James Bayard Taylor Biography

James Bayard Taylor was an American poet, literary critic, translator, and travel author.

Life and Work

He was born on January 11, 1825, in Kennett Square in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He was the fourth son, first to live to maturity, of Joseph and Rebecca (née Way) Taylor. His father was a well-to-do farmer and young Bayard received his early instruction in an academy at West Chester, and later at Unionville. At the age of seventeen he was apprenticed to a printer in West Chester. His interest in poetry was coached by influential critic and editor Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who encouraged him to produce a volume of poetry. Published at Philadelphia in 1844 under the title Ximena, or the Battle of the Sierra Morena, and other Poems was dedicated to Griswold,though it brought its author little profit; and indirectly it did him better service as the means of his introduction to The New York Tribune.

With the money thus obtained, and with an advance made to him on account of some journalistic work to be done in Europe, JB Taylor (as he had up to this time signed himself, though he bore no other Christian name than Bayard) set sail for the East. The young poet spent a happy time in roaming through certain districts of England, France, Germany and Italy; that he was a born traveler is evident from the fact that this pedestrian tour of almost two years cost him only £100. The graphic accounts which he sent from Europe to The New York Tribune, The Saturday Evening Post, and The United States Gazette were so highly appreciated that on Taylor's return to America he was advised to throw his articles into book form.

In 1846, accordingly, appeared his Views Afoot, or Europe seen with Knapsack and Staff (2 vols, New York). This pleasant book had considerable popularity, and its author now found himself a recognized man of letters. He was asked to serve as an editorial assistant for Graham's Magazine for a few months in 1848. That same year, Horace Greeley, then editor of the Tribune, placed Taylor on the Tribune staff thus securing Taylor a certain if a moderate income. His next journey, made when the gold-fever was at its height, was to California, as correspondent for the Tribune. From this expedition he returned by way of Mexico, and, seeing his opportunity, published (2 vols, New York, 1850) a highly successful book of travels, entitled El Dorado; or, Adventures in the Path of Empire. Ten thousand copies were said to have been sold in America, and thirty thousand in Great Britain, within a fortnight from the date of issue.

Bayard Taylor always considered himself native to the East, and it was with great delight that in 1851 he found himself on the banks of the Nile, He ascended as far as 12' 30° N, and stored his memory with countless sights and delights, to many of which he afterwards gave expression in metrical form. From England, towards the end of 1852, he sailed for Calcutta, proceeding thence to China, where he joined the expedition of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry to Japan.

The results of these journeys (besides his poetical memorials) were A Journey to Central Africa; or, Life and Landscapes from Egypt to the Negro Kingdoms of the White Nile (New York, 1854); The Lands of the Saracen; or, Pictures of Palestine, Asia Minor, Sicily and Spain (1854); and A Visit to India, China and Japan in the Year 1853 (1855).

Marriage and Family

In 1849 Taylor married Mary Agnew, but she died in 1850 of tuberculosis. In October 1857, he married Maria Hansen, the daughter of Peter Hansen, the Danish/German astronomer. They spent the ensuing winter in Greece.

First return to the U.S.

On his return (December 20, 1853) from his travel to Europe, Egypt and the Far East, Taylor began to tour as a public lecturer, to considerable success. He traveled to deliver addresses in every town of importance from Maine to Wisconsin. After two years, he again started on travel, on this occasion for northern Europe. His goal was to study Swedish life, language and literature. The trip inspired his long narrative poem Lars, but his Swedish Letters to the Tribune were also republished, under the title Northern Travel: Summer and Winter Pictures (London, 1857).

In 1859 Taylor once more traversed the western American gold region, in connection with an invitation to lecture at San Francisco. About three years later, he was appointed to the diplomatic service as secretary of legation at St. Petersburg, and the following year (1863) became chargé d'affaires at the Russian capital.

Second return to the U.S.

In 1864 Taylor and his wife Maria returned to the United States, where he resumed writing at their home near Kennett Square. He published Hannah Thurston (1863), the first of his four novels. This book had a moderate success, but Taylor was not considered so good a novelist as a poet and essayist.

