I recently bought a small archive of manuscript poems from little known turn-of-the-century American poet William Brunton. Brunton, so far as I have been able to piece together, was a minister in Massachusetts and an active occasional poet, who published a surprising number of poems in newspapers and other (generally) non-literary venues from the 1880s to about 1910.
In this, Brunton reminds us that poetry occupied a slightly larger slice of the public eye than it does today; perhaps the places modern Americans most often encounter poetry is in children’s books (and perhaps, remarkably, in some Young Adult books, where the “novel in verse” remains a real thing) and sentimental greeting cards. But at the end of the nineteenth century, one might still see a poem printed in the newspaper, even one's local paper.
|Brunton's manuscript of "The Saintly Chimes"|
Given my recent blog post on Longfellow and his interest in Anglo-Saxon literature and history, I was astonished to find one poem of Brunton’s on an Anglo-Saxon topic, “The Saintly Chimes.”
I will transcribe the poem below (I realize that this image may not be immediately legible), but it was striking to me to find this because it stands as one more example of how widely the interest in the Anglo-Saxon period spread, a century or so ago.
The Anglo-Saxon period here, is little more than a setting for this little Christian tale, and yet the tale is not set in Chaucer's day. The Anglo-Saxon period was apparently understood to be familiar enough to function with only the barest reference: here, a name ("Lingulf") and really nothing else specific.
Once I'd read this poem, of course, I wondered if I could trace the story. Remarkably, a Google search on the phrase "Saintly Chimes" does not turn up any published version of the poem (though it may have been printed in a newspaper or other source that hasn't yet been effectively digitized), and a search for the words "Lingulf" "Saxon" and "goats" turns up exactly one relevant item, a short paragraph from a periodical titled The New Unity, that reads as follows:
"Lingulf, an old Saxon herdsman, sold his flock that he might put bells into the tower of the minster at St. Albans, and whenever he heard these bells ringing he said, "How sweetly do my sheep and goats bleat to-day." So we may joyously sacrifice the lower in the interests of the higher, that we may become builders of that permanent church building which is ever rising" ("The Tower of Babel: A Sermon Preached in All Souls Church, Chicago, December 5, 1897, by Jenkin Lloyd Jones," New Unity new series vol. 6 , 1102-08, at p. 1106).
Brunton's poem, one guesses, may well have been inspired by this very passage; so far I've been unable to trace any older source for the tale: I'd love to hear if there's an earlier source for the story. Of course, it may also be the case that the influence goes the other direction, from Brunton's poem to Jones's sermon.
Here is Brunton's poem:
The Saintly Chimes
O'er his devotion deep I brood,
A tale of other days,
Lingulf, a Saxon herdsman good,
Desired to do God praise;
At old St. Albans did he live,
In that Cathedral town,
And of his flocks did freely give,
To win it fair renown:
He sold his goats and sheep so fine,
And chime of bells he bought;
Their voices praised the great divine,
And gladdened him in thought:
How sweetly bleat my sheep to-day,
The herdsman said in glee,
As out they rang from far away
In holy melody!
And we though centuries apart,
And silence falls between,
Can take the music to our heart
And keep his memory green:
For those that help the church in love
By giving of their good,
Prolong the chime of bliss above,
And join his brotherhood!