Edward Rowdland Sill

By Sarah Hunter and Katie McMillin

 

Edward Rowland Sill: An Early American Poet

Edward Rowland Sill was born in Windsor, Connecticut, in 1841. His mother's side of the family was religious, while his father's family was scientific. Deeply rooted in New England heritage, the Sill family could trace their ancestry back to Jonathan Edwards. Sill's background in religion and science led him to a life-long struggle between faith and doubt. He has been described as a "poet of antithesis, torn between intellectual conviction and spiritual question" (Ferguson 1). These qualities strongly shaped his personality as well as his writing style, and influenced him throughout his life as a poet and teacher.

As a child, Sill was weak and constantly in poor health, leading to a chosen life of seclusion. Although he remained active in his later years both teaching and writing, Sill constantly struggled with his introspective qualities. He was quiet and shy, despite a "talent for friendship" (Ferguson 22), which he displayed upon entering Yale at age sixteen. At Yale, Sill spent two years in academic rebellion, refusing to conform to general expectations, and instead choosing to think for himself and follow his thirst for knowledge. During his last two years at Yale he matured into a deep thinker, still yearning for ultimate knowledge. The poems Sill published in the Yale Literary Magazine signaled the start of his writing career.

Despite his university education, Sill remained indecisive about his future career. His love of knowledge pulled him in all directions, from writing to medicine. To make his final decision, he moved to California with his good friend Sextus Shearer. Ultimately, Sill spent a majority of his life writing and teaching, both on the East coast and the West. Constantly traveling across the country, he was torn between his two homes, and between his religious faith and scientific knowledge. Sill died on February 27, 1887, in Cleveland, Ohio. Ferguson concludes that, "To the end of his life he was, in his own phrase,

. . . a clouded spirit; full of doubt

And old misgiving, heaviness of heart

And loneliness of mind; long wearied out

With climbing stairs that lead to nothing sure,

With chasing lights that lure,

In the thick murk that wraps us all about. (201)

Edward Rowland Sill's thought and writing were both largely influenced by the works he read – namely Charles Dickens and especially Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whom he idolized as the "king of poets" (Ferguson 26). However, Sill often took advice from his close friends at Yale, with whom he shared his work. His friend, Henry Holt, arranged for the publication of Sill's first volume of poems. Sextus Shearer, Sill’s closest friend, guided him through years of indecision about his career and supported him in everything he attempted.

Ferguson often compares Sill to both Emerson and Thoreau. Like Emerson, Sill had deep family roots in the New England church; both men went through times of turning away from their ancestors' religion. Like Thoreau at Walden, Sill isolated himself at Yale in a quest for knowledge. Sill was both an idealist and a realist in his thinking – yet another dichotomy in his personality. He believed that "the poet's calling was sacred, since the poet served as interpreter between man and God" (Ferguson 43).

Although Edward Sill wrote beautifully, his isolation from most literary circles left him forgotten among the more famous poets of his time. While he published many poems and some works of prose in literary magazines and reviews, most of his published work has been posthumous, with only one published volume of collected prose and one volume of poetry (Cambridge History). Sill's poems do not reflect the whole of his life. According to Cambridge History, "[Sill's] overmodest mind . . . together with his unresolved struggle of faith and doubt, encouraged his tendency to rest in the unrecorded thought - to read widely, to feel and reflect abundantly, rather than to shape his conception in the concrete poem."

A Brief Discussion of Works by the Famous Early American Poet Edward R. Sill

Edward R. Sill wrote many works, the most famous of which are "The Fool’s Prayer" and "Opportunity" (see below). Often, Sill’s works show signs of his struggle with faith, religion, and knowledge. He wrote poems that reach readers’ hearts, making them look inside themselves and examine their values. Evidencing a contemplative nature, Sill did not seek fame with his poems, yet they demonstrate a keen understanding of human nature and inner conflict—aspects most people can easily relate to.

In The Fool’s Prayer, Sill sets the stage for a common jester to teach a moral lesson, touching the heart of a wise king. The jester ends his prayer with the lines:

"Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;

Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool

That did his will; but Thou, O Lord,

Be merciful to me, a fool!"

The room was hushed; in silence rose

The King, and sought his gardens cool,

And walked apart, and murmured low,

"Be merciful to me, a fool!"

Through the fool’s sincere prayer, which confronts us with so many truths, the king’s guests are awed to silence. One can imagine a mood of quiet self-evaluation, as each listener must face the fact that the fool has uttered words of wisdom and heart-felt repentance. Separating himself, the king then offers his own simple, humble prayer, acknowledging that he, like most people, can justifiably be titled "fools" requiring mercy. The substance at the core of this poem is that not all rich, honored men are wise, but those we esteem most highly can be taught a lesson by others, even a "fool."

