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Probably young Garfield never passed two happier or more profitable years than at Williams College. The Seminaries he had hitherto attended were respectable, but in the nature of things they could not afford the facilities which he now enjoyed. Despite his years of study and struggle there were many things in which he was wholly deficient. He had studied Latin, Greek, and mathematics, but of English literature he knew but little. He had never had time to read for recreation, or for that higher culture which is not to be learned in the class-room.
In the library of Williams College he made his first acquaintance with Shakespeare, and we can understand what a revelation his works must have been to the aspiring youth. He had abstained from reading fiction, doubting whether it was profitable, since the early days when with a thrill of boyish excitement he read "Sinbad the Sailor" and Marryatt's novels. After a while his views as to the utility of fiction changed. He found that his mind was suffering from the solid food to which it was restricted, and he began to make incursions into the realm of poetry and fiction with excellent results. He usually limited this kind of reading, and did not neglect for the fascination of romance those more solid works which should form the staple of a young man's reading.
It is well known that among poets Tennyson was his favorite, so that in after years, when at fifteen minutes' notice, on the first anniversary of Lincoln's assassination, he was called upon to move an adjournment of the House, as a mark of respect to the martyred President, he was able from memory to quote in his brief speech, as applicable to Lincoln, the poet's description of some
"Divinely gifted man,
Whose life in low estate began,
And on a simple village green,
Who breaks his birth's invidious bars,
And grasped the skirts of happy chance,
And breasts the blows of circumstance,
And grapples with his evil stars;
Who makes by force his merit known,
And lives to clutch the golden keys
To mould a mighty state's decrees,
And shape the whisper of the throne;
And moving up from high to higher,
Becomes on Fortune's crowning slope
The pillar of a people's hope,
The center of a world's desire."
I am only repeating the remark made by many when I call attention to the fitness of this description to Garfield himself.
Our young student was fortunate in possessing a most retentive memory. What he liked, especially in the works of his favorite poet, was so impressed upon his memory that he could recite extracts by the hour. This will enable the reader to understand how thoroughly he studied, and how readily he mastered, those branches of knowledge to which his attention was drawn. When in after years in Congress some great public question came up, which required hard study, it was the custom of his party friends to leave Garfield to study it, with the knowledge that in due time he would be ready with a luminous exposition which would supply to them the place of individual study.
Young Garfield was anxious to learn the language of Goethe and Schiller, and embraced the opportunity afforded at college to enter upon the study of German. He was not content with a mere smattering, but learned it well enough to converse in it as well as to read it.
So most profitably the Junior year was spent, but unhappily James had spent all the money which he had brought with him. Should he leave college to earn more? Fortunately, this was not necessary. Thomas Garfield, always unselfishly devoted to the family, hoped to supply his younger brother with the necessary sum, in installments; but proving unable, his old friend, Dr. Robinson, came to his assistance.
"You can pay me when you are able, James," he said.
"If I live I will pay you, doctor. If I do not—"
He paused, for an idea struck him.
"I will insure my life for eight hundred dollars," he continued, "and place the policy in your hands. Then, whether I live or die, you will be secure."
"I do not require this, James," said the doctor kindly.
"Then I feel all the more under obligations to secure you in return for your generous confidence."
It was a sensible and business-like proposal, and the doctor assented. The strong, vigorous young man had no difficulty in securing a policy from a reputable company, and went back to college at the commencement of the Senior year. I wish to add that the young man scrupulously repaid the good doctor's timely loan, for had he failed to do so, I could not have held him up to my young readers as in all respects a model.
There was published at Williams College, in Garfield's time, a magazine called the Williams Quarterly. To this the young man became a frequent contributor. In Gen. James S. Brisbin's campaign Life of Garfield, I find three of his poetic contributions quoted, two of which I will also transfer to my pages, as likely to possess some interest for my young reader. The first is called
"THE CHARGE OF THE TIGHT BRIGADE,"
and commences thus:
"Bottles to right of them,
Bottles to left of them,
Bottles in front of them,
Fizzled and sundered;
Ent'ring with shout and yell,
Boldly they drank and well,
They caught the Tartar then;
Oh, what a perfect sell!
