December 30, 2012

Death of Sargent: we have it within us

By the time of his death on December 30, 1880, Epes Sargent had been a poet, playwright, biographer, journalist and editor. He also published a speller with the hope of standardizing American use of the English language. The Massachusetts native had also become obsessed with spiritualism in the latter half of his life and published several books in support of the phenomena of spirit rappings, ghost writing, and more.

In Sargent's final years, he suffered from a painful cancerous growth in his mouth, which ultimately killed him. At the same time, however, he was completing his final work: Cyclopedia of British and American Poetry. According to the publisher, the final pages of the massive book were set in type only a few days before Sargent's death. It was published a couple months later.

Unlike the earlier poetry anthologist Rufus W. Griswold, Sargent was impressed by the output of poets. "It is hard for the most diligent critic to keep pace with the fertility of our poets," he wrote in his preface. He also noted that "much of the best poetry of recent times has been the product of feminine genius." As to the origins of poetry, Sargent writes: "It is profoundly true that poetry is to be found nowhere, unless we have it within us. Here, as throughout all nature and art, we receive but what we give."

In the book, Sargent included seven of his own poems, including the wildly popular "A Life on the Ocean Wave." He also included the short lyric "Soul of My Soul":

Soul of my soul, impart
   Thy energy divine!
Inform and fill this languid heart,
   And make thy purpose mine.
Thy voice is still and small,
   The world's is loud and rude:
Oh, let me hear thee over all,
   And be, through love, renewed!

Give me the mind to seek
   Thy perfect will to know;
And lead me, tractable and meek,
   The way I ought to go.
Make quick my spirit's ear
   Thy faintest word to heed:
Soul of my soul! be ever near
   To guide me in my need.

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