That strong character

For many months preceding the summer of 1896, Mr. Gibson had felt
himself failing in health. The strain of his long lecture-tours told
seriously upon his strength, and several times he suffered from fainting
attacks and vertigo, sometimes in the very presence of his audiences.
When he withdrew from the city in the early summer, it was with a
knowledge that his health was impaired, and the hope, as well, that in
Washington, at “The Sumacs,” he would find the quiet and the rest which
would restore the tone of his system and repair the wastes of excessive
work. But this hope was not to be fulfilled. He himself was depressed
and apprehensive, and his friends shared his fears. A slight improvement
seemed to come with midsummer, but proved illusory. On Thursday evening,
the 16th of July, he left his home to go after his mail at the village
post-office. Meeting a number of friends and acquaintances he sat down
outside the office for a chat with them. He appeared to be in excellent
spirits, and for an hour was quite himself. Then he turned to a
gentleman beside him and asked if there was anything wrong about his
speech. He said his voice seemed thick, and that he could not
articulate plainly. A book he held in his hand dropped to the floor
several times, and he seemed unable to retain his hold of it. Being
asked if he felt ill, he said that he did, and suggested that he should
walk to the residence of Dr. Ford. His friends prevailed upon him to
remain quiet, and one of their number hurried for medical aid. Drs. Ford
and Brown soon arrived, and they did all in their power for their
patient. A wagon was soon brought to the door, and Mr. Gibson was placed
in a chair in the wagon, but before they had reached his beautiful home,
“The Sumacs,” he had ceased breathing, and upon the friends who had
accompanied him was thrown the task of breaking the sad news to his wife
and children.

On Sunday, the 19th, occurred the funeral services, a tender and
sympathetic account of which was given in “Plymouth Chimes.”

“The village of Washington, Connecticut, has been made famous by the
‘Gunnery’ School, and by Mr. Gibson, its illustrious pupil, who received
within its walls the inspiration of his career. The forests, thickets,
and hillsides of that picturesque region furnished the favorite subjects
of his pencil and pen; and, after he had achieved professional success,
he established at Washington, among the friends of his boyhood, his
country home. Everybody there knew and loved him, and was proud of him.
And when death suddenly came to him, it was felt to be an element of
mercy in the shock of sorrow, that he was struck down in the midst of
happy intercourse with his neighbors.

“The funeral service, held on Sunday afternoon, July 19th, at his
residence, ‘The Sumacs,’ was keyed throughout to triumph and
thanksgiving, rather than gloom. The day was bright and cool; birds sang
about the house; wild flowers and green branches filled all available
spaces; and the crowd of neighbors sat in the pleasant rooms or out on
the porch beyond the open door.

“The Scripture, read by Mr. Carter, the Washington pastor, comprised
passages descriptive of the glory of God in nature, and of the triumph
and rest of the saints. The prayer, by Mr. Turner (formerly pastor at
Washington, and now chaplain at the Hampton Institute, in Virginia), was
similarly attuned to solemn exultation. The hymns (favorites of Mr.
Gibson) were ‘Love Divine,’ ‘Abide with Me,’ and ‘Upward Where the Stars
are Burning’–the last sung exquisitely as a solo; the two others, with
scarcely less tender sweetness, by the whole company.

“The address, by his life-long friend, Dr. R. W. Raymond, was, from
beginning to end, an expression of gratitude rather than grief. It
enumerated the features of the victorious, happy, fruitful, sincere,
loving, and devout life which had been sent as a blessing and
inspiration among men. Several anecdotes were related, illustrative of
Mr. Gibson’s sympathy with all living things, and of the surprising way
in which it was recognized and reciprocated.

“It was told, for instance, how he could take a wild bird from the
branch of a tree, caress it, and return it unharmed and unfrightened;
how strange birds would fly to him and light upon his shoulder; and how
even butterflies seemed to be attracted to him.

“The address closed with a beautiful poem, written for the occasion by
Dr. Raymond.

“Through shady roads the funeral procession of carriages and pedestrians
passed to the loveliest spot in Washington, the burial-ground, which
occupies the side of a hill, commanding a prospect of forest and meadow,
stream and mountain, full of peace and beauty. The grave was lined with
green branches and fringed with goldenrod; and after a hymn ‘The
Home-land’ and a prayer, the casket was gently lowered into this bower
of rest. And then, under the benediction of the sunset, the mortal body
of William Hamilton Gibson was left to its repose.”

