Archive for June 2009
From Poems of Places, vol. 28, America: Southern States (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
Since I am spending the summer near D.C., I thought to look into this volume. Appears that most of the work is Civil War-related, including this poem, “Spring at the Capital,” and the one for Arlington, VA, where my father’s nursing home is located. For an added personal touch, the author, Elizabeth Akers Allen, was born in Maine, where I’d otherwise be. Her archive is part of the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England. Here is an excerpt:
For Nature does not recognize
This strife that rends the earth and skies;
No war-dreams vex the winter sleep of clover-heads and daisy-eyes.
She holds her even way the same,
Though navies sink or cities flame;
A snowdrop is a snowdrop still, despite the nation’s joy or shame.
When blood her grassy altar wets,
She sends the pitying violets
To heal the outrage with their bloom, and cover it with soft regrets.
O crocuses with rain-wet eyes,
O tender-lipped anemones,
What do ye know of agony and death and blood-won victories?
No shadow breaks your sunshine-trance,
Though near you rolls, with slow advance,
Clouding your shining leaves with dust, the anguish-laden ambulance.
Yonder a white encampment hums;
The clash of martial music comes;
And now your startled stems are all a-tremble with the jar of drums.
Whether it lessen or increase,
Or whether trumpets shout or cease,
Still deep within your tranquil hearts the happy bees are murmuring “Peace!”
O flowers ! the soul that faints or grieves
New comfort from your lips receives;
Sweet confidence and patient faith are hidden in your healing leaves.
— from “Spring at the Capital” by Elizabeth Akers Allen
The middle thirty years of the nineteenth century were a revolutionary time, and one longs for a taste of that in the poetry — for a poem that goes beyond piecemeal criticism to denounce the entire shape of life as laid out by society.
Lucy Larcom’s “Prudence” is one such poem — one of the more devastating feminist critiques of the time. So much of the nineteenth-century women’s poetry now anthologized is subtle in its critique; persuasively so when one reads a single poem slowly. But the cumulative effect of many read quickly is the opposite. One feels engaged in a process of adjustment, with outrage muted. Anti-slavery poetry is of course an exception.
Larcom was as well prepared as any freeborn American poet to grasp the import of the ideas we now associate with 1848. She was 24 years old that magic year, and had already given up work in the Lowell mills to become a schoolteacher. She later edited the children’s magazine Our Young Folks and wrote several books in poetry and prose, including A New England Girlhood Outlined from Memory. That memoir contains a beautiful description of revolutionary desire, in the chapter entitled “Beginning to Work,” under the guise of millennialism. “The thought of it,” she writes, “was continually breaking out, like bloom and sunshine, from the stern doctrines of the period.” Read the rest of this entry »
Although it is not an anthologized poem today, “The Romany Girl” by Ralph Waldo Emerson was highly regarded in the nineteenth century, and often included in short lists of Emerson’s best work. It appeared in the first issue of Atlantic Monthly (1857), alongside “The Chartist’s Complaint,” “Days,” and “Brahma.” All four of these poems later appeared in May Day and Other Pieces (1867), Emerson’s second collection. In the 1870s, George Fuller took the poem’s title for a painting, and this too was highly regarded in the nineteenth century. The idea for the title came from William Dean Howells, who later produced a Gypsy image of his own for his last novel, The Vacation of the Kelwyns (1920).
Emerson’s poem was written in the first person, with Emerson-as-Gypsy defending the outdoors life of a social outcast, and doing so with a grand self-possession. The impersonation stands out from his other work in verse, which pays little heed to social types and rarely takes shape in dramatic monologues. The approach may have been more common among his contemporaries — this was, after all, the age of the minstrel show — but comparable poems by John Greenleaf Whittier focus on facts and actions, not self-understanding; their interest does not lie in characterization.  Nor is characterization a strength of William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy,” though here at least self-understanding was at issue. This may be why one nineteenth-century critic (W. S. Kennedy) invoked Blake when citing “The Romany Girl.”
A comparison of the Blake and Emerson poems is revealing. Blake’s speaker, born in the “southern wild,” looks forward to a day when his racial difference will disappear — when he and the “little English boy” can embrace in heaven. Emerson’s speaker insists on her difference. She finds nothing worth embracing in the “Pale Northern girls” who scorn her. She sports with their men, but has no intention of leaving her own kind. That would mean accepting captivity in a city and she has nothing but disdain for that prospect, an attitude that Emerson clearly finds attractive: Read the rest of this entry »
Is a fine word to play on. Many a niche
It fills in letters, and in billet-doux, ―
Its adjective a graceful prefix makes
To a well-written signature. It gleams
A happy mirage in a sunny brain;
But as a principle, is oft, I fear,
Inoperative. Some satirist hath said
That gratitude is only a keen sense
Of future favors.
As regards myself,
Tis my misfortune, and perhaps, my fault,
Yet I’m constrain’d to say, that where my gifts
And efforts have been greatest, the return
Has been in contrast, so that I have shrunk
To grant myself the pleasure of great love
Lest its reward might be indifference,
Or smooth deceit. Others no doubt have been
More fortunate. I trust ’tis often so:
But this is my experience, on the scale
Of three times twenty years, and somewhat more.
―Lydia Sigourney, The Man of Uz and Other Poems (1862)
A sad excerpt from Sigourney’s last long poem, “The Rural Life in New-England.”
