The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 110/John Pierpont
Most men of "fourscore and upwards," like Lear, and who, like Lear, have been "mightily abused" in their day, are found, upon diligent inquiry, to have long outlived themselves, like the Archbishop of Granada; but here is a man, or was but the other day, in his eighty-second year, with the temper and edge and "bright blue rippling glitter" of a Damascus blade up to the very last; or rather, considering how he was last employed, with the temper of that strange tool, found among the ruins of Thebes, with which they used to smooth and polish their huge monoliths of granite, until they murmured a song of joy, whenever the morning sunshine fell upon them.
This remarkable man—remarkable under many aspects—died at Medford, Massachusetts, on Monday morning, August 27th; and it is now said of heart-disease,—that other name for a mysterious and sudden death, happen how it may, and when it may. He had been perfectly well the day before, attended church, and called on some of his neighbors; he retired to rest as usual, and nothing more was heard of him till Monday morning, when he was found asleep in Jesus, prepared, as we humbly trust, to hear the greeting of "Well done, thou good and faithful servant!" Says a friend, in a letter now lying before me, of August 27th: "On Saturday afternoon, day before yesterday, your friend and my friend, Rev. John Pierpont, called upon me, and we had a very interesting interview of about an hour. I never saw him look better or appear happier. Although eighty-one years of age the 6th of last April, he seemed to have the elasticity of youth, and he was perfectly erect. I gave him what he wanted very much,—a copy of his trial before an ecclesiastical council in this city, several years ago. He gave me his photograph, and, taking his gold pen, wrote underneath, in a beautiful hand, 'John Pierpont, aged 81.' He said he was doing some work at Washington, which he hoped to live long enough to complete. . . . . When I published my last book, I sent him a copy. He acknowledged the receipt of it in a letter of eight or ten pages, which is now a treasure to me. His name on the photograph was probably the last time he ever wrote it,"—another treasure, which my friend would not now be likely to part with for any consideration.
My acquaintance with Mr. Pierpont began in the fall or winter of 1814, just when the war had assumed such proportions, that men's hearts were failing them for fear, and prodigies and portents were of daily occurrence. New England too—finding herself defenceless and left to the mercy of our foe—began to think, not of setting up for herself, not of withdrawing from the copartnership, without the consent of the whole sisterhood, but of coming together for conference and proposing to the general government, not to become neutral after the fashion of Kentucky, in our late misunderstanding, not of playing the part of umpire between the belligerents, like that heroic embodiment of Southern chivalry, nor of holding the balance of power, but, on being allowed her just proportion of the public revenues, to undertake for herself, and agree to give a good account of the enemy, if he should throw himself upon her bulwarks, whether along the seaboard, or upon her great northern frontier.
He had just escaped from Newburyport, after writing the "Portrait," a severe and truthful picture of the times, which went far to give him a national reputation—for the day; and opened a law office at 103 Court Street, Boston, where he found nothing to do, and spent much of his time in cutting his name on little ivory seals, and engraving ciphers—"J.P."—so beautiful in their character, and so graceful, that one I have now before me, an impression taken by him in wax, with a vermilion bed,—for in all such matters he was very particular,—were enough to establish any man's reputation as a seal engraver. It bears about the same relationship to what are called ciphers, that Benvenuto Cellini's flower-cups bore to the clumsy goblets of his day.
He was never a great reader, not being able to read more than fifty pages of law and miscellany in a day, though he managed, for once, while a tutor in Colonel Alston's family at Charleston, South Carolina, beginning by daylight and continuing as long as he could see, in midsummer, to get through with one hundred pages of Blackstone; but the "grind" was too much for him,—he never tried it again. He read Gibbon, and Chateaubriand's "Genius of Christianity," and St. Pierre, and Jeremy Bentham's "Theory of Rewards and Punishments," but never to my knowledge a novel, a romance, or a magazine article, except an occasional review; but Joanna Baillie,—that female Shakespeare of a later age,—and Beattie, and Campbell, and the British poets, and dramatic writers, were always at hand, when he had nothing better to do, with no seals to cut, no ciphers, no razor-strops, no stoves, and no clients. Over that field of enchantment and illusion he wandered with lifted wings, month after month, and year after year.
At this time he was in his thirtieth year, and I in my twenty-second. No two persons were ever more unlike; and yet we grew to be intimate friends after a while; and at the time of his death our friendship had lasted more than fifty years, with a single interruption of a twelvemonth or so while I was abroad, which was put an end to by our letters of reconciliation crossing each other almost on the same day.
With a young family on his hands, precarious health and a feeble constitution, as we then believed, which drove him to Saratoga every two or three years, and no property, what had he to look forward to, unless he could manage to go through a course of starvation at half-price, or diet with the chameleons?—though great things were expected of him by those who knew him best, and the late Mr. Justice Story could not bear to think of his abandoning the profession, so long as there was a decent chance of living through such a course of preparation.
After all that he has done as a poet, as a preacher, as a reformer, and as a lecturer, I must say that I think he was made for a lawyer. Vigorous and acute, clear-sighted, self-possessed, and logical to a fault, if he had not married so early, or if a respectable inheritance had fallen to him, after he had learned to do without help or patronage, as Dr. Samuel Johnson did, while undergoing Lord Chesterfield, he might have been at the head of the Massachusetts bar,—a proud position, to be sure, at any time within the last fifty years,—or, at any rate, in the foremost rank, long before his death.
He had, withal, a great fondness for mechanics, and one at least of his inventions, the "Pierpont or Doric Stove," was a bit of concrete philosophy,—a miniature temple glowing with perpetual fire,—a cast-iron syllogism of itself, so classically just in its proportions, and so eminently characteristic, as to be a type of the author. He had been led through a long course of experiment in the structure of grates and stoves, and in the consumption of fuel, with the hope of superseding Saratoga, for himself at least, by making our terrible winters and our east winds a little more endurable. No man ever suffered more from what people sometimes call, without meaning to be naughty, damp cold weather.
In addition to the "Portrait," he had written a New-Year's Address or two, and a fine lyric, which was said or sung—I forget which—at the celebration of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow; so that after he went off to Baltimore, and the "Airs of Palestine" appeared in 1816, those who knew him best, instead of being astonished like the rest of the world, regarded it as nothing more than the fulfilment of a promise, and went about saying, or looking as if they wanted to say, "Didn't we tell you so?"
