1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Washington Allston

Rufus Wilmot Griswold, in Poets and Poetry of America (1842) 41.



This great artist is the oldest of the living Poets of America, being now in the sixty-third year of his age. He was born in South Carolina, of a family which has contributed some eminent names to our annals, though none that sheds more lustre upon the parent stock than his own.

When very young, by the advice of physicians, he was sent to Newport, Rhode Island, where he remained until he entered Harvard College, in 1796. In his boyhood he exhibited evidences of that genius for which he has since been distinguished, and before the completion of his education he gained laurels in both poetry and painting. A Scottish gentleman named BOWMAN, discovered in some verses written while he was in the university, and in a head of St. Peter painted during the same period, such promise of after eminence, that he offered him one hundred pounds a year while he should remain abroad; but ALLSTON declined the generous aid, having already sold his paternal estate for an amount of money sufficient to defray his looked-for expenses; and with a brother artist embarked for London in the summer of 1801.

Soon after his arrival in that great metropolis, he became a student of the Royal Academy, then under the presidency of our countryman, WEST, with whom he contracted an intimate and lasting friendship. His abilities as an artist, brilliant conversation. and gentlemanly manners, made him a welcome guest at the houses of the great painters of the time. Within a year from the beginning of his residence in London, he was a successful exhibitor at Somerset House, and a general favourite with the most distinguished members of his profession.

In 1804, having passed three years in England, ALLSTON accompanied JOHN VANDERLYN, another eminent American painter, to Paris. After spending a few months in that capital, he proceeded to Italy, where he remained four years. Among his fellow-students and intimate associates at Rome, were VANDERLYN, and the world-renowned Danish sculptor, THORWALDSEN. Another friend with whom he became acquainted here, was the great philosopher and poet, COLERIDGE. In one of his letters he says: "To no other man do I owe so much, intellectually, as to Mr. COLERIDGE, with whom I become acquainted in Rome, and who has honoured me with his friendship for more than five-and-twenty years. He used to call Rome the silent city; but I never could think of it as such, while with him; for, meet him when or where I would, the fountain of his mind was never dry, but, like the far-reaching aqueducts that once supplied this mistress of the world, its living stream seemed specially to flow for every classic ruin over which we wandered. And when I recall some of our walks under the pines of the Villa Borghese, I am almost tempted to dream that I had once listened to PLATO in the groves of the Academy."

In 1809, ALLSTON returned to America, and was soon after married at Boston to a sister of the celebrated Doctor CHANNING. In 1811, he went a second time to England. His reputation as a painter was now well established, and he gained by his picture of the "Dead Man Raised by Elisha's Bones," a prize of two hundred guineas, at the British Institution, where the first artists in the world were his competitors. A long and dangerous illness succeeded his return to London, and he removed to the village of Clifton, where he wrote The Sylphs of the Seasons, and some of the other poems included in a volume which he published in 1813. Within two weeks after the renewal of his residence in the metropolis, in the last mentioned year, his wife died, very suddenly; and the event, for a time, affected seriously his physical and mental powers.

In 1817, he accompanied LESLIE to Paris, and in the autumn of the following year came back to America, having been previously elected an associate of the Royal Academy of England. He has since that time resided principally at Cambridgeport, near Boston, where he has been engaged on various works of art, one of which is "Belshazzar's Feast, or the Handwriting on the Wall," a picture sixteen feet long, and twelve feet wide, commenced nearly twenty years ago. This is said to be be nearly finished now; but it has never been seen by any one save the artist. In 1830, he married his present wife, a sister of the poet DANA. His last literary work was the beautiful story entitled Monaldi, published in 1841.

A great painter is a true poet, though he may lack the power to express in beautiful language his conceptions. Poet and painter must study still nature and humanity, and must look upon the world with an affectionate spirit. The Sylphs of the Seasons, ALLSTON'S longest poem, in which he describes the scenery of Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, and the effects of each season on the mind, shows that he has regarded nature with a curious eye, and has power to exhibit her beauties with singular distinctness and fidelity. The Two Painters, an admirable satire, intended to ridicule the attempts to reach perfection in one excellency in the art of painting, to the neglect of every other, proves equally his descriptive powers. These poems, and the Paint King, a singularly wild, imaginative story, evidence, also, his creative genius. They are all original, in their fable, style, and cast of thought; and all have the purest and most cheerful influences upon the mind.