March 4, 2014

Harte on King: a star was falling

Thomas Starr King had been preaching in San Francisco, California, only for about four years before he died on March 4, 1864. A dynamic character, he was as influential in the pulpit as he was at more secular podiums. One of the many affected by King's death at age 39 was author Bret Harte who, like King, was born in New York state before making his way to California. Harte dedicated a poem to King as an obituary which he called "Relieving Guard":

Came the relief. "What, sentry, ho!
How passed the night through thy long waking?"
"Cold, cheerless, dark, — as may befit
The hour before the dawn is breaking."

"No sight? no sound?" "No; nothing save
The plover from the marshes calling,
And in yon western sky, about
An hour ago, a star was falling."

"A star? There's nothing strange in that."
"No, nothing; but above the thicket,
Somehow it seemed to me that God
Somewhere had just relieved a picket." 

Harte purposely used military imagery in honoring this minister, in part because King had involved himself heavily in politics, urging Californians to stay with the Union. The title, "Relieving Guard," helps make the connection between the role of a soldier and the role of a minister, as well. Moreover, the poem's simplicity belies the complexity in its imagery. In its three stanzas, we see no direct reference to King, and neither do the two soldiers who are talking. Yet, somehow one of the soldiers knows that the seemingly natural phenomenon he has witness has a greater meaning. We never hear the other soldier's reaction.

Harte had known King personally, considering him a mentor of sorts, and was even aware of his illness — diphtheria — without apparently knowing how serious it was. King had worked nonstop for years and the strain only aggravated his condition. Among his last words were Psalm 23, "Yea, though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I shall fear no evil." He was buried with a military guard. Harte would write two more poems to King and name a son after him.

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