And yet, with the exception of two or three outbreaks and flashes, there was really nothing in his earlier manifestations to prefigure the "unrolling glory" of the "Airs," or to justify the extravagant expectations people had entertained from the first, if you would believe them.
Robert Treat Paine having disappeared from the stage, there was nobody left but Lucius Manlius Sargent and John Pierpont for celebrations and sudden emergencies. But Sargent never tried the heroic, and was generally satisfied with imitations of Walter Scott, and others, who were given to oddities and quaintness. For example, "I thought," says he, in the longest poem he ever wrote, which appeared in quarto,—
"I thought, than as a feather fair
More light is filmy gossamer,
So woman's heart is lighter far
Than lightest breath of summer air,
Which is so light it scarce can bear
The filmiest thread of gossamer," etc., etc., etc.
While Mr. Pierpont flung himself abroad—like Handel, over the great organ-keys at Haarlem—as if he never knew before what legs and arms were good for, after the following fashion:—
"The misty hall of Odin
With mirth and music swells,
Rings with the harps and songs of bards,
And echoes to their shells.
"See how amid the cloud-wrapped ghosts
Great Peter's awful form
Seems to smile,
As the while,
Amid the howling storm,
He hears his children shout, Hurrah!
Amid the howling storm," etc., etc.
Few men ever elaborated as he did,—not even Rousseau, when he wrote over whole pages and chapters of his "Confessions," I forget how many times. Fine thoughts were never spontaneous with him, never unexpected, never unwaited for,—never, certainly till long after he had got his growth. In fact, some of the happiest passages we have seem to be engraved, letter by letter, instead of being written at once, or launched away into the stillness, like a red-hot thunderbolt. Well do I remember a little incident which occurred in Baltimore, soon after the failure of Pierpont and Lord—and Neal, when we were all dying of sheer inaction, and almost ready to hang ourselves—in a metaphorical sense—as the shortest way of scoring off with the world.
We were at breakfast,—it was rather late.
"Where on earth is your good husband?" said I to Mrs. Pierpont.
"In bed, making poetry," said she.
"Yes, flat on his back, with his eyes rolled up in his head."
Soon after, the gentleman himself appeared, looking somewhat the worse for the labor he had gone through with, and all the happier, that the throes were over, and the offspring ready for exhibition. "Here," said he, "tell me what you think of these two lines,"—handing me a paper on which was written, with the clearness and beauty of copperplate,
"Their reverend beards that sweep their bosoms wet
With the chill dews of shady Olivet."
"Charming," said I. "And what then? What are you driving at?"
"Well, I was thinking of Olivet, and then I wanted a rhyme for Olivet; and rhymes are the rudders, you know, according to Hudibras; and then uprose the picture of the Apostles before me,—their reverend beards all dripping with the dews of night."
How little did he or I then foresee what soon followed,—soon, that is, in comparison with all he had ever done before! The "Airs of Palestine," like the night-blooming cereus,—the century-plant,—flowering at last, and all at once and most unexpectedly too, after generations have waited for it, as for the penumbra of something foretold, until both their patience and their faith have almost failed. But, from the very first, there were signs of growth not to be mistaken,—of inward growth, too,—and oftentimes an appearance of slowly gathered strength, as if it had been long husbanded, and for a great purpose. For example,—
"There the gaunt wolf sits on his rock and howls,
And there, in painted pomp, the savage Indian prowls."
What a picture of brooding desolation! How concentrated and how unpretending, in its simplicity and strength!
And again, having had visions, and having begun to breathe a new atmosphere, with Sinai in view, he says,
"There blasts of unseen trumpets, long and loud,
Swelled by the breath of whirlwinds, rent the cloud,"—
two of the grandest lines to be found anywhere, out of the Hebrew.
But grandeur and strength were never his characteristics; the natural tendency of the man was toward the harmonious, the loving, and the beautiful, as in the following lines from the title-page of his poem, "By J. Pierpont, Esquire":—
"I love to breathe where Gilead sheds her balm;
I love to walk on Jordan's banks of palm;
I love to wet my foot in Hermon's dews;
I love the promptings of Isaiah's muse;
In Carmel's paly grots I'll court repose,
And deck my mossy couch with Sharon's deathless rose."
About this time it was, just before he went off to Baltimore, that we began to have occasional glimpses of that inward fire shut up in his bones, that subterranean sunshine, that golden ore, which, smelted as the constellations were, makes what men have agreed to call poetry,—which, after all, is but another name for inspiration; although the very first outbreak I remember happened at the celebration already referred to, where men saw
"The Desolator desolate, the Victor overthrown,
The Arbiter of others' fate a suppliant for his own,"
and began to breathe freely once more; and the shout of "Glory, glory! Alleluiah!" went up like the roar of many waters from all the cities of our land, as if they themselves had been delivered from the new Sennacherib; yet, after a short season of rest, like one of our Western prairies after having been over-swept with fire, he began to flower anew, and from his innermost nature, like some great aboriginal plant of our Northern wilderness suddenly transferred to a tropical region, roots and all, by some convulsion of nature,—by hurricane, or drift, or shipwreck. And always thereafter, with a very few brief exceptions, instead of echoing and re-echoing the musical thunders of a buried past,—instead of imitating, oftentimes unconsciously (the worst kind of imitation, by the way, for what can be hoped of a man whose individuality has been tampered with, and whose own perceptions mislead him?)—instead of counterfeiting the mighty minstrels he had most reverenced, and oftentimes ignorantly worshipped, as among the unknown gods, in his unquestioning, breathless homage, he began to look upward to the Source of all inspiration, while
"Princely visions rare
Went stepping through the air,"
and to walk abroad with all his "singing robes about him," as he had never done before. Hitherto it had been otherwise. Campbell had opened the "Pleasures of Hope" with
"Why to yon mountains turns the musing eye,
Whose sunbright summits mingle with the sky?"
and therefore Pierpont began his "Portrait" with
"Why does the eye with greater pleasure rest
On the proud oak with vernal honors drest?"
But now, instead of diluting Beattie, with all his "pomp of groves and long resounding shore," and recasting portions of Akenside or Pope, and rehashing "Ye Mariners of England," for public celebrations, or converting Moore himself into "Your glass may be purple and mine may be blue," while urging the claims of what is called Liberal Christianity in a hymn written for the new Unitarian church of Baltimore, he would break forth now and then with something which really seemed unpremeditated,—something he had been surprised into saying in spite of himself, as where he finishes a picture of Moses on Mount Nebo, after a fashion both startling and effective in its abruptness, and yet altogether his own:—
"His sunny mantle and his hoary locks
Shone like the robe of Winter on the rocks.
