« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
who are or have been members of our club become Ambassadors, because they are undeniably fitted for the missions to Great Britain and France, even authors are made to sit in state. To-night's gathering, then, is, indeed, exceptional, being in public honor of an American author here residentof "one of our own "-who is not booked for a foreign mission, nor leaving the country, nor returning, nor doing anything more unusual than to perform his stint of work, and to sing any song that comes to him-as he tells us,
"Not because he woos it long,
But because it suits its will,
Tired at last of being still.”
Our homage is rendered, with love and enthusiasm, for his service to "mere literature "-for his indomitable devotion throughout half a century to the joy and toil of his profession, in which he has so fought the fight and kept the faith of a working man of letters. It is rendered to the most distinguished poet, of his country and generation, still remaining with us and still in full voice. It is rendered to the comrade-to the man who, with his modesty and fortitude and the absence of self-seeking-with the quips and quirks that cover his gravest moods, with his attachment for the city which has given him that which Lamb so loved, "the sweet security of streets "—it is rendered, I say, to the man who best preserves for us, in his living presence, the traditions of all that an English-speaking poet and book-fellow should be to constitute a satisfying type.
There is, perhaps, a special fitness in our gathering at this time. I sometimes have thought upon the possible career of our poet if his life had been passed in the suburbs of the down-east Athens, among serenities and mutualities so auspicious to the genius and repute of that shining group lately gathered to the past. One thing is certain, he would not have weathered his seventieth birthday, at any season, without receiving such a tribute as this, nor would a public dinner have reminded him of days when a poet was glad to get any dinner at all. Through his birth, Massachusetts claims her share in his distinction. But, having been brought to New York in childhood, he seems to have reasoned out for himself the corollary to a certain famous epigram, and to
have thought it just as well to stay in the city which resident Bostonians keep as the best place to go to while still in the flesh. Probably he had not then realized the truth, since expressed in his own lines:
"Yes, there's a luck in most things, and in none
His birthday, in fact, comes in midsummer, when New York is more inert than an analytic novel. This dinner, then, is one of those gifts of love which are all the more unstinted because by chance deferred.
It was in the order of things, and no cause for blame, that, after this town passed from the provincial stage, there was so long a period when it had to be, as De Quincey said of Oxford Street, a stony-hearted mother to her bookmen and poets; that she had few posts for them and little of a market. Even her colleges had not the means, if they had the will, to utilize their talents and acquirements. We do owe to her newspapers and magazines, and now and then to the traditional liking of Uncle Sam for his bookish offspring, that some of them did not fall by the way, even in that arid time succeeding the Civil War, when we learned that letters were foregone, not only inter arma, but for a long while afterward. Those were the days when English went untaught, and when publishers were more afraid of poetry than they now are of verse. Yet here is one who was able to live through it all, and now sees a changed condition, to the evolution of which he contributed his full share. But he is no more a child of the past than of the present, nor need he repine like Cato, as one who has to account for himself to a new generation. He is with us and of us, and in the working ranks, as ever.
For all this he began long enough ago to have his early poetry refused by Poe, because it was too good to be the work of an obscure stripling, and to have had Hawthorne for his sponsor and friend. His youth showed again how much more inborn tendency has to do with one's life than any external forces-such as guardianship, means, and what we call education. The thrush takes to the bough, wheresoever hatched and fledged. Many waters cannot quench genius, neither can the floods drown it. The story of Dick
ens's boyhood, as told by himself, is not more pathetic-nor is its outcome more beautiful-than what we know of our guest's experiences-his orphanage, his few years' meagre schooling, his work as a boy in all sorts of shifting occupations, the attempt to make a learned blacksmith of him, his final apprenticeship to iron-moulding, at which he worked on the East Side from his eighteenth to his twenty-first year. As Dr. Griswold put it, he began to mould his thoughts into the symmetry of verse while he moulded the molten metal into shapes of grace. Mr. Stoddard, however, says that a knowledge of foundries was not one of the learned Doctor's strong points. Yet the young artisan somehow got hold of books, and not only made poetry, but succeeded in showing it to such magnates as Park Benjamin and Willis. The kindly Willis said that he had brains enough to make a reputation, but that "writing was hard work to do, and ill paid when done." But the youth was bound to take the road to Arcady. He asked for nothing better than this ill-paid craft. His passion for it, doubtless was strengthened by his physical toil and uncongenial surroundings. For one I am not surprised that much of his early verse, which is still retained in his works, breathes the spirit of Keats, though where and how this strayed singer came to study that most perfect and delicate of masters none but himself can tell. The fact remains that he somehow, also, left his moulding and trusted to his pen. To use his own words, he "set resolutely to work to learn the only trade for which he seemed fitted—that of literature." From that time to this, a half century, he has clung to it. Never in his worst seasons did he stop to think how the world treated him, or that he was entitled to special providences. He accepted poverty or good-luck with an equal mind, content with the reward of being a reader, a writer, and, above all, a poet. He managed not to loaf, and yet to invite his soul-and his songs are evidence that the invitation was accepted. If to labor is to pray, his industry has been a religion, for I doubt if there has been a day in all these fifty years when, unless disabled bodily, he has not worked at his trade.
