Mather Byles: Loyalist Preacher and Poet

April is poetry month, and I am celebrating by featuring an engraved miniature portrait, autograph, and lock of hair from one of Boston’s 18th century poets, Reverend Mather Byles (1706-1788). Byles published many poems over the course of his life. Here is an excerpt from his poem The Bloom of Life, Fading in a Happy Death which, despite its rather grim title, contains these seasonally appropriate lines:

VII.
So the young Spring, with annual Green,
Renews the waving Grove;
And Riv'lets thro' the flow'ry Scene
In Silver Mazes rove.

VIII.
By tuneful Birds of ev'ry Wing,
Melodious Strains are play'd;
From Tree to Tree their Accents ring,
Soft-warbling thro' the Shade.

IX.
The painted Meads, and fragrant Fields,
A sudden Smile bestow:
A golden Gleam each Valley guilds,
Where numerous Beauties blow.

X.
A Thousand gaudy Colours flush
Each od'rous Mountain's Side:
Lillies turn fair, and Roses blush,
And Tulips spread their Pride.

Reverend Mather Byles was a loyalist preacher who lived in Boston before, during, and after the revolution. As well as writing religious poetry, Byles was known for his scholarly sermons and fantastic wit – when, after the Revolution, he was sentenced to house arrest, he called the sentry posted outside his door his “observe-a-tory”.

Byles graduated from Harvard in 1725, and was the first pastor of the Hollis Street Church, beginning in 1733. He preached there until the Revolution, after which he was sentenced to deportation (although this was never carried out). He continued to live in Boston, although he was not able to work. Upon his death, two of his daughters continued to live in his house near Boston Common, and they remained loyal to the British crown until their deaths, refusing to ever pay American taxes.

1886.0025 Reverend Mather Byles, engraved by S. Harris. Museum Purchase.

Our museum collection includes several locks of hair, sometimes made into elaborate jewelry or housed in rings, lockets, and brooches. The Byles piece is unusual for having been simply stitched on to the card with white thread and for having belonged to a famous person, rather than a loved one or family member. We don’t know what document the signature was taken from, but it was not unusual in the 19th and early 20th century to cut autographs out of larger documents or to save only the signature page of a letter.