The history of American literature, for the period which has already passed, will contain the names of few men of greater genius, or more general learning, than ROBERT C. SANDS. His life has been written so well by his intimate friend, GULIAN C. VERPLANCK, LL.D., that I shall attempt only to present an abstract of the narrative of that accomplished scholar and critic.
SANDS was born in the city of New York, (where his father, who had been distinguished for his patriotism during the revolutionary struggle, was an eminent merchant,) on the eleventh of May, 1799. At a very early age he was remarkable for great quickness of apprehension, and facility of acquiring knowledge. When seven years old, he began to study the Latin language, and at thirteen he was admitted to the sophomore class of Columbia College. He had already, under Mr. FINDLAY, of Newark, and the Reverend Mr. WHELPLEY, of New York, made great progress in classical knowledge; and while in the college, which had long been distinguished for sound and accurate instruction in the dead languages, he excelled all his classmates in ancient learning, and was equally successful in the mathematics and other branches of study. In his second collegiate year, in conjunction with his friend EASTBURN, and some other students, he established a periodical entitled The Moralist, and afterward another, called Academic Recreations, of both of which he wrote the principal contents. He was graduated in 1815, and soon after became a student in the law-office of DAVID B. OGDEN, one of the most distinguished advocates of the time. He pursued his legal studies with great ardour; his course of reading was very extensive; and he became not only familiar with the more practical part of professional knowledge, but acquired a relish for the abstruse doctrines and subtle reasonings of the ancient common law.
Still he found time for the study of the classics; and, in company with two or three friends, read several of the most difficult of the Greek authors, exactly and critically. His love of composition continued to grow upon him. He wrote on all subjects, and for all purposes; and, in addition to essays and verses, on topics of his own choice, volunteered to write orations for the commencement displays of young graduates, verses for young lovers, and even sermons for young divines. Several of the latter, written in an animated style, were much admired, when delivered in the pulpit with good emphasis and discretion, to congregations who little suspected to whom they were indebted for their edification. One of them, at least, has been printed under the name of the clergyman by whom it was delivered. In 1817 he published a poem, which he had begun and in great part written four years before. It was called The Bridal of Vaumond, and was a metrical romance, founded 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.
It was during the period of these studies, that he and three of his friends, of as many different professions, formed an association, of a somewhat remarkable character, under the name of the Literary Confederacy. The number was limited to four; and they bound themselves to preserve a friendly communication in all the vicissitudes of life, and to endeavour, by all proper means, to advance their mutual and individual interest, to advise each other on every subject, and to receive with good temper the rebuke or admonition which might thus be given. They proposed to unite, from time to time, in literary publications, covenanting solemnly that no matter hostile to the great principles of religion or morals should be published by any member. This compact was most faithfully kept to the time of SANDS'S death, though the primary objects of it were gradually given up, as other duties engrossed the attention of its members. In the first year of its existence, the confederacy contributed largely to several literary and critical gazettes, besides publishing in one of the daily papers of the city a series of essays, under the title of the Amphilogist, and a second under that of the Neologist, which attracted much attention, and were very widely circulated and republished in the newspapers of the day. SANDS wrote a large portion of these, both in prose and verse.
His friend EASTBURN had now removed to Bristol, Rhode Island, where, after studying divinity for some time under the direction of Bishop GRISWOLD, he took orders, and soon after settled in Virginia. A regular correspondence was kept up between the friends; and the letters that have been preserved are filled with the evidence of their literary industry. EASTBURN had undertaken a new metrical version of the Psalms, which the pressure of his clerical duties and his untimely death prevented him from ever completing. SANDS was led by curiosity, as well as by his intimacy with EASTBURN, to acquire some knowledge of the Hebrew. It was not very profound, but it enabled him to try his skill at the same translation; and he from time to time sent his friend a Psalm paraphrased in verse.
