Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry

Otway Curry


William Turner Coggeshall, The Poets and Poetry of the West: With Biographical and Critical Notices 88-96 (Columbus, Ohio: Follett, Foster and Company, 1860):

OTWAY CURRY was born March twenty-six, 1804, on a farm which has since given place to the village of Greenfield, Highland county, Ohio. His father, James Curry, was a man of great bravery and patriotism. In his youth he was, with some Virginia troops, in a bloody engagement near the mouth of the Kanawha, on which occasion he was severely wounded. During the greater part of the Revolutionary War, he was an officer of the Virginia Continental Line; he was at the battles of Germantown and Monmouth, and was taken prisoner when the American army, under General Lincoln, surrendered to the British at Charleston, South Carolina. For fourteen months subsequently, he was on parole two miles distant from that city.

He must have been one of the earliest pioneers of Ohio. In 1811 he removed from Highland county, and settled on Darby Creek, near the village of Pleasant Valley, in the county of Union, where he held many important civil offices, the duties of which he faithfully discharged. He devoted himself chiefly to agriculture, and he was doubtless a man of strong common sense, industrious habits, and honorable character. He died in 1834. The poet's mother was a lady of much intelligence, tender sensibilities, and every social and domestic virtue.

Otway was a child of the wilderness—a situation not unsuitable to awaken imagination, to cultivate taste, and to call forth the love of nature and the spirit of poesy. The approach of the bear, the rattle of the snake, the whoop of the savage, were among the sources of his early fears. To observe the swallow build her nest in the barn, and to watch the deer bounding through the bushes, were among his early amusements; to mark when the dogwood blossoms, and when the north winds blow, to observe how nature mingles storm with sunshine, and draws the rainbow on the cloud, were among his first lessons in philosophy.

He probably learned his alphabet in the old family Bible, as he leaned against the jamb of the cabin fire-place. There was then no school law in Ohio; the schoolhouse was built by common consent, usually in the center of the clearings, and on an eminence, reminding one of Beattie's lines:

"Ah, who can tell how hard it is to climb
The steep where fame's proud temple shines afar!"

It was constructed of unhewn logs, floored with puncheons, and roofed with clapboards; having at one end a fire-place capable of receiving a twelve-foot back-log, and at the other a door, with a latch and string; it was completed by sawing out a log at each side, inserting in the opening a light frame, and stretching over this frame some foolscap paper well oiled; this served for the transmission of light, which fell with mellowed beams upon a sloping board, on which the copy-books of advanced scholars were to be placed. In the center of the room were benches without backs, made of slabs, by inserting upright sticks at their extremities.

The season for instruction was called a quarter, and usually extended from:November to March; though short, it was long enough to enable the pupil to receive all the knowledge that the teacher could spare. The subjects taught were reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic as far as the rule of three. Grammar was ranked among the natural sciences, and geography among the classics. At the appointed time the children proceed to the school-house, guided by the blazes of the trees. Here they come, young and old, male and female, each having text-books unlike those of all others. Anticipating amusement as well as instruction, one brings a violin, another a dog, a third a jews-harp, etc. They venture to suggest, at the outset, to the teacher, that in order to have a good school, it is necessary to have short recitations, long intermissions, and good entertainment. Organization is out of the question; each scholar must recite in turn out of his own book, and bring up his slate as his sums are worked. Order is almost as impracticable as organization.

Happily there were other means of instruction and mental development; the debating club, the neighborhood meeting, the singing-school, etc., but, above all, the home. Our young poet heard his father relate the tale of the Revolution, the wrongs of the colonists, their determined rebellion, their bloody battles, and their final triumphs; he also heard him describe the characters of the leading statesmen and warriors of that period, the organization of the State and National Governments, the causes, and actors, and consequences of the war of 1812. These details would make others necessary; and we can imagine how Otway would ascend through the history of the United States to that of Great Britain, and from that of Great Britain to that of the middle ages, and so on, up to the great nations of antiquity. We can see how history would make geography and politics needful, and how these would lead an inquiring mind, by nearer or remoter routes, to all the branches of' education.

