Some Recollections of Boker
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB.
THE occasion of my first lections of Boker, meeting the late George H. Boker was one of those special and delightful Saturday nights at the Century Club, in New York. I am not sure of the date, but think it must have been somewhere about 1877, soon after Boker’s return from St. Petersburg, where he had held the post of minister of the United States for two or three years. Late in the evening, when the greater part of the company had left the club-house, a small group formed in one of the parlors, and stayed there quietly chatting and smoking until the small hours. I had met all the members of the group before, excepting Boker. He was then about fifty-three or fiftyfour : a tall man, of imposing figure and great dignity ; very handsome, with hair rapidly turning gray, and a mustache nearly white, which gave him the appearance and general air that we are wont to attribute to field-marshals of France. The impression he made was distinctly that of an accomplished and thoughtful man of the world; a man skilled in quiet, comprehensive observation, and not too ready to be communicative ; briefly, just the sort of man that a good diplomatist ought to be. My mind was not consciously dwelling on the fact that he had been our representative in Turkey and in Russia, yet the knowledge of this may have had something to do with the effect produced. At all events, as he sat there, my imagination kept picturing him amid the surroundings of court receptions, state occasions, and so on, in foreign lands. He had an aristocratic bearing that suggested such mental pictures naturally. At the same time, as so much of his poetry shows, and as I afterwards learned through frequent contact and association with him, no one could have been more intensely American at heart, or more loyal to republican principles and institutions.
Another noticeable thing about him was that his appearance did not especially suggest the poet. In certain ways he and his friend, Bayard Taylor, made an interesting contrast with each other. Here was Boker, who had just come back from diplomatic service abroad ; and here, too, was Taylor, who was just going abroad as minister to Berlin. Both were poets; they were fellow-Pennsylvanians and friends; and they were men of large mould physically, and of impressive presence; yet they were very dissimilar types. Boker, though massive and with a trace of the phlegmatic in his manner (perhaps derived from his Holland ancestors, the Bôchers, who had come thither from France, and had then sent a branch into England, from which the American family sprang), was courtly, polished, slightly reserved. His English forefathers had belonged to the Society of Friends, as had also Taylor’s family in Pennsylvania, — another point in common. But Taylor’s appearance, as his friends will remember, was somewhat bluff and rugged ; his manner was hearty and open ; his face bore distinctly the stamp of the literary man, the artist, and bespoke a sturdy, poetic temperament. This is the more curious, because, with all his merits, Taylor was less consistently a poet than Boker, and hardly so strong or vital in poetry as Boker, who seldom put his hand to any form of composition but that of verse. However, notwithstanding his reserve, Boker’s mood was evidently genial and receptive, and he made the whole group feel that he was in thorough accord with them.
Some one asked Boker what literary work he had in hand. He replied, “ My head, for the last few years, has been so full of dispatches, and treaties, and protocols, that I have had no time to think of writing.” In considering why it was that he wrote so comparatively little after this period, one should remember that for a considerable term, dating from the beginning of the Civil War, his thoughts, his time, and his energies had really been absorbed in duties and functions foreign to literature. His career as a poetic dramatist, one of the very few, in recent days, who have written for the stage successfully, had been almost rounded out and completed before the war broke out. He then threw himself, heart and soul, into the organization and conduct of the Union League of Philadelphia, which became one of the main purposes of his life. Acting as its secretary until the rebellion was ended, he finally became its president, and held that position for a number of years. This, with his appointments to foreign missions, brought him into close connection with politics, on the Republican side, which thenceforward took up a great deal of his attention. While he was president of the League, he held also, for several terms, the presidency of the Philadelphia Club, one of the oldest and perhaps the most exclusive among the clubs of the city. When I came to know him well, and met him almost daily for months, his mornings were usually occupied with his duties at these two clubs. He had a great deal of executive ability, and, being a man of wealth and leisure, he resolutely gave to the affairs of the clubs — one political, and the other purely social — that close attention which is indispensable to good administration, but is seldom applied with such fidelity as Mr. Boker showed. Besides this, he was constantly in society, at receptions, dinners. It seems a pity now that, with such vigorous and abundant powers as a poet, he should have given so much of his time to other matters. But it always struck me that there was a well-defined principle underlying Boker’s distribution of his time and energies, of which principle he gave me more than one hint in the course of our numerous long and interesting conversations alone, and in other talks with Charles Godfrey Leland (“ Hans Breitmann ”), at whose lodgings in Philadelphia we used to meet every Sunday afternoon. Boker inherited wealth and the best sort of social position, yet he had a prodigiously strong and overmastering tendency to imaginative production in literature. The pressure of what we may call, in a modified sense, the bourgeois element was brought to bear strongly against his following this tendency. Most of his companions and local society were inclined to scoff at his ambition or his inspiration, his idealism. They believed that a young man well provided with wealth and station, who definitely proposed to set out as a poet and make poetry his chief aim in life, was throwing a sort of discredit on the class to which he belonged. Boker, being a man of powerful nature and gifted with a potent will, resolved to defy this narrow and unintellectual prejudice. His whole career was modeled on that resolve, and was carried out consistently to the end. By innate ability and hard work he earned a fame as a successful poetic dramatist, which was brilliant and remarkable at the time. He succeeded to his father’s wealth, and still devoted himself to literature. But, having a clear mission before his mind, which he was determined to accomplish, he steadily devoted to social engagements the large amount of time which was necessary for holding intact his position in society. From his line of action and from what he often said to me, it is plain that he meant to demonstrate beyond cavil that a man of wealth and leisure can also be a poet, whose plays and martial songs and tender lyrics may at once enlist the sympathies of a large audience, and become a part of the people’s life. He had this intention, and, luckily, he had also the artistic endowment which made him able to carry out the intention. Many of his poems on the war rang from one side of the country to the other, gained popular renown, and had a vital influence on public and patriotic sentiment.
