Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
Joseph Brown Ladd (17641786)
JOSEPH BROWN LADD was born at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1764. Of the history of his youth we know no more than that his parents were poor, though of reputable character, and that he manifested an early love of study. He became a physician, and had just entered upon the world, with good success and flattering prospects, when a strange peculiarity of events gave a sudden and remarkable turn to his destiny. His life is marked with a character of singularity, for it realizes the dreams of romance, and presents as striking a case of ill-starred love as ever furnished a theme for the novelist or poet.
Ladd possessed by nature a warm susceptible heart, and a lively fancy. His early days were passed amid privations, but his exuberant spirits and imaginative turn of mind made amends for this lack of the gifts of fortune, and secured him enjoyments in his penury. He became attached to poetry, first as an amusement, and afterwards as a solace and refuge from the troubles and mortifications which beset him. His warm fancy, and quick susceptibility of feeling, kindled this attachment into enthusiasm, and carried him into a dreaming state of existence. His imagination reposed in legions of sunshine and bliss, and pictured every scene in glowing colors. He lived in an ideal world. When he first entered upon his professional studies, this romantic delirium was somewhat sobered away, but an incident revived it in its full ardor. He formed an attachment which was not requited. It was towards a lady whose feelings were directly the reverse of his own. She had good sense, and a sober, well regulated mind; but constitutionally frigid and unimaginative, she had no sympathy with the rapturous flights and paroxysms of her enthusiastic lover. It does not appear that his person or general character was objectionable in her eyes, but she took alarm at his passionate manner of wooing, and the fervid and soaring tone of his aspirations: these belonged to a refinement of feeling which she could not comprehend, or did not relish. Our bard made the most zealous and persevering attempts to win her favor, but she viewed him with an eye of distrust. She was no poet,no admirer of the muses; she could not feel the fire of inspiration,could not respond to the emotions kindled by the glowing temperament of the man who sought her love. To her, it was extravagance, and frantic excess. Notwithstanding the earnestness and sincerity with which he pressed his suit, she repelled his addresses constantly and firmly. It appears strange that an object, whose feelings and taste were so widely different from his own, should have so strongly attracted his regard; but either he had not a true conception of her character, or the violence of his love caused him to disregard the dissimilarity in their minds. It is indeed affirmed, that he was not violently enamored at first, but that his passion grew by being repelled, and that he no sooner found his object unattainable, than, with the disposition so natural to men, to value highly whatever is beyond their reach, he exalted her in imagination into a being of transcendent excellence, and his susceptible heart was kindled with a most intense flame. The more firmly the lady repulsed him, the more vehemently did he urge his addresses. He could not believe that a passion so ardent and sincere as that which he felt, could fail to move the heart of his mistress, and the coldness with which she steadily met his protestations of love, only caused a persuasion that he was not fervent and earnest enough. He found her inaccessible, and his solicitation hopeless; but desperate as his case was, he continued his assiduities, and occupied his mind with this romantic and unfortunate passion to the last hour of his existence.
In the prosecution of his hopeless suit, he called to his aid the powers of his muse. He committed his woes to verse, and the lady was annoyed with a multitude of poetical epistles, in which the strength of his affection, and the keen fine-toned sensibility of his feelings, are most eloquently displayed. In common cases, we are inclined to doubt the sincerity of that passion which can vent itself in the artificial and labored utterance of verse; and Doctor Johnson has declared, that a man who courts his mistress in rhyme, deserves to lose her. But the truth of our poets grief is not to be doubted. A convincing earnestness marks every line that he utters. The unhappiness under which he was suffering is depicted in language too earnest to allow us to believe it a fiction. There is a tone of deep, sincere feeling in these outpourings of his sorrow, that must have come from the heart. He called these epistles, The Letters of Arouet to Amanda. The lady continued inexorable, and Ladd becoming weary of so much ineffectual endeavor, yet not at all cooled in his passion, resolved to tear himself from his beloved Amanda, with the hope that absence and new objects would exert their usual influence in estranging his mind from the griefs which preyed upon his repose. He accordingly sailed for South Carolina, intending to remain there and practise his profession, but though at a distance from the object which had aroused his passion, it lived on with undiminished force; absence could not weaken it. Amanda became the wife of another; our poet received the informationhe could no longer hope, but he loved still.
In 1786 he became engaged in a newspaper controversy, in Charleston, upon some political matter. This led to a personal misunderstanding, and a challenge was sent him, and accepted. A duel was fought, and Ladd received a wound which was not considered dangerous; but this unhappy man was languishing in despair, and had become weary of life. He refused all medical aid, and a mortification ensued. He died in his thirty-third year.
A collection of his writings was published at Charleston in 1786, with the title of The Poems of Arouet. It is said this volume contains but a small portion of his best Poems, and that the most of his epistles to Amanda are now lost. Those which remain show his poetical talent in a favorable and striking manner. They are written with the full energy of feeling, and are marked with none of the stale conceits, and worn-out figures of common love ditties, but come gushing from the heart in a strain of deep, poignant, and undissembled sorrow. His other poems are not so impressive, for they want the fervor and heartfelt earnestness of his epistles, but they have ease, and liveliness of fancy. We are told that his volume was hastily compiled, and probably there are many of his pieces still extant, which are not included in it, as it was published soon after his death, at a distance from the region where he had passed the most of his days. Should any of these remains be discovered, we think their publication would be a service to the literature of the country, as well as a justice to the character of a person whose talents and misfortunes conspire to make him a signal object of interest.