The Poetry of Everyday Life
( Originally Published 1893 )
THE POETRY OF EVERYDAY LIFE-A PROTEST AGAINST THE GOTH-MY GRANDMOTHER'S HOME-AN ERA WITHOUT LUXURIES-STATELY MANNERS OF THE PAST
I HAVE been visited by, the Goths and Vandals, and I want to stop right here--in sight of Kalckhook Hill and the Lispenard Swamp-and enter my solemn pro-test against them.
" Oldboy," said the chief of the invaders, with a Vandal familiarity which I detest, for I am old-fashioned enough to like to have the " Mr." prefixed to my name, not so much for being a Magister Artium in the past as for having been educated in the creed which makes the finer courtesies of life the touchstone of the gentleman-" Oldboy, you can't make a silver whistle out of a sow's ear--you can't put any poetry into prosaic, old, money-making New York."
To which I respond with proper mildness that the proposition in regard to any creative act of mine is perfectly true, since I am but a quiet chronicler in the city's by-ways, but that the poetry is there none the less. In the years in which my feet have trodden these streets I have learned to love them, and out of this love has grown an intimate acquaintance with the dower this city acquired from nature and from history, as well as with the lives and fortunes of its people. Truly, there is no need of any pen attempting to make poetry of the wonderful epic that began with the ripples that the Halve Maen carved in the still waters of a bay crossed as yet only by the canoes of the Manhadoes.
No poetry here? Why, there is nothing but poetry in the story of Wouter Van Twiner, the pioneer Governor, and Petrus Stuyvesant, the exile of the Bouwerie ; in Jacob Leisler, first martyr to popular liberties, and Captain Kidd, the piratical protege of an earl in the rise of the Liberty Boys, and their battle of Gold-en Hill, in which the first blood of the Revolution was shed -before the Boston massacre occurred-and in the overthrow of Rivington's royal printing-press ; in Washington, at the head of his " old Continentals," listening to the reading of the Declaration of Independence at the Commons, and in Putnam's dusty flight from the Bowling Green to the heights of Spuyten Duyvel; in the defeat at Fort Washington and the victory at Harlem Plains; in the original Evacuation Day and the inauguration of the first–President ; in the republican life of the city from her first hour of freedom from a royal yoke up to the day in which she rejected at the polls the monstrous system of social-ism that foreign craft sought to impose upon her children.
To me it is all a sweet and stately epic, and especially tender is the strain that tells of the day when I was young. For was there no poetry in the life of the old New Yorker of that day, who feared God and was no brawler? No poetry in the clean, civic life that made duty its goal, and left the clamor about rights to cure itself; that gave peace to our borders for six days of the week and a quiet Sabbath on the seventh? When he went to church and took his wife and children with him, at night knelt down to pray at his fireside with his family around him, and by day was honest and straightforward, as well as shrewd and industrious, was the citizen of New York less poetical than if he had worn a cavalier's sword and made the street a daily battle-field? Was there no poetry in the soul of the smooth-faced youth who went down-town in the early morning and swept out his employer's store, in the fear of God, and even as he did it let his thoughts wander to the unpretentious little house under whose roof he had made his early decorous visit last night to the maiden of his choice and his hopes? No poetry in the modest damsel, who, prayer-book and handkerchief in hand, walked so demurely to church that only a pink flush of the cheek denoted that she knew whose ringing step was coming near her, and who was none the less lovely that she had never been to public ball and opera, and did not know a dado from a frieze? Then there is none in the trees that grow as the Everlasting Will appoints; in the birds who wing their viewless paths in ordained or-bits ; in the flowers that blossom sweet and fair in their generation in the lichens and mosses that cover the decay of nature, and the green leaf put forth in the spring like a dove from the great brown ark of the earth to herald the coming resurrection.
Go to, 0 Vandal doubter ! It is all poetry as I look back. I see the poetry of quiet and unpretentious but happy homes, sheltered under long lines of waving trees, now exterminated ; of green fields at Blooming-dale, easily reached in a stroll, and of country villas between Kip's Bay and Harlem River; of farms and rustic bowers that dotted the upper part of the island, and gave pleasant contrast to the dusty streets of the city below ; of the wild and rugged scenery of McGowan's Pass and Breakneck Hill; of the mossy sides of old earthworks which shelter now only the daisy and the buttercup, but once encircled the men of the Revolution; of the ancient wooden bridges that led to the serenely rural regions of Westchester County, and that served to recall in precept and example the ancient Kissing Bridge of our Knickerbocker ancestry.
