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Biographical Sketch of Thomas Bailey Aldrich


Up to this time Mr. Aldrich may be said to have been known only as a poet, but during the succeeding ten years he was to win wide recognition as a story-writer and a novelist. It was then that much began to be said and written about the excellence of the American short story, praises that must have been in no small part inspired by the publication of such little masterpieces as Miss Mehetabel’s Son, A Rivermouth Romance, and Marjorie Daw, the last in especial, by its potent it elusive charm, gaining an instant popularity, exceptional in its extent and, it may be added, in its enduring quality. It gave name to a collection of sketches and stories published in 1873; and the same year appeared a new volume of verse, Cloth of Gold, followed three years later by Flower and Thorn. Prudence Palfry, its author’s first novel, was issued in 1874. The others are The Queen of Sheba (1877) and the Stillwater Tragedy (1880). A later volume of short stories, Two Bites at a Cherry and Other Tales was brought out in 1893, and another, A Sea Town and Other Matters, appeared in 1902. In these works, whether novel, story or sketch, we find that easy readableness which comes only from infinite pains on the part of the writer, a lucid style, free alike from mannerisms and affectations, and with a quite individual charm, naturalness of movement, and above all, a quiet but pervasive and spontaneous humor, with touches of simple and unforced pathos.


In 1881, as successor to Mr. W. D. Howells, Mr. Aldrich became editor of the Atlantic Monthly, in which so much of his best work had first appeared, a charge which he resigned in 1890. In the early years of his Boston residents, he had established a country home at Ponkapog a village whose rural charms are pleasantly touched upon in Our New Neighbors. For two years, during the absence of Mr. Lowell, he had been the tenant of Elmwood. In 1875 he had made a somewhat extensive European tour, destined to be the first of many similar wanderings, and sojourns. It was from the earlier vivid impressions of certain places, which use had not yet made over-familiar, that the agreeable travel sketches collected in From Ponkappog to Pest (1883) were written. Later journeys were of still larger scope, including two visits to Russia of which traces may be found in his poems. Freedom from his editorial charge brought larger opportunities for travel, and in 1894-95 he made a journey round the world.

Always loyal to his birthplace, in An Old Town by the Sea (1893) he gives a picturesque description of the Portsmouth of history and tradition, as well as his own reminiscences of such survivals of old life as still remained in his boyhood. His later volumes of poetry were Mercedes and Later Lyrics (1883), Mercedes being a play in two acts, genuinely dramatic in form and spirit; Wyndham Towers (1889), an Elizabethan story in verse, full of the atmosphere of the time, and containing passages of rare beauty, one of which, the song, "Sweetheart, Sigh No More," is as charming a reproduction of the lyric of England’s lyric age as these latter days are likely to give us; The Sister’s Tragedy (1890); Unguarded Gates (1895); Judith and Holfernes (1896); and Judith of Bethulia, a tragedy in four acts (1904). This last, Mr. Aldrich’s second piece of stage work, was produced at the Tremont Theatre, Boston, by Miss Nance O’Neil in 1904, and subsequently performed in our principal cities. His last prose volume was Ponfapog Papers, a collection of short sketches published in 1903.

The degree of Master of Arts was confirmed upon Mr. Aldrich by Yale (1881) and by Harvard University (1896); and that of Doctor of Letters by Yale (1901) and by the University of Pennsylvania (1905).

We may confidently predict that it is as a poet, and especially as a lyric poet, that Mr. Aldrich will be longest remembered. Some of his briefer poems, in which the beauty of the thought is equaled, by the exquisite form of the verse that gives it life, lines which once read always linger always in the memory, must be among the things which remain. Thoroughly of New England as he was, he had the French feeling for literary form, the French grace and lightness of touch, qualities which have helped to make his vers de societe easily the best in our literature. Having the true artist’s reverence for his craft, he had little tolerance for careless ill-considered workleast of all for any of his own that he found wanting. Popular favor never saved such delinquents from suppression, a course whose wisdom for the years, if not for the day, cannot be doubted.

In November, 1906, Mr. Aldrich celebrated the seventieth anniversary of his birth, and the appreciation’s and eulogies written upon that occasion united in Marveling at the wonderful combination in his work of a purely poetic quality and a perfection of workmanship. To quote from one of them: "Aldrich belongs with the makers of pure song; the Herricks and Lovelaces, in whom American poetry has not been rich."

Aldrich’s last poem was written in honor of the centenary of Longfellow’s birth, and when his own death followed so closely after, on March 19, 1907, in Boston, there seemed a peculiar significance and appropriateness in reading those lines at the service held in his memory: --

"Above his grave the grass and snow
Their soft antiphonal strophes write:
Moonrise and daybreak come and go:
Summer by summer on the height
The thrushes find melodious breath.
Here let no vagrant winds that blow
Across the spaces of the night
Whisper of death.

They do not die who leave their thought
Imprinted on some deathless page.
Themselves may pass; the spell they wrought
Endures on earth from age to age.
And thou whose voice but yesterday
Fell upon charmed listening ears
Thou shalt not know the touch of years;
Thou holdest time and chance at bay.
Thou livest in thy living word
As when its cadence first was heard.
O gracious Poet and be benign
Beloved presence! Now as then
Thou standest by the hearths of men.
Their fireside joys and griefs are thine;
Thou speakest to them of their dead,
They listen and are comforted.
They break the bread and pour the wine
Of life with thee, as in those days
Men saw thee passing on the street
Beneath the elms – O reverend fact
That walk in far celestial ways!"

Transcribed and presented online as a service of, the independent web site of local history and culture since 1997.


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