September 19, 2010

President and poet James Garfield

After a lengthy period of suffering, James A. Garfield became the second American President to be assassinated when he died on September 19, 1881. Several American writers paid tribute to their fallen commander-in-chief, including Bronson Alcott, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Paul Hamilton Hayne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Julia Ward Howe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Boyle O'Reilly, and Walt Whitman.

But, perhaps few would have guessed that Garfield himself was a poet, particularly while a student at Williams College. This one was written in his senior year:

"Autumn" (1856)

Old Autumn thou art here! Upon the earth
And in the heavens the signs of death are hung;
For o'er the earth's brown breast stalks pale decay,
And 'mong the lowering clouds the wild winds wail,
And sighing sadly, shout the solemn dirge
O'er summer's fairest flowers, all faded now.
The winter god, descending from the skies,
Has reached the mountain tops and decked their brows
With glittering frosty crowns, and breathed his breath
Among the trumpet-pines, that herald forth
His coming.

                  Before the driving blast
The mountain oak bows down his hoary head,
And flings his withered locks to the rough gales
That fiercely roar among his branches bare,
Uplifted to the dark, unpitying heavens.
The skies have put their mourning garments on,
And hung their funeral drapery on the clouds.
Dead nature soon will wear her shrouds of snow,
And lie entombed in winter's icy grave.

Thus passes life. As heavy age comes on,
The joys of youth — bright beauties of the spring —
Grow dim and faded, and the long dark night
Of death's chill winter comes. But as the spring
Rebuilds the ruined wrecks of winter's waste,
And cheers the gloomy earth with joyous light
So o'er the tomb the star of hope shall rise
And usher in an ever-during day.

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