There is a feeling of reverence associated with our reminiscences of departed worth and genius. It is too holy and deep for outward manifestation. It hovers closely around the heart, sweeping in secret the fine and hidden chords of our better sympathies. In contemplating the character of the subject of this sketch, I feel in no ordinary degree, the peculiar delicacy of the task I have undertaken. It like lifting the shroud from the still face of the dead, that the living may admire its yet lingering loveliness. I almost feel as if I were writing in the presence of the disembodied spirit of the departed; — as if the eye of his modest and unpretending genius were following the pen, which traces his brief history.
JOHN GARDINER CALIKINS BRAINARD, was born at New-London, Connecticut, in October, 1796. He was the son of the late, Hon. Jeremiah G. Brainard, formerly a Judge of the Superior Court in that State. His preparatory studies were under the direction of his elder brother, who is at this time a highly respectable member of the Connecticut bar. He entered Yale College at the age of fifteen; — and soon gave evidence of the possession of a superior gift of intellect. His genius was not of that startling nature, which blazes out suddenly from the chaos of an unformed character, dazzling with its unexpected brilliance. It developed itself gradually and quietly. It was perceptible to others even before its possessor seemed conscious of its influence. Never intrusive, and always shrinking from competition, it called forth an admiration which, had no alloy of envy. There was a modesty in the manifestations of his genius, a disinterestedness, at times almost approaching carelessness, which forbade the suspicion of rivalship, and which discovered no inclination to contend for those honors which all felt were within his grasp.
During his residence at Yale College he was a universal favorite. Although, even at that early period, something of the sadness which clouded his after life occasionally gathered around him, he had all the cheerfulness of a happy child in the society of his friends. His smile was ever ready to greet their good humored sallies; and he had, in turn, his own peculiar faculty of awaking mirthful and pleasant emotions. In his gayer moments of social intercourse, the drollery of his manner — the singularity in the mode of his expression, and in the association of his ideas, — something of which is perceptible in his lighter poems, — rendered his society peculiarly fascinating. His wit seldom took a personal direction. It played lightly over the easy current of his conversation, — brilliant — sparkling — but perfectly harmless.
He was not a hard student. He wanted in a great degree even the common stimulus of Ambition. He had no desire to triumph over his fellows. He was contented with his own retirement of thought. His purposes of life, too, were shadowy, undefined and mutable. He had consequently, no given point upon which to direct the powers of his mind. The rays were scattered carelessly abroad, which should have been concentrated upon one bright and burning focus.
On leaving College, he returned to New-London, and entered the office of his brother William F. Brainard Esq. as a Student at Law. While in this situation, he experienced a disappointment of that peculiar nature, which so often leaves an indelible impression upon the human heart. It probably had some influence upon the tenor of his after life. It threw a cloud between him and the sunshine; — it turned back upon its fountain a frozen current of rebuked affections. This circumstance has been mentioned only as affording in some measure, a solution of what might have been otherwise inexplicable in the depression of his maturer years. Perhaps there are few men of sensitive feelings and high capacities with whom something of the kind does not exist, — something which the heart reverts to with mingled tenderness and sorrow, — one master chord of feeling the tones of whose vibrations are loudest and, longest, — one strong hue in the picture of existence, which blends with, and perchance overpowers all others, — one passionate remembrance, which, at times, like the rod of the Levite swallows up all other emotions. This great passion of the heart, when connected with disappointed feeling, is not easily forgotten. Mirth, wine, the excitement of convivial intercourse, — the gaities of fashion, — the struggles of ambition, may produce a temporary release from its presence. But a word carelessly uttered — a flower — a tone of music — a strain of poetry ,— "Striking the electric chain wherewith we are darkly bound," may recall it again before the eye of the mind, — and the memory of the past — the glow and ardor of passion — the hope the fear — the disappointment — will crowd in upon the heart. It is at such moments that the image of old happiness rises up like the Astarte of Manfred, only to mock the sick senses with an ungratifying visitation.
After his admission to the Bar he removed to the City of Middletown, in the year 1819, and commenced the practice of his profession. His situation was by no means congenial to his feelings. He had grown weary of the dull routine of his studies. To use his own language, "he was of a temperament much too sensitive for his own comfort in a calling, which exposed him to personal altercation, contradiction, and that sharp and harsh collission, which tries and strengthens the passions of the heart, at least as much as it does the faculties of the mind."