Where is that mantle? Melted into air.
Where is the Prophet? God can tell thee where."
And yet in the day of his strength he was sometimes capable of strange self-forgetfulness, and once wrote, in his reverence for the classic, what, if it were not blasphemy, would be meaningless:—
"O thou dread Spirit! being's End and Source!
O check thy chariot in its fervid course;
Bend from thy throne of darkness and of fire,
And with one smile immortalize oar lyre!"
Think of a Christian poet apostrophizing the Ancient of Days—Jehovah himself—in the language of idolatrous and pagan Rome!
At another time,—but these are among the last of his transgressions, and they happened nearly fifty years before his death,—having in view that epitaph on an infant where a father says of his child,
"Like a dewdrop on the early morn
She sparkled, was exhaled, and went to heaven,"
Mr. Pierpont says of the frozen heart, when religion's "mild and genial ray" falls upon it, with music,
"The fire is kindled and the flame is bright;
And that cold mass, with either power assailed,
Is warmed, made liquid, and to heaven exhaled."
And this by a man who talks about "the glow-worm burning greenly on the wall," and the "unrolling glory" of the empyrean, as if he understood what both meant.
Nevertheless, and notwithstanding these aberrations, my friend—the truest friend I ever had in my life, on some accounts, for he was not afraid to tell me of my faults when he saw them, and the man after all, to whom I am under greater obligations than to any other, living or dead, for bringing me acquainted with myself—held on his upward course for the last thirty years of his life without faltering, and without any visible perturbation, like the planets, if not like the stars, along their appointed path, never so as to astonish perhaps, but almost always so as to convince, whatever might be the manner of his approach, and whether in prose or poetry.
But we are anticipating. At the time of our first acquaintance, he certainly entertained very different views upon the subjects which have made him so conspicuous within the last twenty-five years.
Instead of being an Abolitionist, or a Garrisonian, and insisting upon immediate, universal, and unconditional emancipation, he was a colonizationist, rather tolerant of the evil, as it existed in the South, and very patient under the wrongs of our black brethren; and so was I.
Instead of being a teetotaler, he was hardly what the temperance men of our day would call a temperance man; for he had wine upon his table when he gave dinners, and never shrank from the interchange of courtesies, nor refused a pledge,—though I did, even then. Yet more, as brandy had been prescribed for Mrs. Pierpont by the family physician, Dr. Randall, her husband used to take his brandy and water with her sometimes, just before dinner, by way of a "whet."
Again: he had been brought up, like St. Paul, at the very feet of Gamaliel. He was born Orthodox,—he lived Orthodox,—he sat for years under the preaching of Dr. Lyman Beecher, whom he looked upon as a "giant among pygmies,"—and well he might, as a metaphysician and as a controversialist, if not as a theologian,—and was, I have lately been told, a member of Dr. Spring's Orthodox church at Newburyport, before his removal to Boston. But once there, in that overcharged atmosphere, he took a pew in the Brattle Street Unitarian church,—without being then a Unitarian, or dreaming of the great change that was to follow within two or three years,—and was a regular attendant under the preaching of Mr. Everett up to the last. On his removal to Baltimore, he swung round again toward Orthodoxy,—that Orthodoxy which has been so wittily defined as my doxy, while heterodoxy is your doxy,—and sat for three years under the preaching of Dr. Ingals, the highly gifted gentleman to whom he dedicated his poem—in blank—when it first appeared, being perhaps a little afraid of committing himself in advance; and then, at the very first gathering of the Baltimore Unitarians in a large auction-room, which led to the organization of a church within a few months, the erection of a beautiful building, and to the settlement of our friend, the late Dr. Jared Sparks, he came out fair and square upon the great question, and led, or helped lead, the exercises. The result of which was, that in due time, after his failure in business, he became a student of theology at Cambridge, and within a year was called to the ministry of reconciliation over Hollis Street Church, as a successor to Mr. Holly, at that time a most captivating preacher, with a congregation and church eminently fastidious and exacting, and not easily satisfied; yet Mr. Pierpont labored with them and for them over twenty-five years, with an earnestness, a comprehensiveness, and a faithfulness, for which some of them have not forgiven him to this day. He entered upon the ministry there in April, 1819, and resigned in 1845; when he became the first pastor of a Unitarian church in Troy, remained there four years, and then took charge of a church in Medford; where he was living when the Rebellion broke out, and he entered the army as chaplain, under an express stipulation that the regiment was not to go round Baltimore.
But I am fully justified in saying that, when I first knew him in Boston, he did not know himself. He had entirely mistaken his vocation, and was about the last man in the world to enter into trade, though pre-eminently fitted for business, if he had been properly encouraged,—the business of law certainly, and the business of statesmanship. He saw nothing of what was before him,—nothing of the field he was to occupy till the Master came,—nothing of the influence, nothing of the authority, he was to exercise over the minds and hearts of men,—and nothing of that huge oriflamme which was coming up slowly, to be sure, but certainly, over the distant verge of an ever-widening horizon. He was utterly discouraged as a lawyer; he knew nothing of business; he had no capital; and what on earth was he good for? Whither should he go? What undertake?
And yet he bore up manfully through all this discouragement, and no word of complaint or murmuring ever escaped his lips. On the whole, he was one of the most truly conscientious men I ever knew,—and why not one of the most truly religious, notwithstanding his obnoxious faith?—so even-tempered that I never saw him disturbed more than once or twice in all my life, and so patient under wrong that one could hardly believe in his withering sarcasm, and scorching indignation when he took the field as a reformer, "in golden panoply complete."
Let me now describe his personal appearance, for the help of those who have only heard of the man. He was tall, straight, and spare,—six feet, I should say, and rather ungraceful in fact, though called by the women of his parish, not only the most graceful, but the most finished of gentlemen. That he was dignified, courteous, and prepossessing, very pleasant in conversation, a capital story-teller, and a tolerable—no, intolerable—punster, exceedingly impressive both in the pulpit and elsewhere, when much in earnest, and in after life a great lecturer and platform speaker, I am ready to acknowledge; but he wanted ease of manner—the readiness and quiet self-possession of a high-bred man, who cannot be taken by surprise, and is neither afraid of being misunderstood nor afraid of letting himself down—till after he had passed the age of threescore.
