Thursday, April 7, 2016

Sam Walter Foss—Gotta Luv Those Old Time Minor Poets

Sam Walter Foss

Another entry into the Dead White Guy sweepstakes, not-the-usual-suspect division.  Sam Walter Foss was a New Hampshire born, Brown University educated librarian who wrote a fresh poem every day for publication in the newspapers, enough for five published collections in his life time.  His poetry, in the rustic-voice-of-the-common-man style was popular with the public and a couple of them becoming oft-quoted staples of poetry anthologies.  But Foss is officialy designated a minor poet, a not-very-successful regionalist along the lines of the despised-by-the-cultural-guardians Hoosier Edgar Guest.   But Foss was deft and highly skilled at what he did.
I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for those damn minor poets.  Probably because I know with certainty that the only hope for my own reputation in the future depends on achieving at least that status—a cultural footnote and a future thesis opportunity for a desperate grad student.
Foss was born in the family home on a rural road near Candia, New Hampshire.  He lost his mother when he was only four years old.  Otherwise his experience was much like other farm children of the era—taking an increasing load of the farm chores year by year as he grew and attending a local school in the winter when his hands were not needed at home.  But he was a good and promising student.  The farm was prosperous enough for his father to be able to send him to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.  He was so highly regarded there as a student that upon his graduation in 1882 his name was inscribed on the University’s ceremonial mace.
After graduation Foss worked as a journalist, editor, and writer, somewhat itinerant professions that took him to various corners of New England.  He married the lovely daughter of a Methodist minister with whom he would have a daughter and a son and settled down as the librarian of the Somerville Public Library in Massachusetts.
He supplemented his income by writing a daily poem in the local paper, surely not terribly remunerative.  But the poems were so highly thought of that they were picked up and reprinted in papers around New England and beyond.  There were enough of them—and enough demand for them, that he was able to publish seven volumes of collected verse before his death.

Wiffs from the Wild Meadows, 1892, one of seven volumes of Foss's collected poetry.
Foss’s poems were no mere trifles—they tended to run to several metered and rhymed verses each.  They were often humorous, observational, wry but sympathetic comments on human foibles, with gentle moral lessons that did not clobber the reader over the head.  He celebrated the common man, but wished him better and wiser.  He spoke for tolerance and reason in matters of religion and had a perhaps naïve faith in progress—if that common man could shake the comfortable doldrums of the safely familiar.
Foss died at the relatively young age of 52 and was buried at North Burial Ground in Providence near his beloved Alma mater, Brown.
His most famous poem, The House by the Side of the Road was inspired by his boyhood New Hampshire home.
Foss's birthplace was celebrated as his House by the Side of the Road.

The House by the Side of the Road

He was a friend to man, and he lived
In a house by the side of the road -- Homer
There are hermit souls that live withdrawn
In the place of their self-content;
There are souls like stars, that dwell apart,
In a fellowless firmament;
There are pioneer souls that blaze the paths
Where highways never ran-
But let me live by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

Let me live in a house by the side of the road
Where the race of men go by-
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner’s seat
Nor hurl the cynic’s ban-
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I see from my house by the side of the road
By the side of the highway of life,
The men who press with the ardor of hope,
The men who are faint with the strife,
But I turn not away from their smiles and tears,
Both parts of an infinite plan-
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead,
And mountains of wearisome height;
That the road passes on through the long afternoon
And stretches away to the night.
And still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice
And weep with the strangers that moan,
Nor live in my house by the side of the road
Like a man who dwells alone.

Let me live in my house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by-
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish - so am I.
Then why should I sit in the scorner’s seat,
Or hurl the cynic’s ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

Sam Walter Foss
Although a dutiful, Church-going Methodist, Foss’s poems on religion were anything but orthodox and often expressed a spiritual universalism. 
The True Bible
What is the world’s true Bible—‘tis the highest thought of man,
The thought distilled through ages since the dawn of thought began.
And each age adds a word thereto, some psalm or promise sweet—
And the canon is unfinished and forever incomplete.
O'er the chapters that are written, long and lovingly we pore—
But the best is yet unwritten, for we grow from more to more.

Let us heed the voice within us and its messages rehearse;
Let us build the growing Bible—for we too must write a verse.
What is the purport of the scheme toward which all time is gone?
What is the great aeonian goal? The joy of going on.

And are there any souls so strong, such feet with swiftness shod,
That they shall reach it, reach some bourne, the ultimate of god?
There is no bourne, no ultimate. The very farthest star
But rims a sea of other stars that stretches just as far.
There's no beginning and no end: As in the ages gone,
The greatest joy of joys shall be—the joy of going on.
Sam Walter Foss
Foss’s second most widely read poem was a paean to hope and faith in his favorite common man, challenging him to a greatness and nobility he does not even suspect he has.  Words from the poem were once inscribed on a granite wall at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado springs to inspire cadets and officers, but they were removed in 2003 after the Academy began to admit women because Foss’s old fashion use of the word men to represent humanity was now thought exclusionary. 
The Coming American
Bring me men to match my mountains,
Bring me men to match my plains,
Men with empires in their purpose,
And new eras in their brains.

Bring me men to match my prairies,
Men to match my inland seas,
Men whose thoughts shall pave a highway
Up to ampler destinies,
Pioneers to cleanse thought’s marshlands,
   And to cleanse old error’s fen;
Bring me men to match my mountains –
   Bring me men!

Bring me men to match my forests,
Strong to fight the storm and beast,
Branching toward the skyey future,
Rooted on the futile past.
Bring me men to match my valleys,
   Tolerant of rain and snow,
Men within whose fruitful purpose
   Time’s consummate blooms shall grow,
Men to tame the tigerish instincts
Of the lair and cave and den,
Cleanse the dragon slime of nature –
   Bring me men!

Bring me men to match my rivers,
   Continent cleansers, flowing free,
Drawn by eternal madness,
   To be mingled with the sea –
Men of oceanic impulse,
   Men whose moral currents sweep
Toward the wide, unfolding ocean
   Of an undiscovered deep –
Men who feel the strong pulsation
   Of the central sea, and then
Time their currents by its earth throbs –
   Bring me Men.

—Sam Walter Foss


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