1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Rodman Drake

Epes Sargent, in Harper's Cyclopaedia of British and American Poetry (1882) 472.



Drake (1795-1820), whose remarkable promise was checked by an early death, was a native of the city of New York. He obtained a good education, studied medicine, and was admitted to practice, soon after which he was married. With his wife he visited Europe in 1817. On his return pulmonary disease developed itself; in the winter of 1819 he visited New Orleans in the hope of relief, but died the following autumn, at the age of twenty-five. Like Bryant, he was a poet from boyhood, and wrote remarkable verses before he was fifteen. He was associated with Halleck in writing the poems signed "Croaker & Co.," and his American Flag first appeared among these (1819). The Culprit Fay (1819), his longest poem, is said to have been written in three days. It shows great facility in versifying, and an affluent fancy. The following passage is a not wholly unworthy parallel of Shakspeare's description of Queen Mab:

He put his acorn helmet on,
It was plumed of the silk of the thistle-down;
The corslet-plate that girded his breast
Was once the wild bee's golden vest;
His cloak of a thousand mingled dyes
Was formed of the wings of butterflies;
His shield was the shell of a lady-bug queen,
Studs of gold on a ground of green;
And the quivering lance which he brandished bright
Was the sting of a wasp he had slain in flight.

When Drake was on his death-bed, his brother-in-law, Dr. De Kay, collected and copied all the young poet's productions in verse that could be found, and took them to him, saying, "See, Joe, what I have done." "Burn them," replied Drake; "they are valueless." Clever as they are, they did not come up to his ideal of what poetry ought to be. N. P. Willis remarks of him: "His power of language was prompt; his peculiarity was that of instantaneous creation; thought, imagination, truth, and imagery seemed to combine and produce their results in a moment."