From The International Library of Masterpieces, Literature, Art, and Rare Manuscripts, Volume XXX, Editor-in-Chief: Harry Thurston Peck; The International Bibliophile Society, New York; 1901; pp. 11123-11130.
WILLIS, NATHANIEL PARKER, an American poet and miscellaneous writer; born at Portland, Maine, January 20, 1806; died at Idlewild-on-the-Hudson, January 20, 1867. After leaving college he formed a connection with the “New York Mirror,” to which he contributed a series of letters under the title of “Pencillings by the Way,” describing his observations in Europe, whither he went in 1833. Returning to the United States, he wrote his “Letters from Under a Bridge.” After five years he established the “Corsair,” a weekly journal of literature. During a second stay in England he published “Loiterings of Travel,” produced two plays, “Bianca Visconti” and “Tortesa the Usurer,” and wrote the descriptive matter for an illustrated work, “The Scenery of the United States.” The publicaton of the “Corsair” was abandoned, and Willis aided George P. Morris in establishing the “Evening Mirror,” a daily newspaper. His health broke down, and he again went abroad, having been made an attaché of the American Legation at Berlin. Returning to New York, the daily “Evening Mirror” was given up, and the weekly “Home Journal” took its place. The prose writings of Willis include “Pencillings by the Way” (1835); “Letters from Under a Bridge” (1840); “Rural Letters” (1849); “People I Have Met” (1850); “Life Here and There” (1850); “Hurry-graphs” (1851); “A Summer Cruise in the Mediterranean” (1853); “Fun-jottings” (1853); “A Health Trip to the Tropics” (1853); “Out-doors at Idlewild” (1853); “Famous Persons and Places” (1854); “The Rag Bag” (1855); “Paul Fane,” a novel (1857); “The Convalescent,” the last being written in 1859.
“MR. MOORE!” cried the footman at the bottom of the staircase. “Mr. Moore!” cried the footman at the top. And with his glass at his eye, stumbling over an ottoman between his near-sightedness and the darkness of the room, enter the poet. Half a glance tells you that he is at home on a carpet. Sliding his little feet up to Lady Blessington (of whom he was a 11124 lover when she was sixteen, and to whom some of the sweetest of his songs were written), he made his compliments with a gayety and an ease, combined with a kind of worshipping deference, that was worthy of a prime minister at the court of love. With the gentlemen, all of whom he knew, he had the frank, merry manner of a confident favorite; and he was greeted like one. He went from one to the other, straining back his head to look up at them (for, singularly enough, every gentleman in the room was six feet high and upward); and to every one he said something which from any one else would have seemed peculiarly felicitous, but which fell from his lips as if his breath was not more spontaneous.
Dinner was announced; the Russian handed down “miladie;” and I found myself seated opposite Moore, with a blaze of light on his Bacchus head, and the mirrors with which the superb octagonal room is panelled reflecting every motion. To see him only at table, you would think him not a small man. His principal length is in his body, and his head and shoulders are those of a much larger person. Consequently he sits tall; and with the peculiar erectness of head and neck, his diminutiveness disappears. . . .
Nothing but a short-hand report could retain the delicacy and elegance of Moore’s language; and memory itself cannot embody again the kind of frost-work imagery which was formed and melted on his lips. His voice is soft or firm as the subject requires, but perhaps the word “gentlemanly” describes it better than any other. It is upon a natural key; but if I may so phrase it, it is fused with a high-bred affectation, expressing deference and courtesy at the same time that its pauses are constructed peculiarly to catch the ear. It would be difficult not to attend him while he is talking, though the subject were but the shape of a wine-glass.
Moore’s head is distinctly before me while I write, but I shall find it difficult to describe. His hair, which curled once all over it in long tendrils, unlike anybody else’s in the world, and which probably suggested his sobriquet of “Bacchus,” is diminished now to a few curls sprinkle with gray, and scattered in a single ring above his ears. His forehead is wrinkled, with the exception of a most prominent development of the organ of gayety; which, singularly enough, shines with the lustre and smooth polish of a pearl, and is surrounded by a semicircle of lines drawn close about it, like intrenchments 11125 against Time. His eyes still sparkle like a champagne bubble; though the invader has drawn his pencillings about the corners; and there is a kind of wintry red, of the tinge of an October leaf, that seems enamelled on his cheek, — the eloquent record of the claret his wit has brightened. His mouth is the most characteristic feature of all. The lips are delicately cut, slight and changeable as an aspen; but there is a set-up look about the upper lip, a determination of the muscle to a particular expression, and you fancy that you can almost see wit astride upon it. It is written legibly with the imprint of habitual success. It is arch, confident, and half diffident, as if he were disguising his pleasure at applause while another bright gleam of fancy was breaking on him. The slightly tossed nose confirms the fun of the expression; and altogether it is a face that sparkles, beams, radiates, — everything but feels. Fascinating beyond all men as he is, Moore looks like a worldling.
