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Tuckerman, Frederick Goddard (1821-1873)

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Biographical Introduction

Frederick Goddard Tuckerman

The poet who has been described as a Brahmin, a Transcendentalist, and a Romantic published only one book during his lifetime: Poems. Most of Tuckerman’s poems are sonnets, but his longer poem—“The Cricket”—not published until 1950, has been described by Yvor Winters as “probably the greatest single American poem of the nineteenth century.”

Tuckerman was born in Boston in 1821. His father was a rich merchant and philanthropist who helped to create The Massachusetts General Hospital, the Boston Athenaeum, and the first savings bank north of Philadelphia. His uncle, Joseph Tuckerman, is known as the first Minister at Large in Boston serving the poor.

Educated at the John Henry Hopkins preparatory school and the Boston Latin School before he entered Harvard College at the age of sixteen, Tuckerman left after his freshman year but nevertheless graduated from Harvard Law School with the LL.B. degree in 1842. After practicing in a law office for one year, he abandoned both the legal profession and the, to him, unpleasant high society lifestyle of the family home at 33 Beacon Street. Tuckerman’s love of poetry was supplemented by his love for Hannah Lucinda Jones of Greenfield, Massachusetts. They married in 1847 and lived in Greenfield. His writing was united with his intense interest in literature and science. His sophisticated use of a telescope to study the stars was accompanied by his increasingly intimate knowledge of the regional flora.

On Tuckerman’s second trip to Europe in 1855, he developed a close friendship with poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, with whom he held rare, long, intimate conversations.

His wife bore their three children: Edward, 1848; Hannah, 1853; and Frederick, 1857, whose birth complications led to his wife’s death. He was utterly bereft.

In 1867 he sold his house in Greenfield and explored purchasing from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife “dear old Wayside.” However, in 1869 his son Edward, who was bound for Harvard College, died at age twenty-one. The following year his mother died. Tuckerman’s prolonged grief is expressed both in his sonnets and in his long poem, “The Cricket.”

In 1873 Frederick Goddard Tuckerman himself died of heart disease at the age of fifty-two. Now cut in stone in the Federal Street Cemetery in Greenfield are the words:

“Oh for the face and the footstep!—
Words and Shores /That looked upon us in life’s happiest flush.”

The poet Witter Bynner is one of the people who acted to preserve the Tuckerman heritage. It is now celebrated by selections included in the Library of America volumes of nineteenth century American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume 2. 1993.

The Poetry of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman

But unto him came swift calamity
In the sweet springtime when his beds were green;
And my heart waited, trustfully serene,
For the new blossom on my household tree.
But flowers and gods and quaint philosophy
Are poor, in truth, to fill the empty place;
Nor any joy nor season’s jollity
Can aught indeed avail to grace our grief.
Can spring return to him a brother’s face,
Or bring my darling back to me—to me?
Undimmed the May went on with bird and bower;
The summer filled and faded like a flower;
But rainy autumn and the red-turned leaf
Found us at tears and wept for company.

Each common object too, the house, the grove,
The street, the face, the ware in the window, seems
Alien and sad, the wreck of perished dreams;
Painfully present, yet remote in love.
The day goes down in rain, the winds blow wide.
I leave the town; I climb the mountain side,
Striving from stumps and stones to wring relief,
And in the senseless anger of my grief,
I rave and weep, I roar to the unmoved skies;
But the wild tempest carries away my cries.
Then back I turn to hide my face in sleep,
Again with dawn the same dull round to sweep,
And buy and sell and prate and laugh and chide,
As if she had not lived, or had not died.

And so, as this great sphere (now turning slow
Up to the light from that abyss of stars,
Now wheeling into gloom through sunset bars)—
With all its elements of form and flow,
And life in life; where crowned, yet blind, must go
The sensible king,—is but an Unity
Compressed of motes impossible to know;
Which worldlike yet in deep analogy,
Have distance, march, dimension, and degree;
So the round earth—which we the world do call—
Is but a grain in that that mightiest swells,
Whereof the stars of light are particles,
As ultimate atoms of one infinite Ball,
On which God moves, and treads beneath his feet the All!

Beside the River’s dark green flow,
Here, where the pine trees weep,
Red Autumn’s winds will coldly blow
Above their dreamless sleep:

Their sleep, for whom with prayerful breath
We’ve put apart today
This spot, for shadowed walks of Death,
And gardens of decay.

This crumbling bank with Autumn crowned,
These pining woodland ways,
Seem now no longer common ground;
But each in turn conveys

A saddened sense of something more:
Is it the dying year?
Or a dim shadow, sent before,
Of the next gathering here?

Is it that He, the silent Power,
Has now assumed the place
And drunk the light of morning’s house,
The life of Nature’s grace?

Not so-the spot is beautiful,
And holy is the sod;
Tis we are faint, our eyes are dull;
All else is fair in God.

So let them lie, their graves bedecked,
Whose bones these shades invest,
Nor grief deny, nor fear suspect,
The beauty of their rest.