Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry

Benjamin Tupper Cushing

(1825-     )

William Turner Coggeshall, The Poets and Poetry of the West: With Biographical and Critical Notices 489-491 (Columbus, Ohio: Follett, Foster and Company, 1860):

BENJAMIN TUPPER CUSHING was born at Putnam, Muskingum county, Ohio, on the twenty-sixth day of January, 1825. His ancestors were among the pioneer settlers of the North-West;—Rufus Putnam and Benjamin Tupper, of the maternal stock, having, at the close of the war for Independence, settled at Marietta, while his paternal ancestors early emigrated from Plymouth, Massachusetts, to the central part of the State of New York. His father, at the age of sixteen years, came to Ohio, and settled at Putnam. When five years of age, Benjamin was placed at school at Marietta. Drilled with a class of boys superior to himself in respect of years and mental discipline, he tired of the class routine, and sought for himself a course of study more spirited and congenial. At the age of twelve, upon the removal of his father's family to Wisconsin, he entered a printing-office at Milwaukee. In 1839 he returned to Ohio, and pursued his trade in the Ohio State Journal office, at Columbus. An eagerness to read whatever fell in his way, and a searching inquisitiveness as to the reasons for opinions expressed by authors whose works he perused, became habits of his character. The result was a constant tendency to clothe with verse the offspring of his quaint and sleepless fancy, and many hundred folio pages, then written, bear witness to its fertility and range, if not to its cultivation and discipline. At Milwaukee and elsewhere, his verses were welcomed by the Press, and answered with cordial encouragement of the author's aspirations. The turning-point in his career came suddenly and decisively. An incident, in itself unimportant, furnished the spur to his forming purpose, and gave birth to the idea of a sacred poem, which thenceforth became a vital element in his plans, and rapidly unfolded the deep and tender sympathies that pervaded his character. Resolved at last to fit himself for a station where he might "at least enjoy the society, if he might not partake of free converse with educated minds," he left the printing-office. Within eighteen months he completed the freshman and sophomore routine of classical study, and entered the junior class of Marietta College, in 1844. His college career realized his ambition. He continued his analysis of the British classics—finished the Iliad and Odyssey, together with a partial law course, and graduated with the highest honors of his class. He studied law with Joseph R. Swan and John W. Andrews, at Columbus, during the year 1847. Upon admission to the bar, he practiced his profession for a few months in the office of Salmon P. Chase, at Cincinnati, but returned to Columbus, during the year 1848, for the purpose of making it a place of permanent residence. He had entered upon his profession with energy, while at the same time pursuing his literary tastes into the choicest fields of prose and verse, and had just begun to enjoy the long-coveted access to men of cultivation, and a wide-spread credit as a good writer, through contributions to the standard magazines of the country, when bronchial difficulties interrupted the regular practice of his profession. He devoted several seasons to their removal, returning, after brief intervals of medical treatment, to his literary and legal studies. The former began more fully to interest his attention, and challenge his energies. Though many qualities of his mind conspired to make him more uniformly a good prose writer, the field wherein his hopes were garnered was that of verse. Here, however, the rapidity of his education had left his discipline imperfect, and he felt that he wrote too copiously for that perfection of style which he made his aim. Thus, when emotion was wanting, his hurried verses became artistic only, or merely common-place. But when the heart was touched, he wrote with taste and power. In the midst of self-examination and discipline, the cherished idea of his sacred poem gained new favor, and he regretted more and more that he had not selected the sacred ministry as his profession—that thus he might have been brought more intimately near the subject of his epic.

During the fall of 1849, Mr. Cushing's bronchial difficulties returned, and in the January following, he visited Wilmington, North Carolina, to seek, in a change of climate, their relief. Hitherto, he had been cheerful under all trials, but the impression that he must die young, at length broke with crushing weight upon his spirits, and for a few days he failed rapidly. The "Lay of the Improvisatrice," a poem of rare excellence, pathos and beauty, then written, tells plainly the feeling that oppressed him.

"The Christiad"—the title which he had given his sacred poem—now engrossed his attention. Shapes and scenes startled into being by the influence of Milton, Dante, Homer, and Swedenborg, and to which he had given whole nights of earnest contemplation-imagery and sentiment, gathered from observation and reflection, now rose before his mind like realities. The Bible, long studied in its relations to his theme, became his constant companion. The prophecies were examined, and their harmony with the Saviour's character brought into requisition to enrich the sentiment "made perfect through suffering." Urgent appeals to dismiss care and consult health only, were answered cheerfully, but in the spirit of his labors. At length, finding the Atlantic breezes only prejudicial, he tried the hydropathic treatment, at Brattleboro, Vermont, but without benefit. Pulmonary disease had already fastened upon his vitals. But the mind was still active-too active. The night itself was made his servant, and, as before leaving home, so at Brattleboro, he would suddenly start from bed to record the more fantastic and less studied fancies that played through the mind while the body courted repose. He spent a month with friends at Wallingford, Connecticut, and though too ill to pursue methodically his "Christiad," still indulged in random verses. He left Wallingford early in September, and, after a long journey, reached his native home, still full of hope and mental vigor, though sinking rapidly to the grave.

Such is the faint outline of a life devoted to a single purpose, and one demanding for its fruition the energy of a mature life. Its greatness was appreciated, and for its greatness he followed it, confident that he might at least realize a high cultivation and noble acquirements in its pursuit. In the community where he lived, he was regarded as a man of good talents, energy, and perseverance, and his manly aspirations interested many in his success. His character was imbued with the spirit of true religion. To its claims he sacrificed first impulses, if they shrank from a test by its standard. From its sacred oracles he drew the great lesson of our probation. In its precious encouragements, his hope brightened. In its anticipated future, he had a foretaste of his reward. In the study of the perfections and earthly experience of its Author, he prepared for nobler and loftier ascriptions of praise to his divine Redeemer. He lingered but a few weeks at Putnam; yet his last thoughts were upon his life's great hope; and the disposal of the unfinished "Christiad" was the burden of his last whisper, as the spirit for a moment lingered, then took its upward flight. May we not justly repeat the sentiment so beautifully addressed by himself to the mother by whose side we laid his remains? He "has learned the poetry of heaven from the lyres of the archangels!"