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[William] Ellery Channing

George Willis Cooke

from Memorabilia of the Transcendentalists in New England., pp. 74-85

One of the most frequent contributors to "The Dial" was William Ellery Channing, the younger, who furnished it with no less than sixty poems and prose articles, more than any other person. Nearly all of these appeared in the third and fourth volumes, and were secured by the solicitation of Emerson. In the second number, at the bottom of page 181, were printed two lines from his pen. In the fourth number appeared a sonnet entitled "Hermitage," and also parts of a poetical play, with the title, " Theme for a World- Drama" In the first number of the second volume was printed a "Sonnet to ___." In the third number the poetical motto to Margaret Fuller's sketch called "Yuca Filamentosa" was by Channing. In the second number Emerson printed a dozen of Channing's poems in an article called "New Poetry," praising them warmly, but recognizing their defects. He said these poems were"inspirations, honest, great, but crude. They have never been filed or decorated for the eye that studies surface. The writer was not afraid to write ill; he has a great meaning too much at heart to stand for trifles, and wrote lordly for his peers alone" Higginson says this article was " received with mingled admiration and rage by the critics, and with special wrath by Edgar Poe."

When Emerson became the editor of "The Dial " Channing was invited to its pages frequently. In the first number of the third volume appeared a group of his poems, the successive titles being "Gifts," "The Lover's Song" "Sea Song," "The Earth-Spirit," "Prayer," and [75] "After- Life" The sonnet, "To Shakespeare," was also his. In the second number " Dirge " and " The Poet" were written by him. "A Song of Spring," "Anna," " The River:' " Life," "To----," "Death:' were his contributions to the third number; and in the fourth were "To---," and "The Friends." The first number of the fourth volume contained *The Earth," "An Old Man," "The Journey," and "The ·Glade;" the second, " Autumn," "Allston's Funeral:' "To the Muse:' and " William Tell's Song; " the third, "Autumn Woods," the "Fatal Passion: a Dramatic Sketch;" and, the fourth, " To Readers," " The Death of Shelley." A Song of the Sea," and"To the Poets." Fifty of Channing's poems were printed in " The Dial.' Most of these were included in his "Poems"of l843 and 1847. In the last volume was printed a prose romance in the form of a series of letters, , called "The Youth of the Poet and the Painter." It is an attempt to describe the education of a poet, how he was trained for his calling, and how he succeeded in overcoming the educational and social obstacles he found in his way. Evidently the author had not completed his task when "The Dial" came to an end, but his design and his theories are discernible without difficulty. In the seventh letter he gives an account of the way in which transcendentalism influenced the youth of New England, quite of the nature of Emerson's treatment of the same subject; and in the thirteenth he describes the influence of nature upon the poet, and how essential it is to the development of his moral and intellectual character. Here will be found the best of Channing's prose writing, and some of the letters have hardly been surpassed by any of the transcendental writers for delicacy combined with strength, as well for simplicity and directness.

William Ellery Channing, the younger, was born in Boston June 10, 1818. His father was Walter Channing, the next younger brother of Dr Channing, after whom {76} the son was named. He was a physician of prominence in Boston, became a professor in the Harvard Medical School, was for twenty years connected with the Massachusetts General Hospital, and published several books and many articles on medical subjects. Ellery Channing studied in the Boston Latin School and in the Round Hill School at Northampton, entered Harvard College in 1834, but did not graduate, the intellectual unrest of the time leading him to prefer other methods of completing his education. His account of Edward Ashford, in his "Youth of the Poet and Painter," may contain much that is autobiographical, and will probably explain his reasons for leaving college before graduation. In 1839 he spent some months in northern Illinois, living in a log hut erected by himself at Woodstock, in McHenry County; and in 1840 he went to Cincinnati, where his uncle, James H Perkins, was the minister of the Unitarian church. In 1841 he married Ellen Fuller, the younger sister of Margaret Fuller, and took up his residence in Concord. Ellen Fuller was educated by her sister, who was to her as a mother for many years. Higginson has said of her that she "was in person and character one of the most attractive of women. She had a Madonna face, a broad brow, exquisite coloring, and the most noble and ingenuous expression, mingled, in her sister Margaret's phrase, with 'the look of an appealing child.' I knew her intimately," Higginson continues, "her husband being my near relative [cousin], and our households being for various reasons closely brought together; and have always considered her one of the most admirable women I have ever had the good fortune to meet. She not only had an active and cultivated mind, and a strength of character that surmounted some of life's severest trials, but she was as singularly gifted in the sphere of home and social life as was her sister in that of literature."

