Swift speed crevalle over that watery plain,
Swift over Indian River's broad expanse.
Swift where the ripples boil with finny hosts,
Bright glittering they glance;
And when the angler's spoon is over them cast,
How fierce, how vigorous the fight for life!
Now in the deeps they plunge, now leap in air
Till ends the unequal strife.
It may be hard to imagine that once upon a time, artists and writers thought of Long Island New York as a destination for farm scenery, fishing and hunting and other 'field and game' sport. But from Daniel Webster to William Cullen Bryant, and from Currier to Ives, that's what the region was to 19th century America.
Following the pushing through of the Erie Canal in 1825, making New York City the flagship of the 'Empire State,' Manhattan island increasingly became the number one city in America, superseding Boston and Philadelphia in commerce and publishing. Writers flocked to the city to work in newspapers and magazines whose reach stretched more profoundly across the westward expanding nation than those in other Eastern Seaboard cities.
One such writer was a man by the name of Isaac McLellan, who turned from the lawyering trade in Boston to that of Sport And Field writer in New York City. For the second half of his life Isaac McLellan, a kind of 19th century Ernest Hemingway, lived and worked in Manhattan, but increasingly called Greenport, Long Island his home.
Nearly forgotten now, McLellan - who was born in Portland Maine in 1806 and lived until 1899 -- was in his day one of the most popular writers of outdoor and field sportsmen poetry. And like his close friend William Cullen Bryant, he chose Long Island as a place to follow his rural pursuits. Not horticulture, however -- unlike the Roslyn-based Bryant, it was McLellan's passion to hunt and fish.
Though he was born in Maine, McLellan grew up in Boston from the age of six, before returning to Bowdoin college and graduating in 1826. He practiced law for a time in Boston, while contributing prose and verse to such popular numbers of the day as Willis's "Monthly Magazine," the "New England Magazine," William Cullen Bryant's "New York Literary Gazette," and the "Knickerbocker." He was for a time associate editor of the Boston "Daily Patriot," and afterward published a monthly magazine that finally was consolidated with the "Weekly Pearl."
It was during this period that he became the author of such popular poems as the touching eulogy "The Fall of the Indian" (Boston, 1830); "The Year" (1832); "Journal of a Residence in Scotland," from the manuscripts of H. B. McLellan (1834); and "Mount Auburn" (1843).
Coming to New York to pursue his writing trade, McLellan soon made his mark. The most notable of his early poems was "The Death of Napoleon," and "New England's Dead," a sample of which shows that he was anchored in the traditional verse techniques which preceded the free-verse Walt Whitman.
NEW ENGLAND’S dead! New England’s dead!
On every hill they lie;
On every field of strife, made red
By bloody victory.
Each valley, where the battle poured
Its red and awful tide,
Beheld the brave New England sword
With slaughter deeply dyed.
Their bones are on the northern hill,
And on the southern plain,
By brook and river, lake and rill,
And by the roaring main.
Another highly regarded poem during the era was The Fall of the Indian. Though modern criticism tends to dismiss the wistful remembrances of Native Americans during the 19th century as a kind of apologist paean, the sense of reverence and loss is palpable in McLellan's poem.
In The Fall of the Indian, exerpted here, McLellan states in an introduction to the poem, he is attempting to flesh out through poetry 'a superstition formerly prevalent in certain sections of the country, that the spots most frequented by the tribes of Indians, and especially their burial places, are still visited by the spirits of the departed.'
Sweet is this spot upon the mountain's side
A lonely grot, with many a tree o'er head
Down its smooth slope a rivulet's bubbling tide
O'er mossy stone and golden sand is led...
...Tradition hath full many a wizard tale
Of spirits flitting in this mountain grot.
Oft, when at night the dreary winter gale
Piles the deep snows around the shepherd's cot
The crone repeats her legends of this spot...
...Tells of dim forms, seen by moonbeams pale...
Here once the Indian pitched his tent
Or raised his cabin on the toppling crag
Here watched with leveled shaft, and warbow bent
The shaggy bison, and the antlered stag...
That scene has chang'd! the Indian's reign is o'er -
No more seen the flashing of his oar
And his bright spear is o'erspread with rust...
...Tribe after tribe hath vanished in Time's tide,
And old Oblivion oe'r them waves his pinions wide!...
...The Pequod from his favorite stream hath fled,
The Narragansett slumbers in his grave,
The Mohawk lies with his forefathers dead,
The Mohegan sleeps by Mystic's wave...
