1847 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John G. C. Brainard

Anonymous, Memoir in Brainard, Poems (1847) ix-xxvii.



The birthplace of John Gardner Calkins Brainard was New London, in Connecticut. From the period of his birth, which occurred October 21st, 1796, to the year of his entrance into college, his time was spent under the roof of his father, the Hon. Jeremiah G. Brainard, formerly a judge of the Superior Court in that State. Here he received that early culture in mind and disposition, the happy development of which since, has imparted so much pleasure to the reading community. Those habits of good-nature, modesty, and sociableness, as also those poetic tastes and sensibilities, by which he became distinguished, were doubtless nurtured, by his favorable circumstances, during that important period of life. Having finished his preparatory studies under the direction of an elder brother, he entered Yale College in 1811. He is described by those who knew him then, as not having made such efforts in the character of a student, as might have been expected from his evident genius and capacity. Whether this fact had its foundation in a native inactivity of body and mind, in too humble an appreciation of his powers, or in the generous sensibility which cannot inflict pain on a rival, it is difficult to determine. Probably these several circumstances had each its influence. The regard which was entertained by his fellow students for his superior intellect, — his beautiful genius, doubtless became the more enhanced, on this account. Neither envy, nor the dread of rivalry, forbade the admiration of talent which interfered not with the honors of others, but was contented with its own manifestations, in its own way. That which he possessed of the "mens divinior," was calmly and unostentatiously evolved on every occasion. It acquired character and consistency by degrees, and resembled the flowing of his own Connecticut, noiseless and placid and full, rather than the leaping and foaming of a cataract. His social and convivial qualities, equally with the gifts of intellect, drew forth the strong regards of his more particular acquaintance in the college, and he met them with the smile and the repartee, — with the playful jest and mimic fun, which are so easily tolerated in the gayer intercourse of friends, and which, in him, never gave offence. The possession of feelings of this kind was not, however, incompatible with a tinge of thoughtful and almost depressing pensiveness, which wa's sometimes observed to steal over his features.

Brainard graduated in 1815, and on his return to his native place, commenced the study of law, in the office of his brother, William F. Brainard, Esq. On the completion of his professional course and admission to the Bar, he removed to the city of Middletown, with a view to the practice of law. This was in 1819, but in the earlier part of the year 1822, we find him in the city of Hartford, engaged in the duties of an editor of a weekly paper, The Connecticut Mirror. His career in the profession he had first chosen was, therefore, short. He seems neither to have been fitted for the law, nor the law for him. The dreams of fancy filled his soul, when he should have been adding to the mass of his legal learning. He beckoned to the muses, when he should have secured a client. He cherished an over-wrought sensibility, when he should have ventured the asperity of the world's men and the world's ways. In short he considered himself as possessing "a temperament," to use his own words, "much too sensitive for his own comfort, which exposed him to personal altercation, contradiction, and that sharp collision which tries and strengthens the passions of the heart, at least as much as it does the faculties of the mind." We can scarcely wonder, then, that he was not destined to excel in a calling which requires a hardy cast of character, and which leads into those paths of strife, ambition, and political distinction, so abhorred by the fond poetic enthusiast. With whatever gifts of intellect he was endowed, and however he might have excelled in his profession, had he applied all his powers to it; still it was not the calling he loved, and he had no disposition to make the required application. Judging by the event, he was destined to become eminent in another walk of life. The temperaments and the tastes of men are originally different, one from another. God has made them, by their mental and physical structure, for particular spheres of exertion, thus giving a beautiful variety to human existence, and to the pursuits of men. Some are formed to occupy one department of his earthly providence, and others an entirely different one. Cowper could no more be a lawyer or public man, when he was made and preconfigured for a poet, than the individual we once heard of was destined to be a poet, who was able to compose but a single couplet in all his life, and that only in the unconscious hours of sleep. Let not then the providence of God be arraigned, by which each one will.

—fall
Just in the niche he was ordained to fill.

The direction of Brainard's genius appeared in the poetic creations which he was meditating, during his residence in Middletown. These resulted in several of his smaller printed poems. He also prepared, at the same period, several pieces for a literary paper, conducted by Cornelius Tuthill, Esq., one of the earlier editors of The Christian Spectator. The paper was published at New Haven, and called, The Microscope. The humorous story of Gabriel Gap, in that publication, was from the pen of Brainard, though he left it unfinished.