Sold—the half hundred!
Grinned all the dentals bare,
Swung all their caps in air,
Uncorking bottles there,
Watching the Freshmen, while
Every one wondered;
Plunged in tobacco smoke,
With many a desperate stroke,
Dozens of bottles broke;
Then they came back, but not,
Not the half hundred!"
Lest from this merry squib, which doubtless celebrated some college prank, wrong conclusions should be drawn, I hasten to say that in college James Garfield neither drank nor smoked.
The next poem is rather long, but it possesses interest as a serious production of one whose name has become a household word. It is entitled
"'Tis beauteous night; the stars look brightly down
Upon the earth, decked in her robe of snow.
No light gleams at the window save my own,
Which gives its cheer to midnight and to me.
And now with noiseless step sweet Memory comes,
And leads me gently through her twilight realms.
What poet's tuneful lyre has ever sung,
Or delicatest pencil e'er portrayed
The enchanted, shadowy land where Memory dwells?
It has its valleys, cheerless, lone, and drear,
Dark-shaded by the lonely cypress tree.
And yet its sunlit mountain tops are bathed
In heaven's own blue. Upon its craggy cliffs,
Robed in the dreamy light of distant years,
Are clustered joys serene of other days;
Upon its gently sloping hillside's bank
The weeping-willows o'er the sacred dust
Of dear departed ones; and yet in that land,
Where'er our footsteps fall upon the shore,
They that were sleeping rise from out the dust
Of death's long, silent years, and round us stand,
As erst they did before the prison tomb
Received their clay within its voiceless halls.
"The heavens that bend above that land are hung
With clouds of various hues; some dark and chill,
Surcharged with sorrow, cast their sombre shade
Upon the sunny, joyous land below;
Others are floating through the dreamy air,
White as the falling snow, their margins tinged
With gold and crimson hues; their shadows fall
Upon the flowery meads and sunny slopes,
Soft as the shadows of an angel's wing.
When the rough battle of the day is done,
And evening's peace falls gently on the heart,
I bound away across the noisy years,
Unto the utmost verge of Memory's land,
Where earth and sky in dreamy distance meet,
And Memory dim with dark oblivion joins;
Where woke the first remembered sounds that fell
Upon the ear in childhood's early morn;
And wandering thence along the rolling years,
I see the shadow of my former self
Gliding from childhood up to man's estate.
The path of youth winds down through many a vale,
And on the brink of many a dread abyss,
From out whose darkness comes no ray of light,
Save that a phantom dances o'er the gulf,
And beckons toward the verge. Again, the path
Leads o'er a summit where the sunbeams fall;
And thus, in light and shade, sunshine and gloom,
Sorrow and joy, this life-path leads along."
During the year 1856 young Garfield was one of the editors of the college magazine, from which the above extracts are made. The hours spent upon his contributions to its pages were doubtless well spent. Here, to use his own words, he learned "to hurl the lance and wield the sword and thus prepare for the conflict of life." More than one whose names have since become conspicuous contributed to it while under his charge. Among these were Professor Chadbourne, S.G.W. Benjamin, Horace E. Scudder, W.R. Dimmock, and John Savary. The last-named, now resident in Washington, has printed, since his old friend's death, a series of sonnets, from which I quote one:
"How many and how great concerns of state
Lie at the mercy of the meanest things!
This man, the peer of presidents and kings;
Nay, first among them, passed through dangers gate
In war unscathed, and perils out of date,
To meet a fool whose pistol-shot yet rings
Around the world, and at mere greatness flings
The cruel sneer of destiny or fate!
Yet hath he made the fool fanatic foil
To valor, patience, nobleness, and wit!
Nor had the world known, but because of it,
What virtues grow in suffering's sacred soil.
The shot which opened like a crack of hell,
Made all hearts stream with sacred pity's well
And showed that unity in which we dwell."
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