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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Edward Rowland Sill (1841–1887)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE STRAIN sounded by Edward Rowland Sill has a quality of distinction, and a haunting loveliness of aspiration, such as to endear him to those who rejoice in art which is but the handmaiden to dignity of thought and quiet beauty of form. Life and song with Sill—as with Sidney Lanier, between whom and the New-Englander there is spiritual fellowship—were in harmony; and man and writer equally call forth admiration. Sill’s life was studious, shy, withdrawn; his work too made no noisy demand on the public. It was not startling in manner. Its appeal was to the inner experience, to the still small voice, which is the soul’s monitor. His art showed that unobtrusive obedience to the fundamental technique, which, from the Greek days to our own, has acted as a preservative of the written word.  1
  Sill was born in Windsor, Connecticut, on April 29th, 1841, and was graduated from Yale College at the age of twenty. At first he went to California with business plans in mind; but came back to the East, intending to become a minister, and studied for a short time at the Harvard Divinity School. This idea was soon abandoned; and he went to New York City and did editorial work on the New York Evening Mail. Then he went to Ohio to do some teaching, and thence was called to California again in 1871, as principal of the High School at Oakland; and after three years’ service there, went to the University of California at Berkeley, to be the professor of English literature,—a position he held until 1882, when he returned to Ohio and devoted himself to literary work. He died at Cleveland, in that State, February 27th, 1887.  2
  But it was the life internal, not that external, which was most significant in the case of Sill. A scholar, an idealist, as a teacher he was very unconventional but intensely inspiring. He fulfilled the grand pedagogic conception that the most fruitful teaching means not so much the imparting of knowledge as the stimulation of a fine personality. In his latest years, when out of health and thrown much upon himself, his broodings were deep and wise, and his choicest lyrics are the precious register of them; another such registration being the remarkable letters he wrote to a few privileged friends. He lived aside from the feverish centers of activity, but kept in the stream of the nobler activities of the human mind and soul. As he wrote in one of the finest of his poems, ‘Field-Notes’:—
  “Life is a game the soul can play
With fewer pieces than men say.”
Again in ‘Solitude’ he expresses his feeling:—
          “All alone, alone,
Calm as on a kingly throne,
Take thy place in the crowded land
Self-centred in free self-command.
*        *        *        *        *
Far from the chattering tongues of men,
Sitting above their call or ken,
Free from links of manner and form,
Thou shalt learn of the wingèd storm,—
God shall speak to thee out of the sky.”
All that one knows of Sill’s personal side is in consonance with the aspiring note and the intellectual questing that mark his poetry.
  3
  Dying comparatively young, at forty-five, there is a sense of incompletion about his literary output. He did not write facilely nor polish much. A book of verse in young manhood, ‘The Hermitage and Other Poems’ (1867); a mid-manhood volume privately printed, ‘The Venus of Milo and Other Poems’ (1883); and a well-chosen posthumous selection, ‘Poems’ (1888), embracing the bulk of his worthiest work,—make up the scant list. He produced slowly, and was chary about collecting the pieces which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and elsewhere; only doing so, indeed, on the urgence of his publishers. But it is quality, not quantity, which defines a writer’s place; and the charm, suggestion, and strength of Sill’s verse cannot be gainsaid. The dominant trait in him is spirituality, coming out whether he is describing nature—few American poets have been more happy in this—or dealing with the deep heart of man. It is the soul’s problem in relation to existence which awakens his warm interest and solicitude. The jocund mood, the touch of humor, were rare with him as a writer, but not entirely wanting, as the very strong satiric piece of verse ‘Five Lives’ is enough to prove. The playful side of his nature, too, is glimpsed in many of his private letters. Intellectually, and in the matter of diction to a degree, there is an Emersonian flavor to Sill. A lyric like ‘Service,’ for example, certainly would not have shamed the Concord Sage. Sill’s spiritual faith had the same robust optimism as Emerson’s, though there was more sensitiveness to the minor chords of life. This strong, affirming belief in the triumph of spirit over flesh makes Sill’s verse an ethical tonic, as well as an æsthetic delight. ‘Field-Notes’ is his noblest statement of this helpful philosophy, which however crops out continually in his work. This mood and attitude of mind, expressed with sincerity and tenderness, with music and imagination, denote Sill as one whose accomplishment, if slight in extent and unambitious in aim, is of a very high order, and such as could emanate only from a poet truly called to song.  4
 
 
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