June 2, 2014

Death of Alfred B. Street: life's last breath

New York poet Alfred B. Street died June 2, 1881 in Albany, New York. He was 69 years old. The Poughkeepsie born poet started his career as a lawyer and served as the state librarian in New York for over 30 years until his death. As many did in the period, he took a literary turn and began submitting to newspapers and magazines before publishing his first collection, The Burning of Schenectady and Other Poems, in 1842. Several works followed, and Street was particularly noted for his forest imagery and ample use of Native American legends and folklore.

Street was buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery, an early example of the American landscape or rural cemetery movement, and today a National Historic Landmark. Street had written a poem about that burial ground decades earlier:

When life's last breath has faintly ebbed away,
And naught is left but cold unconscious clay,
Still doth Affection bend in anguish deep,
O'er the pale brow, to fondly gaze and weep.
What though the soul hath soared in chainless flight;
Round the spurned frame still plays a sacred light,
A hallowed radiance never to depart,
Poured from its solemn source, the stricken heart.
Not to the air should then be given the dead,
Not to the flame, nor yet cold ocean's bed,
But to the earth, — the earth from whence it rose,
There should the frame be left to its repose.
There our great mother guards her holy trust,
Spreads her green mantle o'er the sleeping dust;
There glows the sunshine — there the branches wave,
And birds yield song, flowers fragrance round the grave.

There oft to hold communion do we stray,
There droops our mourning memory when away,
And e'en when years have passed, our homeward feet
Seek first with eager haste that spot to greet;
And the fond hope lives ever in our breast
When death, too, claims us, there our dust shall rest.

Street then describes and praises the interplay of the natural landscape of the cemetery with its solemn duty to house the dead. He imagines a man in mourning who visits a grave and is joined in sympathy with Nature itself. The smile of his dead infant is reflected by the flowers, its laugh echoed by the birds. The poem goes on:

Through these branched paths will Contemplation wind,
And stamp wise Nature's teachings on his mind;
As the white grave-stones glimmer to his eye,
A solemn voice will thrill him, "Thou must die;"
When Autumn's tints are glittering in the air,
That voice will whisper to his soul, "Prepare;"
When Winter's snows are spread o'er knoll and dell,
"Oh this is death," that solemn voice will swell;
But when with Spring, streams leap and blossoms wave,
"Hope, Christian, hope," 'twill say, "there's life beyond the grave."

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