November 24, 2013

Birth of Kinney: That subdued, subduing strain

The moment that Coates Kinney was born in Yates County, New York on November 24, 1826, there were high expectations. On his father's side, he was descended from two families (the Coates family and the Kinney family, hence his name) who were connected to families that came to the New World on the Mayflower. Much of his life was spent trying to figure out how to belong along such noble ancestry.

His parents moved the family to Springboro, Ohio when he was in his early teens. In between going to school, he worked at a saw-mill, as a cooper's apprentice, in a factory and, after graduating, as a teacher. He studied the law for a time and, somewhere in between all this, began contributing to newspapers and magazines in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and elsewhere. Still, he struggled financially and his three children died in infancy but, in 1854, he purchased a half-interest in a printing office, where he set the type and self-published his first poetry collection. He eventually became an editor but his financial troubles did not end until he received a government appointment during the Civil War as paymaster general for the United States Army.

Kinney was admired by such critics as Julian Hawthorne and William Dean Howells in his later years. The latter said he had mastered the art of poetry and was "a truly great poet, subtle and profound." His most famous poem, if such a term can be used on this forgotten poet, was "Rain on the Roof" (circa 1849):

When the humid shadows hover
   Over all the starry spheres
And the melancholy darkness
   Gently weeps in rainy tears,
What a bliss to press the pillow
   Of a cottage-chamber bed
And lie listening to the patter
   Of the soft rain overhead!

Every tinkle on the shingles
   Has an echo in the heart;
And a thousand dreamy fancies
   Into busy being start,
And a thousand recollections
   Weave their air-threads into woof,
As I listen to the patter
   Of the rain upon the roof.

Now in memory comes my mother,
   As she used in years agone,
To regard the darling dreamers
   Ere she left them till the dawn:
O! I feel her fond look on me
   As I list to this refrain
Which is played upon the shingles
   By the patter of the rain.

Then my little seraph-sister,
   With the wings and waving hair,
And her star-eyed cherub-brother—
   A serene angelic pair—
Glide around my wakeful pillow,
   With their praise or mild reproof,
As I listen to the murmur
   Of the soft rain on the roof.

And another comes, to thrill me
   With her eyes' delicious blue;
And I mind not, musing on her,
   That her heart was all untrue:
I remember but to love her
   With a passion kin to pain,
And my heart's quick pulses quiver
   To the patter of the rain.

Art hath naught of tone or cadence
   That can work with such a spell
In the soul's mysterious fountains,
   Whence the tears of rapture well,
As that melody of Nature,
   That subdued, subduing strain
Which is played upon the shingles
   By the patter of the rain.

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