John G. C. Brainard

Samuel Griswold Goodrich, in Recollections of a Lifetime (1857) 2:141-60.

MY DEAR C*******

I have told you that in the autumn of 1823 I set out to visit Europe; but a few previous events are needful to bring my narrative to that epoch. In 1821, clouds and darkness began to gather around my path. By a fall from a horse, I was put upon crutches for more than a year, and a cane for the rest of my life. Ere long death entered my door, and my home was desolate. I was once more alone — save only that a child was left me, to grow to womanhood, and to die a youthful mother, loving and beloved — leaving an infant soon to follow her to the tomb. My affairs became embarrassed, my health failed, and my only hope of renovation was in a change of scene.

But before I give you a sketch of my experience and observations abroad, I must present one portrait more — that of my friend Brainard. He came to Hartford in February, 1822, to take the editorial charge of the Connecticut Mirror — Mr. Stone, as I have stated, having left it a short time before. He was now twenty-six years old, and had gained some reputation for wit and poetical talent. One day a young man, small in stature, with a curious mixture of case and awkwardness, of humor and humility, came into my office, and introduced himself as Mr. Brainard. I gave him a hearty welcome, for I had heard very pleasant accounts of him. As was natural, I made a complimentary allusion to his poems, which I had seen and admired. A smile, yet shaded with something of melancholy, came over his face, as he replied—

"Don't expect too much of me; I never succeeded in any thing yet. I never could draw a mug of cider without spilling more than half of it!"

I afterward found that much truth was thus spoken in jest: this was, in point of fact, precisely Brainard's appreciation of himself. All his life, feeling that he could do something, he still entertained a mournful and disheartening conviction that, on the whole, he was doomed to failure and disappointment. There was sad prophecy in this presentiment — a prophecy which he at once made and fulfilled.

We soon became friends, and at last intimates. I was now boarding at "Ripley's" — a good old-fashioned tavern, over which presided Major Ripley, respected for revolutionary services, an amiable character, and a long Continental queue. In the administration of the establishment he was ably supported by his daughter, Aunt Lucy — the very genius of tavern courtesy, cookery, and comfort. Here Brainard joined me, and we took our rooms side by side. Thus for more than a year we were together, as intimate as brothers. He was of a childlike disposition, and craved constant sympathy. He soon got into the habit of depending upon me in many things, and at last — especially in dull weather, or when he was sad, or something went wrong with him — he crept into my bed, as if it was his right. At that period of gloom in my own fortunes, this was as well a solace to me as to him. After my return from Europe we resumed these relations, and for some months more we were thus together.

Brainard's life has been frequently written. The sketch of him in Kettell's "Specimens," I furnished, soon after his death. Mr. Robbins, of Berlin, wrote a beautiful biographical memoir of him for Hopkins' edition of his poems, published at Hartford, in 1842. A more elaborate notice of his life, character, and genius, had been given in Whittier's edition of his "Remains," 1832. To this just and feeling memoir, by a kindred spirit — one every way qualified to appreciate and to illustrate his subject — I have now nothing to add, except a few personal recollections — such as were derived from my long intercourse and intimacy with him.

Perhaps I cannot do better than to begin at once, and give you a sketch of a single incident, which will reflect light upon many others. The scene opens in Miss Lucy's little back-parlor — a small, cozy, carpeted room, with two cushioned rocking-chairs, and a bright hickory fire. It is a chill November night, about seven o'clock of a Friday evening. The Mirror — Brainard's paper — is to appear on the morning of the morrow, it being a weekly sheet, and Saturday its day of publication. The week has thus far passed, and he has not written for it a line. How the days have gone he can hardly tell. He has read a little — dipped into Byron, pored over the last Waverley novel, and been to see his friends; at all events, he had got rid of the time. He has not felt competent to bend down to his work, and has put it off till the last moment. No further delay is possible. He is now not well; he has a cold, and this has taken the shape of a swelling of the tonsils, almost amounting to quinsy, as was usual with him in such attacks.

