Friday, August 21, 2015

Madman or visionary? William Blake died of liver disease at 69 while singing hymns

Many of his friends, including his wife, regarded William Blake as a holy visionary with a direct line to the Almighty, and others thought he was as mad as a hatter. His day job, as a successful printer and engraver, was conventional enough, but in his writings and paintings he showed an eccentric streak of mysticism that many people found unintelligible.

Blake’s venture into unknown realms began soon after his birth on November 28, 1757, in the Soho section of London. The third of seven children of James Blake, a hosier, and his wife, Catherine, William said when he was four that he saw God peering in the window. At ten he saw a tree filled with angels, and some years later when his brother died of tuberculosis, Blake saw his spirit ascend through the ceiling. Baptised in the Church of England even though his family were Dissenters, he had scant formal education and spent time studying the Bible, which remained a strong influence on his work.

At the age of fourteen, Blake was apprenticed to an engraver for seven years, at the end of which he opened his own shop, achieving success and some prominence for his relief etching, intaglio engraving, and illustrations of Biblical and literary works.  He also began to draw, paint watercolors, and write idiosyncratic poetry. Most people are familiar with his enigmatic  
                Tyger Tyger burning bright, 
                In the forests of the night: 
                What immortal hand or eye,
                Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
    He was known for such other works as Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem. His paintings and drawings included sketches of such historical and mythical figures as King Solomon and Merlin, who he said stopped by and posed for him. An exhibit of Blake’s artwork drew a derisive review as "nonsense, unintelligibleness and egregious vanity" created by "an unfortunate lunatic."

In 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher in St. Mary’s Church, Battersea. She was an illiterate young woman whom he taught to read and write and who became his assistant in his engraving work and a valued muse for his poetic and artistic inspiration.

Although baptized and married in the Church of England, Blake remained hostile to formal religion, although he espoused his own brand of mystical Christianity.  “The glory of Christianity,” he wrote, is to conquer by forgiveness.”

In his later years Blake’s professional fortunes took a turn for the worse and he and Catherine grew dependent on financial help from their friend John Linnell, a successful painter.

Blake suffered for several years from what he called a “cold in my stomach,” now thought to be inflammatory bowel disease, a chronic diarrheal condition with fever, chills, and “shivering fits.” This illness was probably caused by a weakening of Blake’s immune system owing to copper poisoning from his constant exposure to fumes in his engraving and etching work.  The IBD then led to sclerosing cholangitis, an inflammation of the bile ducts leading to the liver, and in turn to biliary cirrhosis of the liver and liver failure, which ultimately caused Blake’s death.

A few days before he died, plagued by chronic stomach upset, yellowing skin from jaundice, and swollen legs and arms, Blake spent his last shilling on a pencil—which he needed to work on illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy.  On the day he died, he stopped work on the drawings, turned to Catherine, and said, “Stay, Kate!  Keep just as you are, and I will draw your portrait, for you have ever been an angel to me.” He finished this drawing and then began to sing hymns  of his own composition about the eternal bliss to which he would soon rise. At 6:00 on the evening of August 12, 1827, his breathing labored by pulmonary edema and apnea, Blake died at the age of sixty-nine. 

His friend George Richmond wrote this account of his final moments: “He died ... in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ – Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten'd and he burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven.”

Blake was buried five days later at the Dissenters’ burial ground in Bunhill Fields. Catherine had to borrow the money for the funeral from Linnell. She then supported herself as a housekeeper for another of Blake’s friends, Frederick Tatham.  Until her death in 1831 she said she was regularly visited by Blake’s spirit, whom she always consulted before selling any of his drawings and paintings.

Friday, August 14, 2015

‘Child among children,’ Eugene Field, snuffed out by massive heart attack at 45

Eugene Field, who will be remembered for such children’s classics as “Little Boy Blue,” “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” “The Sugar-Plum Tree,” and “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,” was described in his obituary as “tall and slender, blonde, impulsive, cheerful, fond of genial companions, devoted to his family, a scholar among scholars, and a child among children.” He was an avid doll collector and an irrepressible prankster who loved dressing in outlandish costumes and making faces at small children when no one was looking. He may also have had a streak of latent pedophilia, evidenced by privately issued bits of erotica, including “Only A Boy,” a prose piece in which a twelve-year-old lad is seduced with graphic detail by a woman in her thirties.

This complex “Poet of Childhood,” as he became known, was born in 1850 in St. Louis and always claimed two birth dates—September 2 and 3—so that if friends forgot the first one, they could remember him on the second.  His father, Roswell, was the lawyer who unsuccessfully represented fugitive slave Dred Scott in his quest for freedom. Eugene’s mother died when he was six, and he and his younger brother were sent to school in Amherst, Massachusetts. He entered Williams College, which he left after eight months, then enrolled at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he lasted a year, and finally wound up at the University of Missouri. A fellow student described him as “an inattentive, indifferent student, making poor progress in the studies of the course—a genial, sportive, song-singing, fun-making companion.” Needless to say, Field’s abundant conviviality and penchant for pranks resulted in his early departure from Missouri without a degree.

In 1872 he inherited $8,000 from his father’s estate (the equivalent of about $160,000 today), and he took off for Europe, where he spent almost a year touring England, France, Germany, and Italy, purchasing loads of curios and having a splendid time. He returned to St. Louis, broke and desperately in need of income. In short order he found both a job, as a newspaperman on the St. Louis Journal, and a wife, Julia Sutherland Comstock, with whom he had eight children, three of whom died in childhood.

