1856 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Rodman Drake

George and Evert Duyckinck, in Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856) 2:201-5.



JOSEPH RODMAN DRAKE was born in the city of New York, August 7, 1795. His father died while he was quite young, and the family had to contend with adverse circumstances. There were four children, Joseph and three sisters — Louisa, Millicent, and Caroline, of whom the last shared in his poetic sensibility. Drake obtained a good education, and studied medicine under Dr. Nicholas Romayne, who was strongly attached to his young pupil. He obtained his degree, and shortly after, in October 1816, married Sarah, the daughter of Henry Eckford, a connexion which placed him in affluent circumstances. After his marriage he visited Europe with his wife, and his relative, Dr. De Kay, who had also married a daughter of Eckford, and who was subsequently known to the public as the author of a volume of Travels in Turkey, and of the zoological portion of the Natural History of New York. His health failing at this time, he visited New Orleans in the winter of 1819, for its recovery. He returned to New York in the spring, fatally smitten with consumption, and died in the following autumn, on the 21st September, 1820, at the age of twenty-five. He is buried in a quiet, rural spot, at Hunt's Point, Westchester county, in the neighborhood of the island of New York, where he passed some of his boyish years with a relative, and where the memory of his gentle manners and winning ways still lingers. A monument contains a simple inscription of his name and age, with a couplet from the tributary lines of Halleck:—

None knew him but to love him
Nor named him but to praise.

Drake was a poet in his boyhood. The anecdotes reserved of his early youth show the prompt kindling of the imagination. His first rhymes were a conundrum, which he perpetrated when he was scarcely five. When he was but seven or eight years old, he was one day punished for some childish offence, by imprisonment in a portion of the garret shut off by some wooden bars which had originally inclosed the place as a wine closet. His sisters stole up to witness his suffering condition, and found him pacing the room with something like a sword on his shoulder, watching an incongruous heap on the floor, in the character of Don Quixote at his vigils over the armor in the church. He called a boy of his acquaintance, named Oscar, "little Fingal;" his ideas from books thus early seeking living shapes before him in the world. In the same spirit, the child listened with great delight to the stories of an old lady about the Revolution. He would identify himself with the scene, and once, when he had given her a very energetic account of a ballad which he had read, upon her remarking it was a tough story, he quickly replied, with a deep sigh: "Ah! we had it tough enough that day, ma'am."

As a poet, "he lisped in numbers, for the numbers came." He wrote The Mocking-Bird, the earliest of his poems which has been preserved when a mere boy. It shows not merely a happy facility, but an unusual consciousness of the imitative faculty in young poets. A portion of a poem, The Past and the Present, which furnished the concluding passage of Leon in the published volume, was communicated to a friend in MS. when the author was about fourteen. On his European tour in 1818, he addressed two long rhyming letters to his friend Halleck — one dated Dumfries, in May, in the measure of Death and Dr. Hornbook, and in English-Scotch; the other, dated Irvine, in the same month, mostly on Burns, in the eight-syllable iambic.

On his return home to New York, he wrote, in March, 1819, the first of the famous Croakers, the verses to Ennui, which he sent to the Evening Post, and which Coleman, the editor, announced to the public as "the production of genius and taste." The authorship was for a while kept secret. Drake communicated it to Halleck, who joined his friend in tho series as Croaker, Jr., and they mostly signed the contributions, afterwards, Croaker & Co. Of the thirty or more poems of which the whole series was composed, Drake wrote nearly one half, including The American Flag, which appeared among them.

Though the poems have not been acknowledged by either author, and the public is of course somewhat in the dark as to these anonymous effusions, yet the mystery has been penetrated by various knowing persons of good memories and skilled in local and political gossip — of the result of whose labors the following is, we believe, a pretty accurate statement.

The Croakers, published in the Evening Post, appeared in rapid succession in one season, beginning with the lines by Drake, to Ennui, March 10,1819, and ending July 24, with The Curtain Conversation by Halleck, that pleasant appeal of Mrs. Dash, since included among his poems under the title Domestic Happiness. The following Croakers have been attributed to Drake: On Presenting the Freedom of the City in a Gold Box to a Great General; The Secret Mine sprung at a late Supper, an obscure local political squib, of temporary interest; To Mr. Potter, the Ventriloquist, who is supposed to be employed in the State Legislature, promoting a confusion of tongues among the members in mal-a-propos speeches; the first Ode to Mr. Simpson, Manager and Purveyor of the Theatre, — pleasant gossip about Woodworth, Coleman, Mrs. Barnes, Miss Leesugg who afterwards became Mrs. Hackett, and others: The Battery War, a sketch of a forgotten debate in Tammany; To John Minshull, Esq., Poet and Playwright, who formerly resided in Maiden-lane but now absent in England, a pleasant satire, light and effective upon a melancholy poetaster of the times; the lines to John Lang, Esq.,

