American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

More Lint

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Matted in my head, as in the filter of a drying machine.

Emma Lazarus, who wrote the most famous of all American sonnets, “The New Colossus,” made translations from Petrarch. So too did Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who domesticated the Italian form by inscribing it in an American landscape. In “Sunshine and Petrarch,” written for Atlantic Monthly in 1867, he describes a little cove set above a steep bank of buttercups and grass, then comments:

If Petrarch still knows and feels the consummate beauty of these earthly things, it may seem to him some repayment for the sorrows of a lifetime that one reader, after all this lapse of years, should choose his sonnets to match this grass, these blossoms, and the soft lapse of these blue waves. Yet any longer or more continuous poem would be out of place to-day. I fancy that this narrow cove prescribes the proper limits of a sonnet; and when I count the lines of ripple within yonder projecting wall, there proves to be room for just fourteen. Nature meets our whims with such little fitnesses. The words which build these delicate structures are as soft and fine and close-textured as the sands upon this tiny beach, and their monotone, if such it be, is the monotone of the neighboring ocean.

A beautiful tranquility. But sonnets are not tranquil by nature, if only because they are often occasioned by powerful emotions. Here are the last ten lines of one of the Lazarus translations; they enact as it were an argument within the sonnet against the placidity sonnets are said to exemplify:

This life is like a field of flowering thyme,
Amidst the herbs and grass the serpent lives;
If aught unto the sight brief pleasure gives,
‘Tis but to snare the soul with treacherous lime.
So, wouldst thou keep thy spirit free from cloud,
A tranquil habit to thy latest day,
Follow the few, and not the vulgar crowd.
Yet mayest thou urge, “Brother, the very way
Thou showest us, wherefrom thy footsteps proud
(And never more than now) so oft did stray.”

Petrarch’s straying footsteps work very well as a figure for free verse, and free-verse sonnets are the ones I know best from my own era  —  Ted Berrigan’s being the best known (though I have a special fondness for those of John Clarke). The prototype is Walt Whitman’s “Death-Sonnet for Custer,” published in the New York Daily Tribune on July 10th, 1876. Here is a reproduction of the manuscript, held by the New York Public Library:

Click for a link to the NYPL website and a larger image

Click for a link to the NYPL website and a larger image

The Walt Whitman archive reproduces the newspaper printing and gives a transcript here.

For a sonnet that takes issue with its own form, you cannot do better than Poe’s “Enigma” (1848):

“Seldom we find,” says Solomon Don Dunce,
“Half an idea in the profoundest sonnet.
Through all the flimsy things we see at once
As easily as through a Naples bonnet —
Trash of all trash! — how can a lady don it?
Yet heavier far than your Petrarchan stuff —
Owl-downy nonsense that the faintest puff
Twirls into trunk-paper the while you con it.”
And, veritably, Sol is right enough.
The general tuckermanities are arrant
Bubbles — ephemeral and so transparent —
But this is, now — you may depend upon it —
Stable, opaque, immortal — all by dint
Of the dear names that lie concealed within ‘t.

Poe’s celebration of opacity is very postmodern, but in this case opacity is linked to stability of meaning; flux belongs instead to the “owl-downy nonsense” of the “tuckermanites,” followers of the original “school of quietude,” which Poe associated with Henry Theodore Tuckerman (not Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, one of the century’s better poets).

Poe’s sonnet is an enigma because it encodes the name of its addressee, as the last line tells us. The code is simple, but it’s easier to show than tell:

S eldom we find,” says Solomon Don Dunce,
“H A lf an idea in the profoundest sonnet.
Th R ough all the flimsy things we see at once
As e A sily as through a Naples bonnet —
Tras H of all trash! — how can a lady don it?
Yet he A vier far than your Petrarchan stuff —
Owl-dow N y nonsense that the faintest puff
Twirls i N to trunk-paper the while you con it.”
And, verit A bly, Sol is right enough.
The genera L tuckermanities are arrant
Bubbles — eph E meral and so transparent —
But this is, no W — you may depend upon it —
Stable, opaque, I mmortal — all by dint
Of the dear name S that lie concealed within ‘t.

In other words, the first letter of the first line, second letter of the second line, and so on, spell out the name Sarah Anna Lewis. Making this poem an ancestor to my favorite sonnet sequence of the present century: K. Silem Mohammad‘s “Sonnagrams” (described by Geoff Huth here, with YouTube illustration).

Before aleatory and contingency, poetry had chance. From Richard Hovey’s “Accident in Art,” by way of David Bromwich’s American Sonnets:

What poet has not found his spirit kneeling
A-sudden at the sound of such or such
Strange verses staring from his manuscript,
Written he knows not how, but which will sound
Like trumpets down the years? So Accident
Itself unmasks the likeness of Intent,
And ever in blind Chance’s darkest crypt
The shrine-lamp of God’s purposing is found.

The poem is more noteworthy than enjoyable. It marks a transition from Gilded Age grandiloquence to modernist austerity, but it does so from the wrong side of the change.

It didn’t have to be that way: Hovey was an early translator of Mallarmé; his investment in chance was no accident. Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, he might well have established an American modernism twenty years before its Imagist invention. Unfortunately, Hovey’s manner of expression was out of synch with where chance was headed, as one critic bluntly put it in 1957. Giving Hovey his due, but damningly, Henry W. Wells wrote:

Within a decade after his death currents of thought and taste set in so heavily against his meretricious rhetoric, flushed optimism, and idealistic philosophy that for many years little justice was done to his actual achievements. It has now at last become possible to recognize Hovey as a poet of considerable endowments battling with heavily qualified success against his time’s decay.