But amid their severer studies and their literary amusements, they were engaged in a bolder poetical enterprise. This was a romantic poem, founded on the history of PHILIP, the celebrated sachem of the Pequods, and leader of the great Indian wars against the New England colonists in 1665 and 1676. It was planned by EASTBURN, during his residence in the vicinity of Mount Hope, in Rhode Island, the ancient capital of the Pequod race, where the scene is laid. In the year following, when he visited New York, the plan of the story was drawn up in conjunction with his friend. "We had then," said SANDS, "read nothing on the subject; and our plot was formed from a hasty glance into a few pages of HUBBARD'S Narrative. After EASTBURN'S return to Bristol, the poem was written, according to the parts severally assigned, and transmitted, reciprocally, in the course of correspondence. It was commenced in November, 1817, and finished before the summer of 1818, except the concluding stanzas of the sixth canto, which were added after Mr. EASTBURN left Bristol. As the fable was defective, from our ignorance of the subject, the execution was also, from the same cause, and the hasty mode of composition, in every respect imperfect. Mr. EASTBURN was then preparing to take orders; and his studies, with that view, engrossed his attention. He was ordained in October, 1818. Between that time and the period of his going to Accomack county, Virginia, whence he had received an invitation to take charge of a congregation, he transcribed the first two cantos of this poem, with but few material variations, from the first collating copy. The labours of his ministry left him no time even for his most delightful amusement. He had made no further progress in the correction of the work when he returned to New York, in July, 1819. His health was then so much impaired, that writing of any kind was too great a labour. He had packed up the manuscripts, intending to finish his second copy in Santa Cruz, whither it was recommended to him to go, as the last resource to recruit his exhausted constitution." He died on the fourth day of his passage, on the second of December, 1819. The work, thus left imperfect, was revised, arranged, and completed, with many additions, by SANDS. It was introduced by a proem, in which the surviving poet mourned, in noble and touching strains, the accomplished friend of his youth.
The work was published under the title of Yamoyden, at New York, in 1820. It unquestionably shows some marks of the youth of its authors, besides other imperfections arising from the mode of its composition, which could not fail to prove a serious impediment to a clear connection of the plot, and a vivid and congruous conception of all the characters. Yet it has high merit in various ways. Its descriptions of natural scenery are alike accurate and beautiful. Its style is flexible, flowing, and poetical. It is rich throughout with historical and antiquarian knowledge of Indian history and tradition; and every thing in the customs, manners, superstitions, and story of the aborigines of New England, that could be applied to poetical purposes, is used with skill, judgment, and taste.
In 1820, SANDS was admitted to the bar, and opened an office in the city of New York. He entered upon his professional career with high hopes and an ardent love of the learning of the law. His first attempt as an advocate was, however, unsuccessful, and he was disheartened by the result. Though he continued the business of an attorney, he made no second attempt of consequence before a jury, and after a few years he gradually withdrew himself from the profession. During this period he persevered in his law reading, and renewed and extended his acquaintance with the Latin poets, and the "grave, lofty tragedians" of Greece; acquiring an intimacy such as professors might have envied, with the ancient languages and learning. He had early learned French, and was familiar with its copious and elegant literature; but he never much admired it, and in his multifarious literary conversation and authorship, rarely quoted or alluded to a French author, except for facts. He now acquired the Italian, and read carefully and with great admiration all its great writers, from DANTE to ALFIERI. His versions and imitations of POLITIAN, MONTI, and METASTASIO, attest how fully he entered into their spirit. Some time after he acquired the Spanish language very critically, and, after studying its more celebrated writers, read very largely all the Spanish historians and documents he could find touching American history. In order to complete his acquaintance with the cognate modern languages of Latin origin, he some years later acquired the Portuguese, and read such of its authors as he could procure.
