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Bordentown, New Jersey. He had married in Boston, and had now two children. His home was a happy one, his life tranquil and industrious; he was near his oldest and best friends, his daily trips to and from the city were beneficial to his health, he had plenty of sitters for his portraits, and his evenings were occupied with the composition of his most ambitious poem,—“The New Pastoral.” Mr. John R. Tait, from whose very agreeable and interesting “ Reminiscences of a Poet-Painter"I these particulars are borrowed, visited Read at Bordentown and thus describes his home: “ The house he lived in had been in Revolutionary times occupied by Washington as his headquarters, and was not far from the grounds of the Bonaparte mansion. . . . It was, with its associations, its gardens, the old elms shading the windows, and the old tiles in the chimney, an ideal home for a poet. Mrs. Read received me with bright hospitality. She was pretty and petite, with a sweet maternal expression in her eyes, and quiet Puritan manners. The two children were lovely as cherubs in the Madonna San Sisto."
Here, one would say, was a paradise from which its occupants would have been loath to be driven. But few men fix or change their place of abode from free and deliberate choice. Circumstances govern the great majority, while some are controlled by mere inertia, and others impelled by the opposite habit and constitution of mind. Read was not a discontented man, but he was a restless one,—the result of temperament and in part, no doubt, of his early unsettled life. He had strong local attachments, but they were divided between remote places. Just as he found an equal charm in painting and poetry and gave his heart to each in turn, so Italy and America were two magnets that drew him alternately, the force of the attraction, in contradiction to the
Lippincott's Magazine, March, 1877.--Other facts mentioned in this sketch have been derived from an account of Read, by Mr. Henry C. Townsend, in the " History of Chester County," an article by Mrs. C. H. B. Laing, in “ Our Monthly,” August, 1872, and one by Mr. Charles J. Peterson, in "Graham's Magazine,” in which periodical many of Read's poems were originally published.
physical law, being greater in proportion to the distance from which it acted. At Bordentown his brain was haunted by visions of Florence, and, yielding with characteristic promptness to the impulse of his fancy, he broke up his newly-formed establishment and went with his family to the fair Tuscan city, declaring his intention to reside there permanently. To all appearance this decision was justified by the life thus opened to him, which combined almost everything that could gratify a refined taste and stimulate the imagination. In its palmiest days Florence could scarcely have presented a more picturesque aspect, a more varied and festive succession of scenes, a richer assemblage of attractions for the senses and the intellect, than it did at this period. Besides its unrivalled combination of natural beauty with the glories of art and the monuments of former grandeur, rendered more impressive by grass-grown squares and other evidences of decay, its social life seemed to have blossomed afresh and to exhibit in a modern guise the activity and charm, without the turmoil and catastrophes, of mediæval existence. The court of the Grand Duke Leopold was as open to strangers, as little encumbered by etiquette, and as much devoted to amusement, as that of old King René or any prince of burlesque. “The people were supposed to be longing and plotting for freedom from a foreign yoke, yet a lighter-hearted, gayer folk never laughed and loved, sang and conspired, outside of the opera bouffe.” The streets were brilliant with the uniforms of the Austrian soldiery and the ducal guard, the market-places were enlivened by the costumes of the contadini, the cafés were crowded with officers, artists, and tourists, the music of a fine military band drew all the world in the afternoon to the park, Ristori played regularly at one of the theatres, and Verdi occasionally conducted the performances at the opera. Above all, the place was the home or the favorite resort of celebrities from all quarters and of every description. The Brownings, “Owen Meredith,” Charles Lever, Rossini, George Sand, Mrs. Trollope, the Countess Guiccioli, Madame de Solms (more famous by her subsequent name of Rattazzi), were among the figures in this striking and almost motley throng. There was an American
circle, comprising Powers, Hart, Tait, and other artists, a few literary men, and some “unfledged prime donne,” among them
” Adelaide Phillips and Clara Louisa Kellogg.
Read himself was, of course, one of the chief members of this group.
He had his studio in an old convent, and it at once became “a resort of all the travelling Americans as well as of most of the English-speaking Florentine colony." Powers was his opposite neighbor, Browning a frequent visitor.
