Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry

Henry Denison

Vermont & Georgia

"Born in Guilford, Vt., May 31, 1795, he was a son of (Judge) Gilbert and Huldah (Palmer) Denison. He entered the University of Vermont, 1811, in preparation for a course in law; but the college buildings being occupied by U.S. troops and all academic activities being suspended temporarily because of war, young Denison continued his studies for a time at Williams College. From a law office in New York in 1816 he wrote Royall Tyler: "The study of law I begin to feel interested in; I find it not devoid of its beauties, allowing it the while in that particular to fall a little short of Homer and Virgil, Milton and Pope." His passion for poetry induced him to abandon law; and in the winter of 1816-17 he went south to Savannah, Ga., where he for a year devoted himself to literary activities. He then established a literary journal at Milledgeville, Ga. (the state Capitol). His weekly, The Georgia Republican, begun in September 1819, lasted only a few months, for Denison died Oct. 31, 1819 of fever. No copy of the paper is known to be extant. But a memorial slab was erected in Milledgeville by Denison's friends on which was engraved a striking epitaph (see Driftwind, Vol. 3, No.3, November, 1928, pp. 103-8). In 1822 Israel K. Tefft, editor of the Savannah Georgian, and an admirer of Denison's verse, issued proposals for the publication of the young poet's manuscripts; but this venture failing, the manuscripts were sent to The Coronal, a magazine of verse published at Greenock, Scotland, under the agreement that Denison's remains should be published in the year 1824. After four years of delay Tefft received some copies of a small book, The Columbian Lyre (which see)—in which only 13 pages were devoted to Denison's work. Thus two-thirds of his writings were lost. He died, one year younger than Keats, with his best sons unsun, or lost by a publisher's negligence." [Walter John Coates (ed.), A Bibliography of Vermont Poetry and Gazetteer of Vermont Poets 109 (Montpelier: Vermont Historical Society, 1942)] [Vol. 1] [Vol. 2, apparently, was never published][Denison is interred at Memory Hill Cemetry, Milledgeville, Georgia.]

[See also: John Walter Coates & Frederick Tucker (eds.), Vermont Verse: An Anthology (Brattleboro, Vermont: Stephen Daye Press, 1932); Abby Maria Hemenway (ed.), Vermont Historical Gazetteer a Local History of all the Towns in the State, Civil, Educational, Biographical, Religious and Military. Vol. V. The Towns of Windham County (Brandon, Vermont: Published by Mrs. Carrie E. H. Page, 1891)(online text)]

Henry Denison; Lost Poet of Milledgeville
Hugh T. Harrington

[©2005 Hugh T. Harrington; used here with the
gracious permission of Hugh T. Harrington]

[This article first appeared in The Baldwin Bulletin, a Milledgeville, Georgia newspaper]

On the west side of Memory Hill Cemetery, next to 10 box-type vaults, there is a bronze marker with the curious wording “Graves of ten former members of the Georgia State Legislature.” I am relieved to know that these long dead politicians are not the current members of our Legislature. Perhaps the writer was pulling our legs a bit. In any case, despite the bronze marker, there are only nine members of the Legislature buried there. The tenth man is Henry Denison who was not a politician.

Denison died from fever on October 31, 1819 at the age of 23. Those few who know his name locally remember him as the first partner of Richard M. Orme. Orme had worked in the printing office of Seaton and Fleming Grantland, publishers of The Georgia Journal. Denison was a Milledgeville school teacher. Together, these men were to have been the founders of a new newspaper, The Southern Recorder. They ordered the materials needed to publish the paper, but before the first issue was published on February 15, 1820, Denison died.

Denison’s gravestone gives some genealogy and information about his life. The epitaph reads: “Beneath this tablet reposes all that is mortal of Henry Denison, who died in Milledgeville, Georgia, October 31, 1819, son of the Honorable Gilbert Denison, and Huldah, his wife, of Brattleborough, Vermont. Reader, art though a Parent? Think upon thy own offspring; and sympathize with them; art thou a good Son? Mingle thy tears with his Parents; for he was the best of Sons; A brother? Mourn, for he was the kindest of Brothers; A Friend? Sorrow, for he was the firmest of Friends; Does the Muse inspire thee? Grieve, for he was of thy kindred; Art thou all that is manly and upright? Bemoan his early fate, for he was thy companion; But if though art a Christian, Rejoice - for Henry ‘is not dead, but sleepeth.’”

To mention the high qualities of the dead is common. But, there is something mentioned in the epitaph that gives us a clue about Henry Denison. “Does the Muse inspire thee? Grieve, for he was of thy kindred.” Could Denison have been a poet?

In fact, he was a poet. Henry Denison was born in Guilford, Vermont May 31, 1796. As it says on his gravestone he was the son of Judge Gilbert and Huldah Denison. Perhaps in an effort to please his parents he entered the University of Vermont in November 1812 to study law. However, the institution was occupied by Federal troops as the war of 1812 was in progress. He then went to Williamstown College, now known as Williams College. He eventually joined a law firm in New York City. He wrote a friend that law “is not altogether that dry thing in which light I had always been accustomed to view it.” However, he could not escape the desire to write poetry.

In the winter of 1816-1817 he abandoned law and sailed from New York to Savannah. In the winter of 1818 he moved to Milledgeville where he became a teacher. He also became good friends with Richard M. Orme. There is some indication that, for a very short time just before his death in 1819, he produced a weekly literary journal called “The Georgia Republican” but no copies of that periodical apparently exist.

After his death his friend Israel K. Tefft, the editor of the Savannah Georgian, wrote the epitaph that appears on Denison’s gravestone. A few years later, Tefft collected Denison’s poems and sent them to a publisher in Scotland. After many delays a small portion of Denison’s works were published in 1828, along with those of other American poets, in a small book entitled “The Columbian Lyre.”

Denison was not entirely forgotten in Milledgeville. Thirty five years later his friend and partner Richard Orme would still point out his grave and remark upon Denison’s genius and character. Orme died in 1869 and was buried only twenty yards away from the friend of his youth. With the passing of Orme the memory of Henry Denison was lost in Milledgeville.

In Vermont, Denison is remembered and considered a Vermont poet. This probably would surprise Henry Denison as in his poem, “Woodville,” he says in part:

But Georgia’s clime delights me more;
I would not journey north again,
For all that art and nature pour
Upon the fruitful land of Penn;
For Nature’s choicest bounty lies
Beneath the warmth of southern skies,
Here all the sweets of earth combine—
Land of the orange and the pine.

[Hugh T. Harrington is an historian and writer, and a resident of Milledgeville, Georgia. He is the author of Remembering Milledgeville: Historic Tales From Georgia's Antebellum Capital (The History Press, 2005) and Civil War Milledgeville: Tales From the Confederate Capital of Georgia (The History Press, 2005)]