Forceythe Willson

AT Laurel, a small town on the Whitewater River, in Southeastern Indiana, in a little ill-kept grave-yard overlooking the town itself, I found, one morning of last September, two graves lying side by side. Upon the round-topped marble head-stone over one of them I read the inscription, “ Byron Forceythe Willson. Born in Little Genesee, N. Y., April 10, 1837. Died in Alfred, N. Y., Feb’y 2, 1867; ” and on a small obelisk of white marble which marked the other, “Elizabeth Conwell Willson. Born June 26, 1842. Died October 13, 1864.” These graves of a husband and wife are at the northeastern corner of the burialground, just where it slopes steeply to a public road; below, for several miles northward are seen the level cornfields and orchards of the Whitewater Valley — one of the loveliest valleys in the middle West — with the long-disused Whitewater Canal (whose channel serves the purpose of a mill-race) passing through its centre from north to south, the Whitewater Valley Railroad closely following the course of the old canal, and, shimmering here and there beyond these, the Whitewater River. Pastoral upland slopes and wooded hills are the bounds of the landscape. Less than two hundred yards eastward from the graveyard, and somewhat nearer the town of Laurel, is one of those pretty, mysterious, ancient mounds so frequent throughout this region. A large weeping-willow tree planted upon the top of an old grave, a few feet distant, throws its shadow during the forenoon upon the two later ones. These graves have a lovely situation, but the casual passerby would not suspect that in them two poets were sleeping : one the gentle and youthful wife, whose record in literature is slight if indeed recognizable (yet her gift was a genuine one, beautiful and delicate, born with her in the little town of Laurel, and she was more truly a poet than many whose names have grown familiar in collections and biographies) ; the other, the husband, far the most remarkable, it seems to me, of American poets to whom it has yet been fated, dying young, to leave but an earnest of accomplishment. The wife’s grave, I may add, is also

— “ the grave of a little child,
That died upon life’s threshold,
And never wept nor smiled.”

Comparatively few, I dare say, among the current readers of The Atlantic Monthly will remember very distinctly to have met with the name of Forceythe Willson. Yet less than ten years ago he was an occasional contributor to its pages. Within that period, too, one of his poems has been read, in the course of a lecture, to large audiences in our principal cities, by one of the most admired and popular of American authors, himself a poet; the same piece and one or two others by the same hand have been pronounced by another, one of our greatest thinkers and writers, among the most remarkable poems yet produced in America; seven years ago a volume of Willson’s poetry was published; in the recent revised edition of Griswold’s Poets and Poetry of America, Mr. R. H. Stoddard, its editor, has given him a narrow room with the fifteen or twenty poets who have appeared in American literature during the last score of years; and he occupies a certain space on the diversified slopes of Mr. Emerson’s Parnassus, where he is rather needlessly described as a young poet of Wisconsin.

The small, one-roomed log-house at Little Genesee, in which Forceythe Willson 1 was born, was yet standing four years ago. Little Genesee, a village of Alleghany County in Western New York, is situated upon Genesee Creek, which, flowing into the Osway near the confluence of the latter with the Alleghany, is therefore a remote northeastern tributary of the Ohio. Upon the banks of this stream Forceythe’s father, Hiram Willson, a native of Vermont, was engaged in the lumber business, having a saw-mill there. The mill-pond above was blackened by overlooking pines, with which, together with hemlocks, this wild, hilly, and romantic region was thickly wooded. “Rock City, " a group of immense rocks upon the very summit of a small mountain, which is geologically noted, and often visited by parties of scientific men, is in sight of the poets’ birthplace. That he remembered fondly his birthplace and its surroundings is indicated by some of his latest writings: here, for instance, is an extract, in irregular blank verses, from an unpublished piece entitled The Old House of the Knoll— a sort of eclogue, in which himself and his wife, apparently, are represented visiting the old ruined house: —

“ In the fair evening valley we descend :
There is a bold bare hill,
And, in the deepening shadow at its base,
The quiet village with its single spire ;
And through the village, like some lone Indian girl,
With soft soliloquy steals the valley stream.
There, farther down the valley, glimmers a white
farm-house by the road,
And, just beyond a belt of dark pine woods,
The mill-pond and the mill, the orchard and the mead.
And there, too, is the Old House of the Knoll,
All open-roomed, with door and wall agape,
With gap of gable and with rent of roof,
The chimney gone —whose landlord is the bat ! ”

Mr. Willson, the father, was a man of strong physical and mental character, of strict integrity, a great reader of the best books in the English language, and a believer in and promoter of liberal education of a wholesome and practical kind. He was postmaster at Little Genesee under Jackson (an early democrat, he was also an early though moderate abolitionist), and served as superintendent of common schools in Alleghany County for several years, I am told. He was a man accustomed to think for himself, and was in religious faith a Unitarian. The poet’s mother, Ann Calvin Ennis, a native of Rhode Island, was a woman of quiet, gentle manners and lovable character, patient and careful in all her duties of mother and wife. She belonged to the sect of SeventhDay Baptists. Forceythe doubtless inherited somewhat of his deep religious element from both father and mother, who had both been teachers and were accustomed to instruct their children at home, previous to sending them elsewhere to school. When he was about nine years of age his father emigrated with his family westward, descending the Alleghany and Ohio rivers in primitive fashion upon a raft of lumber (the easiest and most practicable conveyance at that time), with a little cabin built upon the centre for temporary dwelling, and landed at Maysville, Kentucky, where they remained but a year, going thence to Covington, opposite Cincinnati. Here they lived for about six years, during which Mr. Willson, the father, was chiefly instrumental in establishing an excellent system of common schools at Covington, by which he is still remembered in that city. Forceythe had his first school education there and at Maysville. In 1852 the family was again removed, this time to New Albany, Indiana, where the father continued his business as a lumber merchant, and, dying in 1859, left a comfortable fortune to his children — eight in all, of whom four were then living, Forceythe being the eldest, and remaining guardian and protector of the rest. The mother had died in 1856.