Opportunity is a relatively short poem that succeeds in capturing the essence of a true hero and warrior in the scene it depicts. This poem shows how inner strength, determination, and attitude make a winner, not simply circumstances. When the battle is raging with little hope of victory, the weaker men will relinquish effort in the face of opposition, crying that fate has denied them the advantages of their superiors or foes. The most honorable men, on the other hand, make themselves aware of their situation, decide what they can do with what is available, and give all they have – to the last breath – in fighting. Transforming a "craven" soldier’s broken, abandoned sword into a fatal weapon, the king’s son claims victory. But the weapon did not make the man; he gave it fearful power.

A similar notion to Sill’s Opportunity is reflected in the opening lines of Thomas Paine’s The Crisis: "These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." How easy it is to give up when the going gets tough. The true warrior, however, stands strong during hard times, fighting to the end with conviction, despite negative circumstances that may seem unbearable. This is the man who embodies the admirable qualities we should strive for in ourselves and respect in others.

Exemplifying the important role of religion in his life, Sill often refers to God, and pleas for help on Earth, in a repentful air for the mankind’s ungodly ways. In the beautiful poem, "Send Down Thy Truth, O God" (see below), the speaker implores God to send His guiding help for mankind. Sill obviously viewed God as an eminent, higher being who deserves our praise and whom we should strive to please.

Although not as widely read as many of the early American poets, Sill deserves our attention. Demonstrating a reflective, self-searching, questioning quality, Sill’s works are worthy to be included in the American Literary canon. His perspective can be uplifting and reproachful, seeing the good in some men while admonishing the weakness in others.

The Fool's Prayer

The royal feast was done; the King
Sought out some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: "Sir Fool,
Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!"

The jester doffed his cap and bells,
And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore.

He bowed his head, and bent his knee
Upon the monarch's silken stool;
His pleading voice arose: "O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!

"No pity, Lord, could change the heart
From red with wrong to white as wool;
The rod must heal the sin: but Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!

"'Tis not by guilt the onward sweep
Of truth and right, O Lord, we stay;
'Tis by our follies that so long
We hold the earth from heaven away.

"These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end;
These hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heart-strings of a friend.

"The ill-timed truth we might have kept-
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say-
Who knows how grandly it had rung?

"Our faults no tenderness should ask,
The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;
But for out blunders oh, in shame
Before the eyes of heaven we fall.

"Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;
Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
That did his will; but Thou, O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!"

The room was hushed; in silence rose
The king, and sought his gardens cool,
And walked apart, and murmured low,
"Be merciful to me, a fool!"

 

Opportunity

THIS I beheld, or dreamed it in a dream:-

There spread a cloud of dust along a plain;

And underneath the cloud, or in it, raged

A furious battle, and men yelled, and swords

Shocked upon swords and shields. A prince's banner

Wavered, then staggered backward, hemmed by foes.

A craven hung along the battle's edge,

And thought, "Had I a sword of keener steel-

That blue blade that the king's son bears,-but this

Blunt thing-!" he snapt and flung it from his hand,

And lowering crept away and left the field.

Then came the king's son, wounded, sore bestead,

And weaponless, and saw the broken sword,

Hilt-buried in the dry and trodden sand,

And ran and snatched it, and with battle-shout

Lifted afresh he hewed his enemy down,

And saved a great cause that heroic day.

 

Send Down Thy Truth, O God

Send down Thy truth, O God;
Too long the shadows frown;
Too long the darkened way we’ve trod:
Thy truth, O Lord, send down.

Send down Thy Spirit free,
Till wilderness and town
One temple for Thy worship be:
Thy Spirit, O send down.

Send down Thy love, Thy life,
Our lesser lives to crown,
And cleanse them of their hate and strife:
Thy living love send down.

Send down Thy peace, O Lord:
Earth’s bitter voices drown
In one deep ocean of accord:
Thy peace, O God, send down.

 

Bibliography

"Edward Rowland Sill." The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907-21). XVII.II. 14 Nov. 2002 < www.bartleby.com/227/0314.html>.

Ferguson, Alfred Riggs. Edward Rowland Sill: The Twilight Poet. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1955.

Sill, Edward R. "The Fools Prayer." 14 Nov. 2002 <http.//www.eyeontomorrow.com/ embracingthechild/Cfoolspray.html>.

---. "Opportunity." 14 Nov. 2002 <http.//www.geocites.com/sscolari0001/Opportunity.hyml>.

---. "Send Down Thy Truth , O God." 14 Nov. 2002 <http://www.cyberhymnal.org/ hym/s/d/sdttogod.htm>.