In 1822 and 1823 he wrote many articles for The Literary Review, a monthly periodical then published in New York, which received great increase of reputation from his contributions. In the winter of 1823-4, he and some friends published seven numbers of a sort of mock-magazine, entitled The St. Tammnany Magazine. Here he gave the reins to his most extravagant and happiest humour, indulging in parody, burlesque, and grotesque satire, thrown off in the gayest mood and with the greatest rapidity, but as good-natured as satire and parody could well be. In May, 1824, The Atlantic Magazine was established in New York, and placed under his charge. At the end of six months he gave up this work; but when it changed its name, and in part its character, and became the New York Review, he was reengaged as an editor, and assisted in conducting it until 1827. During this same period he assisted in preparing and publishing a digest of equity cases, and also in editing some other legal compilations, enriching them with notes of the American decisions. These publications were, it is true, not of a high class of legal authorship; but they show professional reading and knowledge, as well as the ready versatility of his mind. He had now become an author by profession, and looked to his pen for support, as heretofore for fame or for amusement. When, therefore, an offer of a liberal salary was made him as an assistant editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser, a long-established and well-known daily evening paper, he accepted it, and continued his connection with that journal until his death.
His daily task of political or literary discussion was far from giving him sufficient literary employment. His mind overflowed in all directions into other journals, even some of different political opinions from those which he supported. He had a propensity for innocent and playful literary mischief. It was his sport to excite public curiosity by giving extracts, highly spiced with fashionable allusions and satire, "from the forthcoming novel;" which novel, in truth, was, and is yet to be written; or else to entice some unhappy wight into a literary or historical newspaper discussion, then to combat him anonymously, or, under the mask of a brother editor, to overwhelm him with history, facts, quotations, and authorities, all, if necessary, manufactured for the occasion; in short, like SHAKSPEARE'S "merry wanderer of the night," to lead his unsuspecting victim around "through bog, through hush, through brier." One instance of this sportive propensity occurred in relation to a controversy about the material of the Grecian crown of victory, which arose during the excitement in favour of Grecian liberty some years ago. Several ingenious young men, fresh from their college studies, had exhausted all the learning they could procure on this grave question, either from their own acquaintance with antiquity, or at second hand from the writers upon Grecian antiquities, LEMPRIERE, POTTER, BARTHELEMI, or the more erudite Paschalis de Corona; till SANDS grew tired of seeing so much scholarship wasted, and ended the controversy by an essay filled with excellent learning, chiefly fabricated by himself for the occasion, and resting mainly on a passage of PAUSANIUS, quoted in the original Greek, for which it is in vain to look in any edition of that author, ancient or modern. He had also other and graver employments. In 1828, some enterprising printers proposed to supply South America with Spanish books suited to that market, and printed in New York. Among the works selected for this purpose were the original letters of CORTES, the conqueror of Mexico. No good life of CORTES then existing in the English or Spanish language, SANDS was employed by the publishers to prepare one, which was to he translated into Spanish, and prefixed to the edition. He was fortunately relieved from any difficulty arising from the want of materials, by finding in the library of the New York Historical Society a choice collection of original Spanish authorities, which afforded him all that he desired. His manuscript was translated into Spanish, and prefixed to the letters of the Conquistador, of which a large edition was printed, while the original remained in manuscript until SAND'S writings were collected, after his death, by Mr. VERPLANCK. Thus his work had the singular fortune of being read throughout Spanish America, in another language, while it was totally unknown in its own country and native tongue. Soon after completing this piece of literary labour, he became accidentally engaged in another undertaking which afforded him much amusement and gratification. The fashion of decorated literary annuals, which the English and French had borrowed some years before from the literary almanacs, so long the favourites of Germany, had reached the United States, and the booksellers in the principal cities were ambitiously vieing with each other in the Souvenirs, Tokens, and other annual volumes. Mr. BLISS, a bookseller of New York, desirous to try his fortune in the same way, pressed Mr. SANDS to undertake the editorship of a work of this sort. This he at first declined; but it happened that, in conversation with his two friends, Mr. VERPLANCK and Mr. BRYANT, a regret was expressed that the old fashion of Queen ANNE'S time, of publishing volumes of miscellanies by two or three authors together, had gone out of date. They had the advantage, it was said, over our ordinary magazines, of being more select and distinctive in the characters and