The Bard of Kingston
Consider the plight of the regional musician, the coterie painter, the provincial intellectual … the local newspaper columnist. All may descend upon the coffee shop as demigods yet know in their hearts that, having never truly tested themselves in deeper waters, they are no more than small-pond fish. Some, untroubled by aspiration, are content in their modest celebrity; others burn with the indignation of the righteous that their genius has eluded talent scouts from the big city.
The genial Henry Abbey (1842-1911) fit neither description. The most famous poet our region has produced — the Bard of Kingston, according to his tombstone at Montrepose Cemetery — this Shakespeare-loving flour-and-feed merchant had his feet on the ground, his head in the clouds, and his pen in constant swirl. National magazines — The Galaxy, Appleton’s, Overland Monthly, Old and New, Chambers — published his poems regularly (this in the age when no thoughtful journal would go to press without some poetic contributions) even as his eight volumes of verse elicited reviews that might have withered another poet’s soul. Abbey thought he was good, wished he were better, and bore ill will toward none as he indefatigably secured his hold on a lower rung of the literary ladder. Famous long ago, forgotten today, he merits another look.
Born to Stephen and Caroline Vail Abbey in Rondout on July 11, 1842, Henry Abbey was educated in the state of New York at Kingston Academy, Delaware Literary Institute in Delhi, and the Hudson River Institute in Columbia County. His family, which included a sister, Anna, and a brother, Legrand, worshiped at the Fair Street Reformed Church in Kingston. He gravitated toward verse early on, self-publishing his first collection, May Dreams, in his twentieth year. He dedicated the volume to William Cullen Bryant, who noted in it “the marks of an affluent fancy — though, I must say that this faculty in your verses appears somewhat unchastised.”
Praise so faint might have damned another young poet to oblivion, but Abbey returned to his father’s grain depot more determined to improve his versification. In 1866 his prosaically titled Ralph and Other Poems met with some kind notice.
Abbey also commenced to write and edit for the new Rondout Courier and to become something of a literary man about town, in New York City as well as Rondout and Kingston. When Mark Twain came to Rondout in the course of his northeastern lecture tour of 1868 (his talk was titled “The American Vandal Abroad,” on December 2), it was Abbey who befriended him and elicited a promise to return the following year. In August 1869 the increasingly famous author wrote to Abbey:
Yes, I have a pleasant remembrance of our ride & would like to repeat it. And I remember promising to lecture for you, too, in case I lectured any of any consequence next winter — at least I suppose I remember it — & I believe I promised [Henry M.] Crane [of Kingston] to lecture for him under the same conditions, though I am not sure about that, for it would have been absurd to make two engagements so close together as your two towns. But circumstances have altered things greatly. I was under contract to make a New England tour next winter, but I have been obliged to write there & ask to be excused. I have bought into this paper [the Buffalo Express, on whose letterhead Mark Twain wrote], & business will compel me to stick to my post. If my promise was a positive one I hope you will be merciful to a fellow journalistic sinner & let me off for this time. I see you had a notion to have me lecture on my wedding day! (Jan. 10.) — but this is strictly private & you must not mention it.
Excuses to the contrary, Mark Twain did lecture for Abbey at Rondout on January 12, 1870, and again on November 2, 1871, but only after negotiating a higher fee. As he wrote to his agent, “I got $100 the first time I ever talked there and now they have a much larger hall. It is a hard town to get to — I run a chance of getting caught by the ice and missing next engagement. Make the price $150 and let them draw out.”
Big man in a small town, Abbey soon became friendly with John Burroughs and with him joined the metropolitan circle of literary Bohemians; in August 1882 they even received visits from Oscar Wilde (Burroughs was less favorably impressed than Abbey, who had met him during the prior year’s lecture circuit). Abbey and Burroughs also became auxiliary members of the group inhabiting Pfaff’s Café in the basement of 653 Broadway in New York, famed as a hangout for such “aesthetic” characters as Walt Whitman, Ada Clare, Thomas Nast, Adah Isaacs Menken and Artemus Ward. Charles Pfaff had established the basement rathskeller in 1856, at a time when beer was new to New York and the Parisian artist lifestyle celebrated in Henri Murger’s Scenes de la vie de Boheme had inspired an artists’ enclave in Greenwich Village. As Whitman recalled in an unfinished poem of his late years, glassed-over caves allowed light to filter into:
The vault at Pfaffs where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse,
While on the walk immediately overhead, pass the myriad feet of Broadway
As the dead in their graves, are underfoot hidden
And the living pass over them, recking not of them, …
It was a good time to be a poet in America, even a minor one, and while Abbey was no Bohemian in his personal lifestyle he showed his colors when a literary critic proposed to dismiss Byron’s work because of the poet’s personal “depravity.” Abbey wrote to the editor of the Literary World: “To say that you do not like his poetry because you do not like the life he led is the same as saying you dislike a house because you do not like the architect who planned or the carpenter or mason who built it…. It seems to that always, and undeniably in the republic of letters, the thing done is the sole thing to be considered.” If Byron was a bad man and a good poet, Abbey was the obverse.
