Genius, and other essays/Stoddard's Last Poem

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XIII

STODDARD'S LAST POEM[1]


THRENODY

Early or late, come when it will,
At midnight or at noon,
Promise of good, or threat of ill,
Death always comes too soon.
To the child who is too young to know,
(Pray heaven he never may!)
This life of ours is more than play,—
A debt contracted long ago
Which he perforce must pay;
And the man whose head is gray,
And sad, is fain to borrow.
Albeit with added pain and sorrow,
The comfort of delay;
Only let him live to-day—
There will be time to die to-morrow!
Now there is not an hour to spare,
Under the uncertain sky,
Save to pluck roses for the hair
Of the loving and the fair,
And the kisses following these,
Like a swarming hive of bees
That soar on high,
Till, drunken with their own sweet wine,
They fall and die.
When dear words have all been said
And bright eyes no longer shine
(Ah, not thine!)
Close these weary eyes of mine,
And bear me to the lonely bed
Where unhonored I shall lie,
While the tardy years go by,
Without question or reply
From the long-forgotten dead.

THIS threnody proved to be the swan-song of its author—of the old minstrel who in his springtime had made the early volumes of this magazine tuneful with a unique succession of ballads, songs, and graver poems. If, as Shelley says, "We begin in what we end," it is fitting that this poem, his wife's requiem and his own, should be enshrined in the first new number of a periodical in which his gift attained maturity and secured for him, notwithstanding the old-time rule of anonymity, a repute that justified his adoption of authorship as a profession.

The lyric now printed for the first time was the only one perfected from many broken cadences which came to him in the final year of his life. It was composed while his wife, Elizabeth Stoddard (older than himself), was plainly nearing her end. She died in her eightieth year, August 1, 1902: the eleventh day after the date affixed to the poem. Eleven months before, the wedded poets had lost their only son, Lorimer—author of poems, pictures, and successful dramas,—and Mr. Stoddard had borne up under the affliction less stoically than his wife; for a time seeming dazed, and having illusions that were intensified by his blindness and partial paralysis. During Mrs. Stoddard's fatal illness, his brain teemed with images and melodies which he could not get into form. The snatches of song, nevertheless, which were taken down imperfectly by his attendant, were quite as coherent as the thumb-nail sketches of an artist, or the first notes of a writer, and if the poet could have renewed his power of work but for an interval, beautiful results might have come from them.

As it was, under stress of an unusual excitement he ever had but one refuge—that of artistic expression. From an almost illegible note to me, dated, but not then delivered, "Sept. 3, 1902, circa 10:30," I can make out such bits as these: "I have done in the rough, since say July 6, some twenty or more poems, possibly . . . some good others bad. . . . But, no indeed, I think I have been an instrument with which unseen hands played their own tunes. I never made these things. . . . would be glad if I could. Puck and Ober have let loose in 15th Street, Liberty and Sag Harbor, and the pipers have been paid." One of these poems was this threnody, which seems to reveal an intensely poetic renascence of the lyrical quality and thought of a noble prime—which so few now living can recall to mind. Few indeed survive who knew him before the maladies which came upon him in middle age so told upon his spirits and bodily power. The lyric is given exactly according to a version which Mr. Stoddard managed to write for me with his own hand, except for some needful punctuation and indentation. I have resisted advice to separate its three natural strophes or divisions, feeling that his instinct was true in making it a continuous strain.

Of all poets of his time, Stoddard had most dwelt upon death,—striking its whole gamut, and not confining his song to the one topic which Poe declared to be above all "the most poetical in the world." Within the year his gifted and only surviving son had died in the hour of best achievement; his life-long companion, the one woman he had loved, was hastening to the grave; he confronted desolation, which could find "surcease" only through his own impending journey to "the hollow vale." The opening quatrain of the requiem is the sole verse which I recall that declares, with the compressed force of sternly simple diction, that at every age—even in extreme old age—"Death always comes too soon." The four lines are strong enough to carry the whole poem, and the eleven which follow do not lessen their effect. In the second division, commencing with "Now there is not an hour to spare," there is a poignant and momentary loss of hold; the poet's ear and fancy are lured by his own melody; his grief is lulled by vague yet exquisite wanderings of song. Then, recovering as if from a trance, he is brought back to his desolation, to acceptance of the irreparable and to a sense of his own approaching end. He strikes the key of hopeless resignation, and from the line "When dear words have all been said" to the close maintains it, albeit with an old man's mingling echoes of the measures which most affected him in youth. In fine, the GENIUS AND OTHER ESSAYS opening division of this sweet, sad monody was unmistakably his own—that of the man who always faced openly, but without appeal, a relentless fate or situation. None but himself could have written this lyric; as a whole its effect is synthetic, and indisputably that of his swan-song—not of a kind with Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar," or with the "Prospice" and "Epilogue" of Browning, but charged with the "ruling passion" of a poet who half a century before had sung:

There is but one great sorrow
All over the wide, wide world.