Willson spent upwards of a year at Antioch College, in Ohio, then under the supervision of the well-known Horace Mann, going afterwards to Harvard. He was compelled to leave college, however, in his Sophomore or Junior year, because of a serious attack of consumption. He returned home to New Albany, expecting to die, his physicians having pronounced him in the last stages of the disease; but after more than a year’s patient and careful treatment, during which he devoted himself to a study of his body and fought the enemy within with heroic persistence (much as he describes himself in single combat with Death in a poem I shall hereafter quote), he at length apparently recovered. It may here be observed that as a boy Forceythe was singularly fond of the roughest out-ofdoor sports; to the last, in company with his peculiar spiritual belief, he liked what is called “muscle,” both in life and in literature. From his early youth he was a great lover of Nature, a constant reader of her open book; and to this love and study, as well as to the long, courageous effort for the recovery of his health and strength, may be attributed his habit, for many years, of spending several hours each day through all weathers, by day-time and nighttime, in solitary walks.

About the year 1858 there was a “spiritual excitement” at New Albany, which interested and impressed Forceythe greatly, it seems. He set himself earnestly to study the matter. At first he became partially converted, I believe, and was for a time what is called a medium. This was during the lifetime of his father, who, very skeptical of the so-called “ spiritual manifestations,” was yet also deeply interested in them, devoting considerable time and care to their investigation. Forceythe, however, soon abandoned the professors, but retained until his death a serious spiritual theory or faith of his own. He believed — and he was absolutely honest and sincere, I am sure, in his faith — that the spirits of the dead could and at times do have communication with the living. At one time, in his little hermit parlor or study at New Albany, while speaking of this spiritual belief, he told me of an interview he had with his father’s spirit in that room: “ I was sitting in this chair, as I am now,” he said, “ awake, just as I am now, when I heard my father’s voice, speaking behind me. I was not startled, but I doubted if it were not a delusion, and asked him, ‘ How shall I know certainly that it is you, father?’ Then he came up behind me, and, as was a familiar custom with him, placed his hands in this way” — he showed me by his gesture the manner in which it was done—“ upon my head,” This seemed to have convinced him; but I could not help thinking it might readily have been explained as a dream. Besides this spiritual belief he was long before held to possess a peculiar faculty or sense by which he could, for example, tell the contents of a scaled letter, with the sex, age, character, and in a few instances even the name, of its writer, without any previous knowledge, by pressing the letter unseen to his forehead. His father tried him on one occasion with an official letter received some years previously from Washington, when he gave accurately all its contents, with the writer’s character and name. It was from John C. Calhoun. I know that Willson believed himself possessed of a certain clairvoyant power.

I received a friendly note from him, a few months after our first acquaintance, asking me to visit him at New Albany. At this time, in the autumn of 1860, he was living, as I have already suggested, like a literary hermit in a little house by himself, surrounded with books and the tasteful equipments of a student, and when I called, a day or two later, he read to me several of his poems; one was The Mystic Thought, since published in his volume; it has reference, I presume, to the coming of a poetic conception, which Dr. Holmes has otherwise pleasantly described in one of his Breakfast Table discourses. The poem was afterwards printed in The Louisville Journal, in which during two or three years previous Willson had been publishing occasional verses. These early pieces were peculiar in tone and incoherent in manner, giving him some local reputation for eccentricity. But this eccentricity did not manifest itself outside of his writings. He was, as he remained, quiet, reserved, and gentle in his conversation, simple but always elegant in dress, and with a grave courtesy and dignity of manner. He lived generally the life of an earnest student, jealously secluded except to a very few friends, but with a disposition to the society of cultivated ladies. About the time I first knew him he found his social recreation chiefly at the houses of one or two of the leading families in Louisville society, by whom he was highly esteemed and respected.

Soon after the Southern Rebellion began, Willson interested himself actively in the war politics, writing editorials of considerable vigor for The Louisville Journal in support of the Union cause in Kentucky. His father had for many years believed emancipation with compensation to slave owners the proper course of abolitionism, and doubtless Forceythe was in theory also an abolitionist; yet he naturally found it easy to approve the position of Kentucky neutrality, which perhaps was temporarily wise enough, it being the only foothold then possible in Kentucky against direct secession. At this time he wrote the first part of his curious poem entitled In State, which he finished two or three years afterwards, and other minor pieces referring to the war.

The Old Sergeant, the first poem that gave Willson anything like popular recognition, was published January 1, 1863, as The Carrier’s New Year Address of The Louisville Journal. It is, I believe, the transcript of a real history, none of the names in it being fictitious, and the story being reported as exactly as possible from the lips of a Federal assistantsurgeon named Austin, with whom Willson was acquainted at New Albany. He had a certain reluctance, I do not know why, to admit his authorship of this poem; although he had read to me one evening in the September previous, the last time I saw him at New Albany, several poems produced about the same time, and never seemed loath to communicate them to me, yet when I happened to refer to this one in a letter about a year after its first appearance, and told him of its effect upon certain persons who had read or heard it read in my company, he answered, “You speak of a production, The Old Sergeant, assuming it to be mine, and say — wept over it. So did I.” He afterwards sent me a copy of it, however, privately printed, bound in light blue boards, the title red-lettered in a plain ground of white upon the sidecover, so that it presented the Old Sergeant in his proper patriotic colors. Many persons who read the anonymous poem were strongly interested in it ; among them, I have understood, President Lincoln. Dr. O. W. Holmes had his attention called to it, and subsequently read it to many audiences in the course of a lecture on The Poetry of the War. He has given testimony of its strong effect upon an audience, and has compared it in engrossing interest for the reader to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. As this may be admitted to be Willson’s representative production, and as it may not be entirely familiar, it will perhaps be well to present it here entire, omitting the introductory words of the carrier, in which he gives the piece temporary atmosphere and locality, saying that —