The brindled wolf, grey moose and mountain cat
have fled in fear before the white man's face
E'en the old woods, 'neath which the great tribes sat,
Fail from the soil...
...But men say that oft beside the forest edge
By the white moon, those Indian tribes are seen!
Here a tall warrior leans upon his spear,
Or damsels move in silent dances round,
Some raise their bows as if the foe were near,
In all their ranks reigns silence most profound --
All voiceless as the dead, that slumber in the ground.
Before long McLellan's lyrics, whether they were about Napoleon, Native Americans, or aspects of American History, were distributed far and wide. The former classmate of Longfellow, and friend of Bryant, was hailed by Oliver Wendell Holmes and Daniel Webster, among others.
He was called on to write popular broadsides, as in 1855, during a national campaign to urge the saving of Washington's derelict Mount Vernon. In a broadside published that year and addressed to the Women Of America, he urged their assistance in raising funds for the restoration:
Sisters of this wide-spread land
Come link'd with flowers, come hand in hand,
A filial, reverential band;
Come from gray hut, from sumptuous hall,
Snow-headed age, and youthful bloom,
Singing sweet hymns, approach this tomb,
Exalt our Temple, let it climb
to heaven, majestic and sublime.
However, it was McLellan's passionate love of out-door recreation, and his numerous poems on field-sports, that gained for him the title of "The Poet-Sportsman." Long before Ernest Hemingway carved a cleft-jawed niche for himself in the field, McLellan shared with Alfred B. Street the title 'Laureate of the woods and waters.'
Prior to his coming to New York City, among the shooting-resorts that he frequented were Cohasset, Plymouth, and Marshfield, known as the rural home of Daniel Webster. In fact his relationship with Webster was a strong one - through the courtesy of his host, the poet spent two seasons at Marshfield, occupying one of the farm-houses that were owned by Mr. Webster.
But by 1851 McLellan had moved to New York City to devote his attention to literature. And because of his interests in outdoor sports, it was not long before Isaac was headed east. First it was the Great South Bay and the Shinnecock area, where he was found duck shooting and establishing residence. In the 1870s, he was found on Shelter Island at a boarding house belonging to the Phillips family. According to accounts of the time, after a few years as a guest he built a little cabin on the hill back of the Phillips house, and during the summer he spent many hours there reading, and writing for the magazines, and shooting at a mark with his rifle.
Increasingly attached to the region, McLellan decided, by the 1880s, to reside in Greenport, and he purchased a home near the harbor there.
That's where he completed "Poems of the Rod and Gun," edited, with a sketch of the author, by Frederick E. Pond (New York, 1886). In the book, McLellan covered an extraordinary spread of subjects, poems about sheepshead, whiting, mackerel, seabrant, polar bears and kingfisher.
A uniquely interesting copy of this book may be viewed in the "Long Island Room" at the Smithtown Library. It has inserted in it a letter in it from McLellan, in his own handwriting, for one. And there are couple of newspaper clippings in from a Brooklyn paper which no longer exists, announcing his 91st birthday party at the home of Dr TL Ireland, including a reference to where he was going to live, 'to a cottage south of the railroad tracks' and calling him the Good Gray Poet (which one normally hear's associated, of course, with Walt Whitman).
The book contains a nicely written memoir about McLellan, and the poetry -- which takes the reader to all the continents (Kamchatka, India, Africa, the American West, hunting Louisiana panther, to Florida, Mexico, Australia, Patagonia, even Lapland and Switzerland and Antarctica). In the fishing section are all the creatures, rare and ordinary, you might imagine -- blackfish, porgies, porpoise, striped bass, mangrove snapper, pompano and more.
There are a couple of poems about his adopted home, Long Island, like this one, which starts
I wander daily by thy shore
Thy rocky shore, Long Island Sound
And in my little boat explore
The secrets of they depth profound
I trace the great brown rocks far down
O'er which the salt tides ebb and flow
Encrusted with their rugged shells
Rocks where the ribbon'd seaweeds grow
Another contains a reference to some condemned War of 1812 battleship, "The Ohio," which burned down in Greenport Harbor May 19, 1864, it was the flagship of Commodore Isaac Hull, who was McLellan's relative and the commander of Old Ironsides, No spar or mast no rigging left/of all her panoply bereft/a helpless wreck this ship of fame/lies here a holocaust of flame.
All in all it is a tour de force. Isaac McLellan had produced a book of field and stream book poetry that remains, over a hundred and twenty years later, a collectors' item among those who pursue outdoor sports, and earned him the well-deserved title of America's "Poet-Sportsman."