Sensitive to a fault, — with scarcely a desire for distinction in the profession which had been assigned him, with no feeling of avarice, and with little of worldly prudence, he yielded to the lassitude and unnerving relaxation of mind and body to which every young professional man is exposed, while waiting for the tardy manifestations of public favor. Too much is often expected of a mind like that of Brainard. The world judges from external appearance; and is ever ready to condemn as eccentric and unprofitable, the bias of that genius, which from its very nature is unable to follow in the vulgar path of common and plodding intellect. Locke, whose metaphysical discoveries are equalled only by those of Newton in the material universe, was accounted unfit even for a physician. Akenside lived unrespected in his native town, and his poetical reputation was injurious to his profession. Blackstone and Lord Mansfield bade farewell to the muses when they betook themselves seriously to the law. Darwin prudently concealed his poetry, until his medical reputation was established. Home published Douglass, and lost for so doing the pastoral care of his parish. Sir Richard Blackmore enjoyed an almost unparallelled reputation as a physician: He published his poetry, and there were "none to do him reverence."
Genius has its own peculiar path. It cannot float upon the common current of the world. It has its own ideal dwelling-place — its unparticipated joys; and its "heart knoweth its own bitterness, neither does the stranger intermeddle therewith." Standing aloof from the common path, — an alien in feeling and action, — its possessor has been too often regarded in conformity with the counsel of the, dying man in Otway's tragedy:
The man that's singular. His mind's unsound—
His spleen o'erweighs his brain.
The apparent listlessness and inactivity of Brainard were productive of no little disappointment and anxiety on the part of his friends. They saw him turning away from the struggles of business, and the path of ambition, apparently regardless of what Roger Williams has quaintly termed, "the Worlde's great Trinitie," Pleasure, Profit and Honor; — and while they acknowledged his high intellectual capacities, they lamented his want of worldly wisdom.
During his residence in Middletown he composed some of his minor poems; — and made several contributions to a literary paper in the City of New-Haven, conducted by the late Cornelius Tuthill, Esq. While here, he made no effort to win the attention of the public. His door was always open to the lounger; and his numerous friends and associates were never unwelcome, except when they visited him in the character of clients.
Weary of his experience of the profession for which he had been educated, he turned at last to the only path which seemed open to him; and entered upon the uncertain and precarious destiny of a literary writer. He had found himself unable to mingle in the hot and eager strife of that political arena, which the institutions and spirit of our country have thrown open to numberless competitors; and for which the profession of the law is peculiarly adapted. To bear off the political palm, — to stamp upon passing events the impress of a master mind, — to trample down the weak and wrestle with the strong, required nerves of "sterner stuff" than those of Brainard. A stranger to malevolence and party bitterness himself, he shrank from a collision with the ruder and turbulent spirits of political ambition. It would be well for our country, if her party contests were always of such a character, that the sensitive and the ingenuous, the pure-hearted and the gifted might minister at her political altars, without soiling the white ephod of their priesthood by a contact with treachery, corruption and violence.
In February, 1822, he entered upon the duties of an Editor in the City of Hartford, having contracted "for conducting the Connecticut Mirror, with its publisher, Mr. P. B. Goodsell. Unknown at this time, to fame, and struggling with a gathering despondency, he began his literary career. His anticipations were by no means those of buoyant and elastic feeling. His hope was like that described by Cowley:—
Whose weak being ruined is
Alike if it succeed and if it miss,
Whom good or ill doth equally confound,
And both the horns of fate's dilemma wound.
He had failed in the profession to which he had devoted the morning of his existence. He was making an experiment, upon the issue of which the character of his future destiny depended. He had seen enough of life, — he had felt enough of the workings of his own spirit, to know that his "thoughts were not the thoughts of other men," — that a gulf, wider than that which yawned between Dives and the beatified spirits of happiness, separated him from the common sympathies of the busy, grasping, unnatural world. He went to his weekly task as to the performance of an unwelcome duty, — but without physical energy or firmness of purpose. His temperament was totally unfitted for the rough collissions of editorial controversy. There was too much gentleness in his nature, — too much charity for the offending, and too much modesty in his own pretensions, to allow of any rudeness of criticism or severity of censure. His writings in the Connecticut Mirror are uniformly gentlemanly and goodnatured. It is impossible to discover in them any thing like malice or wantonness of satire. He was the first to award due praise to his literary brethren. His criticisms were those of a man willing to lend his fine ear to the harmonies of poetry, and his clear healthful eye to the light of intellectual beauty, wherever these were to be seen or heard. In deciding upon the merits of a new publication, he did not pause to inquire who was the author, or coldly weigh in the balance of his selfishness, the probable effect upon himself, of a favorable or unfavorable expression of opinion. He had nothing of that carping, mole-visioned spirit of criticism, which has neither eye to see, nor heart to appreciate truth and beauty in others ; but which like the torch, which the ancients ascribed to their personification of Malevolence, lingers only upon faults.
