The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.X. Later Poets
§ 6. Bayard Taylor
Bayard Taylor is fairly representative of his State by virtue of his Quaker descent and his mixed English and German blood. Aside from the abounding life of nature in which he immersed himself as a boy, he found inhibitions on all sides: in his moral and religious life, in his practical life as a farmer’s son, and in his intellectual life as a boy for whose education means were wanting. Gifted with the impetus of genius, he broke away from these hindrances, and embarked upon that varied and adventurous career of expansion that marks both his greatness and his littleness. He read all the books, especially poetry and travel, he could lay his hands on; he wrote verse from his seventh year onward; he drew andpainted; he dreamed of foreign lands; he aspired to the heights—envying the bird, the weathercock, the balloonist. He had the expansiveness that often accompanies vigorous health of mind and body—at seventeen was six feet tall and enjoyed a magnetic power that foreshadowed his friendships and his personal impressiveness. Two yearslater, in 1844, having won the interest of Rufus W. Griswold, he was enabled to publish his first book, Ximena, in Philadelphia; though in later years, recognizing the emptiness of the fifteen poems that made up the book, he repented of it.
Already, in a sense, his poetry was subordinate to his travels; Ximena was intended to supply the means necessary for the voyage abroad that he had long cherished for its own sake and for its educational value. At a time when American pilgrims were a curiosity, he wandered through Europe for two years, virtually without funds, enduring and enjoying every manner of hardship and adventure. Particularly in Germany, where he was subsequently to marry and to find the material for his most ardent literary studies, he felt more at home than in repressive Kennett. Views Afoot (1846) told the story of these years, and launched Taylor upon a career of travel and journalistic distinction that made his fame international. Of all the lands that he lived in or roamed through, the countries of the Orient captivated this eager romanticist most completely.
After his first voyage to Europe, Taylor determined, in 1847, to try to make a living as a writer in New York; “this mighty New York,” as he calls it with his appetite for large experience, “here is the metropolis of a continent!” It was the New York of Bryant, Halleck, and Willis to which he had come; it was under Willis’s wing that he came to know the literary life of the city. When Greeley, the next year, invited him to a post on the Tribune, Taylor formed a connection that was to give him a sense of security for many years. In the newspaper rooms he now wrote for fifteen hours a day. He also contrived to see a good deal of R. H. Stoddard, Boker, Read, William Winter, and later Aldrich, who were to be his closest friends. He knew the Bohemians well enough not to be one of them; though he could scarcely avoid having some traits in common with them, since Bohemianism in one form or another has been a characteristic of New York literary life from the days of the Knickerbocker school. When the war came he sold a share of his Tribune stock so that his brother might enlist in the army; this he regarded as his “bit.” The next year he was in Washington as war correspondent for the Tribune, but his activity in that capacity was cut short by a chance, too good to be sacrificed, to see Russia and Central Asia as Secretary of the Legation in Russia. His Gettysburg Ode, despite the fact that his brother died on that field, is distinguished neither in its poetry nor in its grasp of the significance of the war. Meanwhile he had built, in his old Pennsylvania haunts, a manorial house named Cedarcroft, at a cost of $17,000, then a good deal of money,—a roomy dwelling with, typically, a tower that commanded an extended view of the gentle Pennsylvania countryside. Cedarcroft became a haven of refuge from his arduous travels, where he might write undisturbed, and converse at ease with Boker and Stedman and the rest, and smoke his narghile, and shock the good people of Kennett through his Continental Gemüthlichkeit in the use of liquor; it became also, unfortunately, as Stoddard says, “a Napoleonic business for a poet,” who, in committing himself to earning a large income, sometimes $18,000 a year, by writing prose, appreciably injured his poetry.
And poetry was his passion, his religion, as he says with proud humility in Porphyrogenitus. In 1874 he told Howells that he was trying desperately to bury his old reputation as a traveller and writer of travel books “several thousand fathoms deep” and to create a new one. His prose he wrote with fatal facility, performing prodigies of speed, but his poetry he composed with the most painstaking care, spending hours over a couplet, if necessary, till it satisfied him. Like Aldrich, he despised American dialect verse. He venerated the great traditions of poesy, and never threw off the influence of his best-loved masters, Tennyson and Shelley. The “Immortal Brother” of his Ode to Shelley has left traces in most of his poetical work.