Channing at first lived in a house a half-mile northward {77] of the Old Manse, and was a near neighbor of Hawthorne. Here he devoted himself to the writing of poetry, to out-door labors, and to the companionship of Emerson and Thoreau. He spent one winter chopping wood in the Concord woods. In his "Poems" of 1847 he has given an account of his life in Concord, the poem being entitled " New England :"

In my small cottage on the lonely hill,
Where like a hermit I must bide my time,
Surrounded by a landscape lying still
All seasons through as in a winter's prime
Rude and as homely as these verses chime,
I have often felt, if Fortune's happiest thing."

In another poem he describes the woodman, and it is based on his own personal experiences:

"Deep in the forest stands he there,
His gleaming axe cuts crashing through,
While winter whistles in the air,
The oaks tough trunk and flexile bough.

"Upon his floor a leafy bed
Conceals the grass, and o'er his head
The leafless branches trimly rise,
The lattice of his painted skies.

"Within the tree the circles are,
That years have drawn with patient art,
Against its life he maketh war,
And stills the beating of its heart.

"The fibrous chips spin far and near,
A tangled nest of twigs around,
And dry leaves whisper to his ear,
He stops to hear the cheering sound.

"Nought but the drifted cloud o'erhead
Nought but the stately pine afar,
A glaze o'er all the picture spread,
A medium that for suns prepare.

[78] In 1843 he published a volume of poems, including several that were printed in "The Dial." The volume was edited by Emerson and Samuel G. Ward, the latter providing for the cost of its publication. A second series was published in 1847, and this volume also included poems from "The Dial." In the same year appeared his "Conversations in Rome between an Artist, a Catholic, and a Critic;" and the next year was published "The Woodman, and Other Poems." In this third volume of his poems the title-poem is descriptive of his own life as a Concord woodsman. In 1843 he moved to a hill-top in Concord, some distance from the village. He spent some months in 1844-45 in New York as a writer for the "Tribune," after which he made a journey to Europe lasting for several months. In 1846 he returned to Concord and located on the main street, opposite the house occupied by the Thoreau family and afterward by Alcott. In 1855-56 he was one of the editors of the "New Bedford Mercury," and during this time made the acquaintance of the Ricketson family, who were intimate friends to Thoreau. He wrote for the newspapers while living in Concord, having separated form his family; but for a dozen years he was an inmate of the house of Frank B. Sanborn, where he died December 23, 1901.

Although Channing has never been popular as a poet, or even read except by a few, he continued to issue his books of poetry from time to time. His "Near Home: A Poem," appeared in 1858; "The Burial of John Brown," in 1860; "The Wanderer: A Colloquial Poem," in 1871; "Thoreau: The Poet Naturalist, with Memorial Verses," 1873; "Eliot: A Poem," 1885; "John Brown and the Heroes of Harper's Ferry: A Poem," 1886. In "The Wanderer" he gave many fine descriptions of scenery in Concord, as well as of his [79] walks and talks with Emerson, Thoreau, and others. It is to a considerable extent autobiographical, and adds much to our knowledge of his mind and character. The book about Thoreau is largely quoted from Thoreau's diaries and letters, and it affords a full view of the intimate relations between the two men. The last of his poems is dramatic in form, and describes a visit of Mrs. Ellen Russell, daughter of Father Taylor, the famous preacher to the seamen of Boston, to Brown and his men in his Virginia prison.

Channing was a fit companion for Thoreau, for he was as original, as unconventional, and as zealous a lover of the outdoor world. He has not succeeded in making his genius felt, and yet those who know his work best regard it as of a high order. Hawthorne hinted as his defect when he wrote: "Could he have drawn out that virgin gold, and stamped it with the mint-mark that alone gives currency, the world would have had the profit and he the fame." But he was incapable of working in harness, was often whimsical, inclined to a hermit's life, and unwilling to bring himself into harmony with others. These conditions shut him off from active connection with his fellow-men when he was at middle age, and have kept him secluded from the world since. After enumerating his various wanderings, places of residence, and rare intervals of stated occupation, Mr. Sanborn says of him: "In all these wanderings and residences his artist eye was constantly seeking out the finest landscapes, and his sauntering habit was to take his friends and introduce them to scenery they could hardly have found for themselves. He showed Thoreau the loveliest recesses of the Concord woods, and of the two rivers that came slowly through them; he preceded Thoreau at Yarmouth and Truro and the Highland shore of Cape Cod; and he even taught Emerson the intimate charm of regions in Concord and Sudbury which he, the older resident and unwearied walker, had never beheld. . . . In mountain-climbing and in summer [80] visits to the wilder parts of New England he preceded Thoreau, being more at leisure in his youth, and less bound by those strict habits of study which were native to Thoreau all his life."