The profession of law was thus abandoned for the no less trying, and far more precarious career, of the literary adventurer. But the latter was the pursuit of his choice, and though he seemed not to have any brilliant anticipations at the commencement, he attained to a distinction which only sterling talents could have commanded. For a portion of his task as an editor of a weekly newspaper, it has been supposed that neither his temper, nor his training, was fitted. It is true that he had no fondness for political asperity and wrangling. For such times he was not born, unless possibly to allay them, by his pacific and candid spirit. He could not with comfort to himself mingle in the din of such a controversy. But it may well be questioned, whether too slight an estimate has not sometimes been put upon his capacity, to conduct the editorial department of such a journal as he undertook, even in its political discussions. The character of the matter which actually appeared in The Mirror, is not, in every case, the true test of his ability. He was capable of greater originality of thought, and comprehensiveness of views, on the topics alluded to, than the first naked aspect of things would indicate. We are assured by competent testimony, that labored and able political articles were withheld from publication, owing to causes over which he had little control. It is not, perhaps, necessary to detail the facts, but they certainly go far to exculpate him from the charge of levity, or weakness, in conducting the editorial department of his paper. Prudential considerations were suffered to have sway, at the expense of his reputation for political tact and foresight. The only substitutes for the articles referred to, were such brief and tame pieces as he could prepare, after the best and almost only hours for composition had passed by. This circumstance, together with the consciousness that the paper was ill sustained in respect to its patronage, was sufficiently discouraging to a person, whose sensibilities were as acute as those of Brainard's. It accounts also for the frequent turns of mental depression which marked his latter years, — heightened indeed by that frequent and mortifying concomitant of genius, — slender pecuniary means.

In whatever pertained to the literary portion of his paper, he was certainly at home. Hence his notices of new works were interesting and able. He possessed the urbanity and frankness to give utterance to his sense of intellectual beauty, whenever he perceived any traces of it in the authors on whom he commented. In the language of Mr. Whittier, who appreciated his character in this particular, with the kindred temper of a poet and a philanthropist: "there was too much gentleness in his nature, too much charity for the offending, and too much modesty in his own pretensions, to allow any rudeness of criticism, or severity of censure." His writings in The Connecticut Mirror, are uniformly gentlemanly and good natured. 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.

Of his poetic pieces in The Mirror, there was but one opinion. They were well received, and deserved the tribute of praise which was accorded by many a reader. The reputation which he earned was not, however, instantaneous. He at first became a favorite in a circle of friends, and by them his talents were known and somewhat appreciated. Still, the impression which he was calculated to make on their minds, was not fully felt, until certain poems of a superior order came out. The lines On the birthday of Washington, beginning, "Behold the mossed cornered-stone dropped from the wall," and some others, burst on their view, like brilliant meteors, surprising and enchanting them. After this, it was not long before he was honored by the literary part of the community generally, and by all who took an interest in the productions of native genius; and every number of The Mirror was seized with avidity by men, women, and children, to see if it contained any of Brainard's poetry. It is on these poetic effusions that his claims to the regard of future times will principally rest. For however happy he may have been in several of his prose compositions, the public know him mostly as a poet, and in that light will he here be chiefly viewed. The few criticisms which we shall attempt in respect to his poetry will appear in the sequel. In this part of our task, our only design was to present the few incidents of his life, and sketch the striking points of his general character.

We have already seen Brainard in the commencement of his literary career, as an editor, and as a writer of poetry. Short as that career was, extending only to six years, it was nevertheless important to his own fame, and to his country's intellectual wealth. He seems to have availed himself of his opportunities for observation to good effect, and was not unversed in the learning of books. He culled every variety of sweet that lay in his path, and looked on nature and man, with the eye of a poet, and to subserve a poet's purposes. All our real bards, men renowned in song, have proved themselves to be men of knowledge. Those undying forms of thought which they put forth, are the products of capacious, well-stored, far-reaching intellects. They may not be all scholars, in the rigid and collegiate sense of the word, but they are men of information and intellectual power. That which they write is stamped with the seal of truth and adherence to nature, and shows the vestiges of study and research of some kind. Thus Brainard had his rich intellectual acquisitions; but they were not gathered in the ordinary way of the student, ever bending over his books, and observing nightly vigils. He was "one of those men, who," as a friend that well knew him remarked, "love to lie on their backs, and see what they can think." Brainard acquired his rich and beautiful intellectual stores somewhat in this manner. And he had frequent occasion to lay them under contribution, in the preparation of poems for his paper. These pieces, as already remarked, were eagerly read, and highly commended. They established his fame as a poet, and drew him forth from the retirement which he seemed to love so well. Praise, however, apparently excites no emotions of vanity in his bosom, and he ever retired thither for the sweetest solace he found or desired on earth. Several of the pieces, however, as they were composed in the hurry, and under the embarrassments incident to his profession as an editor, received less care and polish than should have been bestowed upon them, but they all showed a ready and skillful hand, and that only leisure was wanting to their perfection. Negligence, in some instances, was but too natural under these circumstances, and taste could not always be consulted or indulged.