The originality and spirit of his poetical writings moon attracted attention. His pieces were extensively copied, and, not unfrequently, with high encomium. The voice of praise is always sweet, but doubly so when it falls for the first time upon a youthful ear. But, Brainard was one of those who "bear their faculties meekly." Although publishing, week after week, poems which would have done honor to the genius of Burns and Wordsworth, he never publicly betrayed any symptoms of vanity. He held on the quiet and even tenor of his way, apparently regardless of that prodigality of intellectual beauty which blossomed around him. With but a moiety of his powers, more ardent and aspiring spirits would have striven mightily for the sunshine of applause. Brainard sought the shade. The fine current of his mind, like the 'sacred river' of the Kubla Khan, "meandered with an easy motion," in the silence and the coolness of abstracted thought, far below the noisy and heated atmosphere of the world. Its music was for himself alone. He cared not that the great world should hear it. It was like that hidden brooklet which Coleridge speaks of,
To the sleeping woods all night
Singing a quiet tune—
a stream, it is true, which burst forth occasionally into the live sunshine, like the flow of molten diamonds, but which seemed to murmur sweeter, where it caught its glimpses of blue, sky and sailing cloud, through the dim vistas of the shaded solitude.
Aside from its original poetry and occasional notices of new books, the Mirror, while under his control hardly rose to mediocrity. The editorial remarks were usually comprised in a few short and hastily written paragraphs. There was a childish playfulness in his brief notices of important events. His political speculations were puerile and boyish. He turned off the Tariff with a humorous comparison or a quaint quotation; and dismissed the subject of the Presidency with a jeu de esprit. Feeling himself unqualified by education or habit for the discussion of these matters, he would not for the enjoyment of a fictitious reputation,
—Get him glass eyes,
And like a scurvy politician seem
To see the things he did not.
He received considerable assistance from his brother, — whose frequent communications are marked by strong, nervous and original thought.
His habits of self reliance, of a gentle retirement into the calm beauty of his own mind rendered him, in a measure indifferent to the opinion of the world. Yet he loved society — the society of the gifted and intellectual — and of those who had become accustomed to his peculiarities of manner and feeling, who could appreciate his merit, or relish his good natured jests and "mocks and knaveries," and laugh with him at what he considered the ludicrous eagerness of the multitude after the vanities of existence. In larger and mixed circles his peculiar sensitiveness was a frequent cause of unhappiness. Amidst his gaiety and humour, a word spoken inadvertently — some unmeaning gesture — some casual inattention or unlucky oversight, checked at once, the free glow of his sprightly conversation — the jest died upon his lip, — and the melancholy which had been lifted from his heart, fell back again with increased heaviness.
A writer in one of our Daily Journals, in a brief but, very eloquent notice of the death of Brainard, thus speaks of his intellectual character while a resident in Hartford: "Brainard did not make much show in the world. He was an unassuming and unambitious man — but he had talents which should have made him our pride. They were not showy or dazzling — and perhaps that is the reason that the general eye did not rest upon him — but he had a keen discriminating susceptibility, and a taste exquisitely refined and true." * * * "Brainard had no enemies. It was not that his character was negative or his courtesy universal. There was a directness in his manner, and a plain-spoken earnestness in his address, which could never have been wanting in proper discrimination. He would never have compromised with the unworthy for their good opinion. But it was his truth — his fine, open, ingenuous truth — bound up with a character of great purity and benevolence, which won love for him. I never met a man of whom all men spoke so well. I fear I never shall. When I was introduced to him, he took me aside and talked with me for an hour. I shall never forget that conversation. He made no common-place remarks. He would not talk of himself, though I tried to lead him to it. He took a high intellectual tone, and I never have heard its beauty or originality equalled. He knew wonderfully well the secrets of mental relish and developement; and had evidently examined himself till he had grown fond, as every one must who does it, of a quiet, contemplative, self-cultivating life. He had gone on with this process until the spiritual predominated entirely over the material man. He was all soul — all intellect — and he neglected therefore, the exciting ambitions and the common habits which keep the springs of ordinary life excited and healthy — and so he died — and I know not that for his own sake we should mourn."
