ROBERT C. SANDS was born in the city of New-York, May 11th, 1799. He was the son of Comfort Sands, for many years an eminent merchant of that city, who had, during the war of the Revolution, and especially in its early and most doubtful stages, distinguished himself for his zealous and active support of American Independence, and who outliving all his colleagues and fellow-labourers in that cause, is, after the lapse of fifty-nine years, the sole survivor of the New-York Committee of Public Safety, and of the Convention which declared the independence of the State of New-York, and framed its first constitution.
Young Sands was remarkable at an uncommonly early age for great quickness of apprehension and facility in acquiring knowledge. In this instance, as in many similar ones, the influence of his mother's mind, information, and tastes, was very marked in the early development of her son's intellect, and the exciting in him an ardent thirst for knowledge and love of reading. He began the study of Latin at the age of seven. Some time after he removed with his father's family to Newark, New-Jersey; now a large, populous, and thriving town, but at that time remarkable as being one of the most beautiful and quiet villages of our land. There he pursued classical studies under the instruction of Mr. Findlay. He appears to have been singularly fortunate in meeting with such a teacher, for classical instruction was at that time at a very low ebb throughout the country. With a few very honourable exceptions (and those chiefly in the larger cities), this occupation was in the hands of young men, who looked to it only for a temporary support, and who, as they were imperfectly acquainted with the languages themselves, and wholly ignorant of their delicacies and beauties, could not teach what they did not know, and made no attempt to give their pupils a better instruction than they had received themselves. But Sands always gratefully acknowledged the high merit of Mr. Findlay, who, as he frequently remarked, early succeeded in inspiring him with a comprehension of the beauties of Virgil, and a relish for his poetry, which he never lost. The Aeneid was always afterward his refreshment when wearied by severer studies; and to the last day of his life it was a common practice with him, whenever he wished to kindle his imagination, or excite that intellectual glow congenial to eloquent composition, to animate his mind by the harmonious verses of the Mantuan poet.
He was afterward placed under the care of the late Rev. P. M. Whelpley, subsequently pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New-York, by whom he was prepared for college. He was admitted into the Sophomore Class of Columbia College, New-York, in October, 1812. This college had long been distinguished for sound and accurate instruction in the dead languages; but just before Sands's entrance, its course of study had been remodelled and improved, and its discipline and instruction had received a fresh and vigorous impulse from the talent and learning of Dr. Mason, who had been elected provost the year before. Classical learning, in particular, was carried much further than had been heretofore usual in the academic institutions of America; and the Grecian poets, tragedians, and orators were taught not merely as the authorities of language, but as models of thought and style. Sands was fortunate here not only in his teachers, but in the companions of his studies. Among these were several young men of high promise, and especially his intimate and beloved friend the late James Eastburn, afterward a clergy.man of the Protestant Episcopal Church, a youth of great moral excellence as well as of a most fertile and highly-cultivated mind. Several years after, in some unpublished verses, Sands alluding to this early literary friendship, thus addressed his friend:—
E'en then that chastened purity of soul
Became the destined sacerdotal stole;
E'en then example checked my wider range,
Which precept vainly strove, I fear, to change.
Under such advantages and with such a companion he continued to pursue, with unflagging zeal, the study of the languages and authors of antiquity, especially the poets, whom he read with a deep and fine feeling for their beauties. The other branches of collegiate study, and particularly the mathematics, of which a very full and accurate course was taught, were mastered by him with the same ease and facility as his more favourite literary studies. But he seems never to have recurred to those studies in after-life, nor did they furnish him with many topics of illustration or of argument in his writings, so that the facility with which he mastered the academic course, seems rather an evidence of general capacity than of any inclination or taste for mathematical or physical studies.
In his second collegiate year (the junior or third of the academic course), he set on foot, in conjunction with his friend Eastburn and some other young associates, a literary periodical, entitled "The Moralist," which, however, lived only through a single number. Not discouraged by this failure, the same associates shortly after established a second and similar work, which was entitled, "Academic Recreations," and published in neatly-printed duodecimo numbers. The contents were entirely literary or classical, and though of course bearing sufficient evidence of the youth of their authors, yet did credit to their scholarship and taste. It lived only to the end of the year; Mr. Sands having contributed a large proportion both in prose and verse.
He was graduated A.B. in 1815, and soon after began the study of law in the office of David B. Ogden, a distinguished and eloquent advocate of the city of New-York. He entered upon his new course of study with an ardour and lively curiosity not very common among young law-students, who have ever been "smit with the love of sacred song," or familiar with the delights of elegant literature. His legal studies, however, were regular and even profound. His law reading was extensive and laborious, and he became not only well acquainted with the more practical professional knowledge, but soon acquired a relish for the abstruse doctrines and subtle reasonings of the ancient common-law, which, if he did not quite esteem as the perfection of human reason, he yet throughout life regarded with a certain filial reverence, that scarcely permitted him to feel much charity for what he deemed the heresies of codification and reform. He frequently expressed such opinions, generally in jocose language, but always with a sober meaning. Thus, for instance, in a whimsical miscellaneous essay of his on various temporary subjects of the day, written after his admission to the bar: — "Why cannot I too uplift my testimony on the fertile topic of codification, and legislate for the whole New Continent? Because, oh my judgment, thou knowest that half of the smaller fry, who sing chorus to Jeremy Bentham, have not yet found out what the meaning of codification is; and never could nor can explain what they want. And, moreover, had these same Solons, who are the men and with whom wisdom will die, been born under the Old Testament dispensation, and raised in the Land of Promise, they would have been equally uproarious for codifying the moral law, and appointing a committee to revise Deuteronomy and Leviticus."
