Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
John G. C. Brainard (17961828)
JOHN GARDINER CALKINS BRAINARD was a native of New London, Connecticut, and son of the Hon. Jeremiah G. Brainard, who has been for several years one of the Judges of the Superior Court of that state. He was graduated at Yale College in 1815, and having fitted himself for the bar, he entered into practice at Middletown, Conn. Not finding the degree of success that he wished, he returned in a short time to his native town, and thence in 1822 he went to Hartford, to undertake the editorial charge of the Connecticut Mirror. In this capacity he was occupied until about a year before his death, when marked by evident symptoms, as a victim of consumption, he returned once again to the paternal roof, where he died, September 26, 1828, at the age of thirty-two.
There are few men more richly gifted than was the subject of this memoir. The collection of poems, that were published by him in a volume, and which will carry his name down to futurity, were all composed for the columns of a weekly paper, and were only regarded by the writer as light and trifling productions, serving to fill his columns and discharge his obligations to furnish something original for his readers. They were always written in hasteusually at the last moment to which he could delay, and while the printer was at his elbow, dunning for copy; they were also written without expectation of fame, and with none of the stimulus derived from a feeling of responsibility to public opinion. They always appeared in the paper as communications, and seem to have been thrown off as freely, and with as little consideration of their value, as the trees resign their leaves to the autumn winds. They were also written at a period when the author had already ceased to think of ambitionwhen he was depressed by despairing views of his own lot in life, and while he bent beneath a vague sense of unhappiness, seeming to spring up from everything around him to put forth its harvest of mortification, disappointment, and sorrow. Yet these productions, so little elaborated, and written under such causes of enervation, are stamped with an originality, boldness, force, and pathos, illustrative of genius, not perhaps inferior to that of Burns, and certainly much resembling it in kind. What could not such a man have done, had he been sustained by fortune equal to his merit, and incited by those impulses which give energy and efficiency to the exertions of other men!
Mr Brainard was not only a poet but an excellent writer of prose. The columns of the Mirror, during his editorial career, exhibit many specimens of truly beautiful and original prose compositionsand these are not only interesting as literary specimens, but they illustrate his kind feelings and gentlemanly character in a very striking manner. There is perhaps no situation in which men more frequently violate the dictates of good breeding and just principles, than as editors of papers.And this fact does not perhaps arise from the circumstance that an undue proportion of the editorial corps are really ill-bred and unprincipled; but the truth is there are a multitude of temptations peculiar to their condition. The impatient desire of gaining distinction, aided by the prevalent notion that malignity, personalities, and a disregard of the decencies of society, are proofs of talent, is the wide snare into which many of them fall. The gratification which ill regulated minds experience from making their power felt, the unworthy pleasure of seeing others writhe beneath their lash, together with the impunity with which editorial malice is exercised, form another source of the frequent errors of which we speak. But to all these temptations Brainard was superior. His kindness of heart, his dignity and rectitude of mind, kept him from falling into these besetting sins of the profession. During his editorial life, we do not recollect a passage in his paper, at which, for any blemish of the nature we now speak of, his friends have any occasion to indulge regret. We earnestly recommend this delightful example to every member of the editorial brotherhood.
In friendship, Brainard was warm, sincere, and steadfast to the last. We have never met with a man whose notions on this subject were more exalted. He would never patiently hear one traduced whom he loved. His maxim was to stand by a friend in time of need, whether he happened to be in the right or in the wrong. It was a doctrine upon which he acted, that one never needs support and defence so much as when his own errors are the occasion of his difficulties. We do not mean by this that he would excuse faults or palliate misconduct in generalbut he held in detestation that dastardly spirit which leads a great part of mankind to trample on a faltering or a fallen fellow-being. While others therefore would rush on to crush and wound, Brainard would be forward to support and protect.
As before stated, he was unsuccessful in the profession he had chosen. This operated with peculiar force to depress one whose character was sensitive and self-diffident to a painful degree. Besides, he had met with that species of disappointment which often clings longer and more heavily about the heart than any other. It is obvious therefore that when he left his profession and entered upon his literary career, there was a crisis in his life, the issue of which must form the index of his future fortunes. He was about to enter a new field, and make one more experiment. If that were unsuccessful, it must clearly be fatal to one of a temperament so much inclined to despondence, already stricken and wounded at heart. It did prove unsuccessful, and Brainard sleeps in the only resting place, for such a spirit as his.
It is a remarkable fact that the sad at heart, are often the most delightful companions for the display of thoughts and feelings, the very reverse of those which prevail in their own breasts. The anecdote of the Italian hypochondriac, if it be a fable, illustrates many a character in real life. Disheartened and despondent as we know Brainard was, looking out upon the world with an eye that saw everything glowing with prismatic beauty, yet mournfully feeling that this beauty was not made for himstill, when he met a friend the cloud passed instantly from his brow, a smile was on his lips, and words of merriment and levity broke from his tongue. It was apparent that for the moment, he obtained relief from his painful musings in the play of a humorous fancya laugh seemed to beguile his sorrowa joke to scare back into their recesses the demons that preyed upon his bosom. Those only who knew him well can understand how interesting was this light of his mind, breaking out amid the clouds and darkness which encompassed it.
There was one trait of character which does infinite credit to Brainard. Freely as his riotous fancy was licensed in conversation, he was never irreverentnor did he countenance irreverence in others. In the most heedless moment he indulged himself in no jests at the expense of religionnor did he smile at profane jokes in others. There was a deep principle in his heart presiding over his most reckless mood, which said hitherto mayest thou come, but no farther. It is a circumstance which mixes consolation with regret for his loss, that in the closing period of his life, this principle assumed its due influence, and shed over its last moments those hopes which cheer and support the descent to the tomb.
We have before noticed incidentally what we esteem the leading traits of Mr Brainards poetry,boldness, originality, force, and pathos. The lines on Niagara are doubtless the best that have ever been written on that stupendous work of natureand this is the more remarkable, as Brainard was never within three hundred miles of the spot. The poem, beginning The dead leaves strew the forest walk has a deep pathetic vein running through it, which reminds us strongly of Burns.
The originality of Brainard has the more merit, in an age, when imitation is stamped upon almost all the new poetry we read. Mrs Hemans rhymes are perpetually chiming in our earsthe conceits of Shelley come forth again and again, each time in some new maskand Wordsworths ghosts and shadows of thought haunt us like spectres in the night. But Brainard either disdained imitation, or the gushing fountain of his own genius left him little temptation to borrow from others. No man ever thought his own thoughts more independently than he did.
There are some deductions to be made from the unqualified praise we might otherwise bestow upon his poetry.His pieces are very unequaland generally unfinished;they are also frequently marred by carelessness, and sometimes by coarseness. A splendid couplet or verse is often followed by an inferior onethe former showed his power, the latter his indolence. The grammatical defect that will be observed in the first stanza of the magnificent lines On a late loss, and the vulgar metaphor with which he closes the piece which may be found in his volume, addressed To my friend G. are stains which a little more care, and more studious delicacy might have removed, and which an author who seeks the approbation of the public is bound to remove. Knowing, as we do, that these pieces were written only to serve a transient purpose, and were afterwards cut from a file of newspapers with a pair of scissors, and printed in a volume without correctionthey may not lower our estimate of the authors genius, though they must abate the value we put upon his works.