Since Samuel Johnson toiled in Grub Street, London, literature has
scarcely furnished a more pathetic or inspiring illustration of struggle
to success than that of Bayard Taylor. Born of Quaker parentage in the
little town of Kennett Square, near Philadelphia, Jan. 11, 1825, he grew
to boyhood in the midst of fresh air and the hard work of farm-life. His
mother, a refined and intelligent woman, who taught him to read at four,
and who early discovered her child's love for books, shielded him as far
as possible from picking up stones and weeding corn, and set him to
rocking the baby to sleep. What was her amazement one day, on hearing
loud cries from the infant, to find Bayard absorbed in reading, and
rocking his own chair furiously, supposing it to be the cradle! It was
evident, that, though such a boy might become a fine literary man, he
could not be a successful baby-tender.
He was especially eager to read poetry and travels, and, before he was
twelve years old, had devoured the contents of their small circulating
library, as well as Cooper's novels, and the histories of Gibbon,
Robertson, and Hume. The few books which he owned were bought with money
earned by selling nuts which he had gathered. He read Milton, Scott,
Byron, and Wordsworth; and his mother would often hear him repeating
poetry to his brother after they had gone to bed. He was always planning
journeys in Europe, which seemed very far from being realized. At
fourteen he began to study Latin and French, and at fifteen, Spanish;
and a year later he assisted in teaching at the academy where he was
He was ambitious; but there seemed no open door. There is never an open
door to fame or prosperity, except we open it for ourselves. The world
is too busy to help others; and assistance usually weakens rather than
strengthens us. About this time he received, through request, an
autograph from Charles Dickens, then lecturing in this country. The boy
of sixteen wrote in his journal: "It was not without a feeling of
ambition that I looked upon it; that as he, a humble clerk, had risen to
be the guest of a mighty nation, so I, a humble pedagogue, might, by
unremitted and arduous intellectual and moral exertion, become a light,
a star, among the names of my country. May it be!... I believe all poets
are possessed in a greater or less degree of ambition. I think this is
never given without a mind of sufficient power to sustain it, and to
achieve its lofty object."
At seventeen, Bayard's schooling was over. He sketched well, and would
gladly have gone to Philadelphia to study engraving; but he had no
money. One poem had been published in the "Saturday Evening Post." Those
only who have seen their first poem in print can experience his joy. But
writing poetry would not earn him a living. He had no liking for
teaching, but, as that seemed the only thing at hand, he would try to
obtain a school. He did not succeed, however, and apprenticed himself
for four years to a printer. He worked faithfully, using all his spare
hours in reading and writing poetry.
Two years later, he walked to Philadelphia and back--thirty miles each
way--to see if fifteen of his poems could not be printed in a book! His
ambition evidently had not abated. Of course no publisher would take the
book at his own risk. There was no way of securing its publication,
therefore, but to visit his friends, and solicit them to buy copies in
advance. This was a trying matter for a refined nature; but it was a
necessity. He hoped thus to earn a little money for travel, and "to win
a name that the person who shall be chosen to share with me the toils of
life will not be ashamed to own." This "person" was Mary Agnew, whose
love and that of Bayard Taylor form one of the saddest and tenderest
pictures in our literature.
At last the penniless printer boy had determined to see Europe. For two
years he had read every thing he could find upon travels abroad. His
good mother mourned over the matter, and his acquaintances prophesied
dire results from such a roving disposition. He would go again to
Philadelphia, and see if the newspapers did not wish correspondence from
Europe. All the editors politely declined the ardent boy's proposals.
Probably he did not know that "unknown writers" are not wanted.
About to return home, "not in despair," he afterwards wrote, "but in a
state of wonder as to where my funds would come from, for I felt certain
they would come," the editor of the "Saturday Evening Post" offered him
four dollars a letter for twelve letters,--fifty dollars,--with the
promise of taking more if they were satisfactory. The "United States
Gazette" made a similar offer, and, after selling a few manuscript poems
which he had with him, he returned home in triumph, with a hundred and
forty dollars in his pocket! "This," he says, "seemed sufficient to
carry me to the end of the world."
Immediately Bayard and his cousin started on foot for Washington, a
hundred miles, to see the member of Congress from their district, and
obtain passports from him. Reaching a little village on their way
thither, they were refused lodgings at the tavern because of the
lateness of the hour,--nine o'clock!--and walked on till near midnight.
Then seeing a house brilliantly lighted, as for a wedding, they
approached, and asked the proprietor whether a tavern were near by. The
man addressed turned fiercely upon the lads, shouting, "Begone! Leave
the place instantly. Do you hear? Off!" The amazed boys hastened away,
and at three o'clock in the morning, footsore and faint, after a walk of
nearly forty miles, slept in a cart standing beside an old farmhouse.
And now at nineteen, he was in New York, ready for Europe. He called
upon the author, N. P. Willis, who had once written a kind note to him;
and this gentleman, with a ready nature in helping others,--alas! not
always found among writers--gave him several letters of introduction to
newspaper men. Mr. Greeley said bluntly when applied to, "I am sick of
descriptive letters, and will have no more of them. But I should like
some sketches of German life and society, after you have been there, and
know something about it. If the letters are good, you shall be paid for
them; but don't write until you know something."
