Edward Rowland Sill: Contribution as American Poet

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      Edward Rowland Sill was born in Windsor, Connecticut, in 1841. In 1861 he was graduated from Yale, where he had developed more clearly than anything else a dislike for narrowly complacent orthodoxy of thought and conduct and had acquired a strain of mild misanthropy which characterized him for the next several years. His health sent him West, by sailing-vessel around Cape Horn, and he stayed in California occupied in a variety of jobs until 1866. A winter’s study satisfied him that he should not enter the ministry, and a shorter experiment that he could not succeed in New York journalism. In 1868 he published the only volume of poems during his lifetime, the little duodecimo entitled “The Hermitage.” From this year to 1882 he was occupied in teaching—first in the high schools at Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and Oakland, California, and from 1874 on in the department of English in the University of California. Here he had the double distinction of serving under President Daniel C. Gilman and over Josiah Royce, whom he secured as assistant. A letter of 1882 gives as the reason for his resignation that his “position had become intolerable for certain reasons that are not for pen and ink,” in spite of which ill health is usually assigned as the cause. In 1883 a second volume, “The Venus of Milo, and Other Poems” was privately printed. For the rest of his life he lived at Cuyahoga Falls again, writing frequently under the name of Andrew Hedbrook for the Atlantic, whose pages were opened to his prose and verse through the appreciative interest of the editor, his fellow-poet, Thomas Bailey Aldrich. He died in 1887.

During his last thirty years, from his entrance to Yale in 1857 to his death in 1887, Edward Rowland Sill experienced American life in a variety of ways which were not exactly paralleled in the career of any of his contemporaries. He did not belong to any literary group.
Edward Rowland Sill

      During his last thirty years, from his entrance to Yale in 1857 to his death in 1887, Edward Rowland Sill experienced American life in a variety of ways which were not exactly paralleled in the career of any of his contemporaries. He did not belong to any literary group. Because of a certain timidity, which was probably more artistic than social, he did not even become acquainted with the well-known authors who were his neighbors while he was in Cambridge and New York City; but his natural inclination to find his proper place and do his proper work led him to partake of the life on both coasts and in the Mississippi Valley and to contribute richly to the leading periodicals of the East and the West—the Atlantic and the Overland Monthly.

      By inclination he was from the outset a cultured radical. He loved the best that the past had to offer, he wanted to make the will of God prevail, and he was certain that between lethargy and crassness the millennium was being long delayed. It was lethargy which characterized Yale and New Haven for him. The curriculum was dull in itself and little redeemed by any vital teaching or by reference to current thought. The faculty, wrote one of his classmates, “gave us a rare example of single-hearted, self-sacrificing, and unswerving devotion to duty, as they saw it. But they had not the gift to see much of it, and so their example lacked inspiration. It is astounding that so much knowledge (one-sided though it was) and so much moral worth could have existed side by side with so much obtuseness.” The natural consequence was that Sill picked up what crumbs of comfort he could from miscellaneous reading, was “rusticated” for neglect of his routine duties, wrote Carlylesque essays of discontent, and went out from graduation with a deep feeling of protest against what he supposed was the world. “Morning” and “The Clocks of Gnoster Town, or Truth by Majority” are the chief poetical results of this experience.

      California offered him a relief, but too much of a relief. He was always loyal to his closest college friends and to his ideals for Yale. The license of a frontier mining country did not in any sense supply the freedom which New Haven had denied him. His greatest pleasure out there was in the companionship of an intellectual and music-loving “Yale” family. And so his revolt from the world and his return to it, which are motivated in “The Hermitage” by the charms of a lovely blonde, had a deeper cause in the facts of his spiritual adolescence. All this pioneering was in the nature of self-discovery. For a while he inclined to the study of law because he thought the discipline of legal training would lead him toward the truth. Then after returning to the East he came by way of theological study and journalism to his final work: “… only the great schoolmaster Death will ever take me through these higher mathematics of the religious principia—this side of his schooling, in these primary grades, I never can preach.—I shall teach school, I suppose.”

