Born: March 23, 1865, Louisville, Kentucky
Died: December 8, 1914, Louisville, Kentucky
Madison Julius Cawein was a nationally popular poet from Louisville in the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century. Most of his poetry was about nature, extolling the natural beauty of his native Kentucky. Comparisons to the British poets Percy Shelley and John Keats earned him the nickname “Keats of Kentucky”.
Cawein was born in Louisville on March 23, 1865, one of four sons and a daughter of William Cawein, a confectioner, chef and herbal doctor, and Christina Stelsley Cawein, a spiritualist. The couple had four sons, a daughter and little money.
When Cawein was 9, the family moved to rural Oldham County, where his father managed the Rock Springs Hotel for nearly two years. They later lived on a 20-acre hilltop farm near New Albany, Indiana, for three years. “Here I formed my great love for nature,” he said.
The family returned to Louisville in 1879. Cawein graduated from Male High School in 1886 and was selected “class poet.” Unable to afford college, he worked as a cashier at the Newmarket pool room, a center for horse race gambling, and read classic literature when things weren’t busy.
In 1887, at age 22, Cawein used his savings to publish “Blooms of the Berry,” his first collection of poems. It caught the attention of novelist and critic William Dean Howells, who gave it a favorable review in Harper’s magazine. They became lifelong friends.
After working at the Newmarket for nearly eight years, Cawein had earned enough money through savings and investments to quit and devote himself to writing. Cawein spent much of his free time roaming the woods. He also made country rambles with his father, who was looking for medicinal plants to make patent medicines he sold.
“Poetry I define as the metrical or rhythmical expression of the emotions, occasioned by the sight or the knowledge of the beautiful and the nobel in ourselves,” Cawein wrote in a 1905 letter to Lexington author John Wilson Townsend.
Cawein lived for many years with his parents in a house at Nineteenth and Market streets, where he wrote 19 books. That house is now Legacy Funeral Center. Cawein married Gertrude McKelvey in 1903 and they had a son, Preston Hamilton Cawein, born in 1904. In 1917, his name was changed to Madison Cawein II.
The Poetry Review in London wrote in 1912 that Cawein “appears quite the biggest figure among American poets.” Among his many fans were President Theodore Roosevelt and poet James Whitcomb Riley. Cawein was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the Authors Club of London.
Over three prolific decades, Cawein wrote more than 1,500 poems and published 36 books. He told a Courier-Journal reporter in 1901 that his income from publishing poetry in magazines the year before amounted to about $100 a month, now the equivalent of about $3,500. He invested that money well in stocks, for a time.
From 1907 until 10 months before his death, the Caweins lived in a large house on St. James Court now owned by Hall of Fame novelist Sena Jeter Naslund. But by 1913, his poetry income had declined and his stock market investments soured. In February 1914, the family rented out their beloved home and moved to less-expensive quarters across the street, No. 6 in the St. James Apartments. In September, the Authors Club of New York put Cawein on its relief list, sending a $100 check.
Cawein died in his apartment from an apparent stroke three days after falling and hitting his head on the bathtub. He was 49. He is buried in Cave Hill cemetery.
“He saw and felt the poetry of nature,” the Courier-Journal editorialized upon his death, “and it was his unswerving purpose to give it voice.”
Cawein’s Romantic style of poetry was falling out of fashion toward the end of his life. But he made a contribution to what would come next. In 1913, Cawein published a poem titled “Waste Land” in a Chicago magazine whose editors included Ezra Pound. Scholars have identified this poem as an inspiration for T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”, published in 1922 and considered an early example of modernism in poetry.
Blooms of the Berry. Louisville, KY: J. P. Morton, 1887
The Triumph of Music and Other Lyrics. Louisville, KY: J. P. Morton, 1888
Accolon of Gaul, with Other Poems. Louisville, KY: J. P. Morton, 1889
Lyrics and Idyls. Louisville, KY: J. P. Morton, 1890
Days and Dreams: Poems. New York: Putnam, 1891
Moods and Memories: Poems. New York: Putnam, 1892
Red Leaves and Roses: Poems. New York: Putnam, 1893
Poems of Nature and Love. New York: Putnam, 1893
Intimations of the Beautiful, and Poems. New York: Putnam, 1894
The White Snake and Other Poems. Louisville, KY: J. P. Morton, 1895
Undertones. Boston: Copeland & Day, 1896
The Garden of Dreams. Louisville, KY: J. P. Morton, 1896
Shapes and Shadows: Poems. New York: R. H. Russell, 1898
Idyllic Monologues: Old and New World Verses. Louisville, KY: J. P. Morton, 1898
Myth and Romance, Being a Book of Verse. New York: Putnam, 1899
One Day & Another: A Lyrical Eclogue. Boston: Badger, 1901
Weeds by the Wall: Verses. Louisville, KY: J. P. Morton, 1901
Kentucky Poems. New York: Dutton, 1902
A Voice on the Wind and Other Poems. Louisville, KY: J. P. Morton, 1902
The Vale of Tempe: Poems. New York: Dutton, 1905
Nature-Notes and Impressions. New York: Dutton, 1906
The Poems of Madison Cawein Volumes 1–5. Boston: Small, Maynard, & Co., 1907
An Ode Read August 15, 1907, at the Dedication of the Monument Erected at Gloucester, Massachusetts, in Commemoration of the Founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony in the Year Sixteen Hundred and Twenty-Three. Louisville, KY: J. P. Morton, 1908
New Poems. London: Grant Richards, 1909
Let Us Do the Best That We Can. Chicago: P.F. Volland, 1909
The Giant and the Star: Little Annals in Rhyme. Boston: Small, Maynard, & Co., 1909
The Shadow Garden (A Phantasy) and Other Plays. New York: Putnam, 1910
Poems by Madison Cawein. New York: McMillian, 1911
So Many Ways. Chicago: P.F. Volland, 1911
The Poet, the Fool and the Faeries. Boston: Small, Maynard, & Co., 1912
The Republic, A Little Book of Homespun Verse. Cincinnati: Stewart & Kidd, 1913
Minions of the Moon: A Little Book of Song and Story. Cincinnati: Stewart & Kidd, 1913
The Poet and Nature and the Morning Road. Louisville, KY: J. P. Morton, 1914
The Cup of Comus: Fact and Fancy. New York: Cameo Press, 1915