The citizens of Hartford were by no means unmindful of the real worth of Brainard, and if any thing of an unpleasant nature occurred in his intercourse with them, it might generally be traced to his own susceptibility and tenderness of feeling. The writer from whom I have just quoted, thus describes the circumstances under which he first saw the subject of his sketch: "The first time I ever saw him, I met him in a gay and fashionable circle. He was pointed out to me as the poet Brainard — a plain, ordinary looking individual, careless in his dress, and apparently without the least outward claim to the attention of those who value such advantages. But there was no person there so much or so flatteringly attended to. He was among those who saw him every day and knew him familiarly; and I almost envied him, as he went round, the unqualified kindness and even affection, with which every bright girl and every mother in that room received him. He was evidently the idol, not only of the poetry — loving and gentler sex — but also of the young men who were about him an evidence of worth, let me say, which is as high as it is uncommon."
In 1824-5, he prepared for the press a small volume of his poems. It was published at New-York in the Spring of 1825. It contains about 40 short pieces of poetry, most of which were cut from the files of the Mirror with little or no revision. The quaint humor of the author appears in the title page: Occasional Pieces of Poetry, by John G. C. Brainard.
Some said, "John, print it;" others said, "Not so;"—
Some said, "It might do good;" others said, " No."
The introduction is brief and characteristic: "The author of the following pieces has been induced to publish them in a book, from considerations which cannot be interesting to the public. Many of these little poems have been printed in the Connecticut Mirror; and the others are just fit to keep them company. No apologies are made, and no criticisms deprecated. The common place story of the importunities of friends, though it had its share in the publication, is not insisted upon; but the vanity of the author, if others choose to call it such, is a natural motive; and the hope of 'making a little something by it,' is an honest acknowledgment, if it is a poor excuse."
In this humble and unpretending manner, a volume was introduced to the public, of which it is not too much to say, that it contains more pure, beautiful poetry, than any equal number of pages ever published in this country. I would make no rash assertion. Fame cannot visit Brainard in his grave; and I would not wrong his memory by exaggerated eulogium. Nor would I detract in the slightest degree from the just reputation of the living. As an American I am proud of the many gifted spirits who have laid their offerings upon the altar of our national literature. I believe them capable of greater and more successful efforts. I would encourage them onward. There is a growing disposition at home and abroad to reward literary exertion. And even if such were not the fact, is there nothing in the mild process of intellectual refinement, which is of itself worth more than the great world can bestow!
"Poetry" says Coleridge, "has been to me its own exceeding great reward." This consciousness of rightly improving the endowments of Heaven, — of possessing a pure, internal fountain of innocent happiness, to which the spirit may turn for its refreshing from the fever of the world, — this contented self reliance,
Which nothing earthly gives, or can destroy,
The soul's calm sunshine and the heartfelt joy
is far more to be desired than the deceitful murmurs of applause falling upon the craving ear of an unsatisfied spirit. Goethe learned this truth, long before the public eye was fixed upon him. He could be happy and satisfied in the enjoyment of his own intellectual paradise, even before the world had realized or acknowledged its exceeding beauty. In such a state the mind becomes worthy of its origin. It realizes in Time, something of its expansion in Eternity.
It is not to be denied that some of the poems in this little collection were totally unworthy of Brainard's genius, — hasty, careless, and even in some instances below mediocrity — serving only as a foil to the exceeding beauty of the others. But what poet of modern days has ever published a perfect volume? — Byron threw his hasty, but powerful productions before the public with beauty wedded to deformity. Southey "discourses fustian" in his Joan of Arc; and in the midst of his wild dream of Eastern wonder tell his ridiculous story of Kehama's ride into Hell over nine several bridges. Wordsworth, with all his fine perceptions of natural beauty, and his exquisite philosophy, sinks at times into the most disgusting puerility, — the pathos and sentiment of an overgrown baby. Even the gifted Shelley wearies us with his sickly conceits and unsubstantial theories; — and the author of St. Agnes Eve is mawkish and affected in his Endymion. It is certainly creditable to our Literary Reviews and Journals that, notwithstanding its obvious defects, the volume of Brainard was received with general and liberal encomium. The North American Review — one of our ablest periodicals — in a notice, generally favorable and extending through several pages, after speaking of the propensity of American writers to indulge in an unnatural and affected style — "the contortions of the Sybil, without the inspiration:" — makes the following remarks upon the particular subject in question: — "The instances are rare in which the charge of affectation can be made against Mr. Brainard, whatever may be his faults of taste and execution; or in which his practice can be said to sanction the doctrine that
One line for sense and one for rhyme
Is quite enough at any time.
