“”Practice any art,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote.  “…music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage…

“Practice any art…no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

Ira Sayles, 1817-1894, practiced art, writing essays and poems throughout his long life.  He shared them with friends. He enclosed them in family letters. He submitted them to regional newspapers and sought wider publication.  Ira yearned to belong among the publicly acclaimed, a recognized poet, an admired intellectual.  He had to settle for living among regular folks.

It didn’t stop his writing, though, and the samples of his art that survive are a testament to Ira’s experiences and soul searching. 

In a poem written 15 December 1872 and published in The Sabbath Recorder on 9 January 1873, Ira celebrates the biblical account of Jesus’ birth.  Each verse ends with “Peace on earth, good-will to man!” 

Is this refrain a peek into Ira’s soul?

Ira served in the Union Army in the early years of the Civil War, discharged after only a short campaign because his 44 year old body couldn’t bear the field conditions of a soldier, much to his dismay. He returned to his wife, Serena, and three sons to resume teaching at Alfred University, Alfred, New York. During early Reconstruction, Serena directed Ira to purchase land in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, where the family relocated in 1870. Her money, her land, in her name, feme sole.  The situation proved acrimonious, as Ira sought to retire and write. Serena, presumably, was determined to teach, farm, or both. 

By the poem’s wintry date, Ira was estranged from Serena, who stayed with their three boys down in Virginia.  Ira returned to his birth family in Pennsylvania.  Eventually, the 55 year old would resume teaching, traveling throughout northern tier counties of Pennsylvania and the southern tier counties in New York to fill vacancies in one room schoolhouses.

Do these stanzas tell us more than Ira was a Christian? Perhaps this poem was a way for Ira to process grief, shame, restlessness; to find peace on earth and good-will to Ira in the new year.

            "Christmas Choral"

 Music floats upon the night-wind,
            Watching shepherds list the strain:
Gently steals the anthem earthward;
            Echo whispers its refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
Seers had heard the wondrous story,
            Longed to seeMessiah’s reign,
“Come! O come! thou King of Glory!”
            Echo caught the faint refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
Cradled in a humble manger, 
            Nursed by earth’s most lowly train,
Lo! He comes, th’ Almighty stranger!
            Echo murmurs the refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
Magi see the astral token
            Shimmering o’er Judea’s plain;
Death’s gloomy night , they know is broken;
            Echo floats the sweet refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
Age on age hath borne its burden,
            Filled with human woe and pain, 
Since Faith first beheld her guerdon:
            Echo thunders the refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
Brighter gleams that astral glory,
            As the ages rush amain;
Echo louder peals the story,
            Thundering out that sweet refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
                                    Ira Sayles
Knoxville, Tioga Co., Pa., 
Wednesday, Dec. 25, 1872

Source

Sayles, Ira. Poem “Christmas Choral,” The Sabbath Recorder, 9 Jan 1873, v29 i2 p6; digitally accessed on Fulton History (FultonHistory.com) 10 Dec 2018.  Transcribed by D. Kay Strickland. 

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