The Life of Bayard Taylor
HERE is a book1 which has the charm of autobiography, and a fascination of its own besides, to which the most ingenuous confessions of a life can hardly offer a parallel. When a man tells his own story, we never can be sure that he tells it quite right, and we can almost always be sure that he does not reveal the whole of his heart. However frank and truthful he may be, however little he may dread unsympathetic scrutiny, there is a great deal of his character which he does not himself know. Bayard Taylor was one of the most openhearted, sincere, and straightforward of men; he was as clear as a mountain brook; the lines of his character were beautifully simple and distinct, — but the last man in the world to describe him as he was would have been Bayard Taylor. It is fortunate for us that the delightful records of his inner life, preserved in his journals and letters, have been completed and illustrated by the companion who knew him best, who loved him best, and who appreciated most justly his rare union of masculine boldness and exuberance with feminine sensibility and reserve. The work has been done not only with affection, but with judgment and good taste. The result is a finished and accurate picture of a most attractive subject.
The hero of John Godfrey’s Fortunes is made to say, “ I belong to that small class of men whose natures are not developed by a steady, gradual process of growth, but advance by sudden and seemingly arbitrary bounds, divided by intervals during which their faculties remain almost stationary ; ” and this has been interpreted as Taylor’s judgment of himself. His mind did expand quickly under the influence of external associations, but it seems to us that there never was a time when his powers were not enlarging faster than his opportunities. His early circumstances were singularly unfavorable, not only to the growth of the poetical spirit, but to any form of literary activity. The community in which his home was placed, and toward which the warm impulses of his heart were always directed, was a little society of Quaker farmers, who clung to their narrow beliefs and prejudices with a bigotry nearly akin to tyrannical fanaticism, and looked upon verses as vanity and the aspiration for a larger life than theirs as a sin. The rigorous restrictions of village opinion would not have troubled Bayard much if his affections had not been so strong ; he broke through them when he forsook the farm, when he made his first adventurous journey abroad, when he entered the trade of authorship, when he left Pennsylvania for a more stirring career in New York ; but the effort always cost him pain. It was not opportunity tempting him, but a sturdy intellectual growth bursting the trammels of circumstance. The book by which he first made a name, Views Afoot, was probably of all his writings the one he valued least; but it has a special interest to us as a remarkable example of the “ self-dependence ” which he set himself to cultivate as a precious element of character. It is curious to note that no special literary influence controlled his early powers. He speaks in one of his boyish letters of “ Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier, and Lowell (all Americans, you know) ” with an equal fervor ; and at the age of seventeen he made a rapturous excursion into the pages of Tennyson ; but none of these poets can be said to have formed him. Afterward he became a delighted student of Shelley ; but by this time his development had taken its own course. The literary society into which he was first thrown was pleasant to an ardent and cheerful young man, yet it could hardly be called stimulating. Rufus W. Griswold was the great critic of that coterie ; N. P. Willis, Charles Fenno Hoffman, “Major Jack Downing,” Mrs. E. F. Ellet, were among the favorite authors; The Home Journal, Godey’s Lady’s Book, and Graham’s Magazine were dread arbiters of opinion. “ What a constellation ! ” exclaims Taylor, after penning a catalogue of the company at a literary assembly to which he has been invited, soon after his arrival in New York. Griswold, Willis, and Hoffman were good friends to him, and he never forgot them ; but he soon soared beyond them. Longfellow gave him immediate sympathy and recognition. Lowell, Irving, and Bryant admitted him to their friendship; and he formed an intimate and congenial companionship, broken only by death, with two poets of nearly his own age, who belonged to a stronger race than the dilettante school then verging toward its decline, — we mean R. H. Stoddard and George H. Boker. To these a little later was added Edmund C. Stedman, whose fine spirit was much like Bayard’s own.
The truth is, Taylor was born a poet, and the faculty was too strong in him to be repressed or wasted. In his early letters, long before there is any attempt at literary form, or any mark of the influence of particular books, the indications of original poetical feeling are unmistakable. He looked on the flowers and the trees, the mountains, the storm, the painted sky, the, swelling buds, the blue midsummer haze, with the poet’s eye, and, as the biography well says, “ with a latent passion for the exuberance of a warmer clime. There was an Orientalism in nature which he early discovered, even before he was brought into familiar knowledge of the actual East. Thus he used to greet the first dandelion of the year with delight; it was to him a symbol of the ascendency of the sun ; and in the early fall he welcomed the pale pink flower of the centaury plant, and its spicy odor, with its faint suggestion of the East.”