The first impression he made on me was that of a country schoolmaster, or of a professor, on his good behavior, who had got his notions of the polite world from Chesterfield; though, when I knew him better, and learned that he had been a tutor in the Alston family of South Carolina, I detected the original type of his perpendicularity, serious composure, and stateliness,—the archetype. I was constantly reminded of John C. Calhoun, a fellow-student with him at Yale, and a man he always mentioned, with a strange mixture of admiration and awe, as if he thought him an offshoot from the Archfiend himself, "skilled to make the worse appear the better reason." His tall figure, his erect, positive bearing, and somewhat uncompromising, severe expression of countenance, when much in earnest, with black, heavy eyebrows, clear blue eyes which passed for black, and stiff black hair, were all of that Huguenot Southern type, which, like the signs of the Scotch Covenanter or of the old English Puritan, are as unlikely to die out as the Canada thistle, where they who sow the wind are content to reap the whirlwind. In their steadfast pertinacity, whether right or wrong, in their adamantine logic, as unyielding as death, and calm, serious energy of action, and in a part of their transcendental theories, they were alike; and alike, too, in their tried honesty. The great Nullifier and the great Reformer were both Titanic, in the vastness and comprehensiveness of their views, in their unrelenting self-assertion, in their metaphysics, and in their theories of government. If the dark Southron made open war upon his country till it grew to be unsafe, the dark Northerner would tear the Constitution of that country to tatters, and trample it under foot, as he did upon one occasion, without remorse or compunction, because it was held by others to give property in man, though for himself he denied that it did so, or that it sanctioned slavery in any shape,—as he did, I say, though I was not an eyewitness of the outrage, and have only the report from others who were. If it was only a flourish, like that of Edmund Burke, when he suddenly lugged out the dagger before the upturned smiling eyes of his patient compeers, and Sheridan—or was it Fox?—begged the gentleman to tell him where the fork was to be had which belonged to the knife, why, even that were not only unworthy of the man, but so utterly unlike him, for he never indulged in rhetoric or rhodomontade or claptrap, that one would be inclined to think he was beside himself, or had been dining out, like Daniel Webster when he proposed, in the Senate Chamber, to plant our starry banner on the outermost verge, the Ultima Thule, of our disputed territory, heedless of consequences. Both Pierpont and Calhoun certainly forgot the injunction to be "temperate in all things"; and allow me to add, that, in my judgment, it mattered little who was with, or who against them, after they had once set the lance in rest, with a windmill in view,—they only spurred the harder for opposition, and lashed out all the more vehemently for being cheered, even by the lowliest. Encouragement and opposition were alike to both, after the rowels were set, and their beavers closed.
At the time I speak of, Mr. Pierpont and his brother-in-law, Mr. Joseph L. Lord, kept house together on a street running down hill back of the State-House,—Hancock Street, if I do not mistake. They had always two or three boarders, and sometimes more, and among them Erastus A. Lord, a brother of Joseph, and myself. With these, and with the neighbors,—the whole neighborhood, I might say, and with all their visiting-list,—our friend Pierpont was an oracle from the first, and in the church and parish, after he had been set up in the pulpit, an idol. It was thought presumptuous for anybody to differ with him upon any subject. Whatever he said, or thought, or did, was never to be questioned,—never! His opinions were maxims, his utterances apothegms, his lightest word authority. And the worst of it all, and the hardest thing for me to stomach, was, that in all our controversies, for a long time, if he was not always right, and I always wrong, I was quite sure to come out second best, in the judgment of his friends and worshippers, who had no sympathy for anybody who ventured to tilt with their champion. Nevertheless I persisted, and, not standing much in awe of the pedant and the pedagogue, however much I admired the logician and the poet or the lawyer, I lost no opportunity of asserting my independence, and took, I am afraid, a sort of malicious pleasure in showing that I had views and opinions of my own, and was determined to do my own thinking, come what might. For a while this operated against me,—if not always with Mr. Pierpont, certainly with all his immediate personal friends and family; but in time, I believe, he began to like me the better for my presumption, or foolhardiness, in battling the watch with him, whenever he laid down a proposition, with a calm, dictatorial air, which did not strike me at first either as clearly self-evident, or, after a thorough investigation, as indisputably true, so that I do on my conscience believe that I was fast growing, not only unmanageable, but unbearable.
Mr. Pierpont was no judge of painting, though he relished a good picture, and had no taste for drawing, or rather no talent for drawing, though he saw readily enough certain errors of exaggeration that abounded in the engravings of the day; and I well remember his calling my attention to the preposterously small feet of the female figures for which Messrs. Draper and Company, the bank-note engravers of that day, were so famous; and yet his handwriting was very beautiful, and the ciphers I have mentioned were neither more nor less than exquisite drawings. Nor had he any ear for music, to borrow the language we hear at every turn,—as if all persons who are not deaf by nature had not ears for music, so far as they can hear at all,—or as if he who can distinguish voices, or learn a language, so far as to be understood when he talks it, had not necessarily an ear for music, in other words, an ear for sounds and for the rhythm of speech; but he was deficient in the organ of tune, phrenologically speaking, though I have heard him warble a Scotch air on the flute with uncommon sweetness—and feebleness—without tonguing, and play two or three other tunes, which had been adapted in the choir of his church, upon glass goblets, partly filled with water and set upon a table before him, as if he enjoyed every touch and thrill,—his long, thin fingers travelling over the damp edges of the glass, and bringing forth "Bonnie Doon," or "There's nothing true but Heaven,"—with his cuffs rolled up as if he were driving a lathe, and turning off some of the little thin boxes and other exquisite toys, in wood or ivory, which he was addicted to, about fifteen years ago, in what he called his workshop. Like Johnson, however, and Alexander Pope, who, according to Leigh Hunt,
"Spoiled the ears of the town
With his cuckoo-song verses, two up and two down,"
he must have had "time" large; for the music of his rhythm was absolutely faultless,—cloying indeed, so that he introduced the double rhymes to roughen it, just as he indulged in alliteration, where the "lordly lion leaves his lonely lair," that he might not be supposed incapable of running off upon another track, or into another channel.
