American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Poems of Places 7

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From Poems of Places, vol. 17, Germany 1 (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1877), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


I’ve spent the past month packing up my father’s library, in preparation for his move to Maine. He and his late wife were historians, both doing their principal work on the holocaust, and the vast majority of the books are on that and related topics. Going through them, I’ve paid particular attention to items that touch on family history: my father is a survivor, born in Berlin, then deported to Łódź with his family, and after that to Auschwitz and other camps. There are a great many books that touch on those places, and I find them evocative even when they don’t pertain precisely to my father’s experience — as in the book shown below, which does not appear to include the Jewish school my father attended in the 1930s.

berlinIn the midst of all this packing and browsing, it occurred to me to look up the family sites in Poems of Places, just to see if anything interesting was there. I’m a big believer in the value of bibliomancy: ever since learning about the medieval practice of using Virgil’s Aeneid as an oracle, I’ve paid attention to randomly chosen text; fortuitous juxtapositions are even better. It’s not that I believe in such oracles, only in the value of exploring their hermeneutic possibilities. I have greater respect for chance than divination; I trust in fortune, not fortunetelling.

juvens1All that said, very few of the places I looked up were represented. There are some evocative poems about Poland in the Russia volume, but none about Łódź or Oświęcim. Nor are there poems in the Germany volumes about the cities of Braunschweig, where my father was briefly a prisoner near the end of the war, or Brandenburg, where the family went to stay in the days after Kristallnacht. I did find a few interesting resonances with other cities, most notably the text below, Longfellow’s sole entry for Berlin.

I have to wonder what other choices Longfellow had, since the poem has almost nothing to do with Berlin, or even with Germany. It concerns a Greek statue from 300 BC commonly known as “The Praying Boy.” Of course, since the Nazis considered Jews a foreign element, I find it fitting that Longfellow’s choice for Berlin should concern an outsider, indeed a refugee, if only a refugee from antiquity. And if this interpretation seems forced, note that the poem itself presents the boy in just this way: as a survivor miraculously pulled from the mass grave of history.

A few minutes with Google unearths the poem’s prior publication in The Monthly Religious Magazine (1862), as well as a later publication in Every Other Sunday (1900), the latter as part of an article on the statue that inspired the poem. Given these pious contexts, it is not surprising that the author, Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham, was a minister. A Unitarian minister, part of the broader circle of New England intellectuals that included the Transcendentalists, with whom Frothingham was on friendly terms.

According to Frothingham’s headnote, “The Praying Boy” was dredged from the Tiber at the end of the seventeenth century, an origin central to the poem’s story, though it doesn’t seem to agree with what the curators in Berlin currently say about the statue. Indeed, according to some commentators, the statue is not even a depiction of prayer. They say the boy’s arms are raised because he is carrying a lost object. But whatever the statue’s original meaning, its altered meaning — the very fact that its meaning has altered — only adds to the sense that the bronze is alive, that it’s subject like any actual person to the vicissitudes of time. For this reason, the story of the boy’s recovery from the Tiber is as meaningful as his pose, whether that story is true or merely a myth.

If you look closely at the cover of Jüdische Schulen in Berlin, you’ll see that there’s a tall boy in the center of the crowd with his arms raised in a manner that rhymes with that of the statue. The meaning of the poses is of course different, but the natural gesture of upraised arms makes an evocative parallel, suggesting welcome and fellowship in one case, solitary thanks in the other:

The Juvenis Adorans

berlin2This antique statue, a youth praying, dug up from the Tiber in the
pontificate of Clement XI., was presented by that Pope to Prince
Eugene of Savoy. From him it passed into the possession of Prince
Lichtenstein. Frederic II. of Prussia bought it for ten thousand
thalers, and placed it in his palace at Potsdam. It is now one of
the finest ornaments of the sculpture-gallery at Berlin.

Tiber’s yellow flood
Darkest tales can tell,
Where the mightiest stood,
How the haughtiest fell.

Tiber’s sedgy banks
Rustle with the past.
Ah, that Rome’s bright ranks
Should fade to this at last!

Tiber’s muddy bed!
Beneath thy burial lid —
If true what men have said —
Treasures of spoil lie hid.

And we were truly told.
From those foul deeps they raise
A form of vigorous mould;
And behold! he prays.

Not crouchingly he stands,
Not kneeling as in dread,
Not clasped his eager hands,
Not bowed his noble head.

His gaze is on the sky,
As if his trust were there;
His arms stretched wide and high,
As if his thanks were prayer.

His youth breathes strong of hope,
And life’s full, generous fires,
As towards that heavenly cope
He worships and aspires.

So at the Easter-tide
The churches rose and stood;
Throwing all stoop aside,
And every mournful mood.

O genius of new days!
Hail from thine ancient tomb;
Now let thy spirit’s blaze
Chase the old world of gloom.

Bright one! thine influence pour
On man so prone and sad;
And teach him how to adore,
And to be free and glad.

— Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham


4 Responses

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  1. on a less serious note, to do with book fortunes, randomness, I was looking at a poetry manuscript called _Dandelion Clock_ yesterday, and then in the evening read to my kids from a volume of _Captain Underpants_, which starred a “giant evil dandelion,” where “all nastiness was performed by a qualified stuntman and a licensed stuntplant.” (Dav Pilkey, author)

    I have found that the covers of Tinfish journal issues and their contents are usually in close convseration, although they are not coordinated.

    Susan M. Schultz

    July 30, 2009 at 4:47 pm

  2. There’s a Ken Irby text that cites a Japanese technique for eliciting oracles: you go to a crossroads at sunset, and the first words you hear are your fortune. So maybe books should be considered a kind of crossroads.

    I’ll take the dandelion’s whispers as my fortune.

    Ben Friedlander

    July 31, 2009 at 10:18 pm

  3. My name is Piter Jankovich. oOnly want to tell, that your blog is really cool
    And want to ask you: is this blog your hobby?
    P.S. Sorry for my bad english


    March 29, 2010 at 9:03 am

  4. Thanks for the note. When you’re a teacher, everything potentially feeds back into the work, even if it starts out as fun. So hobby, yeah. And no. How’s that for a non-answer?

    Ben Friedlander

    March 29, 2010 at 7:04 pm

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