Thursday, October 2, 2008

Sam Walter Who?

My cyberspace friend, Jeannelle of Iowa, not to be confused with Eleanor of Aquitaine, made a trip to Nashua, Iowa, last Sunday to take photographs for a blogpost she had in mind. Today she posted it. She has written a wonderful account of The Little Brown Church In The Vale, complete with the photographs she took last Sunday. And Jeannelle, being the thoroughly thorough person she is, covered both the history of the actual church and the story of the composer of the old hymn, “The Church in the Wildwood,” which begins, “There's a church in the valley by the wildwood, No lovelier spot in the dale; No place is so dear to my childhood As the little brown church in the vale.” To see and read Jeannelle’s engaging presentation, click here. Be sure to click on her link to The Cyber Hymnal to listen to the hymn tune and read all the verses.

And so I am going to write today about Sam Walter Foss.

No, Sam Walter Foss is not the person who built the church. No, he’s not the person who pastors the church. And no, he’s not the person who wrote the hymn. So who is he? I will tell you who he is, or rather, who he was.

Sam Walter Foss was a librarian. He was a poet. He was an editor for the Boston Globe in the nineteenth century. He was born in 1858 and died in 1911. Many of us of a certain age had to memorize his best-known poem in school. Thanks to Jeannelle’s post, I now know that on the middle step of the three steps leading to the front door of The Little Brown Church in the Vale in Nashua, Iowa, is engraved a line from that very poem: “Let me live by the side of the road and be a friend to man.” His name follows, but it is misspelled. The line chiseled in the step is credited, strangely, to Sam Fosse.

The poem, in case you never heard of it (and I suppose many younger people have not), is entitled “The House By The Side Of The Road.” It is not great poetry. The critics would call it homely, homespun, folksy, sentimental, simple, maudlin, sing-songy and lots of other adjectives (vapid, banal), and even though many of their criticisms are true, I love it.

Here it is. Can you spot the Biblical references?

The House By The Side Of The Road
by Sam Walter Foss

There are hermit souls that live withdrawn
In the place of their self-content;
There are souls like stars, that dwell apart,
In a fellowless firmament;
There are pioneer souls that blaze the paths
Where highways never ran --
But let me live by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

Let me live in a house by the side of the road
Where the race of men go by --
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner’s seat
Nor hurl the cynic’s ban --
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I see from my house by the side of the road
By the side of the highway of life,
The men who press with the ardor of hope,
The men who are faint with the strife,
But I turn not away from their smiles and tears,
Both parts of an infinite plan --
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead,
And mountains of wearisome height;
That the road passes on through the long afternoon
And stretches away to the night.
And still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice
And weep with the strangers that moan,
Nor live in my house by the side of the road
Like a man who dwells alone.

Let me live in my house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by-
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish -- so am I.
Then why should I sit in the scorner’s seat,
Or hurl the cynic’s ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

Actually, here’s the house I had in mind:
Photo © Benoist Sébire


  1. A remembered mis-quote from my youth is "Let me live in a house by the side of the road and be friendly to men." Not quite the same thing. Let me hasten to say that those were not my words.

    By the way, who is going to do the dusting in your chosen house by the side of the road?

  2. I laughed at your mis-quote! I guess, since my chosen house by the side of the road is the palace at Versailles in France, I'll have French maids who do the dusting. And a French chef, and a French gardener, and a French chauffeur, and....

    I am suddenly reminded of an old song, "I Can Dream, Can't I?"

  3. Well, rhymsie, this is just so cool: I hadn't yet read your post, but had decided to Google Sam Fosse......and, what do you suppose showed up on the list?
    Your blogpost of today!! I did not know that Fosse was a misspelling; I may have heard that poem a long time ago, but never knew the author's name.

    I may add a link to your post on my Little Brown Church blogpost, referring to the photo of the quote on the step. I wonder if they know the name is misspelled?

    Do certain lines in the poem refer to Psalm 1:1? (RSV)"Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers (the scornful in KJV)."

  4. Yes, exactly. Psalm 1:1 is what I thought of also.

  5. Thanks so much for the poem. I really enjoyed it. I suspect my husband will as well.

    I've been looking for your comments on the exegetical work on Mark. Did you not care for the analysis? or agree so totally that it needed no further statement? LOL. take care Bob, you're blog is always a treat to stop by and read.

  6. I love the positive message in the poem. Thanks for posting it. I haven't read it in a long time.

    And I enjoyed the humor in the last photo.

  7. Thanks, Sherry, for continuing to visit my blog and for referring to it as a treat; that's really nice. I think my mind is still "blown," as they say, from trying to understand how your two blogs can be written by the same person! Somehow, it does not, as they also say, compute! I haven't abandoned your blog #2 (though I struggle at times with your blog #1), and am glad you haven't abandoned mine either!

    Thanks, Ruth, for your comment also. We know Foss's poem is not great literature by any means, but that doesn't mean there's nothing of value in it and shouldn't keep us from enjoying it. Oh, and one more thing. Humor? What humor? :)

  8. There is also Romans 12:15 - "Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep." (Middle of fourth stanza).

  9. Rosezilla, absolutely! That one's in there, too! Welcome to my blog (I don't think I have seen your name before), and welcome again if somehow I have forgotten that you were here earlier.

    After checking your profile, I was going to ask you where in Florida you are, but then I read a bit of your blog and see that it's Naples (or at least close enough to attend an event there). Mrs. RWP and I moved here (Atlanta area) from Boca Raton in Palm Beach County, on the Atlantic side of your fair state, long before any hanging or dimpled chads made the news.