      Now that he had left it, however, the charm of California was upon him. Although he was later to write in sardonic comment on the dry season,

 Come where my stubbly hillside slowly dries,
 And fond adhesive tarweeds gently shade,

      He was really in love with the great open vistas, the gentleness of the climate, and with the Californians’ “independence of judgment; their carelessness of what a barbarian might think, so long as he came from beyond the border; their apparent freedom in choosing what manner of men they should be; their ready and confident speech.” “Christmas in California,” “Among the Redwoods,” and “The Departure of the Pilot” are examples of much more California verse and of the spirit of many and many of his letters. Yet for this radical thinker institutional life was somewhat cramping even here. It is an unhappy fact that colleges and universities, devised as systems for educating the average by the slightly more than average, have rarely been flexible enough in their management to give fair harborage for creative genius either in front of or behind the desk. Sill’s experience was not unusual; it only went to prove that in academic America East was West and West was East and that the two had never been parted. So finally the young poet, still young after two periods of residence on each coast, settled down again to quiet literary work in the little Ohio town. There were only five years left him.

      Throughout his work, but increasingly in these later years, there is a fine and simple clarity of execution. The something in him which withheld him from calling on Longfellow and the others when in Cambridge, or even on his fellow-collegian Stedman in New York, made him slow to publish, rigorous in self-criticism, and eager to print anonymously or under a pseudonym. He wrote painstakingly, followed his contributions to the editors with substituted versions, and revised even in the proof. Although he was a wide reader, he was usually independent of immediate models, and always so in his later work. He avoided the stock phrases of poetry, but often equaled the best of them himself: “the whispering pine, Surf sound of an aërial sea,” “Struck through with slanted shafts of afternoon,” “When the low music makes a dusk of sound,” are representatives of his own fresh coinage.

      A reading of Sill’s poetry would reveal much of his life story without other explanation. An acquaintance with his biography makes most of the rest clear. The poems relate in succession to his college experience, his lifelong search for truth, his Western voyage, his revolt against the world and his return to it, his residence in California. They show in parts of “The Hermitage” and in “Five Lives” his rebellion at the incursions of science. They show, however, that in his own mind a greater conflict than that between science and religion was the conflict, as he saw it, between religion and the church.

 For my part I long to “fall in” with somebody. This picket duty is monotonous. I hanker after a shoulder on this side and the other. I can’t agree in belief (or expressed belief—Lord knows what the villains really think, at home) with the “Christian” people, nor in spirit with the Radicals, etc. … Many, here and there, must be living the right way, doing their best, hearty souls, and I’d like to go ’round the world for the next year and take tea with them in succession.

      The tone of this letter, written in 1870, was to prevail more and more in his later years. He had passed out from the rather desperate seriousness of young manhood. He had found that on the whole life was good. He was no less serious at bottom than before, but in the years approaching the fullness of his maturity he let his natural antic humor play without restraint. As a consequence the poems after 1875 tend as a group to deal more often with slighter themes and in lighter vein. The human soul did not cease to interest him, but the human mind interested Sill the husband and the teacher more than they had interested Sill the youthful misanthrope. Thus the confidence in “Force,” the subtlety in “Her Explanation,” the mockery in “The Agile Sonneteer,” and the whimsical truth of “Momentous Words” were all recorded after he was forty years of age.

      It is impossible not to feel the incompleteness of his career. It was cut off without warning while Sill was in a state of happy relief from the perplexities of earlier years. He was gaining in ease and power of workmanship. There was a modest demand, in the economic sense, for his work. There was everything to stimulate him to authorship and much to suggest that in time he would pass beyond this genial good humor into a period of serene and broadening maturity. Possibly in another decade he would have come into some sense of nationalism which would have illuminated for him the wide reaches of America which he had passed and repassed. The Civil War had meant nothing to him: “What is the grandeur of serving a state, whose tail is stinging its head to death like a scorpion!” Since war times he had passed out of hermitage into society, and with the Spanish War he might have seen America and the larger human family with opened eyes. But at forty-six the arc of his life was snapped off short.

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