The fine word spoken by Dr. Raymond on this occasion is one which should
have a lasting place among the memorials of his friend. It was in such
entire harmony with the spirit of the hour, with the memories which were
uppermost, with the sense of loss, and the still deeper sense of life
enriched and

[Illustration: _The Village Green_

_Washington, Connecticut_]

brightened by the earthly work which was ended, that it was instantly
recognized as at once synopsis and echo of Gibson’s career. Dr. Raymond

“I count it a great privilege to stand here this day, and utter the love
and sorrow of so many souls. Words are but feeble expedients for such a
task; yet there is, in one respect, a significant choice of words. Shall
we express grief or gratitude? Shall we measure our loss by the vacancy
it has left behind, or count with joy the treasure we have had, giving
God thanks that we had it so long and so abundantly? For my part, I
would not desecrate with the wailing of grief this sky of Sabbath peace,
or that face of serene triumph and repose. Let us measure our love and
our sorrow, then, in terms of gratitude. Thanks be to God for the
unspeakable gift to us of a victorious, happy, fruitful, helpful,
sincere, loving, devout, inspired life, which, once received among us,
we can never lose. Even the nearest and dearest and most bitterly
bereaved can comfort grief with gratitude.

“I say it was a victorious life. I knew William Hamilton Gibson when he
was a boy; and I knew the struggle of his early life, when, impelled by
an irresistible impulse towards art, and nature as its inspiration, he
steadily pursued that ideal, “not disobedient to the heavenly vision,’
until, in spite of the warnings of the would-be wise, and the carpings
of the would-be critical, he won for himself a recognition of his
genius and the love and thanks of multitudes whose lives he had enriched
and exalted by his work. He accomplished what he set out to do; and I
say his victorious life is in that respect a blessing to us, as showing
for our encouragement, in these days of change and failure, that a man
may still be lord of his circumstances, and, as in the affairs of the
heart, so also in the affairs of business, may win and wear his first

“But some men gain their victories at heavy cost, and bear always the
scars of the conflict. Not so he. His was a harmonious, happy life,
attuned to love and beauty and peace, and aflame with joy. And for this
reason it was a fruitful and helpful life. There was no power wasted in
friction or in blind resistance. He breasted waves of difficulty like a
strong, exultant swimmer cleaving his way through the opposing element.
Like some gay knight of chivalry, he went into battle with a song. And
whithersoever he came–handsome, eager, sympathetic, debonair–he was
the bringer of gladness.

“Because he wrought in an atmosphere of joy, his life was peculiarly
fruitful and helpful. The record of what he accomplished is indeed
amazing. I do not hesitate to say that only a happy man could do so much
so well. And that same joyous spirit made him a welcome guest at every
fireside and in every heart. What a delightful companion he was! How
many thousands who never saw his face have nevertheless found in his
pictures and his books that bright companionship! Is there anything
which the world needs so deeply or welcomes so heartily as such a
messenger of hope and cheer?

“In another respect this life was a boon to us. It was a simple and
sincere life, frankly and fully expressive of character. Many good and
dear people are so reserved or so disguised that their nearest friends
do not know them truly. And when we meet them, some day, in the land
where we shall know as we are known, we shall have to make acquaintance
with them anew, on the basis of the revelation of their real selves. But
some there are, whose lives express their souls. Heaven can only make
more radiant in them the features that we know already. Will Gibson will
be ‘Our Will’ forever, as he is ours to-day, though death has clothed
the dear face in the strange, new ‘light that never was on land or sea.’
God be thanked for a transparent life!

“But transparent does not mean shallow. This life was deep and strong,
because it was a life of all-embracing love and sympathy, and carried
the volume and energy of that spirit, receiving also in return, to swell
its own current, the tributary recognition of a wider realm than that of
the human race. We indeed loved him, as he loved us; but there are many,
thank God! of whom so much can be said. The same principle is exhibited
by few in their relations to the non-human world of life; and when we
see its manifestations, we are astonished or incredulous. I could tell
you many stories of the magnetic attraction which this true lover
exerted over wild creatures.

“I remember that once, when Dr. Lyman Abbott was visiting him here in
Washington, he pointed out a little brown bird in a tree, just over his
head, and while he talked, in his own charming enthusiastic way, about
the markings of its plumage, reached up into the tree, took the bird
from the bough, held it in his hand to illustrate his impromptu lecture,
and then replaced it, unharmed and unaffrighted, upon its shady perch.

“Perhaps that bird, dwelling near his home, knew him already. But there
could be no such explanation of the incident which occurred far from
here, when Mr. Gibson, sitting with friends on a hotel piazza, called
their attention to a humming-bird, hovering over the flowers before
them, and saying, ‘Would you like to see him nearer?’ put out his hand,
and the little creature, who would scarcely light on a blossom, rested
upon the finger of his new friend, and submitted to the inspection of
human eyes. Mr. Gibson was himself amazed at this proof of spontaneous

“He used to tell, with a sort of thankful awe, how one day, in Brooklyn,
he went through crowded, noisy streets to register his name as a voter,
in one of those barren, unattractive places which are ordinarily rented
by the State for this temporary purpose; and how, as he stood there in a
group of men, waiting for his turn, a white dove flew in from the
street, circled round the dingy room, alighted upon his shoulder,
received with murmuring delight his caresses, and then flew out. No one
knew whence it came or whither it went.