Miss Lucy, who takes a motherly interest in him, tells him not to go out, and his own inclinations suggest the charms of a quiet evening in the rocking-chair, by a good fire — especially in comparison with going to his comfortless office, and drudging for the inky devils of the press. He lingers till eight, and then suddenly rousing himself, by a desperate effort, throws on his cloak and sallies forth. As was not uncommon, I go with him. A dim fire is kindled in the small Franklin stove in his office, and we sit down. Brainard, as was his wont, especially when he was in trouble, falls into a curious train of reflections, half comic and half serious.

"Would to heaven," he says, "I were a slave. I think a slave, with a good master, has a good time of it. The responsibility of taking care of himself — the most terrible burden of life — is put on his master's shoulders. Madame Roland, with a slight alteration, would have uttered a profound truth. She should have said — 'Oh, liberty, liberty, thou art a humbug!' After all, liberty is the greatest possible slavery, for it puts upon a man the responsibility of taking care of himself. If he goes wrong — why he's damned! If a slave sins, he's only flogged, and gets over it, and there's an end of it. Now, if I could only be flogged, and settle the matter that way, I should be perfectly happy. But here comes my tormentor."

The door is now opened, and a boy with a touseled head and inky countenance, enters, saying curtly — "Copy, Mr. Brainard!"

"Come in fifteen minutes!" says the editor, with a droll mixture of fun and despair.

Brainard makes a few observations, and sits down at his little narrow pine table — hacked along the edges with many a restless penknife. He seems to notice these marks, and pausing a moment, says—

"This table reminds me of one of my brother William's stories. There was an old man in Groton, who had but one child, and she was a daughter. When she was about eighteen, several young men came to see her. At last she picked out one of them, and desired to marry him. He seemed a fit match enough, but the father positively refused his consent. For a long time he persisted, and would give no reason for his conduct. At last, he took his daughter aside, and said — 'Now, Sarah, I think pretty well of this young man in general, but I've observed that he's given to whittling. There's no harm in that, but the point is this: he whittles and whittles, and never makes nothing! Now I tell you, I'll never give my only daughter to such a feller as that!' Whenever Bill told this story, he used to insinuate that this whittling chap, who never made any thing, was me! At any rate, I think it would have suited me, exactly."

Some time passed in similar talk, when at last Brainard turned suddenly, took up his pen and began to write. I sat apart, and left him to his work. Some twenty minutes passed, when, with a radiant smile on his face, he got up, approached the fire, and taking the candle to light his paper, read as follows:

The thoughts are strange that crowd into my brain,
While I look upward to thee. It would seem
As if God pour'd thee from his 'hollow hand,'
And hung his bow upon thy awful front;
And spoke in that loud voice that seem'd to him
Who dwelt in Patmos for his Saviour's sake,
'The sound of many waters;' and had bade
Thy flood to chronicle the ages back,
And notch his cent'ries in the eternal rocks!

He had hardly done reading, when the boy came. Brainard handed him the lines — on a small scrap of rather coarse paper — and told him to come again in half an hour. Before this time had elapsed, he had finished, and read me the following stanza:

Deep calleth unto deep. And what are we,
That hear the question of that voice sublime?
Oh what are all the notes that ever rung
From war's vain trumpet by thy thundering side?
Yea, what is all the riot man can make,
In his short life, to thy unceasing roar
And yet, bold babbler, what art thou to Him
Who drown'd a world, and heap'd the waters far
Above its loftiest mountains? A light wave,
That breathes and whispers of its Maker's might.

These lines having been furnished, Brainard left his office, and we returned to Miss Lucy's parlor. He seemed utterly unconscious of what he had done. I praised the verses, but he thought I only spoke warmly from friendly interest. The lines went forth, and produced a sensation of delight over the whole country. Almost every exchange paper that came to the office had extracted them: even then he would scarce believe that he had done any thing very clever. And thus, under these precise circumstances, were composed the most suggestive and sublime stanzas upon Niagara, that were ever penned. Brainard had never, as he told me, been within less than five hundred miles of the cataract, nor do I believe, that when he went to the office, he had meditated upon the subject. It was one of those inspirations which come to the poet-and often come like the lightning — in the very midst of clouds and darkness.

