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Madison Julius Cawein, otherwise known as the “Keats of Kentucky,” due to the influence of the English Romantics on his work, was born on March 23, 1865, in Louisville. His mother, Christina, was a spiritualist and author. His father, Dr. William Cawein, was also herbalist who inspired his poet son with a love of nature that later infused Madison’s poetry. Cawein also had four brothers and a sister. Dr. Cawein transitioned from medicine to hospitality in 1874 when, for a year, he relocated the family east of Louisville so that he could run the Rock Springs Hotel. The family next moved to New Albany, Indiana. There, Cawein developed his interests in storytelling and translating literature from Latin and German into English. The Caweins moved back to Louisville in 1879, where Cawein attended Louisville Male High School, then called the College of Liberal Arts of the University of Louisville. He received a bachelor of arts from the school in 1886. While in high school, Cawein began writing poetry.
After receiving his education, Cawein took a job as a cashier at a pool hall, where he worked for eight years, starting in the 1880s. The job funded him while he focused on writing. He published his début collection, Blooms of the Berry (John P. Morton and Company, 1887), during this time, as well as eighteen more books. Novelist and critic William Dean Howells praised the first collection in a review in Harper’s magazine.
Cawein published over thirty volumes of poetry, including Kentucky Poems (Dutton, 1902), rereleased in London the following year with an introduction by English poet and critic Edmund Gosse. The White Snake and Other Poems (John P. Morton and Company, 1895) were translations from German reproduced in their original meter. Cawein regarded his third poetry collection, Accolon of Gaul, with Other Poems (John P. Morton and Company, 1889), as his most ambitious work. His second collection, The Triumph of Music (John P. Morton and Company, 1888), like his début, strongly reflected the influence of the Romantics.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Cawein began to suffer from both financial and health problems. He realized that his work was falling out of fashion and, in a letter to Poetry editor Harriet Monroe, complained about her publication of work from the early Modernists, particularly that of Ezra Pound. Cawein’s fortunes improved when he married Gertrude Foster McKelvey, with whom he purchased a home.
Cawein died of apoplexy on December 8, 1914, in Louisville. He was forty-nine years old. In 1921, Otto Arthur Rothert published The Story of a Poet: Madison Cawein (John P. Morton and Company), a biography of Cawein told through his personal correspondence, photographs, and press coverage. Cawein, whose death was mourned by the public, is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.