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The Home Monthly

by Helen Delay. [Willa Cather]

From The Home Monthly, 8 (May 1899):  10-11.


OF ALL the forms in which genius manifests itself, certainly the poet is the rarest. Time was when poets were deemed prophets, and they have made not a few of the world's religions. Even in this colder and more practical age they are accorded a generous tolerance and are scarcely expected to exhibit the rectitude we demand of other men.

There are still hundreds of men in Pittsburgh who remember Richard Realf, that misguided and erratic genius who spent the most useful and happy years of his disordered life here, and as many as remember him loved him; men whom he used ill—and he had a fashion of using his friends for his own ends—are no exception. It is not always sterling worth that makes men lovable.

George Moore once said that of all things in the world a good poem is the most indestructible. After twenty years the scattered verses of this wandering minstrel—this vagrant poet, have been collected and edited Photograph of Richard Realf.RICHARD REALF. with a sympathetic memoir by Col. R. J. Hinton. The one imperishable thing upon earth is genius. Envy nor calumny nor spite can kill it. Realf himself could not kill it;—he could not drown it in wine nor stultify it with vice nor give it to women. It is of God, and it knows not death.

When Richard Realf committed suicide in San Francisco twenty years ago his death was called a tragedy; but it was only the fall of the curtain on a tragedy that had lasted four and forty years. It was perhaps the least tragic feature of that mad career. Only the dregs of life were left to him when he flung the glass from his fevered hand and shattered it.

This man, who was for six years the Byronic genius of the Pittsburgh press, has not been dead a quarter of a century, yet his career reads like a romance written in the days when the erratic author of Childe Harold still exerted his subtile fascination over the minds of men; for this man was cast for a tragic part in the drama of life and wherever he went he took with him a shadow. His friendship was more fatal than his hate; where he loved most he wronged most deeply.

Richard Realf was born in Sussex county, England, in 1834. He early astonished the village clergyman by his precocity. His father was poor and the boy worked to pay for his schooling. When he was eighteen he published a volume of poetry, "Guesses at the Beautiful," which attracted the attention of a number of literary people, among them Gerald Massey, Eliza Cook and Lady Byron.

The talented boy became the fad at Brighton, the most fashionable watering place in England. He was patronized by people glad of any relief from the ennui of fashionable life, lionized by people as fickle as they were flattering. This kind of adulation had wrecked the life of Robert Burns years before; small wonder that it intoxicated a lad in his teens who had been trimming hedges and parsing Virgil a year ago.

If any external circumstance was responsible for the follies of Realf's youth it was that fatal season at Brighton. It sapped his moral vigor, taught him that the role or a sycophant was a natural one to a man of talent and generally unfitted him for the battle with poverty that was to be with him a life-long warfare. Lady Byron sent him as steward to one of her country estates, where he became entangled in an unfortunate love affair with Miss Noel, one of Byron's relatives. This was the first of those baleful attachments which eventually wrecked his life. Realf might have said with Milton's satan, "Evil, be thou my good;" for what has been good in the lives of other men, in his wrought only evil. The influence of woman was to lurk for him in every path, thwart him at every turn, despoil him of every honor and at last track him to his death. The "eternal feminine" that has lifted some men to the stars was to put out the sun for him and threatened to extinguish the light of reason itself. Well might he write near the close of his career that he "longed, yet almost feared to love."

As if prophetic of the end, his first love affair was terrible in its consequences. He contracted large debts, wandered over England indulging in freakish excesses which called his sanity into question, and was at last found barefooted and in rags in the streets of Southampton, singing ballads for the pennies that passersby threw in his hat. So most of his dreams of love—and they exhausted arithmetic—began in the clouds and ended in the streets.

The second chapter of Richard Realf's history opened when he landed in New York in 1855. A year later he went to Kansas to engage in the anti-slavery struggle there, and with that readiness to give himself without counting the cost which always characterized him, he became one of that band of men who swore away their lives in the cause of liberty, pledging themselves to die fighting slavery. He was a member of John Brown's band, but left for a visit to England before the raid. On his return from England he studied for three months in a Jesuit college and then went out in one of those strange disappearances which clouded his life and perplex his biographers. There are years of his life that cannot be accounted for. He had periods of total disappearance, absolute lapses from the world of the living. At this time he was blotted out for a period of two years. Of his whereabouts, condition, occupation, associates, nothing whatever could be learned. It seems incomprehensible that in this nineteenth century a man could efface himself so completely.