“And he told also, how once he went into the Brooklyn Library, to
examine a colored plate, representing a certain butterfly, which he
wished to reproduce in illustration of an article; and how, as he stood
with the book open before him, in the dim little corner-alcove which
used to be the office of his friend Mr. Bardwell, the librarian, a
butterfly of that very species fluttered around the great hall into the
alcove, and, hovering above his head, dropped at last upon the book, and
folded its wings by the side of its own pictures.

“We smile at such coincidences; but the fact that they happen over and
over again to one man suggests a coincidence beyond a mere accident–a
coincidence of life with life and love with answering love. Indeed, what
do we know of these wild creatures that surround us, and seem to be
drawn so easily to some of us? What have we done to lead us to know
them? We ignore them, or we chase and trap and slay them, or we imprison
them and play with them for our own amusement. How would it be if we
truly and unselfishly loved them?

“The apostle represents the whole creation as groaning and travailing in
pain, waiting for some new manifestation of the human children of God.
And the last word of our Master bids us go into all the world and tell
the glad tidings, not merely to every man, but to ‘every creature.’ Is
there not, then, an evangel of joy for those humbler companions of
mankind? When men shall have advanced so far as to cease hating and
oppressing one another, may they not still advance to a true sympathy
with all living things? And would not that make indeed a new heaven and
a new earth, populous with friendships? Of such a joyous consummation,
men like our brother whose life we celebrate to-day are prophets and
forerunners. Thank God for them!

“And they may also encourage us to stimulate a love of nature in our
growing children. We, who have formed our habits of human exclusiveness,
cannot say to ourselves in momentary enthusiasm, ‘Let us be as Will
Gibson was! Let us begin at once to cultivate the acquaintance of all
living things!’ We have outgrown the art. We stand embarrassed in the
presence of a squirrel or a bird, and, far from knowing how to attract
it, are fain to be satisfied if, by doing nothing at all, we avoid
scaring it. But our children, rightly encouraged, may develop
unsuspected powers of sympathy. In the great blessing which Mr.
Gibson’s work conferred upon us all, the dear old Master of the Gunnery,
who cherished into flame the spark of his first inspiration, lived, and
still lives, to see the reward of his own loving labors.

“But in another and yet higher aspect, this life was a precious gift to
us by virtue of its strong support to our faith in immortality. If all
men died in old age, and by slow decay of strength and faculty, it might
be hard to imagine the new birth and new beginning which should
rejuvenate them. But when a vigorous, full life is withdrawn from our
sight in the prime of its power, the very momentum of it carries our
faith forward with it. It is like an arrow, shot towards the forest by a
strong-armed archer. Has it ceased to move because, in swift mid-flight,
it enters the shadow and we suddenly lose sight of it?

“‘The avalanche that has slid a mile will not stop for a tombstone!’

“Still another hint of immortality–and a truer one–is given by the
character developed in earthly life. Science, it is true, affords us, as
yet, no demonstration of a future life. Perhaps we shall always rest for
that truth, as we do to-day, upon the word of our Lord, who went and
came so easily between the two chambers of the Father’s house. Yet
science has done much in these later times to illuminate His
declaration. It has hinted to us a God, patient and tender through the
ages of ages, carrying the world upon His bosom and nursing its slow
growth, from stage to stage, through crystal, cell, and soul, that He
might at last fill the spaces immeasurable with loving and beloved human
souls, as dear companions of Himself. He cannot afford, it seems to us,
to destroy perpetually the fairest fruits of this long preparation. They
have lain upon His heart and felt the pulse-beat of the Universe. He is
no Arabian tyrant, to slay them one by one, every morning. Having loved
His own, He loves them to the end, and beyond the seeming end–for love
is immortality. Our brother, who knew and loved every one of God’s trees
on these hills of Washington,–shall he not have access to the Trees of
Life, that grow by the River of Life? Shall his spirit, attuned already
to the divine harmonies of earth, be dumb amid the songs of heaven? Nay;
such completed souls declare the Life Eternal, echoing to us the
Master’s word of hope: ‘I live; and because I live, ye shall live also!’

“For this life of his was already a life with God. You will not
misunderstand me, if I say little of that part of his religious
experience which is common to all believers, or of that part of his work
which we technically call Christian work. It is not because I undervalue
repentance, faith in Jesus Christ, or communion and co-operation with
His visible church on earth. Still less is it because I need to make
out, in

[Illustration: _Gibson’s Grave_

_Washington Cemetery_]

behalf of one who found his religion in nature and science and art, a
claim to be considered as religious in some exceptional and peculiar
way. I could dwell on Mr. Gibson’s earnest labors as a member of our
Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, as an officer of one of our
mission-schools, as a leader of its prayer-meetings, and as a hearty
supporter of all its social and religious enterprises.

