December 23, 2010

Death of Ellery Channing

One of the forgotten writers of the writer-heavy town of Concord, Massachusetts, Ellery Channing died there on December 23, 1901. He was 83 years old, and still not particularly recognized for his poetry.

Promoted by Ralph Waldo Emerson and encouraged by Bronson Alcott, friends with Henry David Thoreau (even appearing as "The Poet" mentioned in Walden), and the brother-in-law of Margaret Fuller, Channing never got out from the shadow of his uncle, the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, to build a significant reputation of his own. Legend has it that, when a young William Dean Howells visited Emerson, he admitted he had only heard of Channing through a review by Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote, "It may be said in his favor that nobody ever heard of him." Even his cousin, William Henry Channing, wrote in a review that, "Your daily thoughts are better poems than you can write."

Predominantly a nature poet, Channing outlived all the other Concord writers except Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, who edited a posthumous collection of his poetry. That collection included the poem "The Concord Sexton's Story," one which allegedly "arrested the attention" of another Concord writer named Nathaniel Hawthorne:

The Sexton of our village was an old
And weather-beaten artisan, whose life
Led him to battle with the depths of cold.
Amid the woods he plied a vigorous arm;
The tall trees crashed in thunder at his stroke,
And a hale cheer was spread about his form.
Death does not stand or falter at the cold,
And our brave Sexton plied his pickaxe bright,
Whether the soft snow fell, or 'mid the rains;
This day, this Winter's day, he 'd made a grave
For a young blossom that the frost had nipped;
And, toward the sunset hour, he took his way
Across the meadows wide, and o'er the Brook
Beyond the bridge, and through the leafless arch
Of willows that supports the sunken road,
To the sad house of Death.

The Sexton had forgotten what Death is,
For Death provided him with home and bread,
And graves he dealt in as some deal in farms.
He reached the house of Death, — a friendly house, —
And sat in peace to see the wood-fire flash
Its cheerful warmth, and then he spoke as one
Who came from living worlds...

Channing is buried on "Author's Ridge" at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, just beyond the Hawthorne family plot and within sight of the Thoreaus.

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