But I never heard him sing or try to sing, though he had a deep, manly voice, read as very few are able to read, and his modulation was rich and varied, and very agreeable, both to the understanding and the ear.
His pronunciation was a marvel for correctness. In all our intercourse I never knew him to give a word otherwise than "according to Walker," so long as Walker was the standard with him,—or never but once, when he said cli-mac'ter-ic, instead of cli-mac-ter'ic; and when I remonstrated with him, he lugged out Webster, whom he adhered to forever after. So exceedingly fastidious and sensitive was he, about the time he left Baltimore for Cambridge, that in his desire to give the pure sound of e, as in met, instead of the sound of u, which is so common as to be almost universal where e is followed by r and another consonant, so that person is pronounced purson, he gave a sound which most people misunderstood for pairson, and went away and laughed at, for pedantry and affectation.
So, too, when I first knew him, and for a long time after, he was incapable of making a speech. Even a few sentences were too much for him; and though he argued at least one case to the court, while in business at Newburyport, I am persuaded, from what I afterward knew of him, that he must have done what he did by jerks, or have committed the whole to memory. And this, strange as it may now appear to those who knew him only as a lecturer and platform-speaker, continued long after he had entered upon the ministry; but of this more hereafter. Even his prayers were written out, and learned by heart, years after he took charge of the Hollis Street Church, though I dare say it was not known by his people. Perhaps, too, I may as well say here, lest I may forget to say it hereafter, that, at the time I speak of, he was neither a phrenologist, nor a spiritualist, nor a conscientious believer in witchcraft, or rather in the phenomena that used to be called witchcraft, in the days of Cotton Mather.
Soon after the beginning of our acquaintance, Mr. Joseph L. Lord, the brother of his first wife,—and he too has just passed away,—seeing what the prospect was for the brother-in-law he was so proud of, persuaded him to abandon the law at once, and forever, and go into the jobbing and retail dry-goods business with him, on the corner of Court and Marlborough, now Washington Street. He had no capital, to be sure, but then he wrote a beautiful hand, was very methodical, and had made himself acquainted with bookkeeping, after the Italian method, from Rees's Cyclopædia. I took the chamber which Mr. Pierpont left, and went into the jobbing business also, with a capital of between two and three hundred—dollars, and a credit amounting to perhaps five hundred more, which enterprise terminated after a few months, not in my failure, but in my taking a trip to New York with a large quantity of smuggled goods, belonging to Messrs. Pierpont and Lord, where I disposed of them to such advantage, that, on my return, I was persuaded to go into the retail haberdashery line, at 103 Court Street, next door to Pierpont and Lord, and just underneath the chamber, not chambers, which I had occupied at first with my wholesale establishment. I had for a partner, at first, Erastus, a brother of "Joe's," whom I had known as a bookbinder in Portland two or three years before. He was now manufacturing pocket-books, and appeared to be doing, not only a large and profitable, but safe business,—selling for cash, running a horse and gig, and paying the bills of all the "dear five hundred friends" who rode with him.
Our copartnership did not last long. His brother "Joe," being a shrewd man of business, of uncommon foresight and comprehensiveness, though rather adventurous, gave me a hint, and soon provided me with another partner, a graduate of Cambridge, named Fisher, with whom I was associated a few months longer. Then came the peace of 1815, which threw the whole country into a paroxysm of joy, unsettling business everywhere, at home and abroad, and setting people together by the ears upon all the great questions of the day.
And here began the new and very brief career of Mr. Pierpont as a man of business. Wholly unfitted as he was for even the regular course of trade, he was the last man in the world for the great emergencies of the hour. The whole business of the country was little better than gambling. Our largest importing houses were lotteries or faro-banks; and we had no manufactures worth mentioning. We made no woollen goods, and our few cottons, if sold at all, were sold for British, and stood no chance with the trash that came from beyond the Cape of Good Hope, "warped with hoop-poles, and filled with oven-wood." Our foreign merchandise came tumbling down so fast, that no prospective calculations could be made upon their value. Not having manufactured ourselves, we knew nothing about the cost of production, and had no idea how much our friends over sea could afford to fall, even from the lowest prices ever heard of. British calicoes, or prints, for example, which I sold by the case for eighty-five cents cash, at auction, were in every way inferior to our own, which were retailed before the Rebellion broke out for ten cents a yard. In fact, if we had known the real cost of production, it would have made but little difference; for long after all our foreign merchandise had fallen from thirty-three and a third to fifty per cent, some of our shrewdest calculators were utterly ruined by purchasing at much lower prices, on what they believed to be a rising market.
Under such circumstances, what was a poet, a scholar, and a lawyer, without any knowledge of business, to do? Pierpont and Lord were large dealers, and had a heavy stock on hand, not paid for. Their notes were maturing with frightful rapidity, and Mr. Lord wanted all his available funds for "transactions" in gold, and other perilous "operations" along the Canada frontier. Specie was twenty-five per cent above par, or rather banknotes, everywhere but in a part of New England, where they continued to pay specie to the last, were at twenty-five per cent discount; and "Boston money," upon the average, about one per cent above gold and silver, so as to cover the cost and risk of transportation.
But something had to be done. A consultation was held between the members of "our house," and it was finally arranged that Mr. Pierpont, as the man we could best spare from the salesroom and the shop, and the partner who would best represent what was called, with singular propriety, "our concern," should go to Baltimore with the best of letters, and open a way for me in that city, which I had visited once, and once only, for the purpose of buying exchange on England,—though for a time it was thought I had run away with all the funds intrusted to me. I had taken a prodigious liking to Baltimore from the first, though I had no idea of going there to live, and was not easily persuaded to give up my little establishment in Boston. I was doing very well, and did not care to do better, till business got settled; but we were three, and I was always in the minority,—Mr. Lord being a shrewd "operator," and Mr. Pierpont, of course, deferring to him. They were my partners, to be sure; but I never had anything to do with their business, apart from my own.
Nevertheless, when Mr. Pierpont returned, and gave an account of his doings there, and of the opening there was for just such a man as I had proved myself to be, I consented to pull up stakes, and transplant myself to that beautiful city.