“Nor shall I speak of what he was to his dearest, in the household. Some
of us are better at home than abroad; some of us are less attractive to
those who know us best. I can only say of him, that his bright, warm,
transparent nature was the same inside his house as out of it; only,
they who knew him best received more radiance and inspiration than
others. I bid them join in our thanksgiving most heartily, who have been
most highly blest. Every stone in this beautiful dwelling, every picture
on its walls, every fairer picture seen through its windows, bears
perpetual witness of his presence and influence. And in more real and
immediate truth, his spirit abides and will abide here. I know it was
said, ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.’ But that was said
in the old, old days, before the light celestial had broken through the
valley of the shadow of death. Now we hear a Voice, saying, ‘Not as the
world giveth, give I. What I give, I take not away!’

“But turning from these views, without underrating them, I wish to
emphasize, in addition to his love and service in church and home, Mr.
Gibson’s peculiar communion with God in nature.

“Years ago, his studio here in Washington was in the same house with the
study of Mr. Turner, then pastor of the church. It was a happy
association for both, and gave rise to many a mutual confidence. And
yesterday, talking over with me the experience of those days, Mr. Turner
spoke a deep, true word when he said, ‘I always felt concerning Mr.
Gibson that he walked with God.’

“We are accustomed to think of those saints whose communion is close
with God that they sit and meditate, or kneel and pray, or in some way
withdraw themselves from distracting sights and sounds, in order to be
alone in the Divine presence. Perhaps we do not conceive of walking with
God as one would walk with the owner of a great estate, and hear him
tell what he had done or meant to do with this field or that. We forget,
perhaps, that God is in His world, and that whoso would keep company
with Him must find Him there.

“It was of Enoch that it was first said, ‘He walked with God’; and in
the ‘Book of Enoch,’ which was so popular a book in the time of Christ,
and is quoted in the New Testament, the patriarch is in fact represented
as guided by God upon a journey through the universe. It was thus that
our friend walked with God.

“He walked, the friend of every life
In flower or insect, beast or bird;
He knew their pleasure and their strife
Their sorrows shared, their secrets heard.

“Bending their leafy diadems,
The trees to him a welcome breathed;
The blossoms on a thousand stems
To him their deepest hearts unsheathed.

“The bright-eyed squirrel showed him where
Its highway ran along the fence,
And, inly glad to see him there,
Fled, not too far, in shy pretence.

“The tilting songster on the bough,
The callow nestling in its place,
With quick perception learned to know
This lover of their hunted race.

“Around him, like an angel throng,
The countless host of gauzy things,
With airy flight and murmurous song
Unfurled the glories of their wings.

“For the world’s life within him thrilled;
And every earthly path he trod
To his responsive soul was filled
With works and ways and words of God.

“Then spake a dearer voice: ‘My son,
A life yet wider shalt thou see;
Leave these fair hills of Washington
And walk on fairer hills with Me!’

“Amen! So may we walk with God!”

* * * * *

Other tributes were no less appreciative, and may serve as side-lights
upon his inner and personal life. They show how he impressed many men
and many minds, in various and yet concurrent ways. Mr. Clarence
Deming, speaking to the friends and graduates of the “Gunnery” school,
emphasized the traits in which he was a type of the best forces
inherited from his early training.

“And so to-night it is not Gibson the writer, Gibson the nature-lover
and nature-hunter, and Gibson the artist, whom we should be recalling,
so much as Gibson the man; and the thought persistently comes back to me
over and over again that he was our greatest Gunnery boy, not merely in
reputation before the world, not by virtue of pen and brush, but by the
fact that he was the perfect and consummate product of the old Gunnery
scheme of education, and a kind of analogue of Mr. Gunn himself. If
there was one thing sought by Mr. Gunn most strenuously it was the
seeding in a boy of those qualities which in him, as man, should fruit
into that grandest trait expressed in the English tongue by the word
_character_. It is a subtle term, hard to define and to expound. I can,
perhaps, call it the power in man compounded by nerve force, habit, and
conscience which makes him fearlessly righteous and sets him among his
fellow-men in organized society as a living and forceful influence, ever
active for things good.

“Now, I repeat, it is on that phase of Gibson’s personality and life
work that I love to think, and to recall him as our loftiest incarnation
of Gunnery character. He, perhaps, lacked the initiative force of Mr.
Gunn, but when it came to the test of principle not even our old master
surpassed the pupil. Do you remember how outspoken Gibson was when it
came to any question of wrong? Do you recall how no form of trickery or
meanness, either in individual conduct or in public life, failed to meet
his contempt and his scorn? What one of us, in that life of his, passed,
so much of it, in this community, can put the finger on one questionable
word or act? When we can pay such tribute to a departed friend, I care
not what his genius may have been, how far and wide his fame may have
blown, or how long the mere work of hand and brain may endure, he has
builded a monument set firmer than granite or marble in the service of
his generation, and of the generations to come.

