December 17, 2014

Birth of Dawson: if my hand may hold the pen

Daniel L. Dawson was born in Lewiston, Pennsylvania on December 17, 1856. As an adult, he began contributing original poems to the Philadelphia-based Lippincott's Magazine; these contributions were eventually collected in The Seeker in the Marshes; and Other Poems (1893). Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, effused praise for the book, calling Dawson "one of the truest, most inevitable poets of this age. His poems are intensely lyrical and of permanent worth." He further compared him to Walt Whitman.

Much of his writing reflected his interest in mythology and folklore — to the chagrin of one reviewer for the Methodist Review, who accused Dawson of paganism and that paganism, in turn, was "fatal" to the creating of literature. The reviewer noted that the poet "had been intimate with various heathen divinities of doubtful reputation; but we judge from his poetry that he did not know Christ even when he saw him." Further, he said, if Dawson, a perpetual bachelor, was in any way comparable to Whitman, it was because both men had a similar "animality, not so healthy and well-kept."

Even so, Dawson was fairly prolific as a poet and, further, was extremely athletic, tall, and well-built — as one critic noted, "little looked the poet he was." One friend said he had never known a "manlier man" than Dawson. His poem "To-day and To-morrow" was, presumably, written about the time of his 30th birthday (he died at age 38):

Sometime when the sun is fair and warm
       And blue and bright on a summer's day,
That is, if I fall not in any harm,
       I shall write some things I have wished to say;
That is, if my hand may hold the pen,
I will say some things for the ears of men.

But I fear sometimes that a little pain
       Will come in this weary heart of mine;
Or peace like night on my tangled brain;
       Or the lungs cease drinking the air like wine,
And blood flow over these pallid lips
And cloud the life in a red eclipse.

For a score and ten are treble a score,
       The price we pay is dear for the years;
The wisdom that falls to thirty or more
       Is purchased by travail and change and tears;
We look and learn with larger scope,
But the price we pay for this is—hope.

And so would I fain myself deceive,
       As well as I may in my lonely room,
When the shadows are falling over the eve,
       And night is coming with cloud and gloom,
In hope that much is mine to say,
Though I know to-morrow is only to-day.

December 4, 2014

Sigourney: an ungathered sunbeam

For her latest book, Lydia Huntley Sigourney produced over 300 pages of poems and sketches about North America, from her native state of Connecticut to the Wyoming Territory. She poeticized historical or cultural objects or events, including the Washington Elm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bunker Hill, Plymouth Rock, and the Jamestown settlement. Her poems were set all over New England (where she spent much of her life) and even Niagara Falls. The book, then, lived up to its title, Scenes in My Native Land. In its final pages, dated December 4, 1844, from Hartford, Connecticut, she offered a conclusion:

And now, reader and friend, our hour of pleasant gossip is finished. We have said nothing of the pictured rocks, or the great western caverns, nor wandered together in spirit on the borders of our mighty lakes, or the shores of the " father of waters."

No. I have spoken only of such places as "keepers at home" may readily reach, and which probably you have yourself visited. Still it is as useful, and vastly more convenient, to admire objects near at hand than those far away; and on what the eye hath oft-times looked, we may still discover an unplucked flower, or an ungathered sunbeam, to cheer and to uplift the heart...

So now, reader and friend, unknown, perchance, but still a friend, Farewell. If it is morning with you, may the day be blessed and happy; and if it is evening,
                                                  "a fair good night,
              And pleasant dreams, and slumbers light."

The last words were a quote from Sir Walter Scott. Many of the poems in the collection are several pages long. Perhaps most appropriate here is a portion of her poem "The Snow-Storm" which, though without a specific location mentioned in the text, gives a fairly good image of New England:

How quietly the snow comes down,
        When all are fast asleep,
And plays a thousand fairy pranks
        O'er vale and mountain steep.
How cunningly it finds its way
        To every cranny small,
And creeps through even the slightest chink
        In window, or in wall.

To every noteless hill it brings
        A fairer, purer crest
Than the rich ermine robe that decks
        The haughtiest monarch's breast.
To every reaching spray it gives
        Whate'er its hand can hold —
A beauteous thing the snow is,
        To all, both young and old...

