From George P. Marsh, Lectures on the English Language (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1885).
James Russell Lowell is for me the epitome of a perfectly good program uninstalled from most computers because the software is no longer supported. Which is to say: there are no more updates or fixes coming. And compatibility with other programs? Forget about it.
Yet some people — very few, it is true — still read him. Why? Here are some thoughts borrowed from the software world:
- Many people read forgotten poets simply because they didn’t keep current or don’t read poetry very often.
- Some actively choose to read forgotten poets. What are they thinking?
- Contemporary writing is too difficult or too annoying. This is a common reason for sticking with Longfellow and Whittier.
- Setting the old aside might risk values you need. Conceptual Writing is a good example. Its demands for attention and indifference to response caused accessibility problems for a number of users.
- There’s a huge amount of nervousness around keeping up to date. It’s also difficult and time-consuming to find new poets. Why risk the search when the old standbys are just fine?
- You’re busy and have better things to do. To be honest, this is often why I don’t read new poetry. I have my own work to do and a life to live. I just don’t have time to for non-essential reading.
From Poems of Places, vol. 21, Asia: Syria (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1878), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
A chain of associations led me from Longfellow to Longinus, by way of Nicholas Michell and Charles Morris. It began with the news from Syria. Or rather, it began with a drive past Palmyra, Maine, which brought the news from Syria back into mind. Getting home, I turned to Longfellow’s anthology, wondering if there were any poems for the fallen city. In fact, there were three: a prize-winning undergraduate poem from the 1820s by John Henry Bright; “Tadmor of the Wilderness” by Connecticut poet Jesse Erskine Dow; and a section from Ruins of Many Lands by Nicholas Michell. All three were written in Longfellow’s own lifetime, two by Brits, one by an American, and all are forgotten today. I dare say they were already forgotten in Longfellow’s day. Finding poems for all the cities of Syria was no easy task— and Arabic poems are notably absent. Obscurities were necessary to fill out the pages.
The extracts from Michell take more space than the other two choices combined, but they caught my eye for the phrase “Murdered Longinus,” which occurs in this passage:
The street of graves! where kings laid down their pride,
And many a restless phantom yet may glide:
Murdered Longinus here may wander still,
And she whose dust was laid by Tibur’s hill,
Far-famed Zenobia, for her kingdom wail,
Sweeping with viewless form the desert gale.
I’ll admit, I did not know the story of Longinus, but a little Googling brought me to Charles Morris’s telling of it in Historical Tales: The Romance of Reality (1896), a book that enjoyed wide circulation and so may have appeared in many a house alongside Longfellow’s anthology. The gist of the story is this: born, apparently, in Syria, Longinus was secretary and counselor to Queen Zenobia, whose realm, encompassing Egypt, “extended from the Euphrates over much of Asia Minor and to the borders of Arabia.” Her seat of power was Palmyra. A decisive victory over Rome maintained her independence, at least while Claudius was emperor. With Aurelian’s succession, hostilities were renewed. Rome advanced on Palmyra, subjugating the city after several hard-fought battles. Zenobia, for her part, misjudged the chances of victory, which led her to reject Rome’s first terms of surrender. This in turn unleashed Rome’s fury, and the city succumbed:
The soldiers, with angry clamor, demanded [Zenobia’s] immediate execution, and the unhappy queen, losing for the first time the courage which had so long sustained her, gave way to terror, and declared that her resistance was not due to herself, but had arisen from the counsels of Longinus and her other advisers. It was the one base act in the woman’s life. She had purchased a brief period of existence at the expense of honor and fame. Aurelian, a fierce soldier, to whom the learning of Longinus made no appeal, at once ordered his execution. The scholar died like a philosopher. He uttered no complaint. He pitied, but did not blame, his mistress. He comforted his afflicted friends. With the calm fortitude of Socrates he followed the executioner, and died like one for whom death had no terrors. The ignorant emperor, in seizing the treasures of Palmyra, did not know that he had lost its choicest treasure in setting free the soul of Longinus the scholar.
But this was not the end.
What followed may be more briefly told. Marching back with his spoils from Palmyra, Aurelian had already reached Europe when word came to him that the Palmyrians whom he had spared had risen in revolt and massacred his garrison. Instantly turning, he marched back, his soul filled with thirst for revenge. Reaching Palmyra with great celerity, his wrath fell with murderous fury on that devoted city. Not only armed rebels, but women and children, were massacred, and the city was almost levelled with the earth. The greatness of Palmyra was at an end. It never recovered from this dreadful blow.
I put the above together over a week ago and neglected to post it. In the meantime, the flow of news from Palmyra has slowed considerably. A few days ago the Independent (UK) published survivor stories. The occupation has been bloody but so far the city’s archeological remains are more or less intact.
A few more lines of Longfellow’s excerpt from Ruins of Many Lands:
Deserted Tadmor! queen of Syria’s wild!