“That strong character of Gibson revealed itself to me in many ways. In
politics, for example, his path and my own on national questions often
diverged. Yet in talks with him on that subject, most impressive was the
revelation of his bed-rock sincerity of conviction; and never did that
conviction fail to be enthused with the profoundest patriotism of
motive. Take a somewhat narrower civic question, that of municipal
reform, a theme as to which by the nature of personal vocation I have
heard many men and met many and varied views. But never have I found a
man who discussed that topic more intelligently, more broadly, and more
often striking the keynote of progress than Gibson, whom the public and
not a few friends, doubtless, have associated only with the hunt for
nature’s secrets in the flower, the leaf, and the marvels of insect

“Or let us take one other outward expression of that strong public
character of his. It was a primal _motif_ in such a man to love the
simplicities, and you will all remember as one vivid phase of it his
intense desire to preserve the sweet and unaffected community life which
has so long marked this village. He had seen how the wave of fashion and
of assertive and ostentatious wealth had overcast those New England
towns for which nature had done most, and how the supreme triumph of the
French modiste, the babble of the four-o’clock tea, and the vanities of
so-called ‘good’ society had come to satirize the summer charms of
mountain and river and vale. Hence that aggressive desire of his,
expressed alike in word and act, to conserve in their old simplicity and
freedom the customs which we as Gunnery boys enjoyed in this gracious
village. Though he be dead, that example and precept of his yet appeal
to us.

* * * * *

“Many years ago it was my good fortune to be present in Westminster
Chapter House at a meeting to open a fund for a memorial to Dean
Stanley. Among the speakers was James Russell Lowell, then our minister
at St. James’s, and he referred to an epitaph in a Boston churchyard as
descriptive of Dean Stanley’s character. That epitaph was simply, ‘He
was so pleasant.’ Many times have I reflected how well that idea
described one large side of Gibson’s nature. ‘He was so pleasant,’ so
jocund, so genial, so appreciative of humor. One outward token of the
trait familiar to us all was his quick grasp of the funny things to be
found in this rural New England of ours. We know–and by ‘we’ I mean
especially those of us in middle life or beyond–what a wealth of oddity
in phrase and habit our country New Englanders have amassed. Time was
when each Yankee village had its quaint and curious characters, but now,
with education and contact with the world, they are dying away, and the
next generation will see few or none save as they survive in literature.
In personal forms Gibson rescued from oblivion many of those characters
who went into his books, but the draft was small on his collection of
Yankee epigram and oddity which never reached the types. I can see him
in memory now, with his rich gift of mimicry, repeating the bucolic
joke, or, may be, in smiling silence listening at the post-office as the
country sage expounds his original views from the bema of the

“Of Gibson’s sweet home life, of his love of wife and family, of his
kind hospitality, of his sacred personal friendships, it is not for me
to speak in detail here. Suffice it to say that they rounded out with
rare and beautiful symmetry that splendid life of his as artist, writer,
prose-poet, investigator, good citizen, and _man_. In this village of
his love, so endeared to him as summer home, and from which, as a
Gunnery boy, he drew so much of moral inspiration and strength, no vain
words of mine need voice him, nor can language of tongue or pen measure
the void which he has left behind. Washington, indeed, is not the same
with Gibson gone, and has but the sad boon of still clasping him,
mother-like, on the green slope which looks off to the valley of the
sunset shadows which he loved so well. We miss, yet meet him, in every
nook, in the waving tree-tops, the swaying flower by the rippling
stream, in the butterfly that flits by in the sunlight. How well with
trifling verbal change do those lines of Whittier fit our loss:

“‘But still we wait with ear and eye
For something gone which should be nigh,
A loss in all familiar things,
In flower that blooms and bird that sings.

* * * * *

And while in life’s late afternoon,
Where cool and long the shadows grow,
We walk to meet the night that soon
Shall shape and shadow overflow,
We cannot feel that thou art far,
Since near at need the angels are;
And when the sunset gates unbar,
Shall we not see thee waiting stand,
And, white against the evening star,
The welcome of thy beckoning hand?’”

President Almon Gunnison, of St. Lawrence University, speaking out of a
long and intimate acquaintance in Brooklyn, wrote of him, a few weeks
after his death:

