In my hometown of Greenfield, Massachusetts, there is a sandstone structure called Poet’s Seat Tower atop a hill overlooking the town. I had climbed this hill and stood on top of the windblown tower many times in my life before I actually understood the origins and history of the structure.
It was built in 1912, replacing a wooden structure erected in 1879.
The spot was so named because poets have long been inspired by its lovely view, in particular, the Romantic poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. Tuckerman was born in 1821 to a prominent Boston family, studied law at Harvard, but moved to Greenfield while still in his mid-twenties where he devoted himself to the subjects he loved: literature, botany, and astronomy. That same year, 1847, he married Hannah Lucinda Jones. She died ten years later, after giving birth to their third child.
Tuckerman had always been of a reclusive nature, but after Hannah’s death, his solitude intensified. Strangely, he was a contemporary of another reclusive western Massachusetts poet, Emily Dickinson. Though Dickinson seemed to be acquainted with Tuckerman’s brother Edward, who taught botany at Amherst College, and also Tuckerman’s son and his son’s wife, she apparently knew nothing of Tuckerman himself and his poetry.
Though Tuckerman preferred to isolate himself in the country, he did travel abroad, and met Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He communicated with several prominent poets and writers of the time, namely Emerson, Hawthorne, and Longfellow. He published a volume of poetry in 1860. This seemed to be the high point of his career, and afterward returned to his seclusion. He continued to write poetry, but never again exposed himself to the world.
There was a revival of interest in Tuckerman in the early part of the twentieth century, and several of his poems appear in anthologies, but he remains relatively unknown. He died in Greenfield on May 9, 1873. I’m not sure if he’s buried here in Greenfield or was sent back to his family in Boston, but I’d like to investigate and find out.
Tuckerman was a Romantic poet, and so wrote sonnets about nature and the emotions. There’s a mournful, haunting quality to his poems that I find fitting to the reclusive, grieving man and the moody New England landscape. Here’s a sample:
An upper chamber in a darkened house,
Where, ere his footsteps reached ripe manhood’s brink,
Terror and anguish were his cup to drink;-
I cannot rid the thought, nor hold it close;
But dimly dream upon that man alone;-
Now though the autumn clouds most softly pass;
The cricket chides beneath the doorstep stone,
And greener than the season grows the grass.
Nor can I drop my lids, nor shade my brows,
But there he stands beside the lifted sash;
And with a swooning of the heart, I think
Where the black shingles slope to meet the boughs,
And-shattered on the roof like smallest snows-
The tiny petals of the mountain ash.
Kind of sad and creepy. You can find more of his sonnets here.
My interest in Tuckerman came about because of a writing prompt I came across, calling for a story combining a local landmark and a special (maybe magical) stone. I immediately thought of Poet’s Seat Tower, and learned more about this structure that’s overlooked our town for a hundred years but I knew nothing about. I never did figure out how to link the tower with a special stone (and an almost famous local poet) in a story, but it’s composting in my brain for now, and maybe I will write it someday. For now, every time I go up to the tower, I’ll imagine Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, sitting upon the lip of the rock, composing his odes to nature, his grief, and the universe itself.