He seldom aims at more than he can accomplish: the chief misfortune with him is, that he should be contented sometimes to accomplish so little, and that little in so imperfect a manner. That he possesses much of the genuine spirit and power of poetry, no one can doubt who reads some of the pieces in this volume, yet there are others which, if not absolutely below mediocrity, would never be suspected as coming from a soil watered by the dews of Castaly. They might pass off very well as exercises in rhyme of an incipient poet, the first efforts of pluming the wing for a bolder, flight, and they might hold for a day an honorable place in the corner of a gazette, but to a higher service, a more conspicuous station, they could not wisely be called. In short, if we take all the author's compositions in this volume together, nothing is more remarkable concerning them than their inequality; the high poetical beauty and strength, both in thought and language of some parts, and the want of good taste and the extreme negligence of others."
Although the success which attended his first publication was such as might have stimulated one of a different temperament to greater and more systematic exertion, it had no sensible effect upon Brainard. His friends urged him to undertake a poem of some length in which he could concentrate the full vigor and beauty of his poetical powers; but he could never be prevailed upon to task his mind with the effort. He continued however to publish at long intervals, his "occasional pieces." These are now collected for the first time in the present volume.
It is very probable that lassitude and bodily debility may have been the prominent cause of the inactivity of Brainard even after the general voice had pronounced him capable of "marking the age with his name." Fame may "minister to a mind diseased;" but, it cannot re-fill the exhausted fountains of existence; and that for which health and happiness have been sacrificed, may prove at last a mockery — like "delicates poured upon the mouth shut up, or as meats set upon a grave."
In the Spring of 1827, his health, which had for some time been failing, admonished him to seek its restoration by means of a temporary release from the duties of his profession. He returned to the quiet of his birthplace. There, all was affection and sympathy; and for these his sick spirit had longed "even as the servant earnestly desireth the shadow." His illness soon assumed the fearful character of a decided consumption.
During the Summer he spent a short time on Long Island. While here he composed that beautiful and touching sketch "The Invalid on the East end of Long Island," which cannot but be admired for its touching pathos, and exquisite description. It is remarkable as the only piece in which his sickness is alluded to. He did not wish to turn the public eye upon himself. He was contented with the sympathy and affectionate kindness of his intimate friends. In the loneliness of his sick chamber these were worth more to him than the plaudits of a world.
He never returned to Hartford. The slow but certain progress of disease compelled him to resign into other hands the editorial department of his paper. Notwithstanding the circumstances under which it was written, his brief and pertinent valedictory, is buoyant with the author's characteristic cheerfulness.
He wrote while at New-London, several short poems which were published in the Mirror. These bear no evidence of that depression which so generally accompanies a lingering illness. They are fanciful and brilliant — indicating a clear and healthful mental vision, unaffected by the circumstance of physical decay.