— which makes him sound like a character out of Edwin Arlington Robinson.

In 1908, Hovey’s widow edited a last collection of her late husband’s work (he died in 1900, at age 36). It contains, among other things, a “Canto XVII” of Don Juan, written in Byron’s manner. Samuel C. Chew calls it the most convincing of 28 known pastiches; it’s held up better, I think, than the sonnet on accident. The poem is spoken by Byron in the underworld. Sample stanzas:

Hell (but it took some time to get to Hell,
We had so much to say along the road)
Rose at the last before us, dark and fell.
Far off it lay —  or squatted, like a toad —
On the horizon. Like a sudden knell
It tolled across the waters wherethrough we strode.
Low, sinister and sinuous it crouched,
As if it menaced more than it avouched.

But that was the outside; the old walls stood
Much as they looked when first they were created;
Æons on æons have their towers withstood
And only grown more sullen as they waited;
But they that dwell therein have changed their mood;
The inside is completely renovated;
They speak of the old ways with an apology
And are quite up in modern criminology.

Amazingly, there’s an essay on Hovey’s influence on Ezra Pound (in two versions: here and here); it’s by Leon Surette, who wrote an excellent study of Pound’s evolution from crank economist to fascist criminal. Going from that work to this, from Mussolini to Hovey, is like stepping out of the underworld into a broom closet (a pretty good description, actually, of Hovey’s Byron pastiche). But Surette is only following Pound’s example here. In the Pisan Cantos, in his own personal version of hell (the U.S. Army’s “Disciplinary Training Center,” the DTC), Pound stepped back in memory to the literary culture of his youth: “Hovey, / Stickney, Loring, / the lost legion or as Santayana has said: / They just died   They died because they / just couldn’t stand it.” It being the philistine America that drove Pound to Europe. Though Stickney lived in Europe for most of his life, and died of a brain tumor — not that one expects Pound to make tenable claims…

In the same canto (number LXXX), Pound makes a more curious reference to nineteenth-century poetry, this time to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” After first citing the song’s title in standard English, he gives the opening line with a Yiddish accent: “mi-hine eyes hev.” Then continues: “well yes they have / seen a good deal of it / there is a good deal to be seen / fairly tough and unblastable.”

In his Companion to Pound’s Cantos, Carroll Terrell has this note for “Battle Hymn”:

Pound used this and the phrase “mi-hine eyes hev” as examples in explaining his technique to the DTC censors, who in passing manuscripts began to suspect (because of his reputation as a spy and traitor) that they contained coded messages for the enemy.

But in one respect the message is indeed coded, since Pound is race baiting here, putting on his Yiddish accent to mock an abolitionist hymn. Calling it an example of Pound’s technique is insufficient. Why that song in this context? In my view, Pound was equating the U.S. wreckage of Mussolini’s regime with Reconstruction, with what he called in one radio speech “the Jewish ruins of the American South.” In Italy, Reconstruction had begun anew, and Pound wanted none of it.

Surprisingly, for all his love of Italy and Italian poetry, Pound puts no Petrarch in his anthology of world poetry. His view of American poetry from before World War One is equally eccentric. Whitman is there, along with Whittier and Melville, but there is no Emerson, or Poe, or Dickinson, or Lanier. Instead, we get four poets chosen as humorists: Fitz-Greene Halleck, Bret Harte, James Whitcomb Riley, Benjamin Franklin King, Jr. Longfellow is there, but as a translator, praised by Pound for fostering American interest in foreign literature. The anthology was published in 1964, but one gets the feeling that the same choices would have been made in 1914.

Speaking of Longfellow and foreign literature: his Dante is now back in print, thanks to Barnes & Noble. Flipping through it, I see that his English version is unrhymed, though the language feels archaic. Which is weird, since Longfellow’s own poems are contemporary in idiom, but rhymed.

Whitman kept a copy of that Dante translation near at hand, at least according to an autobiographical note. The note (preserved by Horace Traubel) contains a very evocative description of Whitman’s living quarters:

His special apartment or living and writing and sleeping place (has been likened to some big old cabin for a kinky sailor-captain of a ship) is a large room on the second floor front 20 by 22 feet in area with a couple of tables (one rough old mahogany one, a Whitman heirloom over 100 years old, and another made for him in Brooklyn by the poet’s father), a stove, chairs, a good bed, several heavy boxes, and a big ample rattan-seated chair with timber-like legs, rockers and arms large as ship’s spars with a huge wolf-skin spread over the back in winter, a plain but very comfortable and ponderous edifice-built retreat in which WW ensconces the greater part of his days and whence, using a tablet on his lap, he issues all his poems, essays and letters of late years. He has within reach a Bible (English ed’n), Homer, Shakspere, Walter Scott’s Border Minstrelsy, Prof. Felton’s Greece, Macmillan’s ed’n of Burns, and Longfellow’s Dante with the old few other volumes he still reads lingeringly and never tires of.

With his copy of the Divine Comedy, Whitman would have had Longfellow’s prefatory sonnets. The last one begins as a prayer to the poet, and one can well imagine how Whitman heard it since the terms are so resonant with his own poetics:

O star of morning and of liberty!
O bringer of the light whose splendor shines
Above the darkness of the Apennines,
Forerunner of the day that is to be!
The voices of the city and the sea,
The voices of the mountains and the pines,
Repeat thy song, till the familiar lines
Are footpaths for the thought of Italy!


One Response

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  1. Favorite phrase: “Owl-downy nonsense”

    Illuminating as always,Ben.


    July 19, 2009 at 7:11 am

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