1856 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Charles Sands

George and Evert Duyckinck, in Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856) 2:371-73.



One of the most original of American humorists, a fine scholar, and a poet of ardent imagination, was born in the city of New York, May 11, 1799. His father, Comfort Sands, was a merchant of the city, who had borne a patriotic part in the early struggles of the Revolution. Sands early acquired a taste for the ancient classics, which his education at Columbia College confirmed, to which he afterwards added a knowledge of the modern tongues derived from the Latin. One of his college companions, two years his senior, was his friend and partner in his poetical scheme, James Wallis Eastburn. They projected while in college two literary periodicals, The Moralist and Academic Recreations. The first had but a single number, the other reached a volume; — Sands contributing prose and verse. Graduating with the class of 1810, he entered the law office of David B. Ogden, and contrary to the habit of young poets, studied with zeal and fidelity. His talent for writing, at this time, was a passion. He wrote with facility, and on a great variety of subjects, one of his compositions, a sermon, penned for a friend, finding its way into print, with the name of the clergyman who delivered it. In 1817 he published, in the measure which the works of Scott had made fashionable, The Bridal of Vaumond, founded, his biographer tells us, "on the same legend of the transformation of a decrepit and miserable wretch into a youthful hero, by compact with the infernal powers, which forms the groundwork of Byron's Deformed Transformed. This, though spoken of with respect, is not included in the author's writings. His literary history is at this time interwoven with that of his friend, Eastburn, with whom he was translating the Psalms of David into verse, and writing a poem, Yamoyden, on the history of Philip, the Pequod chieftain. This was planned by Eastburn, while he was pursuing his studies for the ministry, during a residence at Bristol, Rhode Island, in the vicinity of the Indian locality of the poem. It was based on a slight reading of Hubbard's Narrative of the Indian Wars. The two authors chose their parts, and communicated them when finished to each other, the whole poem being written in the winter of 1817 and following spring. While it was being revised, Eastburn, who in the meantime had taken orders in the Protestant Episcopal Church, died in his twenty-second year, December 2, 1819, on a voyage to Santa Cruz, undertaken to recover his health.

The poem was published the year following, in 1820, with an advertisement by Sands, who, on a further study of the subject, had made some additions to the matter. The proem, which celebrates the friendship of the two authors, and the poetical charm of their Indian subject, is justly considered one of the finest of Sands's literary achievements. The basis of the poem belongs to Eastburn.

The literary productions of the latter have never been collected. That they would form a worthy Companion volume to the writings of his friend Sands, while exhibiting some characteristic differences of temperament, there is abundant proof in all that is known to the public to have proceeded from his pen. In the absence of further original material, we may here present the tribute paid to his genius by his brother, the Right Reverend Manton Eastburn, of the diocese of Massachusetts, in an oration pronounced in 1837, at the first semi-centennial anniversary of the incorporation of Columbia College by the legislature of New York.

"The remains," said Dr. Eastburn, "which Eastburn has left behind him are amazingly voluminous. I will venture to say that there are few, who, on arriving at the age of twenty-two, which was the limit of his mortal career, will be found to have accomplished so much literary composition. His prose writings, many of which appeared anonymously in a series of periodical essays, conducted by himself and some of his friends, take in an extensive range of moral and classical disquisition; and are models of the purest Addisonian English. The great charm, however, of all his writings, is the tone that breathes through them. Whatever be the subject, the reader is never allowed to forget, that the pages before him are indited with a pen dipped in the dew of heaven. An illustration of this peculiar feature of his productions will form the most appropriate offering of this brief offering to his memory. On one glorious night of June, 1819, during his residence as a parochial clergyman upon the eastern shore of Virginia, and a few months before his death, he sat up until the solemn hour of twelve to enjoy the scene. The moon was riding in her majesty; her light fell upon the waters of the Chesapeake; and all was hushed into stillness. Under the immediate inspiration of such a spectacle he penned the following lines, which he has entitled The Summer Midnight. After having given them to you, my fellow-collegians, I will leave you to decide whether the character I have just drawn be a true portrait, or has been dictated only by the natural enthusiasm of a brother's love.

The breeze of night has sunk to rest,
Upon the rivers tranquil breast;
And every bird has sought her nest,
Where silent is her minstrelsy
The queen of heaven is sailing high
A pale bark on the azure sky,
Where not a breath is heard to sigh—
So deep the soft tranquillity.

Forgotten now the heat of day
That on the burning waters lay,
The noon of night her mantle grey
Spreads, for the sun's high blazonry;
But glittering in that gentle night
There gleams a line of silvery light,
As tremulous on the shores of white
It hovers sweet and playfully.

At peace the distant shallop rides
Not as when dashing o'er her sides
The roaring bay's unruly tides
Were beating round her gloriously;
But every sail is furled and still:
Silent the seaman's whistle shrill,
While dreamy slumbers seem to thrill
With parted hours of ecstasy.