This description may be supposed to have occupied the hour after Lady Blessington retired from the table; for with her vanished Moore’s excitement, and everybody seemed to feel that light had gone out of the room. Her excessive beauty is less an inspiration than the wondrous talent with which she draws from every person around her his peculiar excellence. Talking better than anybody else, and narrating, particularly, with a graphic power that I never saw excelled, this distinguished woman seems striving only to make others unfold themselves; and never had diffidence a more apprehensive and encouraging listener. But this is a subject with which I should never be done.
We went up to coffee: and Moore brightened again over his chasse-café, and went glittering on with criticisms on Grisi, the delicious songstress now ravishing the world, whom he placed above all but Pasta; and whom he thought, with the exception that her legs were too short, an incomparable creature. This introduced music very naturally; and with a great deal of difficulty he was taken to the piano. My letter is getting long, and I have no time to describe his singing. It is well known, however, that its effect is only equalled by the beauty of his own words; and for one, I could have taken him into my heart with delight. He makes no attempt at music. It is a kind of admirable recitative, in which every shade of thought is syllabled and dwelt upon; and the sentiment of the song goes through your blood, warming you to the very eyelids, and starting 11126 your tears, if you have soul or sense in you. I have heard of women’s fainting at a song of Moore’s; and if the burden of it answered, by chance, to a secret in the bosom of the listener, I should think, from its comparative effect upon so old a stager as myself, that the heart would break with it.
We all sat round the piano; and after two or three songs of Lady Blessington’s choice, he rambled over the keys awhile, and sang “When First I Met Thee,” with a pathos that beggars description. When the last word had faltered out, he rose and took Lady Blessington’s hand, said good-night, and was gone before a word was uttered. For a full minute after he had closed the door, no one spoke. I could have wished, for myself, to drop silently asleep where I sat, with the tears in my eyes and the softness upon my heart.
“Here ’s a health to thee, Tom Moore!”
THE pall was settled. He who slept beneath
Was straightened for the grave; and as the folds
Sunk to the still proportions, they betrayed
The matchless symmetry of Absalom.
His hair was yet unshorn, and silken curls
Were gloating round the tassels as they swayed
To the admitted air; as glossy now,
As when, in hours of gentle dalliance, bathing
The snowy fingers of Judea’s girls.
His helm was at his feet; his banner, soiled
With trailing through Jerusalem, was laid
Reversed beside him; and the jewelled hilt,
Whose diamonds lit the passage of his blade,
Rested, like mockery, on his covered brow.
The soldiers of the king trod to and fro,
Clad in the garb of battle; and their chief,
The mighty Joab, stood beside the bier,
And gazed upon the dark pall steadfastly,
As if he feared the slumberer might stir. —
A slow step startled him? He grasped his blade
As if a trumpet rang; but the bent form
Of David entered, — and he gave command,
In a low tone, to his few followers,
Who left him with his dead. The king stood still
Till the last echo died; then, throwing off
11127 The sackcloth from his brow, and laying back
The pall from the still features of his child,
He bowed his head upon him, and broke forth
In the resistless eloquence of woe:
“Alas! My noble boy, that thou shouldst die!
Thou, who wert made so beautifully fair!
That death should settle in thy glorious eye,
And leave his stillness in this clustering hair!
How could he mark thee for the silent tomb,
My proud boy, Absalom!
“Cold is thy brow, my son; and I am chill,
As to my bosom I have tried to press thee.
How was I wont to feel my pulses thrill, —
Like a rich harpstring, — yearning to caress thee;
And hear thy sweet ‘my father’ from these dumb
And cold lips, Absalom!
“The grave hath won thee. I shall hear the gush
Of music, and the voices of the young;
And life shall pass me in the mantling blush,
And the dark tresses to the soft winds flung;
But thou no more, with thy sweet voice, shall come
To meet me, Absalom!