Channing was a frequent companion of Thoreau when they both lived in Concord, and they were correspondents when either was absent from that town. The letter in which Channing advised his friend to betake himself to a solitary life shows their intimacy and their knowledge of each other. "I see nothing for you on this earth," Channing wrote, "but that field which I once christened 'Briars;' go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no alternative, no other hope for you." This outspoken advice Thoreau adopted, and a few months later he built his hut on the shore of Walden pond. In his wanderings in Canada, New Hampshire, Berkshire, and on the Hudson, Thoreau had Channing for his companion; and he could not have had one more to his liking. When Channing was in New Bedford, Thoreau wrote to Daniel Ricketson: "He and I, you know, have been old cronies. How to serve him most effectually has long been a problem with his friends. I suspect that the most that you or any one can do for him is to appreciate his genius,--to buy and read, and cause others to buy and read his poems. That is the hand which he hath put forth to the world,--take hold of that. He will accept sympathy and aid, but he will not bear questioning, unless the aspects of the sky are particularly auspicious. He will ever be 'reserved and enigmatic,' and you must deal with him at arm's length. I have no secrets to tell you concerning him, and do not wish to call obvious excellencies and defects by fat-fetched names. Nor need I suggest how witty and poetic he is, and what an inexhaustible fun of good-fellowship you will find in him."

In writing to Thoreau, Emerson said: "Ellery Channing [81] is excellent company; and we walk in all directions." Channing cut wood for Emerson, as Thoreau cared for his house and his garden. Concerning one of his walks with Channing in 1848, Emerson wrote in his journal: "Another walk with Ellery Channing well worth commemoration, if that were possible; but no pen could write what we saw; it needs the pencils of all the painters that ever existed to aid the description . . . Ellery said he had once fancied that there were some amateur trades, as politics, but he found there were none. Even walking could not be done by amateurs, but by professors only. In walking with Ellery you shall always see what was never before shown to the eye of man."

One side of Channing's character was admirably described by Henry James, senior, when he wrote: "Ellery Channing seemed so human and good,--sweet as sunshine, and fragrant as pine woods." Another phrase was wittily described by Emerson: "Ellery Channing had a keen appetite for society, with extreme repulsion, so that it came to be a kind of commerce of cats,--love and hate, embraces and fighting."

Channing was one of the most faithful of the transcendentalists in his devotion to the cardinal ideas of that form of thought. One of the youngest of the writers for "The Dial," he accepted the idealistic philosophy with loyalty. His poetry has all the excellencies and defects of those who most trusted this method of thinking. Its obscurities and eccentricities are prominent, and they are accompanied with failure to appreciate the value of rhythm and metre. His thought is subtle, his spiritual insight clear, but his method is often vicious. A few of his poems, in which he has expressed most faithfully his transcendentalism, may be quoted. One of these is "A Poet's Hope," contained in his Poems of 1843. The last line of this poem has been often quoted as one of the best written in this country. [82]

"I am not earth-born, though I here delay;
Hope's child, I summon infinite powers,
And laugh to see the mild and sunny clay
Smile on the shrunk and thin autumnal hours;
I laugh, for hope hath happy place with me,
If my bark sinks, 't is to another sea."

In the poem called "Una" he shows himself a transcendentalist who is always seeking the subtler and deeper meanings of life and its experiences:

"We are centred deeper far
Than the eye of any star,
Nor can rays of long sunlight
Thread a pace of our delight.
In thy form I see the day
Burning, of a kingdom higher,
In thy silver net-work play
Thoughts that to the Gods aspire."

In one of his sonnets he brings out forcibly the transcendentalist's love of Nature, and his capacity for identifying himself with it by the ties of a profound sympathy:

"I love the universe, -- I love the joy
Of every living thing. Be mind the sure
Felicity which ever shall endure,
While passion whirls the madman, as they toy,
To hate, I would my simple being warm
In the calm pouring sun; and in that pure
And motionless silence, ever would employ
My best true powers, without a thought's annoy,
See and be glad, O high imperial race,
Dwarfing the common altitude of strength,
Learn that ye stand on an unshaken base;
Your powers will carry you to any length.
Up! earnestly feel the gentle sunset beams;
Be glad in woods, o'er sands--by marsh, or streams.

The preface to his "Near Home" was addressed "To Henry," and gives loyal expression to his admiration for Thoreau. In describing the scenery of Concords, he says:-- [83]

     "For chiefly here, thy worth,--
Chiefly in this, thy unabated trust,--
Ample reliance on the unceasing

Truth that rules the nether sphere about us,
That drives round the unthinking ball
And buds the ignorant germs on life and time,
Of men and beasts and birds, themselves the sport

Of a most healthy fortune, still unspent,
So that all individual sorrows,
Butts for jest, leap down the narrow edge
Of thy colossal wit, and sheltered hide,
There, at its base.