His late novel, Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania (New York, 1870), recounts an intimate friendship between two men and is believed to be based on that between the poets Fitz-Greene Halleck and Joseph Rodman Drake. Since the late 20th-century, it has been called America's first gay novel. Taylor spoke at the dedication of a monument to Halleck in his native town, Guilford, Connecticut.

In 1874 Taylor traveled to Iceland, to report for the Tribune on the one thousandth anniversary of the first European settlement there. In June 1878 he was accredited United States Minister at Berlin. Traveling on the same ship to Europe was Mark Twain, who noted that he was envious of Taylor's command of German.

A few months after arriving in Berlin, Taylor died on December 19, 1878; his body was returned to the US and buried in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. The New York Times published his obituary on its front page, referring to him as "a great traveler, both on land and paper." Shortly after his death, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a memorial poem to Taylor, at the urging of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Legacy and Honors

Cedarcroft, Taylor's home from 1859 to 1874, which he built near Kennett Square, is preserved as a National Historic Landmark.

Evaluations

According to the 1920 edition of Encyclopedia Americana:
It is by his translation of Faust, one of the finest attempts of the kind in any literature, that Taylor is generally known; yet as an original poet he stands well up in the second rank of Americans. His Poems of the Orient and his Pennsylvania ballads comprise his best work. His verse is finished and sonorous, but at times over-rhetorical.

According to the 1911 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Taylor's most ambitious productions in poetry—his Masque of the Gods (Boston, 1872), Prince Deukalion; a lyrical drama (Boston, 1878), The Picture of St John (Boston, 1866), Lars; a Pastoral of Norway (Boston, 1873), and The Prophet; a tragedy (Boston, 1874)—are marred by a ceaseless effort to overstrain his power. But he will be remembered by his poetic and excellent translation of Goethe's Faust (2 vols, Boston, 1870-71) in the original metres.

Taylor felt, in all truth, the torment and the ecstasy of verse; but, as a critical friend has written of him, his nature was so ardent, so full-blooded, that slight and common sensations intoxicated him, and he estimated their effect, and his power to transmit it to others, beyond the true value. He had, from the earliest period at which he began to compose, a distinct lyrical faculty: so keen indeed was his ear that he became too insistently haunted by the music of others, pre-eminently of Tennyson. But he had often a true and fine note of his own. His best short poems are The Metempsychosis of the Pine and the well-known Bedouin love-song.

In his critical essays Bayard Taylor had himself in no inconsiderable degree what he wrote of as that pure poetic insight which is the vital spirit of criticism. The most valuable of these prose dissertations are the Studies in German Literature (New York, 1879).

In Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography of 1889, Edmund Clarence Stedman gives the following critique:
His poetry is striking for qualities that appeal to the ear and eye, finished, sonorous in diction and rhythm, at times too rhetorical, but rich in sound, color, and metrical effects. His early models were Byron and Shelley, and his more ambitious lyrics and dramas exhibit the latter's peculiar, often vague, spirituality. Lars, somewhat after the manner of Tennyson, is his longest and most attractive narrative poem. Prince Deukalion was designed for a masterpiece; its blank verse and choric interludes are noble in spirit and mould. Some of Taylor's songs, oriental idyls, and the true and tender Pennsylvanian ballads, have passed into lasting favor, and show the native quality of his poetic gift. His fame rests securely upon his unequalled rendering of Faust in the original metres, of which the first and second parts appeared in 1870 and 1871. His commentary upon Part II for the first time interpreted the motive and allegory of that unique structure.

Editions

Collected editions of his Poetical Works and his Dramatic Works were published at Boston in 1888; his Life and Letters (Boston, 2 vols, 1884) were edited by his wife and Horace Scudder.

Marie Hansen Taylor translated into German Bayard's Greece (Leipzig, 1858), Hannah Thurston (Hamburg, 1863), Story of Kennett (Gotha, 1868), Tales of Home (Berlin, 1879), Studies in German Literature (Leipzig, 1880), and notes to Faust, both parts (Leipzig, 1881). After her husband's death, she edited, with notes, his Dramatic Works (1880), and in the same year his Poems in a “Household Edition,” and brought together his Critical Essays and Literary Notes. In 1885 she prepared a school edition of Lars, with notes and a sketch of its author's life.

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