April 13, 2013

Hale: too many irons in the fire for fifty years

It was April 13, 1893 when Edward Everett Hale signed the preface to For Fifty Years: Verses Written on Occasion, in the Course of the Nineteenth Century. He was being quite literal, having been writing for nearly half the century. His most enduring work, "The Man Without a Country," was 30 years behind him. Reflecting on these decades of work, his preface to this new book was more apologetic than anything else:

For such pleasure as these verses may give to my children and to theirs, and to some other friends, I have collected them, — with a certain difficulty, which will be easily understood.
To these indulgent readers they are dedicated.

The 71-year old Hale had lived a varied life as a literary figure, reformer, and theologian — a diversity which some of his friends even criticized, claiming he had "too many irons in the fire." Perhaps in response to that accusation, Hale included a quote on his title page: "If it were his duty to write verses, he wrote verses; to fight slavers, he fought slavers; to write sermons, he wrote sermons; and he did one of these things with just as much alacrity as another." Upon reading these lines as Hale was preparing the book, an interviewer asked, half-jokingly, if the quote would make an appropriate epitaph. The interviewer reported that, in his gravest tone, Hale responded: "I am willing to stand by this as my epitaph."

In the same meeting, Hale admitted that, perhaps, his verses could have been better (an allusion he also makes in his preface). Ultimately, he believed his true life was a the pulpit but even his 2,500 word sermons, he claimed, were written in the small space of two hours every week. Still disbelieving how he could accomplish so much, the interviewer pressed further. Hale responded that he was incapable of failure because his faith in God guided him: "Far less will you think you will fail if you are working with the omnipotence of the Lord God behind you."

Hale's poem "Send Me!" was included in For Fifty Years and expresses similar calling to faith:

Not mine to mount to courts where seraphs sing,
Or glad archangels soar on outstretched wing;
Not mine in union with celestial choirs
To sound heaven's trump, or strike the gentler wires;
Not mine to stand enrolled at crystal gates,
Where Michael thunders or where Uriel waits.
But lesser worlds a Father's kindness know;
Be mine some simple service here below, —
To weep with those who weep, their joys to share,
Their pain to solace, or their burdens bear;
Some widow in her agony to meet;
Some exile in his new-found home to greet;
To serve some child of thine, and so serve thee,—
Lo, here am I! To such a work send me!

1 comment:

  1. "The Man Without a Country" is one of those stories that abides in writers' imaginations. It was in the seventh grade reader my mother taught out of, and the story still haunts me.