August 23, 2010

J.G.C. Brainard: the notes of that funereal drum

Oliver Hazard Perry (pictured at right from a portrait by Gilbert Stuart) was nicknamed the "Hero of Lake Erie" for his role in the Battle of Lake Erie, September 1813. This sea confrontation was a major victory for the Americans during the War of 1812; Perry's own legacy includes a national monument in his honor near the site of the battle. Born in Rhode Island on August 23, 1785, Perry died of yellow fever on his birthday in 1819; he was 34 years old.

Born a little further east ten years after Perry was Connecticut poet John Gardiner Calkins Brainard. Brainard became fairly well-known but he too died in his 30s. Brainard paid tribute to Perry in a poem, "On the Death of Commodore Oliver H. Perry":

How sad the notes of that funereal drum,
  That's muffled by indifference to the dead!
And how reluctantly the echoes come,
  On air that sighs not o'er that stranger's bed,
  Who sleeps with death alone.—O'er his young head
His native breezes never more shall sigh;
  On his lone grave the careless step shall tread,
And pestilential vapors soon shall dry
Each shrub that buds around—each flower that blushes nigh.

Let Genius, poising on her full-fledged wing,
  Fill the charmed air with thy deserved praise:
Of war, and blood, and carnage let her sing,
  Of victory and glory!—let her gaze
  On the dark smoke that shrouds the cannon's blaze—
On the red foam that crests the bloody billow;
  Then mourn the sad close of thy shortened days—
Place on thy country's brow the weeping willow,
And plant the laurels thick, around thy last cold pillow.

No sparks of Grecian fire to me belong:
  Alike uncouth the poet and the lay;
Unskilled to turn the mighty tide of song,
  He floats along the current as he may,
  The humble tribute of a tear to pay.
Another hand may choose another theme...

But if the wild winds of thy western lake
  Might teach a harp, that fain would mourn the brave,
And sweep those strings the minstrel may not wake,
  Or give an echo from some secret cave
  That opens on romantic Erie's wave,
The feeble chord would not be swept in vain;
  And though the sound might never reach thy grave,
Yet there are spirits here, that to the strain
Would send a still small voice responsive back again.

And though the yellow plague infest the air;
  Though noxious vapors blight the turf, where rest
The manly form, and the bold heart of war;
  Yet should that deadly isle afar be blest!
  For the fresh breezes of thy native west
Should seek and sigh around thy early tomb,
  Moist with the tears of those who loved thee best,
Scented with sighs of love—there grief should come,
And mem'ry guard thy grave, and mourn thy hapless doom.

It may not be. Too feeble is the hand,
  Too weak and frail the harp, the lay too brief
To speak the sorrows of a mourning land,
  Weeping in silence for her youthful chief.
  Yet may an artless tear proclaim more grief
Than mock affection's arts can ever show;
  A heart-felt sigh can give a sad relief,
Which all the sobs of counterfeited woe,
Tricked off in foreign garb, can ever hope to know.

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