Christopher Pearse Cranch
by George Willis Cooke
from Memorabilia of the Transcendentalists in New England
A frequent contributor to "The Dial" in the first two volumes was Christopher P. Cranch, preacher, poet, and artist. . . .Cranch was born at Alexandria, D.C., afterwards, in Virginia, March 3, 1815. His father was William Cranch, chief judge of the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, and an eminent jurist. The family was from Quincy, Mass., and was connected with John Adams, of that town. Cranch graduated at Columbian College, Washington, in 1831, and from the Harvard Divinity School in 1835. He preached in several New England pulpits for brief periods, and then in Kentucky and Illinois. For a short time he was associated with James Freeman Clarke in editing "The Western Messenger." He was not ordained, and was never settled over a church. About 1842 he left the ministry, and took up the study and profession of painting. He located in New York, and landscape painting was his chief interest. In company with George William Curtis he went to Italy in 1846, and there he remained until 1848 pursuing his art studies. He then returned to New York, but he lived and painted in Paris from 1853 to 1863. In the pursuit of his profession he frequently visited Fontainebleau, as well as Italy and Switzerland. He often exhibited his pictures in the Salon at Paris, and they were highly commended. He devoted himself to his profession in New York, after 1863, being made a member of the National Academy of Design, the Water Color Society, and the Artist Fund Society. In 1872 he removed to Cambridge, where he lived until his death, January 20, 1892.
Cranch was a frequent writer of poems, essays, review articles, and correspondence, which were published in the leading newspapers and magazines. In 1856 he published "The Last of the Huggermuggers, a Giant Story;" and in 1857, "Kobboltozo," a sequel to "The Last of the Huggermuggers." These were delightful children's books, of somewhat the same character as "Alice in Wonderland." They were very popular in their day, and those now living who read them in childhood speak of them in the highest terms of praise. Cranch's chief literary interest, however, was as a poet, and he frequently wrote for "The Harbinger," "The Present," "Dwight's Journal of Music," "Putnam's Magazine," "The Galaxy," "Harper's Monthly," and "The Atlantic Monthly," as well as for other periodicals. [Many of these are in the Making of America collection.] AFter his thin volume of Poems," in 1844, his first poetical work was a translation of the "AEneid" into blank verse, published in 1872. Then followed, in 1874, his "Satan, a Libretto." In 1874 appeared "The Bird and the Bell, and other Poems;" and in 1887, "Ariel and Caliban, with other Poems." He later translated Virgil's "Ecologues and Georgics," a part of the "Odes" of Horace, and a number of the poems of Schiller; but many of his manuscripts, chiefly translations, as yet remained unpublished.
He was a zealous student of nature, and in many of his poems this interest shows itself. He was also lovingly devoted to the pursuit of art. His chief paintings are "October Afternoon," 1867; "Washington Oak, opposite Newburg, N.Y.," 1868; "Val de Moline," "Amalfi,Italy," 1869; "Roman Citizen," "Forest of Fontainebleau," "Neapolitan Fisherman," 1870; "Venetian Fishing-Boats," 1871. He gave to his work the devotion of a genuine artist, but he never gained the highest reputation in this field of effort. He is best known as a poet, and some of his poems deserve a lasting fame. In his "History of American Literature" Richardson has spoken of Cranch's "Gnosis" as going "straight to the heart of the whole matter" of transcendentalism. That poem condenses transcendentalism into the briefest space, and it is one of the best of the many poems "The Dial" published. Poe gave one of his friendliest notices to Cranch, saying that he was "one of the least intolerable of the school of Boston transcendentalists," and that he was "one of the most noted and undoubtedly one of the best absurd contributors to 'the Dial'" While severely criticising Cranch for being affected and bizarre, Poe also says: "He seems to me to possess unusual vivacity of fancy and dexterity of expression, while his versification is remarkable for its accuracy, vigor, and even for its originality of effect." Cranch was possessed of considerable poetical ability, and he was read with much admiration by those who were in sympathy with transcendentalism.
The work of Cranch as a poet was appreciated by his fellow-transcendentalists, and they gave him the praise which was justly his due. Dr. F. H. Hedge said of him as a poet: "If genuine poetic feeling, sensibility to all that is poetic in nature and thought constitutes a poet, Mr. Cranch should rank high--none higher--among American poets. He possesses in rare measure what may be termed the poetic soul. He combines with poetic feeling a good degree of technical skill. He is an accomplished versifier; there is no slovenliness in his composition, no halting in his numbers. In every metre he attempts, he seizes its proper law and satisfies its requirements." Not less appreciative is the word of George William Curtis: "His work shows the graceful play of imagination, the sense of melody, the susceptibility to nature, the wayward variety of mood, which distinguish the poetic temperament; but more than that it reveals the natural singer, whose heart is always young, and for whom the glory never passes away from earth. There is also the same earnest thought, the curious questioning mind that challenges the great mystery which enfolds us."
In his first volume of poems Cranch showed himself a genuine transcendentalist. This was especially apparent in "Gnosis," first printed in "The Dial." This is one of the few poems in which the spiritual philosophy found a perfect statement.
In another of his poems the more affirmative nature of his belief presents itself, and it shows his deeper religious convictions.
Volume I, 1-5. Reprinted by Kenneth Walter Cameron. Transcendental Books, 1973.
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