The Maintenance of a Poet
IN the year 1847 Emerson published his first volume of poems, — a book now selling for its weight in silver, as its predecessor, the prose poem entitled Nature, sells for well-nigh its weight in gold. The same year, his friend and neighbor, Ellery Channing, published his own second volume (the first was issued in 1843, containing, among other immortal lines, that which Emerson quoted at the close of his essay on Montaigne, —
and there were other venturesome books of verse, which tempted a Harvard professor, on whom the light of poesy and prophecy never dawned, to review scoffingly Nine New Poets, in the North American Review. He showed himself particularly scornful of Emerson’s and Channing’s volumes, — citing, in derision of their alleged incapacity to write verse and sense at the same instant, this couplet, which he declared to be as good as theirs: —
And the wind blew it down; sheep.”
Poe, in the same vein, but with more comprehension of what poetry is, passed over Emerson’s volume, and spent his best scurrility, not on Longfellow, but on Channing; admitting, however, that he had a few good lines, and instancing this couplet, —
Are of the green trees fully sensible; ”
which, indeed, reads like a verse of Keats.
Reflecting on Channing’s hard fortune in the ill success of his volumes, — for his own he neither expected nor hardly wished success, — and the contempt then so freely poured on his other friends, the poet-naturalist Thoreau and the poetic sage Alcott, Emerson wrote in his journal of 1848 : —
“ Shall we not maintain our poets ? They cannot bring us in October a poor bushel of beans, — but is not an accomplished and cultivated man worth something ? Shall we suffer those to die of whom the horizon and the landscape speak to us day by day ? These never mention their owners or their diggers, any more than ants and worms, but superciliously forget those, and fill me with allusions to men and women who owned no acre, and had no practical faculty, as we say.”
In the long run, poets maintain themselves ; and Thoreau for his part, no less than Emerson for his, has become the proprietor of the Concord landscape and the Maine woods and Cape Cod. These are visited now for Thoreau’s sake, and artists follow in his footsteps to picture for the eye what he described so well in unforgotten words. But his most intimate friend, Ellery Channing, — who was also the most intimate with Hawthorne, and at least only in the second grade of intimacy with Alcott and Emerson, — has not yet secured the maintenance in literature to which his high poetic merit entitles him.
William Ellery Channing — commonly known by his middle name, to distinguish him from his uncle of the same name, Dr. Channing, the famous pastor of Boston, and from his two cousins, William Henry and William Francis Channing — was the great-grandson of William Ellery, of Rhode Island, for whom he was named, and the son of Walter Channing, M. D., and Barbara Higginson Perkins, a niece of Colonel T. H. Perkins, and granddaughter of Stephen Higginson. Born in November, 1818, sixteen months later than Thoreau, and entering Harvard College a year after (in 1834), his first published poem (The Spider) appeared in 1835, and he was as early a contributor to the famous Dial as Thoreau. His papers there were almost as many as Thoreau’s, and he had printed three volumes of verse and one of prose (Conversations in Rome, 1847) when the first of Thoreau’s two books, the Week, came out in 1849. Be it remembered, for the encouragement of unread authors, that, of the dozen or twenty volumes now maintaining the credit of Thoreau, the poet-naturalist himself published only two, — of which the second alone, Walden, paid for itself during his lifetime. Since 1850, Channing has published four more volumes of verse and one of prose: Near Home, in 1858; The Wanderer, in 1871; Life of Thoreau, in 1873 ; and, in 1885 and 1886, two single poems, Eliot and John Brown. The last is a dramatic poem, quite different from the verses which the author contributed to Mr. Orcutt’s History of Torrington, the birthplace of Brown, and introduces the visit made by Mrs. Ellen Russell, a daughter of Father Taylor, to the hero of Harper’s Ferry in his Virginian prison. The poet puts in the mouth of Mrs. Russell what was doubtless in her woman’s thought, when Brown expressed the fear that his old friends were parted from him : —
There’s no more parting when the loved one falls
Into suspicion, obloquy, contempt;
Then as the sun pours through the threatening rifts
That drape the setting of an angry day,
True loves shine forth, warm and uplifting all.
