1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John G. C. Brainard

Rufus Wilmot Griswold, in Poets and Poetry of America (1842) 177-78.



During the present century many persons in this country, whose early productions gave promise of brilliant achievements in maturity, have died young. It has been said that the history of American genius might be written in a series of obituaries of youthful authors. Were DRAKE, SANDS, GRIFFIN, ROCKWELL, WILCOX, PINKNEY, CLARKE, the DAVIDSONS, and BRAINARD now alive, there would be no scarcity of American writers, nor would any of them have passed the ordinary meridian of existence. What they have left us must be regarded as the first-fruits of minds whose full powers were to the last undeveloped, and which were never tasked to their full capacity.

JOHN GARDNER CALKINS BRAINARD was a son of the Honourable J. G. BRAINARD, one of the Justices of the Supreme Court of Connecticut. He was born at New London, in that State, on the twenty-first day of October, 1796. After finishing his preparatory studies, which were pursued under the direction of an elder brother, he entered Yale College, in 1811, being then in the fifteenth year of his age. At this immature period, before the mind is fully awake to the nature and importance of moral and intellectual discipline, severe application to study is unusual. BRAINARD'S books were neglected for communion with his own thoughts and "thick-coming fancies," or for the society of his fellows. His college career was marked by nothing peculiar: he was distinguished for the fine powers he evinced whenever he chose to exert them, for the uniform modesty of his deportment, the kindness which characterized his intercourse with those about him, and a remarkable degree of sensitiveness, which caused him to shrink from every harsh collision, and to court retirement. On leaving college, in 1815, he commenced the study of law, in his native place, and on his admission to the bar, he removed to the city of Middletown, intending to practice there his profession. His success was less than he anticipated; perhaps because of his too great modesty — an unfortunate quality in lawyers-or, it may be, in consequence of his indolence and convivial propensities. One of his biographers remarks that his friends were always welcome, save when they came as clients.

Wearied with the vexations and dry formalities of his profession, he relinquished it in the winter of 1822. to undertake the editorship of the Connecticut Mirror, a weekly political and literary gazette, published in Hartford. But here he found as little to please him as in the business he had deserted. He was too indolent to prepare every week articles of a serious, argumentative character. and gave in their place, graceful or humorous paragraphs and the occasional pieces of verse on which rests his reputation as a poet. These, at the time, were republished in many periodicals, and much praised. In the departments of poetry and criticism, the Mirror acquired a high reputation; but in others, while under his direction, it hardly rose to mediocrity.

His first volume of poetry, containing his contributions to the Mirror, and some other pieces, was published early in 1825. It was favourably received by the public, and its success induced his friends to urge him to undertake the composition of a larger and more important work than he had yet attempted. His constitutional lassitude and aversion to high and continued effort deterred him from beginning the task, until 1827, when his health began to wane, and it was no longer in his power. He then relinquished the editorship of the Mirror, and sought for restoring quiet, and the gentle ministrations of affection, the home of his childhood. His illness soon Assumed the character of consumption, and he saw that he had but a brief time to live. A few weeks were passed on the eastern shore of Long Island, in the hope of deriving benefit from a change of air; but nothing could arrest the progress of the fatal malady; and he returned to New London, to prepare for the spiritual life upon which he was about to enter. He had always regarded with reverence the Christian character and profession, and he was now united to the visible church, and received the holiest of' the sacraments. He lingered until the twenty-sixth of September, 1828, when he passed peacefully to the rest of those who "know that their Redeemer lives."

The pathway of BRAINARD was aside from the walks of ambition, and the haunts of worldliness. He lived within himself, holding communion with his own thoughts, and suffering from deep and lasting melancholy. Like WILCOX, it is said, he had met with one of those disappointments in early life, which so frequently impress the soul with sadness; and though there was sometimes gayety in his manner and conversation, it was generally assumed, to conceal painful musings or to beguile sorrow.

His person was small, and well formed; his countenance mild, and indicative of the kindness and gentleness of his nature; and in his eyes there was a look of dreamy listlessness and tenderness. He was fond of society, and his pleasing conversation and amiable character won for him many ardent friends. He was peculiarly sensitive; and Mr. WHITTIER, in a sketch of his life, remarks that in his gayest moments a coldly-spoken word, or casual inattention, would check at once the free flow of his thoughts, cause the jest to die on his lips, and "the melancholy which had been lifted from his heart, to fall again with increased heaviness."

BRAINARD lacked the mental discipline and strong self-command which alone confer true power. He never could have produced a great work. His poems were nearly all written during the six years in which he edited the Mirror, and they bear marks of haste and carelessness, though some of them are very beautiful. He failed only in his humorous pieces; in all the rest his language is appropriate and pure, his diction free and harmonious, and his sentiments natural and sincere. His serious poems are characterized by deep feeling and delicate fancy; and if we had no records of his history, they would show us that he was a man of great gentleness, simplicity, and purity.