What he might have been had you
Been to manhood's duties true,
    Heaven only knows;
Thank the Lord! his strife is done,
And a brighter crown he's won
    Than the world bestows.

Let his memory be forgot;
Let no tears bedew the spot
    Where his relics lie;
With no one to love him here —
None his hopes and griefs to share,
    It was best to die.

Let the pines their vigils keep,
Let the North-winds moan and weep
    O'er that grave-spot wild;
Nature, whom he loved so well,
Will his funeral anthem swell,
    And bewail her child.

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