I went with no large expectations, intending to open a retail shop, such as I had left; but within a week, finding that I could sell even my cut goods for prices much beyond what I had been retailing them for over and above the exchange, I went into the wholesale business, and with one clerk, Mr. Jenkins Howland, greatly distinguished in after life as a man of enterprise at Charleston, S.C., sold more goods, and for cash too, than perhaps any three or four of what were called the large dealers about me, with two or three clerks apiece, and at prices which fairly took away my breath at first;—Irish linens, for example, by the case at two dollars and fifty cents all round, worth not over eighty cents before the war; and assorted broadcloths by the bale at fourteen dollars a yard all round, which, within a twelvemonth, would have hung fire at three dollars and fifty cents. And this, it will be remembered, was after goods had been falling—falling—falling—for six months.
No wonder people's heads were turned—those of Pierpont and Lord among the rest. We, who had large stocks on hand, were growing rich too fast. I remember selling fourteen thousand dollars' worth of goods one day for a clear profit of more than forty per cent, and this while my poor friends at Boston were gasping for breath in that exhausted receiver; but they were kept alive by the remittances I made from Baltimore, which not only furnished them with funds for immediate use, but gave them for a few months almost unbounded credit.
This was in the fall and winter of 1815, only a few months after the Bramble arrived with the news from Ghent that our last negotiations had been successful, and that the war was over most gloriously for us, the United States. We were almost ready, in our thankfulness and joy, to canonize the ship and crew, and cut her up into snuffboxes and toothpicks.
And now—what next? "as the tadpole said, when he his tail dropped off." Weary of the growing distrust they saw, after my remittances began to fall off, and heartily sick of the Gerrymandering about them, of the usurers and money-changers and Shylocks, who were bleeding them to death, by lending them money upon pledges of merchandise, the two elder partners, Pierpont and Lord, lost no time in following their junior. He had opened on South Calvert Street; they took the whole of a large building opposite, opened below their wholesale business, and after a few months went to housekeeping overhead, both families living together. Then, to get rid of our stock, Mr. Pierpont went off to Charleston, S.C., where he had served his time as a tutor, and there set up a retail establishment, under the charge of a former clerk in their service, and of another man, a heartless vagabond, whom they had happened to get acquainted with at a boarding-house on their first arrival, and took a fancy to, nobody ever knew why. He was an Englishman, had probably been upon the stage, and lived from hand to mouth, nobody knew how, until we took him up, and he took us in most pitiably.
After a brief struggle, and the establishment of another retail store in Calvert Street, which I took charge of, with what there was left of the Charleston adventure, we failed outright, and all this within six or eight months after we had called our creditors together and obtained an extension of twelve months and testimonials in our favor of the most gratifying character, and within little more than a year after leaving Boston.
And then, for want of anything better to do, I began writing for the papers, for the "Portico," and at last for the public, as an editor and as an author, mainly at the instigation of Mr. Pierpont, for whom I wrote both "Niagara" and "Guldau," and a part of "Allen's" American Revolution, studying law, and languages by the half-dozen at the same time, and laboring upon the average about sixteen hours a day, while Mr. Pierpont struck out boldly for a far-off perilous and rocky shore, with a lighthouse, in the shape of a pulpit, before him, and achieved the "Airs of Palestine" while undergoing the process of regeneration, and starving by inches upon what there were left of his wife's teaspoons, which were sold one by one to pay the rent of a cheap room in Howard Street. So poor indeed were we at one time, that we could hardly muster enough between us to pay our bootblack.
I have already said that Mr. Pierpont had no aptitude for extemporaneous speaking; and what was even worse, he had no hope of being able to overcome the difficulty. Once, and once only, did I ever hear him try his hand in that way, until many years after he had entered upon the ministry. A club had been organized among us for literary purposes. We were both members, and he the Vice-President. We called ourselves the Delphians, and passed among our contemporaries for the male Muses, our number being limited to nine,—not seven, as I see it stated in the Boston Advertiser, on the authority of our friend Paul Allen. The rest of the story is near enough to the truth, although the verses therein mentioned were written by Mr. Pierpont as a volunteer offering, after the Della-Cruscan school, or manner of "Laura Matilda," and not upon the spur of the occasion, as there related, nor as a trial of wit; and the last line should be, "Pulls where'er the zephyr roves"—not, as given there, "Pulls where'er the zephyr moves."
It was in this club that Mr. Pierpont first tried himself—and the brethren—with extemporaneous speaking. It was a pitiable failure, worse if possible than my own, and I never made another attempt. Even General Winder, who was a fine advocate, and a capital speaker before a jury, boggled wretchedly before the club, and our President, Watkins, who was said to be exceedingly eloquent before the great Masonic lodges, where he occupied the highest position, could not be persuaded to open his mouth, and all the rest of the brethren were mutes. True, it was like apostrophizing your own grandmother, in the hope of raising a laugh or of bringing tears into her eyes, to make speeches at one another across the table, whatever Molière might be able to do, when alone with his aged servant. Nor did it much help the matter, when, with a view to the treasury, which began to threaten a collapse, we made a law, like that of the Medes and Persians which altereth not, whereby it was provided, among other things, that no member should ever talk over five minutes, nor stop short of three, under any circumstances,—the President being timekeeper, and the sufferer not being allowed to look at a watch. Fines of course were inevitable, and we were once more able to luxuriate on bread and cheese, with an occasional pot of beer,—nothing better or stronger being tolerated among us under any pretence, except on our anniversaries, when the President, or sometimes a member, stood treat, and gave us a comfortable, though not often a costly or showy supper.
Among that strange, whimsical brotherhood—consisting of Dr. Tobias Watkins, editor of the "Portico"; General Winder (William H.), who had been "captivated" by the British, along with General Chandler, at the first invasion of Canada; William Gwin, editor of the "Federal Gazette"; Paul Allen, editor of the "Federal Republican," and of Lewis and Clarke's "Tour," and author of "Noah"; Dr. Readel, "a fellow of infinite jest"; Brackenridge, author of "Views in Louisiana," and "History of the War"; Dennison, an Englishman, who wrote clever doggerel; and, at different times, two or three more, not worth mentioning, even if I remembered their names—we passed every Saturday evening, after the club was established, until it was broken up by President Watkins's going to Washington, Vice-President Pierpont to the Divinity School at Cambridge, and Jehu O'Cataract abroad. All the members bore "clubicular" names, by which they were always to be addressed or spoken to, under another penalty; and most of them held "clubicular" offices and professorships,—Dr. Readel being Professor of Crambography, and somebody else—Gwin perhaps—Professor of Impromptology. The name given to Mr. Pierpont was Hiero Heptaglott, under an idea that he was a prodigious linguist,—another Sir William Jones, at least, if not another Learned Blacksmith; and the President himself went so far as to say so in the "Portico," where he pretended to give an account of the Delphians. Nothing could well be further from the truth, however; for, instead of being a great Hebrew scholar, and learned in the Chaldee, Coptic, and other Eastern languages, he knew very little of Hebrew, and absolutely nothing of the rest. With "a little Latin and less Greek," he was a pretty fair Latin and Greek scholar in the judgment of those who are satisfied with what we are doing in our colleges; and he was sufficiently acquainted with French to enjoy Chateaubriand, St. Pierre, Rousseau, and Lamartine, and to write the language with correctness, though not idiomatically; but he was never able to make himself understood in conversation, beyond a few phrases, uttered with a deplorable accent,—not being able to carry the flavor in his mouth,—and, though free and sprightly enough in talking English, having no idea of what passes for freedom and sprightliness with the French. He knew nothing of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, or Dutch, nor indeed of any other modern language.
