February 2, 2014

Richard Henry Dana: Death bring thee rest

Richard Henry Dana, Sr. had lived through most of the early history of the United States. Born only two months after the adoption of the Constitution (his father had signed the Articles of Confederation), he lived through the entire Presidency of George Washington and 17 others before dying during the term of the 19th President Rutherford B. Hayes on February 2, 1879. He was 91 years old.

In his long life, Dana also saw the developing world of American literature as it unfolded. An early American romanticist, he was criticized for his support of the work of Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but lived long enough to see his formerly controversial opinion become conventional. Dana wrote a novel before James Fenimore Cooper and befriended the earliest American poets, including William Cullen Bryant. An ardent patriot, he truly believed in the fervor that created his country and hoped to see its culture and arts flourish with genius. He played his own part in building the arts, not only as an author, poet, and critic, but as a supporter of the arts (he was a friend of painter Washington Allston).

But Dana was frequently ill throughout most of his long life. Unlike his son and namesake, who took to the ocean when faced with health problems, Dana lived an increasingly retired life and embodied the Idle Man, the title of the magazine he founded and edited. When he died, some accounts referred to him as "the oldest of American authors"; several also admitted he had written nothing in his elder years. Among his most famous works was one of his earliest, a poem titled "The Dying Raven." The blank verse poem is over 100 lines long; below is the beginning and ending:

Come to these lonely woods to die alone?
It seems not many days since thou wast heard,
From out the mists of spring, with thy shrill note,
Calling upon thy mates — and their clear answers.
The earth was brown then; and the infant leaves
Had not put forth to warm them in the sun,
Or play in the fresh air of heaven. Thy voice,
Shouting in triumph, told of winter gone,
And prophesying life to the sealed ground,
Did make me glad with thoughts of coming beauties.
And now they're all around us, — offspring bright
Of earth, — a mother, who, with constant care,
Doth feed and clothe them all. — Now o'er her fields,
In blessed bands, or single, they are gone,
Or by her brooks they stand, and sip the stream;
Or peering o'er it, — vanity well feigned —
In quaint approval seem to glow and nod
At their reflected graces. — Morn to meet,
They in fantastic labors pass the night,
Catching its dews, and rounding silvery drops
To deck their bosoms. — There, on high, bald trees,
From varnished cells some peep, and the old boughs
Make to rejoice and dance in warmer winds.
Over my head the winds and they make music;
And grateful, in return for what they take,
Bright hues and odours to the air they give.
Thus mutual love brings mutual delight —
Brings beauty, life; — for love is life — hate, death.

I needs must mourn for thee. For I, who have
No fields, nor gather into garners — I
Bear thee both thanks and love, not fear nor hate.
And now, farewell! The falling leaves ere long
Will give thee decent covering. Till then,
Thine own black plumage, which will now no more
Glance to the sun, nor flash upon my eyes,
Like armour of steeled knight of Palestine,
Must be thy pall. Nor will it moult so soon
As sorrowing thoughts on those borne from him, fade
In living man.
                    Who scoffs these sympathies,
Makes mock of the divinity within;
Nor feels he gently breathing through his soul
The universal spirit. — Hear it cry,
"How does thy pride abase thee, man, vain man!
How deaden thee to universal love,
And joy of kindred with all humble things,—
God's creatures all!"
                              And surely it is so.
He who the lily clothes in simple glory,
He who doth hear the ravens cry for food,
Hath on our hearts, with hand invisible,
In signs mysterious, written what alone
Our hearts may read. — Death bring thee rest, poor Bird.

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