“And, oh! when I am stricken, and my heart
Like a bruised reed, is waiting to be broken,
How will its love for thee, as I depart,
Yearn for thine ear to drink its last deep token!
It were so sweet, amid death’s gathering gloom,
To see thee, Absalom!
“And now, farewell! ’T is hard to give thee up,
With death, so like a gentle slumber, on thee;
And thy dark sin! — Oh! I could drink the cup,
If from this woe its bitterness had won thee.
May God have called thee, like a wanderer, home,
My lost boy, Absalom!”
He covered up his face, and bowed himself
A moment on his child; then, giving him
A look of melting tenderness, he clasped
His hand convulsively, as if in prayer;
And, as if strength were given him of God
He rose up calmly, and composed the pall
Firmly and decently — and left him there,
As if his rest had been a breathing sleep.
THE perfect world by Adam trod
Was the first temple — built by God;
His fiat laid the corner-stone,
And heaved its pillars one by one.
He hung its starry roof on high —
The broad illimitable sky;
He spread its pavement, green and bright,
And curtained it with morning light.
The mountains in their places stood —
The sea — the sky — and “all was good;”
And when its first pure praises rang,
The morning stars together sang.
Lord! ’t is not ours to make the sea
And earth and sky a house for thee;
But in thy sight our off’ring stands —
A humbler temple, made with hands.
IT is not the fear of death
That damps my brow,
It is not for another breath
I ask thee now;
I can die with a lip unstirred
And a quiet heart —
Let but this prayer be heard
Ere I depart.
I can give up my mother’s look —
My sister’s kiss;
I can think of love — yet brook
A death like this!
I can give up the young fame
I burned to win —
All — but the spotless name
I glory in.
Thine is the power to give,
Thine to deny,
Joy for the hour I live —
Calmness to die.
11129 By all the brave should cherish,
By my dying breath,
I ask that I may perish
By a soldier’s death!
ON the cross-beam under the Old South bell
The nest of a pigeon is builded well.
In summer and winter that bird is there,
Out and in with the morning air:
I love to see him track the street,
With his wary eye and active feet;
And I often watch him as he springs,
Circling the steeple with easy wings.
Till across the dial his shade has passed,
And the belfry edge is gained at last.
’T is a bird I love, with its brooding note,
And the trembling throb in its mottled throat;
There’s a human look in its swelling breast,
And the gentle curve of its lowly crest;
And I often stop with the fear I feel,
He runs so close to the rapid wheel.
Whatever is rung on that noisy bell —
Chime of the hour or funeral knell —
The dove in the belfry must hear it well.
When the tongue swings out to the midnight moon,
When the sexton clearly rings for noon,
When the clock strikes clear at morning light,
When the child is waked with “nine at night,”
When the chimes play soft in the Sabbath air,
Filling the spirit with tones of prayer, —
Whatever tale in the bell is heard,
He broods on his folded feet unstirred;
Or rising half in his rounded nest,
He takes the time to smooth his breast,
Then drops again with filmèd eyes,
And sleeps as the last vibration dies.
Sweet bird! I would that I could be
A hermit in the crowd like thee!
With wings to fly to wood and glen,
Thy lot, like mine, is cast with men;
And daily, with unwilling feet,
11130 I tread like thee the crowded street:
But unlike me when day is o’er,
Thou canst dismiss the world and soar;
Or at a half-felt wish for rest,
Canst smooth the feathers on thy breast,
And drop forgetful to thy nest.
THEY may talk of love in a cottage,
And bowers of trellised vine,
Of nature bewitchingly simple,
And milkmaids half divine;
They may talk of the pleasure of sleeping
In the shade of a spreading tree,
And a walk in the fields at morning,
By the side of a footstep free!
But give me a sly flirtation
By the light of a chandelier —
with music to play in the pauses,
And nobody very near;
Or a seat on a silken sofa,
With a glass of pure old wine,
And mamma too blind to discover
The small white hand in mine.
Your love in a cottage is hungry;
Your vine is a nest for flies;
Your milkmaid shocks the Graces,
And simplicity talks of pies!
You lie down to your shady slumber
And wake with a bug in your ear,
And your damsel that walks in the morning
Is shod like a mountaineer.
True love is at home on a carpet,
And mightily likes his ease;
And true love has an eye for a dinner,
And starves beneath shady trees.
His wing is the fan of a lady;
His foot ’s an invisible thing;
And his arrow is tipped with a jewel,
And shot from a silver string.