American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson


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Minute shreds of information gathering in my head, as in a pocket or belly button…

I was watching an episode of Law & Order: SVU the other day and saw that one of the scenes was filmed in front of the statue of William Cullen Bryant. I tried to get a picture but was too slow. It’s the episode with Robin Williams (appropriately titled “Authority“).

Emerson was Harvard’s class poet the year Bryant read his Phi Beta Kappa poem in Cambridge (something I mention here). I’ve now found the poem Emerson wrote for commencement, and it bears comparison. Sample lines:

In this bright age, with seeds of glory sown,
The hand of fate hath placed us, — not our own.
When the old world is crumbling with decay,
And empires unregarded, pass away…

Bryant’s poem was called “The Ages”; here’s a sample:

Thus error’s monstrous shapes from earth are driven;
They fade, they fly — but truth survives their flight;
Earth has no shades to quench that beam of heaven;
Each ray that shone in early time to light
The faltering footstep in the path of right,
Each gleam of clearer brightness shed to aid
In man’s maturer day his bolder sight,
All blended, like the rainbow’s radiant braid,
Pour yet, and still shall pour, the blaze that cannot fade.

In a comment a few weeks ago, David Sheidlower praised Emerson’s phrase “horizon walls” from “The Romany Girl.” I see now that Emerson liked the phrase too: he drew it from his earlier poem “The Humble Bee.”

Lacan citing Julia Ward Howe???

Yes. In “Psychoanalysis and Its Teaching.” The reference comes after a brief discussion of Jeremiah’s sour grape, leading into a self-quotation. Here’s the reference:

This is what made me pen the following passage … , restoring the import of paternal authority … , conjoining it as one must — in the Biblical terms used by the female author of the American “Battle Hymn of the Republic” — with the curse of the mother:

And here’s the self-quotation (it comes from “The Freudian Thing”):

For the sour grape of speech by which the child received the authentication of the nothingness of existence from a father too early, and the grapes of wrath that responded to the words of false hope with which his mother lured him with the milk of her true despair, set his teeth on edge more than if he had been weaned from an imaginary jouissance or even deprived of some real attentions.

Howe wrote her “Battle Hymn” in 1861, at the start of the Civil War, during an exciting visit to the front line. She had the idea of writing new words to “John Brown’s Body”; the visit inspired her. She tells the story in her 1899 autobiography. The description is worthy of analysis by Freud; strange to think it was written at the same time as The Interpretation of Dreams:

I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, “I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.” So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper. I had learned to do this when, on previous occasions, attacks of versification had visited me in the night, and I feared to have recourse to a light lest I should wake the baby, who slept near me. I was always obliged to decipher my scrawl before another night should intervene, as it was only legible while the matter was fresh in my mind. At this time, having completed my writing, I returned to bed and fell asleep, saying to myself, “I like this better than most things that I have written.”

Choice sentence from Angela Sorby’s “The Milwaukee School of Fleshly Poetry” (on Ella Wheeler Wilcox): “Her poems remake the middle class as a social location of legitimate pleasure seeking.”

In the 1870s, Wilcox wrote a book of temperance poems; her 1883 Poems of Passion is where the remaking is said to occur:

For Wilcox, the location of middle-class pleasure is the body: It is portable property that can … both express consuming desires and fulfill them. This leads her to frame love in terms of private property; even in a poem titled “Communism” that describes a bloody “revolution” in which the speaker’s feelings overwhelm her common sense.

Choice lines from Poems of Passion. From “Communism”:

When the court of the mind is ruled by Reason,
I know it is wiser for us to part;
But love is a spy who is plotting treason,
In league with that warm, red rebel, the Heart.

From “The Common Lot”:

It is a common fate — a woman’s lot —
To waste on one the riches of her soul,
Who takes the wealth she gives him, but cannot
Repay the interest, and much less the whole.