Three years sufficed to furnish a small volume of the poetry thus contributed to The Mirror, or that remained by him unprinted. It was published early in the year 1825. It was accompanied by a very brief and unpretending introduction, and left to find its way by its own merits, into the hearts and minds of his countrymen. The naivete with which it was committed to their attention, was answered by a generous and general approval of its contents. Our ablest periodical literature, in one instance at least [author's note: North American Review], spoke in tones of approbation and encouragement, stating, however, such exceptions to their general good opinion, as judicious criticism is always expected to put forth. No other literary effort followed the preparation of this volume, except other fugitive pieces, which, together with the former, were collected in a volume published in 1832, by Mr. Goodsell.

But the voice of the bard was destined ere long to be hushed in the silence of death. Prematurely was he called (we speak with deference to the divine arrangements,) to resign life with all its sweets and its fame, into the hand of the Giver. His health had begun to decline previously to the spring of 1827, at which period he retired from his professional labors, though not with a design to relinquish them finally. He sought repose in his native town, where the assiduities of friendship and affection, so grateful in sickness and depression, were bestowed and enjoyed, in a high degree. But nothing could arrest the progress of the disease with which he was visited. It proved to be consumption, that surest precursor of death, though often slow in its work, and flattering in its symptoms. Resort was had in summer to a short residence on Long Island. No material relief, however, was afforded by the excursion, and he was forced to abandon the idea of returning to Hartford, and resuming the duties of editorship. He lingered till the 26th of September the following year, (1828,) when he cheerfully departed to his rest. During this period of physical debility and decay, he exerted, as usual, his mental powers in the composition of several short, but beautiful poems, which were published in The Mirror. The circumstances of his sickness and death were detailed at the time by the Rev. Mr. M'Ewen, pastor of the church to which Brainard belonged, in a letter to the Rev. Dr. Hawes, of Hartford. We adopt it from Mr. Whittier's Sketch of Brainard's Life prefixed to Goodsell's edition of his Literary Remains.

"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 acquaintances, I 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, — everything 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 outward 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."

It may be interesting to learn a few other particulars respecting the poet, during his last illness. To this end, we are happy to have it in our power to introduce a short account, furnished by a gentleman in Hartford, a friend and acquaintance of Brainard's, who called on him, eight or ten days before the death of the latter. This gentleman had previously written him during his sickness, and accompanied the letter by a copy of Wolfe's Remains. We give the account as it was detailed in conversation.

"I called at Judge Brainard's, and on inquiry for John was shown unannounced into his room, or rather the parlour where he was, — and not expecting to find him there. Of course both parties were taken by surprise. Brainard was sitting in the middle of the room, dressed in his usual attire, and with his hat on and his cane near by. In his lap, was a large old-fashioned family Bible lying open, in the reading of which he was entirely absorbed, and from which his attention was withdrawn only by my entrance. Immediately after his recognition of me, and the usual greeting, he said 'he had received the letter which I had addressed to him, with the accompanying volume which had been to him like a draught of water to a thirsty man.' He then almost immediately spoke of his religious views and feelings, — apologizing for his seeming abruptness in introducing the topic of religion, by a reference to his then feeble condition, (he could speak only in a whisper,) and to the opinion now entertained by him, that this was 'the only subject.' Pointing to the Bible, he spoke of the great comfort and support he there found, and with much earnestness expressed his confident hope, that not only myself, but also his other familiar friends at Hartford, would 'get right,' and derive from that book the same consolation which it now afforded him. He said he suffered no bodily pain, — none worthy of a thought; — that he had no apprehension of death, — that he indeed longed, and was impatient to depart. In expressing a wish for an early dismissal from life, he desired to avoid a sinful impatience, — but that the earliest time, so that it was God's time, would be to him most welcome. I gathered from his remarks, that his time was divided between his Bible and the thoughts and meditations it inspired, and the garden where he occasionally sat, and breathed the fresh air. His sister, who, on my entrance, had cautioned me not to let her brother become exhausted by too much conversation, here, for the second or third time, appeared at the door of the apartment, with so much anxiety depicted on her countenance, that her solicitude could not be mistaken nor disregarded, notwithstanding the earnest wish manifested by her brother (who now for the first and only time spoke aloud) that my stay might be prolonged. Fearing, therefore, the effect on him of a longer interview, I here took my leave; and a short week or two brought Brainard the release from life which he so earnestly desired."

In joining the church, as narrated by Mr. M'Ewen above, it may be added, as we learn, that Brainard being too feeble to go to church, and remain through the ordinary services, consequently arrived at and entered the sanctuary, when these were nearly or quite through. Every one present (literally, almost,) knew him, — the occasion of his coming was understood, — and when he appeared, pale, feeble, emaciated, and trembling in consequence of his extreme debility, the sensation it produced was at once apparent throughout the whole assembly. There seemed to be an instinctive homage paid to the grace of God in him; or perhaps the fact shows, how readily a refined Christian community sympathizes with genius and virtue destined to an early tomb.

