January 31, 2012

McCreery and Bulwer-Lytton

As John Luckey McCreery wrote in a preface to a reluctantly-published collection of poetry, he never wrote poems for public consumption. Instead, he shared them only with his family and close friends. Imagine his surprise, however, when he heard one of his poems was read before the United States Congress.

As McCreery explained,the poem "There Is No Death" was written in late 1862. Encouraged by friends, he sent it to a Philadelphia newspaper, which published it the next summer. A reader from Illinois, identified only as "E. Bulmer," copied it an sent it to a newspaper in Chicago, which printed it with his name instead of McCreery's. In turn, a Wisconsin newspaper saw the same poem and though "E. Bulmer" was a typesetting error — and so, the poem became credited to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the well-known English poet and novelist. It became immensely popular amid the Civil War and was reprinted throughout the next couple decades.

Nearly twenty years later, on January 31, 1880, McCreery was sitting in the visitors gallery during a meeting of the House of Representatives. Pennsylvania Congressman Alexander Hamilton Coffroth quoted a few lines in honor of a recently-deceased colleague, again noting its author as Bulwer-Lytton. It spurred him to finally respond and, with the help of friends advocating on his behalf, he proved his authorship.

McCreery eventually took the confusion all in stride. As he wrote, "Every reader can decide for himself whether this wide-spread popularity has its basis in the merits of the poem or in the celebrity of its supposed author." The poem:

There is no death! the stars go down
   To rise upon some other shore,
And bright in heaven's jewelled crown
   They shine for evermore.

There is no death! the forest leaves
   Convert to life the viewless air;
The rocks disorganize to feed
   The hungry moss they bear.

There is no death! the dust we tread
   Shall change, beneath the summer showers.
To golden grain, or mellow fruit,
   Or rainbow-tinted flowers.

There is no death! the leaves may fall,
   The flowers may fade and pass away—
They only wait, through wintry hours,
   The warm, sweet breath of May.

There is no death! the choicest gifts
   That heaven hath kindly lent to earth
Are ever first to seek again
   The country of their birth;

And all things that for growth or joy
   Are worthy of our love or care,
Whose loss has left us desolate,
   Are safely garnered there.

Though life become a desert waste,
   We know its fairest, sweetest flowers,
Transplanted into paradise,
   Adorn immortal bowers.

The voice of birdlike melody
   That we have missed and mourned so long
Now mingles with the angel choir
   In everlasting song.

There is no death! although we grieve
   When beautiful, familiar forms
That we have learned to love are torn
   From our embracing arms,—

Although with bowed and breaking heart,
   With sable garb and silent tread,
We bear their senseless dust to rest,
   And say that they are " dead,"—

They are not dead! they have but passed
   Beyond the mists that blind us here,
Into the new and larger life
   Of that serener sphere.

They have but dropped their robe of clay
   To put their shining raiment on;
They have not wandered far away,—
   They are not "lost," nor " gone."

Though disenthralled and glorified,
   They still are here and love us yet;
The dear ones they have left behind
   They never can forget.

And sometimes, when our hearts grow faint
   Amid temptations fierce and deep,
Or when the wildly raging waves
   Of grief or passion sweep,

We feel upon our fevered brow
   Their gentle touch, their breath of balm,
Their arms enfold us, and our hearts
   Grow comforted and calm.

And ever near us, though unseen,
   The dear, immortal spirits tread—
For all the boundless universe
   Is Life:—there are no dead!

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