     "Most and mild, and kind
Who never spurned the needing from thy door,
(Door of thy heart, which is a palace gate);
Temperate and faithful, in whose word the world
Might trust, sure to repay, unvexed by care,
Unawed by Fortune's nod, slave to no lord,
No coward to thy peers, long shalt thou live,
Nor in this feeble verse, this sleeping age,
But in the roll of Heaven; and at the bar
Of that high court, where virtue is in place."

Between 1848 and 1855 there was planned a volume devoted to the walks and talks of Emerson, Thoreau, Channing, and perhaps Alcott. It was to include passages from the journals of these Concord authors, as well as reports of conversations to be made by Channing, who was to have been its editor. This volume was not published, but Channing used parts of it in his book about Thoreau, including passages from the journals of Emerson and Thoreau. A volume of Channing's writings is being edited by Mr. Sanborn, which will include other passages from the proposed volume, as well as some of his earlier and later poems. Doubtless Mr. Sanborn will become Channing's biographer, and when that work is published it will be realized that he was a man of genius, that he was intimately connected with many of the leading men and women of his time, and that he deserves recognition as a genuine poet. [84]

In a personal letter Senator George F. Hoar has said of Channing's poetry: "I shall be much mistaken if some of his poems do not survive nearly everything that his generation in this country has produced." Not less appreciative of Channing's poetic genius was Thoreau, who quoted his verses in the "Week," and said of him in "Walden": "The one who came from farthest to my lodge, through deepest snows, was a poet. A farmer, a soldier, a reporter, even a philosopher, may be daunted, but nothing can deter a poet, for he is actuated by pure love. Who can predict his comings and goings? His business calls him out at all hours, even when doctors sleep. We made that small house ring with boisterous mirth and resound with the murmur of much sober talk. At suitable intervals there were regular salutes of laughter, which might have been referred indifferently to the last uttered or the forthcoming jest."

In "The Dial" Emerson early gave recognition to Channing's poetry, justly estimating its merits and its defects. In an introduction to "The Wanderer," published in 1871, he again praised and blamed the work of his friend. "Here is a naturalist," he wrote, "who sees the flower and the bird with a poet's curiosity and awe,--does not count the stamens in the aster, nor the feathers in the wood-thrush, but rests in the surprise and affection they awaken. His interest in nature is not pedantic, much less culinary, but insatiably curious of the hint it gives of its cause, and its relation to man. All his use of it is free and searching, and with too much sympathy to affect more than is compelled."

"The author has one essential of his art--surprise. We like the poet whose thought we cannot predict, and whose mind is so full of genuine knowledge that we are sure to be enriched by every verse. This book requires a good reader--a lover and inquirer of nature; and such a one will find himself rewarded. I can easily believe that many a reader and perhaps writer of popular poetry will, after short [85] experiment, turn away with disdain from this rude pamphlet, and thank his stars that his culture has made him incapable of pleasure from such charcoal-sketching. But I confide that the lover of woods and hillsides, and the true philosopher, will search, with increasing curiosity, records of nature and thought so novel and sincere. Here is Hamlet in the fields with never a thought to waste even on Horatio's opinion of his sallies. Plainly the author is a man of large reading in a wide variety of studies; but his books have not tamed his invincible personality.

I confess to a certain impatience of a needless or even wilful neglect of rhythm in a poet who has sometimes shown a facility and grace in this art which promised to outdo his rivals, and now risks offence by harshness. . . . If there is neglect of conventional ornament and of correct finish, which even looks a little studied, as if the poet crippled his pentameters to challenge notice to a subtler melody, yet here are strokes of skill which recall the great masters. Here is the mountain truly pictured, the upland day, the upland night, the perpetual home of the wind, and every hint of the primeval agencies noted; and the thoughts which these bring to youth and to maturity. There is nothing conventional in the theme or the illustration,--no, but 'thoughts that voluntary move harmonious numbers,' and pictures seen by an instructed eye.

Perhaps we may even thank the poet, who, in his verse, does not regard the public. It is written to himself,--is his forest or street experience; the record of his moods, fancies, observations, and studies, and will interest good readers as such. He confides in his own bias for meditation and writing. He will write, as he has ever written,--whether he has readers or not. But his poems have to me and to others an exceptional value for this reason--we have not been considered in their composition, but either defied or forgotten, and therefore consult them securely as photographs."

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