The lively grief of the reading community, as well as of his friends in particular, attested their sense of the loss which had been experienced. He had evidently been regarded with great favor, and it was no unnatural feeling to dwell, with fond pensiveness, on the memory of one who had often contributed to their serious and innocent gratification. Thus he shone among the

Bright forms we sorrowing weep,
So fleet they passed away to die,

and the lovers of song had only the mournful satisfaction of expressing their regard for departed excellence. His death was extensively lamented, and many felt that one had fallen who had already achieved not a little, and promised still more, in his devotion to a delightful art.

Several traits of Brainard's character have incidentally appeared already; but we should do him injustice not to give more prominence to a few of its features. His mind, naturally tender and susceptible in a high degree, was given to pensive thought; and in his riper years its developments amounted at times, to melancholy and depression. Whether this is to be attributed to a cause which has been publicly stated, — a cause which often withers the affections of the young heart, — we know not. If that cause existed, it was unknown to his immediate relatives. But whatever may have been the occasion of the characteristic we speak of, the latter was an acknowledged reality, and even in his poetry itself, the tones of a deeply sad spirit often break forth. The Edinburgh Review, in one instance, attaches to this character of his poetry, the epithets of "melancholy" and "wayward," and quotes as an example, the touching stanzas beginning the line, "The dead leaves strew the forest walk."

A friend and admirer of the poet remarked to us, that he appeared as one, who, notwithstanding the frequent gayety of his strains, "was disposed to sport with his own feelings." The sadness which he felt within could not be better thrown off, or parried, than by indulging in an external gayety. Still there were bright sunny spots in his life, an innocent joyousness was not an entire stranger to his bosom and even immersed, as he often was, in dark and sombre thoughts, he never became moody and misanthropic. In the language of another, "disheartened and despondent as we know Brainard was, looking out upon the world with an eye that saw every thing glowing with prismatic beauty, yet mournfully feeling that this beauty was not made for him, — still, when he met a friend, the cloud passed instantly from his brow, a smile was on his lips, and words of merriment and levity broke from his tongue. It was apparent that for the moment, he obtained relief from his painful musings in the play of a humorous fancy, — a laugh seemed to beguile his sorrow, — a joke to scare back into their recesses, the demons that preyed upon his bosom. Those only who knew him well, can understand how interesting was this light of his mind, breaking out amid the clouds and darkness which encompassed it." We may add to the above, that he possessed a keen perception of the humorous and ridiculous, — that he had the art of seizing on those points of character in others, which constituted their foibles, as well as their excellences, — that his mode of expression, like the association, of his ideas, was at once singular and engaging, — and hence on these several accounts, he could inspire in the minds of a circle, emotions of mirth and gayety, apparently the most opposite to those with which his own mind was so frequently occupied.

It is not surprising, then, that he was eminently formed for society, and the enjoyment of its innocent festivities and delights, notwithstanding the retiring modesty and the keen sensitiveness by which he was distinguished. "His habits of self-reliance," says Mr. Whittier, "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 gayety and humor, a word spoken inadvertently, — some unmeaning gesture, some casual inattention or unlucky oversight checked at once the free flow of his sprightly conversation, the jest died upon his lips, — and the melancholy which had been lifted from his heart fell again with increased heaviness."

There was a quiet sportiveness and humor about Brainard, which rendered him a highly agreeable companion, and threw a charm over the circles in which he visited. It arose at times into wit of a keen and brilliant character. This, his writings also sufficiently show. It is no matter of surprise that he was a favorite in company, or peculiarly interesting in conversation, to his intimate friends. We have heard of specimens of his lively and facetious turn, one of which we will take the liberty to record. In his native place, we believe it was, he attended, on some occasion, a meeting which was successively addressed by two preachers, who claimed to be divinely moved, in the exercise of their gifts. The first one was brief, and in what he said seemed to defer to his brother, as more likely to fulfil the expectations of the audience. The other attempted much more, but proceeded with difficulty. Indeed, he several times offered the apology, in rather quaint phrase, that his mind was imprisoned. At the close of the services, as the people retired, it was natural that the conversation should turn on the speakers. It was observed by one, that the latter preacher succeeded but indifferently. "You know," replied a bystander, "that he complained of the imprisonment of his mind." At this moment Brainard came up, and, on hearing the conversation, remarked, in his ready and piquant manner, that "the preacher's mind might have easily sworn out." The readiness of his wit was apparent in his writings, a single instance of which we will adduce. The following appears in The Mirror of July 5, 1824, as a retort upon one of his critics: "We observe a criticism in The Village Record, on some verses headed The Deep, in which the writer says, 'the word 'brine' has no more business in sentimental poetry, than a pig in a parlour. We suspect the writer, though his piece is dated Philadelphia, lives at a greater distance from the sea; and has got his ideas of the salt water from his father's pork barrel." . . .