And now let me say how he came to be an extemporaneous speaker, and sometimes not only logical and convincing, but truly eloquent. On my return from abroad, in 1826, I passed through Boston, on my way to Portland, for a visit to my family, and was taken possession of by him, and went to Hollis Street Church, where I heard my friend, for the second time, in the pulpit. He was exceedingly impressive, and the sermon itself was one of the best I ever heard,—calm, serious, and satisfying; not encumbered with illustration, but full of significance. Although the discourse was carefully written out, word for word, and almost committed to memory, yet he ventured to introduce a paragraph—one paragraph only—which had not been prepared beforehand. My eyes were upon him, and he told me at dinner that he saw by my look how well I understood his departure, and how soon I detected it. "And now," said he, "I hope you are satisfied. You see now that I shall never be able to extemporize. I put that paragraph into my sermon this morning to see how you would take it, after having urged me, year after year, to extemporize at least occasionally. No, no, John; though writing two sermons a week is no trifling labor, I must continue writing to the end; for, if I cannot extemporize a single paragraph, how can I hope to extemporize a whole sermon?"
"Suffer me to say that I think you misunderstand the whole question," said I. "The difficulty is in beginning. After you are well under way, if you can talk sitting, you may talk standing. Better take with you into the pulpit the merest outline of the discourse, and then trust to the inspiration of the subject, or to the feeling of the hour, when you have the audience before you, and can look into their eyes, than to have a discourse partly written, with blanks to be filled up as you go along; for then you are always beginning afresh, and by the time you have got easy in your spontaneous effort, you are obliged to go back to what you have written, and of course can never get warmed up with your subject, nor try any new adaptations, whatever may be the character of your hearers."
He shook his head. "No, no," said he, "you will never be able to persuade me that it is easier to say over the whole alphabet than to say only a part."
I persisted, urging the great advantage of spontaneous adaptation to the people. He agreed with me altogether, provided it were possible for him to do it, which he denied, though he promised to take the subject into serious consideration once more, to oblige me.
From Boston I went to Portland, where I had a similar talk with that most amiable and excellent man, the late Dr. Nichols, who labored under a similar disqualification, owing to a similar misapprehension of what was required for extemporaneous speaking, either on the platform or in the pulpit. I told him the story, and urged the same considerations; but he, like Mr. Pierpont, only smiled,—compassionately, as I thought, and rather as if he pitied the delusion I was laboring under. Yet within two years both of these remarkable men became free and natural spontaneous speakers, and both acknowledged to me that they had always misunderstood the difficulty. Dr. Nichols began afar off, as I suggested, in the Sabbath school; and Mr. Pierpont, after making two or three attempts in a small way, which were anything but satisfactory to himself,—as I told him they would be for a while, if he had the true stuff in him,—was at last surprised into doing what he believed to be impossible, by the merest accident in the world; after which he had no further trouble. It seems that he had engaged to supply a neighboring pulpit,—perhaps that of his son John, who was newly settled at Lynn. He thought he had his sermon in his pocket; but, on entering the pulpit, found that he had either left it at home or lost it on the way. What was to be done? Luckily, he had just read it over the night before, and was full of the subject therein treated. Remembering what I said, as he told me himself, he determined to go to work, hit or miss, and either make a spoon or spoil a horn.
The result was, that, after a little hesitation and floundering, he got fairly in earnest, and threw off a discourse which so delighted those who were best acquainted with him, that they stopped round the door to shake hands and congratulate him. He had never preached so well in all his life, they said. This settled the question forever; and from that day forward he began to believe that anybody who can talk in his chair can talk standing up, after he has got over his first impressions, and all the better for having a large auditory, with upturned faces, before him; so that he became at last, and within a few years, one of the finest pulpit orators of the day, and one of the best platform speakers, though not, perhaps, what the multitude consider eloquent; for, at the best, he was only argumentative and earnest and clear and convincing, in his highest manifestations.
Of his career after this, I cannot say anything as I wish, without the risk of saying too much. He had one of the wealthiest and most liberal congregations of New England. He was their idol. He was in every way most agreeably situated, with a large family flowering into usefulness about him, [Pg 663]and hosts of friends, enthusiastic and devoted. Nevertheless, believing that, as a servant of God, he had no right to preach smooth things where rough things were needed, and that acknowledging other people's transgressions would not satisfy the law, he came out boldly, with helm and spear, against two of the worst forms of human slavery,—the slavery of the body and the slavery of the soul, the slavery of the wine-cup, and the slavery of bondage to a master. Whether his beloved people would hear or whether they would forbear, being all the more beloved because of their danger, he must preach what he believed to be the truth, and the whole truth. It was like a fire shut up in his bones. He persisted, and they remonstrated, or rather a part of them did so; and the result was a speedy and hopeless alienation, followed by years of strife and bitter controversy at law, and a final separation; though by far the larger part of the church and congregation, if I do not mistake, upheld him to the last, and adhered to him through good report and through evil report,—Deacon Samuel May, a host in himself, being of their number.
During this protracted and sorrowful controversy, he became a phrenologist,—a believer in phrenology,—at any rate, following the lead of Spurzheim; and after many years, a Spiritualist,—in which faith he died,—one of his last, if not the very last, of his appearances before the public being as President of a convention held by the leading Spiritualists of the land at Philadelphia.