You will readily see, from the circumstances I have mentioned, that I knew the history of most of Brainard's pieces, as they came out, from time to time, in his newspaper. Nearly all of them were occasional — that is, suggested by passing events or incidents in the poet's experience. The exquisite lines beginning,

The dead leaves strew the forest walk,
And wither'd are the pale wild-flowers—

appeared a few days after he had taken leave of a young lady from Savannah, who had spent a month at our hotel, and had left an impression upon his sensitive heart, which the lines, mournful and touching as they are, only reveal to those who witnessed his emotions. Many were struck off in the extreme exigencies of the devil's dun — his very claws upon him. In these cases, he doubtless resorted to the treasures of his mind, which seems to have been largely stored with the scenery of his native State, and the legends connected with them. Two elements, in nearly equal proportion, seemed to fill his soul — the humorous and the sublime — and often in such contiguity, or even mixture, as to heighten the effect of each — this, however, being more noticeable in his conversation than his writings. It was sometimes amazing to watch the operations of his mind — even in moments of familiarity, often starting from some trivial or perhaps ludicrous incident, into a train of the most lofty and sublime thought. I have compared him, in my own mind, to a child playing upon the sea-beach, who by chance picks up and winds a Triton's shell, or wandering into some cathedral, lays his finger upon the clavier of the organ, and falling upon the key-note of his heart, draws from the instrument all its sounding melody.

I trust you will pardon me if I give the history of one or two other poems, connected with my own observation. I have told you that in the autumn of 1823, I went to Europe, and was absent for a year. On parting with Brainard, we mutually promised to write each other, often. Yet I received not a line from him during my absence. I knew his habits and forgave him — though I was certainly pained by such neglect. On meeting him after my return, I alluded to this. Without saving a word, he went away for a short time: on his return, he put into my hands a copy of the Mirror, which had appeared a few days before, and pointing to the lines — which I extract below — he left me. His reply, thus indicated, was indeed gratifying. You will understand that at the time, Lafayette had just arrived in the country.

With gallant sail and streamer gay,
Sweeping along the splendid bay,
That, throng'd by thousands, seems to greet
The bearer of a precious freight,
The Cadmus comes; and every wave
Is glad the welcomed prow to lave:
What are the ship and height to me?
I look for One that's on the sea.

"Welcome Fayette," the million cries
From heart to heart the ardor flies,
And drum and bell and cannon noise,
In concord with a nation's voice,
Is pealing through a grateful land,
And all go with him. Here I stand,
Musing on One that's dear to me,
Yet sailing on the dangerous sea.

Be thy days happy here, Fayette!
Long may they be so — long — but yet
To me there's one that, dearest still,
Clings to my heart and chains my will.
His languid limbs and feverish fiend
Are laid upon a sea-sick bed:
Perhaps his thoughts are fix'd on me,
While toss'd upon the mighty sea.

I am alone. Let thousands throng
The noisy, crowded streets along:
Sweet he the beam of beauty's gaze—
Loud be the shout that freemen raise—
Let patriots grasp thy noble hand,
And welcome thee to Freedom's land—
Alas I think of none but he
Who sails across the foaming sea!

So when the moon is shedding light
Upon the stars, and all is bright
And beautiful; when every eye
Looks upward to the glorious sky;
How have I turn'd my silent gaze,
To catch one little taper's blaze
'Twas from a spot too dear to me—
The home of him that's on the sea.

Ought I not to have been satisfied? If you will compare these lines with those by Percival, under circumstances not altogether dissimilar, you will have the means of comparing the two poets — the one feeling through the suggestions of his imagination, the other exercising his imagination through the impulse of his feelings. Percival was a poet of the fancy — Brainard, of the heart.

Still one more passing note. The "Sea-Bird's Song" appears to me one of the most poetical compositions in Brainard's collection, and the history of it can not be uninteresting. It was written some time after my return from England, and when I was again married and settled at Hartford. He was a frequent — almost daily visitor at our house, and took especial pleasure in hearing my wife sing. He had no skill in music, but, as with most persons of a sentimental turn, his choice always fell upon minors. One evening his ear caught up the old Welsh tune of "Taffy Morgan," which is, in point of fact, a composition of great power, especially when it is slowly and seriously executed. He was greatly affected by it, and some one suggested that he should compose a song to suit it. I remarked that I had often thought the song of a sea-bird, if treated with ballad simplicity and vigor, might be very effective. He began to ponder, and the next day brought a verse to try its rhythm with the music. This being approved, he went on, and two days after, came with the whole poem, which he slightly altered and adapted upon hearing it sung. Having said thus much, pardon me for reciting the lines, and asking you to get some good ballad-singer to give it to you, in the cadence of the old Welch melody I have mentioned. Thus sung, it is one of the most thrilling compositions I have ever heard.