One of Field’s colleagues observed that he was not much of a success as a reporter, “for his fancy was more active than his legs and he was irresistibly disposed to save the latter at the expense of the former.” Among his journalistic duties was theatre criticism, and Field is still remembered for a review of the actor Creston Clarke as King Lear in which he wrote, “Mr. Clarke played the King all evening as though under constant fear that someone else was about to play the Ace.”

Despite his perceived laziness, Field’s journalistic career prospered. He soon became managing editor of the Kansas City Times, and then was lured to the Denver Tribune, and finally to the Chicago Daily News, where he had a deal that, according to the New York Times, allowed him to write “when, upon what subject, and at such length as he chose.” His column, “Sharps and Flats,” became a popular satirical critique of Chicago society.  Field also began to write sentimental stories and verse for and about children, on which his fame now rests.

A popular lecturer, he was planning to go to Kansas City for a reading of his works on Monday, November 4, 1895.  On the previous Saturday, he felt ill with headache and stomach distress, and he remained in bed all day. A doctor was summoned and found he had a slight fever, but thought little of it. Field did not feel much better on Sunday, although he cheerfully entertained several visitors, one of whom he told, “It is a lovely day, but this is the season of the year when things die, and this fine weather may mean death to a thousand people. We may hear of many deaths tomorrow.”  Field retired and slept soundly until dawn, in the room he shared with one of his sons. At about 5:00 a.m., his son heard him groan, put out his hand to check on him, and found him dead, of an apparent massive heart attack. Field was forty-five years old.

At his funeral in Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, the Reverend Frank Bristol described Field’s religious views this way: “I have said of my dear friend that he had a creed. His creed was love. He belonged to a church—the church of the common brotherhood of man….Ever was he putting into his verses those ideas of the living God, the blessed Christ, the ministering angels of immortal love, the happiness of heaven.” Field was buried at Graceland Cemetery, but was reinterred in 1926 by his son-in-law at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Kenilworth, Illinois.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Poet-Politician Mirabeau Lamar complained, ‘I feel queerly--I believe I am going to die’—and promptly did

Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar is generally thought of (if at all) as a politician who almost inadvertently served as second President of the Republic of Texas—but he was also a poet, and if not a distinguished one, he was at least persistent. Lamar was born August 16, 1798, in Louisville, Georgia, and grew up on his father’s plantation in Milledgeville, Georgia. As a boy he was adept at the manly arts of horsemanship, fencing, oil painting, and writing poetry.  One of his verses was called “An Evening on the Banks of the Chattahoochee” (a river whose charms must be overpowering, for half a century later they would also provide poetic inspiration to another poet, named Sidney Lanier).

Lamar dabbled in newspaper publishing in Cahawba, Alabama, where his New Year’s poem in the Cahawba Press suggested that he had more aptitude for meter than for rhyme.  It reads in part:

            Yearly doth the Laureat sing
            In honor of his country’s King.
            And Poets annually raise
            To Patrons tributary lays.
            With Printers, too, it is in vogue
            To write to friends a New Year’s ode,
            And in compliance with the fashion,
            I’ll make some rhymes if I can match ‘em.

It is easy to see that poetry was not and never would be Lamar’s primary occupation. He became the secretary of the governor of Georgia, founded the Columbus Enquirer, won a seat in the state senate, failed twice to win election to Congress, and then, after his wife's death from tuberculosis, moved to Texas in 1835, just in time to be on hand when the Anglo colonists, a rambunctious bunch of trouble-makers, many of whom were in Texas to escape authorities in the United States, decided to rid themselves of the nuisance of the Mexican authorities as well.

Still writing poems, Lamar had the good sense to avoid being caught in the Alamo in 1836, but then joined the Texian (as it was then known) army as a private and, given the shortage of presentable soldiers, wound up being promoted to colonel a mere month later. He led the cavalry at the Battle of San Jacinto, which resulted in Texas’ independence from the civilizing influence of the Mexicans. 

In September of the same year, his career rising like a rocket, Lamar was elected Vice President of the fledgling Republic of Texas, an office that made so little demand on his time that he spent most of his term back in Georgia studying Spanish and blithely accepting adulation as a war hero. 

When he returned to Texas the following year, he threw himself into organizing the Philosophical Society, when he suddenly realized that a campaign to elect him to succeed Sam Houston as President of Texas had been launched without his knowledge or approval. He opted to stay in the race when the only other two candidates both committed suicide before the election, making the ease of his victory the envy of every politician in the world.

As President, Lamar advocated setting aside land for schools and universities, and even though none of these institutions was actually established during his administration, he thereby became known as “the Father of Texas Education.”  Delving into his poetic vocabulary, he once said in a speech that a “cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy,” and someone translated that into Latin as Disciplina Praesidium Civitatis and made it the motto of the University of Texas.

Lamar lived more than twenty years after his Presidency ended, fought Mexicans with General Zachary Taylor in 1846, served for a couple of years in the 1850s as United States minister to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and continued to advocate secession from the Union by the Southern slave states and to create poetry up to his last breath—which came quite unexpectedly on December 19, 1859, when in the midst of preparations for Christmas on his plantation in Richmond, Texas, he remarked (ungrammatically, it must be pointed out), “I feel very queerly; I believe I am going to die”—and then promptly did so, at the age of sixty-one. The attending doctor said death was caused by a “heart ailment” and “apoplexy.”