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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

X. Later Poets

§ 10. Richard Watson Gilder

Although Richard Watson Gilder (1844–1909) belongs to the same general group with Taylor, Stoddard, and the other “squires of poesy,” as they called themselves a trifle ostentatiously, he is associated with a later and more public-spirited period of New York culture.

Born at Bordentown, New Jersey, he was educated at his father’s schools, first at Bordentown, then at Flushing. The latter school failing, his father re-entered the active ministry shortly before the Civil War. In the war, the father served as chaplain till his death in 1864; a son served in a Zouave regiment; and Richard, a boy of nineteen, enlisted in Landis’s Philadelphia Battery when the Confederate invasion threatened eastern Pennsylvania. The war over, Richard Watson Gilder became a journalist in Newark, soon after in New York, where, in 1870, he became the assistant editor of the new periodical known as Scribner’s Monthly. When his chief, Dr. J. G. Holland, died in 1881, Gilder assumed control of the Century, as it was now called, giving it unsparingly his best energy for more than a quarter of a century. Partly through his own interests, partly through his wife’s (Helena de Kay’s) association with fellow painters, he found himself surrounded by friends of a type very different from those of the Bohemians and squires of poesy—La Farge, Saint-Gaudens, Stanford White, Joseph Jefferson, Madame Modjeska, and, in the summers on Cape Cod, President Cleveland. Again, unlike the earlier members of the New York group, he became an ardent and enlightened humanitarian and publicist, serving the cause of good government in city and nation. “That I am drawn into too many things,” he wrote in a letter, “is perhaps true.” He was right; both his health and his work, in various fields, were impaired. In another letter he refers to his “insufficient but irrepressible verse,” which describes it well enough.

He began verse writing under happy auspices. Milton was his master at the age of ten or twelve, and his father encouraged him to write. Years later, he chanced to meet Helena de Kay at the very time that he came upon Rossetti’s translation of the Vita Nuova; the result of the conjunction was the love sonnets of The New Day, his first volume, which was published in 1875. With its slow, heavily-freighted lines, its solemn music and carefully composed imagery, its intense feeling not fully articulate, its occasional vagueness of meaning, it contrasts with the obvious and more lively American poetry of that day and the day before. The vagueness of meaning Gilder happily escaped in his later work; the other qualities he retained and improved.

Of virtually all of his poetry, the dominant trait is a brooding intensity,—suggested by the dark, peering eyes of the man himself,—expressed in language distilled and richly associative, “the low, melodious pour of musicked words.” He was passionately responsive to music, to

  • The deep-souled viola, the ’cello grave,
  • The many-mooded, singing violin,
  • The infinite, triumphing, ivoried clavier
  • —his own poetry has the quality of orchestral instruments, oftenest the grave ’cello. Many of his poems are concerned with other arts, especially painting and acting, for art was to this “stickler for form,” as he called himself, a large part of life. He naturally wrote on Modjeska, Eleonora Duse, A Monument of Saint-Gaudens, An Hour in a Studio, and In Praise of Portraiture as well as on MacDowell, The Pathetic Symphony, A Fantasy of Chopin, Paderewski, and Beethoven. He had, too, a love of the Orient,—an artist’s love as well as a reflective poet’s, —that led him to add In Palestine, and Other Poems (1898) to New York’s considerable body of literature on the East.

    Yet art was by no means a tower of ivory to this public man. The youth of the Gettysburg campaign became the laureate of the Civil War heroes, and the volume of his poems entitled For the Country (1897) is as typical as any. It includes Sheridan and Sherman and the excellent sonnet on The Life-Mask of Abraham Lincoln. Gilder took his place eagerly in the “wild, new, teeming world of men” that America meant to him, and desired a part, as he stated in a poem written abroad, in making it not only free and strong but also noble and pure—a land of justice lifting a light for all the world and leading into the Age of Peace.