Stars of the many-spangled heaven!
Faintly this night your beams are given,
Tho' proudly where your hosts are driven
Ye rear your dazzling galaxy;
Since far and wide a softer hue
Is spread across the plains of blue,
Where in blight chorus, ever true,
For ever swells your harmony.

O for some sadly dying note
Upon this silent hour to float,
Where from the bustling world remote
The lyre might wake its melody;
One feeble strain is all can swell
From mine almost deserted shell,
In mournful accents yet to tell
That slumbers not its minstrelsy.

There is an hour of deep repose
That yet upon my heart shall close,
When all that nature dreads and knows
Shall burst upon me wondrously;
O may I then awake for ever
My harp to rapture's high endeavor,
And as from earth's vain scene I sever,
Be lost in Immortality!

In 1822 and 1823, Sands was writing for the Literary Review, a monthly New York periodical, in conjunction with some friends, associated in a junto known as the Literary Confederacy. They were four in number, and had already contributed the series of papers, The Neologist, to the Daily Advertiser, and The Amphilogist, by the Commercial Advertiser; and in 1822 and 1823 be furnished, in conjunction with his friends, numerous articles to the Literary Review, a New York monthly periodical, and in the winter of 1822-3, the confederacy published the seven numbers of the St. Tammany Magazine.

In May, 1824, Sands commenced the Atlantic Magazine, which he edited, and for which he wrote many of the articles during its first volume; when it became the New York Review he again entered upon the editorship, which he continued, supplying many ingenious and eloquent papers till 1827. After this he became associated in the conduct of the Commercial Advertiser, a post which he occupied at his death.

In 1828, he wrote an Historical Notice of Hernan Cortes, to accompany a publication of the Cortes Letters for the South American market. For this purpose it was translated into Spanish by Manuel Dominguez, and was not published in the author's own language till the collection of his writings was made after his death. In this year The Talisman was projected. It turned out in the hands of its publisher, Elam Bliss, to be an annual, according to the fashion of the day, but it was originally undertaken by the poet Bryant, Verplanck, and Sands, as a joint collection of Miscellanies, after the manner of Pope, Swift, and their friends. The Talisman, under the editorship of the imaginary Francis Herbert, Esq., and written by the three authors, was continued to a third volume in 1830. It was afterwards reissued according to the original plan, with the title of Miscellanies.

The Dream of the Princess Papantzin, first published in the Talisman, founded on a legend recorded by the Abbe Clavigero. a poem of more than four hundred lines of blank verse, is considered by Mr. Verplanck "one of the most perfect specimens left by Mr. Sands of his poetic powers, whether we regard the varied music of the versification, the freedom and splendor of the diction, the nobleness and affluence of the imagery, or the beautiful and original use he has made of the Mexican mythology."

In 1831 Sands published the Life and Correspondence of Paul Jones. The next year he was again associated with Bryant in the brace of volumes entitled Tales of the Glauber Spa, to which Paulding, Leggett, and Miss Sedgwick were also contributors, and for which Sands wrote the humorous Introduction, the tale of Mr. Green, and an Imaginative version of the old Spanish fountain of youth story, entitled Boyuca. His last finished composition was a poem in the Commercial Advertiser, The Dead 1832.

At the very instant of his death he was engaged upon an article of invention for the first number of the Knickerbocker magazine upon Esquimaux Literature, for which he had filled his mind with the best reading on the country. It was while engaged on this article on the 17th December 1832, that he was suddenly attacked by apoplexy. He had written with his pencil the line for one of the poems by which he was illustrating his topic, "Oh think not my spirit among you abides," some uncertain marks followed from his stricken arm, he rose and fell on the threshold of his room, and lived but a few hours longer.

The residence of Sands for the latter part of his life was at Hoboken, then a rural village within sight of New York. In that quiet retreat, and in the neighborhood of the woods of Weehawken, celebrated by his own pen as well as by the muse of Halleck, he drew his kindly inspirations of nature, which he hardly needed to temper his always charitable judgments of men. His character has been delicately touched by Bryant in the memoir in the Knickerbocker, and drawn out with genial sympathy by Verplanck in the biography prefixed to his published writings. Sands was a man of warm and tender feeling, a loving humorist whose laughter was the gay smile of profound sensibility; of a kindling and rapid imagination, which did not disdain the labor and acquisitions of mature scholarship. He died unmarried, having always lived at home in his father's house. It is related of him, in connexion with his love of nature, that he was so near-sighted that he had never seen the stars from his childhood to his sixteenth year, when he obtained appropriate glasses.

That American literature experienced a great loss in the early death of Sands, will be felt by the reader who makes acquaintance with his well cultivated, prompt, exuberant genius, which promised, had life been spared, a distinguished career of genial mental activity and productiveness.