The life of the merchant of that day might seem commonplace and dull, but it was not. If he lacked the push and hurry of to-day, the aesthetic office, and fashionable business hours, he had his compensations. There was poetry in our lost and forgotten industries. The stately ships that then carried our flag lay at every wharf, and the offices were redolent with spices from the East, and sugars from the Indies and teas from Cathay; and the bluff down-east captains came back with wonderful offerings of coral and shells and birds and fruit for the wives and children of the ships' owners. The visitor to those plain, prosaic places of business found himself swept thousands of miles away by their sights and scents ; and when he came to talk with the men who sent out the busy fleets, he found that they knew the story of the ship and exulted in its record. He rejoiced, too, in the swift clippers that glided off the stocks in our ship-yards on the east side and went out upon the ocean to distance the fleets of the world ; in the ring and rattle of a thousand hammers in yards that are now deserted and have forgot-ten the step of the American mechanic ; in the rival steamboats that raced up and down the Hudson in the days before the railroads on that river were built, and in the Iine of rapid but unfortunate steamships that carried our flag from New York to Liverpool and did their best to keep it afloat. But he had other loves, too-his home, his church, his Shakespeare Club, and his whist-party, the hospitable gathering of friends at his home, without display and newspaper publication, his children-whom he brought up to look upon him as their trusted adviser-his cheery picnics at Elysian Fields, and his piscatorial rambles in search of Harlem River flounders-yes, and he was even known to be not ashamed of loving his wife. The invisible poet was patriotic, too, and when the call came for troops to march to distant Mexico, the dull coat of the man of business flashed out splendid fires of patriotism.
It is for these reasons that I protest against the atrocious sentiment of the Goth. I look back and see the oriole swinging on the swaying branch of the sycamore in the old city streets, and the bluebird flying athwart the white blossoms of the horse-chestnut, and the robin building her nest in the willow ; under the green trees of the forgotten old park my little sisters (who began to walk in fields of, imperishable green thirty years ago) are playing; and through the quiet streets a plodding school-boy goes with his Virgil under his arm, and with high hopes in his heart ; and for that quiet, prosaic life, with its old-time duties and restrictions, its homely joys and patriotic impulses, I, Felix Oldboy, am to-day profoundly grateful. There is no sweeter poetry in existence than its retrospect.
It was this old home-life of New York that culminated so grandly here in the April days of 1861, when the sons of the metropolis shouldered the musket themselves-asking no substitutes and taking no bounty-and in the beauty of the spring-tide sunshine marched down Broadway to the echo of a city's wild huzzas. No cavaliers ever marched more proudly than they. None fought better. In the white splendor of their youth they lay dead on the field of honor, or returned brown, bearded, and victorious. The story of our Theodore Winthrop at Big Bethel was the record of all the boys from our homes who gave their lives for their country.
But I have said enough, perhaps too much, about this poetry business, and I relent. At some future time, when I have completed my great work on The Dialects of the Manhado Indians, with Parallel Annotations on the Coincidences of the Iroquois Tongue, I may print a book upon this theme, to the. honor and glory of the city which I love.
Meanwhile, instead of proceeding at once on our tour up Broadway from Lispenard's Swamp, as I had intended, I may as well digress again and answer the question of a correspondent who wants to know some-thing about my grandmother's home and mine-where it was, what it looked like, and whereof was its atmosphere.
The dear old lady's life was an incarnation of poetry, and once in a while, too, she actually dropped into versification. " Felix," she said to me on one memorable occasion when she had come to pay me a visit at the old college on the Delaware where I first was matriculated-" Felix, I composed some of the most beautiful poetry that you ever heard while I was in the cars on my way here." Give it to me, granny," I replied, as I put on the critical air of a highly literary Fresh-man. She liked me to call her " granny" when we ere alone, because she knew it was simply affectionate, and there was something kittenish about her to the last. On this occasion she took off her golden spectacles, leaned over confidentially towards me, and said with sorrowful earnestness, "For the life of me, Felix, I can't remember a line of it, and I can't even remember what it was about." She never did recall it. Unfortunately, too, this is the only specimen of my. grandmother's poetry.
But, for all that, her life, in its long, patient widow-hood, was a poem of wonderful sweetness. We two - she with her white hair and I with the glow of youth -understood each other perfectly, and our lives harmonized marvellously, and I think it was from her that I caught the affection I feel for some of the inanimate localities of which she taught me the history and traditions. She was of the ancient colonial lineage of New York, and with all her gentleness was a devout believer that blood would tell in men as in horses. A most womanly woman, when fourscore years had be-gun to bow her form, I was fond of persuading her to let me have a glimpse of the days of her puissant girl-hood, just for the sake of seeing the flush of twenty summers creep once more up her cheek, and lighten the eyes that never seemed to grow old; It is well for us all when we can carry something of this poetry of life beyond the fifty years' mile-stone.