He was not stimulated in his legal studies merely by an indiscriminate curiosity and blind reverence for antiquity. His aspirations for professional distinction were noble and generous. In some verses, written about this period, not unlike in thought and feeling to the celebrated Lawyer's Farewell to his Muse of Sir William Blackstone, and perhaps suggested by it, he says,—
Farewell, delusive dreams! I ask not now
The wreath that crowns the immortal poet's brow,
Bought with a lingering pang of hope deferred,
While glad success in his cold urn interred,
Wakes not her taper's trembling brilliancy,
Till on his vision bursts eternity!
Far other prospects open on me now,
Wild wastes and mountains bleak with rugged brow,—
A mazy path that time hath ever strewed
With tangled weeds, and many a bramble rude;
Where patient toil alone the end can win,
This journey ever seeming to begin.
But, oh! how glorious is the meed obtained,
By honest labour and by virtue gained.
Who would not mount to live in deathless fame,
And link his own with Tully's honoured name;
A prouder boast than conquered armies tell,
Or vanquish'd realms, a victor's praise that swell.
The ardour with which he pursued his legal studies, and the feeling which animated him in them, are strongly shown in a passage of a letter to a friend, written in 1817.
"I am now making an abstract of Coke upon Littleton, and do actually feel as much interested in it as I once was in Henry IV. Certainly there is no study in which those two grand faculties of intellect, reason and memory, are so much exercised as law. Venerable name! Pettifoggers have trod in its temple and sullied its Parian marble, and knaves have wove their filmy cobwebs around its walls, but the statues of Cicero and Hortensius, of Montesquieu, Coke, Hale, Blackstone, and Hamilton, are towering in all their dignity, and the mighty fabric rears its majestic head the prop and the glory of the earth."
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, most exactly and critically. His love of composition, which he himself termed "his mental mania," continued to grow upon him. He wrote on all subjects and for all purposes; and in addition to essays, verses, &c., 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 and perhaps florid 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, in the irregular measure of Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel, and 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. I know not whether both of these poems do not owe their origin to Pickersgill's spirited Romance of the Three Brothers, published some years before, a book that seems never to have much attracted public attention. The Bridal of Vaumond was harshly criticized in a review of some reputation and ability, then published in New-York; and whether from this cause or from the defects consequent upon the author's immaturity of mind, coupled with the then very general indifference to American literature, it sunk into oblivion. It bears, however, strong marks of talent and learning. The facility of its versification, the command of poetical language and imagery, the brilliancy of many of its conceptions, occasionally, and the daring wildness of its fancy, gave promise of greater things. But the author, after the first feelings of disappointment were passed, seemed willing to let it die as a juvenile production; and never referred to this early publication, in conversation, but with apparent dislike.
I am not certain whether it is to this, or to some of his still earlier writings, that he alludes in one of his manuscripts, when he says,—
And now when two short years have brought the cure
That checks the mental mania premature,
And shows how oft, when most I wished to rise,
My grovelling muse was furthest from the skies;
Still do I deem the public scorn unjust,
That gave my labours to unclassic dust.
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 solemnly 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. They stipulated that whenever any two or more members should be within two miles of each other for any length of time exceeding a week, they should meet together. This compact of friendship was most faithfully kept to the time of Mr. Sands's death, though the primary and purely literary objects of it were gradually given up as other cares and duties engrossed the attention of its members. In the first years of its existence, the Confederacy contributed largely to several literary and critical journals, besides publishing in one of the daily papers of the city a series of essays, under the title of the Neologist, and another under the title of the Amphilogist, which attracted much attention, and were very widely circulated and republished in the newspapers of the day. Mr. Sands wrote a large portion of these, both in prose and verse.
His friend Eastburn had now removed to Bristol, Rhode-Island, when, after for some time studying divinity under the direction of the Rt. Rev. Bishop Griswold, he took orders in the Protestant Episcopal Church, and soon after settled at Onancock, on the eastern shore of Virginia. A regular and frequent correspondence was kept up between these friends; and the letters that happen to have been preserved, are filled with the evidence of their literary industry, zeal, and ardour, Mr. 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 his general literary curiosity as well as by his intimacy with Eastburn, to acquire some knowledge of the Hebrew. It was not very profound, but it induced and enabled him to try his hand too at the same translation; and he from time to time sent his friend a psalm paraphrased in verse.
The following extracts from one of his letters to his friend, in 1819, relating to this subject, as well as his other studies, are very characteristic.