But, after all, it is Goethe, rather than Shelley, who is the index to Taylor’s mind. He was so devoted to Goethe, and to German literature generally, that Whitelaw Reid found it necessary to say that “those who did not know him, have sometimes described him as more German than American.” Some acquaintance with the German language he picked up at home; far more he gathered in his hibernation in Germany in the first year of his wanderings abroad; in time he spoke it like a native, and composed poems in it, including a Jubel-lied (Berlin, 1870) celebrating German unity. He enjoyed life in Germany much as an earlier and greater Pennsylvanian cosmopolite, Franklin, enjoyed life in London and Paris, but his loyalty to America was never in question. He came to know the great men of Germany, including Bismarck, who, commenting on a novel by Taylor, remarked that the villain was allowed to escape too easily. In 1869 he was made non-resident professor of German literature at Cornell, where he gave courses of lectures. In 1870 he completed his admirable translation of Faust in the original metres, which he had projected twenty years before, and over which he had laboured with something of the devotion of Carlyle. This translation will doubtless come to be regarded as Bayard Taylor’s foremost achievement. It was largely instrumental in obtaining for him the appointment, in 1878, as Minister to Germany, whither he sailed thoroughly worn out with congratulations and flowers and champagne. Excessively hard work had taken its revenges, and he was never to enjoy the great future that the new life in Germany held out to him—he was never, for one thing, to carry out his fond plan of writing the biography of Goethe, a task for which he was well fitted. He died soon after reaching Germany.
His death is the symbol of his life. His whole career, his poetical achievement most of all, was an approximation to high distinction that was frustrated through both outer and inner forces. He was cast in a large, a Goethean mould; he aspired highly and in many directions, seeking self-realization, but he lacked—outwardly—freedom from worldly troubles and—inwardly—Goethe’s ideal of Entsagung. His buoyant enthusiasm, his capacity for hard work, tended to deploy in the void because of his lack of concentration and true harmony. He sought what he liked to call “cosmical experience,” but in his eagerness he lost himself.
The consequences are plainly visible in his poetry. It is the poetry of a man who has “aspired” rather than “attained.” It is, to begin with, dangerously versatile. Aside from his varied experiments in prose, Taylor wrote lyrics, pastorals, idylls, odes, dramatic lyrics, lyrical dramas, translations, poems in German, poems in every mood and every metre, poems consciously or unconsciously imitative of a host of poets (he had a remarkable but ill-controlled verbal memory), poems on themes Oriental, Greek, Norse, American from coast to coast, poems classical, sentimental, romantic, realistic, poems of love, of nature, of art. In most of this work he was acceptable to his age; in very little is he acceptable to a later time. His poetry, again, is diffuse, as the poetry of a fifteen-hour-a-day journalist is likely to be. Despite a certain buoyant resonance, a resonance, however, rarely full enough; despite a frequent delicacy of perception and expression; despite a sense of melody that seldom fails; despite a simplicity of method and phrasing that betokens sincerity,—despite all these merits and others, his poetry attracts mildly because it is diffuse, and it is diffuse, fundamentally, because it is shallow. In his ode on Goethe, written three years before Taylor died, conscious of his “lighter muscle” he asks with an undercurrent of sadness:
Taylor, with all his aspiration and energy, was ill-educated, ill-disciplined, emotionally and intellectually unsymmetrical. He was too fond of his narghile and of melon-seeds brought all the way from Nijni-Novgorod. He learned modern Greek before he learned ancient Greek. His few good poems, such as the popular Bedouin Song, John Reed, The Quaker Widow, Euphorion, are far too few. He had latent powers, if not supreme power, but it was misdirected. To his contemporaries, he was a distinguished poet as well as traveller; to us he is an interesting personality.