To most minds there is something terrible in the steady and awful decline of the powers of nature, the gradual loosening of the silver cord of existence. It is in truth a fearful thing to perish slowly in the very spring of existence, — to feel day after day, our hold on life less certain, — to look out upon Nature with an eye and a spirit capable of realizing its beauty, and yet to feel that to us it is forbidden, — to be conscious of deep affections and tender sympathies and yet to know that these must perish in our own bosoms, unshared and solitary, — to feel the fever of ambition, without the power to satisfy its thirst, — ourselves dark and despairing, to "look into happiness through the eyes of others. But Brainard was happy in the hour of sickness and the failing of his strength. Death for him had few terrors. — Young as he was he had learned to turn aside from the world, — to live in it without leaning upon it. His were the consolations of that religion whose inheritance is not of this world. While in health — in the widest range of his fancy — in the purest play of his humor, he had never indulged in irreverence or profanity, for there was always a deep under-current of religious feeling, tempering the lighter elements of his disposition. He had moreover made himself thoroughly acquainted with the great truths of Christianity by a long and careful study of the sacred volume. And when, to use his own language, he turned
Away from all that's bright and beautiful—
To the sick pillow and the feverish bed,
the pure and sustaining influence of that peace which is "not such as the world giveth" was around him, "like the shadow of a great rock in a weary land." There is a refining process in sickness. The human spirit is purified and made better by the ordeal of affliction. The perishing body is strongly contrasted with its living guest — the one sinking into ruins — the other 'secure in its existence,' and strong in its imperishable essence. It may be that, according to the poet,
The soul's dark cottage, battered and decayed,
Still lets in light through chinks which Time has made,
and that when the pleasures and varieties of the world are stealing away forever — when the frail foothold of existence is washing rapidly away — like the disciple of the Egyptian Priesthood, who, in ascending the mystic ladder of the temple of Isis, was compelled to grasp the round above him, while the one beneath him was crumbling in pieces — the human spirit is led upward by the very insufficiency of its earthly support, until at last it takes hold on Heaven. In the hour of health and high enjoyment, a thousand images of earthly beauty rise between us and the better land. It is only when those "which look out at the window are darkened" that the full glory of the beatific vision is realized. It is in the shadow, and not in the bright sunshine that the eye looks farthest into the blue mysteries above us.
The Rev. Mr. M'Ewen pastor of the Church of which Brainard was a member, in a letter to the Rev. Dr. Hawes of Hartford, thus describes the last hours of his friend. "In my first visit to him, two or three months before his death, he said: — 'I am sick and near death, and I ought not to be too confident how I should act or feel had I a prospect of health and the worldly pleasures and prosperity which it would offer. But, if I know myself I would, were I well, devote my life to the service of Jesus Christ.' I stated some of the. main doctrines of Christianity, 'These are scripture,' he said — 'they are true, and delightful to me. The plan of Salvation in the Gospel is all that I wish for; — it fills me with wonder and gratitude; and makes the prospect of death not only peaceful but joyful. — 'My salvation,' he continued, 'is not to be effected by a profession of religion; but when I read Christ's requirements, and look round on my friends and acquaintance, I cannot cannot be content without performing this public duty." He was propounded, and in due time, pale and feeble, yet manifestly with mental joy and serenity, he came to the house of God, professed his faith and was baptized, and entered into covenant with God and his people. The next Sabbath the Lord's Supper was administered. It was wet and he could not be out. His disappointment was great. A few friends went to his room and communed with him there in this ordinance. While his father's family and others, during the scene, were dissolved in tears, he sat with dignity and composure, absorbed in the interesting ceremony in which he was engaged. In my last interview with him, after he was, at his own request, left alone with me, he said: "I wish not to be deceived about my state — but I am not in the usual condition to try myself. No one abuses a sick man — every thing around me is sympathy and kindness. I used to be angry when people spoke what was true of me. I have now no resentment. I can forgive all, and pray I think for the salvation of all, I am not tried with pain. I have hardly any out, ward trial.' 'But,' said I, 'You have one great trial — you must soon part with life:' 'And I am willing' he replied. 'The Gospel makes my prospect delightful. God is a God of truth, and I think I am reconciled to him.' I saw him no more, but was told that he died in peace."
He died September 26th, 1828. The event was widely deplored. The poetry of Brainard had addressed itself directly to the heart, and had made its author beloved by thousands who had never seen him. Brainard has beautifully described the sorrows of the Tuscan philosopher when his favorite Pleiad had vanished from its clustering sisterhood. It was with something of this feeling that the friends of American genius looked out upon and numbered the lights of our literary horizon, and mourned for that missing star, whose rising was so full of promise. In the places of his former residence the news of his death, though long expected, came like a sudden and mournful visitation. All felt, more sensibly than ever, the true worth of the noble spirit which had been among them. In his own family there was that deeper "grief which passed show" a sorrow which could be alleviated only by the consolations of that hope which sustained in his last moments, their departed relative.
Where shall they turn to mourn him less?—
When cease to hear his cherished name?
Time cannot teach Forgetfulness,
When Grief's full heart is fed by Fame.