"Touching the Psalms of David by J. W. Eastburn (Taylor's Sermons by Dr. Johnson), I am sincerely glad that you have set at them vigorously; and only hope that the indispensable prelude of Hebrew, and symphony of commentators, may not drown the melody they accompany. An English version of the Psalms, faithful, yet free; close, yet evangelical; poetical, but devotional; is unquestionably a desideratum: and if one of our Confederacy could accomplish it, it would certainly be the most durable monument that we can desire to perpetuate our remembrance. It would be hard to produce a more enviable immortality than Watts enjoys, who is known by heart by so many Christians, and whose words, the vehicle of their most sensible devotion, are sounded so often in the most majestic of human temples. To produce the best possible paraphrase of the Songs of Israel, the poet should undoubtedly have in his eyes the whole map of the Holy Land, geographical and political; be familiar with the Jewish history, manners, and ritual; and then, feeling as a Christian, proceed to spiritualize his theme: remembering always that his only task is to correct the Hebrew future into the Christian present tense; and that he is unjustifiable in omitting a single allusion, since everything was typical. By-the-way, the Hebrew language was singularly adapted to the state of the people, who had themselves no present tense; who, deep in the shadow of the past, seem to have flitted on the scene, as if in a pre-existent state; called up by the divine magician, like the images of the future on the clouded mirror of the wizard; and all whose institutions were only promises of their more glorious metempsychosis. Now, O Posthumus Terentianus, since we are willing to concede to the Deacon of Onancock a certain portion of imagination, and know from many specimens of his perseverance that the said deacon has considerable industry, we see no reason to doubt his capacity of executing the aforementioned version, on the plan and principles aforesaid. I am convinced that the process of paraphrase may be conducted mechanically. (If that term may be applied to the mind. As for the mere rhyme, we all know that it comes to you, of course!
* * * *
We read Herodotus (in whose style of digression — as we are all creatures of imitation — this epistle is composed), from one to half-past two every day, as a change from poetry. We shall finish Clio this week when we shall probably attack Aeschylus again. I believe I wrote you that we had finished the translation of Prometheus. I am now translating the Orestes of Euripides. When we commence reading the Greek tragedians, with our heads full of modern poetry, we are most pleased with the wildness, unnaturality, and verboseness of Aeschylus. I use these qualifying words not in a bad sense, for Aeschylus has method in his madness, sublimity and consistency in his fables, and beautiful, or rather admirable felicity in his compound epithets. I venerate him as much as Parson Adams did, and should be sorry to compare him with modern plagiarists. But I must confess, after reading the Orestes, Hecuba, Alcestis, and Cyclops, the admirable tenderness, simplicity, keeping of character, nature (and, perhaps more than all, the facility with which he is read) of Euripides, have made me a convert to his admirers. I do not like Sophocles. It may, however, arise from a vitiation of taste. I move that the Confederacy make it one of their objects to effect translations of the chef-d'oeuvres of the Greek tragedians.
"You say you can give us dissertations on Hebrew poetry and oriental manners: I wish you would. It would add still more to the variety of our papers, and promote their reputation for scholarship. Could not you write a tale, and lay the scene in Judea! You can so easily find a plot in the Bible or Josephus, that you can soon finish one; or else take any fable, and the oriental costume will give it an original air."
But amid their severer studies and their literary amusements, the two young friends were engaged in a bolder and more sustained poetical enterprise. This was a romantic poem, founded on the History of Philip, the celebrated Sachem of the Pequods, the brave and almost successful leader of the great Indian wars against the New-England colonists in 1675 and 1676. It was planned by Eastburn during his residence at Bristol, Rhode-Island, in the vicinity of Mount Hope, the ancient capital of the Pequod race, where, and in the neighbourhood of which, the scene is laid. In the year following, when he visited New-York, the plan of the proposed story was drawn up in conjunction. "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 Mr. 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, in 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, December 2d, 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, with whom
—began the love
Of sacred song; the wont, in golden dreams,
Mid classic realms of splendours past to rove,
O'er haunted steep, and by immortal streams:—
Where the blue wave, with sparkling bosom gleams
Round shores, the mind's eternal heritage,
For ever lit by memory's twilight beams;
Where the proud dead that live in storied page
Beckon, with awful port, to glory's earlier age;
and with whom he had essayed to
—evoke the plumed chieftains brave,
And bid their martial hosts arise again,
Where Narraganset's tides roll by their grave,
And Haup's romantic steeps are piled above the wave.
This Proem as a whole is beautiful; and our language has, I think, few passages of more genuine and more exquisite poetry than the first four and the six concluding stanzas. They have a sobered and subdued intensity of feeling, carrying with it the conviction of truth and reality, while at the same time they glow with an opulent splendour of language and allusion, not unworthy of the learned imagination of Milton himself.
The poem was published under the title of Yamoyden, at New-York in 1820.