I want to write something about Emerson’s poem “The Romany Girl,” which was first published in the first issue of Atlantic Monthly (1857), then in Emerson’s second and last book of poems, May-Day and Other Pieces (1867). The poem was subsequently reprinted in a variety of contexts, including the British anthology illustrated on the left. The title of that anthology and the title page for the first volume, the one in which “The Romany Girl” appeared, are so suggestive of Emerson’s fate as a poet, that I thought I’d savor the image while preparing my notes on the poem.
Emerson is hardly the only poet buried in literature, but he at least is remembered from time to time, his casket lifted up and admired, for its craftsmanship and sturdiness, perhaps, or out of fondness for the memory of his prose. But what of those poets who were simply tumbled into the earth, buried without even a stone to mark their brief time under the sun? What sort of casket has literature given them?
In asking this question, I’m reminded of the story of McDonald Clarke, the mad poet of Broadway, whose funeral was attended by Lydia Maria Child and Walt Whitman. He died penniless, but friends arranged for his burial in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and raised money for an obelisk, which is still standing today, though none of his works remain in print.
I’d like to write about Clarke too someday.
Over on Facebook, in a comment stream linked to the last post, my old friend Michael Boughn wondered if academics can be trusted to sort out the good, bad, and ugly of nineteenth century American poetry. Aren’t poets the ones who ought to do this work? And on the same comment stream, Don Share wondered if the work, once done, could ever be of interest to anyone but academics. Ouch!
Here are three thoughts, not quite answers, in response:
1. Judgments of worth are ultimately subjective, so I wouldn’t want to say that one kind of judgment is inherently more trustworthy than another. But it’s true that an academic judgment is not always shaped by the interests of poetry. This is what I meant when I said that the poets of the Norton serve the interests of a theme, not the other way around. Academic labor stirs things up; it brings memorable poetry to the surface, but also things that are not so memorable; it muddies the waters. Isn’t that its use? Dislodging things from the past, making reappraisal necessary?
2. “Academic,” however, is Michael’s word. I tried to avoid it before, speaking instead of scholars and teachers, saying that teachers split the difference between a scholar’s needs and those of the common reader. But Michael reminds me that the scholar and common reader are only two points of a triangle; poets watch over the third corner. Why I forgot this, I think, is that poets ― the poets I care about ― have ceased to be interested in re-imagining the century. It’s astonishing, really, how stable the poets’ nineteenth century has become, especially when you consider the volatility of the early twentieth. The Pound Era became the Stein Era, but what changed in our view of the fifty years before that?
This leads directly to Don Share’s question:
3. Have poets ignored the nineteenth century because there’s nothing worth reappraising there? Obviously, I don’t think so, or I wouldn’t be devoting so much attention to the era. But substantiating that faith, or rather making it convincing, isn’t so simple. Judgments of dreariness are subjective, hence they have no objective answer, and subjective answers that are able to win converts require evangelical skill. I lack that; my temperament is more rabbinical. Not Pharisaical, mind you (that would mean academic and dreary, right?), but more passionate in study than espousal; readjusting tradition in every act of interpretation. Which means that I find texts insufficient in themselves. Value accrues in the way we read them. I hope to make that value clearer in what I continue to post here. Assuming I do continue.
Back when Whitman was out of fashion and Dickinson had not yet achieved full recognition, scholars divided their attention more evenly among the poets. Yvor Winters wrote a monograph on Edwin Arlington Robinson, and he passionately championed Jones Very and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. A Winters student, N. Scott Momaday, edited Tuckerman’s Complete Poems for Oxford and Charles Anderson edited Sidney Lanier before writing his fine book on Dickinson. Whitman specialists existed, but they shared the field with biographers of Longfellow and Whittier. Decades before he helped edit the variorum Leaves of Grass, Sculley Bradley worked on George Henry Boker. In 1930, Yale published a critical study of Fitz-Greene Halleck; there would be no other for the rest of the century.
For us, with Whitman and Dickinson, the question is not “These two also?”but “Who else, if anyone?” After 1970, the “if” became a very steep slope, though individual poets had their advocates. Melville’s poetic reputation held steady and even grew while the Fireside Poets slipped into obscurity (I’m old enough to remember engraved pictures of Bryant et al. in my classroom). Scholars did pay the first serious attention then to African American and women’s poetry from the nineteenth century, but the work was looked at in isolation, or as distinct from other poetries of the same time, so that no full picture of the century’s literary cultures came into focus. This began to change in the last half-decade, with long essays by Barbara Packer and Shira Wolosky in the new Cambridge History of American Literature (2004) and important monographs by Mary Loeffelholz (From School to Salon, 2004), Angela Sorby (Schoolroom Poets, 2005), and Joan Shelley Rubin (Songs of Ourselves, 2007), to cite only those that reappraised the whole period. More specialized studies by Paula Bernat Bennett (Poets in the Public Sphere, 2003), Janet Gray (Race and Time, 2004), Eliza Richards (Gender and the Poetics of Reception in Poe’s Circle, 2004), and Christoph Irmscher (Longfellow Redux, 2006) also deserve mention. All of which has made possible a new answer to the question: “Who, after Whitman and Dickinson, should we read and enjoy and remember and study?” Or to put it more colloquially: Who are the best of the rest? Read the rest of this entry »