The person of Brainard was rather below the ordinary standard — a circumstance which gave him a great deal of uneasiness, and any allusion to it, however playful, never failed to injure deeply his sensitive feelings. His features were expressive of mildness and reflection. There was a dreamy listlessness in his eye, which, however, gave way to the changes of feeling and passion.
I cannot forbear introducing in this place an extract of a letter from a Lady, highly distinguished in the walks of Literature, — one who knew Brainard well, and who has on another occasion, paid a beautiful and just tribute to his memory:
"To the intellectual power, and poetical eminence of Mr. Brainard, the public will undoubtedly do justice. But those who knew and valued him as a friend, can bear testimony to the intrinsic excellencies of his character. They were admitted with a generous freedom into the sanctuary of his soul, and saw those fountains of deep and disinterested feeling which were hidden from casual observation. Friendship was not in him a modification of selfishness, lightly conceived, and as lightly dissolved. His sentiments respecting it, were formed on the noble models of ancient story, — and he proved himself capable of its delicate perceptions, and its undeviating integrities. His heart had an aptitude both for its confidential interchange, and its sacred responsibilities. In his intercourse with society, he exhibited neither the pride of genius, nor the pedantry of knowledge. To the critick he might have appeared deficient in personal dignity. So humbly did he think of himself, and his own attainments, that the voice of approbation and kindness, seemed necessary to assure his spirits, and even to sustain his perseverance in the labours of literature. — Possessed both of genuine wit, and of that playful humour which rendered his company sought and admired, he never trifled with the feelings of others, or aimed to shine at their expense. Hence he expected the same regard to his own mental comfort, — and was exceedingly vulnerable to the careless jest, or to the chillness of reserve.
"It did not require the eye of intimacy to discover that he was endowed with an acute sensibility. This received early nurture, and example in the bosom of most affectionate relatives. The endearing associations connected with his paternal mansion, preserved their freshness and force, long after he ceased to be an inmate there. It was ever a remedy for his despondency to elicit from him descriptions of the scenery of his native place, of the rambles of his boyhood, of the little boat in which he first dared the waves; — but more especially of his beloved parents, of his aged grand mother, — and of those fraternal sympathies which constituted so great a part of his happiness. When he had been for years a denizen of the busy world, and had mingled in those competitions which are wont to wear the edge from the finer feelings, a visit to his home, was an unchanged subject of joyous anticipation, of cherished recollection. At one of his last departures from that dear spot, previous to his return thither to die; — he stood upon the deck of the boat, watching each receding vestige of spire, tree, roof and billow, with a lingering and intense affection. Perceiving himself to be observed, he dashed away the large tears that were gathering like rain-drops, and conquering his emotion, said in a careless tone, — 'Well, they are good folks there at home, — all good but me; that was the reason they sent me away.' — The efforts which he continually put forth during his intercourse with mankind, to conceal his extreme susceptibility, sometimes gave to his manners the semblance of levity. Hence he was liable to misconstruction, and a consciousness of this, by inducing occasional melancholy and seclusion, threw him still further from these sympathies for which his affectionate spirit languished. Still it cannot be said that his sensibility had a morbid tendency. It shrank indeed, like the Mimosa, but it had no worm at its root. Its gushings forth, were in admiration of the charms of nature, and in benevolence to the humblest creature, — to the poor child in the street, and to the forest-bird. It had affinity with love to God, and with good-will to man. Had his life been prolonged, and he permitted to encircle with the beautiful domestick charities a household hearth of his own, the true excellencies of his heart, would have gained more perfect illustration. It possessed a simplicity of trusting confidence, — a fullness of tender and enduring affection which would there have found free scope, and legitimate action. There he might have worn as a crown, that exquisite sensibility, which among proud and lofty spirits he covered as a blemish, — or shrank from as a reproach. But it pleased the Almighty early to transfer him, where loneliness can no longer settle as a cloud over his soul, — nor the coarse enginery which earth employs jar against its harp-strings, and obstruct its melody."
The poetry, which Brainard has left behind him, should be considered only in the light of a beautiful promise, — an earnest of the capabilities of a mind untasked by severe discipline, and almost unconscious of its own power. His productions were all hasty and unstudied, given to the press without revision — without a signature, and with nothing but their intrinsic worth to recommend them to public favor. Much allowance should be made for the circumstances under which they were written. Whoever has had an experimental knowledge of the editorial life, will acknowledge the extreme difficulty of giving uniform polish and beauty to the original columns of a newspaper. The mind revolts at the idea of a weekly task, — a defined and steadily exacted labor of intellect. In the intellectual temperament of genius there are seasons of listlessness and inactivity — when the bent how relaxes from its tension — when in the language of Sterne, "the thoughts rise heavy and pass gummous through the pen." To write at such times for the edification or amusement of others is, at least, a painful and unnatural effort. It is like exacting responses from the Pythoness when deprived of her tripod.