He became one of the literary elect by the sheer proliferation of his periodical poems, many of a romantic and fantastical sort with such titles as “The Roman Sentinel,” “The Bedouin’s Rebuke,” “The Caliph’s Magnanimity,” and “Irak.” There were localized poems too — generally reserved for book publication — from “A Colonial Ballad” (about the burning of Kingston) to “Vanderlyn,” from “On the Rondout” to “Onteora.” Most of these, however, were no less bombastic than his historical fustian, although “May in Kingston,” which is the only one of his poems referenced on his headstone at Montrepose, is more modest and thus less dreadful (see below). The same may be said of “What Do We Plant?”—a parable about trees and values, children and patriotism, that Aaron Copland set to music in 1936.
Abbey’s contemporary critics were unsparing of his feelings. This, from the Atlantic Monthly of September 1869: “The different ‘Stories in Verse’ abound in such kaleidoscopic effects as this, —
‘As to the heliotrope comes fluttering down
The peacock butterfly, who sips and flies,
So each glad day, gold-winged, came to the land,
And sipped its sip of time and fled away’;
and this, —
‘He tarried here until along the hills
The red-lipped whisper of the morning ran’;
and many others equally discouraging, with the same preposterously unmeaning color and glitter.”
Or this, from The Century of July 1884: “Mr. Abbey’s art is frequently at fault … none but an amateur in verse would be capable of writing such an awkward couplet as the following: ‘With her through the city go, / She thee it will fully show.’
“She thee it!” the reviewer concluded amazedly.
The Chap-Book of Nov. 15, 1897 included a merciless “tribute” to Abbey as the quintessence of “The Very Minor Poet.” The author, Pierre La Rose, gives special attention to Abbey’s masterpiece of dreadfulness, “The Giant Spider,” containing “a line which I defy anyone to match in very minor poetry: ‘An early knuckle smote against my door.’” One could go on, and La Rose did.
So too did Abbey, in 1900 retiring from his grain and banking interests to wrestle un-distractedly with The Muse for the final decade of his life. In the year before he died of heart disease (June 7, 1911, his wife Mary having predeceased him), he issued his final volume, The Dream of Love, a Mystery. The New York Times panned it.
Reading much of Abbey’s verse in preparation for this column, I came away with an odd respect for him. As Clint Eastwood said in Dirty Harry, “A man's got to know his limitations” … and Abbey forthrightly recognized his. I located a poem he wrote for Liber Scriptorum, a collection by members of the Authors Club, in which he plainly stated his credo:
To Baffle Time
To baffle time, whose tooth has never rest,
And make the counted line, from page to page,
Compact, fulfilled of what is apt and best,
And vibrant with the key-note of the age,
This is my aim; and even aims are things;
They give men value who have won no place.
We pass for what we would be, by some grace,
And our ambitions make us seem like kings.
But never yet has destiny’s clear star
For aimless feet shed light upon the way.
So have I hope, since purpose sees no bar,
To write immortally some lyric day,
As Lovelace did when he informed the lay
Inspired by Lucasta and by war.
May in Kingston
Our old colonial town is new with May:
The loving trees that clap across the streets,
Grow greener sleeved with bursting buds each day.
Still this year’s May the last year’s May repeats;
Even the old stone houses half renew
Their youth and beauty, as the old trees do.
High over all, like some divine desire
Above our lower thoughts of daily care,
The gray, religious, heaven-touching spire
Adds to the quiet of the spring-time air;
And over roofs the birds create a sea,
That has no shore, of their May melody.
Down through the lowlands now of lightest green,
The undecided creek winds on its way.
There the little willow bends with graceful mien,
And sees its likeness in the depths all day;
While in the orchards, flushed with May’s warm light,
The bride-like fruit trees dwell, attired in white.
But yonder loom the mountain solid and grand,
That off, along dim distance, reach afar,
And high and vast, against the sunset stand,
A dreamy range, long and irregular –
A caravan that never passes by,
Whose came-backs are laden with the sky.
So, like a caravan, our outlived years
Loom on the introspective landscape seen
Within the heart: and now, where May appears,
And earth renews its vernal bloom and green,
We but renew our longing, and we say:
“Oh, would that life might ever be all May!
“Would that the bloom of youth that is so brief,
The bloom, the May, the fullness ripe and fair
Of cheek and limb, might fade not as the leaf;
Would that the heart might not grow old with care,
Nor love turn bitter, nor fond hope decay;
But soul and body lead a life of May!”