subjects, and yet did not impose upon the authors the toil or responsibility of a regular and separate work. In this way POPE and SWIFT had published their minor pieces, as had other writers of that day, of no small merit and fame. One of the party proposed to publish a little volume of their own miscellanies, in humble imitation of the English wits of the last century. It occurred to SANDS to combine this idea with the form and decorations of the annual. The materials of a volume were hastily prepared, amid other occupations of the several authors, without any view to profit, and more for amusement than reputation; the kindness of several artists, with whom SANDS was in habits of intimacy, furnished some respectable embellishments; and thus a miscellany which, with the exception of two short poetical contributions, was wholly written by Mr. SANDS and his two friends above named, was published with the title of The Talisman, and under the name and character of an imaginary author, FRANCIS HERBERT, Esq. It was favourably received, and, on the solicitation of the publisher, a second volume was as hastily prepared in the following year, by the same persons. Of this publication about one-fourth was entirely from SAND'S pen, and about as much more was his joint work with one or another of his friends. This, as the reader must have remarked, was a favourite mode of authorship with him. He composed with ease and rapidity, and, delighting in the work of composition, it gave him additional pleasure to make it a social enjoyment. He had this peculiarity, that the presence of others, in which most authors find a restraint upon the free course of their thoughts and fancies, was to him a source of inspiration and excitement. This was peculiarly visible in gay or humorous writing. In social compositions of this nature, his talent for ludicrous description and character and incident rioted and revelled, so that it generally became more the business of his coadjutor to chasten and sober his thick-coming fancies, than to furnish any thing like an equal contingent of thought or invention. For the purpose of such joint-stock authorship it is necessary that one of the associates should possess SANDS'S unhesitating and rapid fluency of written style, and his singular power of seizing the ideas and images of his friends, and assimilating them perfectly to his own.
His Dream of PAPANTZIN, a poem, one of the fruits of his researches into Mexican history, is remarkable for the religious solemnity of the thoughts, the magnificence of the imagery, and the flow of the versification. It was first published in The Talisman, for the year 1839.
His next literary employment was the publication of a new Life of PAUL JONES, from original letters and printed and manuscript materials furnished him by a niece of the commodore. He at first meditated an entirely original work, as attractive and discursive as he could make it; but various circumstances limited him in great part to compilation and correction of the materials furnished him, or, as he termed it in one of his letters, in his accustomed quaintness of phrase, "upsetting some English duodecimos, together with all the manuscripts, into an American octavo, without worrying his brains much about the matter." This biography was printed in 1831, in a closely-printed octavo, and is doubtless the best and most authentic narrative of the life of this gallant, chivalrous, and erratic father of the American navy.
In the close of the year 1832, a work, entitled Tales of the Glauber Spa, was published in New York. This was a series of original tales by different authors—BRYANT, PAULDING, LEGGETT, and Miss SEDGWICK. To this collection SANDS contributed the introduction, which is tinged with his peculiar humour, and two of the tales, both of which are written in his happiest vein.
The last finished composition of SANDS was a little poem entitled The Dead of 1832, which appeared anonymously in The Commercial Advertiser, about a week before his own death. He was destined to join those whom he mourned within the few remaining days of the same year. CHARLES F. HOFFMAN had then just established The Knickerbocker Magazine, and SANDS, on the seventeenth of December, about four o'clock in the afternoon, sat down to finish an article on Esquimaux Literature, which he had engaged to furnish for that periodical. After writing with a pencil the following line, suggested, probably, by some topic in the Greenland mythology, "O, think not my spirit among you abides," he was suddenly struck with the disease which removed his own spirit from its material dwelling. Below this line, on the original manuscript, were observed, after his death, several irregular pencil-marks, extending nearly across the page, as if traced by a hand that moved in darkness, or no longer obeyed the impulse of the will. He rose, opened the door, and attempted to pass out of the room, but fell on the threshold. On being assisted to his chamber, and placed on the bed, he was observed to raise his powerless right arm with the other, and looking at it, to shed tears. He shortly after relapsed into a lethargy, from which he never awoke, and in less than four hours from the attack, expired without a struggle. He died in his thirty-fourth year, when his talents, enriched by study and the experience of life, and invigorated by constant exercise, were fully matured for greater and bolder literary enterprise than any he had yet essayed. His death was deeply mourned by many friends, and most deeply by those who knew him best.