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Light Into Darkness



Daniel Drown was no Homer, but he was Portsmouth's blind poet of the 19th century. Twice his friends got together and paid to publish his work. His story and hist struggles are mor interesting to modern readers than his poetry. Here is a little of both from his book "Idyls of Strawberry Bank".



For years I coveted a little green volume of poems that often appeared in used bookstores in town. Finally I splurged on "Idyls of Strawberry Bank" by Daniel Augustus Drown (1873) with its fragile pages, detailed Portsmouth engravings and over 100 poems.

The author, according to the introduction, was afflicted by a disease of the optic nerve. Spooky stuff. My poor eyesight too has something to do with a faulty optic nerve that refuses to pass accurate messages from my eyes to my brain. It keeps me from getting behind the wheel of a car or seeing friends from across the street, but I can't really complain. Poor Daniel, however, went blind while still in school. By the publication of this second volume of poems in 1873 he had been sitting in a darkened room for 20 years. Unable to travel the town, Drown lived like a local Milton or Homer, dependent on the kindness of others, a man in the company of verses he could write, but not read.

So I came to these poems with a special interest that was pretty quickly dashed. How do you tell a blind poet that his work is mediocre? Apparently, you don't. Even in the many kind comments that appear at the opening of the book, the writers ooze more with sympathy for the disabled author than with praise for his work. Drown's poems abound with references to his affliction, his depressing gloom and a deeply Christian belief that his life of suffering guarantees him an extra special place in Heaven and the ultimate return of his eyesight. He has what modern counselors would call "anger issues" and, in never fully railing against the dying of the light, he deteriorates into self-pity instead of using the anger to fuel his art.

Drown's rhyming and meter aren't bad, even taking into account the schmatlzy cadence typical of his era. The problem, really, is that he has nothing to say beyond the typical odes to flowers, sunsets and moonlight, plus his own sad condition. He is locked inside himself, rarely able to burst free except in religious rapture. He doesn't write about people or things or events. Drown writes, ultimately, about his misery. And even that can be done well as exhibited by the powerful poetry and prose of James Kennard, Jr. of Portsmouth, a 19th century writer who could not see, or hear or talk or move, and yet whose work is a joy and an adventure to explore.

A previous column in this series presented two poems by Mike "Bullfrog" Rogers of Berwick, Maine. I forgot to mention in my introduction, I think, that Mike is also blind. It didn't seem important to an appreciation of his fine writing. His art stands on its own two legs and sings with its own pure voice.

I can only hope that if my light goes, I can find my way down the path that Mike and Jim have taken, and not down the road of poor Daniel. In the following selection, at least, Drown has interesting something to say as he counts the ways his friends have learned to please him -- through songs and flowers and words -- despite his pitiable life. It was Drown's friends who raised the funds to publish this second book, with its embossed cover of golden flowers, that the poet must certainly must have caressed with satisfaction. I sense a bit of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" in the meter here, a poet not without his own dark afflictions. --- JDR


Some with music seek my pleasure,
Kindest thoughts joined to each measure.
Sympathy most true they bring me,
Sweeter than the notes they sing me.

Thoughtful deeds and words most tender
Are the tribute some would render
When my heart is sad and weary,
And life's journey seems most dreary

Some bestow their choicest flowers,
Thus to cheer the lonesome hours;
Wishing, with the sweets revealing,
Angel forms might near be stealing.

With inspiring thoughts to bless me,
And with loving words caress me;
While in pain I'm ever pining
For the brightness clearly shining.

With pure hearts and faces smiling,
All foreboding fears beguiling,
Some, their sheaves of plenty bringing,
Set my grateful heart to singing.

So my generous friend, combining,
Bid me view the silver lining
Which dark shadows were concealing
Till the time for its revealing.

While our Father's love protecting,
Every good for us selecting,
But allows the clouds of sorrow
To precede Heaven's bright to-morrow.

Commentary by J. Dennis Robinson
Copyright 2003 by

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