Moreover, the pious mother had her pleasant legends and fairy tales, with which she kept down the rising sigh, and kept up tile leaden eyelids of the little ones as she sat plying her spinning-wheel, and waiting for the return of her husband from the mill, when the driving snow-storm delayed him far into the hours of night. She seems, indeed, to have been no ordinary woman; she was accustomed to relate over and over, at her fireside, the whole story of Paradise Lost, as well as of many other classic poems, so that young Otway was familiar with their scenes and characters long before he could read. She would often beguile the weary hours of summer nights as she sat in the cabin door with her young ones, watching for the return of the older from the perilous chase, by naming the constellations as they came up to the horizon, and explaining the ordinances of heaven.

The school education of Otway was impeded by the events of the war of 1812. When it broke out the father was summoned to Chillicothe, as a member of the Legislature; the eldest brother went out with the army; the rest of the family remained upon the farm under the superintendence of the prudent and patriotic mother. Alone in the wilderness, surrounded by hostile savages, they were never molested, though often alarmed. On one occasion their horses showed every indication of fear; their dogs barked furiously, now rushing into the cornfield, and then retreating with bristling hair, as if driven. The family, concluding that Indians were near, prepared to fight as well as pray. The old lady, in marshaling her forces, stationed young Otway at the bars, and placing a loaded gun upon a rest, charged him to take aim and fire as soon as he saw an Indian. Fortunately, there was no attack made upon the domestic fort.

As the young poet grew up he began to read the books of his father's library, which, though very small, was very choice, consisting of the writings of Milton, Locke, and other great minds. Before he attained majority he had an opportunity of attending a school of improved character. There lived in the neighborhood of Pleasant Valley a Mr. C., who, though a farmer, had a good English education. He drafted deeds, wills, and articles of agreement, gave counsel, and settled controversies, and during the winter taught a select school in his own house. Of this opportunity Otway availed himself, and thus received instruction in grammar and geography. He, soon after, in company with a brother, made a trip to Cincinnati, traveling on foot through the woods. Whether he had any other object than improvement, I am not advised, but he soon returned with his appetite for travel unabated. But how should it be gratified? To accumulate money by agricultural pursuits, at that time, was impossible; the clearings were small, the mode of farming laborious; merchandise was very high, and produce very low; while coffee was twenty-five cents a pound, tea a dollar and fifty, coarse muslin twenty-five cents a yard, indigo fifty cents an ounce, and camphor worth its weight in silver; butter and maple-sugar were six cents a pound, corn fifteen cents a bushel, and wheat twenty-five cents. Ginseng and beeswax were the only articles that would bear transportation to the east.

Young Curry, therefore, determined to learn a trade. This could be done without much expense, and would enable him to travel where he pleased, and earn a living in any location. Accordingly, in 1823, he went to Lebanon and learned the art of carpentry; four or five months afterward he went to Cincinnati, and continued there, working at his trade, for nearly a year. We next hear of him at the city of Detroit, where he spent a summer, busily plying his hammer and driving his plane, all the while reserving time for study, pondering the pages of science and poetry; sometimes by the light of shavings, at the lone hours of night, or the more propitious period that precedes the dawn. Returning to Ohio, he passed some time at work in the village of Marion.

Moved by romantic impulses, he, in company with a Henry Wilson, made a skiff, and launching it at Millville—a small village on the Scioto—when the waters were swelled with rains, descended that stream to its mouth, surmounting mill-dams, rocks, and all other obstructions. He then descended the Ohio to Cincinnati. Here he determined to visit the rice fields and orange groves of the South. Procuring a passage on a flat-boat, for himself and a chest of tools, he proceeded down the Ohio and Mississippi, and spent a year at Port Gibson before he returned.

About this time he summoned courage to offer anonymously some verses to the newspapers, among which were his sweet poems "My Mother," and "Kingdom Come." It is probable that he had written poetry long before, but we are not able to trace the progress of his mind from the first rude attempts at versification up to his best original composition. How many pages were consigned to the flames after having been corrected, recited, committed to memory, and conned during the sleepless nights when nothing distracted his mind but the rustling of the forest leaves, or the music of the katydid! Could we get the genesis of even one living poetical creation, how much upheaving and downthrowing; how much fiery and watery agitation; how many depositions in darkness, should we see, before even a stand-point was gained; and then, how long after this before light comes, and the spirit moves on the face of the waters!

