November 21, 2010

This feeling, old as Death, ancient as life

Thomas Holley Chivers, a poet from Georgia, married Harriet Hunt of Springfield, Massachusetts on November 21, 1837. By then, Chivers had earned a medical degree from Transylvania University, had published his first book of poems (The Path of Sorrow) and written a play (Conrad and Eudora; or, the Death of Alonzo). He also was (technically) still married to his first wife.

Chivers had married his cousin Frances Elizabeth Chivers when he was nineteen and she was sixteen. Within the year, Mrs. Chivers left her husband (already pregnant with a child, a daughter who would never see her father). Though a divorce suit was filed, it was dismissed by the courts. In 1831, she sued him for alimony on the grounds of nonsupport of their child; he offered to move in with them and take care of them. She turned him down but the offer made the court dismiss that case too. In 1835, he filed for divorce again, and was again unsuccessful.

By the 1830s, Chivers was spending more time in New York than in his native South. He met Harriet Hunt but could not marry her until legally separated from his first wife. He told the state of Georgia that she abandoned him (which was true) and they had been apart long enough that the marriage was considered legally dissolved. The new Mr. and Mrs. Chivers had four children — all of whom died young in rapid succession.

The turmoil of his first marriage, the tragedy of his second, and personal despair over the early death of his favorite sister and his mother are all reflected in his writing. William Gilmore Simms once faulted Chivers for his focus on melancholy but, really, Chivers had little else from which to draw inspiration. Even what passes for love poetry in Chivers is speckled with death. From "Lustrum the Third":

They laid them down in one another's arms,
She on his arm pillowing her tender head —
Gazing with pensive eyes into his face,
Revealing all her heavenly charms to him —
To take their sweet fill of sweet, voluptuous toil...
That all the Cave was filled with rosy clouds,
Like incense from an Altar, till the place
Became like Eden in that heavenly hour
When Adam first cohabited with Eve.

This feeling, old as Death, ancient as Life,
With immemorial sweetness, took
Entire possession of their raptured souls —
Until, exhausted by their amorous sport, —
Now overcome by that sweet lassitude
That earthly pleasure ever leaves behind —
They sank, entwined in one another's arms,
To sleep delicious as the sleep of him
Who dies, knowing that he will go to Heaven.

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