“ The same awful and portentous Shadow
That overcast the earth,
And smote the land last year with desolation,
Still darkens every hearth ”

(for it was a very gloomy New Year), and adding, of his sorrowful holiday ballad, the song was the carrier’s —

“ But not so with the story ;
For the story, you must know,
Was told in prose to Assistant-Surgeon Austin,
By a soldier of Shiloh :
“ By Robert Burton, who was brought up on the Adams,
With his death-wound in his side ;
And who told the story to the Assistant-Surgeon,
On the same night that he died.”

This puts us, with the Surgeon, at the bedside of the Old Sergeant.

“'Come a little nearer, Doctor, — thank you, —let me take the cup :
Draw your chair up, — draw it closer, — just another little sup !
Maybe you may think I’m better; but I’m pretty well used up,—
Doctor, you 've doue all you could do, but I'm just a-going up !
“ ‘Feel my pulse, sir, if you want to, but it an’t much use to try ’ —
' Never say that,’ said the Surgeon, as he smothered down a sigh ;
' It will never do, old comrade, for a soldier to say die ! '
What you say will make no difference, Doctor, when you come to die.
“ ‘ Doctor, what has been the matter ? ’ ‘You were very faint, they say ;
You must try to get to sleep now.’ ‘ Doctor, have I been away ? '
‘Not that anybody knows of!’ ‘Doctor — Doctor, please to stay !
There is something I must tell you, and you won’t have long to stay !
“ ‘ I have got my marching orders, and I’m ready now to go;
Doctor, did you say I fainted ?— but it couldn't ha’ been so, —
For as sure as I'm a Sergeant, and was wounded at Shiloh,
I ’ve this very night been back there, on the old field of Shiloh!
“ ' This is all that I remember : The last time the Lighter came,
And the lights had all been lowered, and the noises much the same,
He had not been gone five minutes before something called my name:
“ ORDERLY SERGEANT &EMDASH; ROBERT BURTON ! ” — just that way it called my name.
“ ' And I wondered who could call me so distinctly and so slow,
Knew it could n't be the Lighter, — he could not have spoken so ;
And I tried to answer, “ Here,sir! ” but I could n’t make it go ;
For I could n’t move a muscle, and I couldn't make it go!
“‘Then I thought: It’s all a nightmare, all a humbug and a bore ;
Just another foolish grape-vine2 — and it won’t come any more;
But it come, sir, notwithstanding, just the same way as before :
“ORDERLY SERGEANT &EMDASH; ROBERT BURTON!” even plainer than before.
“ ‘ That is all that I remember, till a sudden burst of light,
And I stood beside the River, where we stood that Sunday night,
Waiting to be ferried over to the dark bluffs opposite,
When the river was perdition and all hell was opposite!
“ ‘ And the same old palpitation came again in all its power,
And I heard a Bugle sounding, as from some celestial Tower;
And the same mysterious voice said : “ IT IS THE ELEVENTH HOUR !<BR/> ORDERLY SERGEANT &EMDASH; ROBERT BURTON &EMDASH; IT is THE ELEVENTH HOUR ! ”
“‘Doctor Austin ! — what day is this?’ ‘It is Wednesday night, you know.’
' Yes,— to-morrow will be New Year’s, and a right good time below !
What time is it, Doctor Austin?’ ‘Nearly Twelve.’ ‘ Then don’t you go!
Can it be that all this happened —all this — not an hour ago !
“ ‘ There was where tho gun-boats opened on the dark, rebellious host ;
And where Webster semicircled his last guns upon the coast;
There were still the two log-houses, just the same, or else their ghost, —
And the same old transport came and took me over— or its ghost !
“ ‘ And the old field lay before me all deserted far and wide ;
There was where they fell on Prentiss, — there McClernand met the tide;
There was where stern Sherman rallied, and where Hurlbut’s heroes died, —
Lower down, where Wallace charged them, and kept charging till he died.
“' There was where Lew Wallace showed them he was of the canny kin,
There was where old Nelson thundered, and where Rousseau waded in ;
There McCook sent 'em to breakfast, and we all began to win —
There was where the grape-shot took me, just as we began to win.
“ ‘ Now, a shroud of snow and silence over everything was spread ;
And but for this old blue mantle and the old hat on my head,
I should not have even doubted, to this moment, I was dead, —
For my footsteps were as silent as the snow upon the dead !
‘“Death and silence! — Death and silence ! all around me an I sped !
And behold, a mighty TOWER, as if builded to the dead, —
To the Heaven of the heavens, lifted up its mighty head,
Till the Stars and Stripes of Heaven all seemed waving from its head!
“‘Round and mighty-based it towered —up into the infinite —
And I knew no mortal mason could have built a shaft so bright;
For it shone like solid sunshine ; and a winding stair of light,
Wound around it and around it till it wound clear out of sight!
“‘And, behold, as I approached it —with a rapt and dazzled stare,—
Thinking that I saw old comrades just ascending the great Stair,—
Suddenly the solemn challenge broke of — “ Halt, and who goes there! ”
“ I’m a friend,” I said, “if you are.” —“Then advance, sir, to the Stair ! ”
“‘I advanced!—That sentry, Doctor, was Elijah Ballantyne ! —
First of all to fall on Monday, after we had formed the line:
“ Welcome, my old Sergeant, welcome ! Welcome by that countersign ! ”
And he pointed to the scar there, under this old cloak of mine!
“ ‘ As he grasped my hand, I shuddered, thinking only of the grave ;
But he smiled and pointed upward with a bright and bloodless glaive:
“ That’s the way, sir, to Head-quarters.” “ What Head-quarters! ” — “ Of the Brave.”
“ But the great Tower?” —“That,” he answered, “ Is the way, sir, of the Brave! ”
“ ' Then a sudden shame came o'er me at his uniform of light;
At my own so old and tattered, and at his so new and bright;
“ Ah!” said he, “you have forgotten the NewUniform to-night,—
Hurry back, for you must be here at just twelve o'clock to-night! ”
“ ' And the next thing I remember, you were sitting there, and I —
Doctor —did you hear a footstep? Hark! — God bless you all! Good-by !
Doctor, please to give my musket and my knapsack, when I die,
To my Son — my Son that ’s coming,—he won't get here till I die !
“ ‘ Tell him his old father blessed him as he never did before,—
And to carry that old musket' — Hark ! a knock is at the door! —
‘Till the Union ' — See! it opens! — ‘Father! Father ! speak once more ! ' —
Bless you!' ’ — gasped the old, gray Sergeant, and he lay and said no more.”