My grandmother lived in a three-story and basement brick house that faced St. John's Park. The house had a peaked roof and dormer-windows; in front a brown-stone stoop, with iron railings ending in a lofty extinguisher, whose use departed when link lights went out of date, but whose pattern was still fashion-able. In front two large sycamores gave ample shade, and the wide porch in the rear was covered by grape-vines, and the yard was shaded by a horse-chestnut tree. The house was severely plain outside ; within, it was a model of comfort for that time, though latter-day luxury would think it stiff and uncomfortable. The lofty walls of the large parlors were painted a light drab. There were chandeliers of cut glass, for candles, hung from the centre of each ceiling, and similar clusters of glass pendants adorned the mantel-piece, which was further set out with massive silver candlesticks and huge rare shells. Rich carpets of a large pattern were on the floor the furniture was of satin-wood and ebony of severe pattern in the front parlor, and of horse-hair, still more severe, in the back. Old-fashioned tete-a-tetes were the only sign of yielding to the weakness of the human frame in young couples, while immense rocking-chairs and small and hard ottomans gave what comfort they could to the old and the young. Heavy curtains hung at the deep windows, which also contained antique courting appliances, in the shape of cushioned seats that filled the window space, and that were cosey enough love nooks when the curtains were let down and used as a shield. Pictures and books were there in profusion, and a cabinet collection of shells that my father had brought back with him from the Indies. Bric-a-brac was unknown and portieres were not dreamed of heavy solid mahogany doors everywhere-but we had huge vases that had come direct from China, and rugs that a ship captain had brought from the Mediterranean. So we were not entirely barbarous.
It might puzzle the later generation to understand how we kept warm all winter, with nothing but grate fires of Liverpool coal to heat the parlors, but somehow we managed to exist. Nor was there any gas in the house. Astral lamps and candles did service down-stairs, and we took our candlesticks or small camphene lamps to light us up to bed. In the sleeping-rooms we had stoves of sheet-iron, in which wood-fires were lighted at night or in the morning " to take the chill off." Up-stairs were great closets between the large, sleeping-rooms, that were storehouses in themselves, and above was an attic with sloping walls, containing chests, and boxes, and barrels of miscellaneous plunder, out of Which I surreptitiously unearthed Peregrine Pickle and other morsels of forbidden literature-with infinite delight, as I remember. My own room was under the eaves, and when I was a boy I delighted to climb out of the dormer-window and up the steep roof at risk of my neck until I reached the ridge, where I would sit astride and watch the swaying of the trees in the park and the circling flight of thrush and robin. Down-stairs was the basement room, in which we dined, whose windows contained semi-transparent panes of glass imported from Pais, which it was almost a death penalty to break. Under the front porch was a hydrant of Croton water, and all that was used had to be carried from this point through the house-for we had not yet reached the luxury of Croton on every floor. The water for the kitchen range and boiler was brought from two cisterns built under the flagging of the rear yard and filtered through charcoal ; and in the yard was also a deep, unused well, which I delighted to sound with a plummet. Here were also my treasures-a dog, parrot, doves, guinea-pigs, and a turtle.
There was nothing of gilt or gingerbread here, and some ordinary comforts of to-day were missing, but for all that, we had a good time of it. There was no lounging at the feet of beauty, no esthetic sprawling in the drawing-room ; no liveried footman or buttoned page, where my grandmother's colored man, Abraham, son of an old slave of the family, did the honors of attendance. But somehow there was a prevailing sense of dignity which I failed to find in the " palatial mansion " of Mr. Nabob. The stately manners of my grandmother's home were a study. There comes up as I write the picture of Dr. Wainwright, the model of clerical elegance in his day, taking his glass of Madeira in a way which was positively sublime to witness, and I really do not know where to turn to have the picture duplicated in life. When some one expressed surprise, in the days before the war, to see Bishop Doane of New Jersey take off his hat in the streets to Benny Jackson, a colored pastor and preacher at Burlington, where they both lived, that distinguished prelate re-marked that he could not submit to being outdone in politeness by a negro. I heard the bishop once deliver a commencement address to the students of Burlington College, founded upon the motto of William of Wykeham, " Manners Makyth Man." That was thirty years ago, and it might not be a bad idea to have another sermon preached from the same text for the benefit of a new generation.
Poetry? But I must not digress again. As the strident voice of the Goth who has stirred me up to righteous wrath dies away, and his aggressive form passes out of sight, I seem to hear my grandmother say, with just a suspicion of sarcastic emphasis in her voice, " Felix, tea is ready, and you should have invited the gentleman in. A cup of tea is very good to take the wind off the stomach."