Putnam's Monthly, from the first, welcomed the young New York poet, and Stoddard well repaid its hospitality. He had previously, it is true, written much verse; had published and suppressed a booklet, and then made up a volume of poems full of promise, with open indebtedness to Keats, the idol of his formative period—as Shelley was of Bayard Taylor's. His contributions to the Monthly, however, were soon recognizable through a fresh and individual tone which was peculiar to his unstudied songs and sustained pieces, if not to his enforced journey work, through his after career. The series, which extended from March, 1853, to the number for November, 1856,—the last issue but one of the magazine,—embraced a full score of poems; so many and so good as to constitute their author, one may say, the laureate, certainly the chief minnesinger, of that eminently American periodical. Doubtless some of his songs were the more available for their brevity, but they also had the true lieder quality, the modern scarcity of which is now checking a custom of filling half-pages with the stanzas and sonnets at command. The poems, short and long, accepted from Stoddard by the Putnam editors appear to outnumber those of all the other contributors, and to hold their own in choice companionship. For it was in Putnam's that Longfellow's "Two Angels," "The Warden of the Cinque Ports," "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport," and that most haunting of his lyrics, "My Lost Youth," first appeared, not to mention three minor pieces. Bryant contributed his "Robert of Lincoln," and Lowell at least four characteristic poems; Bayard Taylor as many, equally good; Mrs. Stoddard, one of her earliest lyrics. I must not forget to mention the picturesque verse of Rose Terry, or the poems of a quaint singer, E. W. Ellsworth, which made us impatient of his reticence in after years. Aldrich probably was the youngest of all those who had the pleasure of seeing their measures on the fair pages of the Monthly; in his "Legend of Elsinore" can be found the dawning charm of his maturer genius and more fastidious art. Meanwhile a country boy, still under age, was surprised when certain stanzas entitled "Amavi," which he had mailed to Putnam's at a venture, were printed there in October, 1853, and was glad of the check earned by his first offer of a poem to any magazine. He still remembers just as vividly the delight given by Stoddard's lyrics, from the date of the appearance of a tiny avatar of the new mode—the little poem "At Rest," which made him eagerly read subsequent offerings by the same unmistakable hand. Among these were "The Shadow," and the most often quoted of the poet's shorter madrigals, "There are gains for all our losses," which bore in Putnam's the title of "Night and Morning." Its author's work culminated in Vol. VIII, 1856, with "The Fisher and Charon," a veritable masterpiece of blank-verse, to which many pages were not begrudged. I would ask any young writer to go back to this heroic idyl, and regard its human pathos, its calm imaginative progress, its stately diction, and mark what a structure its maker,—just escaped from apprenticeship in an iron-foundry,—built upon the stray text of a minor classic, infusing it, by intuition as sure as that of Keats, with the very soul of the antique. If this had been the handiwork of the author of "Sohrab and Rustum" and "Empedocles on Etna," or of Lowell—who had essayed the theme of "Rhœcus," undaunted by the finer classicism of Landor's "Hamadryad,"—it would have vastly impressed the down-east Areopagus to whose verdict alone (as Poe often complained) much deference was shown at that stage of our æsthetic development.

As it was, Ticknor and Fields in 1857 brought out an alluring volume, Songs of Summer, containing the whole series of Stoddard's Putnam contributions and thrice their number of additional poems. This collection, with Taylor's Songs of the Orient, Aldrich's new volumes, and the poems of others affiliated by instinct or association, were fresh with the ardor of a new clan, devoted to poetry for its own sake, to art and beauty and feeling; and this in no spirit of preciosity, but as a departure from—though not a revolt against—the moralizing and reformatory propaganda, howsoever great in purpose and achievement, of the venerated "elder bards."

  1. Putnam's Monthly and The Critic, October 1906.