“There have been few men of larger manhood than this poet-artist, this
seer and interpreter of nature. He was open-minded and trustful as a
child. He loved everything that was manly, and his sense of right was an
instinct and a passion. He was tolerant in faith and scorned all
narrowness. Reverent, worshipful, a lover of God and man. Not since
Gilbert White of Selborne died has there lived one who more minutely
discerned nature, and never has there been one more dowried to interpret
her. Thoreau had equal skill of vision and perhaps larger grace of
literary expression. Burroughs has the same order of discernment, and a
like art to make nature interpret her lessons in her own words. But
Gibson was poet and artist too; he could sing the song of the daisy with
almost the melody of Burns, and could with his deft pencil depict the
highway of the squirrel so cleverly that one could hear the echoes of
its steps, and picture the hues of the flowers so that one could almost
smell the fragrance of their blossoms. He was the most versatile of men.
He was a stranger to no form of art. With pencil and with brush, with
every form of pigment, he was the master, and with the candle’s smoke he
made weird pictures which startled admiration. He was skilled in every
mechanical device. He had most curious charts with cunning contrivances,
strings and pulleys, by which he illustrated the fertilization of
plants, and would shoot the pollen and would have curious insects flying
in the air, to show how nature provided for the perpetuation of her
growths. His studio was a museum of the mechanics of art, and had he
chosen he could have excelled in many lines of inventive skill. He loved
Nature in all her variant moods and forms. There was no flower that he
could not call by name, and not a weed held the secret of its life
inviolate from him. He could answer ‘Yes’ to the poet’s question, ‘Canst
thou name the birds without a gun?’; he could go into the forest and the
birds would come at his caressing call; he could see into the very heart
of every flower, and could write the flora of every State. He loved
Nature, too, in her larger forms. The mountains awed and the sea
thrilled him with their immensities. He could set the song of the brook
to music, and write out the melody of rivers in his symphonies. How well
do we remember his telling us of the book which he would sometime make,
but which, alas! he never made. It should be the biography of the water
drop, and with pencil and with words he would tell the story of the
water in its passage from the clouds to the sea.

“He would picture the clouds and the mists, the mountain-tops arresting
the fogs and condensing them with its ledges; the little springs which
run among the hills, the river’s cradle among the rocks, the tiny brook
descending over the desolation of the heights, the brooklet entering the
forest, the mossy coverts, the fern-covered banks, the shadowing trees,
the twisting, turning stream, winding downward amidst tawny rocks,
jumping over cataracts and falls, then emerging into the lower pasture
slopes, with cattle drinking at its banks, and then the meadows with
great sweeping branches of overhanging trees, the vexing wheels of
mills, the larger and larger river, and then the city with its grime,
and beyond, the sea, with its mighty ships sailing to far Cathay. And
how his wondrous eyes, which had the luminousness but never the passion
of the flame, used to glow as he talked of Nature and of the secrets
that she told him and of the apostleship he held to make the great world
see and love Nature with something of his idolatry. He kept the gladness
of his youth and was never won away from the paths in which his boyish
feet had strayed. That wondrous picture-making period of boyhood ever
held his soul in thrall. He lived in the city, for he was the busiest
worker among men, but the roots of his heart were tangled with the
grasses of the sunlit pastures where his youth had been. When the sun’s
rays lengthened over the noisy city, with the swiftness of the arrow’s
flight from a Tartar’s bow he sought the old scenes, and there at length
when favoring fortune came, he built his home, and when death wanted
him she sought him there, and there she found him.”

The minute prepared for the Century Club of New York City was more than
a perfunctory record, and witnesses to the high esteem in which the
members held him:

“WILLIAM HAMILTON GIBSON, distinguished alike as an artist, an author,
and an illustrator, had risen by unwonted industry, native talent, and a
tireless enthusiasm to a high place in the esteem of the lovers of
nature and the admirers of true art. He was recognized as an artist with
the pen as well as with the pencil, and entitled to a place among those
enthusiastic naturalists who have the skill in words to impart their
enthusiasm. His ‘Highways and Byways,’ ‘Pastoral Days,’ the ‘Heart of
the White Mountains,’ ‘Nature’s Serial Story,’ ‘Camp Life in the Woods,’
‘Trapping and Trap Making,’ ‘Happy Hunting Grounds,’ and many other
books, all illustrated by himself, showed his scientific exactitude and
his artistic quality. His illustrated article in the last number of
‘Harper’s Magazine’ seems like a farewell message from him in another
world. He was also a noted water-colorist, and, in later years, a
popular lecturer on natural history.

“His facility of expression and ingenious illustration of his subject by
his crayon and mechanical appliances instructed and entertained his
audiences, and no man had appeared in this field since Agassiz with such
success as met him. There was a charm in his personality from the
earnestness and kindliness of his nature, and the number of those who
mourn his early death is not confined to his personal friends alone.

“Pleasant and unfading memories mingle with our regrets at parting with
those whose names are recorded here. They were men without exception
worthy, true, and of good report. May we not say, as their survivors,
and conscious of our failings–

“‘Our lives are albums written through,
With good or ill, with false or true,
And as the blessed angels turn
The pages of our years,
God grant they read the good with smiles
And blot the ill with tears.’


“NEW YORK, _January 9th, 1897_.”

