American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

“Not wholly useless, though no longer used”

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One of his last poems, published posthumously. Longfellow was never one for violent contention so I find it hard to take his analogy too seriously, but the image of the old man “clouded and confused,” crying because he can’t read any more—that I believe. These were his last few months of life; he would die in March.

My Books

Written December 27, 1881.

Sadly as some old mediaeval knight
Gazed at the arms he could no longer wield,
The sword two-handed and the shining shield
Suspended in the hall, and full in sight,
While secret longings for the lost delight
Of tourney or adventure in the field
Came over him, and tears but half concealed
Trembled and fell upon his beard of white,
So I behold these books upon their shelf,
My ornaments and arms of other days;
Not wholly useless, though no longer used,
For they remind me of my other self,
Younger and stronger, and the pleasant ways
In which I walked, now clouded and confused.

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Not wholly useless, though no longer used”: that would be a good title for an essay on Longfellow today.


Written by Ben Friedlander

October 5, 2019 at 7:46 am

For a Commonplace Book 9

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W. got talking of Emerson again: “The world does not know what our relations really were—they think of our friendship always as a literary friendship: it was a bit that but it was mostly something else—it was certainly more than that—for I loved Emerson for his personality and I always felt that he loved me for something I brought him from the rush of the big cities and the mass of men. We used to walk together, dine together, argue, even, in a sort of a way, though neither one of us was much of an arguer. We were not much for repartee or sallies or what people ordinarily call humor, but we got along together beautifully—the atmosphere was always sweet, I don’t mind saying it, both on Emerson’s side and mine: we had no friction—there was no kind of fight in us for each other—we were like two Quakers together. Dear Emerson! I doubt if the literary classes which have taken to coddling him have any right to their god. He belonged to us—yes, to us—rather than to them.” Then after a pause: “I suppose to all as well as to us—perhaps to no clique whatever.”

—from With Walt Whitman in Camden, volume 1 (1906), entry for Monday, April 23, 1888


Text courtesy The Walt Whitman Archive

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 3, 2019 at 1:00 pm

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The Whitman We Need

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And so, just as cuchi cuchi contains multitudes, Charo does as well.

An article on Charo can’t quite redeem these awful days, but this one (from the style section of today’s Sunday Times) at least made me smile.

Written by Ben Friedlander

June 23, 2019 at 7:36 pm

Self-balanced in a mailed hand!

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A postscript to the other day’s mention of a torn-up copy of Democratic Review found for a dollar…

I focused on the editorial calling for a statue of Andrew Jackson. The issue also included a poem for the old demagogue, the authorship of which surprised me: Walter Savage Landor. Though little read today, Landor was a much-beloved writer among American poets, though admired more for his prose than poetry. He produced multiple volumes of “Imaginary Conversations” (extended dialogues between historical figures, meetings that never occurred), and these were gobbled up in his own lifetime by Emerson and Fuller, both of whom met Landor, and after his death by Ezra Pound. Robert Pinsky, who wrote a book about Landor, is only the most recent in this line.

American love for Landor was apparently reciprocated. Or why else this ode? First published, as the editor notes here, in the second volume of Landor’s epistolary Pericles and Aspasia (London, 1836), where the poem serves as a midpoint dedication. I’ve not read the book, though many consider it Landor’s best (“as beautiful an illustration of the blander aspects of wisdom as there can be in any language”).[*] I have sampled the poems, pastiches of Greek verse interspersed among the letters (Greek verse as translated in Landor’s time, of course: they’re rhymed), and these are excellent. The Jackson poem? Not so good, though I did like this passage:

How rare the sight, how grand!
Behold the golden scales of Justice stand
Self-balanced in a mailed hand!

That “mailed hand” has a truth to it.

The pages from the Democratic Review are reproduced below (click on the images for a closer view).


* Ernest Dilworth, Walter Savage Landor (New York: Twayne, 1971), 122. [Back to text]

Written by Ben Friedlander

August 19, 2017 at 1:37 pm

A Rhyme

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Historical consciousness is often out of joint, wrenching awareness away from the present, submerging now in then, coloring then in now‘s diffused tinctures. At present, for instance, the past appears to me a blood-red sea, and blood is all I can see of history.

Historians have other ways of inhabiting and appraising time, though they too, I imagine, have moments of confusion: moments when the past seems to encompass the present, while remaining out of reach, and when the present no longer seems the past’s successor. As a mode of analysis or understanding, this uncanny or untimely experience of history can be an achievement, a way of knocking the present off its pedestal. For not all successors are deserving. And sometimes, it takes a crisis to appreciate that.

This experience of history can also be alienating. Encompassed by the past, the present loses its autonomy, and we, as creatures of the present, lose ours, held captive by a past we thought to have escaped. In such a circumstance, the best we can hope to do is sever ties with the past, break off from those who would retain them, commence anew. A necessary, revolutionary program that is also, to some extent, a self-annihilating one, since the consciousness that rids itself of history is itself historical. The ordinary work of generations, frightening because it occurs in a flash instead of at the stately pace of centuries.

There is, however, an aesthetic version of this alienation: a sudden recognition of similitude between two finite moments, past and present coming together with just that shade of difference needed to keep them from collapsing together, yielding in their conjunction the pleasing qualities of a rhyme.

An instance of that rhyme today: a torn up old copy of the Democratic Review, found in a used book stall in Bangor, bought for a dollar. It contains many interesting literary artifacts (one of Whittier’s “Songs of Labor”; and an early work of Whitman’s, “Tale of a Murderer Escaped”), but what really caught my eye was the opening editorial, “Statue to Jackson.” God help us, will we ever be free of these statues? And Jackson, of all monstrous precedents; truly a rhyme with our present rogue populist. The entire text is reproduced below.



Written by Ben Friedlander

August 17, 2017 at 8:05 pm

Nauseating Flatteries

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The upsurge in far-right violence, gathering momentum with the current President’s coaxing, has taken the removal of Confederate monuments as a cause, most recently in an assault on the city of Charlottesville, Virginia. That city has two such monuments, one of Robert E. Lee, an equestrian statue whose much-debated fate is now in the hands of the courts.

Following from afar the awful events, and then their aftermath (including the stirring destruction of monuments), I was moved to reread Melville’s long poem in Battle-PiecesLee in the Capitol.” It did not suit the moment, but seemed instead to belong to the long recuperation of this treasonous general, defender of slavery. More pertinent was an editorial by Frederick Douglass in his Reconstruction-era newspaper New National Era. Under the headline “Bombast,” he denounced the growing chorus of voices in the North as well as South eulogizing Lee.

Writing a month after Lee’s death, Douglass asked:

Is it not about time that this bombastic laudation of the rebel chief should cease?

And he continued:

We can scarcely take up a paper that comes to us from the South, that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late ROBERT E. LEE; and many Northern journals also join in these undeserved tributes to his memory.

The Library of Congress has digitized the paper. I reproduce the editorial from the 10 November 1870 issue below:


sift through from (not remove (as noted by Siva Vaidhyanathan in an essay of cool, necessary fury) voted two years ago to relocate

Written by Ben Friedlander

August 17, 2017 at 12:05 pm


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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.

Click for larger view.

“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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