January 21, 2012

Death of Prentice: though I am far away

The accounts of George D. Prentice's death in 1870 are unclear; contemporary sources say he died on January 21, others list his death as January 22. His grave is marked as January 20. Either way, it was pneumonia that ended his life at the age of 68.

Though born in Connecticut, Prentice remains much more associated with Kentucky, where he served as editor of the Louisville Journal for most of his life (it eventually merged with the Courier). A graduate of Brown University (where he was tutored by Horace Mann), he practiced law only briefly before turning to journalism. His writings were so satirical and caustic that he was invited to write the campaign biography of Henry Clay. He served minor roles with various newspapers before he published the first issue of the Louisville Journal in 1830. His reputation was soon made, thanks to his biting wit — particularly in response to critics or to his competitors. To quote a couple:

The editor of the —— says more villainy is on foot. We suppose the editor has lost his horse.

The editor of the —— speaks of his 'lying curled up in bed these cold mornings.' This verifies what we said of him some time ago—'he lies like a dog.'

After his death, Prentice's body laid in state at a Masonic temple (he was a long-standing member of the Masons) before his burial at Cave Hill Cemetery. Efforts were soon made to memorialize Prentice. The resulting statue, dedicated in 1912, today sits across from the Louisville Public Library. Its existence remains controversial (and not only because it is somewhat unflattering); Prentice was also a bigoted, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic advocate. He was also a poet, and John James Piatt edited a posthumous collection of his complete poems. Included in that collection was "The Parting":

The signal from the distant strand
   Streams o'er the waters blue—
It bids me press thy parting hand,
   And breathe my last adieu;
But oft on fancy's glowing wing
   My heart will love to stray,
And still to thee with rapture spring,
   Though I am far away.

With thee I've wandered oft to hear,
   On Summer's quiet eves,
The wild-bird's music, soft and clear,
   Borne through the whispering leaves,
Or see the moon's bright shadow laid
   Upon the waveless bay:
Those eves—their memory can not fade,
   Though I am far away.

My life may feel Hope's withering blight,
   Yet Fancy's tearful eye
Will turn to thee—the dearest light .
   In retrospection's sky;
And still the memory of our love,
   While life was young and gay,
Will sweetly o'er my spirit move,
   Though I am far away.

'T is hard, when Spring's first flower expands,
   To pass it coldly by,
Or see upon the desert sands
   The gem unheeded lie;
The gentle thoughts that bless the hours
   Of love can ne'er decay,
And thou wilt live in memory's bowers,
   Though I am far away.

The sun has sunk, with fading gleam,
   Down evening's shadowy vale,
But see—his softened glories stream
   From yonder crescent pale;
And thus affection's chastened light
   Will memory still display,
To gild the gloom of sorrow's night,
   Though I am far away.

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