John Godfrey Saxe

(1816-1887 / the United States)

Biography of John Godfrey Saxe

John Godfrey Saxe (June 2, 1816 – March 31, 1887) was an American poet perhaps best known for his re-telling of the Indian parable "The Blindmen and the Elephant", which introduced the story to a Western audience

Saxe was born in Highgate, Vermont at Saxe's Mills, erected by his settler grandfather, John Saxe (Johannes Sachse) a German immigrant and Loyalist to the Crown. Saxe was the son of Peter Saxe, miller, judge and periodic member of the Vermont Assembly, and the Elizabeth Jewett of Weybridge, Vermont. Raised in a strict Methodist home, Saxe was first sent to Weselyan which he left after a year, and then to Middlebury, from which he graduated in 1839. In 1841 he married Sophia Newell Sollace, a sister of a Middlebury classmate, was admitted to the Vermont bar in 1843 and tried to run a business with his dutiful and pious older brother, Charles Jewett Saxe.

The words "dutiful" and "pious" never applied to the aspiring satirist. Bored by his legal work, Saxe began publishing poems for The Knickerbocker, of which "The Rhyme of the Rail" is his most famous early work. He soon caught the attention of the prominent Boston publishing house, Ticknor and Fields. Though he received no royalties for his first volume, it ran to ten reprintings and eventually outsold works by Hawthorne and Tennyson.

Mr. Saxe became a sought after speaker, toured frequently and stayed prolific throughout the 1850s. In 1859 and in 1860 he ran for Governor of Vermont and was beaten both times. As a northern Democrat, he advocated a non-interference policy on slavery and supported Illinois Senator Douglas's policy of "popular sovereignty", a position which rendered the poet extremely unpopular in Republican Vermont. After his second, and even more punishing electoral defeat, Mr. Saxe left his home state in 1860 for neighboring Albany, New York.

Mr. Saxe spent his summers in Saratoga, contributed articles for the Albany Evening Journal and Albany Morning Argus, and published poems in Harpers, The Atlantic, and the Knickerbocker and remained popular on the lecture circuit. "The Proud Miss McBride" and "Song of Saratoga" were some of famous works in this period. However, his attempts to re-enter politics remained unsuccessful.

The 1870s, while living in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, began a series of woes for the poet. His youngest daughter died of tuberculosis. In 1875 he suffered head injuries in a rail accident near Wheeling (WVA), from which he never fully recovered, and then over the next several years his two oldest daughters, his eldest son, and daughter-in-law also died of tuberculosis. In 1879 his wife, under the strain of so many tragedies, burst a blood vessel in her brain and collapsed and died. Including a young son lost in the 1840s, Mr. Saxe had buried five of his six children as well as his wife.

Mr. Saxe sank deep into depression and was moved back to Albany to live with his last surviving child, Charles. His decline from the rollicking poet to grieving recluse earned the sympathy of the people of Albany and when he died in 1887, the New York Assembly ordered his likeness to be chiseled into the "poet's corner" of the Great Western Staircase in the New York State Capitol.

His best remembered poem "The Blind Men and the Elephant", was not his most famous in his day. And though a satirist, his poems written during more somber periods remain some of his most beautiful and enduring, including "Little Jerry the Miller" about his father's mill assistant. Few of the satirical works which had made him famous are read today.

The poet's orphaned grandson, John Godfrey Saxe II, became a New York State senator, President of the New York Bar, and counsel of Columbia University.

According to Fred Shapiro, author of the Yale Book of Quotations, the Daily Cleveland Herald in its issue of Mar. 29, 1869, quotes Saxe as saying “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.

PoemHunter.com Updates

Early Rising

'GOD bless the man who first invented sleep!'
So Sancho Panza said, and so say I:
And bless him, also, that he didn't keep
His great discovery to himself; nor try
To make it-as the lucky fellow might-
A close monopoly by patent-right!

Yes; bless the man who first invented sleep
(I really can't avoid the iteration);

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