November 22, 2010

Halleck: most beloved and most wide-famed

The poet Fitz-Greene Halleck died at the age of 77 of a "bronchial disease." Though virtually forgotten today, Halleck was a major celebrity in the world of American literature in his day. His funeral, held on November 22, 1867, was a major event.

After a formal service in Christ Church in his native Guilford, Connecticut, Halleck's casket was opened so that, as his first biographer wrote, "kinsmen, friends, and neighbors were gratified with a last view of the poet's fine features, to which death had added a more than earthly beauty." Then, a procession walked about a mile to Alderbrook Cemetery for the poet's burial. Months later, friends and admirers raised money for a massive granite monument to mark the grave. On it was inscribed: "One of the few, the immortal names that were not born to die." They also planted ivy which had been picked from Sunnyside, the famous home of Washington Irving.

Within a few days of his death, notices were published as far away as Greece (a newspaper in that country referred to him as "the most beloved and most wide-famed of all the poets of the New World"). The New York Historical Society held a major dinner event in honor of Halleck, led by fellow poet William Cullen Bryant (who also memorialized Irving for the same organization). When Richard Henry Dana, Sr. heard of all the excitement in honor of Halleck, he noted, "Had he lived, how his genial nature would have enjoyed it!"

From Halleck's poem, "The Love of Notoriety ":

There are laurels our temples throb warmly to claim,
Unwet by the blood-dripping fingers of War,
And as dear to the heart are the whispers of fame,
As the blasts of her bugle rang fiercely and far;
The death-dirge is sung o'er the warrior's tomb,
Ere the world to his valor its homage will give,
But the feathers that form Notoriety's plume,
Are plucked in the sunshine, and live while we live.

There's a wonderful charm in that sort of renown
Which consists in becoming "the talk of the town;"
'Tis a pleasure which none but your "truly great" feels,
To be followed about by a mob at one's heels;
And to hear from the grazing and mouth-open throng,
The dear words "That's he," as one trudges along;
While Beauty, all anxious, stands up on tip-toes,
Leans on her beau's shoulder, and lisps "There he goes."

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