It unquestionably shows some marks of the youth of its authors, besides some other imperfections arising from the mode of its composition, which could not fail to prove a serious impediment to a clear connexion 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. The language, more especially in Sands's part of the work, is enriched by an evident familiarity with Comus, and the minor poems of Milton; perhaps leaning a little too much to a fondness for more unusual archaisms of construction and phrase not always worth reviving. The poem 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. Such is the power with which some of the almost repulsively horrible imagery of the savage superstitions is used, that the author of an admirable and most eloquent review of Yamoyden, in the North American Review, does not hesitate to say of it, "We do not remember any thing finer of the semi-infernal kind, except Shakspeare's witches. We are at a loss how to praise this part of the poem sufficiently to satisfy ourselves, without seeming extravagant. We think we see in it proof of an imagination equal to a story of the class of the Vampire, or the Monk, which should make those horrible fictions seem almost nursery tales."
The publication of this poem gave Mr. Sands great literary reputation throughout the United States, to which the review that has just been quoted aided not a little. He became personally known to many distinguished literary men, and in a visit to Boston, in particular, received many and most flattering attentions, in spite of a harsh allusion in Yamoyden to the modern theology of Harvard University.
In 1820, he was admitted to the bar, and opened an office in the city of New-York. He entered upon his professional career, as has been said, filled with high hopes and an ardent love of the learning of the law. These were sufficiently strong to induce him to decline an offer of honourable employment in another walk, which would appear to have been more adapted to his taste or acquirements. A great effort had been made to resuscitate Dickenson College, at Carlisle, Penn., a respectable seminary of learning, that had been depressed by various adverse circumstances. The legislature of Pennsylvania had granted a liberal allowance for the salaries of several professors for a term of years. Dr. Mason, of New-York, was chosen president, and invited to select his own body of professors. He selected Sands, then just of age, to fill the chair of Belles Letters. After a short consideration he declined the office, and Dr. Mason, who was anxious to compose his academic corps of young men, as well as of men of talents, then solicited him to select a substitute from among his literary companions. But he was not destined to the success at the bar that his young ambition had pictured to him in such brilliant colours, and which in truth his talents and love of the profession seemed to authorize him to expect. His first attempt s an advocate, without being a failure, fell far short of his own proposed standard and expectations. It evidently disheartened him, and though he still pursued the business of an attorney and his legal studies, he made no renewed attempt of any consequence before a court or jury, and after a few years gradually withdrew from the profession to other pursuits. Why and how this happened is not easy to explain or even to conjecture. He had not that degree of pecuniary independence which so often proves the bane of young professional men, and he had long looked to the law for the means of support, independence, and distinction. He was not impeded by that fastidious dislike to the law as a study so often experienced by the literary, the speculative, and the philosophical. He had habits of great and intense industry; and though this industry was somewhat irregular. this arose mainly from the nature of his pursuits and occupations, and would have been corrected by the routine of professional labour. He had already a considerable stock of law learning, which he did not lose in leaving the bar. He had great command of language, fertility of thought, power of illustration, and a playful, original, and overflowing humour, which might have been turned to great effect in extemporary eloquence. He had a singularly shrewd and quick observation of character; and while he was somewhat averse to metaphysical reasoning, was laborious and acute in the investigation and discussion of facts. With all this, nothing but a resolute will appears to have been wanting to have secured him a highly respectable standing at the bar, perhaps, (for of this it is impossible to speak with confidence of any one), to have enrolled his among the illustrious names of the law, with the Mansfields, Erskines, and Hamiltons, whose forensic glories had once fired his young imagination. While he was still loitering at the bar, and attending to some practice as an attorney, he continued his law reading, and renewed and extended his acquaintance with the poets of antiquity. Thus he acquired an intimacy, such as professors might have envied, with the Greek language and literature, and especially with "the lofty grave tragedians," whom he used to praise with Milton, as "teachers best of moral prudence." He retained to his death his youthful preference for Euripides, whom he used to call an English poet, born in ancient Greece, having, as he once said in conversation, "more of every thing that touches the sympathies of the modern reader than any other ancient." His admiration of Aeschylus, that great master of the noble, the sublime, the pathetic, constantly increased with every perusal. In grandeur and magnificence of conception bethought him peerless, and said that there needed little study of what he had left to be convinced that even his own rich and flexible language was insufficient to supply the exuberant demands of his imagination. To this cause he imputed the difficulties found in his choruses and more poetical passages. "As with Shakspeare, expression sunk under the weight of his thoughts, or received from him a power which the same words never had before." He had early learned French, and was familiar with its copious and elegant literature; but he never much admired, and in his multifarious literary conversation and authorship, rarely quoted or alluded to a French author, except merely for facts. He now acquired the Italian, and read carefully and with great admiration all its great writers, from Dante to Alfieri. Those who knew the peculiar character of Sands's mind, and how rapidly his fancy rambled from the imaginative to the ludicrous, would naturally suppose that Ariosto and his school of wild sportive romance and capricious humour, must have been his favourite reading in this rich literature. It is rather a curious fact that this seems not to have been the case. He doubtless read those poets with much pleasure, but neither alluded to not quoted them in his writings or conversation, nor translated or imitated them, as he frequently did the graver and more chastened strains of the Italian Muse. His translations 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 procure 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. These were written in conjunction with his friends of the Literary Confederacy, or at least were submitted to their revision, and bore, as did the contributions of the other members, the signature of L. C. They were very multifarious; and as many of them, though bearing his marked characteristics of style and thought, were either careless productions or on temporary subjects, a selection only of them has been preserved in the present collection of his works. In the winter of 1823-4, he and his friends of the Confederacy published seven numbers of a sort of mock-magazine, entitled the St. Tammany 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 somewhat its character, and became the New-York Review, he was re-engaged as an editor, and assisted in conducting it until 1827. 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, published in the city of New-York, he accepted it, and continued his connexion 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. Some one has termed the famous Shakspearian commentator Steevens "the Puck of literature." Sands had like him something of 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 forth-coming 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 manufactured for the occasion; in short, like Shakspeare's "merry wanderer of the night," to lead his unsuspecting victim around "through bog, through bush, 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 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, all fabricated by himself for the occasion, and resting mainly on a passage of Pausanias, 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 for 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 be translated into Spanish, and prefixed to the edition.