Other phases of his versatile spirit are noted by Mr. Alexander Black:

“I first met Mr. Gibson at the Authors Club in the old rooms on
Twenty-fourth Street. At that time he was a regular attendant at the
meetings, and he remained among the faithful until his lectures began.
Thereafter he came, I fancy, whenever he was free to come, and found a
stimulating enjoyment in meeting his fellow-craftsmen, literary and
artistic, with whom at all times he had a hearty frankness of cordiality
that made him an always-welcome figure in this singularly democratic
group. At times I found him pulling at a ‘long Tom,’ generally, as he
put it, ‘in self-defense,’ for we hovered in a deep fog of smoke. After
I myself had been elected to the Club (in 1888) we met regularly in this
literary aerie, and endured in common the recurrent jest inflicted upon
those who, at two A.M., still had to make a homeward journey to
Brooklyn,–an infliction which fell lightly upon me when I had his
company to the Bridge, and could hear him talk of the flowers and their
insect visitors, or the current movements of art.

“I believe he always retained an affectionate feeling for the
Twenty-fourth Street quarters of the Club, where we smoked, ate the
Captain’s salad, told stories (Gibson not a poor contributor), seldom
talked shop, and certainly never were literary; where we met Lowell,
Stedman, Boyesen, Eggleston, Grant White, Godwin, Stoddard, Conway,
Jefferson, Riley, Kipling, Mitchell, Hay, St. Gaudens–it would be a
long and an interesting list. Mr. Gibson’s genius and personality alike
attracted to him the attention of the choicest spirits in a gathering of
this kind. He always had a fine fund of that quality which belongs to
genius–which is in itself a genius–a quality of youthful enjoyment in
the simpler pleasures. I remember the contagious gusto with which, on a
certain memorable Watch Night, he told the company a ghost story that
came to its crisis in a materialized ghost of his own making which he
had concealed under his coat. The hoax recalls some of his fun at
Washington village, where his astonishing mummy with a message from the
past will long be a droll tradition, and where there is a lively
recollection of his dashing horsemanship on a wonderful steed with a
feather-duster tail!

“I heard him lecture at Washington village and shared in the delight of
an audience whose youngest members he held quite as closely as their
elders. Indeed, I never have known in any department of science or of
art an enthusiast who could convey, with an utter absence of academic
formality, so rich and delightful a fund of information and suggestion.
To me he was always the ideal interpreter of nature. There was no hint
of book covers between. He did not turn to and from his theme at any
time. It was part of his life–and plainly a pleasant, unstrenuous part
of it. In the woods, in his garden, on the quiet porch overlooking the
hillside sumac, he spoke of a discovery in a petal or in the habits of a
beetle with that charming undidactic delight of one who assumes that all
must have a common pleasure in these phases of natural life.

“As an artist he was quite as free from personal mannerisms or
eccentricities. When I first visited his studio on Montague street,
Brooklyn, he talked as he worked–the picture was an illustration to one
of his magazine papers,–and afterwards turned to his portfolio, quite
without the effect of entertaining me, but always with a companionly
frankness and simplicity that made him at all times the most attractive
of hosts. I remember his house studio on Lincoln Place by but two
visits, and I had no greater acquaintance with the little crib at the
foot of the Washington lawn. I think I liked the dishevelled workshop at
Washington best of all.

“Mr. Gibson never permitted the very handsome things that were said of
his writings to disturb his relation to his artistic ideals. ‘I am an
artist,’ he said to me when this subject came up between us, and
profound as was his affection for plant and insect life, it was as an
artist that he looked across the leaping lines of this Washington
country; it was as an artist that he labored to transmit with his brush
the flame colors of autumn or the lustrous prophecies of spring. The
healthy ideals of his art and the hearty simplicity of his nature are to
be read in the unmannerish charm of his pictures.

“Once or twice we met on the trains in the course of our lecturing work.
He had stories to tell me of his own experiences–of hardship, of
accident, of humorous incident. Once his voice left him so completely
that he was obliged to make a momentary exit after a pantomimic apology
to the audience. On the whole I think that he greatly enjoyed his
lectures. Certainly they were inspiringly memorable to those who were
privileged to hear them.

“When I recall him in his own home and in mine, I have before me a
splendidly strong head and figure. I hear his strong healthy laugh. I
see his broad shoulders turned to me as he sits at the piano playing the
‘Largo’ with a full singing volume of tone. His ear was so keen and
sympathetic that he could express without knowledge of notes even the
subtler harmonies of a fragment like the ‘Largo,’ and his playing always
had the fascination that is present in the interpretations of those who
truly love music, and who find in an instrument a companion to whom they
may go in any mood with certainty of response.

“The news of his death brought to me a shock and a sense of bereavement
deeper and more lasting than any I had known for many years. Here,
surely, was a fine spirit, a lover of life and of art, and an exponent
of all that is sanest and sweetest in both.”

