American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson


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Ezra Pound was no admirer of Poe. In a concert review of 1920 he praised a setting of “Annabel Lee,” dismissing the poem itself as “containing considerable excess verbiage and no little sentimentality.” This would be no remarkable opinion were it not expressed with a haughty disdain — and at great length — in a manner that forcefully brings to mind Poe’s own criticism. Like Poe, Pound subjects fanciful language to a rational reading, correcting flaws as if the poem were a newspaper story; and like Poe he spares disdain for those who inflated the poem’s reputation, throwing in a few untranslated words to inflate his own authority. It never occurred to me before to connect these two disturbed personalities, but now it seems natural. I won’t quote the entire review (which can be found in Ezra Pound and Music). But here are the choice bits:

This poem is evidently addressed to the senile, for it begins with a remark that “it was many, many years ago.” We are then told that “a maiden there lived,” “whom you may know,” ergo, q.e.d. age on part of auditor. The maiden who “there lived” in line three, patronymic Lee; arrives in fifth line sic: “And this maiden she lived.”

If anybody but a man with a great international reputation had written this first stanza our literary critics would tell us that it was very badly written, and full of remplisage, of words, that is, chucked in to fill up the metric scheme, and for no other reason; and that these words in no way assist the poetic intensity or any other quality of the poem; and that this remplisage displays no mastery whatsoever on the part of its author.

In fact, if Baudelaire had not translated some of Poe’s tales, and if Poe hadn’t been a tragic figure, and if the symbolistes in Paris hadn’t stewed about the matter, and if Mallarmé hadn’t translated the “Raven” into one of the worst pieces of arty prose extant in the French language (refrain “Et le corbeau dit ‘Jamais Plus'”), and if, above all, the poem weren’t a piece of sentimentalism, it might not have been set at all, or sung on January 10, 1920.

Written by Ben Friedlander

June 1, 2017 at 10:02 pm

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A Vital Issue

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Note the label: Chester Greenwood invented the ear muff; his wife, Isabel Whittier Greenwood, subscribed to several suffragist papers, now held by the Univ. of Maine. Click for larger view.

Leafing through Alfred Habegger’s Dickinson biography, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, I found a reference that made me curious: a letter by Louisa Norcross, Emily’s beloved cousin Loo, published in a suffragist newspaper in 1904. As Habegger notes, the letter defends “the dignity of domestic labor,” with a Dickinson anecdote marshaled in support. By this date, three volumes of poems had appeared and one of correspondence, so the poet was already a well-known figure, important enough to link with Harriet Beecher Stowe, as Norcross does. Dickinson and Stowe: two authors who managed to scribble while working in the kitchen.

Habegger quotes the anecdote in full and gives some of the context, but I wondered what else the letter might hold, and what else might be in the newspaper. As it happened, the original publication was owned by my university; a trip to special collections was in order.


Click for a larger view.

The newspaper in question, The Woman’s Journal, came out of Boston, edited by Lucy Stone (in later years, by Stone’s daughter, about whom I’ve written before). The letter is signed L.N. and appears on a page regularly edited by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.[*] In fact, the letter is a response to Gilman, who had a few weeks before on “Housework and Athletics” (images of the brief text here and here). The “and” of the title should really be “vs.”: Gilman’s subject is the obstacle of household labor to the development of grace and power. Some sample sentences:

People who are confined to a house almost all the time, either as performers or overseers of labor, and who find in that house their principal are of expression, do not care so much for physical expression….

Housework is not good exercise. It makes one tired, even exhausted, but it does not develop the body nobly and beautifully. Most of it is wearing to the nerves, but not to the muscles; and when you have the hard work, washing, ironing, and sweeping, you have the disagreeable and really injurious concomitants of heat and dirt.

The dealing with dirt is almost constant in housework, whether dust, grease, or stains; and the kind of exertion required to remove dust, wash dishes, or launder clothes is not the kind that makes for grace and beauty. When one is through with all this, there is no ambition left to add the wiser and more enjoyable exercises to the previous labors.

Women get tired out doing what is not good for them, and have no strength left to do what is. Those who do not do the work, but who merely oversee it, and who use the house to exhibit their things, their furniture, and clothes and pictures and vases, are not likely to consider the human body as a means of expression. It may be an admirable clothes-horse, but not in itself that exquisitely adjusted engine which is the best vehicle of the human spirit….