All moments in our hearts your image rests.”
By this final volume — for he has published none since — Channing unites his testimony with that of Emerson and Thoreau, so well known, in favor of the romantic character and noble purpose of the Kansas hero; and in one passage, ascribed to Stevens, the trained soldier, Channing portrays the incentive that led so many young men to follow their veteran leader of the prairies : —
The wild romance, the charms of the free air, —
To sleep within the moonlight, feel the nightwind
Curling around your form, — the bending grass
Whispers its loving seerets to your ear,
And sings you into utter dreams of peace :
Your friends the wailing winds, —your halls of light,
Those dazzling halls, — the stars.”
Verse like this is the reminiscence, half a century after the experience, of the prairie life of young Channing in northern Illinois, where he spent a year or two in the log cabins of the early farmers of McHenry County. Thence he came eastward to Cincinnati in 1840, where his uncle, Rev. James H. Perkins, was pastor of a church; in 1842 returned to his native region, and not long after took up his residence in Concord, where he has now mainly lived for nearly sixty years. In the interval he visited the Mediterranean and Italy; traversed New England, eastern New York, and Canada with Thoreau ; helped Horace Greeley edit the New York Tribune in its earlier years ; ten years later edited the New Bedford Mercury, and formed the acquaintance of Thoreau’s friends there, the Ricketson family. In all these wanderings and residences his artist eye was constantly seeking out the finest landscapes, and his sauntering habit was to take his friends thither and introduce them to scenery they could hardly have found for themselves. He showed Hawthorne the loveliest recesses of the Concord woods, and of the two rivers that course slowly through them; he preceded Thoreau at Yarmouth and Truro and the Highland shore of Cape Cod ; and he even taught Emerson the intimate charm of regions in Concord and Sudbury which he, the older resident and unwearied walker, had never beheld. " In walking with Ellery,” he wrote in 1848, “ you shall always see what was never before shown to the eye of man.” And, ten years later, Channing repaid his friend’s praises by what is still Emerson’s best eulogium, at the end of Near Home : —
Considerate to his kind! His love bestowed
Was not a thing of fractions, half-way done,
But with a mellow goodness, like the sun,
He shone o’er mortal hearts. . . .
Forbearing too much counsel, — yet with blows
In pleasing reason urged, he took their thoughts
As with a mild surprise, — and they were good,
Nor once suspected that from Vernon’s heart,
That warm, o’ercircling heart, their impulse flowed.”
With habitual caprice, the poet afterward adapted this praise to Henry Thoreau ; but it originally designated Emerson, and never ceased to be truer of him than of the poet-naturalist.
In mountain-climbing and in summer visits to the wilder parts of New England he preceded Thoreau, being more at leisure in his youth, and less bound by those strict habits of study which were native to Thoreau all his life. Leaving Harvard College in his first year, and after his brief residence at West Newbury, where the Artichoke River adds its slender tribute to the lordly Merrimac, Channing was in the habit of visiting the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and spending weeks amid its little-frequented wilderness with those early landlords the Crawfords and Fabyan. His journey thither took him by Lake Winnipiseogee and its bordering towns ; among which Meredith specially delighted him, and is mentioned in his early verse, as thus : —
When all things taste the luxury of health,
With the free growth of foliage on the trees,
And o’er the fields a host of clover-blooms,
And through the life and thought of the fresh world
Unsorrowing Peace, and Love like softest air.
Upon the sandy road that devious winds;
At last I came to happy Meredith :
This beauteous spot is circled in with heights,
And at a little distance Gunstock stands, —
A bare, bold mountain looking o’er the lake,
That shines like glass within the emerald meads.
Much was I pleased to mark the simple life
That Man yet leads among these mountain
The meaning of the landscape in his heart
Shone with a rural splendor; and his eye
Trembled with humor as it roved abroad,
Gladdened by each familiar scene of youth.