It happened that while these poetic impressions were in their first force, a romance entered into his life which is told here with idyllic grace. Mary Agnew, the beautiful Quaker girl whom he loved with inexpressible tenderness and devotion almost from boyhood, and married on her deathbed, just as he was beginning to win the success which he had valued chiefly for her sake, had a happy influence on his genius. “ She was not so much the inspiration of special poems addressed to her,” says the biography, “as she was the guiding star to Bayard Taylor’s passion and thought. It was no mere poetic commonplace which made his early verses insensibly turn to her, however their movement may have been first directed; and the plans which he laid for the course of his life all had immediate reference to Mary. The ambition which he possessed in no slight degree to make himself a name and place in literature was kindled by the thought of sharing his reputation with her, and the tumultuous discharge of his hopes and fears through the pages of his diary is witness to the ardor with which he mingles the happiness of the home for which he labored with the aspiration for enduring expression of his poetic genius.” She seems to have been in every way worthy of the pure and fervent love which she inspired, — a gentle and spiritual being, absorbed in Bayard, and touching with exact sympathy whatever was noblest in his nature. Her letters are full of a simplicity, refinement, and wholesomeness of sentiment which give elegance to their unpremeditated style ; and the quaint Quaker phraseology (which Bayard also used in writing to her) adds to the effect a certain old-fashioned composure and serenity. Clear, calm, candid, glowing, freighted with hope, trust, and patience, and mingling the whispers of love with the suggestions of the muse, the correspondence is itself a poem. After reading it, no one will be surprised that Taylor’s early writings were distinguished by a sincerity and dignity of feeling which are the usual fruits of maturer years. Nor shall we wonder that amid the distractions to which his mind was soon exposed— the drudgery of a country newspaper office, and the still more disturbing labors of New York journalism — he was able to preserve the poetic faculty unimpaired. “ To-night,” he writes to a friend, “ I have thanked God for one thing, and shall do so all nights henceforth, — the knowledge that I have not smothered the poetic feeling, not even weakened a spiritual nerve, by this life of toil, this perpetual struggle with the Little and the Earthly. It is purer and brighter, and I know that I can keep it so. Is it not a divine joy? ”
The post to which Horace Greeley appointed him on The Tribune, in 1848, united employments which a leading metropolitan journal would now divide among four or five industrious men. For the salary, which seemed munificent then, of twelve dollars a week, Taylor was sub-editor, foreign editor, leader writer, critic, man-of-all-work, and reporter. He throws down the pen with which he has been reviewing a new book or discussing the latest European complication, and rushes to Astor Place to describe the Macready riots, or to the wreck on Fire Island where Margaret Fuller has been drowned, or to some distant political gathering where a speech is to be taken for his paper. But with these multifarious employments he found opportunity for intellectual refreshment. “ I reached Boston on Sunday morning,” he writes to Mary Agnew, “ galloped out to Cambridge, and spent the evening with Lowell; went on Monday to the pine woods of Abington to report Webster’s speech, and dispatched it to The Tribune ; got up early on Tuesday and galloped to Brookline to see Colonel Perkins ; then off in the cars to Amesbury, and rambled over the Merrimac hills with Whittier; then Wednesday morning to Lynn, where I stopped a while at Helen Irving’s; back in the afternoon to Cambridge, where I smoked a cigar with Lowell, and then stayed all night at Longfellow’s ; Thursday morning to Boston, where I visited some twenty places and people, and came away in the afternoon to Fall River ; took the steamboat, saw Newport under a flood of crystal moonlight, walked the deck, looking over the glittering Sound, wishing for thee ; at sunrise looked into the whirlpools of Hell Gate; and now I am back at my post, full of health, spirits, strength, happiness, and poetic inspiration. I am now ready for another six-months’ siege, and my heart is filled with kindly recollections of kind friends.” He led in fact a double life, not only at this time, but until the end of his career. He consecrated his happiest hours to love, friendship, and poetry ; he gave a no less earnest and hearty devotion to prosaic duty, which, irksome as it certainly was to him, he accepted cheerfully as the servant of his sweeter aspirations. Hence it was that during his long and intimate connection with The Tribune he proved one of the most valuable and versatile of contributors, ready for any service, however exacting or unfamiliar, and accomplishing every task with a thoroughness, promptness, elegance, and fine workmanlike finish which left only one comment possible among his associates, — that “ nobody could have done that job like Bayard.” His ambition was sustained by the thought of earning a home for Mary, and leisure for his muse. Later, when time had healed the wound of Mary’s loss, new and still happier ties gave him fresh incentives to exertion. But apart from these extraneous influences, Taylor was kept at a high level of effort by a sensitive conscience. He had a keen sense of the dignity of the literary calling ; slovenly writing seemed to him profanation ; to be ignorant of his subject was in his eyes to be insincere. The routine work of daily journalism, the letters of travel (first written for his paper), the essays, criticisms, magazine articles, miscellaneous labors for the publishers, and finally the lectures, were all part of his duty as a man of letters; and however the world regarded them, he at least must treat them with the respect due to his profession.