When Realf again rose to the surface and cast a shadow amongst men he enlisted in the volunteer army. He was of the stuff that makes good soldiers. His military career was brilliant. He was twice recommended to Lincoln for his dashing feats of personal valor. His bearing of the colors to the front at Missionary Ridge has been thus described by Colonel Hinton, his biographer:

"The dark winding line climbed ever up and up, one regiment moving eagerly to the front. The heavy fire from the enemy's rifle-pits belched forth, and the blue line, yet unformed, momentarily broke. The flag rose, and then suddenly fell to the ground, for the bearer had been shot. It seemed minutes, but it was not really a second of time, when clearly against the hazy autumn sky a slight, lithe figure, sword in hand, was seen to dash out from the swaying ranks. The flag was raised and swung aloft, as the soldier faced the command behind. Cheers were borne to the straining ears of appreciative generals and then the whole line swung swiftly forward to bayonet point under a terrific rifle fire. At the forefront was seen the soldier with pointing blade and waving colors leading the way. A moment more and the rifle-pits were reached. A second's clash and the flag was there above the low line of rifle-pits. Over the works went the Eighty-eighth Illinois."

In 1865, while still serving as a soldier, Realf contracted his first legal marriage with Sophie E. Graves, thereby beginning the third and most unhappy chapter in a life which seems to have been written by misfortune itself. When Realf left his wife in an Indiana village in order to follow his regiment he had apparently every intention of returning to her. His letters to her from camp were frequent and affectionate. There is every evidence that he intended to rejoin her at the close of the war; but in the meantime he had been seized by a fancy for a belle of Washington society, and on receipt of his discharge went to that city. He never saw Sophie Graves again, though she is still living. In 1867 he married Catherine Cassidy in Rochester, N.Y., a woman perhaps worthy enough in her way, but in every way unfitted to be the wife of an erratic genius like Realf. Realf afterward claimed that be was intoxicated when he married her. Undoubtedly she was the Nemesis of his life and eventually drove him to suicide; yet she herself had much to bear. Only the best or the worst of women could have held Realf's inconstant fancy, and Catherine Cassidy was neither. It is not within the power of language to express the misery that these two people made for each other. They separated in the south after a life mutually unhappy, and Realf came to Pittsburgh.

The six years that Realf spent in Pittsburgh were the least tempestuous and most useful of his life. He became a prominent editorial writer on the "Commercial," contributing verses to various magazines. He was one of Francis Murphy's most ardent temperance converts and lectured with the reformer. He brought his sister and her family over from England and contributed to their support. It was here that he contracted his third marriage, if such it may be called, a union of the common law order, with Miss Lizzie Whappen, who afterward bore him four children. In spite of this connection Realf's life was such as commanded the respect of his fellow men until his second wife, Catherine Cassidy, appeared upon the scene. Realf finally secured a divorce from her and went to England to visit his parents. Upon his return he found that the decree of divorce had been annulled in a higher court. He never fully recovered from the shock of that intelligence. From that moment the die was cast. His fear and aversion for the woman amounted to a monomania; on this subject he was scarcely sane. Scandal engulfed him and he became a vagrant again, took up his old course of blind wanderings under a starless heaven. He had been a vagrant before, but this time he was a vagrant without hope. He wandered from town to town, from disgrace to disgrace, always pursued by a remorseless fury, a hate that never slept.

Only the Pacific ocean itself stopped his flight. In San Francisco he hid himself deep, praying to forget and to be forgotten. There he obtained a fairly good position in the mint and was working industriously with the hope of bringing to him his third wife and children, whom he tenderly loved. One night he returned to his lodgings to find Catherine Cassidy there; she had followed him across the continent. There was no faltering then; he asked no questions, the finest steel has its yielding point. The moment had come to ring down the curtain on a life that had been wrong from the beginning. He spent his last money for a bottle of laudanum, and taking a room in a hotel, drank the poison. Then he sat down and wrote on some scraps of note paper his death song, one of the most remarkable poems in the language, the last two verses of which run as follows: "But say that he succeeded. If he missed World's honors and world's plaudits and the wage Of the world's deft lacqueys, still his lips were kissed Daily by those high angels who assuage The thirstings of the poets; for he was Born unto singing—and a burthen lay Mightily on him, and he moamed because He could not rightly utter to the day What God taught in the night. Sometimes, nathless, Power fell upon him, and bright tongues of flame, And blessings reached him from poor souls in stress: And benedictions from black pits of shame, And little children's love. and old men's prayers, And a Great Hand that led him unawares. "So he died rich. And if his eyes were blurred With big films—silence—he is in his grave. Greatly he suffered; greatly, too, he erred, Yet broke his heart in trying to be brave. Nor did he wait till Freedom had become The popular shibboleth of courtier's lips: He smote for her when God himself seemed dumb And all His arching skies were in eclipse. He was a-weary, but he fought his fight And stood for simple manhood; and was joyed To see the august broadening of the light. And new earths heaving heav'nward from the void. He loved his fellows, and their love was sweet— Plant daisies at his head and at his feet." The last lines of the poem were blurred by the poison which had numbed his hand before it chilled his brain. With the poem was found a letter to his friend, Colonel Hinton, in which he said:

"On no account is the person calling herself my wife to be permitted to approach my remains. I should quiver with horror, even in my death, at her touch………I have had heavy burdens to bear, such as have sent stronger men than I reeling into hell. I have tried to bear them like a man, but can endure no more."

He was buried with a bracelet of yellow hair on his arm, a love token from Miss Noel, his first love: the first madness and the last; there was very little difference in them save of time and circumstance. The folly that blighted his youth wrecked his manhood.

Of all the storm and stress of this man's life, of all his dreams which were born in the mountain tops only to die in the gutter, of all his tenderness and pity and courage, only these three-score poems remain. Surely we who are the richer for them should be his kindest judges. I refuse to believe that any man whose heart was altogether bad could write anything so tender and beautiful as the following:


"Do you love me, little children. 0 sweet blossoms that are curled (Life's tender morning-glories) 'Round the casement of the world! Do your hearts climb up toward me. As my own heart bends to you. In the beauty of your dawning And the brightness of your dew? "When the fragrance of your faces And the rhythm of your feet, And the incense of your voices Transform the sullen street. Do you see my soul move softly Forever where you move, With an eye of benediction And a guarding hand of love? "O my darlings! I am with you In your troubles, in your play; In your sobbing and your singing. In your dark and in your day; In the chambers where you nestle, In the hovels where you lie, In the sunlight where you blossom And the blackness where you die. "Not a blessing broods above you But it lifts me from the ground; Not a thistle-barb doth sting you But I suffer with the wound; And a chord within me trembles To your lightest touch or tone, And I famish when you hunger And I shiver when you moan. *   *   *   * "I have trodden all the spaces Of my solumn years alone, And have never felt the cooing Of a babe's breath near my own; But with more than father passion, And with more than mother pain, I have loved you, little children;— Do you love me back again?"

Realf was distinctly a human poet. He was very close to the people. In all his verses throbs the warm blood of the general life. His every poem is quick with sympathy. His "Hymn of Pittsburgh," too little known in this city, sounds a vigorous note of the pride and power of toil, a fine admiration for the energy of labor, which is not unlike Kipling:


"My father was a mighty Vulcan; I am Smith of the land and sea; The cunning spirit of Tubal-Cain Came with my marrow to me. I think great thoughts, strong-winged with steel, I coin vast iron acts, And orb the impalpable dreams of seers Into comely, lyric facts. 'I am monarch of all the forges, I have solved the riddle of fire; The amen of nature to cry of man Answers at my desire. I search with the subtle soul of flame The heart of the rocky earth, And hot from my anvils the prophecies Of the miracle-years leap forth. I am swart with the soot of my furnace, I drip with the sweats of toil; My fingers throttle the savage wastes, I tear the curse from the soil; I fling the bridges across the gulfs That hold us from the to-be And build the roads for the bannered march Of crowned humanity."

It is scarcely fair to judge Realf merely as a poet. He was not a scholar with leisure at his command, not a book-worm or a literary dilettante, but a man of the people. If we judge him at all it must be as "poet, soldier and worksman," as he styled himself;—the gallant soldier who bore the colors over the rifle-pits at Missionary Ridge, the romantic adventurer who joined John Brown's despised band, the impassioned defender of liberty "who smote for her when God himself seemed dumb." His profession was life, not letters, and the fever of living consumed the flower of his strength. He wrote from his heart rather than from his head, and he wrote best when he suffered most. Pain unsealed his lips. When he suffered, then he could speak; then he was a poet indeed and then fell upon him the "brightest tongues of flame," of which he speaks in his last poem. But they burned his life out, and burned it quickly. At forty-four he had known the sorrows of a lifetime and was glad to lay life down. As he wrote:

"Years—years. So long the dread companionship of pain, So long the slow compression of the brain, So long the bitter famine and the drouth, So long the ache for kisses on the mouth, So long the straining of hot, tearless eyes In backward looking upon Paradise, So long tired feet dragged faltering and slow, So long the solemn sanctity of woe. Years—years."

He dreamed always in life—great, wild, maddening dreams. Perhaps he sleeps quietly now; perhaps he wakes.