In later years Channing often reverted to these New Hampshire scenes and characters, sometimes with poetic appreciation, sometimes with his own quaint humor, — as when, describing old George Minot, of Concord, Emerson’s near neighbor and Thoreau’s friend, he said : —
“ A relic of men that were old by virtue of having lived, young by reason of not exhausting the good of life, his discourse sets me dreaming of valleys in New Hampshire, with a single cabin in their range ; vales where new milk is plenty, sweet butter to be had, and a treat of maple syrup.”
He does not seem to have often pictured in his youthful poems the mountain sublimities, of which he saw so much among the White Hills, at the two Notches, and on the summits of the Presidential Range, as he walked across them from Crawford’s Notch to the peak of Mount Washington, not yet invaded by railway or human habitation ; but in his Wanderer, of 1871, he recalled them as he described Monadnoc. There is one apostrophe to the mountains, however, in the volume of 1847, which must have been suggested by the notches and crests of the Franconia and Bartlett regions, so familiar to Channing before they became the burden of guidebooks and the haunt of artists. It begins: —
Summits and peaks, and crests untrod and steep!
Ye precipices where the eyes delay, —
Sheer gulfs that madly plunge in valleys deep,—
Overhung valleys curtained by dark forms;
Ye, nourished by the energetic storms,
I seek you, lost in spell-bound, shuddering sleep.
Shrieks fearless in your lonely places,— where
Only his brothers of the wind make waves,
Sweeping with lazy pinions the swift air ;
Far, far below, the stealthy wolf retreats,
The crafty fox his various victims greets ;
Breeze - knighted birds alone make you their lair! ”
Better known, because more recently printed, and introduced with a preface by Emerson, is this word picture of
THE MOUNTAIN’S LIFE.
I heard the woodthrush sing in the white spruce,
Voice of the lonely Mountain’s favorite bird !
So mingling in the crystal clearness there
A sweet, peculiar grace. . . .
What steeps, inviolate by human art!
Centre of awe ; raised over all that man
Would fain enjoy, and consecrate to One,
Lord of the desert, and of all beside!
Consorting with the cloud, the echoing storm, —
When, like a myriad bowls, the mountain wakes
In all its alleys one responsive roar ;
And sheeted down the precipice, all light,
Tumble the momentary cataracts, —
The sudden laughter of the Mountain-child !
Always the day that never seems to end, —
Always the night, whose day does never set;
One harvest and one reaper, — ne’er too ripe,
Sown by the Self-preserver, free from mould,
And builded in these granaries of heaven ;
In these perpetual centres of repose
Still softly rocked.
In such passages, like Father Taylor in the exhilaration of his Boston sermon, Channing " has lost his verb and multiplied his nominative case, but is bound for the Kingdom of Heaven.” Seldom, indeed, has a poet known better how to unfold in words the subtle secret of nature. He makes his Earth Spirit sing: —
I make the golden flies and their fine bliss;
I paint the hedge-rows in the lane,
And clover white and red the pathways bear;
I laugh aloud in sudden gusts of rain,
To see old Ocean lash himself in air.
And pour the curling waves far o’er the glassy reach ;
Swing birds’-nests in the elms, and shake cool moss
Along the aged beams, and hide their loss.
The very broad rough stones I gladden too,
Some willing seeds I drop among their sides,
Nourish each generous plant with freshening dew, —
And there, where all was waste, true joy abides.
Smile in the red of glowing morn elate ;
I bind the caverns of the sea with hair
Glossy and long, and rich as kings’ estate.”
Joyous as many of the youthful verses are, melancholy is rather the note of Channing’s mature poesy. He expressed this himself in a striking poem published in 1847, which he called Repentance, and of which these are some stanzas : —
A cloud of care, a cloud of sorrow,
That will not speed away for sighing,
That will not lift upon the morrow;
And yet, it is not gloom I carry
To shade a world else framed in lightness;
It is not sorrow that doth tarry,
To veil the joyous sky of brightness.
Why I am tasked without a reason !
Or penetrate the lapse of ages,
And show where is my summer-season!