It was four years after his death that the Alumni and friends of the
“Gunnery” school completed a memorial of Gibson which for fitness and
significance is one of the most successful in America. On the left of
the road, as one climbs the long hill from the railroad station to
Washington Green, nearly at the top of the slope, there stands a large
boulder, a little back from the highway. Here it was determined to place
a bronze medallion in bas-relief, which should aim to suggest the man
and commemorate his relation to the little town which he so loved and
which so loved him.

The report of Mr. E. K. Rossiter, made to the Alumni Association, tells
the interesting story of the inception and completion of this loving
task, whose results will be an enduring memorial of this inspiring life.

“You have undoubtedly all heard of that ideal committee composed of
three persons–one dead, one in Europe, and one left at home to do as he
pleased. But my parallel, if I draw one at all, must soon end, for
though Mr. Van Ingen is to-day on the other side of the water, the other
two members, Dr. Lyman Abbott and Dr. Ludlow, are very much alive–as
proof of it, I would refer you to the weekly issue of the ‘Outlook’ or
beg you to attend one of the good Doctor’s sermons at Orange.

“We have acted, it is true, at arm’s length from each other and our work
has been accomplished, strange as it may seem, without so much as once
meeting as a committee of the whole. We have, however, been in frequent
correspondence and from the beginning there has been nothing but a
unanimity of feeling. It was Dr. Ludlow, I believe, who first

[Illustration: _The Bronze Memorial_]

suggested that this Memorial take the form of a bas-relief. He keenly
appreciated the fact, as did we all, that Gibson had conferred, through
his work, an unusual distinction upon our little town and having stood,
as he quoted from Oliver Wendell Holmes, next to Thoreau in his
appreciative portrayal of nature it was not only fitting but incumbent
upon us that he should be remembered in some enduring way–in some way
that would enable those coming after to know the manner of man he was to
us. Therefore when Mrs. Van Ingen pointed to a huge boulder at the lower
end of the Cemetery nestling among the trees he loved so well, there
seemed nothing further to debate beyond securing a sculptor.

“In this matter it was deemed essential that we should find one who knew
our friend. For while an artistic success might readily be obtained by a
score of men, we were aware that that indefinable something–that
quickening spirit animating a man’s whole being and constituting his
personality–was likely to be in a measure lost without the immediate
contact which artists seek. It was just here that our good fortune
became again manifest; for our covetousness was rewarded by finding in
Mr. Bush-Brown the sculptor of our search. Behind him stood the personal
knowledge, and, what was equally fortunate, a most excellent photograph
by Smales. I cannot regard this snap-shot picture other than a portion
of our rare good luck, for it gives us Gibson as we knew him–in his
out-of-door garb, and in the very act, too, of his devotion to nature.
It has enabled the modeler to produce a likeness, which I believe future
generations must instinctively feel as good–just as we of to-day
looking at the engraving of Shakespeare in the original folio edition of
his works instinctively feel it is scarcely more than a travesty of the
poet, that man of infinite fancy and wit. But since Shakespeare’s time,
the graphic arts of expression, more particularly of engraving have
progressed to such a degree of perfection that it is quite possible now
to attain to the subtlest degree of an artist’s thought. Likewise in
sculpture is this attainable–so much so that we shall to-day be able to
read in the unveiled bronze the individual characteristics of the one
whom we would portray.

“I was pleased in looking at the Medallion last week to discover a
butterfly hovering over the convolvulus vine so accurately preserved and
so gracefully worked into the composition–because as you will remember
this was the emblem of immortality with the Greeks–a most appropriate
symbol, too, in this instance; for when you come to think of it, Gibson
was in spirit a good deal of an old Greek himself. He was one in his
joyousness, in his large and passionate appreciation of out-of-door
life, and more than all in his love of the beautiful. Beauty of form and
color as he saw it in nature was a sort of visible divinity–a palpable
happiness, heaven come down to earth; he viewed it in the conception of
Gautier, the French poet–as an all-pervading yet delicate mantle let
down by God to cover the nakedness of the world for the delight of his
children. Of this mantle he always found enough to clothe his pictures
with poetic truth, nay, more, for into the fine vesture of his thought
he frequently wove a scientific fact of such intrinsic value as to win
renown as a naturalist.

“Other boys will leave this Gunnery and we hope win as distinguished
laurels as did Gibson; for is it not, as James Russell Lowell has said
of Harvard, all but impossible to rub up against these walls without
taking away something that no other institution can give? But be this as
it may, it is not probable that there will soon be found among the
Alumni a man of such rare versatility. The combination of his gifts has
been recognized far beyond the confines of this little hamlet; but
because it was here that he began his life’s work, here ended it, here
that he made his home, and here that the mortal part of him lies near
us, it seems particularly appropriate we should erect an enduring
memorial to his worth. For how few of us who have dipped into his books
or followed him in our walks but can repeat the words of the blind man
of old, who in the ecstasy of a new vision cried ‘Whereas I was blind
now I see.’”