Sep 18, 2013
Guilford's Fitz-Greene Halleck: America's Forgotten "Byron"
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During his prominent career, Halleck wrote a number of well-received poems; among his best-known works are "Alnwick Castle," "Fanny," and "Marco Bozaris." His works were read by everyone from common men to presidents—Abraham Lincoln was said to have often read his works at The White House. Halleck even met with Charles Dickens when Dickens famously visited America in the latter half of the 19th century.
Although his notoriety came as a poet and he gained celebrity because of it, Halleck did not rely on his composition of verse for income. Instead, he worked in finance, eventually taking a position as the private secretary of business magnate and millionaire John Jacob Astor in 1932. He served in that well-paying capacity until Astor's death in 1948. During that time, he continued to publish poems, although he seemed to be more interested in New York's social scene, and created only a handful of new works.
Halleck retired to Guilford in 1849, where he quietly lived out his remaining days in a house he shared with his sister Marie. He died on November 19, 1867. His final words were reported to be, "Marie, hand me my pantaloons, if you please."
It's not quite clear how or why Halleck has faded from the public eye. It could be the quality of his work—Poe once described Halleck's poem "Fanny" as "endurable, but to the practiced versifier it is little less than torture." Halleck also went after "sacred institutions" of his day, so some of his work doesn't quite stand the test of time as well. Possibly, the homosexual overtones to Halleck and his life may have been a factor. Or it could be quite simply that the poetry-loving masses just preferred other works.
In 2006, a Fitz-Greene Halleck Society was formed to recognize Halleck's contributions. The group would meet every July 8 (Halleck's birthday) at his statue in Central Park, commemorating the poet by reading his works and spreading the word of his efforts.
Still, there are those in somewhat more recent times who know of Halleck. Here's an excerpt from Highways & Byways of Connecticut, a tome printed by G. Fox & Co. in 1947 to celebrate its 100th anniversary and the state's history, which includes vignettes waxing rhapsodic about every town in Connecticut. This is the entry for Guilford, which features its poetic son. (The entire poem "Connecticut" can be read here.)
Guilford—home of poetry and dreams, founded in 1639.
On seeing Guilford, I believe no one would express surprise to learn that here a famous poet lived. The very air is redolent with romantic revery.
The old stone houses with their glimmering panes sleep in beds of flowers on verdent, downy swards.
In such a gentle place was born Fitz-Greene Halleck—a name of note—one of America's greatest men of letters.
In 1847, he strolled these peaceful lanes of this old shore, meditating, planning, to give beauty to the world.
Born of humble parents, the village schoolmistress and tailor, he sought for learning with such an avid bent that he soon, as a boy, had read every book in the library.
It's strange to think of—a dreaming young man spending his days in John Jacob Astor's Counting House. But that's what he did to earn his living and gather funds for high education. He went to New York and amassed his learning there, storing it up for when he could return to the more inspiring setting of Guilford by the sea.
This quiet, gentle man loved his state and wrote of Connecticut in his greatest work:
"And still her gray rocks tower above the sea
That crouches at their feet, a conquered wave,
'Tis a rough land of earth, and stone and tree
Where breathes no castled lord or cabined slave
Where thought, and tongues, and hands are bold and free,
And friends will find a welcome, foes a grave;
And where kneel, save when to Heaven they pray,
Nor even then, unless in their own way."
Green is the turf above Halleck, who is interred in Alderbrook Cemetery on Boston Street (Route 146) in Guilford. He waits quietly to be rediscovered by a new generation of poetry fans, who may help him rise once again in the world of letters.