In 1996, the Academy of American Poets designated April as National Poetry Month. Each year, the goal is to bring attention to “the art of poetry, to living poets, [and] to our complex poetic heritage.” In support of that effort, the focus here is on Benjamin Franklin Taylor, historically one of the North Country’s greatest poets, writers, and lecturers.
Born in Lowville (Lewis County) in 1819, Taylor was a precocious child whose writing abilities were evident at a young age. He attended Lowville Academy (his father, Stephen William Taylor, also attended LA and later became principal), and then entered Madison University in Hamilton, New York (where his father was a mathematics professor and would later become college president). Madison was renamed Colgate University in 1890.
Completion of college ended Taylor’s following in his father’s footsteps. Benjamin graduated at a young age (about 19) and served as principal of Norwich Academy in Chenango County. He married in early 1839, and six years later moved to Illinois, finding employment with the Chicago Evening Journal. His efforts there would form the core of an outstanding literary career.
He worked for the newspaper for about twenty years, principally as an assistant editor, and produced two books while in their employ, including a poetry collection. His newspaper articles and commentaries were carried by many other pressrooms, earning him a wide audience.
After nearly twenty years, Taylor left the relative safety of the newsroom in 1863 and inserted himself as a field correspondent with the Union Army, covering the horrors and realities of the Civil War, and a number of human interest stories as well.
In a stellar career, his combat correspondence was cited as some of Benjamin’s best work, followed avidly by readers in the United States and Europe. The London Times said his war reports were among “the finest ever written in the English language.”
His accounts of Mission Ridge and the Battle of Lookout Mountain received widespread praise. While embedded with the troops, Taylor became friends with many historic battle veterans, including General Philip Sheridan, and gave readers an inside look at the men behind their public leadership personas. It was original, fascinating work.
Following the war, he traveled to California, Mexico, and several Pacific Islands. In the 1870s, Taylor turned his attention to books, poetry, and lectures. He became a prolific contributor of prose and poetry to the country’s top magazines, including Harpers, the Atlantic, and Scribners.
Between 1871 and 1887, he produced nine more books. As good as they were, he gained equal fame as a lecturer, regularly touring the West, but always returning to his origins in northern New York each year, appearing at Lowville, Carthage, Boonville, Turin, and many other sites.
Benjamin became one of the nation’s most sought-after speakers for poetry readings and lectures at colleges, schools, social halls, political events, and military gatherings. Those who tried to define his methods were perplexed at how he managed to enthrall a crowd. Though he didn’t seem uncommonly skilled, Taylor was singled out among his contemporaries with these words: “Listeners have often gone home wondering how a man could crowd so much of quaint conceit, of beautiful simile, of brilliant imagination, of pleasant humor, of tender sentiment, and fine word-painting into an hour’s discourse.”
And yet it remains that despite such success with articles, commentary, books, and lectures, poetry may have been his greatest strength. For decades, Benjamin’s poems were featured in newspapers across the country, spreading like a wave from coast to coast.
In the 1879 book, Waifs and Their Authors, the popularity of Taylor’s poem “The Long Ago” is described in these terms: “… a little poem that every paper in the country has printed, and many of them a score of times; which every lover of poetry has read and re-read … and which has suggested more imitations and been more frequently plagiarized than any other bit of sentiment with which we are acquainted.” Now that’s popular.
Perhaps equally praised was “The River of Time,” and there were so many others―A Winter Psalm, The Vane on the Spire, Juno, An Old Time Picture, Going Home―that one writer noted Taylor’s “national reputation as the poet of the home and fireside.”
Among his first ten books were three of poetry. In 1887, in response to public demand, his eleventh book was published, a complete collection of Taylor’s poems. That same year, he wrote his first novel, but just three hours after reviewing the book’s final proof, he fell ill. A week later, Taylor passed away at the age of 67. Death occurred in Cleveland, Ohio, but he was buried in New York State on the grounds of Madison University (now Colgate).
The loss of such a great writer who brought pleasure to so many was deeply felt. In my opinion, the most beautifully phrased praise for a poet was a single line from author Alphonse Hopkins, who said of Benjamin Franklin Taylor: “Between his luxurious taste for words, his rare appreciation of syllabic meaning, his swift fancy and his lively imagination, he would make poetry of the dictionary itself.”
Photos: Top―Benjamin Franklin Taylor (1863). Bottom―Advertisement for a Taylor lecture in Fort Wayne, Indiana (1883).