Anglophilia is not enough. Here are three sentences from David Bromwich’s American Sonnets:

The sonnet was perfected by Petrarch in fourteenth-century Italy; its first subject matter was sexual love. The great English sequences by Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare enlarged the Italian tradition by mingling the actual and imaginative experiences of the poet with the idealisms of love. Milton and Donne in the seventeenth century further widened its range to encompass admiration for acts of public virtue and the utterance of prayer in verse.

To which I can only say: read more Petrarch — not to mention the other Italians who worked before, during, and after the Age of Shakespeare. The tradition joined by Sidney et al. was already rich and varied, though there’s no question that the British poets added to its store.

For “the actual and imaginative experiences of the poet,” consider the following sonnet by Petrarch, as rendered by John Nott (a British translator whose work circulated in America — I’m quoting from a Boston printing of 1809):

Thou Po to distant realms this frame mayst bear
On thy all-powerful, thy headlong tide;
But the free spirit that within doth bide
Nor for thy might, nor ought of might doth care
Not varying its course, nor shifting there,
Before the kind, wish’d gale it joys to glide;
Clapping its wings, it seeks the laurel’s pride,
In spite of sails, or oars, of sea, or air.
Monarch of floods, magnificent, and great;
That meet’st the sun as he leads on the day,
But in the west doth quit a fairer light;
Thy curved course this body wafts elate;
While on love’s pinions my soul speeds its way,
And to its darling home directs its flight!

Nott’s version was used for an eighteenth-century life of Petrarch translated from the French; the lines support the biographical point that the poet embarked on the Po at Parma and went to Verona in the spring of 1345, after taking “a tender farewel” of his Laura. Citing this pedantically just to show that the twining of actual and imaginative experience is precisely what gives this poem its strength.

Or consider Dante’s New Life, which tells the story of how he composed his sonnets. The first came after a dream:

And because I had already seen by myself the art of saying words in rhyme, I proposed to make a sonnet, in which I should salute all the faithful of love, & praying them that they would judge my vision, I should write them what I had seen in my dream.

After giving the poem, Dante writes:

The sonnet was answered by many & with different meanings; among which respondents was he whom I call first among my friends (Guido Cavalcanti). And he wrote this sonnet.

You have seen, in my judgment, every valour,
And every game, & every good which man feels,
As if you were in proof of a mighty lord
Who ruled the world of honour.
Then live in places where grief dies,
And hold reason in your pious mind
Yes go gently in dreams to the race
Who carry their heart without pain.
Seeing her carry the heart of you,
Death demands your lady,
Feeds on the living heart of her timid.
When it appeared to you that she went away grieving
It was the sweet dream which was completed
That its contrary came conquering it.

The Dante translation is by Emerson, who also made English versions of sonnets by Michelangelo.

It’s a fiction to say that the American sonnet developed out of the British, as if poetry were a river with tributaries or a tree with branches. Relationships within tradition are not determinate in that way, though it may be said that tradition “has currents” or “grows.”

It makes as much sense to say that Petrarch enlarged the British tradition whenever he was read as to say the opposite: that the British poets enlarged the Italian tradition whenever they wrote.

A choice insight from American Sonnets: “there never was a poet with a more inborn tact for the ‘build’ toward endings than Tuckerman.”

The sonnet Bromwich discusses in his introduction is a good example. A meditation on autumn leaves, it ends:

Still let me be, by such, assuaged and soothed
And happier made, as when, our schoolday done,
We hunted on from flower to frosty flower,
Tattered and dim, the last red butterfly,
Or the old grasshopper molasses-mouthed.

I love that Tuckerman uses nature to explain nature, fixing on a grasshopper to evoke the color of life in a crinkling leaf.


2 Responses

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  1. I was amused to find my comments on “Fleshly Poetry” filed under “belly button lint.” Fleshly, indeed, but also flaky, just like Ella Wilcox herself.

    Angela Sorby

    July 7, 2009 at 11:48 am

  2. Ha! I didn’t think of that connection. My head itself is turning to lint.

    Ben Friedlander

    July 7, 2009 at 12:08 pm

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