March 17, 2013

Things of the heart can never be lost

Tennessee politician and orator Henry Clay was awarded a gold medal with his likeness from admirers in New York. When the committee asked for its return to complete an improvement of it, Clay left it in the hands of New York poet and socialite Anne Charlotte Lynch, who had been visiting Washington, D.C. and had served as Clay's personal secretary for a time. Lynch kept the medal in a satchel which she held for safekeeping. However, somewhere in her travels, she lost the medal. She contacted a friend of Clay's to notify the man on her behalf. This was the response, dated March 17, 1852:

I call on Mr. Clay and mentioned the loss of the medal. I found him not at all affected by it; his spirits were as good and he as cheerful as I have seen him... He, I assure you, has suffered not the slightest depression on this account.

Clay reportedly thought that just knowing the medal had been granted was enough for him to appreciate the respect and admiration it represented. Ultimately, he believed it was only a symbol and was, therefore, not really lost, "for things of the heart can never be lost."

Lynch, however, was not satisfied and was horrified by her error. She reported the loss to the police and offered a $500 reward. The satchel was ultimately found, severely damaged, and the medal was gone from it. Her feelings of guilt were apparently so strong that Clay himself wrote to calm her, as did the chairman of the committee which created the medal (he also offered a replacement for Clay, though in bronze rather than gold).

Fifteen years later, minus one week, a man from Maine wrote to Lynch (now Mrs. Vincenzo Botta) to alert her that he had seen the missing Clay medal! It had found its way to Switzerland, brought there by a sea-captain who purchased it in Philadelphia.

Clay and Lynch had met in Newport, Rhode Island in 1849 — the same year that Lynch's first collection of original poems was published. He apparently asked to see her poetry and she accordingly gave him a copy. Clay references an inscription in the book with her autograph which may or may not have been connected to a poem she dedicated to him. If a poem was written with Clay in mind, she did not acknowledge it in print. Instead, here is her poem "To One Who Wished to Read a Poem I Had Written":

Nay, read it not, thou wouldst not know
     What lives within my heart,
For from that fount it does not flow;
     'Tis but the voice of Art.

I could not bid my proud heart speak,
     Before the idle throng;
Rather in silence would it break
     With its full tide of Song.

Yes, rather would it break, than bare,
     To cold and careless eyes,
The hallowed dreams that linger there,
     The tears and agonies.

My lyre is skillful to repress
     Each deep, impassioned tone;
Its gushing springs of tenderness
     Would flow for one alone.

The rock, that to the parching sand
     Would yield no dewy drop,
Struck by the pilgrim prophet's wand,
     Gave all its treasures up.

My heart then, is my only lyre;
     The prophet hath not spoken,
Nor kindled its celestial fire;
     So, let its chords be broken.

I would not thou shouldst hear those lays,
     Though harsh they might not be;
Though thou, perchance, might'st hear and praise,
     They would not speak of me.

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