Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 14. Edward Rowland Sill

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

X. Later Poets

§ 14. Edward Rowland Sill

Edward Rowland Sill (1841–87), another of the more prominent Far Western poets, born in the same year with Joaquin Miller, wrote quite apart from the literary movements of both West and East, though his artistic ideals had some resemblance to those of the New York school and his temperament was that of a New Englander. Twenty-two years of his life belong to California, but he was born in Connecticut and died in Ohio. He was descended from old New England families, whose heads were mainly ministers on his mother’s side and physicians on his father’s side. At Yale College he was a “dreamy, impetuous, sensitive, thoughtful youth” who read widely aside from the curriculum, who impressed his comrades with his attractive personality, pure character, and literary talent, and who confronted the world in a spirit of independent inquiry. “He must translate human experience into his own thought and language.” He published Dream-Doomed, Music, and other poems in the college literary magazine, and was the class poet of 1861; his Commencement Poem, included in his collected verse, was long regarded at Yale as the best class poem that had been delivered there. Graduating at twenty, in poor health, he made the trip to California by way of Cape Horn. For half a dozen years he engaged in miscellaneous occupations, on a ranch, in a postoffice, eventually becoming much attached to this alien land. In order to study theology he attended the Divinity School at Harvard; but he quickly gave over this ambition and entered upon a still briefer career as journalist in New York. Then followed his school-teaching years, first in Ohio and afterwards in California, where he eventually became professor of English in the State University. This post he held, with distinction as a teacher, for eight years, resigning in 1882 mainly on account of the failing health that dogged his steps most of his life. In Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, he continued his literary pursuits to his death at the age of forty-six, in 1887.

The struggle between faith and doubt, forced upon him by the spirit of the age even before he was a man, survived all the changing scenes of his life. In another age his Puritan inwardness might have made of him a poet of faith, if not a minister of the Gospel. But he never attained conviction, was always gently questioning, finding, it seems, a certain twilight gratification in his inconclusive brooding. This habit of brooding was alleviated by a delicate sense of humour, which removed all suspicion of morbidity, and was intensified by his modesty. “You should see,” he wrote to a friend, “the equanimity with which I write thing after thing—both prose and verse—and stow them away, never sending them anywhere, or thinking of printing any book of them, at present, if ever.” Most of his published work, indeed, is posthumous—to use his word, post-humorous —and there is very little of it, only a volume of collected prose and a volume of collected poetry. To the Atlantic he sent a number of poems, some of which were printed under a pen-name, and in the “Contributors’ Club” his prose enjoyed complete anonymity.

Among his prose studies is an essay on Principles of Criticism, which contains a statement of the ideal that his own poetry followed:

  • In the poem, the requirement is that it shall be full of lovely images, that it shall be in every was musical, that it shall bring about us troops of high and pure associations,—the very words so chosen that they come “trailing clouds of glory” in their suggestiveness; and in its matter, that it shall bring us both thought and feeling, for whose intermingling the musical form of speech alone is fitted; and that, coming from a pure and rich nature, it shall leave us purer and richer than it found us.
  • It is not too much to say that these are the characteristics of Sill’s poetry at its best. We are the purer and richer for reading him; he rouses life in the dark, disused corners of our being as many greater poets do not. In The Fool’s Prayer and Opportunity, his two best known poems, he attacks us rather too directly, in the New England didactic strain. Yet even here the “moral,” though obvious, exists in solution rather than in a crystallized statement. Nearly always his instinct was to be suggestive, to reach the reader’s emotion by indirection, by surprise. Always clear, he is also quietly subtle; his meaning steals upon us like the mood of a peaceful evening. His diction is so simple that an unpracticed reader does not suspect how delicately the poet has felt the “troops of high and pure associations” that accompany his plain words. So, too, his poems are musical, frequently, with a melody that is unheard. He was devoted to music all his life, playing a number of instruments with skill if not virtuosity. He wrote about music in prose and verse. In nature, sound seemed to attract him especially, most of all the fitful surf-music of the wind, which he used in his poems repeatedly. He had, too, a pictorial sense, which gave him a command of the “lovely images” that he regarded as essential in verse. Indeed, he had all the qualities needed for the highest excellence in poetry except a vigorous creative imagination. His imagination was perhaps mainly inarticulate, for though he wrote all his life he seems to have lacked the intense eagerness or the steady, resolute progress in creation that we associate with the great artist. His overmodest mind, moreover, together with his unresolved struggle of faith and doubt, encouraged his tendency to rest in the unrecorded thought—to read widely, to feel and reflect abundantly, rather than to shape his conception in the concrete poem.

    Among his many poems that peer within to the shadowy mood and the curious speculation, there are also poems, and a larger number than one would expect, presenting the scene of that “purer world” of the Far West to which this typical New England spirit attached itself with few moments of regret,—the soaring pines filled with the sound of chanting winds, the surf with its “curdling rivulets of green,” the city of San Francisco across the bay like a sea-dragon crawled upon the shore, the flowery fields now white, now orange or sea-blue, the great redwood forest dreaming in silence disturbed only by the sob of a distant dove, and overhead, by night, the clear stars that he loved because they made him, as he said, victor over time and space. In these poems we come to know the Western scene, not as it appeals to a man of action and large, blunt emotion, but as it rouses the feeling of a temperament subtly æsthetic and spiritual.