Not content with proving his point by his triumph as a dramatist and a lyrist, he also showed that a poet may be a practical man of affairs, whose energy, skill, and bravery in organizing a strong league of patriots in a partially disaffected town could not be surpassed. Here, again, he defied prejudice; for in those days many of the persons who had most influence socially were open sympathizers with the rebellion. Boker demonstrated the fact that loyalty could not only be made compatible with social prestige, but could also take the upper hand of it. Some of his associates, of course, deserve equal credit in the patriotic work ; but Boker had the distinction of combining in his own person the character of the devoted patriot and the judicious organizer and manager with that of the poet, whose early aspirations towards artistic creation had been lightly valued by his fellow-citizens. His later distinction as United States minister to the Sublime Porte and St. Petersburg, where he rendered very important services to his country, put the keystone in the arch that he had so long been building. While in Russia, he was the only one of our ministers at foreign courts who was able to checkmate Spain in her controversy with us about the Virginius. He baffled the Spanish ambassador at St. Petersburg, and influenced Gortschak-off to send a dispatch to Madrid which caused Spain to apologize to the United States; thus averting serious complications.
While he was winning laurels as a poet, a dramatist, a leader in a patriotic movement, and a brilliant American diplomatist (of whom Ignatieff, while engaged in a struggle with him at Constantinople, wrote to the Russian government, “ He is a man composed of true diplomatic stuff ”), Boker was also completing his victory over those who had questioned the dignity of his purposed literary career. He was at last recognized in his native city as an illustrious citizen. But even after he had done all this, I found that in Philadelphia there was a disposition in certain quarters to make light of him, because he sometimes acknowledged to his intimates that he saw what he had accomplished, and recognized his own standing. A more modest literary man I never met. He never alluded to his writings, unless I brought up the subject and pressed it persistently. This will account in part for the fact that he did not always at first impress one as a poet; and it is explainable on the basis which I have suggested, that he had long ago made up his mind to preserve in himself the two characters, — that of poet, and that of man of the world, diplomatist, statesman. He always kept the attitude of seeming to say tacitly, “ Look at me, and judge me as you please. I shall not give you many hints. You must decide for yourself what I am and what I represent.” The long fight with unsympathetic surroundings, the severe campaign which he had conducted in order to help give literature its rightful position in society, had told upon him. It made him reticent. But his sense of fellowship with other writers was deep and cordial, and unbounded in its enthusiasm, if one could once penetrate to the depths of his heart. The warm sympathy which he showed was all the more touching because of the barriers of convention and restraint behind which it was stored up in full measure. I never heard him say an ill word of his brother authors, but I have heard him speak many a kind one.
That Boker could write both vigorously and bitterly is shown by his Book of the Dead. The circumstances which led to the composition of this singularly virile work were related to me by Boker as follows: Boker’s father had been a banker, and, after his death, various persons had sued his estate and tried to consume it, although Boker senior had saved many of these persons from ruin, and had restored to solvency the bank of which he took charge. During the long litigation, George H. Boker wrote for his own solace the lyrics which form The Book of the Dead. “If I had not been able to give vent to my feelings in these poems,” said Boker, “ I should have gone mad ! ” The work made little impression on the general reader, because he lacked the key to its purpose.
Boker was a man who, while taking an active part in fashionable society to the last, held himself above the conventional level of thoughtless amusement and business intrigue, and continued to build his career on a certain plan, which should contribute to the supremacy of ideas. At heart, the poetic aim always remained dearest to him ; and he wrote to Lawrence Barrett, a few years ago, on the success of Francesca da Rimini, “ Why did n’t I receive this encouragement, twenty years ago ? Then I might have done something.”
Early portraits of Boker show an extraordinary resemblance to Nathaniel Hawthorne in his prime; and I fancy there was a likeness between them, not only in their outward appearance, but also in their shyness and reserve. Hawthorne hid himself behind the veil of seclusion. Boker sought shelter behind the variegated tapestry of society, where he remained to the last a poet, a man of ideas.