It was not in his nature to content himself with such materials as the common English or French books furnished him, even though graced with the authority of names great in literature. The following extracts from letters to a friend then at Washington, are given, not so much for the history of the particular subject to which they relate, as indicative of the accuracy and research he was accustomed to bestow on every study that seriously attracted his attention.
"February 10, 1828.
White, Gallaher, and White, of this city, are republishing, for the market of Mexico, the letters of Cortes to Charles V. I have undertaken to write a biographical notice of the Conquistador, with such reflections on his character and career as may be summarily suggested by the accounts of conflicting historians and the state of his age. I am very much troubled for want of books. I have read Robertson and Clavigero together, and am getting through De Solis. I want Guevara, Bern. Diaz del Castilio, and Herrera, the two former especially, as the latter is only a compiler. I found the second and third letters of Cortes in the N. Y. Society Library, edited by an old fool of an archbishop of Mexico, in 1770. The archbishop's notes and commentaries are of no value. As you had occasion to look through several of the old writers, in relation to Las Casas, perhaps you may remember having seen or had possession of some or all of these three I have mentioned as desired by me. You would do me a great kindness if you can put me in the way of finding them. A friend of Mr. Ticknor has written to him for me, to ascertain whether he has them. I have barely two months to write the notice in, which must also be translated into Spanish in that time. If I find I can make any thing useful or interesting out of the subject, I will not throw away the chips, but make an English Life of Cortes out of it. I beg the archbishop's pardon for calling him an old fool "ut supra," for he gives the most philosophical solution of the peopling of America I ever heard, and throws Carver, Judge Boudinot, and Washington Irving, to say nothing of the learned explorers of the subject, completely into the shade. I translate him literally for your edification, as it is easier to do so than to copy his obsolete orthography. 'There is no use,' quoth the most illustrious Lord Don Francisco Antonio Lorenzano, 'there is no use,' says he, 'in fatiguing yourself about the ancestors of these people; for, from the tower of Babel, people straggled all over the world; and clear up to the north pole, no end has been found to land in this America. Therefore, at this day, it is a useless question how they came by sea; because by land they might come from other parts of the world, and nobody can assert the contrary because the end of New Spain has never been found at the north.'"
"February 12, 1828.
Since I wrote you, I have seen the catalogue of books offered to Congress. Some of the manuscripts are forgeries, beyond all question, as any sensible person who has looked into the thing can see. But among the books and manuscripts, there is all that the heart of man could desire (excepting B. Diaz del Castilio, which I do not find) in writing on the conquest of Mexico. I cannot., of course, see any of them; but I will be obliged to you if you will be good enough to send me the catalogue, as soon as you have leisure. It is numbered Report No 37. I believe the City Library has received their copy through you. If the manuscripts and books which are offered are originals, they are, in a certain sense, invaluable. There are documents which the historiographers of the kings of Spain and England — searched for in vain through all Europe and America. Par exemple, there are the whole six letters of Cortes. I don't believe it — that is, I don't believe they are the letters of Cortes; but I would travel to Washington afoot if my engagements would permit it, to ascertain the fact. I do not understand from the report where these books are to be found, but take it for granted they are in Colombia."
