April 7, 2014

Campbell: Every book ought to have a preface

"My printer says that every book ought to have a preface," wrote Alfred Gibbs Campbell from Newark, New Jersey in his requisite preface dated April 7, 1883. The passage opened his Poems, which was apparently his first (and only) book compilation. Not much is known about the New Jersey born African American poet who also ran a paper mill and edited a newspaper. The book was released shortly before his death. As he states in his preface:

I will therefore simply say that, acting upon the suggestion of personal friends and in accordance with my own inclination, I have here gathered in a volume, (rather promiscuously it must be confessed,) various pieces in verse which I have written during the past thirty years or so. For want of a more distinctive name, I call them "Poems," which possibly, in a minor sense, they may be. I claim for them no literary excellence. If in them there is anything worthy of living, it will live... Should their appearance in this form afford pleasure to my friends, I shall be gratified.


Campbell also notes his anti-slavery poems in the collection, showing his role in the great "moral warfare," as he calls it, against "the giant crime against human nature and its Divine Author." Certainly, the book includes more than this theme. Throughout the book, Campbell explores man's relationship with God, his role on Earth, his devotion to his country (flawed though it may be), and frequently searches for moral guidance. Most evoke his deep religious beliefs. His poem "Ships at Sea":

All of us have our ships at sea;
   Will they ever reach port, I wonder.
A few may sail in merrily,
   But most will the wild waves sunder.

And some which do reach port, I guess,
   Will discharge only damaged cargoes;
Better had they been kept by stress
   Of weather, or Fate's embargoes.

Trust not thy treasures on the sea,
   Nor idly expect joy to-morrow:
Take what to-day doth offer thee.
  Nor pleasure nor trouble borrow.

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