November 25, 2014

Death of B. P. Shillaber ("Mrs. Partington")

Benjamin Penhallow (B. P.) Shillaber died in Chelsea, Massachusetts on November 25, 1890, after a half a century in the world of publishing. The New Hampshire-born Shillaber began working at a printing office in his teen years. In 1847, he created what would become his most enduring work: the humorous persona of "Mrs. Partington." The character was inspired by English critic Sydney Smith, who had mentioned a character by that name attempting to mop up the Atlantic Ocean. Shillaber continued with that vein of ridiculous humor by introducing his character this way:

Mrs. Partington says that the price of bread may have advanced, but that she never pays more than fifty cents for half a dollar's worth.

These short, witty "epitaphs," often inspired by current events or concerns, became his hallmark. After several years working with Mrs. Partington at the Boston Post, Shillaber and Charles G. Halpine established their own humorous magazine, Carpet Bag, in 1852. Shillaber himself admitted the magazine "had more character than patronage" and it "died happily" about a year later. He took the opportunity, however, to publish a book, Life and Sayings of Mrs. Partington in 1854. By 1866, he was mostly retired and spent the rest of his life just outside Boston. Upon his death in 1890, newspapers reported of his unending cheerfulness, much like his work, and predicted that his Mrs. Partington character "will doubtless ever remain a unique figure in American humour."

Mrs. Partington's/Shillaber's commentaries included references to violinist Ole Bull, the opening of the new Boston Music Hall, the temperance movement, and more. Perhaps the best representation considering the time of year is this short one:

What kin is that which all Yankees love to recognize, and which always has sweet associations connected with it? Why, pump-kin, to be sure.

November 19, 2014

Favorite last words from poets

"Hand me my pantaloons, if you please."

These were the last recorded words of Connecticut-born poet Fitz-Greene Halleck before his death 147 years ago today on November 19, 1867.

In honor of those not-so-glamorous last words, here are a few of my other favorite last words of American writers highlighted on the blog (in no particular order):

"I want to go away."
—Ohio/NY poet Phoebe Cary (died February 12, 1871)

"All is perfect peace with me."
—Georgia poet Thomas Holley Chivers (died December 18, 1858)


"Take me away. Take me away."
—"Poet of the Sierras" Joaquin Miller (died February 17, 1913)


"Your kisses are always sweet to me."
—Painter/poet Thomas Buchanan Read (died May 11, 1872)

"Beautiful!"
—New Hampshire poet Samuel Burnham (died June 22, 1873)

"Moose... Indian."
—Massachusetts writer Henry David Thoreau (died May 6, 1862)
*Note: The above was a guest post by historian Richard Smith

"In spite of it all, I am going to sleep; put out the lights."
—"Bad Boy" and poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich (May 19, 1907)

November 12, 2014

Harris: under the spell of the old town

The people of Eatonton, Georgia were proud of their native son, Joel Chandler Harris, as he rose to literary fame. Best known for his Uncle Remus tales, Harris was then living in Atlanta, in a home he called Wren's Nest. He was some 80 miles from the town of his birth — not so very far, which made it so hard for him to turn down an offer to return to Eatonton. In a letter dated November 12, 1901, he wrote:

I have delayed answering your letter hoping to see my way clear to accepting the invitation which you were kind enough to send me, and which I assure you is very highly appreciated. Though I have been away so many years, I still feel that Eatonton is my home and the people there my best friends. I love them all, so much so that I have never written anything to be published in book form that I did not ask myself if there could be anything in it which my friends there would not approve. Thus, in a way, they have been my most helpful critics. I thank you heartily for the invitation and regret that a pressure of work will prevent me from accepting.

Harris was then working on what would become Gabriel Tolliver, a book which he dedicated to his friend James Whitcomb Riley. He also admitted to Riley that he had allowed the interest of his characters to overshadow the story. Even so, the book was set in Shady Dale, a fictionalized version of Eatonton, which served as an equally important character in Harris's writings.

The book begins not unlike the invitation he received in 1901: "Cephas! here is a letter for you, and it is from Shady Dale! I know you will be happy now." The narrative voice then admits that he far too often spoke of the town of his youth, that his recollections of Shady Dale were "coloured" and that he saw the people only through his "boyhood-eyes." The other character in that opening, Sophia, warns Cephas that if he were to go back, he'd learn they weren't so different from everyone else after all. "This was absurd, of course—or, rather, it would have been absurd for any one else to make the suggestion; for at that particular time, Sophia was a trifle jealous of Shady Dale and its people."

From Gabriel Tolliver's chapter "A Town with a History":

Before, during, and after the war, Shady Dale presented always the same aspect of serene repose. It was, as you may say, a town with a history. Then, as now, there were towns all about that had no such fortunate appendage behind them to explain their origin... Shady Dale is no city, and it may be that its public spirited citizens stretch the meaning of the term when they call it a town. Nevertheless, the community has a well-defined history...

