the ballad of seth boyden’s gift

by Alice Read Rouse

Image: The New York Public Library
Image: The New York Public Library

High in the Square his statue stands,
        INVENTOR carved beneath:
But he who crimsoned the lips of Spring
        Might wear a Poet’s wreath.

Old Newark sat in its bosky streets,
        Tidy and prim and serene;
Prankt with posies and orchard sweets
        To the fringe of its marshes green.

‘Twas after the fighting of 1812
        Seth Boyden came to town;
He’d licked the British,—and they’d licked him,—
        And he wanted to settle down.

Old Newark called to him potently,
        Though none but himself could hear
That clashing summons as it clanged
        On his prophetic ear:

None but himself see that clean blue sky
        With its white little chubby clouds,
Grimed with the reek of his chimneys tall,
        Grim with his black smoke-shrouds.

“Thou hast lent me talents ten, Lord God,”
        To his Maker deep he prayed:
“An Thou prosper me, I will give them back
        Tenfold increased,” he said.

Long with his cunning hands he wrought,
        Long with his seething brain,
That God might not require of him
        His usury in vain.

He watched the hedgerow’d village lanes
        Where tinkling cows browsed home
Herded by whistling barefoot lads,
        Great thoroughfares become:

Stone-paven streets where clicked the heels
        In castanetted tune
Of all new Newark’s gentlefolk,
        Shod with his shining shoon.

Malleable to his iron will,
        He bent earth’s iron bars:
The lightning Franklin had lured down,
        He flashed back to the stars.

A thousand men he kept at work,
        A thousand ships at toil,
A thousand ways of increase he
        Wrought out upon the soil.

At length in life’s cool afternoon,
        He paced his garden-place:—
A garden clipt from Newark’s youth,
        Gay with its old-time grace.

Outside his gates he heard the growl
        Of labor chained to the wheel,
The roar of his captured genii bound,
        The shriek of his tortured steel.

He thought of old Newark’s bosky streets,
        Tidy and prim and serene,
Prankt with posies and orchard sweets
        To the fringe of its marshes green.

He said: “I have had my work to do
        Thy lendings to increase,
Lord God:—to pay Thee back Thy loan
        Before my days should cease.

“Now, ere my death-hour strike, I would
        I might just pleasure Thee!
Give Thee and Newark some quaint gift
        All free from merchantry.”

Up from the garden-sward there breathed
        An exquisite bouquet:
Fresh, faint, and fragrant as a wine
        For fairies on Mayday.

And glancing down, Seth Boyden saw
        The wonder at his feet:
Wild strawberries like elfin cups
        Brimmed with ecstatic sweet:

Too frail for aught save dryades
        To taste with leafy lips,
Yet aromatic as the juice
        That Puck in secret sips.

Seth Boyden smiled: with careful skill
        He culled the perfect plants.
Through patient moons he wove his spells
        Till knowledge conquered chance.

He fed and watered, pruned and plucked,
        Till from his garden-sod,
There blazed a berry fit to feed
        A hero or a god!

This was the gift Seth Boyden gave
        To all his world for boon;
That Heaven might smile and Newark feast
        From April on through June.

For the great epic of his toil
        Heaped laurels are his meed:
And garlands for the loveliness
        Of that last lyric deed.

High in the Square his statue stands,
        INVENTOR carved beneath:
But he who invented strawberries,
        Might wear a Poet’s wreath!

Seth Boyden came to Newark in 1815, setting up a harness and leather shop not far from the site of the present monument in Washington Park. A plaque added to the statue’s base lists some of his numerous achievements, among them the discovery of processes to make malleable iron and patent leather, both crucial to Newark’s prosperity. The tablet also notes his success in strawberry hybridization.

Historian Alice Read Rouse submitted “The Ballad of Seth Boyden’s Gift” to the 1916 poetry competition from her home in Covington, Kentucky. It was one of thirteen prizewinning poems.

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