Mr. Curry's first published poetry was so full of fine sentiment and pleasing imagery, and was withal so melodious in versification, that it attracted attention and won admiration at once. On his return to Cincinnati, he contributed more freely to the press, over the signature of "Abdallah." It was at this time that he formed the acquaintance of Win. D. Gallagher, who was induced to seek for him by reading his stanzas, "The Minstrel's Home." This acquaintance was improved by time, and unbroken by jealousy, envy, or serious misunderstanding. On leaving Cincinnati, Mr. Curry returned to Union county, where, in December, 1828, he was married to Mary Noteman, a lady well worthy of him, and who became a prudent and devoted wife.

In 1829 he again visited the South, and spent four or five months at Baton Rouge, contributing, meanwhile, poetical productions both to the Cincinnati Mirror and the Cincinnati Chronicle. Upon his return, he settled in Union county, and engaged anew in agricultural pursuits, which he prosecuted with industry till 1839. While on his farm he courted the muses as opportunity offered, and issued some of his best verses from his rural home.

He first appeared in public life in 1836, when he was elected a member of the House of Representatives, in the State Legislature of Ohio. In this capacity he won the respect of his colleagues, and the confidence and approbation of his constituents, who re-elected him in 1837. In 1838 he became united with Mr. Gallagher in the editorship of the Hesperian, at Columbus—a monthly literary journal of high order, which, not being adequately sustained, was discontinued at the end of the third volume. In 1839 he removed to Marysville, and commenced the study of the law. In 1842 he was again returned to the Legislature; during that term of service he purchased the Greene County Torch Light, a weekly paper published at Xenia, whither he removed in the spring of 1843. He conducted his paper-the style of which he changed to Xenia Torch Light—in a very creditable manner, for two successive years, when he sold it, and removing to Marysville, thenceforward devoted himself to his profession.

Although he entered the law late in life, and practiced it scarcely ten years, yet, as we are assured by one of his ablest competitors, he had no superior as a sound lawyer, within the range of his practice, and bade fair, if his life had been spared a few years longer, to become an eminent legal mind.

In 1850 he was elected a member of the second Ohio Constitutional Convention, and with manly firmness and dignity he resisted some of the principles of the instrument which that able body elaborated.

In 1853 he purchased the Scioto Gazette-a daily published in Chillicothe-which he edited with characteristic ability for about a year, when, his wife's health failing, he sold out, and returning to Marysville, resumed his legal practice.

In January, 1854, Mr. Curry was President of the Ohio Editorial Convention at Cincinnati, and by the urbanity and dignity of his deportment enhanced largely the respect entertained for him by many Ohio editors, who had long known his poetry, but had never before met him personally.

In 1842, when in attendance as a member of the Legislature, he suffered an attack of bilious pneumonia, which had such an effect upon his mind, that on recovering he made a profession of faith in that Gospel which had guided his steps and comforted his heart, by uniting with the Methodist Episcopal Church, in whose fellowship he continued till he died.

Mr. Curry had an open countenance, impaired, however, by strabismus, a broad and lofty brow, a noble form, tall and well proportioned, which might have borne with ease the armor of a knight of the middle ages. His spirit was that of southern chivalry mingled with the Puritan. He was a man of fine taste. This he exhibited in his dress, his language, his reading, in fine, in every thing. Though he never wore any thing gaudy or extravagant, he had none of Dr. Johnson's indifference to fine linen; satisfied with garments neat, good, and clean, he was unhappy if they were soiled, badly fitted, or of unsuitable material. Under such circumstances, he felt depreciated, and could not be enticed into company. In selecting cloth for his own use, he has been known to examine the same piece ten times before he could make up his mind concerning it.

When I first visited him he dwelt in a humble cottage, but it bore, both outside and inside, the marks of neatness and delicacy; flowers bordered the walks, and vines climbed the trellis; modest carpets covered the floors, and choice books, with elegant bindings, spread the table. Later in life, he occupied a house more spacious, but it bore the indications of neatness, free from ostentation. Upon his porch a magnificent weeping willow threw its shade and beautifully symbolized the owner's mind.

