April 10, 2014

Birth of Forceythe Willson: faint, white fire

It seemed prophetic that the boy born in Little Genesee, New York, on April 10, 1837 would some day become a poet when he was named Byron. The poetic name notwithstanding, he went by his middle and last name as an adult, Forceythe Willson. He was born in a log cabin in what was then a rural area in far western New York. Soon, however, the Willson family sailed downriver into Kentucky before settling in Indiana. The eight Willson children (including future Kentucky governor Augustus Willson) were orphans by 1859, however, and each received a sizable inheritance.

Forceythe Willson attempted to study at Antioch College in Ohio and at Harvard in Massachusetts. He was unable, however, due to the onset of tuberculosis, which physicians said was immediately terminal. He survived longer than expected, however, and returned to his family in New Albany, Indiana. He married Elizabeth Conwell Smith (herself a poet) and contributed to a journal across the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky. He also wrote poetry, advocated for the Union cause during the Civil War, and dabbled in spiritualism and clairvoyance before finally dying in 1867.

Willson published his only book of poems the year before his death during a temporary sojourn living in Massachusetts. One of Willson's most famous poems, the lengthy "The Old Sergeant," was praised by notable people including Abraham Lincoln, John James Piatt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Willson's poem "Mystic Thought" (which he listed as with the musical term "Arpeggio") shows his unusual use of form as well as his interest in spiritualism:

There came a Mystic Thought to me;
    If any soul should ask me, "Whence?"
I can but say, I could not see,
    Nor hear nor feel, in any sense.
As the glory of the rising moon
Is duplicated in the lagoon,
Or gleams on the old tower and its spire,
Till the cross becomes a cross of fire, —
So that strange Thought, serene and lone,
Rose on my dark soul, and it shone!

Shouldst ask me, if an Angel brought
This strange, this sweet and secret Thought?
I could but say, I do not know!
It came as comes the guiding glow
From Heaven's high shrines; or as the snow
On the dark hill-tops; or as bloom
    The intimations of a God
In every violet of the tomb,
    And every pansy of the sod.

It came, unbidden, — as it went, —
A wing├ęd, wandering Sentiment,
That for a moment fanned my lyre
With passing wings, of faint, white fire:
Five finger-tips were touched to mine,
Most lightly: and a drop of wine,
Or dew, fell on my lips. At last,
A breath, — a seeming kiss —
                                               it passed!

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