The poet has allowed the “ venerable comrade ” to tell his own story, and he has let him choose his own words, not forbidding the army slang, which takes pathetic dignity from his lips. The old man’s dream or vision is reported in full, with its wonderful realistic detail; its extravagance impresses us as the dream itself would; we do not mark it until we are removed from the dream and come to analyze its flying gossamer threads. It is so simply touching, and so true to physical and spiritual facts, to historical scenes and events. The battle of Shiloh should live long upon the dying lips of the Old Sergeant. That the poem has many faults I do not deny, but the entire impression permits one to forget them; the parts, as we read, are lost in the whole. It has something of Poe’s rhythmic effects and repetitions of similar rhymes. Poe, I am sure, was one of Willson’s early favorite poets, and his influence is elsewhere felt. Yet the simple, manly vigor observable in The Old Sergeant is beyond anything Poe produced.

In the autumn of 1863 Willson married Elizabeth Con well Smith, a young lady whom he had met during the year preceding, at New Albany, where she had been attending a female academy or college. Early the next year (chiefly for the purpose of caring for a younger brother in Harvard College) Willson with his wife removed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, purchasing a pleasant old mansion on the Mount Auburn road, near Mr. Lowell’s, and looking out upon the Charles River. “ He came among us,” wrote Dr. Holmes, after Willson’s death, “ as softly and silently as a bird drops into his nest. His Striking personal appearance had attracted the attention of the scholars and poets who were his neighbors, long before they heard his name or condition. It was impossible to pass without noticing the tall and dark young man with long, Curled locks and large, dreamy, almond-shaped eyes, who was often seen walking along the road that leads from the village of Old Cambridge to Mount Auburn.” How singularly and proudly loath to seek the acquaintance of men he had long admired in their writings he seemed! He remained unknown and unknowing, at their doors almost, for nearly two years, before Dr. Holmes finally discovered him, after writing repeated letters to persons far off, in order that he might find out the author of The Old Sergeant, whose home was visible, as he at last learned, from his own parlor window!

Willson lived at Cambridge, except for brief intervals of absence, until the latter months of 1866. In the fall of 1864, however, his young wife, who had long been in delicate health, died. She was a woman of very lovely and gentle character, with a poetical gift of much sweetness and tenderness, which did not attain maturity of expression. Her husband, a year or two after her death, privately printed a little volume of her poetical writings. Her best quality shows itself in occasional lines and phrases, rather than in entire pieces. Here is perhaps the best one; it is printed first in the little volume, and it indicates at least her sweetness and delicacy of feeling : —

THE MAGIC PITCHER.

I know an ancient story of a maid
Who broke her golden pitcher at the well,
And wept therefor; when came a voice that said,
“ Peace, sorrowing child ; behold the magic spell
Wherewith I make thy loss a certain gain! ”
Then through her tears she saw a shape of light
Before her ; and a lily, wet with rain
Or dew, was in his hands, —all snowy white.
Then stood the maiden hushed in sweet surprise,
And with her closped hands held her heart-throbs down,
Beneath the wondrous brightness of his eyes
Whose smile seemed to enwreathe her like a crown.
He raised no wand ; he gave no strange commands;
But touched her eyes with tender touch and light,
With charmed lips kissed apart her folded hands,
And laid therein the lily, snowy white.
Then, as the south wind breathes in summer lands,
He breathed upon the lily-bloom ; and lo !
Its curling leaves expanded in her hands,
And shaped a magic pitcher, white as snow,
Gemmed with the living jewels of the dew,
And brimmed with overflows of running light.
Then came the voice, the mystic voice she knew :
“ Drink of the lily waters, pure and bright,
“ Thou little maiden by the well,” it said,
“ And give, to all who thirst, the waters cool;
So shall thy grieving heart be comforted;
So shall thy pitcher evermore be full! ”
Then, as the sunlight fades in twilight wood,
He faded in the magic of the spell;
While, mute with joy, the little maiden stood,
Clasping her magic pitcher by the well.