His words, whether written or spoken, were few and well chosen. This is the more remarkable, considering that his early education was so limited. He would allow no thought of his to go abroad in an unsuitable garment, however protracted might be the process of fitting it. When he wrote for the press his first drafts were scanned, laid aside, examined again, altered, and re-written, sometimes often, before they were published. Every word was scrutinized. Hence, his poems bear criticism, and will be best appreciated by those who most closely examine them. Of his opinions he was as careful as of his words. Cautious and skeptical to a fault, he never expressed or formed an opinion without revolving the matter in his mind, long and carefully, and reviewing it in all its bearings.

Mr. Curry's reading was remarkably tasteful and impressive. Of this Mr. Gallagher uses the following terms: "Mr. Curry's voice and manner of reading gave to his poems a peculiar charm. And when this was heightened, as it often was, at that period, by the quiet of night, the rustling of leaves, the fitful echoes of far-off sounds, the witchery of' murmuring winds and waters, and other accompaniments of a moonlight ramble, prolonged into the morning hours, the fascination was irresistible. On one of these occasions, as we sat overlooking the expanse of the beautiful Ohio, the midnight moon and an autumnal haze enveloping the whole scene in robes of softened radiance, and peculiar dreaminess, the whole of' some provincial romance was recited with a power whose weird influence rests upon my memory yet."

Mr. Curry's name is without a spot. In early life he labored with his hands, in later years with his mind; always rendering either moral or material benefit for all that he received. When called to office, it was by unsolicited suffrages, and when placed in power, he was no tool of party. No speeches for sinister ends, no motion for factious purposes, no empty declamations, or busy demonstrations, or crafty schemes disgraced his political career. Guided by a sense of duty to his country, he walked heedless alike of private threats and popular clamor. At the bar he was the shield of innocence, the terror of guilt, and the moderator of justice. Though liable, like other men, to be deceived by his client and influenced by his passions, he would not enforce what he deemed an unjust claim or prosecute a just one in an unjust mode. As an editor, he manifested the same integrity, though sorely tried. Once determined on his course, he stopped at no obstacles, heeded no persecution, and declined no conflict. He was, however, too modest, unambitious, and averse to public life for a leader.

He was a man of great social and domestic virtue. As a neighbor, he was considerate, peaceful, obliging, and hospitable; looking with patience upon the weakness, and with silence upon the wrongs of others, he cherished no malignity, fomented no disputes, flattered no patron, and pierced no victim. Though not insensible to ingratitude, meanness, and injury, he was too respectful of himself and too charitable toward others to indulge in any utterances that would give pain, unless they were necessary to a prudent maintenance of right. He was as far from being a cynic as a parasite.

He was not polite, in the ordinary sense of the word. He looked austere, and was generally regarded by the stranger as proud, distant, and affected. A great mistake. General society, indeed, he shrank from; the thoughtless multitude he studiously avoided; the busy marts of commerce, with their deafening din and overreaching plots, he eyed with coldness and disdain; the cabals and intrigues of politics he shunned with mingled pity and indignation; the whole sinful world he was wont to regard as unjust, harsh, and hollow-hearted; to the prattler, he was shy; to the sensualist, studiously repellant; to the skeptic, painfully reserved. There was something, at times, even terrible in his distance; but to those whom he admitted to his acquaintance he was gentle as the south wind-his heart glowed with love and yearned for friendship. So subtile was his imagination, so profound his philosophy, so mystical his expressions, so strong, so pure, so unwasting his affections that few could appreciate him. He knew this, and hence before the gazers in the outer court of' his spirit he lifted not the vail; but with an intelligent, confiding, imaginative friend, whose spirit was in harmony with his own, he was communicative, fervent, at times even vehement, occasionally witty, sometimes humorous, but always genial, always reverent.

In his home he found a paradise. Thither his steps tended when the toils of the day were over; there, among his little ones, he talked as a child, he thought as a child, he played as a child; there, too, he rejoiced with the wife of his youth, and found in her smiles a recompense for his labors and a refuge from his cares. He was a man of fervent and unostentatious piety, and he delighted in simplicity of worship.