a frequent visitor. Finely gifteil, vivacious and sparkling in conversation, with "an inexpressibly winning and graceful manner" and a nature both warm and sweet, Read was not only thoroughly companionable and a general favorite, but too sympathetic and responsive not to be the object of strong attachments. “He rarely, indeed,” says Mr. Tait, " met either man or woman without making a friend, or at least an admirer.” Even Powers, who was ordinarily considered “cold” and “hard,” showed a real affection for him. The attachments thus quickly formed were cemented by a fidelity that had its roots in the depths of his nature and in an ideal of friendship which is characteristically expressed in one of his letters:
"As I write that word friend, it seems to strike upon my heart as on a golden bell, setting it into interminable vibrations. There are few words so beautiful, so comprehensive. It includes devotion, self-sacrifice, defence against all things, including calumny and misfortune; but, best of all, joy in another's joy, and exultation in his prosperity, this being in my mind the highest proof of friendship. It is easy to sympathize with misfortune,—the heart full of envy and malice might even do that,-but devoid of these must that beautiful soul be that can look upon a friend's success with gladness, having no other interest than that of pure enjoyment of his happiness. When I look abroad over the world, I feel humbled,--humbled before that high Benefactor, -when I see how, all unworthy as I am, with what a host of just such devoted and disinterested friends as yourself I am blessed. I have never yet lost a friend. Some fancied ones may have dropped from me.” 2
1 Mr. Tait, whose close intimacy with Read dates from their meeting at Florence, is the chief authority for this description, as well as for the greater part of what follows.
2 Mr. Townsend's article, “ Hi of Chester County."
Delightful as he found the society of Florence, its claims upon his time were not allowed to interrupt his work. Several of his best-known pictures, The Lost Pleiad, The Spirits of the Waterfall, and others, were painted at this period, some of them having been ordered by Mr. Claghorn and other friends at home, while the rest found ready purchasers among American tourists. Nor was the twin pursuit which was not less dear to him neglected. In the summer-time, when the artist world was dispersed on sketching tours, he shut himself up in his studio, absorbed in the composition of “The New Pastoral," and writing perhaps the more enthusiastically that the scenes he was depicting were far distant and far different from those around him. The poem was finished in August, 1854. The following winter and spring were as full of pleasure and activity for Florence as any former season had been; but in June a sudden and terrible invasion of cholera occurred, changing gayety to gloom, and animation to a stillness broken only by the march of the spectre of Pestilence with its dismal train. Among the earliest victims were Read's daughter Lilian and his wife. He himself, worn out in body and mind, half insane from sleeplessness and grief, fell into a complete nervous prostration, and was taken to the Baths of Lucca, where he remained through the summer.
When the mountain-air, exercise, and watchful care had somewhat restored his health, he sought refuge from harrowing recollections in the composition of a new poem, , “ The House by the Sea.” Without this resource he was sure, he said, that he "would have gone mad with melancholy." The need of self-forgetfulness led him to choose a theme that had no connection with his personal feelings or experiences, and to write with extreme rapidity. The work, as he was conscious, gained in fire and freedom by this method of execution, and, when published, met with a greater success than its predecessor, on which he had expended far more time and labor.
Late in the autumn he returned to America, and made his headquarters in Philadelphia while revising his poems for the press. He had much pleasant intercourse with his old friends in that city, and made visits to Longfellow, Willis, and others in
New York and Boston. But he does not appear to have settled down to work, and his existence was a desultory one till new hopes arose and found their fulfilment in an event that restored the springs of ambition and had the happiest effect upon his life.
. He married, in 1856, Miss Harriet Denison Butler, of Northampton, Mass.,—"a lady," writes Mr. Tait, “ whose culture and
, refinement were only equalled by her personal charms. The ideal of his artist-dreams in appearance, she realized and responded to all the wants of his intellectual nature, and from the day of their union her gentle influence was his noblest impulse.” They sailed immediately for Europe, spending the summer in Englandwhere Read painted many portraits, including heads of Tennyson and Leigh Hunt and a full-length of George Peabody—and the winter in Rome. In the autumn of 1858 he once more set up his studio in Philadelphia. The whole of this period was full of activity, and perhaps the most agreeable he had ever known. He painted indefatigably, went much into society, “was very happy and successful, and shared his prosperity with those who had less.” His generous instincts were irrepressible, and showed themselves not only in a profuse hospitality to strangers as well as friends, and in a constant readiness to assist brother artists and poets less fortunate than himself, but in acts of charity which by their very eccentricity testify still more strongly to his goodness of heart. “ He had always,” for example, “ some queer hangeron who had attracted his pity, and whom he protected as some people pick up and protect useless dogs. Once in Cincinnati it was an Indian; in Düsseldorf it was an Italian, useless when sober, and helpless when he had been drinking.” After the publication, in 1857, of some rural poems, including
, “Sylvia, or the Lost Shepherd,” Read's pen seems to have lain idle for a couple of years. It was taken up again under the promptings of an impulse which was certain to recur periodically after any long absence from loved and familiar scenes. One winter's evening, when prevented from returning home by a snow-storm, he raked up the coals in the grate of his studio and before morning had completed the first draft of one of the most