1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Rodman Drake

Anonymous, "Miscellany: Joseph Rodman Drake" The Critic [New York] 1 (4 April 1829) 353-54.



Every lover of poetry has read Halleck's beautiful elegiac lines, beginning,

Green be the turf above thee
Friend of my better days!
None knew thee but to love thee
Nor named thee but to praise;

but perhaps many of our readers may never have heard of the gifted individual whose, untimely end they deplore. Yet not even Halleck himself, nor Bryant, nor any of the proud ones of song whom our country has yet produced, possess a larger share of natural genius, or of natural goodness, or a greater abundance of any of those qualities which make a man admired and beloved, than did Joseph Rodman Drake. I am not going to write his biography; for though I would willingly do so, I am not possessed of sufficient materials. But he has been recalled to my mind by looking over the leaves of a miscellany in which are treasured some of his brilliant gems of thought; and I cannot forbear to say a few words about him; for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh — and I have thought of nothing else for the whole afternoon.

The first time I ever saw him was much such a day as this. The tardy spring had at length assumed a smile, and nature stood, like a hound in the leash, ready to burst forth at a whisper — The whisper came. The balmy south wind — played among the leafless branches of the trees, and buds and blossoms broke forth at the summons so rapidly that one might almost see them grow. I was in the country at the time; and rambling out from the house of a relative, with whom I had been spending a week or two, I pursued my way along an unfrequented road towards the water, now looking at this thing, and now at that; at one time perhaps throwing a pebble at some little bird which began to twitter in anticipation of the approaching summer; and at another extending myself on the green grass that had already sprung up by the road side; (for I was a little boy at the time, and my frolic heart leaped and danced at the sight of the blue sky, and the sunny slope, and the budding branches,) when my attention was suddenly arrested by the appearance of a gentleman, who was reclining tinder a tree on time summit of a hill before me. The little mound had for many years been occupied by two or three families, who resided in that neighborhood, as a graveyard; and it was beside one of the stones that marked the last earthly abodes of the unconscious tenants below, that I first saw Joseph Rodman Drake. There was a book in his hand, but he was not perusing and there was a tear on his cheek, for which, when I afterwards came to know his history better, I was at no loss to account. He was too deeply plunged in thought to perceive me; and I was too much awed by the feelings which his sad abstraction, the wrapt and melancholy solemnity of his countenance occasioned, to dare to approach any nearer towards him. At last he saw me, and straight driving away the dark memories which had been thronging through his mind, he beckoned me towards him, and endeavored to draw me into conversation. When at length his gentle demeanor won my confidence, and I began to answer his inquiries, he seemed pleased with my childish prattle; and I became so delighted with the interesting stranger that I was loth to part from him.

We met afterwards, once or twice, when I had grown up to be a young man; and every succeeding opportunity of further acquaintance confirmed, more and more, the predilection which our first interview created in my mind.

After a time the circumstances of life placed a wide distance between us. He had become united to the daughter of a wealthy and respectable gentleman of this city, with whom he was making, the tour of Europe, and I, with my parents, was called away by sudden reverses of fortune, which it is unnecessary to relate, to a distant part of our land. When, after two or three years, I returned again, one of my first excursions was a visit to the relative before mentioned; and in the evening invited out by the pleasant breeze, and the delightful moonlight beauty of nature, (for it was in the summer season) I rambled, without any fixed intention towards the spot where several years before I had met the subject of my remarks. It was a glorious night. The Sound, which flowed along at a little distance from me, flashed as brightly in the moonbeams as if it were a flood of molten silver. The leaves of the surrounding trees glittered as they quivered in the ray, and their rusting came on the ear with a soft, tinkling, musical sound; like that of far off bells. As I approached the little mound, I saw that "the graveyard bore an added stone," by which I was too surely informed that death had sent another tenant to the dreamless abode, and my fluttering heart seemed to thrill with a presentiment of the individual. Conjecture was soon made certainty, for as I approached the neat marble monument which mourning kindred had erected over his remains, I read by the moonlight the name of Joseph Rodman Drake, and underneath, as a fitting epitaph, a couplet from Halleck's beautiful lines,

None knew him but to love him,
Nor named him but to praise.

Of the uncommon poetic genius of this young man, who was cut off in the very morning of his existence, but few are qualified to speak, for few know what rich evidences of intellectual greatness he left. I have read many unpublished effusions from his pen which would not discredit any living writer, and some of which would confer credit on the best. But perhaps I am doing wrong to speak of these; for there are some private reasons why they are not given to the public, and however much the circumstance is to be regretted, it is not for me to lift the veil. Some of the effusions of his "eagle genius," however, have been published, and republished, and read, and re-read, and admired, until they are familiar to every lover or poetry, and are hoarded in time memory amongst the beautiful creations of time muse, which "the heart delights to love and cherish ever." Among these is that truly noble lyric, The American Flag, which has been attributed to Halleck. These two gifted sons of song were intimate friends, and wrote many of their pieces in a sort of literary co-partnership, like that which existed between Beaumont and Fletcher. It is therefore difficult in some instances, positively to assert the authorship; but in relation to the American Flag, I know from Mr. Halleck's own lips, that all his share in it is the four concluding lines.