He was fortunately relieved from any difficulty arising from the want of materials, by finding in the library of the N. Y. Historical Society a very choice collection of original Spanish authorities, which afforded hint all that he desired. His manuscript was translated into Spanish by Manuel Dominguez, a learned Spaniard, advantageously known to his reading countrymen by other excellent versions from the English. It was prefixed to the letters of Cortes, and a large edition printed, while the original remained in manuscript until the present collection of Mr. Sands's writings. 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 vying with each other in the Souvenirs, Tokens, and other beautifully printed and tastefully adorned yearly volumes. Mr. Bliss, a worthy bookseller of New-York, and an old especial favourite with Mr. Sands, desirous to try his fortune in the same way, pressed Mr. Sands to undertake the editorship of an annual volume of this sort. This he at first declined; but it happened, that in conversation with two friends, the writer of this memoir and Mr. W. C. 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 decoration 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 volume 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 urgent solicitation of the publisher, a second volume was as hastily prepared in the following year, by the same persons, decorated with engravings very creditable to the state of the arts among us, from spirited designs of Weir and Inman. The third year, the ambition of the publisher soared higher, all the artists of New-York were enlisted, double the quantity of literary matter was required, and the industry and ready fertility of Sands were redoubled. The public still gave a favourable reception. But the excitement and amusement it had afforded its authors now flagged, its primitive character of a joint miscellany began to be lost, in consequence of its style of decoration and publication, in that of the mere annual, and Mr. Herbert was suffered to die a natural death, as many better men of the same unreal family had done before him, from the time of Isaac Bickerstaff downwards. Sands always retained a great affection for his memory, and sometimes lamented the destruction (to use his own phrase) "of the individuality of Mr. Herbert; 'tria juncta in uno,' which," said he, in one of his letters, "still floats in my mind not as a reminiscence or as fiction, but as a present idea." Of this publication about one fourth was entirely from Sands's pen, and about as much more was his joint work with one or other of his friends. This, as the reader must have already remarked, was a very favourite mode of authorship with him. He composed with amazing ease and rapidity, and delighting as he always did in the work of come position, 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.
This joint-stock authorship, of which Sands was so fond, — not the simply putting together in one whole, parts prepared separately, nor the correcting and enriching by a second hand the rough materials of the first author, but the literally writing in company, — was common among the old English dramatists, but has few other examples in literary history. The joint labours of Beaumont and Fletcher are familiar to all. To these may be added a joint work of Ben Jonson with Chapman, others of Webster with Marston, and of Massinger with Middleton, with Dekker, and with Field. The Memoirs of Scriblerus had the same sort of origin. It is not easy to enlarge this list very much. Indeed for the purpose of such association it is necessary that one at least of the authors should possess Sands's unhesitating and rapid fluency of written style, and his singular power of seizing the ideas and images of his friend and assimilating them perfectly to his own.
In his own opinion, the volumes of the Talisman contained the best of his writings. The grave part of his contributions, and the poetical, are wholly his own; so too is the sly and subdued humours of the "Simple Tale." His "Dream of Papantzin," a poem, 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; for he had (I quote the opinion of an American author, whose exquisite poetry already constitutes an acknowledged, as they will an enduring portion of classical English literature), "he had an ear for poetic measure, cultivated by the study of the varied and flexible rhythm of the ancient classics, by the reading of the old poets of our own language, and by the critical examination of the versification adopted in the several modern languages with which he was familiar. By those who consider metrical harmony as identical with monotony, who think Milton did not understand the harmony of blank verse, and charge Spenser with ignorance of the art of versification, because he wrote 'Unweeting of the perilous wandering ways' — Sands may be said to have had a bad ear; but the fact was, that he understood how to roughen his verse with skill, and to vary its modulation."
The Talisman was reissued two or three years afterward by the first publisher, in its originally intended form, as "Miscellanies by G. C. Verplanck, W. C. Bryant, and Robert C. Sands," with a preface by Mr. Sands. Some of the most considerable of his contributions to the collection were reprinted in England in various forms, among the rest as part of Miss Mitford's selection of American Tales.
In the course of the publication of these volumes, an incident occurred which Sands always spoke of with so much interest and pleasure that it should not be omitted here. The volumes were very accurately as well as beautifully printed. Before the sheets of the second volume had reached the binder, and of course long before they could have fallen under the eye of any regular editorial critic, Sands was surprised to find a review of the book in, the Mirror, a well known and widely circulating literary journal. It was written with great sprightliness of thought, and elegance of style, and in the most friendly spirit. On inquiring for the name of his good-natured and able critic, Sands was surprised to learn that he was a young journeyman printer in the office, the compositor who had himself set up the whole of the manuscript, and who knew the book only in that way. This was William Cox, who shortly after became a regular contributor to American periodical literature, and has since gained an enviable literary reputation by his Crayon Sketches, a series of essays, lull of originality, pleasantry and wit, alternately reminding the reader of the poetical eloquence of Hazlitt, and the quaint humour and eccentric tastes of Charles Lamb.
Sands's next literary employment was the publication of a new Life of the famous 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 he did with his usual facility of composition; but he did great injustice to his own overflowing fertility of thought in supposing that he could restrain himself to mere compilation. In spite of the author's own intention, there will be found, scattered throughout the volume, ingenious though rapid investigations of doubtful or disputed facts, and some passages of animated and patriotic eloquence. 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. For the reasons already intimated, as well as because the copyright is the property of the relations of Paul Jones, it does not form a part of the present collection of Mr. Sands's writings.