The persistence of his poetic facility in the midst of police reports and political speeches is less remarkable when we bear in mind the fervid, proud, and truthful spirit in which he performed his “ struggle with the Little and the Earthly.” Labor which is inspired by love and ambition, and dignified by sincerity and self-respect, cannot but strengthen the soul and the imagination. It was in the midst of his most prosaic duties at The Tribune office that Taylor wrote his fine Ode to Shelley, and penned the stirring Californian Ballads, which indicate something like poetical clairvoyance, for they were made before he had seen the romantic and sturdy life they describe, and even before the discovery of gold had fixed public attention upon the Pacific coast. Hardly had the Ballads been published in a volume when the gold discovery followed. The travels which made such a conspicuous part of the achievement of his life were to a great extent, as we have already said, the fruit of his employment as a journalist, and the public has always held them distinct from his work as a poet; and yet, unaffected and direct as his books of travel are in expression, it is the latent poetical spirit in them, the clear vision, the sympathetic temper, the ingenuous and open mind, the pure and refined taste, which give them a lasting value. Except in two or three cases, moreover, it was an irresistible desire to place himself in communication with a larger intellectual life, and in closer association with poetic scenes and memories, that inspired his journeys; and all of them therefore had an important share in his poetical development. His early life was so simple and gentle, and his verse was so faithful an expression of his feeling, that he sang at first in a strain of almost artless directness. A healthy, vigorous, and courageous lad, stirred by high aspirations, buoyed by a hopeful and confident disposition, and blest with a true love, what had he to do with the vague yearnings and complex emotions of passionate poetry ? When sorrow came to him, it was not in his nature to show it to the world. But with knowledge of life and affairs to which he was introduced by his employment in journalism, with the literary associations to which his position in New York admitted him, and the exceptional experience of his travels, he was always gaining depth and subtlety of thought as well as fluency and richness of diction. There was a marked growth in his poetry, and he was fully conscious of it; but his work always showed a balance and directness which indicated a thoroughly healthy organization.
He refers more than once in his correspondence to a change in his intellectual condition ; during his European tour of 1856 and 1857 especially, a period in which he wrote a great deal of good prose but very little poetry, he spoke of undergoing “ a mental and moral fermentation,” which he believed would bring “ wine instead of vinegar, new vitality, fresh force, and a sparkling effervescence of cheerfulness and courage.” But it was somewhat later than this when he reached his full mental stature. The gain in solidity of purpose, breadth of vision, and calm mastery of thought was distinctly marked after the year 1862, when he began a brief but valuable service to his country as diplomatic representative in Russia at a critical epoch. Whether it was partly the patriotic exaltation of war time, rousing whatever was best and strongest in Taylor, as it did in the case of so many other men, or only the natural expansion of his mind, stimulated by experience and study, we shall not pause to inquire ; but certainly the era which flamed with heroism marked a stage in the career of this poet and scholar. The change was much greater and much quicker than any of the earlier intellectual transitions of which we find repeated record in the biography. It seemed as if, in suddenly reaching his maturity of power, he gained a higher sense of the dignity of his calling, — though that was always high, — a deeper and more complete poetic absorption, and a serener satisfaction in the expression of his best thought, without reference to public appreciation. To this last period of his life belong all his loftiest effort and most perfectly artistic achievement. “I am only just now beginning to do genuine work,” he wrote while he was busy with his translation of Faust; “ the past has been but an apprenticeship, my Lehrjahre ; and now comes (so God will) the Meisterschaft But if not, no difference ! My life is at least filled and brightened.’’ “ I have had enough of mere temporary popularity,” he wrote again, “and am tired of it; but I have now begun to do the things that shall be permanent in literature, and have not only the strength to undertake and carry them out, but they have also become necessary to me, a source of happiness as well as a means of success.” “ I know that I am doing better things now than ever before, ’ lie confessed to the painter McEntee ; “ I know also that my market value is not half what it was five years ago ; yet I devoutly believe that I shall outlive many of the apparently brilliant successes which are now blazing around us. Nothing endures but genuine work: of that you may be sure. Now, my dear McEntee, I propose that we shall hold together in patience, bind each other’s wounds, support each other’s stumbling faith, and keep on doing our best. The joy and the reward is in the work itself, after all.” There is something almost majestic in the tone of one of his letters to Stedman in 1874: “Mere grace of phrase, surface brilliancy, simulated fire, cannot endure : we must build of hewn blocks from the everlasting quarries, and then the fools who say, ‘ Oh, there is no color in that! ’ will die long before our work shall dream of decay. . . . The success of your volume of poems is an excellent sign, and delights me to the very heart. Your success means mine, and that of all honest poets. You may depend upon me: I will never flinch; my will is like adamant to endure until the end. I have large designs yet, and more real poetry in me than has hitherto come out of me. I see my way clear, recognize both capacities and limitations as never before, and bate no jot of heart or hope.”
Taylor, as we have seen, took an honest pride in doing thoroughly whatever literary work he undertook ; and considering the mass and quality of his prose, it is not surprising that a careless public sometimes gave less prominence to his poetry than it deserved. Yet it was in verse that he not only reached his highest and most permanent achievement, but satisfied a lifelong passion. The poetical gift was dearer to him than anything else in the world, except family and friends, and is properly made the leading note of his biography. He did not care for praise of his prose; but it delighted him to be recognized as one of the immortal choir. “ As for popular favor,” he wrote to George H. Boker, “good God! what is there so humiliating as to be praised for the exhibition of poverty and privation, for parading those very struggles which I would gladly have hidden forever, when that which I feel and know to be true to my art is passed by unnoticed. For I am not insensible that nine tenths of my literary success (in a publishing view) springs from those very Views Afoot which I now blush to read. I am known to the public, not as a poet, the only title I covet, but as one who succeeded in seeing Europe with little money; and the chief merits accorded to me are not passion or imagination, but strong legs and economical habits. Now this is truly humiliating. It acts as a sting or spur, which touches my pride ‘ in the raw ’ whenever some true recognition sets me exulting.” He was very happy in the reputation which poetry earned for him abroad. “ Dresden is the literary city of Germany,” he wrote to his mother from Berlin in 1856, “and I met with all the authors living there. I was delighted to find that they all knew me. When I called on the poet, Julius Hammer, he was at his desk, translating my poem of Steyermark. Gutzkow the dramatist, Auerbach the novelist, Dr. Andrée the geographer, and others whose names are known all over Europe, welcomed me as a friend and brother author. We had a grand dinner together the day before I left. The Dresden papers spoke of me as a distinguished guest, and published translations of my poems. In fact, I think I am almost as well known in Germany as in the United States.”
There is something characteristically candid in that confession, whose ingenuousness sets it on the pleasant borderline between native modesty and an innocent love of approbation. In the same spirit is his account of an interview with Tennyson, which we find in a letter to Boker: “ I spent two days with him in June, and you take my word for it, he is a noble fellow, every inch of him. He is as tall as I am, with a head which Read capitally calls that of a dilapidated Jove, long black hair, splendid dark eyes, and a full mustache and beard. The portraits don’t look a bit like him ; they are handsomer, perhaps, but haven’t half the splendid character of his face. We smoked many a pipe together, and talked of poetry, religion, politics, and geology. I thought he seemed gratified with his American fame; he certainly did not say an unkind word about us. He had read my Oriental poems, and liked them. He spoke particularly of their richness of imagery and conscientious finish. I need not tell you that his verdict is a valuable one to me. Our intercourse was most cordial and unrestrained, and he asked me, at parting, to be sure and visit him every time I came to England.”