Willson was very tenderly attached to his wife, yet he did not seem to grieve for her in the ordinary way; speaking of her he used the most cheerful language. His spiritual or religious faith, which has been spoken of, made it possible for him to write of her death, “It has neither left me afflicted nor bereaved. . . . And strangest yet of all, the blessed Presence is at times so plain and real to me that I scarcely can believe the tender tie of her embodiment is broken.” A friend, to whom he communicated the fact of his wife’s death by inclosing a few printed words regarding it, wrote, expressing his sympathy, and spoke of the quick grief of a third person to whom Mrs. Willson had been strongly attached in the latter’s girlhood, when Willson answered in these words, which, with the extract made above, it may not seem improper to repeat, since all these things are found, mystically veiled, in his published poems, and their sacredness is spoken over the graves of both husband and wife: “ Tell— not to grieve for . . . Tell her it seems to me no human soul can ever have gone forth more sweetly, solemnly, and happily, into the Heaven of Heavens. She was, perhaps, as near as any soul on earth can be, the pure and simple truth. . . . Does she come back to me ? Most certainly, most certainly, she does. She floats into the room — distinct and sweet — so wondrous lovely that she almost seems the living smile of God. How can I mourn, that scarcely am bereaved ? . . . No, I am girded strong; she consecrates my life, and leads me on — a gladness and glory in my path.” Then he went on to speak courage and simple worldly cheer to his friend.

The last time I saw Willson was in the summer of 1866, at Washington. He came on some business connected with his father’s estate, of which he was, I believe, a wise, careful, and certainly unselfish manager. I passed an evening with him at his hotel, where he read to me nearly all of his lesser poems, also The Rhyme of the Master’s Mate, published in his volume issued at Boston late in the autumn of the same year; he had the poems with him in proofsheets. Among other pieces read by him then was the one following, which struck me with its peculiar weirdness and power. Perhaps it is intended to describe the struggle which all must have in some way or other, whether or not they overcome it, with the physical horror of death. It pictures an obstinate wrestle with that skeleton in every man’s house. How full it is of ghastly reality, how terribly vivid in detail! It impresses one like the nightmare, which Death is to us often, —

“ The Nightmare Death-in-Life . . .
That thicks man’s blood with cold.”

But it ends with triumph, peace, and faith: —

THE ENEMY

It was the dead
Of the long, long dark night,
And in my silent chamber the dim light
A pallid lustre shed.
Then with more care
Than is my wont withal,
I wended down the staircase, through the hall,
Into the open air,
And walked apart,
To feel the midnight spell;
And see if aught perchance there were not well,
Around my house and heart.
But by and by,
While yet I paced the court, —
As might the sentry of some sleeping fort, —
I heard a sudden cry.
And well aware
The Wolf was in the fold,
I sprang into my chamber: and behold,
Mine Enemy was there !
Dark eidolon !
As still as Death — agape,
Stretched at full length mid-floor, there was a Shape,
Which the lump glared upon.
But, at the touch,
As I strode on him right,
Lo, he was standing all at once his height,
And I was in his clutch !
On the bare bone
Did seem to shift and slide
The serpent-supple skin ; and the ribbed side
Did grate against my own.
Each eye of flame
Glared as from some deep delf ;
And he did cleave as if to crush himself
Into this mortal frame.
And I, to check,
Could then but straightway cast
Around his bony shoulders, and make fast
Uuto his gaunt crook-neck.
And a strange strength
Did suddenly involve
And string my sinews with seven-fold resolve —
To conquer him at length !
But his close fold
He tightened ; and did make
Fierce and terrific writhings, as to break
Mine unrelinquished hold.
But at its worth,
I clave to mine intent;
And at the first faint sign that he was spent,
Did straightway drag him forth.
God give us grace !
Forthwith each bony beak
Of his gaunt chin, and jaw, and hollow cheek,
Were thrust into my face !
But as before,
Was strength vouchsafed to check, —
And vantage still, by chance of his death’s-neck,
To hale him down to door.
Then he did strain
His last; and in the wrench,
Off brake the skull-head to its socket’s clench !
I hurled it forth amain!
And it did bowl
And bump the curb ! and sheer,
The Headless headlong, down did disappear ! —
And Peace came to my Soul!
And naught could chafe
Or chide me as I knelt
Beside my glimmering couch, at length, and felt
That my Beloved were safe.
And at first beam
Of morn without, did dawn
A Sunrise in my senses : the foregone
Had vanished like a dream.
Then I did sing :
“ Love, thou hast strength to save !
Hosanna, Lord! Where is thy victory, Grave ?
O Death, where is thy sting ? ”

I suppose this poem had some reference to Willson’s first realization of his wife’s approaching death, as it occurs in his book among a collection of pieces having reference to her, entitled The Poet’s Epilogue. Doubtless it may seem repulsive; but nothing is more repulsive than Death as he is commonly personified and pictured. Here he is brought before us in that form of a physical terror — the ghastly usurper and determined tenant of a house. And by main force he is grappled with persistently, cast out, and overthrown. The literal conquest in this piece, however, may be said to be rather overdone; in one of the stanzas, toward the close, the poor skeleton is dealt with too roughly, and so as to create almost a ludicrous effect.

On the day following, after promising to meet me in the evening, Willson was called suddenly away. I never met him again.

In November, 1866, the little volume of his poems was published. I believe it did not make a very decided popular impression. It was, for the most part, a book for the very few; The Old Sergeant was nearly the only poem it contained at all likely to carry it to the many. Besides that piece and The Enemy, quoted above, the volume had other poems that deserve remark. The Rhyme of the Master’s Mate is a piece “ in dialect,” so to speak, like The Old Sergeant, but it has not the same quick, general, human interest. It is chiefly a description, in easy, colloquial style, in which the Western army-slang is liberally mingled, of the capture of Fort Henry, on the Cumberland River, in 1862: the feigned record of a master’s mate, made during the progress of the engagement, in which he was himself killed, and found, after the surrender of the fort, upon his person. It has a prelude, the poet himself speaking, very majestic in movement and fine in suggestion, describing the close of the war (which is presumed to have been reached since the record of the master’s mate was made) and the disappearance of the dreadful war-array: —

