April 21, 2013

Tuckerman: Rejoice that peace is his at last!

John Keese was never a major literary figure, but he connected to many important writers and critics. He made his money mostly as an auctioneer and employee at the New York customs house, though he dabbled in the publishing world; his major work is an early anthology of American poetry (for which he often shared information with fellow anthology Rufus W. Griswold). A man of wit and humor, he suffered greatly when, on April 21, 1843, his son Willets drowned. Another in the literary circle, Henry Theodore Tuckerman (pictured), wrote of the tragedy in a poem titled "The Early Called." Keese included it the next year in his anthology The Mourner's Chaplet: An Offering of Sympathy for Bereaved Friends. That book was then bundled with Cypress Wreath: A Book of Consolation for Those Who Mourn, a similar anthology edited by Griswold (who had recently lost both his wife and his son).

Where are thy many fearful spells, O death!
In the sweet presence of thy guileless prey,
I grow enamored of thee, and my breath
Deepens with awe, before this lovely clay.

Hope's purest dews from out thy icy urn,
Fall on my heart, like an eternal balm,
With strange content to thee I fondly turn,
And bless thy holy and mysterious calm.

For here thy touch has chilled the fair and pure,
Hallowed what earth can never more debase,
Caused childhood's smile forever to endure,
And stamped on innocence immortal grace.

In every curve of that cold, placid brow,
I read high gifts, half latent, yet defined;
And trace in lineaments, all marble now,
Pledges of manhood's nobleness and mind.

Think ye that God would lift the summer stream,
To feed the clouds with earth-refreshing showers,
Yet never those high promises redeem—
Yielding to barren death angelic powers?

Think ye the love that wings the meanest seed
Will suffer thought to perish in its dawn?
And bid the germs of loftiest hope and deed,
Like insects die the moment they are born?

No! let the spring's first violets exhale
Their richest odors round his dreamless sleep;
Let leaves of freshest green and roses pale
With promise greet the eyes that o'er him weep.

For the young spirit that has passed away,
Like them brought sudden pleasure to the heart,
And with unconscious beauty, day by day,
Woke gladsome dreams too sacred to depart.

Tuckerman insists that those who survive do not mourn the dead infant as he has gone to heaven. Instead, he suggests we should weep for ourselves, who no longer have the pleasure of experiencing his playfulness and "his infant charms." He concludes, "rejoice that peace is his at last!"

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