May 11, 2012

Death of Read: always sweet to me

The Pennsylvania-born writer/artist Thomas Buchanan Read wrote the same way he sketched: with his notebook (or sketchbook) held on his knee. In his later years, his usual daily routine of rising early was exaggerated, and he worked by the earliest sunlight. Living in Rome and fighting illness, he longed to return to the United States. On the voyage home, however, he contracted pneumonia. Shortly after arriving in New York, he died on May 11, 1872 surrounded by loved ones. Among his final words were, "Your kisses are always sweet to me." He was 50 years old.

This final episode in his life was not unusual; much of his life was spent going back and forth between Europe and the United States. Read had successfully balanced the career of both an artist and a writer. Perhaps his most famous poem remains "Sheridan's Ride"; among his most famous paintings is the portrait he painted of the daughters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (familiar from the elder poet's poem "The Children's Hour"). His poem "The Deserted Road" (c. 1853) makes a fitting tribute on the anniversary of his death:

Ancient road, that wind'st deserted
   Through the level of the vale,
Sweeping toward the crowded market
   Like a stream without a sail;

Standing by thee, I look backward,
   And, as in the light of dreams,
See the years descend and vanish,
   Like thy whitely tented teams.

Here I stroll along the village
   As in youth's departed morn;
But I miss the crowded coaches,
   And the driver's bugle-horn,—

Miss the crowd of jovial teamsters
   Filling buckets at the wells,
With their wains from Conestoga,
   And their orchestras of bells.

To the mossy way-side tavern
   Comes the noisy throng no more,
And the faded sign, complaining,
   Swings, unnoticed, at the door;

While the old, decrepit tollman,
   Waiting for the few who pass,
Beads the melancholy story
   In the thickly-springing grass.

Ancient highway, thou art vanquish'd;
   The usurper of the vale
Rolls, in fiery, iron rattle,
   Exultations on the gale.

Thou art vanquish'd and neglected;
   But the good which thou hast done,
Though by man it be forgotten,
   Shall be deathless as the sun.

Though neglected, gray, and grassy,
   Still I pray that my decline
May be through as vernal valleys
   And as blest a calm as thine.

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