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, grave and gay, by different American authors, Messrs. Bryant, Paulding, Leggett, and Miss Sedgwick. To this collection Sands contributed the introduction, which is deeply tinged with his peculiarity of humour; and two of the tales, the one humorous, the other grave. The latter, Boyuca, was another fruit of his Spanish American studies, being founded on the romantic story of the adventurer Ponce do Leon's search for the fabled fountain that could restore youth and perpetuate life — a search which, as is well known, led to the discovery of Florida. This tale has a wonderful fulness and familiarity of character, incident, and allusion and a vividness of imagery and description that give it an air of perfect though picturesque reality, strangely contrasting with the wildness of the narrative. The striking and singularly beautiful effect thus produced, was well described by a friend, who compared it to the recollection of some strange but vivid dream.
His last finished composition was a little poem entitled "The Dead of 1832," which appeared anonymously in the paper he was connected with, a few days only before his own death. By one of those strange coincidences that so often occur to perplex human reason with suggestions which our philosophy can neither admit nor refute, he selected for his subject the triumphs of Death and Time over the illustrious men who had been gathered to their graves in the year then just ending — Goethe, and Cuvier, and Spurzheiin, and Walter Scott; Champollion, who read the mystic lore of the Pharaohs; Crabbe, the poet of poverty; Bentham, the philosopher of legislation; Adam Clarke, the meek and learned hierarch of Methodism; the young Napoleon, "the heir of glory;" and Charles Carroll, the long-lived survivor of
—The brave who perilled all
To make an infant empire free;
a crowd of the wise and great, whom he who thus mourned them was himself destined to join within the few remaining days of the same year.
Mr. Sands, just before his death, had engaged to furnish an article on Esquimaux Literature, for the first number of the Knickerbacker Magazine, then just established by a young literary friend. He had consulted, for this purpose, all the common books containing any thing which related to that singular race of people; and on the sixteenth of December had procured a history of Greenland, by David Crantz, a German missionary, who, in the year 1761, was sent to Greenland by the United Brethren, and resided there a twelvemonth, for the express purpose of compiling a description of the country, and whose work is fall of curious and minute information respecting those frozen latitudes and their inhabitants. He immediately gave himself, with his usual intense application, to the perusal of this book, in order to fill his mind with ideas of the Esquimaux modes of life, their traditions and mythology. He had already finished an introduction to the article, which was a review of an imaginary book of translations from the Esquimaux language, and had written two fragments, which he intended for supposed specimens of Greenland poetry. After another interval of close reading, he again, on the 17th of December, about four o'clock in the afternoon, sat down to the work of composition. He merely wrote with a pencil the following line, suggested probably by some topic in the Greenland mythology, "O think not my spirit among you abides," when 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. It was soon discovered that the disorder was an apoplectic stroke; 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.
Mr. Sands was never married. He lived with his father's family, always either in or near the city of New-York, and during the last eight or nine years of his life, at Hoboken, on the Jersey shore of the Hudson, opposite the city, to which his daily avocations regularly called him. He was exceedingly attached to his home and its domestic enjoyments, as well as the quiet of his study. Yet his were, by no means, the life and habits of the mere man of books. He had at different periods of his life mixed widely in society, and in all ranks, where he observed character and manners with a "spirit learned in human dealings," noting and treasuring up the odd, the singular, and the fantastical, in incident and character, as well as the natural workings of feelings, passions, and sympathies, under all the varied forms of artificial society, from the circles of wealth and fashion, down to the forlorn culprits of the inferior criminal courts.
Social in his temperament, he enjoyed the acquaintance and high esteem of the elite of the scholars, and men of talents of all classes, and especially the artists of New-York and its vicinity. With these his conversation was fill of sprightliness and information; and the whimsical and lively wit, the odd and sometimes grotesque humours, that came into his mind unsought, heightened as they were by quaint combinations of language, quite peculiar to himself, made him as entertaining as his learning and originality of thought did an instructive companion. His warmth and kindness of disposition attracted and strongly attached to him many intimate friends, whom he loved with an unwavering constancy and affection. He was peculiarly kind to those in an inferior station, and seemed to study to make up by gentleness and generosity for the hardships and inequalities of fortune. His affections and charities extended yet further; for, to borrow his own words "Time has more baleful colleagues than disease and death. There are some whom we have once loved, and who yet live, marked by shame for her own, upon whom the dread sentence of disgrace has been passed, and the world's charity excludes them from 'fire and water.' The herd pass by, and the stricken deer must go weep in its covert, good for nothing but the moralities of some melancholy Jaques, but dead to the world and its sympathies." — He spoke from his own experience, for Sands's diversified associations and pursuits had numbered such unfortunates among his acquaintance; and for these, in their wants or their disgrace, his heart and his purse were always open, his counsel and his active assistance as much at their command as in their brightest days of youth and hope.
Next to conversation and the observation of human character, his favourite recreation was in rural rambles and amusements. He was exceedingly near-sighted from his childhood, and it was not until his sixteenth year, when he obtained glasses fitted for his sight, that he ever saw the stars, — a view which he used to describe as having filled him with the sublimest emotions. The knowledge of this imperfection of vision often gave the writer of this memoir occasion of surprise, when in their rambles or excursions together, he has remarked the intense delight that Sands received from the beauties of nature, and the graphic accuracy with which he observed and described alike their grander and more distant outlines, and their minute and more delicate features. His power of attention and habits of observation supplied the defects of the material organ.
