Election Section

First Berkeley Poet Spoke for His Time By PHIL McARDLE

Special to the Planet
Tuesday March 29, 2005

Edward Rowland Sill was once as well known as Mark Twain or Bret Harte. He was certainly important here in Berkeley—the first star to appear in the galaxy of poets we’ve come to associate with our city.  

Born in Windsor, Conn., in 1841, he grew up in what he described as a “green and peaceful countryside” among “cornfields and hayfields, and maple-shaded houses.” This sunny childhood idyll ended with the death of his mother and, two years later, when he was 14, the death of his father. Forlorn, the young orphan was sent to live with an uncle in Cuyahoga Falls, a village near Cleveland, Ohio. His uncle proved kind, giving him a good home and providing for his education, even sending him to Yale. 

As a religious child in a religious society, Sill probably tried to reconcile himself to the death of his parents as the will of God. But the trauma lasted, leaving him with deep feelings of insecurity. One manifestation of this in his later life was an eccentric need to use unnecessary pseudonyms. This began at Yale, where his first poems were published and everybody knew him, and continued throughout his career. He published under his own name, of course. But the pseudonyms seem to have given him the freedom to write without feeling he was tempting the fate that befell his parents.  

After his graduation from Yale he sailed by clipper ship to California, hoping to improve his lifelong poor health. His ship departed New York in December, 1861. Skirting the shores of the Confederacy, it sailed south to Argentina, and then north to San Francisco, arriving in March, 1862. He kept a journal, later published as Around the Horn, which gives a lively account of this voyage. 

He made his way to Sacramento, where he accumulated the kind of resume many poets have today—mail clerk, ranch hand, teacher, handyman—and discovered a love of camping and outdoor life. All this time he kept writing poems, publishing them, and wondering what to do with his life. His religious impulse led him to decide in 1867 to enter the ministry. Gathering up his poems, published and unpublished, he traveled East to the Harvard Divinity School. 

At this time the United States was still an intensely religious country, shaped by belief in the historical truth of the Bible. There was what amounted to a national consensus that the quest for salvation on Biblical terms gave life its meaning. Right and wrong depended on the Scriptures. The Pilgrim’s Progress and Ben Hur were the popular novels.  

When Sill arrived at Harvard, he found (as Santayana remarked) “a provincial little college” buffeted by strange new doctrines, especially the theory of evolution and—just arrived from Germany—the Higher Criticism of the Bible.  

As Darwin’s theory appeared to make the Biblical story of creation untenable as fact, the “Higher Criticism,” which subjected Scripture to the methods of modern linguistic analysis, seemed to demonstrate that Moses could not have written the first five books of the Bible. 

Together Darwinism and the Higher Criticism severely damaged the national consensus on the authority of the Scriptures, and appeared to cut the historical ground out from under Christianity (and Judaism and Islam as well, for that matter). We experience the aftershocks of that cultural earthquake whenever school boards try to put Genesis back into high school science curricula. 

While Sill’s professors at the Divinity School wrestled with modern thought, trying to salvage something from the Bible, Louis Agassiz lectured nearby on the classification of fish fossils that were thousands of years older than they should have been, according to Genesis. We know Sill attended these lectures avidly. He went through a devastating crisis of belief from which he emerged as an agnostic. He abandoned theological studies within a year.  

Taking stock of himself, he finally realized that poetry—not the ministry—was his real vocation. He committed himself to writing as his profession, assembled his published work and put out his first book, The Hermitage. To support himself he worked as an editor at the New York Evening Mail. Then he had the good luck to marry his cousin Elizabeth, who helped him to keep his life on a solid footing. They returned to California, and he took a high school teaching job in Oakland. Despite the pseudonyms, he became widely known as a promising poet. 

In 1874 an opening occurred for a professor of English at the fledgling University of California. Two candidates stepped forward: Sill and Bret Harte. When Sill was chosen for the job, no one felt the University had settled for second best. In Berkeley, Sill came into his own. He was tall and slender, a romantic figure, with a rich and flexible voice. His dramatic flair helped make him an inspiring teacher. He became, as George Stewart wrote, “a loved and conspicuous figure” as he rode around the small town on a handsome black horse. 

The Sills lived in a flower-covered cottage. They enjoyed climbing in the hills behind the campus and joined the geologist Joseph Le Conte on camping expeditions in the mountains. Sill’s literary career continued to prosper. Locally, his work appeared in the University of California Magazine, The Californian, and the famous Overland Monthly. Nationally he was a regular contributor to The Atlantic, often under the name “Andrew Hedbrooke.”  

In 1880 he had the unpleasant experience of being attacked by Oakland newspapers for spreading atheism through his teaching. He was not an atheist, even though he remained conflicted in his beliefs. In his writing and in his teaching, Sill freely expressed his engagement with issues of doubt and disbelief. He told the truth as he saw it; and for him, the meaning of life remained a riddle. He put it clearly in “The Book of Hours,” a smoothly-written, unflinching sonnet: 


As one who reads a tale writ in a tongue 

He only partly knows, -- runs over it 

And follows but the story, losing wit 

And charm, and half the subtle links among 

The haps and harms that the book’s folk beset -- 


So do we with our life. Night comes, and morn: 

I know that one has died and one is born; 

That this by love and that by hate is met. 

But all the grace and glory of it fail 


To touch me, and the meanings they enfold. 

The Spirit of the World hath told the tale, 

And tells it and ‘tis very wise and old. 

But o’er the page there is a mist and veil: 

I do not know the tongue in which ‘tis told. 


To a friend who reproached him for staying in a backwater like Berkeley and not pursuing his literary career more vigorously, he wrote, “I am contented to die unknown if I can arrive at the truth about certain great matters and can put others in the way thereof...Let a man work his work in peace.”  

In 1883 he resigned from the University staff in order to return to Cuyahoga Falls. But he lingered in Berkeley for another six months, helping Millicent Shinn revive the Overland Monthly and preparing his second volume of poems, The Venus of Milo. This slim volume has the distinction of being the first book ever published consisting largely of poems written in Berkeley.  

Back in Ohio, Sill took to full time writing like a duck to water. As he became increasingly prominent, he remained prolific, sending out large numbers of pieces under his own name and under his pseudonyms. He kept in touch with his friends in Berkeley. “It is evidence,” he wrote to one, “of the irrational attachment one gets (as cats do) to places that the Berkeley postmark gives me always a pleasant twinge of homesickness.”  

But he died suddenly, on Feb. 27, 1887. When the news reached Berkeley, his friends grieved at his passing. They felt a permanent sense of loss. Nine years later Joseph Le Conte named a mountain peak for him in Kings Canyon National Park.  

In Boston, on the other side of the country, Sill’s editor at Houghton Mifflin wrote that for quite some time after Sill died, new poems by him kept appearing in the latest magazines. It was, he said, as if after Sill turned a corner and disappeared from view, “we could still hear him singing as he went on his way.” 

Sill’s reputation rose for another decade, and collected editions of his works were published. Then the language and style of poetry changed, and time began to wash his work away, the good with the bad, leaving little of interest for readers today. He has become invisible, even in Berkeley. His name is not on the Berkeley Poetry Walk, and the public library does not keep his poetry on the shelves. Sill’s friends believed his fame was secure and we would remember him as the Shelley of their generation. They were mistaken. The truth is, none of us can read the future, and we can never tell  

...what names immortal are; 

‘Tis night alone that shows  

How star surpasseth star.