July 1, 1844, Bayard and two young friends, after paying ten dollars
each for steerage passage, started out for this eventful voyage. No
wonder that, as land faded from sight, and he thought of gentle Mary
Agnew and his devoted mother, his heart failed him, and he quite broke
down. After twenty-eight days they landed in Liverpool, strangers, poor,
knowing almost nothing of the world, but full of hope and enthusiasm.
They spent three weeks in Scotland and the north of England, and then
travelled through Belgium to Heidelberg. Bayard passed the first winter
in Frankfort, in the plainest quarters, and then, with his knapsack on
his back, visited Leipzig, Dresden, Prague, Vienna, and Munich. After
this he walked over the Alps, and through Northern Italy, spending four
months in Florence, and then visiting Rome. Often he was so poor that he
lived on twenty cents a day. Sometimes he was without food for nearly
two days, writing his natural and graphic letters when his ragged
clothes were wet through, and his body faint from fasting. But the
manly, enthusiastic youth always made friends by his good cheer and
At last he was in London, with but thirty cents to buy food and lodging.
But he had a poem of twelve hundred lines in his knapsack, which he
supposed any London publisher would be glad to accept. He offered it;
but it was "declined with thanks." The youth had not learned that Bayard
Taylor unknown, and Bayard Taylor famous in two hemispheres, were two
different names upon the title-page of a book. Publishers cannot usually
afford to do missionary work in their business; they print what will
sell. "Weak from sea-sickness," he says, "hungry, chilled, and without a
single acquaintance in the great city, my situation was about as
hopeless as it is possible to conceive."
Possibly he could obtain work in a printer's shop. This he tried hour
after hour, and failed. Finally he spent his last twopence for bread,
and found a place to sleep in a third-rate chop-house, among sailors,
and actors from the lower theatres. He rose early, so as not to be asked
to pay for his bed, and again sought work. Fortunately he met an
American publisher, who loaned him five dollars, and with a thankful
heart he returned to pay for his lodging. For six weeks he staid in his
humble quarters, wrote letters home to the newspapers, and also sent
various poems to the English journals, which were all returned to him.
For two years he supported himself on two hundred and fifty dollars a
year, earning it all by writing. "I saw," he says, "almost nothing of
intelligent European society; but literature and art were, nevertheless,
open to me, and a new day had dawned in my life."
On his return to America he found that his published letters had been
widely read. He was advised to put them in a book; and "Views Afoot,"
with a preface by N. P. Willis, were soon given to the world. Six
editions were sold the first year; and the boy who had seen Europe in
the midst of so much privation, found himself an author, with the
prospect of fame. Not alone had poverty made these two years hard to
bear. He was allowed to hold no correspondence with Mary Agnew, because
her parents steadily refused to countenance the young lovers. He had
wisely made his mother his confidante, and she had counselled patience
and hope. The rising fame possibly smoothed the course of true love,
for at twenty-one, Bayard became engaged to the idol of his heart. She
was an intelligent and beautiful girl, with dark eyes and soft brown
hair, and to the ardent young traveller seemed more angel than human. He
showed her his every poem, and laid before her every purpose. He wrote
her, "I have often dim, vague forebodings that an eventful destiny is in
store for me"; and then he added in quaint, Quaker dialect, "I have told
thee that existence would not be endurable without thee; I feel further
that thy aid will be necessary to work out the destinies of the
future.... I am really glad that thou art pleased with my poetry. One
word from thee is dearer to me than the cold praise of all the critics
in the land."
For the year following his return home, he edited a country paper, and
thereby became involved in debts which required the labors of the next
three years to cancel. He now decided to go to New York if possible,
where there would naturally be more literary society, and openings for a
writer. He wrote to editors and publishers; but there were no vacancies
to be filled. Finally he was offered enough to pay his board by
translating, and this he gladly accepted. By teaching literature in a
young ladies' school, he increased his income to nine dollars a week.
Not a luxurious amount, surely.
For a year he struggled on, saving every cent possible, and then Mr.
Greeley gave him a place on the "Tribune," at twelve dollars a week. He
worked constantly, often writing poetry at midnight, when his day's
duties were over. He made true friends, such as Stedman and Stoddard,
published a new book of poems; and in the beginning of 1849 life began
to look full of promise. Sent by his paper to write up California, for
six months he lived in the open air, his saddle for his pillow, and on
his return wrote his charming book "El-dorado." He was now twenty-five,
out of debt, and ready to marry Mary Agnew. But a dreadful cloud had
meantime gathered and burst over their heads. The beautiful girl had
been stricken with consumption. The May day bridal had been postponed.
"God help me, if I lose her!" wrote the young author to Mr. Stoddard
from her bedside. Oct. 24 came, and the dying girl was wedded to the man
she loved. Four days later he wrote: "We have had some heart-breaking
hours, talking of what is before us, and are both better and calmer for
it." And, later still: "She is radiantly beautiful; but it is not the
beauty of earth.... We have loved so long, so intimately, and so wholly,
that the footsteps of her life have forever left their traces in mine.