He had a fine imagination, which was not, perhaps, always properly restrained. In youth he indulged in castle-building, delighted in tales and romances, and dwelt much in fairy-land; so much so that he was deemed, by those who did not know him well, to be moody in his temper and dreamy in his views. Mr. Gallagher, speaking of him in early life, says: "The peculiar characteristics of Mr. Curry, since freely developed, were then distinctly lined. He cultivated music with literature, and performed well upon the flute. The strains of his instrument were touchingly sweet, as were those of his pen. Both lacked vigor of expression, and were dreamy in the extreme. His flute drew its airs from a feudal and castled age, when melancholy minstrels wooed romantic maidens by stealth, and chivalrous knights dared death and dishonor for the favor of high-born dames. His pen found a feast, also, in his imaginative soul, and from that drew pensive airs which melted his own heart to tears, and touched the hearts of others. But of the music of the battle-field, or that of the stage, or of the fashionable saloon, his flute rarely discoursed; so of the conflict of opinion, the struggles of the muses, the aspirations of the soul after a higher and nobler freedom here upon earth, the clamor, and clash, and upheaving, and downthrowing that are of the elements of progress, his pen took no note."

His writings seem wanting in some of the fruits of imagination. They exhibit no wit or humor-not, however, because of incapacity, but because they were unsuitable to his themes. He was of too serious and reverent a spirit to mingle grotesque images and unexpected associations with subjects of religious faith. He had but little oratorical genius. He could not arouse and amuse a popular assembly. His prose is remarkably free from tropes and metaphors. Even his poetry lacks too much the charm of figurative language. He never presents us with the terrible, rarely with the grand, never with the sublime. It must be admitted, therefore, that his imagination was not of the highest order; still it was superior, and being active in his youth, it directed his reading, selected his comparisons, shaped his course in life, and contributed greatly to his sorrows and his joys. He dwelt much in the inner world, which he made more beautiful and enchanting than the outer. Here were fountains that never failed, grass that concealed no snakes, forests traversed by no savage foe, angels whom he could see face to face. This weakened his attention to the real world, and rendered him averse to its struggles, frivolities, and pursuits, and even reluctant to enter upon the duties of life and the enterprises of science and virtue.

Rebecca S. Nichols, herself a child of song, and a friend of Mr. Curry, thus beautifully describes his soul-life:

Within, the holy fire of poesy burned clear and bright, refining the material man, and lifting the more ethereal element of our twofold nature up to the realms of love, and faith, and peace, where the indwelling soul preludes the feast of immortal joys. No petty ambitions, no goading desires for name and fame among the great of earth, ever soiled the bosom of our friend. To move quietly in his accustomed round of prescribed duties-to enjoy the communion of chosen and congenial minds-to yield himself up to the manifold enchantments of inspiring nature-to utter in verse, smooth and musical as his favorite streams, the live thoughts of the passing moments, made up the sum of his daily happiness; and if a shade of sadness, as of some secret and acknowledged sorrow, bordered the placid beauty of existence, it only added tenderness to the hearts of those who knew and loved him, and made them more eager to minister to his simple and unadulterated pleasures.

Mr. Curry's sorrow was softened by sublime faith. He traced the departed good in all the charms of "saints made perfect," into the heavenly world. He believed, with Milton, that

"Millions of spirits walk the earth unseen,
Both when we wake and when we sleep,"

and that those who loved us in life bear their love into heaven, and often come down from their blissful seats to be our "ministering spirits on earth." It is a beautiful faith, which we would not disturb.

He felt the light of an endless morning, and dwelt in the vicinity of heaven. He was like one in a cavern, speaking up the shaft to loved ones listening in the light above. With all his imagination he was a man of safe and sober judgment. His life shows that he could unite the practical with the poetical. As an agriculturist, a mechanic, a legislator, an editor, and a lawyer, he was respectable; as a critic and a poet, he was more. When we consider that, although he entered upon life without property, education, or the interest of leading friends, and never enjoyed a lucrative office or made a fortunate speculation, yet sustained and educated his family reputably, and responded to the calls of charity and religion, we must concede that his mind was well balanced.