A larger, more dignified life, broader ideals, more rational habits, higher purposes — these may be expercted as women come out of their little monogamous harems and take part in the world’s work. Then, as human beings, they will want human bodies — human first, female second. And human bodies need human exercise to develop them; scientific and consistent work, exhilarating and delightful play, neither of which is to be found in domestic labor.

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“Vital Issues” page for The Woman’s Journal, 26 March 1904. Louisa Norcross’s letter is the second column from the right. Click for legible view.

The above lines were published in the March 5 issue. On March 26, the response from Norcross appeared:


Editors Woman’s Journal

Please, please do ask Mrs. Gilman not to run down Housekeeping any more! Housekeeping, properly arranged and planned, is glorious. I have had some of my most “triumphant soars” while flitting about my little home and cooking-stove.

Of course, the abuse of it is wrong. But there must always be housekeeping, or the superintending of housekeeping (which I consider infinitely more wearing), unless we go back to dens and hovels.

Mrs. Stanton suffered mental agony in giving time to such tremendous claims materially, instead of to the thought children that were being conceived continually in her brain; but do you think Mrs. Blatch would say unhesitatingly that it would have been better that she and her brothers and sisters should not have been born, so that her mother could write continually for Mrs. Anthony?

I insist that housework is the most healthy stimulus for the whole feminine constitution, if not overdone. As far as grease and dirt go, I would much rather attend to those conditions in the proper way, than to pedestrian mud or painter’s palette; although I approve heartily of both.

I am an ardent crusader for women, a whole-souled suffragist, and a lover of every progressive “ism,” but there is no use in running down housework, for it is inevitable.

Mrs. Gilman is so splendid and rigorous and magnetic, beg of her not to be unsymmetrical in the slightest swerve.

Why will she not give her idea of a model home, as over against a “one woman harem”? For she must believe in a home.

And what are we going to say to the few staunch females who are still left to be willing to work in our homes for us? Are we to tell them that housework is inferior and injurious?

Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her most wonderful sentences on slips of paper held against the kitchen wall while she was hovering over culinary formations. And I know that Emily Dickinson wrote most emphatic things in the pantry, so cool and quiet, while she skimmed the milk; because I sat on the footstool behind the door, in delight, as she read them to me. The blinds were closed, but through the green slats she saw all those fascinating ups and downs going on outside that she wrote about.

If domesticity is a characteristic with an individual, it must assert itself.

Concord, Mass. L. N.

As it turns out, the Dickinson anecdote is the least of it. The two views of housework Gilman’s and Norcross’s are more interesting. I may have to leaf through more issues.


* [Back to text] I do wonder how Habegger identified this letter; it’s an excellent find. As far as I can tell, he was the first to cite it; a few others have since.

Written by Ben Friedlander

June 14, 2016 at 1:09 pm

A Minor Angevin

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For my own amusement, I keep track of Longfellow sightings, especially those from modern authors; and I keep track of Sicily references too, having family there. I note, then, the following from Mary McCarthy, her late memoir How I Grew (1987):

I am not sure where I found Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn, containing as one chapter “The Saga of King Olaf”; I had hated “Hiawatha,” all too reminiscent of the civics of Minnehaha Park and Minnehaha Falls, but I loved those tales, and they are the main reason I know something of European history Normans, popes, and German emperors. It was a shock, then, to discover rather recently that “Robert of Sicily, brother of Pope Urbane and Valmond, Emperor of Allemaine,” who learned the lesson of humility one Easter Sunday in Palermo, who was not an historical figure; all my life, from the age of twelve on, I had been taking him for a minor Angevin.

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 27, 2016 at 2:04 pm

Our Position in the Universe

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I love Leaves of Grass, but sometimes, it’s true, I get more pleasure from the six volumes of notebooks and unpublished prose manuscripts, scraps of paper scattered across archives, transcribed lovingly, with notes, and organized by theme. This comes from the section “Natural History,” in volume five.

Hersschel’s theory is that the millions of orbs are not promiscuously scattered through space, but collected in a great line or highway, with two branches, something like the letter Y and that the position of our sun system, earth &c. is about at the crotch or centre.