But to set forth its origin is not to describe its beauty, which is of a character that refuses to submit to description... You are inevitably impressed with a sense of the attractiveness of the place; you fall under the spell of the old town... And yet if you were called upon to define the nature of the spell, what could you say? What name could you give to the tremulous beauty that hovers about and around the place, when the fresh green leaves of the great trees are fluttering in the cool wind, and everything is touched and illumined by the tender colours of spring? Under what heading in the catalogue of things would you place the vivid richness which animates the town and the landscape all around when the summer is at its height? And how could you describe the harmony that time has brought about between the fine, old houses and the setting in which they are grouped?

All these things are elusive; they make themselves keenly felt, but they do not lend themselves to analysis.

November 3, 2014

Death of George Arnold: a wasted life

Though scarcely remembered today, the poet George Arnold was mourned by many when he died on November 3, 1865. A contributor to magazines like Vanity Fair, Arnold often wrote under the pseudonym "McArone," with works that crossed a variety of styles and genres but, mostly, he was a humorist.

When he died at age 31, those who remembered him included the group that frequent Pfaff's, a bar in Manhattan known for its Bohemian clientele of artists and writers. For that group, he allegedly first presented one of his most anthologized poems, an ode to beer. One of those who frequented the establishment was Walt Whitman, who once scuffled with Arnold over the question of the Confederacy. One account says their debate grew so heated, Arnold (who supported the secession of the Southern states) assaulted Whitman by grabbing him by the hair. In Whitman's own account, it was merely a loud argument, which resulted in the elder poet's leaving the building.

Another of those who met him at Pfaff's was artist/poet Elihu Vedder. Many years after Arnold's death, Vedder recalled, "He died young; I do not know of what he died, but he seemed to be worn out even when I first met him... He thought his life a wasted life; it was with him a gorgeous romance of youthful despair; but into that grave went a tender charm, great talent, and great weakness."

Also among the Pfaff's crowd was William Winter, who elsewhere recalled Arnold's time in the established: "[He was] one of the sweetest poets in our country who have sung the beauties of Nature and the tenderness of true love; and he never came without bringing sunshine." Winter collected Arnold's poems and published them with a biography. Editor/critic/author Edmund Clarence Stedman memorialized Arnold in verse not long after his burial at Greenwood Cemetery in Trenton, New Jersey. More appropriate than Stedman's poem, however, is Arnold's own, "The Lees of Life":

   I have had my will,
Tasted every pleasure;
   I have drank my fill
Of the purple measure;
   It has lost its zest,
   Sorrow is my guest,
O, the lees are bitter, — bitter, —
   Give me rest!

   Love once filled the bowl
Running o'er with blisses,
   Made my very soul
Drunk with crimson kisses;
   But I drank it dry,
   Love has passed me by,
O, the lees are bitter, — bitter, —
   Let me die!

*Note: At least one source gives the date of Arnold's death as November 9.

October 10, 2014

Chivers: Love, Joy, and Grief

Thomas Holley Chivers knew about love, joy, and grief. The Georgian poet had experienced a troubled life but took great joy in his family, including his parents and siblings, as well as his children. His children, however, all died young, and his first marriage proved disastrous. By October 10, 1839, he knew enough about love, joy, and grief to write a poem appropriately called "The Poetry of Love, Joy, and Grief":

To hang upon his breast by day.
   To lie close by his side by night;
To heed whatever he may say,
   And do it with as fond delight;
To make each thought of him thy sigh,
   To love him more than God above,
And think that he can never die—
   This is the Poetry of Love.

To think him, absent, by thy side-
   Whatever he may do is right;
To love him as when first his bride,
   And think each one thy bridal night;
To live through life unchanged in years.
   With love that time cannot destroy,
And have each thought expressed in tears—
   This is the Poetry of Joy.

To sit down by his dying bed,
   To count each pulse—to feel each pain—
To love him after he is dead,
   And nevermore to smile again;
To love him after as before—
   To find his grave thy sole relief—.
And weep for him forever more—
   This is the Poetry of Grief. 

The poem, written in the perspective of a woman, may also have been a somewhat passive-aggressive reference to his first wife, who had left him not long after their marriage. Or, perhaps, it was more referential to his second wife, who he had married not long before writing the poem. The theme of death or dying was fairly typical for Chivers's poetry. "The Poetry of Love, Joy, and Grief" was included in his self-published collection The Lost Pleiad in 1845.