On the Life of Thomas Buchanan Read, alongside his poem, “The Withering Leaves”

by Ann Neilson

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Thomas Buchanan Read is one of my favorite 19th century personalities. A poet and artist, he’s best known today for Sheridan’s RideHowever, his poetic repertoire definitely expands beyond that of this often studied poem; and although virtually unknown otherwise, his life is worth exploring, if even briefly.

Born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, on March 12, 1822, he grew up in a financially modest household. Unable to acquire formal education, according to The Knohl Collection online, he left home at the age of ten to remove himself to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he partook in various jobs that only benefited and catered to his growing artistic skill. He thus began painting and sculpting here, especially under the influence of Shobal Veil Clevenger, and with the aid of Nicholas Longworth (source). According to A Compendium of American Literature by Charles Dexter Cleveland, although starting as a sculptor, Read took to painting, which gained him success as an artist, and he removed to Boston, where he remained for five years in this profession (738).

Between the years 1841 and 1861, he wrote and painted prolifically, submitting to journals such as Graham’s Magazine and the Boston Courier, and moved back and forth between the United States and Europe, namely Italy, where he found beauty and conversation to inspire his profound mind (738). However, according to the History of Chester County, Pennsylvania, he was met with two majorly impactful blows, the first being the death of his first wife, Mary J. Pratt, and child, Lilian, due to a choleric epidemic while living in Florence in 1853; and the second being the outbreak of the Civil War, for which he volunteered under General Lew Wallace (Futhey, 707). Futhey states, “[Read’s] voice and pen, in patriotic addresses and poems, gave hearty encouragement to his countrymen in the great work of saving the national life. In this heroic struggle none surpassed Read in patriotic ardor….” (707). Following the Civil War, Read remarried to Harriet Dennison and moved to Italy in 1867 (The Knohl Collection). Four years later, he was critically injured by the overturning of his carriage, and he died that next year, on May 11, 1872, at the age of 50, just a few days after his arrival to New York. His death was due to complications of the carriage accident, and pneumonia. In the Poetical Works of T. Buchanan Read: New Revised Edition of 1894, it is stated in his memoir that “[he died] calmly on the evening of Saturday, May 11, in the arms of those who loved him best. ‘Your kisses are very sweet to me,’ were among his last words” (XX).*

Futhey imparts an effective passage describing Read’s character, stating the following:

The distinguishing characteristics of Read’s nature were purity of thought, refinement of feeling, gentleness of manner, generosity of disposition, geniality and unselfish devotion to others, and the possession of all those qualities of mind and character which attract and attach friends. Tenderness of feeling and delicacy in treatment were marked traits in all his work, whether with the pen or the pencil. Gifted with an extraordinary genius, Read was unlike many other men thus formed by nature. He relied for success not upon sudden, uncertain, and spasmodic impulses, but was a faithful, diligent, and conscientious worker by turns in the two distinct yet congenial fields of labor to which his talents were devoted, finding his only rest and recreation in the alternate use of his pen or pencil (707).

In the span of his life, Read saw 17, if not more, publications of his literary works, and was met with publicly celebrated reactions to both his literary and artistic pursuits. Some of his artistic works can be found between the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in the Knohl Collection, and the Harvard University Art Museum, to name a few places.

In the spirit of my Autumnal poetry series, and after “painting” (pun intended) a “portrait” (pun intended once more) of this poet, I thus want to present a newfound favorite work by Read that I, regrettably, just stumbled across whilst finding works to share on this blog.

Without further ado—

The Withering Leaves
Thomas Buchanan Read

The summer is gone and the autumn is here,
And the flowers are strewing their earthly bier;
A dreary mist o’er the woodland swims,
While rattle the nuts from the windy limbs:
From bough to bough the squirrels run
At the noise of the hunter’s echoing gun,
And the partridge flies where my footstep heaves
The rustling drifts of the withering leaves.

The flocks pursue their southern flight—
Some all the day and some all night;
And up from the wooded marshes come
The sounds of the pheasant’s feathery drum.
On the highest bough the mourner crow
Sits in his funeral suit of woe:
All nature mourns—and my spirit grieves
At the noise of my feet in the withering leaves.

Oh! I sigh for the days that have passed away,
When my life like the year had its season of May;
When the world was all sunshine and beauty and truth,
And the dew bathed my feet in the valley of youth!
Then my heart felt its wings, and no bird of the sky
Sang over the flowers more joyous than I.
But Youth is a fable, and Beauty deceives;—
For my footsteps are loud in the withering leaves.

And I sigh for the time when the reapers at morn
Came down from the hill at the sound of the horn:
Or when dragging the rake, I followed them out
While they tossed the light sheaves with their laughter about;
Through the field, with boy-daring, barefooted I ran;
But the stubbles foreshadowed the path of the man.
Now the uplands of life lie all barren of sheaves—
While my footsteps are loud in the withering leaves!

*For a more in depth biographical read about T. B. R., consider The Poetical Works of T. Buchanan Read: New Revised Edition