If my name should be remembered among men, hers will not be forgotten."
Dec. 21, 1850, she went beyond; and Bayard Taylor at twenty-six was
alone in the world, benumbed, unfitted for work of any kind. "I am not
my true self more than half the time. I cannot work with any spirit:
another such winter will kill me, I am certain. I shall leave next fall
on a journey somewhere--no matter where," he wrote a friend.
Fortunately he took a trip to the Far East, travelling in Egypt, Asia
Minor, India, and Japan for two years, writing letters which made him
known the country over. On his return, he published three books of
travel, and accepted numerous calls in the lecture-field. His stock in
the "Tribune" had become productive, and he was gaining great success.
His next long journey was to Northern Europe, when he took his brother
and two sisters with him, as he could enjoy nothing selfishly. This time
he saw much of the Brownings and Thackeray, and spent two days as the
guest of Tennyson. He was no longer the penniless youth, vainly looking
for work in London to pay his lodging, but the well-known traveller,
lecturer, and poet. Oct. 27, 1857, seven years after the death of Mary
Agnew, he married the daughter of a distinguished German astronomer,
Marie Hansen, a lady of great culture, whose companionship has ever
proved a blessing.
Tired of travel, Mr. Taylor now longed for a home for his wife and
infant daughter, Lilian. He would erect on the old homestead, where he
played when a boy, such a house as a poet would love to dwell in, and
such as poet friends would delight to visit. So, with minutest care and
thought, "Cedarcroft," a beautiful structure, was built in the midst of
two hundred acres. Every flower, every tree, was planted with as much
love as Scott gave to "Abbotsford." But, when it was completed, the old
story had been told again, of expenses going far beyond expectations,
and, instead of anticipated rest, toil and struggle to pay debts, and
provide for constant outgoes.
But Bayard Taylor was not the man to be disturbed by obstacles. He at
once set to work to earn more than ever by his books and lectures. With
his characteristic generosity he brought his parents and his sisters to
live in his home, and made everybody welcome to his hospitality. The
"Poet's Journal," a poem of exquisite tenderness, was written here, and
"Hannah Thurston," a novel, of which fifteen thousand were soon sold.
Shortly after the beginning of our civil war, Mr. Taylor was made
Secretary of Legation at Russia. He was now forty years of age, loved,
well-to-do, and famous. His novels--"John Godfrey's Fortunes" and the
"Story of Kennett"--were both successful. The "Picture of St. John,"
rich and stronger than his other poems, added to his fame. But the
gifted and versatile man was breaking in health. Again he travelled
abroad, and wrote "Byways in Europe." On his return he translated, with
great care and study, "Faust," which will always be a monument to his
learning and literary skill. He published "Lars, a Norway pastoral," and
gave delightful lectures on German literature at Cornell University,
and Lowell and Peabody Institutes, at Boston and Baltimore.
At last he wearied of the care and constant expense of "Cedarcroft." He
needed to be near the New York libraries. Mr. Greeley had died, his
newspaper stock had declined, and he could not sell his home, as he had
hoped. There was no alternative but to go back in 1871 into the daily
work of journalism in the "Tribune" office. The rest which he had longed
for was never to come. For four years he worked untiringly, delivering
the Centennial Ode at our Exposition, and often speaking before learned
In 1878, President Hayes bestowed upon him a well-deserved honor, by
appointing him minister to Berlin. Germany rejoiced that a lover of her
life and literature had been sent to her borders. The best of New York
gathered to say good-by to the noted author. Arriving in Berlin, Emperor
William gave him cordial welcome, and Bismark made him a friend. A
pleasant residence was secured, and furniture purchased. At last he was
to find time to complete a long-desired work, the Lives of Goethe and
Schiller. "Prince Deukalion," his last noble poem, had just reached him.
All was ready for the best and strongest work of his life, when, lo! the
overworked brain and body gave way. He did not murmur. Only once, Dec.
19, he groaned, "I want--I want--oh, you know what I mean, that stuff
of life!" It was too late. At fifty-three the great heart, the
exquisite brain, the tired body, were still.
"Dead he lay among his books;
The peace of God was in his looks."
Germany as well as America wept over the bier of the once poor Quaker
lad, who travelled over Europe with scarce a shilling in his pocket,
now, by his own energy, brought to one of the highest positions in the
gift of his country. Dec. 22, the great of Germany gathered about his
coffin, Bertold Auerbach speaking beautiful words.
March 13, 1879, the dead poet lay in state in the City Hall at New York,
in the midst of assembled thousands. The following day the body was
borne to "Cedarcroft," and, surrounded by literary associates and tender
friends, laid to rest. Public memorial meetings were held in various
cities, where Holmes, Longfellow, Whittier, and others gave their loving
tributes. A devoted student, a successful diplomat, a true friend, a
noble poet, a gifted traveller, a man whose life will never cease to be