“ The long roll of the drum, and the last lonesome echo
Of the bugle’s long-breathed lay,
Like a mighty soul in the chariot of his triumph,
Hath gone its heavenward way.
“ And a solemn hush, a deep and world-wide silence,
Broods on the strife at last;
The armaments that shook the world beneath them
Dissolve into the Past,
“ Like the vast enginery of some appalling Vision
Of World-wreck and Despair,
Dissolve with slow, eclipse-like, dread transition,
Into the infinite air!
“ And leave to greet the astonished gaze of nations,
As by the quake upheaved,
The fairest Land that Freedom ever smiled on,
Or Fantasy conceived !
“ A land wherein, by grace of the God of Heaven,
And the Memory of the Brave,
No man shall henceforth dare to be a traitor,
Nor brook to be a slave ! ”

In State, another of the war poems, although possessing much grandeur of imagery, and lofty in tone, is not pleasing as a whole; it is unhappily conceived, it seems to me. In the first part — for it has three divisions — the country is represented as one vast human figure, a dead body laid out; the entire land, with its literal geography delineated, is the death-couch, or “ sheeted bier.” In the second part the occasion of this great death is explained: “ the Son [the South?] stabbed, and the Mother fell; ” after which the opening battle over her corpse “in state,” between the matricide and the true son, who are joined by a vast multitude of other children “that are so greatly multiplied” (yet the two sons should have comprehended them all), is pictured. Then, in the third and last division, the terrible progress of the strife is described with all its sickening details. All this is put in the mouth of

— “ the Keeper of the Sacred Key
And the Great Seal of Destiny,”

who at the close announces that he beholds THE DEED — which we have to explain for ourselves: did it refer to emancipation? Darkness follows; there is no hint of resurrection. At the time the first part of this singular piece was written, late in the year 1861, Willson passed much of his time in Kentucky, at Louisville, and did not breathe in, perhaps, the most wholesome influences of patriotic confidence. It was a political and poetical error to presume the country dead at all. But after having spoken so particularly of this poem, which has been very highly praised, I must not leave it without showing some remarkably vigorous stanzas embraced in it. Here are four describing the presumedly overthrown and dead republic, in the first of which the crowned critics of Europe are finely suggested: —

“ The winds have tied the drifted snow
Around the face and chin ; and lo,
The sceptred Giants come and go,
And shake their shadowy crowns and say: ‘ We always feared it would be so !'
“ She came of an heroic race :
A giant’s strength, a maiden’s grace,
Like two in one seem to embrace,
And match, and blend, and thorough-blend, in her colossal form and face.
“ Where can her dazzling falchion be ?
One hand is fallen in the sea;
The Gulf-Stream drifts it far and free ;
And in that hand her shining brand gleams from the depths resplendently.
“ And by the other, in its rest,
The starry banner of the West
Is clasped forever to her breast;
And of her silver helmet, lo, a soaring eagle is the crest.”

The dreadful circumstances of the civil war are vividly reviewed in the following simple and forcible stanzas: —

“ I see the torn and mangled corse,
The dead and dying heaped in scores,
The headless rider by his horse,
The wounded captive bayoneted through and through without remorse.
“ I hear the dying sufferer cry,
With his crushed face turned to the sky,
I see him crawl in agony
To the foul pool, and bow his head into its bloody slime and die.
“ I see the assassin crouch and fire,
I see his victim fall— expire ;
I see the murderer creeping nigher
To strip the dead : He turns the head : The face!
The son beholds his sire !
“ I hear the curses and the thanks ;
I see the mad charge on the flanks,
The rents — the gaps — the broken ranks, —
The vanquished squadrons driven headlong down
the river’s bridgeless banks.
“ I see the death-gripe on the plain,
The grappling monsters on the main,
The tens of thousands that are slain,
And all the speechless suffering and agony of heart and brain.
“ I see the dark and bloody spots,
The crowded rooms and crowded cots,
The bleaching bones, the battle-blots,—
And writ on many a nameless grave a legend of forget-me-nots.
“ I see the gorgèd prison den,
The dead line and the pent-up pen,
The thousands quartered in the fen,
The living-deaths of skin and bone that were the goodly shapes of men.”

Among the poems in Willson’s book not referring in any wise to war subjects are several of a peculiar mystical quality, one or two of which show an influence of Emerson — especially the lines To Hersa, and Sphere-Song. Nearly all of these poems have strikingly beautiful passages, here and there.

A piece otherwise vague and unsatisfactory, entitled A Valedictory, has this fine, fluent expression of an often-used illustration in the direction of proof regarding the soul’s immortality: —

“ As well, in sooth, tear-blur the eye,
And pass the summer morn in dole,
Over the cast-off husk or poll
Of some old symbol of the Soul —
The swaddle of the butterfly :
“ While near at hand the very while,
Her little dross-divested sprite
Spreads wings like Psyche, for a flight
Into illimitable light,
To revel in the Summer’s smile.”

Lightest and brightest of all Willson’s poems is the little fairy-tale or fable, called —

THE ESTRAY.

“ Now tell me, my merry woodman,
Why standest so aghast? ”
“ My lord! — 't was a beautiful creature
That hath but just gone past! ”
“ A creature — what kind of a creature? ”
“ Nay, now, but I do not know ! ”
“ Humph— what did it make you think of? ”
“The sunshine on the snow.”
“ I shall overtake my horse then,”
The woodman opened his eye :
The gold fell all around him,
And a rainbow spanned the sky.