In thee, immortal Lang! have all
The sister graces met—
Thou statesman! sage! and "editor"
Of the New York Gazette;

the Abstract of the Surgeon-General's Report, and, perhaps, the lines Surgeon-General himself — hitting off Dr. Mitchell's obvious peculiarities in the funniest manner; To — —, Esq., a legal friend, who is invited from his law books to "the feast of reason and the flow of soul of the wits;" an Ode to Impudence, which expresses the benefit and delight of paying debts in personal brass in preference to the usual gold and silver currency; an Ode to Fortune, with a glimpse of the resources of an easy lounger about the city; the Ode to Simon Dewitt, Esq., Surveyor-General, to whom it appears the public is indebted for those classic felicities in the naming of our rural towns Pompey, Ovid, Cicero, Manlius, and the like; To Croaker, Jr. in compliment to his associate Halleck, — with whom the honors of the whole, for wit and sentiment, are fairly divided.

The Culprit Fay arose out of a conversation in the summer of 1819, in which Drake, De Kay, Cooper the novelist, and Halleck were speaking of the Scottish streams and their adaptation to the uses of poetry by their numerous romantic associations. Cooper and Halleck maintained that our own rivers furnished no such capabilities, when Drake, as usual, took tho opposite side of the argument; and, to make his position good, produced in three days The Culprit Fay. The scene is laid in the highlands of the Hudson, but it is noticeable that the chief associations conjured up relate to the salt water; the poet drawing his inspiration from his familiar haunt on the Sound, at Hunt's Point.

The Culprit Fay is a poem of exquisite fancy, filled with a vast assemblage of vitalized poetical images of earth, air and water, which come thronging upon the reader in a tumult of youthful creative ecstasy. We cannot suppose this poem to have been written otherwise than it was, in a sudden brilliant dash of the mind, under the auspices of the fairest associations of natural scenery and human loveliness. No churl could have worked so generously prodigally bestowing poetical life upon the tiny neglected creatures which he brings within the range of the reader's unaccustomed sympathy. It is a Midsummer's Night's Dream after Shakespeare's Queen Mab; but the poet had watched this manifold existence of field and wave or he never would have described it, though a thousand Shakepeares had written. The story is pretty and sufficient for the purpose, which is not a very profound one — a mere junketing with a poet's fancy. The opening scenery is a beautiful moonlight view of the Highlands of the Hudson [excerpts omitted].

The poems of Drake have not all been preserved. He wrote with great facility upon th spur of the moment, and seldom cared for a piece after it was written, but would give it to the first friend who would ask him for it. Some of his best verses were written with his friends and family sitting round the winter hearth — a passing amusement of the hour. These impromptus, whether witty or sentimental, were of equally felicitous. He always touched matters of feeling with delicacy, and the Croakers witness the pungency of his wit. The following epigram does not appear in the collection of his poems:—

IMPROMPTU.
Unveil her mind, but hide her face,
And love will need no fuel;
Alas! that such an ugly case
Should hide so rich a jewel.

Of Drake's personal character and literary habits we are enabled to present several characteristic anecdotes, by the aid of Mr. James Lawson, who some time since prepared an elaborate notice of the poet for publication, and has kindly placed his manuscript notes at our disposal.

"Drake's reading," remarks Mr. Lawson, "commenced early, and included a wide range of books. His perception was rapid and his memory tenacious. He devoured all works of imagination. His favorite poets were Shakespeare, Burns, and Campbell. He was fond of discussion among his friends, and would talk by the hour, either side of an argument affording him equal opportunity. The spirit, force, and at the same time simplicity of expression, with his artless manner, gained him many friends. He had that native politeness which springs from benevolence, which would stop to pick up the hat or the crutch of an old servant, or walk by the side of the horse of a timid lady. When he was lost to his friends one of them remarked that it was not so much his social qualities which engaged the affections as a certain inner grace or dignity of mind, of which they were hardly conscious at the time.

"Free from vanity and affectation, he had no morbid seeking for popular applause. When he was on his death-bed, at his wife's request, Dr. De Kay collected and copied all his poems which could be found, and took them to him. 'See, Joe,' said he to him, 'what I have done.' 'Burn them,' he replied, 'they are valueless.'

"Halleck's acquaintance with Drake arose in a poetical incident on the Battery, one day, when in a retiring shower the heavens were spanned by a rainbow. De Kay and Drake were together, and Halleck was talking with them: the conversation taking the turn of some passing expression of the wishes of the moment, when Halleck whimsically remarked that it would be heaven for him, just then, to ride on that rainbow, and read Campbell. The idea arrested the attention of Drake. He seized Halleck by the hand, and from that moment they were friends.

"Drake's person was well formed and attractive: a fine head, with a peculiar blue eye, pale and cold in repose, but becoming dark and brilliant under excitement. His voice was full-toned and musical; he was a good reader, and sang with taste and feeling, though rarely."

A fastidious selection, including the Culprit Fay, was made from Drake's poems, and published in 1836 by the poet's only child, his daughter, married to the late Commodore De Kay, famed for his naval engagement in the La Plata while commanding the squadron of Buenos Ayres.