Written by Ben Friedlander

March 24, 2016 at 5:30 pm

Posted in Whitman

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In 1933, in a review of Emily Dickinson’s letters, Marianne Moore wrote:

As Mr. Trueblood has noted, “What she said seems always said with the choicest originality.” Whittier, Bryant, and Thoreau were choice; and to some extent Emerson. Hawthorne was a bear but great. All of these except Whittier seem less choice than their neighbor “Myself the only kangaroo among the beauty” she called herself, not realizing the pinnacle of favor to which her words of dejection were to be raised.

OK, wait a second. Moore preferred Whittier? To all of the others? Choice indeed.

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 23, 2016 at 6:12 am


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James Russell Lowell in 1843, etched by W. H. W. Bicknell, from the painting by William Page. From Horace Elisha Scudder, James Russell Lowell: A Biography, vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1901).

The songs of a nation are like wild flowers pressed, as it were, by chance between the blood-stained pages of history.

So wrote James Russell Lowell at the start of his essay “Song-Writing,” published in The Pioneer, no. 2 (Feb. 1843), and then again in Voices of the True-Hearted (Philadelphia: Merrihew & Thompson, 1846), and then again, many years later, as part of the expanded, unauthorized edition of Conversations on Some of the Old Poets (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1893).

Lowell’s perspective is historical, with all of his quoted examples drawn from England’s past: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, Jonson, William Browne, Davenant, Herrick, William Habington, Carew, Lovelace, Cowley, Milton. The nearest he gets to his own time is Burns, mentioned in the opening remarks. “After beginning this article,” he writes, “we soon found that the limits of a single number were far too narrow to bring down our specimens to the neighborhood of the present day.” Even so, he declares, “Many of the modern songs are the best that have been written,” and he ends with a promise to “resume the subject at some future day.

Still, I wondered, reading Lowell’s opening sentence, what American songs he might have had in his head, that seemed to him like wild flowers. It is easy enough to imagine what he meant by blood-stained pages. Lowell was an abolitionist and made no disguise of his feelings about slavery even in his literary criticism. There are remarks on slavery all through the original edition of the Conversations (Cambridge, MA: John Owen, 1845), and Lowell was duly criticized for those by some reviewers. But what was his imagination of American song?

There are a few clues in the essay. Before getting to his extracts, Lowell offers some general comments about the nature of song, by which he means the nature of a certain kind of poetry. By and large, he is focused on “the good song” and “true song,” on song as ideal and height of achievement.

Full of grandeur, … and yet fuller of awful responsibility, is the calling of the song-writer. It is no wild fancy to deem that he may shape the destiny of coming ages.

Yet Lowell allows

that the sight of the rudest and simplest verses in the corner of a village newspaper oftener bring tears of delight into our eyes than awaken a sense of the ludicrous.

Instantly, Lowell conjures a “rustic” New England couple, Reuben and Dorcas. Their love rouses a new appreciation for beauty, he becoming “as truly a poet as Burns,” she alive to the effusion, able to feel “as keenly as ever Sappho did.” The direction of Lowell’s thought here seems to be leading to that corner of the village newspaper, to Reuben’s rude, Burns-like songs. Just here, however, Lowell goes off on a tangent. Politics creeps in, for it is not simply beauty to which his couple are roused. “Love,” he writes, “is the truest radicalism, lifting all to the same, clear-aired level of humble, thankful humanity.” Turning satirical, he says of her:

Dorcas begins to think that her childish dream has come true, and that she is really an enchanted princess, and her milk-pans are forthwith changed to a service of gold plate, with the family arms engraved on the bottom of each, the device being a great heart, and the legend, God gives, man only takes away.

And of him:

Reuben has grown so tender-hearted that he thought there might be some good even in “Transcendentalism,” a terrible dragon of straw, against which he had seen a lecturer at the village lyceum valorously enact the St. George, — nay, he goes so far as to think that the slave women (black though they be, and therefore not deserving so much happiness) cannot be quite so well off as his sister in the factory, and would sympathize with them if the constitution did not enjoin all good citizens not to do so.

The tangent ends here, but Lowell does not return to the idea of rustic song:

But we are wandering — farewell Reuben and Dorcas! remember that you can only fulfil your vow of being true to each other by being true to all.