The reader has already been made acquainted in part with his singular and varied acquirements. In ancient and modern literature, and languages, he had few equals, probably in our country no superior. He read familiarly the Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese authors. All the treasures of English literature, in the broadest sense of the word, were stored in his memory, from Chaucer to Charles Lamb, from Cudworth to O'Keefe. He had a general and more than elementary acquaintance with the mathematical and physical sciences, but for these branches of knowledge he felt little curiosity or interest. He held and maintained with Johnson, that the knowledge of external nature is not the great or the frequent business of the human mind, — that we have perpetual occasion for those principles of moral truth, and materials of reasoning or illustration, which are supplied by poets, orators, and historians, but are chymists or geometricians only accidentally or occasionally. He had laid a deep foundation of law learning in his youth, and though he abandoned the profession, he never quite gave up his legal reading. He was, therefore, probably as sound a lawyer as can be made without the actual and continued practice of the profession. His reverence for the law, and love of its peculiar learning and reasoning, led him to an extreme of prejudice against all reform or melioration of the system. He admired and defended even those narrow and inconvenient entrances which the ingenious and apologetic Blackstone himself allows to be found among the spacious apartments of the ancient castle of English common law. He had, also, something of the same sort of dislike against the metaphysics of political economy, a study he never relished and never did justice to. He frequently maintained that it was not entitled to the honour of being called a science, and that "all the trash about values, and wealth, and reproductive industry was not of the slightest practical use." There was scarce any other part of knowledge which had not at some time excited his curiosity, and more or less engaged his attention. Hence his mind was stored with an immense mass of miscellaneous information; such as, if it is not learning, is often found much more useful. He had read extensively, though irregularly, in divinity and ecclesiastical history; and had settled his opinions on most of the contested points of theological discussion. His opinions seemed in general to be those of Taylor, Barrow, and the old divines of that school in the Church of England, which, however, he held with great moderation.
He reverenced religion, and all good and moral influences, wherever he found them to exist.
His large stores of learning and of practical information on men and things, could not have been accumulated without great activity and versatility or mind, and these he evinced in all his pursuits; for he possessed the power of vigorously directing the faculties of his mind to any chosen object of study, inquiry, or speculation. His fancy was surprisingly fruitful of original and striking combinations of ideas; and if his peculiar vein of humour had any fault, it was that of excessive and unrestrained exuberance. But he had none of that bitterness of spirit, or keenness of sarcasm which frequently give edge to satire. His indulgence in the laughable sprung from the love of the laugh itself. He had no touch whatever of the sneering misanthropy, or the contemptuous hatred for folly which have so often lent their savage inspiration to comic and satiric talent. His humour, as it overflowed in his conversation and letters, even more than in his written compositions, ran somewhat in the whimsically broad vein of Rabelais, (though quite free from his grossness) delighting like him to mix the topics and language of learning with the humours and phrases of humble or even of vulgar life.
It strikes me as a remarkable circumstance (whether common to him with any other learned wits, I cannot say) that with this buoyancy of imagination, this constitutional tendency to the jocose or the whimsical, all his favourite studies and literary recreations were of a very grave cast. He had early read most of the witty and comic authors of note, but rarely recurred to them in after life. When fatigued with business or literary labour, he did not, as one might have expected, refresh himself with Swift or Smollet; admire the chivalrous fancies and noble horsemanship of La Mancha's knight, or "laugh and shake in Rabelais' easy chair;" but he returned with ever fresh delight to hold communion with ancient sages and scholars, or else,
—entranced to hear,
O'er battle fields the epic thunders roll
Or list where tragic wail upon the ear,
Through Argive palaces shrill echoing stole.
So, too, all his deliberately selected subjects of composition were of a serious nature, generally demanding grave reading and research. His pleasantry was all spontaneous, unpremeditated, unbidden. Nor were his laughable associations ever applied to subjects worthy of higher thoughts, for quick as he was in his perception of the ridiculous, he was equally sensitive to all that is beautiful in nature, or grand and elevating in sentiment.
The collection of his miscellaneous writings, now published, will enable the reader to judge of his ability in imbodying and will expressing such thoughts, although both in kind and in quantity they give but an imperfect idea either of his genius and accomplishments, or his readiness, fertility, and industry; not in quantity, as they form but a portion of his writings; the selection being confined to his original literary compositions and his poetical translations; and of course excluding his writings on political subjects and passing events, and his numerous reviews and other publications of a temporary character. Nor in kind can they be considered otherwise than as indications of what he might have done had his life been prolonged. Most of the great works of literature were written at a later period of life than that at which Sands died. All of his, too, were composed with singular rapidity, and most of them published without the opportunity of correction or revision.
Still, such as they are, they show their author to have possessed the rare combination of humour and eloquence, of learning and originality, and prove that he made no false estimate of his own genius when in "the young delighted strains" of his Yamoyden, he expressed the confidence of his power rightly to invoke the muse, and to descry some of her nobler visions.