Edward Rowland Sill: An Early American Poet
Edward Rowland Sill was born in Windsor, Connecticut, in 1841. His mother's side of the family was religious, while his father's family was scientific. Deeply rooted in New England heritage, the Sill family could trace their ancestry back to Jonathan Edwards. Sill's background in religion and science led him to a life-long struggle between faith and doubt. He has been described as a "poet of antithesis, torn between intellectual conviction and spiritual question" (Ferguson 1). These qualities strongly shaped his personality as well as his writing style, and influenced him throughout his life as a poet and teacher.
As a child, Sill was weak and constantly in poor health, leading to a chosen life of seclusion. Although he remained active in his later years both teaching and writing, Sill constantly struggled with his introspective qualities. He was quiet and shy, despite a "talent for friendship" (Ferguson 22), which he displayed upon entering Yale at age sixteen. At Yale, Sill spent two years in academic rebellion, refusing to conform to general expectations, and instead choosing to think for himself and follow his thirst for knowledge. During his last two years at Yale he matured into a deep thinker, still yearning for ultimate knowledge. The poems Sill published in the Yale Literary Magazine signaled the start of his writing career.
Despite his university education, Sill remained indecisive about his future career. His love of knowledge pulled him in all directions, from writing to medicine. To make his final decision, he moved to California with his good friend Sextus Shearer. Ultimately, Sill spent a majority of his life writing and teaching, both on the East coast and the West. Constantly traveling across the country, he was torn between his two homes, and between his religious faith and scientific knowledge. Sill died on February 27, 1887, in Cleveland, Ohio. Ferguson concludes that, "To the end of his life he was, in his own phrase,
. . . a clouded spirit; full of doubt
And old misgiving, heaviness of heart
And loneliness of mind; long wearied out
With climbing stairs that lead to nothing sure,
With chasing lights that lure,
In the thick murk that wraps us all about. (201)
Edward Rowland Sill's thought and writing were both largely influenced by the works he read – namely Charles Dickens and especially Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whom he idolized as the "king of poets" (Ferguson 26). However, Sill often took advice from his close friends at Yale, with whom he shared his work. His friend, Henry Holt, arranged for the publication of Sill's first volume of poems. Sextus Shearer, Sill’s closest friend, guided him through years of indecision about his career and supported him in everything he attempted.
Ferguson often compares Sill to both Emerson and Thoreau. Like Emerson, Sill had deep family roots in the New England church; both men went through times of turning away...