1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Willis Gaylord Clark

Rufus Wilmot Griswold, in Poets and Poetry of America (1842) 366-67.



WILLIS GAYLORD CLARK was born at Otisco, an agricultural town in central New York, in the year 1810. His father had been a soldier in the revolutionary army, and his services had won for him tributes of acknowledgment from the government. He had read much, and was fond of philosophical speculations; and in his son he found an earnest and ready pupil. The teachings of the father, and the classical inculcations of the Reverend GEORGE COLTON, a maternal relative, laid a firm foundation for the acquirements which afterward gave grace and vigour to his writings.

At an early age, stimulated by the splendid scenery outspread on every side around him, CLARK began to feel the poetic impulse. He painted the beauties of Nature with singular fidelity, and in numbers most musical; and as he grew older, a solemnity and gentle sadness of thought pervaded his verse, and evidenced his desire to gather from the scones and images it reflected, lessons of morality.

When he was about twenty years of age he repaired to Philadelphia, where his reputation as a poet had already preceded him, and under the auspices of his friend, the Reverend Doctor ELY, commenced a weekly miscellany similar in design to the Mirror, then and now published in New York. This work was abandoned after a brief period, and CLARK assumed, with the Reverend Doctor BRANTLEY, an eminent Baptist clergyman, now President of the College of South Carolina, the charge of the Columbian Star, a religious and literary periodical, of high character, in which he printed many brief poems of considerable merit, a few of which were afterward included in a small volume with a more elaborate work entitled The Spirit of Life, originally prepared as an exercise at a collegiate exhibition, and distinguished for the melody of its versification and the rare felicity of its illustrations.

After a long association with the reverend editor of the Columbian Star, CLARK was solicited to take charge of the Philadelphia Gazette, one of the oldest and most respectable journals in Pennsylvania. He ultimately became its proprietor, and from that time until his death continued to conduct it. In 1836 he was married to ANNE POTYNTELL CALDCLEUGH, the daughter of one of the wealthiest citizens of Philadelphia, and a woman of great personal beauty, rare accomplishments, and an affectionate disposition, who fell a victim to that most terrible disease of our climate, consumption, in the meridian of her youth and happiness, leaving her husband a prey to the deepest melancholy. In the following verses, written soon after this bereavement, his emotions are depicted with unaffected feeling:

'Tis an autumnal eve — the low winds, sighing
To wet leaves, rustling as they hasten by;
The eddying gusts to tossing boughs replying,
And ebon darkness filling all the sky,—
The moon, pale mistress, pall'd in solemn vapour,
The rack, swift-wandering through the void above,
As I, a mourner by my lonely taper,
Send back to faded hours the plaint of love.

Blossoms of peace, once in my pathway springing,
Where have your brightness and your splendour gone?
And thou, whose voice to me came sweet as singing,
What region holds thee, in the vast unknown?
What star fir brighter than the rest contains thee,
Beloved, departed — empress of my heart
What bond of full beatitude enchains thee,—
In realms unveil'd by pen, or prophet's art?

Ah! loved and lost! in these autumnal hours,
When fairy colours deck the painted tree,
When the vast woodlands seem a sea of flowers,
O! then my soul, exulting, bounds to thee!
Springs, as to clasp thee yet in this existence,
Yet to behold thee at my lonely side;
But the fond vision melts at once to distance,
And my sad heart gives echo — she has died!

Yes when the morning of her years was brightest,
That angel-presence into dust went down,—
While yet with rosy dreams her rest was lightest,
Death for the olive wove the cypress-crown,—
Sleep, which no waking knows, o'ercame her bosom,
O'ercame her large, bright, spiritual eyes;
Spared in her bower connubial one fair blossom—
Then bore her spirit to the upper skies.

There let me meet her, when, life's struggles over,
The pure in love and thought their faith renew,—
Where man's forgiving and redeeming Lover
Spreads out his paradise to every view.
Let the dim Autumn, with its leaves descending,
Howl on the winter's verge! — yet spring will come:
So my freed soul, no more 'gainst fate contending,
With all it loveth shall regain its home!

From this time his health gradually declined, and his friends perceived that the same disease which had robbed him of the "light of his existence," would soon deprive them also of his fellowship. Though his illness was of long duration, he was himself unaware of its character, and when I last saw him, a few weeks before his death, he was rejoicing at the return of spring, and confident that he would soon he well enough to walk about the town or to go into the country. He continued to write for his paper until the last day of his life, the twelfth of June, 1841.

His metrical writings are all distinguished for a graceful and elegant diction, thoughts morally and poetically beautiful, and chaste and appropriate imagery. The sadness which pervades them is not the gloom of misanthropy, but a gentle religious melancholy; and while they portray the changes of life and nature, they point to another and a purer world, for which our affections are chastened, and our desires made perfect by suffering in this.

The qualities of his prose are essentially different from those of his poetry. Occasionally he poured forth grave thoughts in eloquent and fervent language, but far more often delighted his readers by passages of irresistible humour and wit. His perception of the ludicrous was acute, and his jests and "cranks and wanton wiles" evinced the fulness of his powers and the benevolence of his feelings. The tales and essays which he found leisure to write for the New York Knickerbocker Magazine, — a monthly miscellany of high reputation edited by his only and twin brother, Mr. LEWIS GAYLORD CLARK — and especially a series of amusing papers under the quaint title of Ollapodiana, will long be remembered as affording abundant evidence of the qualities I have enumerated.

In person Mr. CLARK was of the middle height, his form was erect and manly, and his countenance pleasing and expressive. In ordinary intercourse he was cheerful and animated, and he was studious to conform to the conventional usages of society. Warm-hearted, confiding, and generous, he was a true friend, and by those who knew him intimately he was much loved.