Yet, notwithstanding the difficulties and disadvantages under which most of the poems in this volume were, written — unpolished and unconnected as they are, by the mind which conceived them, they are such as would do honor, to "longer scrolls and loftier lyres." They have certainly the qualities of genuine poetry. Study and revision might have polished and developed more fully their native colorings, but could have added little to their intrinsic excellence.
The longest poem in this collection is the Address to Connecticut River. It is a specimen of beautiful description. Its versification is easy and flowing, without the chiming monotony of the old school writers in their use of the same measure. The thoughts are perfectly natural. The images pass before us like, old and familiar friends. We have seen and known them all before: not in books, but in the great open volume of nature. The paragraph commencing,
And there, are glossy curls and sunny eyes,
As brightly lit, and bluer than thy skies,
is a splendid picture: the master's hand is distinctly visible. There is nothing dim, or shadowy or meagre in its outlines, — it is the pencilling of a Leonardo de Vinci, full of life and vigor and beauty.
There is much of the true spirit of the old English Ballads in the Black Fox, Matchit Moodus, the Shad Spirit, and other poems of this description. His graver poems are, however more worthy of eulogium, although from the majority of his readers they may have met with a less cordial reception. But in truth the mind tires of continual solemnity and gloom — and it is perhaps better to laugh occasionally over the designs of Hogarth than to sup full of horrors with Salvator Rosa. Brainard's humor is, in fact, the mere sportiveness of innocence.
There is one important merit in his poetry which would redeem a thousand faults. It is wholly American. If he "babbles o' green fields" and trees they are such as of right belong to us. He does not talk of the palms and cypress where he should describe the rough oak and sombre hemlock. He prefers the lowliest blossom of Yankee-land to the gorgeous magnolia and the orange bower of another clime. It is this which has made his poetry popular and his name dear in New-England.
It has been often said that the New World is deficient in the elements of poetry and romance; that its bards m must of necessity linger over the classic ruins of other lands; and draw their sketches of character from foreign sources, and paint Nature under the soft beauty of an Eastern sky. On the contrary, New-England is full of Romance; and her writers would do well to follow the example of Brainard. The great forest which our fathers penetrated — the red men — their struggle and their disappearance — the Powwow and the War-dance — the savage inroad and the English sally — the tale of superstition, and the scenes of Witchcraft, — all these are rich materials of poetry. We have indeed no classic vale of Tempe — no haunted Parnassus — no temple, gray with years, and hallowed by the gorgeous pageantry of idol worship — no towers and castles over whose moonlight ruins gathers the green pall of the ivy. But we have mountains pilloring a sky as blue as that which bends over classic Olympus: streams as bright and beautiful as those of Greece or Italy, — and forests richer and nobler than those which of old were haunted by Sylph and Dryad.
The moral tone of the poems in this collection is certainly deserving of high commendation, in an age, which has been poisoned by the licentiousness of poetry, — by the school of Moore and Byron and Shelley, — to say nothing of their thousand imitators.
There would seem to be a strong temptation attending the process of poetical composition to give imagination the legitimate place of truth: to make boldness and originality the primary objects at the expense of virtuous sentiment and religious feeling. But who that peruses the Poems of Brainard will charge him with having obeyed this general tendency. Playfulness and humor they may indeed find, — but no irreverence; no licentious description no daring revolt of the dust and ashes of humanity against the wisdom and power of the Creator.
There is a deep religious feeling evinced in the lines commencing: "All sights are fair to the recovered blind." — The last stanza seems to breathe the melodious murmurs of the harp of Zion:
'Tis somewhat like the burst from death to life
From the grave's cerements to the robes of Heaven;
From sin's dominion, and from passion's strife
To the pure freedom of a soul forgiven!
When all the bonds of death and hell are riven,
And mortals put on immortality;
When fear, and care, and grief away are driven,
And Mercy's hand has turned the golden key,
And Mercy's voice has said, "Rejoice — thy soul is free!"