Lingering over such charming confidences, we half persuade ourselves that the genial poet, robust and gentle, whom everybody loved, is still with us. Nothing in the work of Mrs. Taylor and Mr. Scudder will please the myriad friends of Bayard more than the art with which, by well-chosen citation, by quick illustrative phrase, by sympathetic and vivid touch, they have set before us his winning and beautiful personality. “ I have been reading Rousseau’s Confessions,” the poet, wrote, “and am struck with certain similarities which my nature bears to his. He was a man, evidently, whose very life consisted in loving. Love was the breath of his being; and the older I grow, the more I find that the same thing is true with regard to myself. I have felt all the transports and the tendernesses of passion which he describes, the same feminine devotion to the beloved object, the same enthrallment of the imagination and the affections. But as I have much less genius than he, so I have more worldly wisdom; and my affections, though they tyrannize over me completely, rarely betray themselves to the observation of others.”
“ So, George, you have found out my weakness, have you ? ” he writes to Boker. “ Well, since we have it in common, there is no use in trying to conceal or suppress it. I confess to a most profound and abiding tenderness of heart toward those I love, whether man or woman.” He reveled in the successes of his friends. He was never tired of praising them. His attachments were as lasting as they were fervent. The first use he made of fortune, when he began to prosper, was to share it with his relatives ; when his income fell off — like that of other literary men — at the outbreak of the war, he sold part of his interest in The Tribune to give a thousand dollars for the defense of the Union. James T. Fields, in describing the cordial welcome given the budding poet by Longfellow and others in Boston, just after the publication of Views Afoot, says, “ No one could possibly look upon the manly young fellow at that time without loving him.” To the end of his life he had the same faculty of fascination. He went to Africa in the time of his great sorrow after the death of his first wife, and there, as he told Boker, he gained peace, strength, and patience “ from nature, but more from man.” “ Such kindness of heart as everywhere overflows toward me, I know not why. I have tried to fathom this mystery, but cannot ; I find no particular quality in myself, no peculiarity in my intercourse with others, which can account for it. Why rigid Mussulmen should pray that I might enter the Moslem paradise ; why guides, camel-drivers, sailors, and the like should show me such fidelity ; why beys and pashas, to whom I had no word of recommendation, should pay me most unusual courtesies, is quite beyond my comprehension.” It was on this journey that he made the acquaintance of a German traveler, Mr. August Bufleb, who conceived for him at once an ardent and remarkable attachment. “ He has won my love,” wrote this gentleman, “ by his amiability, his excellent heart, his pure spirit, in a degree of which I did not believe myself capable.” The intercourse thus begun ripened into a firm and fruitful friendship. The present Mrs. Taylor is Mrs. Bufleb’s niece. Thackeray, as anybody might have foretold, took an instant liking to Taylor ; so did Irving ; so did Longfellow. “ From the first,” said Taylor to James T. Fields, just before his last departure for Europe, “from the first, Longfellow has been to me the truest and most affectionate friend that ever man had. He is the dearest soul in the world, and my love for him is unbounded.” When he left Commodore Perry’s fleet, after the expedition to Japan which he accompanied in 1853, the sailors of the flagship sent a deputation to the captain and asked permission to man the rigging and give him three cheers. “It is the most grateful compliment I ever received,” he wrote to his mother; “for it came from a body of three hundred men, none of whom knew me as an author but only as a man, and it was all genuine; there is no humbug in a sailor’s heart. It has repaid me,” he says of the same season of wandering, “ by inspiring me with a warm sympathy with all kinds and classes of men, and I shall have, for some years to come, friends in the desert of Nubia, the mountains of Spain, and among the hardy seamen of our navy, who, I am sure, will remember me with kindly feeling.” Dumb animals instinctively loved and trusted him. At Khartoum he numbered among his friends a chained leopard whom he taught to climb upon his shoulders, and a full-grown lioness, who used to lick his hand as he sat on her back, and playfully open and close her jaws around his leg. “ The birds know me already,” he wrote Stoddard from Cedarcroft, “ and I have learned to imitate the partridge and the rain-dove, so that I can lure them to me.” Yet we doubt whether anything indicates more surely the beautiful and lovable disposition of the man than the fact, that with all his strong convictions, his ardent impulses, his hatred of what is mean, and his sharp insight, there is not in this entire collection of letters a censorious nor an ill-natured word.
- Life and Letters of Bayard Taylor. Edited by MARIE HANSEN-TAYLOR and HORACE E. SCUDDER. In two volumes. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1884.↩