My friend from Wadham College, Oxford, Miss Rachel Eley, may have gotten into the English Literature department at the famous University because of her connection to an obscure late-Romantic poet. Her induction into the halls of scholarship was meeting a friend of her grandfather's, one Michael Bradshaw, both fellows of the Thomas Lovell Beddoes Society. Her grandfather, Ron Beddoes, was “a descendent of the family of Thomas Lovell Beddoes”. Thomas Lovell Beddoes was a Gothic late-Romantic who experimented in weird abstract neo-Jacobean theater – mostly, one death-obsessed play, Death's Jest-Book, which he obsessively re-wrote for decades until his suicide. It has been called a fore-runner of Absurdist Drama, & hovers hauntingly beside the standard cannon of Romantic Poetry. The TLBS is part drinking club, part dead poet's society. The play has still never been properly staged. It's great, read it! Anyway, talking about her excitement at meeting Mr Bradshaw & holding certain Beddoes relics may have been the greasy rubbing at her college interview.
Well, for years, I've kept that envious dream, of finding an obscure poet in my ancestry. Yesterday, my brother Scott told my mother to google her maternal great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Grayson, & there's an essay about him from 1975 by her cousin Dick, who did the genealogy for that side of the family. (Apparently, my brother spends his time at work googling his dead relatives.) The full article is here if anyone's interested.
He enlisted “as a Sergeant in E company and as Lieutenant in D company 6th Regiment, Indiana Volunteers ” in 1861, & he fought in the bloody battle of Shiloh. Afterward, he worked as a writer for the Madison Courier & Madison Herald, & published several books on his experiences in the Civil War. It seems that many men in that family - his brother Salathiel & their sons - were in the printing trade in Madison from the '60s thru '80s.
Dick Grayson writes he found four books (in 1975) in the Indiana State Library – an early work, two books on the American Civil War, & a collection of essays for the Madison papers. Dick also selected some excerpts from his writing. Hardly proto-Absurdist verse:
"I never hear that bell ring but what I think of the Whedon boys and Andy McManaman, the old time railroaders in Madison's palmy days. When the new regime came about, the old time ways were wiped out and you had to carry a watch or get left if you didn't keep a hand or an eye on it."
"Where are the billions of passenger pigeons that in the early fifties annually passed over Madison?...Immense flocks would pass over Madison like a rain-cloud in their migrations, darkening the sun for hours, and breaking down trees by their weight in their roosting places."
I'll tell you where the passenger pigeons went – the last one, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1st, 1914, fourteen months after Jack Grayson died. Remember that things which seem ubiquitous can disappear forever; Melville may have been the first environmentalist to wonder this, in his chapter “Does the Whale's Magnitude Diminish? Will He Perish?” A friend of Grayson wrote rhapsodically in his obituary about the death of the sunshine optimist, a humble man who lived long, gave his money away, & ended his days with his family. (This of all things should contrast him to the legacy of Thomas Lovell Beddoes. I propose an Andrew Jackson Grayson drinking society – for mediocre writers who wrote about life, were pawns in major conflicts, & lived to old age.)
"Dear old Jack; his lips are dumb, but his spirit will linger long in the hearts of those who knew and loved him, and will ever bring memories, sweet with hours and days of good cheer and joy, He never searched for the unpleasant things in life, nor recalled sad and sorrowful hours of man's existence. His motto was that of the sun dial; he recorded only the days of sunshine. His friends were legions and their faces that were once wreathed in smiles at the mention of his name were tinged with sorrow and regret when told of his death.
"It may be that his life was not a success as the world views it, for he filled not his coffers with silver and gold to be cast on the threshold of eternity, nor strove for power that passes away like perfume of early dawn; he built no monument of brick and mortar to perpetuate his name, as if to mock the living God, but leaves an inheritance rich with good humor and full of sunshine which neither summer's sun nor winter's blast can decay."