For, let the sky be blue above me,
Or softest breezes lift the forest,
I still, uncertain, wander to thee,
Thou who the lot of Man deplorest.”
Nothing is more characteristic than this expression of a mood which often returned with Channing, and of which another poem in the same volume of 1847 is a still better illustration, because closing with the voice of fortitude which so often is heard above his causeless, unceasing melancholy: —
THE BARREN MOORS.
On your bare rocks I love to lie ;
They stand like crags upon the shores,
Or clouds upon a placid sky.
Where not a ship can ever land,
These dim uncertainties to me
For something veritable stand.
The agitating world can come ;
A single pensive thought upholds
The arches of this dreamy home.
Replies to you, O barren moors !
Between am I,—a creature taught
To stand between two silent floors.
The place of these profound meditations might be the low hills of Newbury, or the rocky pastures of the Estabrook country in Concord. The next poem to be cited unmistakably refers to the old road winding among forests and orchards of that long-abandoned farm in Concord, near whose entrance stood Thoreau’s cabin, after its removal miles away from the shore of Walden, where the poet often sat with the hermit in his literary (not misanthropic) seclusion: —
THE LONELY ROAD.
Save where the Fox had leapt from wall to wall;
There were the swelling, glittering piles of snow;
We strayed along, — beneath our feet the lane
Creaked at each pace. . . .
Some scraggy orchards hem the landscape round,
A forest of sad apple-trees unpruned;
And then a newer orchard, — pet of him
Who in his dotage kept this lonely place :
In this wild scene, this shut-in orchard dell,
Men like ourselves once dwelt by roaring fires, —
Loved this still spot, nor had a further wish.
Where choicer fruit-trees showed a garden’s pride, —
Now crimsoned by the Sumach, whose red cones
Displace the colors of the cultured growth.
I people the void scene with Fancy’s eye,
And think of childish voices, — or that kind
Caressing hands of tender parents gone
Have twined themselves in soft and golden
All fled, —and silent as an unlit cave.
Where serious Winter sleeps, — or the soft hour
Of some half-dreamy Autumn afternoon :
And may no idle feet tread thy domain,
But only men to contemplation vowed, —
Still as ourselves, — creators of the Past!
“ Ourselves,” no doubt, were Channing and Thoreau, in their earlier acquaintance, while the one was yet dwelling by Walden, and the other, as he said,
Where like a hermit I must bide my time,
Surrounded by a landscape lying still,
All seasons through, as in the winter’s prime.”
That is, on the hill Ponkatasset, behind which, to the northwest, lay the broad Estabrook country, penetrated by its lonely road, or by a wild path across a brook and through the woods and barberry bushes; while in front, at the foot of the broad hill, ran the Concord River, with Thoreau’s boat, or Hawthorne’s, sailing down toward Ball’s Hill and the Great Meadows. There, said Thoreau, in his Week, published in 1849,
Doth often shine on Concord’s twilight day.
Like those first stars, whose silver beams on high
Most travellers cannot at first descry,
But eyes that wont to range the evening sky,”
It was a true verdict; for very few were the contemporaries who recognized the poetic radiance of Clianning’s genius, — rare and fitful, hut permanent, and winning greater attention now than when, more than half a century ago, his first book of poems was published, and commanded the praise of Emerson in the Dial and the Democratic Review.
For the neglect and partial oblivion which have attended his works he may thank himself in some degree, since many readers will accept Emerson’s critical statement: “I confess to a certain impatience of needless and even willful neglect of rhythm, in a poet who has sometimes shown a facility and grace in this art which promised to outdo his rivals, but now risks offense by harshness. One would think this poet had fits of deafness to rhythm, and was too impatient, or loved and trusted his fancy too entirely, to make a critical study of metre. There is neglect of correct finish, which even looks a little studied, — as if the poet crippled his pentameters to challenge notice to a subtler melody.”
With all this, and conscious of his undeserved fortune among American authors, Ellery Channing has yet lived his fourscore years in the light of his own adjuration to the ideal Poet: —
Kings cannot compass it, nor nobles have ;
They are the children of some handsome