Central Burying Ground, on Boston Common off Boylston Street.
Despite being the son of a participant in the Boston Tea Party, the “Banker Poet of Boston,” Charles Sprague, lived quietly and devoted over 45 years to the Globe and State Banks. His 1875 obituary in the Boston Globe described his life as “long and eminently useful.” Clerical services aside, however, Sprague made a name for himself as a poet after winning a prize for his work at New York’s Park Theater.
Though he no longer has the kind of fame he enjoyed during his life, the editor Rufus Griswold once mentioned him alongside Longfellow as one of the greatest American poets at the time. Samuel Kettell, author of Specimens of American Poetry, deemed his work “superior to all productions of the kind, excepting only those of Pope and Johnson.” Even Edgar Allan Poe commented on his work, delivering Sprague a backhanded compliment on one of his poems: “‘Winged Worshippers’ [is] beautiful … but … [Sprague] has written nothing else that could be called so.”
Sprague lived in Boston for his entire life. Though his education ended at the age of thirteen, when he began to work, he was awarded an honorary Masters of Arts degree from Harvard in 1829. He nevertheless continued to work as a teller, and then as a bank officer until his 1865 retirement. A review of Sprague in the August, 1832 issue of New England Magazine commented on this strange combination of professions, suggesting that anyone who banked with Sprague’s institution “must have been in a cold sweat” fearing that Sprague, “lost in poetic visions, might not, with the eye of his body, see the difference between tens and hundreds.” The author concluded, however, “we never heard that Mr. Sprague grew careless or inaccurate or inattentive to his employment after the sin of poetry was fairly laid at his door.” In fact, it appears that the banking instead had an effect on his poetry: an early draft of one of Sprague’s most famous poems, “The Shakespeare Ode,” shows a meticulously drawn table of paired rhyming words.
Sprague is buried in his family tomb, Number 5, in the Central Burying Ground, in the ghostly company of his revolutionary father, the composer William Billings, and the painter Gilbert Stewart.