Augustus Goodyear Heaton, a.k.a. Augustus George Heaton, had his middle name legally changed at the age of 78 in 1922. Born in Philadelphia in 1844, he passed much of his career in Washington, D.C. He died in Sibley Hospital there in 1930 and was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. On the right is the photo on the frontispiece of a book of his published when he was 60 (figure 1):
He is best known as the artist of The Recall of Columbus (figure 2), one of the giant canvases in the U.S. Capitol Building, in the east corridor of the Senate Wing:
This painting was later engraved by an unheralded Bartleby of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for the 1892 slate-blue 50-cent U.S. Postage stamp in the Columbian series, Scott catalog number 240. (Figure 3: See Brookman’s United States Postage Stamps of the 19th Century, v. 3, (New York, 1967) 76-77 on the stamp.)
Heaton also painted Hardships of Emigration in 1892 in Oklahoma. The hardships of the emigrants were nothing compared to those of the painting which, according to Brookman (see above, pp. 182-83), was found to have been badly damaged by decades of storage in a “tin-roofed building” in Black Mountain, N.C. Several other paintings of Heaton’s stored there were also so badly damaged that the lot was burned with the blessings of Heaton’s heirs after Heaton died in 1930.
No photograph or other image of the oil painting survives besides the engraved vignette for the U.S. 10-cent gray-violet postage stamp issued in 1898 in conjunction with the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, Scott catalog number 290 (figure 4). The vignette for that stamp was engraved by Marcus W. Baldwin for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
As a benchmark of his popularity today, an approximately 1.5 x 3-foot landscape painting of his was on offer to “Buy now” on eBay for approximately $2,000 as I wrote this in August, 2019. He painted a lot of portraits: for example, Varina Howell Davis, of all people.
Heaton was, as he deposes in the preface to his volume of collected poems, Fancies and Thoughts in Verse (Boston 1904), an artist first, but a poet by predilection.
On page 182 of that collection lies a poem with a riddling title, “To M.L.O.” An exact and full copy of this poem is carved as an epigram on a tombstone in Glenwood Cemetery in Washington, D.C. (figure 5):
The stone commemorates Mary Lackland Oliver (1865-1904) and her mother Mary Elizabeth Oliver (1841-1899). Here’s the poem from Heaton’s book in case my photo makes the stone hard to read:
Of course you immediately filled in the blanks and saw that the poem’s riddling title is meant to be understood “To M[ary] L[ackland] O[liver],” and that the unexplained date at the foot of the poem in the book, 28 July 1904, is the date of her death as recorded on her stone.
The verses are uniformly iambic pentameters 10 beats long, thus: sś sś sś sś sś, where ś is a syllable getting stress. A, B, C, & D mark rhyme patterns.
A présence óf a béauty ráre and hígh, A
A mínd of kéen actívitý and pówer (i.e., pów’r, a monosyllable) B
A cóurage thát could yéars of tóil endów’r B
With chéerfulnéss, a héart that cóuld dený A
5 No néed abóut her, príde that cóuld defý A
And híde her cáres, a náture thát each hóur B
Grew ín nobílitý and wás a bów’r B
Of blóoming lóve and fáith and cháritý; A
These wére the áttribútes of óne whose sléep C
10 Doth nów so sóon a lífe of hónor énd— D
A lífe we glóry ín, the whíle we wéep C
And, fór its géntle ínfluence, gráteful bénd, (-fluence, 1 syllable) D
Since Gód her sóul doth ín His bósom kéep C
And ángels áll her lóvelinéss atténd. D
The rhyme scheme ABBA•ABBA•CD•CD•CD conforms to an Italian (or ‘Petrarchan’) sonnet, where the first eight verses (“the octave”) examine something or state a problem, and the last six (“the sestet”) introduce a marked change of story and work to resolve it.
Here, the two quatrains of the octave list Mary Oliver’s good qualities; the volta, or 9th verse that changes the story’s character introduces the fact that the bearer of these fine qualities has died. A pious resolution follows.
An analysis of the way the ideas are arranged and the verses structured quickly illustrates the poet’s considerable skill (caesuras are marked ||, and if you have a smaller screen it won’t display quite right).
A présence óf || a béauty ráre and hígh, quality 1
A mínd of kéen || actívitý and pówer quality 2
A cóurage thát || could yéars of tóil endów’r
With chéerfulnéss, || quality 3, enjambed
a héart that cóuld dený
5 No néed abóut her, || quality 4, enjambed
príde that cóuld defý
And híde her cáres, || quality 5, enjambed
a náture thát each hóur
Grew ín nobílitý || and wás a bów’r quality 6, 2 clauses
Of blóoming lóve || and fáith and cháritý; quality 6, define bow’r
These wére the áttribútes || of óne (whose sléep sestet, first couplet
10 Doth nów so sóon || a lífe of hónor énd)— she dead
A lífe we glóry ín, || the whíle we wéep sestet, second couplet
And, || fór its géntle ínfluence, || gráteful bénd, quit yer moanin’
Since Gód her sóul || doth ín His bósom kéep sestet, third couplet
And ángels áll || her lóvelinéss atténd. because God & angels
The poet avoids numbing repetition of verses of one thought each in the quatrains. Qualities 1 and 2 do come in lines of their own, but Heaton makes quality 3 a longer thought, enjambing a prepositional phrase that modifies ‘endow’r’ into verse 4. At this point quality 4 begins at mid-verse 4 and so we have jazzy cross-verse expressions for qualities 3, 4, and 5. Quality 6 starts in mid-verse but is brought back to a stichic structure by adding a second clause and filling verse 8 entirely with a single end-stopped prepositional phrase describing ‘bow’r.’ See, too, how medial caesuras break the verses up, except, I think, for verse 12.
The sestet swiftly reveals a change—these qualities are no more. Then it effects a resolution by consoling us with the pride we can take in her life, and reminding us to be grateful for her good qualities which have brought her into communion with God and a retinue of angels.
This poem is no mean feat, Heaton no poet of meagre skill. The technical accomplishment on display here is impressive, and on top of meter the author has expertly used word placement within the verse, diction, and symbolism, and I shall spare you that.
When I look at Roman tombstones with verse inscriptions on them they are almost always vernacular and lack polish. There is a handful of really accomplished epigrams by poets like Marcellus of Side, Q. Sulpicius Maximus, and Vettius Agorius Praetextatus and his wife Aconia Fabia Paulina, but these are exceptions to the rule. Most are clearly the product of people who knew poetry—everyone did, the way one could once take knowledge of at least some biblical verse for granted in our society—but who had little or no professional acquaintance with composing it. So it comes out either sadly inept or stagey—undisciplined, in a word.
Others quoted famous poems and these repurposed verses or parts of verses gave a vicarious luster to a monument. In the case of Mary Lackland Oliver, however, we have the work of a real poet specifically written for her monument: as rare in America as Rome.