Monday, September 22, 2008

This Is The Hour Of Lead

Under The Water

The Sad Drowning of a Son of Old Sol Smith

Pulled in by the Undertow at Biddeford Pool

Our readers will learn with profound regret that Mr. Asa W. Smith, of (St. Louis), son our late well-known fellow-citizen, Mr. Sol. Smith, came to his death by drowning at Biddeford Pool, yesterday morning, while bathing. The dispatches, which are very meager and unsatisfactory, say that every effort was made to save him, but without avail. Whether he was taken with cramp or drawn out by the undertow, or died from exhaustion is a matter of conjecture; but most likely the latter, as the lifeboat seems to have been brought into requisition and strong efforts made to rescue him.

The Bathing Ground

Those who have visited this place of resort will remember that the bathing ground is distant half a mile or more, southeast, from the little hamlet called The Pool. All boats and sailing craft lie at the wharf, three quarters of a mile west of the beach, and these boats, in order to be used, would have to be carried across the neck of land, through the village, and so down to the shore, or rowed down through the harbor and around East Point, and its rugged reef of rocks, a distance of five or six miles, so that the chance of rendering any of these boats of any avail in such an emergency would be desperate enough...

In all likelihood, young Smith was swimming at the usual hour with the bathers, at 11 o'clock, and ventured too far or was drawn out by a hidden reflux of the tide, which is, we are told, sometimes the case, where the rollers are very heavy at the nothern end of the beach, and after a gallant struggle for life was

Compelled To Succumb

before the boat could be gotten to him. Doubtless, too, everything which kind hearts and strong arms could do was done. No doubt the brave skippers pulled well and heroically with their life-boat, straining and tugging every nerve to the rescue...But it seems to have been in vain.

Diis Aliter Visum

Asa W. Smith was the seventh son of "Old Sol"-called such by everybody, out of regard rather than derision or disrespect-yet the first to join his father in the eternal world. His age was 29. Mark Smith, the popular actor, we believe, is the elder of the brothers.

Probably no one of the young men of St. Louis could have been taken away whose loss would occasion such

General And Poignant Sorrow.

He was a friend and companion whose qualities of head and heart were of the rarest character. He was intelligent, quick-witted and humorous; honest, generous, genial and carried everywhere an influence which made him always the favorite of whatever social circle he mingled with. In his business he had been very successful, and no doubt, had he lived, would have proved one of our moust valuable and influential citizens. His loss will be long and most deeply deplored.

The Telegraphic Announcement

The following telegram, received at the banking-house of Asa Smith & Co., No. 208 North Third street, yesterday, conveyed to the brother of the deceased and friends the first information of the sad event:

Bidgeford Pool, Me., July 31.-S.P. Smith: Your brother Asa was drowned this morning, while bathing. Every effort was made with a lifeboat to save him. Your Mother desires you to come here at once. E.H. Whedon.

In response to the telegram, Mr. Smith started last evening.

-The Milwaukee Sentinal, August 3, 1874 (From The St. Louis Democrat)


After I read the above account of Smith's death, I started thinking about Emily Dickinson's poem After great pain a formal feeling comes. It's odd how the brain works.


After great pain, a formal feeling comes--
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Toombs--
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round--
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought--
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone--

This is the Hour of Lead--
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons recollect the Snow--
First--Chill--then Stupor--then the letting go--


This has always been one of my favorite poems. And I have no idea what it's about. Probably something about death or bees, I really don't know. In fact, I really never understand what Emily Dickinson is talking about. I just think she has the most unique voice in all of literature.

But I do know that if Dickinson had gotten out more and had been a baseball fan, she could have dedicated that poem to Asa Smith upon his passing.


3 comments:

Mike S said...

As a former English Major (before Garrison Keillor made it Sexy) I think that poem is talking about the stages of the acceptance of death - the issue that Kubler-Ross wrote about, perhaps, not entirely sure.

And as someone who was there when his mother passed away, I can tell you (if you have never experienced it yourself) there is a sense of healing when someone who has lingered long finally passes on. For years i dreaded the moment of knowing my mother was gone, but at that moment was actually one of the more serene and peaceful moments in my life.

One of the things that I respect about this time period is the way they handled death - its a fascinating mixture - somewhat more morbid (forgive me if i am wrong, but isn't this the time period where the deceased was often laid out at their own home as opposed to a funeral parlor?) but strangely enough more respectful as well. Now a days when someone passes on its a quick process from showing to funeral - easier, perhaps, but leaving an emptiness after the final act.

Jeff Kittel said...

Being an English Major has never been sexy.

The poem is certainly about grief and a kind of fragile acceptance of it. In my own mind, I've linked it to death or I wouldn't have thought about the poem after reading the account of Smith's death but on a more rational level it could be about anything that brings pain and grief. "The stiff Heart," "The Feet, mechanical," "the letting go"-it could all just as easily be applied to how one feels at the end of a relationship or any large, traumatic life-changing event.

I always liked what Harold Bloom said about Dickinson: something along the lines of that her greatness lies in her weirdness. This poem certainly displays a touch of both.

Jeff Kittel said...

And you're right about the fact that death was dealt with differently then . Death was more immediate, natural, and familiar than it is now. I don't know for sure but I would imagine that life expectancy was around 45 for men and probably less for women. Infant mortality was very high.

It was just a different world and that's one of the fascinating things about studying the period. But it can also be a struggle to understand it. I struggle with trying to separate my preconceptions about baseball and approach the 19th century game on its own terms. While I've gotten better with it, I've discovered another problem and that's the fact that I tend to separate the 19th century game from its own time and space. I think of, for example, Asa Smith as a baseball player rather than as a person who lived during the Civil War era. It's weird when the disconnect goes away for a moment and you see the player as a person in that time period.