Well may’st thou fill with rapture Fancy’s child;
Yet not by day — too garish, harsh, and rude —
The eye should scan thy fairy solitude;
But when the still moon pours her hallowing beam,
And crumbling shrine and palace whitely gleam,
Then pause beneath the lofty arch, and there
Survey the mouldings rich and sculptures fair;
See how like spectral giants columns stand,
And cast long shadows o’er the yellow sand;
How the soft light on marble tracery plays,
And busts look life-like through that silvery haze!
From Noah Webster’s Grammatical Institute of the English Language … Part Second. Containing a Plain and Comprehensive Grammar (1800):
That 1 pens want mending. That 2 books are torn.
These 3 is a fine day. That 4 will make excellent scholars.
These 5 lad will be an honor to his friends. This 6 ladies
behave with modesty.
1 these. 2 those. 3 this. 4 those. 5 this. 6 these.
I’m preparing a syllabus for nineteenth-century American lit, one of several new reading-intensive surveys in my department, bridges between the lower-division methodology requirements (poetics, narratology, theory) and the upper-division seminars, and so I’m working with the Norton anthology for the first time in many years. To be more specific, I’m working with the shorter eighth edition, which I adopted in part because the students could use it again for a sister course, if I’m assigned one, in part because it makes a sturdy reference work. The full-length Norton is now a five-volume monster, and since I can’t imagine a circumstance in which a student would need to acquire all five, the shorter it was. I also adopted A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, so whatever else transpires next semester, the students will at least yield the benefit of a small library — those who don’t dump their texts for cash at the end. Can I say it? I hate that dump, and in so many ways: I hate that students want to be rid of what they study. I also hate that the campus bookstore abets their desire, pawnshop fashion. Most of all, I hate that the books get sold again, no matter how shoddy their condition, Can you learn from a book with wrinkled cover and dog-eared pages, plastered with stickers, marked by highlighter? Of course. But not with the same sense of clarity and purpose, not with the same joy as brought by a new text. A clean copy is like clean clothing; its newness becomes our own.
Anyway, I’ve been looking at the anthology again, struck as I ever was by the book’s lacunae — but in a new way. Sure, the old gaps are there too: missing authors, disappearing genres, underrepresented groups. That sort of gap is inevitable, even in a five-volume monster, and I’ve nothing new to say about it in any case. What caught my attention this time was a gap in time. Do such lacunae matter in the same way? Are they equally regrettable? Does it pose a problem when periods of time are skipped over, whole decades scanted?
It took me a while to see that there were such lacunae. Though the book is organized historically, the primary division is by author, arranged in order of birth date. The sequence of works is more haphazard, even within the individual author selections. With Poe, for instance, born 1809, the poetry comes before the prose, which means that “The Raven” (1845) precedes “Ligeia” (1838). Both, however, come after Whittier’s “Snow-Bound” (1866), owing to the fact that Whittier, born 1807, comes before Poe. Sequencing is also made difficult by publication history. Red Jacket’s “Reply to the Missionary Jacob Cram” was delivered as a speech in 1805 and first printed in 1809, but taken in the Norton from an 1841 biography, The Life and Times of Red-Jacket, or Sa-go-ye-wat-ha. (The speech, by the way, is not slotted by author, which would place it nearly 200 pages later, but in a short thematic section, “Native Americans: Contact and Conflict.” There are a few other thematic sections, and some of them also contain work by authors with their own sections. Jefferson, for example, appears in the section with Red Jacket, then under his own name, and then in a section titled “Slavery, Race, and the Making of American Literature.” This too makes a knot of chronology since the sequence of Jefferson texts does not go from early to late.)
The historical structure of the book is not limited to author birth dates. The nineteenth century is encompassed by three sections: 1790-1820, 1820-1865, and 1865-1914. Not surprisingly, the long careers of individual authors transgress those boundaries, especially the one marked by the end of the Civil War. The postbellum section begins with Twain, but many of the earlier figures were still alive and still publishing when he first made his mark (the infamous Whittier birthday address speaks to that). What the book presents is a notion of historical progression, one that occasionally depends on a depleted sense of period. Whitman as a contemporary of Douglass and Melville — he appears between the two men — paints one picture. Another would emerge if his “Song of Myself,” which the Norton gives in the 1881 version, appeared between “Daisy Miller” (1878) and Huck Finn (1884).
If the 1865 border is ever transgressed, the 1820 border is just the opposite: scarcely approached from either side. The situation is of course somewhat different in the five-volume monster, but the shorter edition yields nary a work from 1800 to 1820, and things don’t really pick up until the 1830s. Oddly, the most distinguished of the exceptions on the early side, “Rip Van Winkle” (1819), is credited to the later: Washington Irving is the first figure in the 1820-1865 section, a fine example of how narrative supersedes chronology. Irving aside, the first two decades are a real hole. There’s a poem by Freneau, “On the Religion of Nature” (1815), and Red Jacket’s speech falls here. There’s also a Tecumseh speech printed in 1823, but credited to “1811 or 1812.” Scarcely a portrait of the period.
