November 3, 2014

Death of George Arnold: a wasted life

Though scarcely remembered today, the poet George Arnold was mourned by many when he died on November 3, 1865. A contributor to magazines like Vanity Fair, Arnold often wrote under the pseudonym "McArone," with works that crossed a variety of styles and genres but, mostly, he was a humorist.

When he died at age 31, those who remembered him included the group that frequented Pfaff's, a bar in Manhattan known for its Bohemian clientele of artists and writers. For that group, he allegedly first presented one of his most anthologized poems, an ode to beer. One of those who frequented the establishment was Walt Whitman, who once scuffled with Arnold over the question of the Confederacy. One account says their debate grew so heated, Arnold (who supported the secession of the Southern states) assaulted Whitman by grabbing him by the hair. In Whitman's own account, it was merely a loud argument, which resulted in the elder poet's leaving the building.

Another of those who met him at Pfaff's was artist/poet Elihu Vedder. Many years after Arnold's death, Vedder recalled, "He died young; I do not know of what he died, but he seemed to be worn out even when I first met him... He thought his life a wasted life; it was with him a gorgeous romance of youthful despair; but into that grave went a tender charm, great talent, and great weakness."

Also among the Pfaff's crowd was William Winter, who elsewhere recalled Arnold's time in the established: "[He was] one of the sweetest poets in our country who have sung the beauties of Nature and the tenderness of true love; and he never came without bringing sunshine." Winter collected Arnold's poems and published them with a biography. Editor/critic/author Edmund Clarence Stedman memorialized Arnold in verse not long after his burial at Greenwood Cemetery in Trenton, New Jersey. More appropriate than Stedman's poem, however, is Arnold's own, "The Lees of Life":

   I have had my will,
Tasted every pleasure;
   I have drank my fill
Of the purple measure;
   It has lost its zest,
   Sorrow is my guest,
O, the lees are bitter, — bitter, —
   Give me rest!

   Love once filled the bowl
Running o'er with blisses,
   Made my very soul
Drunk with crimson kisses;
   But I drank it dry,
   Love has passed me by,
O, the lees are bitter, — bitter, —
   Let me die!

*Note: At least one source gives the date of Arnold's death as November 9.

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