The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

June 20, 2013

June 20, 1874

Trumbull Stickney (June 20, 1874 to October 11, 1904) is still famous enough to have an article at Poetry Foundation, a site maintained by the publishers of Poetry magazine. The information below is based on their writeup. 

Here is a photo of this obscure poet, classical scholar, and Harvard instructor.

And here is their sketch of his life, slightly reformatted for clarity.

Trumbull Stickney .... A brilliant scholar and enthusiastic poet, .... died at the age of thirty, just as he was beginning to achieve a unique poetic voice. .....

.... His parents, Austin and Harriet Trumbull Stickney, were of impressive lineage and impressive schooling: Austin was a classics professor at Trinity College, and Harriet was a descendent of the colonial governor [Connecticut I believe] Jonathan Trumbull. 

[Stickney was raised mostly in Europe.]
..... [After a] thorough, cosmopolitan education, Stickney matriculated at Harvard ...There, he met George Cabot Lodge and William Vaughn Moody—two writers who would later edit one of Stickney's posthumous verse collections. ....

Throughout his career, Stickney seems to have felt torn between his academic and literary passions. Nonetheless, after achieving his A.B. (magna cum laude) in 1895, Stickney pursued his studies at the Sorbonne, composing two theses, one a biography of Ermolao Barbaro and one a study of the gnomic elements of Greek poetry. His studies seemed not to nourish him, however; when George Cabot Lodge visited Stickney in 1895-96, he commented that Stickney seemed in "mute not cheerful despair." While in school, Stickney struggled to reconcile his divided interests. While hacking away at the profession he had resigned himself to pursue.....[he continued to write poetry]

[A] sonnet written in 1895 called "Cologne Cathedral" shows a shift from the cerebral, ...[tone] of his early work toward sensual evocations: 

"Prayer carved the sable flowers; a choral spun /
 Rose-windows in the aisle; and music stayed / 
So silken-long by arch and colonnade / 
That the lines trembled out and followed on[.]

In this passage, Stickney describes the relationship between song and architecture in a fresh way: rather than focusing on the immortality of verse compared to marble monuments, Stickney shows how the visual world can be created by the aural world. "Prayer carved the sable flowers," he writes, suggesting that spiritually infused words can shape the solid world. 

Many of Stickney's poems from this period relate to an affair he may have had between 1896 and 1899. (After Stickney's death, his family destroyed all letters relating to unseemly love affairs or requests for funding, so his romantic life will forever be private.) As these lines from poems of that period suggest, however, Stickney became focused on the despair of love: 

"I heard a dead leaf run. It crossed / 
My way. For dark I could not see. / 
It rattled crisp and thin with frost / 
Out to the lea." 

By the time the affair ended in 1899, however, Stickney had composed much of his first volume of poetry—but he was unable to find a publisher for it. He wrote despondently to his sister, .... "with some resignation I put off the hope of my life. Bay [George Cabot] Lodge publishes a novel and another volume this year." The "hope of [Stickney's] life" did not have to wait long, however: by 1902, he located a publisher for his verses.....

The volume, Dramatic Verses, [1902] includes many of Stickney's poems from his Paris days, as well as some work written earlier. .... [One critic said] "these poems  [areabove the level of similar lamentations that the Mauve Decade manufactured in wholesale lots." One year later, Stickney graduated from the Sorbonne, .... He took a brief tour of Greece—"a sort of bacchanal," as he described it,....before returning to an academic post at Harvard [teaching classics, that is Greek]

His life as an instructor proved as unfulfilling as his life as a student, however. ....[H]e wrote to Henry Adams in 1903: "You refer to the last thing excavated on classic soil, my own torso. It proves not to be an antique at all, but a work of a New England sculptor who was wrecked in a dory off the Peloponnesian Coast. On being presented to Harvard University, it was found the torso had convulsions and couldn't be kept in place. So it is being packed for further travel.

Not only was Stickney unhappy in his work, but he also began to experience terrible headaches as well as periodic "blind spells." He continued to teach and write, but on October 11, 1904 he died of a brain tumor. Like some other poets who have died young, Stickney produced some of his best works in the months leading up to his death. One late fragment".... hints tantalizingly at what future was lost when Stickney died: 

Sir, say no more. /
Within me't is as if / 
The green and climbing eyesight of a cat / 
Crawled near my mind's poor birds. 

....Later readers of Stickney's poetry .... found his work intriguing. Stickney was praised by such notables as Conrad Aiken, William Rose Benet, Louis Untermeyer, Allen Tate, Mark Van Doren, W. H. Auden, .... and John Hollander ...... As a writer for The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry in English remarked, "Stickney was steeped in Greek thought and literature, yet his poems exhibit a curiously tortured modern sensibility." Indeed, he has become in some ways representative of his period. As Rovit wrote, "he exhibited a cultural impulse that was later followed more extensively by writers like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot." ....

Sounds like the cat got those poor birds.

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