The 1820s do better, marginally, complementing the 1800-1820 selections with a somewhat larger number of texts: a chapter from The Last of The Mohicans (1826) balances even with “Rip Van Winkle”; Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” and “To a Waterfall” (both 1821) double the one poem by Freneau; and there are more Native American texts in the later decade, chiefly related to Cherokee history. One might also count Jefferson, though his Autobiography (1821) is given for its account of “The Declaration of Independence” (and appears with the offerings from 1790-1820). There is also an excerpt, a very brief one, from David Walker’s Appeal (1829). It’s not much, but more than what we get for the two decades before.
There’s one other meager period in the Norton’s nineteenth century: the 1870s. The meagerness here is strange given the figures active at the time. There are two poems from the decade: Dickinson’s “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (1872) and Frances Harper’s “Learning to Read” (1872), and there are also two stories: “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1870) and “Daisy Miller.” Not so much a gap in the narrative as a pause.
And what does it all mean? That’s what I’m sorting out, in my head, as I prepare for next semester, putting together my own story of the century. Mine too will have holes, but probably not the same ones.
I came upon a curious fact by accident: E. E. Cummings had a hand in a silent-film adaptation of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” His name doesn’t appear in the credits, at least not in the versions that stream online, but his involvement is certainly evident in the film’s beautiful use of language. This begins with the opening sequence, in which Poe’s text crashes round, kaleidoscope fashion (evoking, of course, the crashing down of the Usher mansion). There are also three crucial words later in the film (beat, crack, scream), broken down into their constituent letters, captions dancing the meanings of the scenes they explain. The Cummings involvement also makes sense given the prominent roles of two friends: James Sibley Watson, Jr., editor of The Dial, and Watson’s wife, Hildegarde, with whom Cummings maintained a vigorous correspondence. Sibley directed the film; Hildegarde starred as Madeleine Usher.
But why is the Cummings-Poe connection so obscure? That’s one of the things I found curious. The Cummings-Harriet Beecher Stowe connection has received at least some attention. He created a ballet of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1935); it was never produced, but the text appears in a book of his plays. “Usher” (1928) has fallen through the cracks. There’s no mention of the film in Cummings scholarship, and no mention of Cummings in The Poe Cinema. Yet his share in the film’s creation is mentioned several times online, most notably on the website of the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (link). There, a brief clip is paired with extensive notes; those notes led me in turn to a fine essay by Lisa Cartwright, which likewise mentions Cummings. That essay, it’s true, draws on unpublished letters in private hands, but it isn’t clear that those letters disclosed his involvement. How then did it become known? And why isn’t it better known?
The full film is available for download at Archive.org (link) and streams from several other sites. A scant 13 minutes long, it is emphatically an art film, visually indebted to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but with an aspect that looks forward to Kenneth Anger. Do I mean by this anything other than that the film invests its silliness with ritual significance? Poe too invested the silly with significance, but for Poe ritual wasn’t the point. Still, the film is true to Poe, in its way, caring more for effect than explanation. The film is weird.
The NFPF notes that Watson’s Dial “published groundbreaking reappraisals of Edgar Allan Poe.” I would like to read those. I like, in any casem how the film pays tribute to Poe the writer, not by making him a character in his own stories — already a familiar tactic when this film was made — but by figuring books as part of the story’s Gothic architecture, a source of its horror.
Note: the online versions of the film have varied soundtracks and I haven’t sampled them sufficiently to give a ranking. This YouTube version (link) has an organ accompaniment that evokes tradition; no musician is credited. The score at Archive.org (link), by Lee Rosevere, is more fifties B-movie, which feels right too.
Found this steel engraving of Longfellow today in Graham’s Magazine (vol. 22, no. 5 [May 1843]); it accompanied an unsigned essay on the poet. Longfellow didn’t think much of it — to say the least. In a letter to Samuel Ward, he complained:
Why did you let Griswold have that head of me by Franquinet, to engrave for Graham’s Magazine? Do you know what the engraver has made of it? Why, the most atrocious libel imaginable; a very vulgar individual, looking very drunk and very cunning! An unredeemed blackguard air hovers over the whole. Now, when I think that forty thousand copies of this thing — this tasteless caricature — are to be printed and distributed through the country as my “counterfeit (very counterfeit) presentment,” I am in an indescribable agony. I solemnly protest against this whole proceeding, and shall write Graham this very day to prevent the publication.”
Obviously, his protest didn’t go very far, though it may explain the note of apology with which the essay ended:
The likeness which accompanies this, we are sorry to say, is not a very good one. Though correct, perhaps, in the general outline, Mr. Franquinet has failed to give that refined and poetical expression of his original which attracts the regard of every one who sees him in person.
These lines from “Morituri Salutamus” (1875) seem appropriate:
In mediaeval Rome, I know not where,
There stood an image with its arm in air,
And on its lifted finger, shining clear,
A golden ring with the device, “Strike here!”
Greatly the people wondered, though none guessed
The meaning that these words but half expressed,
Until a learned clerk, who at noonday
With downcast eyes was passing on his way,
Paused, and observed the spot, and marked it well,
Whereon the shadow of the finger fell;
And, coming back at midnight, delved, and found
A secret stairway leading underground.
The pinky ring intrigues me, but I won’t delve any further. In Longfellow’s poem, the curious clerk is soon struck dead!