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Bayard Taylor

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

attending school.

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

an inspiration.