January 24, 2010

Funeral of N. P. Willis

Nathaniel Parker Willis outlived his own soaring reputation. His funeral (and, perhaps, that of his literary reputation) was held on January 24, 1867.

Willis had died on his 61st birthday four days earlier. Less than 20 years before his death, he was making $10,000 a year (equal to over $300,000 today) while living a life of semi-retirement, writing at ease while fighting illness at his home, Idlewild, in the town of Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, within earshot of the artillery drills at West Point Military Academy. In fact, Willis was living the life of a convalescent, perpetually weak and ill for much of his later years. One friend later wrote, "there has hardly been a man of letters doomed to such protracted torments from bodily disease." Willis's final work was, appropriately, The Convalescent (1859), a series of chit-chatty epistolary sketches, including one about visiting his neighbor Washington Irving at Sunnyside.

The reality seems to be that Willis was already forgotten by the time The Convalescent was released (its last sketch was titled "Funeral Procession"). No less a figure than the future President of the United States, James A. Garfield, wrote in his diary: "Willis is said to be a licentious man, although an unrivaled poet. How strange that such men should go to ruin, when they might soar perpetually in the heaven of heavens." Some of his obituaries noted it was assumed Willis was already dead.

Nevertheless, Willis's funeral on January 24 was a major event. Local book stores were closed as a sign of respect. The service was held at St. Paul's Church before his burial at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His pallbearers included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James T. Fields, Richard Henry Dana, James Russell Lowell, Edwin Percy Whipple, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich (all but Dana were later buried in Mount Auburn too).

Clearly, Willis was a powerhouse for a time. But, even his first major biographer, Henry Beers in 1885, mused that Willis was from a forgotten era and that he may not survive in American collective memory in the future. That prediction seems true, but I would love to see a Willis revival. Consider my favorite poem by him, "April." A bit old-fashioned and sentimental, but beautiful nonetheless:

I have found violets. April hath come on,
And the cool winds feel softer, and the rain
Falls in the beaded drops of summer-time.
You may hear birds at morning, and at eve
The tame dove lingers till the twilight falls,
Cooling upon the eaves, and drawing in
His beautiful, bright neck; and, from the hills,
A murmur like the hoarseness of the sea,
Tells the release of waters, and the earth
Sends up a pleasant smell, and the dry leaves
Are lifted by the grass; and so I know
That Nature, with her delicate ear, hath heard
The dropping of the velvet foot of Spring.
Take of my violets! I found them where
The liquid south stole o'er them, on a bank
That lean'd to running water. There's to me
A daintiness about these early flowers,
That touches me like poetry. They blow
With such a simple loveliness among
The common herbs of pasture, and breathe out
Their lives so unobtrusively, like hearts
Whose beatings are too gentle for the world.
I love to go in the capricious days
Of April and hunt violets, when the rain
Is in the blue cups trembling, and they nod
So gracefully to the kisses of the wind.
It may be deem'd too idle, but the young
Read nature like the manuscript of Heaven,
And call the flowers its poetry. Go out!
Ye spirits of habitual unrest,
And read it, when the "fever of the world"
Hath made your hearts impatient, and, if life
Hath yet one spring unpoison'd, it will be
Like a beguiling music to its flow,
And you will no more wonder that I love
To hunt for violets in the April-time.

*Pictured is Willis's simple headstone at Mount Auburn. If visiting (which you should), look for the Charles T. Torrey memorial on the map; he is across from it, behind the bushes. A larger obelisk marks the family plot.

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