A collection of brief pieces under the general title of The Poet’s Epilogue (including the one called The Enemy, heretofore given) closes the volume. These final pieces all have reference in some way or other, as I have already said, to the poet’s wife. Several of them are very clearly expressed. The Autumn Song breathes a simple, sad sincerity of mournful music: —

“ In Spring the Poet is glad,
And in Summer the Poet is gay ;
But in Autumn the Poet is sad,
And has something sad to say :
“ For the Wind moans in the Wood,
And the Leaf drops from the Tree;
And the cold Rain falls on the graves of the Good,
And the cold Mist comes up from the Sea:
“ And the Autumn Songs of the Poet’s soul
Are set to the passionate grief
Of Winds that sough and Bells that toll
The Dirge of the Falling Leaf.”

And here is another piece, of which the same observation may be made; this burden comes directly to every heart that knows of love and death: —

NO MORE.

This is the Burden of the Heart,
The Burden that it always bore:
We live to love ; we meet to part;
And part to meet on earth No More :
We clasp each other to the heart,
And part to meet on earth No More.
There is a time for tears to start, —
For dews to fall and larks to soar :
The Time for Tears is when we part
To meet upon the earth No More :
The Time for Tears is when we part
To meet on this wide earth — No More.

Other pieces in The Poet’s Epilogue are full of personal spiritual ecstasies, in keeping with the quotations I have made from one or two of Willson’s letters. We must read or pass them over with serious tenderness; The Voice, originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, being the one that comes nearest common appreciation and understanding. But the following — which I do not class with the pieces just mentioned — may be given as peculiarly weird, musical, and beautiful. It impresses one like the conception of some old painting: —

THE LAST WATCH.

I.

The stars shine down through the shivering boughs
And the moonset sparkles against the spire ;
There is not a light in a neighbor’s house,
Save one that burneth low,
And seemeth almost spent!
With shadowy forms in dark attire
Flickering in it to and fro,
As if in Pain and Doubt —
And heads bowed down in tears !
Hark !
Was there not Lament? —
Behold, behold the Light burns out!
The Picture disappears !

II.

Ye who with such sleepless sleight,
In the chamber out of sight,
Whispering low,
To and fro,
Your swift needles secretly
At the dead of night do ply, —
What is it that ye sew !

III.

“ Hark ! Hark !
Heard ye not the sounds aloof,
As of winds or wings that swept the roof?
Band of heavenly voices blending,
Choir of seraphim ascending?
Hark ! Hark ! ”

IV.

“ Away! Away!
Behold, behold it is the day !
Bear her softly out of the door ;
And upward, upward, upward soar !”

After the publication of his book of poems I doubt if Wilson produced much, or indeed any more poetry. The remainder of his life was very brief. But among his papers there are a number of pieces not included in the volume, and quite as good as any of the smaller poems printed in it. A long poem (or rather a series of short pieces, some of them not written in rhyme, and some of them, indeed, not in metrical language) entitled The Crown of Love — it also refers in large measure to his wife — I believe Willson intended to publish in a little book by itself, as a part of it was already put in type and is preserved in proof-sheets. Here is a brief piece which tersely describes the railway journey of a lover to meet the one beloved: —

THE VISIT.

Soul and body bourgeon wings,
Ecstasy within him springs.
Rush the wild wheel-footed steeds,
Swiftly scene to scene succeeds.
Solid lands beneath him seem
Like a broad and sweeping stream.
Twice the day hath lit his hall,
Second darkness wraps the ball.
Dark as Death, but heavenly-sweet,
Comes the moment, and they meet.

Here is a tender night-piece, in keeping with the foregoing : —

“ Oh hear the waters murmur as they fall,
And the sad night-wind whisper her reply ;
And hear the wild dove in the thicket call
Her loved mate homeward from the alien sky.
“ As some tired child’s my weary head is lain
Upon thy heart : thy beating heart is warm!
I rest deep-sheltered from all grief and pain,
Within the sacred cincture of thine arm.”

From a piece referring, I believe, to a visit made to the little old empty logcabin home in Western New York, — wherein he says —

“ There is naught but the quiet eye Of the summer sky,
Looking in, here and there, through a rent in the roof,”

to haunt or trouble him, — I take the following fresh and wholesome passage: —

“ Hark ! from the orchard tree
That over-rustles,
What rapturous burst of melody,
As all the buds had blossomed into birds —
Singing metempsychoses of old words
That round the hearth below,
So long ago,
Murmured up to the listening eaves
And mingled with the leaves ! —
Lo, still in the branches of the old eaves-dropping tree,
The busy robin bustles ! ”

And from a poem entitled The Wing — a little bird’s wing which a sadlythoughtful man has picked up during his winter morning walk — I give these lines: —

“ ' Poor little Ariel, thou shalt flit no more ! ’
So with his musing now was mixed the wing,
For he was musing not on Life but Death.
“ ‘ With what a Godspeed and most loving joy,
Upon his simple errand all intent,
The speckled sprite that wore thee cleft the air ;
“ ' And, master of all ship-craft, tacked and veered,
And spread and plied thee both for sail and oar,
Careering cheerily against wind and tido ! —
“ ‘ Till the clawed pirate,’mused he, ' of the air,
The ravening fowl that, poised and perched aloft,
Forever surely watches, pounced and swooped,
“ ' And flung the lifeless tatters to the winds,
The winds that brought this here and dropped it down
Upon the border of the frozen marsh.
“ ' . . . Here, too, the seven-sealed Mysteries are writ
In that so curious cipher on thy plume.
Fly hither, birds, that can interpret it !'
“ And all at once, as musing he moved on,
He heard just overhead the rush and whirr
As of a wing that cleft the cold, clear air ;
“ And, startled from his musing, he looked up,
But all was cold and clear o'er field and marsh,
And not a feather stirring in the air.”