He could not be a materialist; and having faith in the evidence of his own senses, and being as truly conscientious a man as ever breathed, and accustomed to the closest reasoning, what was he to do? There were the facts. They were not to be controverted; they could not be explained; they could not be reconciled to any hypothesis in physics. If he was given over to delusion, to be buffeted by Satan, whose fault was it? That he was by nature somewhat credulous, and, though patient enough in his investigations, rather too fond of the marvellous, may be acknowledged; but what then? His conclusions might be wrong, his inferences faulty, though honest; but how were they to be counteracted? That he sometimes took too much for granted, I believe, nay, more, I know; because I myself have seen him grossly imposed on by a woman he took me to see, whose impersonations were thought most wonderful. But then he was a devout man, a close observer, an admirable logician, accustomed to the "competition of opposite analogies" and to weighing evidence; and if he misunderstood the facts, or misinterpreted them, or inferred the supernatural from false premises, why then let us grieve for his delusion, and wait patiently for the phenomena which led him astray to be explained.
He went abroad for a time, while pastor of the Hollis Street Church, and visited the Holy Land, in devout pilgrimage; and though he lost his first wife, the mother of all his children, and a most worthy gentlewoman, but the other day, and married another superior woman after a brief widowhood, his last days have been, I should say, most emphatically his best days; for he has lectured through the length and breadth of the land on Temperance, and, after enduring all sorts of persecution as one of the anti-slavery leaders, he lived to see the whole system against which they had been warring so long, and with so little apparent effect, utterly overthrown throughout the land, and the great God of heaven and earth acknowledged as the God of the black man. Thousands and thousands of miles he travelled, not only after having passed the meridian of his life, but after he had reached the allotted term, when life begins to be a heaviness for most, as a laborer in the cause of truth,—often of unacknowledged truth; and if mistaken, as a theologian, or as a Spiritualist, or as a man,—being what he was,—let us remember that he was never false to his convictions, never a hypocrite nor a deceiver, and that he died with his harness on, having been occupied for the last five years of his life in digesting the treasury decisions, often contradictory, and always inaccessible, for there was no index, until he took them in hand, going back thirty years, I believe, and reducing the whole to a system which need be no longer unintelligible to the Department.
One word more. Among the scores of letters I had from him in the day of his bitterest trials and sorest temptations, there was one which he sent off in the midst of his first great triumph,—with no date now, although I find a mark upon it which leads me to suppose it was written November 16, 1818, and from which I must venture to take a single paragraph.
"My God!" he says,—"my God! I do most devoutly thank Thee. My prayer has reached Thee, and been accepted. My dear friend, join with me in thanking Him in whom I put my trust,—to whom alone I look, or to whom I have looked, for a smile. He has blessed me. I have been heard by man, and have not been forsaken by God. Though I have not done perfectly, I have done as well as I could rationally wish, and better than my most sanguine hopes. At Brattle Square this morning, and at the New South (late Mr. Thacher's) this afternoon. Lord! now let thy servant depart in peace; for thou hast lifted the cloud under which he has so long moved, and he may now die in thy light."
Can such a temper as this be misunderstood? Was he not a man fearing God in 1818,—forty-eight years ago?—or, rather, loving God with that perfect love which casteth out all fear?
But we need not stop here. After he had become a Spiritualist, that is, on the 5th of April, 1862, the evening before his seventy-seventh birthday, he wrote a poem of one hundred and sixty lines, entitled "Meditations of a Birthday Eve," a copy of which he sent me on the 10th of November following, upon the express condition that nobody but myself was to see it, until it should be all over with him. It must have been written without labor, as one would breathe a prayer upon a death-bed. The following extracts—I wish we had room for more—will show what were his feelings and what his aspirations at this time.
"Spirit, my spirit, hath each stage
That brought thee up from youth
To thy now venerable age
Seen thee in search of Truth?
"Hast thou in search of Truth been true,—
True to thyself and her,—
And been with many or with few
Her honest worshipper?
"Spirit, thy race is nearly run;
Say, hast thou run it well?
Thy work on earth is almost done;
How done, no man can tell.
"Spirit, toil on! thy house, that stands
Seventy years old and seven,
Will fall; but one 'not made with hands'
Awaiteth thee in heaven.
"Washington, D.C., 5 April, 1862."
With the foregoing came another poem, "In Commemoration of a Silver Wedding," October 2, 1863, full of tenderness and pleasantry,—the wedding of Mr. and Mrs. J. Pierpont Lord.
And on his eighty-first birthday, called by a strange mistake his eightieth, there was another celebration, yet more solemn and affecting, where the greetings and congratulations of his brother-poets, all over the land, were sent to him and published in the newspapers of the day.
Among his later poems, the "E Pluribus Unum" appears to me most worthy of his reputation, and least like the doings of his early manhood.
And now, though we had little reason to look for the prolongation of such a life;—a continued miracle from the age of thirty or thirty-five, after which he built himself up anew, by living as well in cold water as in hot, and luxuriating in cold baths, and working hard,—harder, perhaps, on the whole, at downright drudgery, than any other man of his age, like Rousseau in copying music, as a relief from writing poetry,—yet when death happens we are all taken by surprise, just as if we thought God had overlooked his aged servant, or made him an exception to the great, inflexible law of our being; or as if a whisper had reached us, saying, "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?"
But enough; a volume of such memoranda would be far short of what such a man deserves when he is finally translated. Faithful among the faithless, may we not hope that his grandeur and strength of purpose, and downright, fearless honesty, will have their appropriate reward, both here and hereafter?
- And here I may as well mention a curious incident. When I wrote my poem, I had never seen Niagara; but we agreed to go together on a pilgrimage at our earliest convenience. One thing and another happened, until I had been abroad and returned, without our seeing it together. At last, being about to go to the South of Europe, I made a new arrangement with him; but just as we—my wife and I—were ready to go, he was called away to consecrate some church in the West, and we started on a journey of two thousand miles through portions of our country I had never seen, and was ashamed to go abroad again without seeing. On my way back we stopped in Buffalo, and as I stood in the piazza I saw a little card on one of the pillars saying that the Rev. Mr. Pierpont would preach in the evening somewhere. I found him, and we went together at last, and saw Niagara together, as we had agreed to do forty years before. And that night the heavens rained fire upon us, and the great November star-shooting occurred, and our landlord, being no poet, was unwilling to disturb us, so that we missed the show altogether.