November 4, 2010

Birth of Samuel Minturn Peck

Later named the first Poet Laureate of Alabama, Samuel Minturn Peck was born in that state on November 4, 1854. Raised in Tuscaloosa, he spent a very short period in Illinois before returning when his father was appointed to the Alabama Supreme Court. Despite literary ambitions, Peck studied medicine "to please my parents," he wrote. He received his M.D. in 1879 but never practiced; a year earlier, while in medical school, he had published his first poem, "The Orange Tree":

She stood beneath the orange tree
   With its breathing blooms of white,
And waved a parting kiss to me
   Through the waning amber light;
And the evening wind rose mournfully
   To meet the coming night.

 The stars came out, and I sailed away,
   Away through the Mexique sea —
Away, away, for I could not stay;
   And oft on bended knee,
I prayed for her I left that day
   Beneath the orange tree.

'Tis eventide, and again to me
   The summer breezes sigh;
The orange flowers are fair to see —
   So tenderly they lie;
But oh! there's a grave 'neath the orange tree,
   And I would that I could die!

Peck published his first book of poems, Cap and Bells, in 1886 (including "The Orange Tree"). The collection included mostly light verse, giving him the reputation as a less serious poet. Rings and Love Knots was published in 1892, establishing Peck's reputation for writing nostalgically about his youth in Alabama. He published three more volumes of poetry before the end of the decade.

His poems are technically good and, in some cases, quite beautiful. But little from his first poetry collection stands out as memorable. He uses only a handful of themes (young love, for example, and three poems feature orange trees; most are floral) and repeats them throughout. Stylistically, he is fairly old-fashioned for his generation. Still, the poems are definitely tolerable. I also can't help but snicker at these couple lines from "Dollie":

'Tis rumored chocolate creams
Are the fabric of her dreams.

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