On the deep is the mariner's danger—
On the deep is the mariner's death:
Who, to fear of the tempest a stranger,
Sees the last bubble burst of his breath?
'Tis the sea-bird, sea-bird, sea-bird,
Lone looker on despair:
The sea-bird, sea-bird, sea-bird,
The only witness there!

Who watches their course, who so mildly
Careen to the kiss of the breeze?
Who lists to their shrieks, who so wildly
Are clasped in the arms of the seas?
'Tis the sea-bird, &c.

Who hovers on high o'er the lover,
And her who has clung to his neck?
Whose wing is the wing that can cover
With its shadow the foundering wreck?
'Tis the sea-bird, &c.

My eye in the light of the billow,
My wing on the wake of the wave,
I shall take to my breast, for a pillow,
The shroud of the fair and the brave!
'Tis the sea-bird, &c.

My foot on the iceberg has lighted
When hoarse the wild winds veer about;
My eye, when the bark is benighted,
Sees the lamp of the lighthouse go out!
I'm the sea-bird, sea-bird, sea-bird,
Lone looker on despair;
The sea-bird, sea-bird, sea-bird,
The only witness there!

Where is there a song of more wild and impressive imagery — exciting more deep and touching emotions, than this?

These stanzas were written in the spring of 1826. The year before I had persuaded Brainard to make a collection of his poems, and have them published. At first his lip curled at the idea, as being too pretentious; he insisted that he had done nothing to justify the publication of a volume. Gradually he began to think of it, and at length — March 14, 1825 — I induced him to sign a contract, authorizing me to make arrangements for the work. He set about the preparation, and at length — after much lagging and many lapses — the pieces were selected and arranged. When all was ready, I persuaded him to go to New York with me, to settle the matter with a publisher. I introduced him to Bliss & White, and they readily undertook it, on the terms of joint and equal profits. Thus appeared the little volume, with Bunyan's quaint rhyme for a motto—

Some said, John, print it' — others said, 'Not so;'

Some said, 'It might do good' — others said, 'No!'

I must note a slight incident which occurred at New York, illustrative of Brainard's character. He was keenly alive to every species of beauty, in nature and art. His appreciation of the beauties of literature amounted to passion. That he had a craving for pathos and sublimity, is manifest from his works; yet he seemed to feel the nicer and more latent touches of wit and humor with a greater intensity of delight, than any other species of literary luxury. He was hence a special admirer of Halleck, and more than once remarked that he should like to see him. I proposed to introduce him; but he was shy of all formal meetings, and seemed indeed to feel that there would be a kind of presumption in his being presented to the leading poet of the great metropolis.

I was therefore obliged to give up the idea of effecting a meeting between these two persons, both natives of Connecticut, and peculiarly fitted to appreciate and admire each other. One morning, however, fortune seemed to favor me. As we entered the bookstore of Messrs. Bliss & White — then on the eastern side of Broadway, near Cedar-street — I saw Halleck at the further end of the room. Incautiously, I told this to Brainard. He eagerly asked me which was the poet, among two or three persons that were standing together. I pointed him out. Brainard took a long and earnest gaze, then turned on his heel, and I could not find him for the rest of the day!

His little volume was very favorably received by the public, and he was universally recognized as a true poet. These effusions, however, were regarded rather in the light of promise than fulfillment, and therefore people generally looked forward to the achievement of some greater work. I felt this, and frequently urged him to undertake a serious poem, which might develop his genius and establish his fame. He thought of it, but his habitual inertness mastered him. I returned to the subject, however, and we frequently conversed upon it. At last, he seemed to have resolved on the attempt, and actually wrote a considerable number of stanzas. After a time, however, he gave it up in despair. He told me, frankly, that it was impossible for him to sustain the continuity of thought and consistency of purpose indispensable to such an achievement. What he had actually done was merely an introduction, and was afterward published under the title of "Sketch of an Occurrence on board a Brig." Whoever has read these lines, can not fail to lament that weakness in the author — constitutional and habitual — which rendered him incompetent to continue a flight so nobly begun.