There is nothing eccentric in his character, nothing wonderful in his deeds or sufferings; he moved in obedience to the ordinary laws of the human mind, and experienced the common lot of good men. His life began in melody, progressed in conflict, but closed in peace; we know nothing in it that might not be written in an epic. His writings also are pure; they contain nothing which might not safely be read by all men. They may not present us with any thing sublime, neither do they with any thing absurd or trifling; their chief fault, perhaps, is their want of variety. Most of them were the productions of his youth, written in the intervals of daily toil.*

Mr. Curry's chief characteristic was his taste. His mind was in harmony with nature; he had a relish for all beauty. To him it was not in vain that God painted the landscape green, cast the channels of the streams in graceful curves, lighted up the arch of night, and turned the gates of the day on golden hinges amid the anthems of a grateful world. No thirst for wealth, no conflict for honor, no lust of meaner pleasures destroyed his sensibility to the harmonies and proportions of the universe. From a child he was fond of nature and solitude; as he grew up poets were his companions; with them he sympathized; with them he sat, side by side, in the enchanted land of song; to see, to enjoy what the idle, the worldly, and the profane cannot; this was not merely his pastime, but his living. A luxurious melancholy chastened his spirit and mellowed the light which it reflected.

There is an intimate connection between beauty and goodness—the latter is to the former what the soul is to the body; the beauty that beams upon us from the face of nature is but the expression of Divine goodness—the smile by which God would attract us to his arms. If so, he who is truly enamored of beauty must aspire after God, and as goodness is necessary to bring us into communion with him, he must pant after that. Nothing but depravity can prevent this natural result.

The love of beauty is usually associated with the capacity to reproduce it; that is taste, this is art. Mr. Curry's art was not proportionate to his taste; it manifested itself in the sweet music of his flute and the sweeter strains of his verse; the former is lost in the empty air, the latter will float down the river of time. His poetry will not be relished by the mass; it has no plans of battle, no provocatives of mirth, no mockery of misery, no strokes of malice. It is the song of a religious soul; faith is the bond which links its stanzas, a faith that brings heaven near to earth and man into fellowship with angels. Like wine it will be pronounced better as it grows older, not because it will improve, but because the world's taste will. What he uttered we may suppose was little compared with what he bore away with him into heaven, where he will take up the harp that he laid down too early on earth.

The crowning art of our poet was his life. That he had the infirmities of man we do not deny; that he sinned and wept; that he wandered and grieved; that ofttimes when he would do good evil was present with him; that he saw, in retrospecting his life, many lost opportunities of usefulness; many wounds in kind hearts long stilled in death that he would gladly heal; many cold ears into which he would fain pour the prayer of forgiveness; many acts over which he would fain weep tears of blood, and many emotions toward the Giver of all good, under the pressure of which he would not so much as lift up his eyes to heaven without a mediator. But in this world of sin, amid this incessant conflict with error, how few have passed so pure a life or breathed so modest, so gentle a spirit! Herein is art! the best man is the highest artist. It is inspiring to see goodness, meekness, long-suffering, even amid occasional petulances and wrongs, beaming from the face of man, just as it is to see Divine wisdom, and power, and goodness, though amid storms and earthquakes, shadowed from the face of the universe. It were grand to stand in some venerable temple, all unimpaired by time, reflecting the light from its diaphanous walls, and presenting on all sides the memorials of ancient faith; but grander, far, to survey the divine temple of a good life, hung round with trophies won from earth and hell, hallowed all over with the blood of Christ, and vocal with songs echoed from the upper world.

Mr. Curry taught the lesson of dying well no less than of living well. May we not hope that he closed his eyes on earth in full view of heaven and its angels! On the seventeenth of February, 1855, he was laid in a humble grave, which, perhaps, may be sought for after the monuments raised to our heroes shall have been forgotten.

*Several of his poems which have met most favor, were first published as extracts, from "The Maniac Minstrel—A Tale of Palestine." An elaborate poem, nearly completed, was lost a short time before Mr. Curry's death.