I believe many readers will agree with me in thinking that such poetry as I have so freely quoted is the product of an unusually rare spirit. In The Old Sergeant we see the most homely realism illuminated, almost transfigured, by high and powerful imagination; in The Rhyme of the Master’s Mate and In State, the simplest and most direct language, here and there, is thrilled with nerves of uncommon passion and force; in other poems, there is gossamer-like, elusive grace; elsewhere throughout Willson’s poems, we find beauty, tenderness, and pathos, with pure and lofty habits of thought always observable. The Enemy and The Last Watch show sombre, ghastly, weird realism on the one hand, and the ecstasy of religious faith on the other. These two pieces, perhaps, and, it may be, one or two others, have a flavor of the elder English poets, but there is nothing more modern than the two or three of his longer poems; indeed, he showed little disposition to go into the past for poetry, although he had read the Greek and Latin classics at college, as well as afterwards, and was always a student of the best books, among others reading Goethe largely; he believed in “ the living present; ” he thought it, to use his own words in a letter before me, so far the greatest, most dramatic and poetic age of the world.”He believed, too, in putting manhood into poetry, yet not the less keeping it alive outside; he seemed to think the over-sensuous English school of Keats and his successors tended to a waste of manliness in literature; and especially he thought we Americans ought to come home and find in our new-placed lives our best inspirations and themes.

It may be said that there is often a lack of thorough sanity —in form, at least — observable in Forceythe Willson’s poems; in some of them one is never certain what eccentric movement will surprise and puzzle him next. We used to see something of the same eccentricity in Emerson’s earlier pieces in verse (and if Willson was strongly influenced by any writer it was by Emerson), where he vibrates from the solemnly-ludicrous motions of the Sphinx, of whom it is said, —

“ She hopped into the baby’s eyes,
She hopped into the moon ”

(but I believe this has been changed in more recent editions), to the noble tenderness and sweetness of his Threnody, and the honeyed clarity of his HumbleBee.

I do not think it worth while to speculate as to future possibilities of Forceythe Willson if it had been his fate to live longer. Doubtless some of the peculiar defects observable in his poetry were the result of the inherent malady to which his father’s family —noted as its members were, nevertheless, for extraordinary physical powers—were subject, and which, having attacked him in early youth, remained latent in his system, and was now waiting to remove him from earthly life. His mind doubtless felt somewhat the inherent ill health of his body.

At nearly the same time that his book of poems was published, late in the autumn of 1866, Forceythe was visiting New Albany, on some urgent business; there he was attacked with a hemorrhage of the lungs. which kept him confined for about a month. An affecting fact regarding this illness, and in connection with his spiritual belief, was related to me by the lady at whose house he was nursed. During his convalescence he could be heard, sometimes, apparently conversing with his dead wife, in the manner that would be natural were the presumed spiritual presence a real bodily one in the sick-room, in gentle, familiar tones, now seemingly listening, and then replying to her voice. This illness was but a few weeks previous to his death. He recovered from it sufficiently to travel, and returned castward, visiting, for further convalescence, Alfred Centre, New York, where his youngest brother and a young sister were then living and at school. Thence he wrote, early in December, as follows, and these were his last words to me; they show how he had been contemplating death, and was still contemplating it: “ While at New Albany, I believe I was somewhere near the entrance to a certain Valley. At all events I was in some very pleasant place, and should, I suppose, have never come back but for the earnest efforts of some of my good friends. But still I am admonished that this friendly revocation may be brief. This gives me no disquiet, I believe, yet there may be great perils in advance. What man is sure, moreover, that he is fitted to die? If I can peacefully abide the event, why that in sooth I will; for whether we are fitted to die or not, we surely must. I am contented not to be in haste. Why should we be in haste, or wish to overstay ? To me Death is a kindling, not a chilling theme. It rouses up a purifying flame and eats the frost. Why, then, let us rejoice for all that die! Caring not for your merely temporal advancement, I wish you only that which you must have.”

It was perhaps through my own neglect in not replying, — for I did not know the seriousness of his illness, — that I did not hear from him again; and one morning in the February following, I read the announcement of his death.

His life closed with characteristic sweetness and gentleness. As a brother with a father’s care he had always been affectionate, kind, and gentle. His last conscious moment was on the morning of February 2, 1867, at about nine o’clock. His sister, then a young girl, was standing at his bedside. She leaned over him a moment , when, with an effort that seemed to take his last strength, he lifted his hands and placed them on her head and pressed them as he was wont to do when well. To the last he maintained his love of seclusion, allowing no one excepting his sister and brothers to remain with him or even to see him. “ His wife and child seemed to be with him constantly.” one of his brothers wrote, “during his severe illness, as he almost constantly talked to them in a low voice.”

Forceythe Willson was in person tall, of fine figure, with a look and bearing which might have distinguished him on any street. His face was oval, with a complexion olive-dark; his hair was glossy black, having a peculiar crisp, short wave or curl; his eyes were large, dark-brown, and almond-shaped, as Dr. Holmes has described them; he had, indeed, somewhat of an Oriental look and manner. His voice was soft, rich, and gentle; it had a kindness and sincerity of tone that was the natural outflow and expression of his heart. He was the very soul of sincerity, generosity, courtesy, truthfulness, I believe; and if tenderness and sweetness are remarkable in his poetry, they were not less remarkable in his character. He was one of those rarer poets whose poetry is first in their life, and perhaps grows poorer in their best verses. His spiritual faith attended him, as we have seen, to the last of earth; then his disused body was laid by the side of her whose soul, as he surely believed (if it were a heavenly insanity, then how much happier than our earthly sanity of blindness and deafness) was still with him, in sight and hearing, after her own body was laid in the little grave-yard at Laurel, in the Whitewater Valley.

John James Piatt.

  1. The first name Byron, which his parents were always accustomed to use in addressing him or speaking of him, was dropped by him during his early manhood ; it seems he had conceived a great dislike for it.
  2. Canard.