One anecdote — in addition to those already before the public — and I shall close this sketch. Brainard's talent for repartee was of the first order. On one occasion, Nathan Smith, an eminent lawyer, was at Ripley's tavern, in the midst of a circle of judges and lawyers, attending the court. He was an Episcopalian, and at this time was considered by his political adversaries — unjustly, no doubt — as the paid agent of that persuasion, now clamoring for a sum of money from the State, to lay the foundation of a "Bishops' Fund." He was thus regarded somewhat in the same light as O'Connell, who, while he was the great patriot leader of Irish independence, was at the same time liberally supported by the "rint." By accident, Brainard came in, and Smith, noticing a little feathery attempt at whiskers down his cheek, rallied him upon it.

"It will never do," said he; "you can not raise it, Brainard. Come, here's sixpence — take that, and go to the barber's and get it shaved off! It will smooth your cheek, and ease your conscience."

Brainard drew himself up, and said, with great dignity — as Smith held out the sixpence on the point of his forefinger — "No, sir, you had better keep it for the Bishops' Fund!"

I need not — I must not — prolong this sketch. What I have said, is sufficient to give you an insight into the character of this gifted child of genius. In person he was very short, with large hands and feet, and a walk paddling and awkward. His hair was light-brown, his skin pallid, his eye large and bluish-gray, his lips thick, his forehead smooth, white, and handsome; his brow beautifully arched, and edged with a definite, narrow line. His general appearance was that of a somewhat clumsy boy. His countenance was usually dull, yet with a wonderful power of expression — wit, drollery, seriousness, chasing each other in rapid succession. Its changes were at once sudden and marvelous. At one moment he looked stupid and then inspired. His face was like a revolving light — now dull and dark — now radiant, and shedding its beams on all around. His manners were subject to a similar change; usually he seemed uncouth, yet often have I seen him seductively courteous. In short, he was a bundle of contradictions: generally he was ugly, yet sometimes handsome; for the most part he was awkward, yet often graceful; his countenance was ordinarily dull, yet frequently beaming with light.

Thus with a look and appearance of youth — with indeed something of the waywardness and improvidence of boyhood, even when he had reached the full age of manhood — he was still full of noble thoughts and sentiments. In his editorial career — though he was negligent, dilatory, sometimes almost imbecile from a sort of constitutional inertness — still a train of inextinguishable light remains to gleam along his path. Many a busy, toiling editor has filled his daily columns for years, without leaving a living page behind him; while Brainard, with all his failings and irregularities, has left a collection of gems, which loving, and tender, and poetic hearts will wear and cherish to immortality. And among all that he wrote — be it remembered, thus idly, recklessly, as it might seem — there is not a line that, 'dying, he could wish to blot." his love of parents, of home, of kindred, was beautiful indeed; his love of nature, and especially of the scenes of his childhood, was the affection of one never weaned from the remembrance of his mother's breast. He was true in friendship, chivalrous in all that belonged to personal honor. I never heard him utter a malignant thought — I never knew him to pursue an unjust design. At the early age of eight-and-twenty he was admonished that his end was near. With a submissive spirit he resigned himself to his doom, and, in pious, gentle, cheerful faith, he departed on the 26th of September, 1828.

Weep not for him, who hath laid his head
On a pillow of earth in the cypress shade;
For the sweetest dews that the night airs shed,
Descend on the couch for that sleeper made.

Weep not for him, though the wintry sleet
Throw its chill folds o'er his manly breast—
That spotless robe is a covering meet
For the shrouded soul in its home of rest!

Weep not for him, though his heart is still,
And the soul-lit eye like a lamp grown dim—
Though the noble pulse is an icy rill,
By the hoar-frost chained — Oh, weep not for him!

The diamond gathers its purest ray
In the hidden grot where no sun is known—
And the sweetest voices of music play
In the trembling ear of silence alone:

And there in the hush of that starless tomb
A holier light breaks in on time eye,
And wind-harps steal through the sullen gloom,
To woo that sleeper away to the sky!