And from there he turns to the “unspeakably precious” songs of “our great poets,” precious because they preserve the feelings of a Reuben or Dorcas (“those irrepressible utterances of homely fireside humanity”) in a context literature otherwise inhospitable to such expression. This is why Lowell’s extracts include so many songs from plays: their appearance in Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, Jonson shows them as indeed moments of exception, bright, momentary pleasures in the midst of grander emotion.

The faint records of flitting impulses, we light upon them sometimes imbedded round the bases of the basaltic columns of the epic or the drama, like heedless insects or tender ferns which had fallen in while those gigantic crystals were slowly shaping themselves in the molten entrails of the soul all aglow with the hidden fires of inspiration, or like the tracks of birds from far-off climes, which had lighted upon the ductile mass ere it had hardened into eternal rock. They make the lives of the masters of the lyre encouragements and helps to us, by teaching us humbly to appreciate and sympathize with, as men, those whom we should else almost have worshiped as beings of a higher order.

Had America yet raised its “basaltic columns of the epic or the drama”? Were there “heedless insects” or “tender ferns” of American song? No, to judge from Lowell’s wholly English examples. But what of the rustic song? the newspaper verse? Coaxing a tear when it does not provoke laughter, such verse cut with scissors from the news, tucked between blood-stained pages is the real subject of Lowell’s essay, not quite gotten to, put off till another time.

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 22, 2016 at 11:12 am

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Parnassian Categories

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parnassusIs there a list of important works of nineteenth-century American literature that no one reads or talks about? Ralph Waldo Emerson’s anthology, Parnassus (1874), must reside high there a different sort of airy reach than the one he meant by that title.

After C19 and the poetry seminar organized by Virginia Jackson and Michael Cohen, I began to wonder about the tradition of English poetry as understood in Victorian America. Who did they love, and who did they respect without love, and who did they care about not one little bit? Perhaps someone has already answered those questions.

Lacking time to investigate this issue, I did pull Parnassus off the shelf, to see what poetry Emerson loved, respected, allowed himself to forget. Emerson, of course, was not the only anthologist in this period, was not even the only poet anthologist (Bryant and Whittier also made treasuries of verse, and Longfellow the more peculiar Poems of Places). Nonetheless, Emerson is as close to a central figure as one might find among the anthologists, and his treasury is the one I happened to have on hand. Perusing his contents, however, I found myself drawn from his list of names to the categories under which the names were gathered. A fascinating itinerary, truly, and perhaps a better clue to the nature of his canon than the canon itself.




Home.Woman.Love.Friendship.Manners.Holy Days.Holidays.




Man.Virtue.Honor.Time.Fate.Sleep.Dreams.Life.Death.Immortality.Hymns and Odes.











Good Counsel.Supreme Hours.

At C19, Emerson was cited as a crucial figure in the replacement of “poetic genres” with “the genre of poetry,” a critical turn that Virginia Jackson influentially analyzed as “lyricization”: “the progressive idealization of what was a much livelier, more explicitly mediated, historically contingent and public context for many varieties of poetry,” such that poetry and lyric become conflated terms  and the lyric of this conflation a particularly attenuated version of the genre.[1] In this respect, it might be useful to think of Emerson’s Parnassian categories as the road not taken on the way to lyricization. Genres are included (hymns, odes, ballads, songs, satires), but intermixed with modes (the contemplative, picturesque, comic), themes and subjects (nature, history, personal life), functions (religion, storytelling, counsel), and affects (pathos, humor, terror). The categories are not quite distinct and not quite coordinated, so that what we have is a messy attempt to sort the objects of an idealization according to their piecemeal pleasures, even as that form of appreciation is discounted as trivial.

In his preface, Emerson writes:

The poet demands all gifts, and not one or two only. Like the electric rod, he must from a point nearer to the sky than all surrounding objects, down to the earth, and into the wet soil, or neither is of use. The poet must not only converse with pure thought, but he must demonstrate it almost to the senses. His words must be pictures: his verses must be spheres and cubes, to be seen and handled. His fable must be a good story, and its meaning must hold as pure truth.

The sphere and cube are ideal forms, pure as the poets of Emerson’s Parnassus. In the end, however, they are not the right categories for the poems.


1 [Back to text] Virginia Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 9.

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 21, 2016 at 3:27 pm