We all know with what results. He has earned a manly living from the first, and therewithal has steadily contributed a vital portion to the current, and to the enduring, literature
of his land and language. There was one thing that characterized the somewhat isolated New York group of young writers in his early prime—especially himself and his nearest associates, such as Taylor and Boker, and, later, Aldrich and Winter. They called themselves squires of poesy, in their romantic way, but they had neither the arrogance nor the chances for a self-heralding, more common in these chipper modern days. They seem to have followed their art because they adored it, quite as much as for what it could do for them.
Of Mr. Stoddard it may be said that there have been few important literary names and enterprises, North or South, but he has "been of the company." If he found friends in youth, he has abundantly repaid his debt in helpful counsel to his juniors-among whom I am one of the eldest and most grateful. But I cannot realize that thirty-seven years of our close friendship have passed since I showed my first early work to him, and he took me to a publisher. Just as I found him then, I find him any evening now, in the same chair, in the same corner of the study, "under the evening lamp." We still talk of the same themes; his jests are as frequent as ever, but the black hair is silvered and the active movements are less alert. I then had never known a mind so stored with bookish lore, so intimate with the lives of rare poets gone by, yet to what it then possessed he, with his wonderful memory, has been adding ever since.
If his early verse was like Keats, how soon he came to that unmistakable style of his own-to the utterance of those pure lyrics, "most musical, most melancholy "—" to the perfection of his matchless songs," and again, to the mastery of blank verse, that noblest measure, in "The Fisher and Charon "-to the grace and limpid narrative verse of "The King's Bell," to the feeling, wisdom-above all, to the imagination-of his loftier odes, among which that on Lincoln remains unsurpassed. This is not the place to eulogize such work. But one thing may be noted in the progress of what in Berkeley's phrase may be called the planting of arts and letters in America. Mr. Stoddard and his group were the first after Poe to make poetry—whatever else it might be the rhythmical creation of beauty. As an outcome of this, and in distinction from the poetry
of conviction to which the New England group were so addicted, look at the "Songs of Summer" which our own poet brought out in 1857. For beauty pure and simple it still seems to me fresher and more significant than any single volume produced up to that date by any Eastern poet save Emerson. It was poetry or nothing," and though it came out of time in that stormy period, it had to do with the making of new poets thereafter.
In conclusion, I am moved to say, very much as I wrote on his seventieth birthday, that our poet's laborious and nobly independent life, with all its lights and shadows, has been one to be envied. There is much in completeness-its rainbow has not been dissevered-it is a perfect arc. As I know him, it has been the absolute realization of his young desire, the unhasting, unresting life of a poet and student, beyond that of any other writer among us. Its compensations have been greater than those of ease and wealth. Even now he would not change it, though at an age when one might well have others stay his hands. He had the happiness to win in youth the one woman he loved, with the power of whose singular and forceful genius his own is inseparably allied. These wedded poets have been blessed in their children, in the exquisite memory of the dead, in the success and loyalty of the living. His comrades have been such as he pictured to his hope in youth-poets, scholars, artists of the beautiful, with whom he has " warmed both hands before the fire of life." None of them has been a more patient worker or more loved his work. To it he has given his years, whether waxing or waning; he has surrendered for it the strength of his right hand, he has yielded the light of his eyes, and complains not, nor need he, "for so were Milton and Mæonides." What tears this final devotion may have caused to flow, come from other eyes than his own. And so, with gratulation void of all regrets, let us drink to the continued years, service, happiness of our strong and tender-hearted elder comrade, our white-haired minstrel, Richard Henry Stoddard.