Peeking Into Ira’s Soul


“”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. 

What’s Left

blowing-in-the-wind

bejeweled

Always the remnant
Of wind and fire and time
Is golden.

©2016~~Leslie Willoughby

Talented Tuesday: The Poet, Ira Sayles

Ira Sayles was born in Burrillville, Rhode Island on March 30, 1817.  He learned his letters by the age of three and as a child on the family’s Tioga County, Pennsylvania farm Ira spent every available moment reading.  After apprenticing with a Genesse Valley, New York cloth dresser for several years, Ira had saved enough money to continue his formal education at what became Alfred Academy, Alfred, New York. This voracious reader became a determined teacher and life-long learner, as well as an impassioned writer — of essays, articles, observations, and poetry.  There was no remedy for this urge to write; it was “constitutional, and eradication is death! You know, sir, ‘Poeta nascitur, – no fit.'”  [Poets are born, not made.]*

Ira Sayles, My Seventy-Fourth Birthday, (1891); Herrick Memorial Library Archives: Alfred, New York, accessed November 2012.Ira included poems in letters to friends and siblings; submitted a poem to be published with his daughter’s obituary; and while visiting his old stomping ground, had various selections published in the Alfred University paper.  Throughout his long career as principal, teacher, geologist, and  paleontologist, Ira kept up his art.  On March 30, 1891, Ira wrote My Seventy-Fourth Birthday, which he self-published in Washington, D.C. in between his work sessions with the United States Geological Survey.  The first stanza reads:

In the changeful days of Spring,

When the birds begin to sing,

When the sunshine and the storm

Chase each other, cold and warm,

When the lambs are shivering,

When the calves are quivering,

And anon the sunny ray

Brings a pleasure to the day,

From rosy morn to evening gray. —

At such a changeful time as this

My gentle mother’s loving kiss

Welcomed then her baby boy

To this varying Life’s alloy.  

*Ira Sayles, Letter to H. W. Longfellow, (1880); Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge.