American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for September 2009

Of Plucked Flowers

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An addendum to my previous note

Frontispiece for The Voice of Flowers by Mrs. L. H. Sigourney

Frontispiece for The Voice of Flowers by Mrs. L. H. Sigourney

Looking this morning at Lydia Sigourney’s The Voice of Flowers (my copy a sweet miniature with tinted engravings), I found a parallel to these lines from Emerson’s “Blight”:

But these young scholars, who invade our hills,
Bold as the engineer who fells the wood,
And travelling often in the cut he makes.
Love not the flower they pluck, and know it not,
And all their botany is Latin names.

The parallel is right there at the start of Signourney’s book. Here are the title and first stanza of the first poem:

Flowers

Sweet playmates of life’s earliest hours!
They ne’er upbraid the child,
Who, in the wantonness of mirth,
Uproots them on the wild;
And when the botanist, his shaft,
With cruel skill, doth ply,
Reproachless ’neath the fatal wound,
Martyrs to science die.

I will have to do some research to figure out if the parallel is coincidence or trace of influence. Emerson’s “Blight” appeared in his 1847 Poems. The Voice of Flowers bears a copyright date of 1845 (my copy is the fourth edition from two years after). But it may be that Emerson’s poem was written long before, or appeared long before in a journal; and it may be that Sigourney’s poem also appeared or was written long before. So who knows?

But I’m leaning away from coincidence, as I hear yet another echo of Sigourney (I assume it’s Sigourney who came first) in these later lines from Emerson’s poem:

… to our sick eyes,
The stunted trees look sick,…
And life, …
… in its highest noon and wantonness,
Is early frugal, like a beggar’s child

This too could be coincidence — it probably is — but the conjunction of “wantonness” and “child” in consecutive lines strikes me as a meaningful parallel.

Anyway, if casual research turns up anything relevant I’ll add it as a footnote to this post.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

September 30, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Emerson’s Blight

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ecopoetics
The new issue of Ecopoetics includes two interviews with Gary Snyder, one conducted by the editor, Jonathan Skinner, the other by Kyhl Lyndgaard. One portion in particular caught my eye from the former:

JS — You said at one point — in one of those interviews in The Real Work — that you never write of an animal or a plant that you haven’t seen.

GS — Not usually, no. Unless I dreamed it.

JS — Could you say a bit about the importance of that experience?

GS — I take animals seriously. They’re real beings. It’s exploitative to just try to play with them like counters. They don’t like it.

JS — Plants too?

GS — Yeah. You have to take into account …

JS — What about rocks?

GS — Anything. The world is solid. And spiritual. It’s just not something that you move around ny way you like. You have to give respect to it. Just like what Dick Nelson says about Koyukon, Athapaskan Indians in Alaska, in the Yukon area. He says they are so sensitive … to the etiquette of nature, that a mother will say, “Don’t point at the mountain, it’s rude.”

JS — I think there is a baseline rule for “ecopoetics,” in some respects, that it has to go beyond book-learning, beyond poems put together with the dictionary or encyclopedia.

GS — Koyukon are really something about that. Nelson talks about a guy trying to get his outboard started on the river there, and he’s getting kind of pissed off at it. And his friend says, “Don’t get mad at the outboard, it’s got feelings you know.”

The language philosophy underlying this exchange is a charming mixture of pragmatism and magical thinking. Pragmatism, because the emphasis falls on how words influence human action. For Snyder, the self-imposed discipline of writing about animals he has seen (or dreamt about!) and no others is a means of fostering respect — respect for animals and also for nature as a whole. It’s a constraint, but unlike the constraints of Oulipo and its progeny, Snyder’s constraint treats writing as part of the moral life of the writer. The magical aspect of Snyder’s practice lies in his further belief that words have an effect on the world, not just because they influence human action, but directly, as directly as any other tool. Even as guns, axes, traps, and engines alter the shape and character of the solid world, so too do words alter the shape and character of the spiritual. The exploitation of animals begins in the indiscriminate use of their names. Read the rest of this entry »

“She Treated Me As If She Were Insane”

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Abiah Root

Abiah Root

In a recent issue of New England Quarterly, Polly Longsworth introduces a newly discovered letter by Emily Dickinson’s early friend Abby Wood. The letter — sent to another friend, Abiah Root — concerns the poet’s response to the great revival of 1850. Dickinson was nineteen years old at the time; her work as a poet lay seven or eight years in the future (the girlishness of that early work tends to obscure the fact that its author was well past adolescence). But because Dickinson’s teenaged rejection of Christ is often taken as the first revelation — irony intended — of what would come, new insight into her actions is decidedly welcome.

The rejection was protracted, as was the spirit of revival Dickinson resisted. Her letters to Abiah from four years before contain extended discussions of the matter. These discussions are remarkably poised — that is, rhetorically poised — with one assertion canceling out the next; it takes an effort of will to recognize that there is no introspection, only a contradictory array of tropes. In the passage below, for example, Dickinson asserts that she continually hears Christ speak, but also that evil is lisping in her ear; that she is too sensitive for prayer meetings, but also that affectionate words do not move her; that enthusiasm is deceiving, but also that sudden conversions are wonderful. What does it all add up to? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

September 22, 2009 at 8:21 am

Shakespeare in a Log Cabin (Random Thoughts from a New Semester)

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Production photo for The Gladiator

Production photo for The Gladiator

I’m teaching a class this fall with the inherited title “American Romantics.” I have no idea what that actually means, but I’ve never been a letter of the law kind of fellow, so I’m approaching this course as a mixed-genre survey, not limiting myself to any single period style. Assuming that Romanticism is a style — I find these kinds of terms perplexing. Myself, I like a course name easily explained on the first day of class. American Vulgarians would be just about perfect.

Anyway, even Romanticists now teach and write about the entire period, so my approach is probably more doctrinaire than antinomian, even for those who find the label “American Romantics” meaningful. Or still meaningful, since it did hold sway for a generation. But no longer than that! Nineteenth-century American literature has never had a stable syllabus. Which is one of the things I like about it.

My own tendency has been to shift focus from a small circle of writers to a small number of decades, though a 15-week semester is far too short to accommodate more than a few writers anyway. But I try. That is, I try to give “period” precedence over “author.” A very slight precedence, one that is hardly sufficient for overcoming the vast precedence authors assume in our imaginations.

To bring decades alive, without letting history crowd out every other consideration — it’s hard! But one method I’ve found productive is using my students’ own preconceptions as a guide. Basically, we start with a speculative model, then read and research with an eye toward improving it. This time, for example, my students volunteered that antebellum writers (as they imagined them) were an urban, educated elite out of touch with the rural and largely illiterate majority. A hypothesis we’ll be testing throughout the semester, so I won’t say too much about it here. But since I did point the class toward the University of Virginia’s Historical Census Browser (a useful site for following through on one’s intuitions), let me offer a small factual correction to their characterization. According to the 1840 census, the first to include data about education, the ability to read and write was far more widespread than my students guessed. Here are the figures for Maine, which is where I teach: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

September 13, 2009 at 3:22 pm

Leopardi in America

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leopardi1

Scrolling through the title list of the American Verse Project, I came upon George Cabot Lodge’s Song of the Wave (1898). Intuition, or something, told me to look closer. When I did, I found the following dedication:

TO THE POET
GIACOMO LEOPARDI

Which pleased me no end, as Leopardi is a poet I admire in the abstract but find almost impossible to read: I really liked the idea of getting to know him again through an American poet who took him to heart. Even a minor or bad poet might help! A few summers ago, I made a fairly intense effort to read all of the Canti. Unfortunately, the word “lugubrious” kept drifting into my head as I made my way, distracting me with its ungainly shadows. I mean, how concentrate on a poem like “All’italia” when lugubrious keeps floating over the page, blocking the sun? It’s a poem that needs all the light it can get! In the end, I gave up reading altogether for a desecrating mistranslation. And yes, I was on a plane when the idea first came to me: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

September 4, 2009 at 10:14 pm

Poems of Places 8

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From Poems of Places, vol. 9, France 1 (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1880), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Brienne]

In honor of the new school year, “The School-Boy King” by Walter Thornbury, a poem that also appears in A Metrical History of the Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte, edited by William J. Hillis (1896). There the poem is given the following introduction:

Of Napoleon’s early childhood little is positively known. Accepting the corroborated record, as it stands, it would appear that he was a child with a disposition and a manner peculiarly his own. Not a loving or a companionable boy, but rather of a sullen, retiring nature; melancholy and irritable in his temperament and impatient of restraint. While his companions were enjoying themselves at play, natural to their age, he would wander off by himself and spend hours, with no other company than his own thoughts. There is still to be seen in Corsica the isolated rock, known as “Napoleon’s Grotto.” Tradition tells us that this was the favourite resort of the child, destined to become the conqueror of the world. He, himself, has said: “In my infancy I was extremely headstrong; nothing ever awed me; nothing disconcerted me. I was quarrelsome, mischievous; I was afraid of nobody; I beat one; I scratched another; I made myself formidable to the whole family.”

At the age of ten Napoleon entered the Military School at Brienne, near Paris, where he remained upwards of five years. His career while at that school is very aptly and concisely told in the following verses.

Thornbury’s poem is written from the teacher’s point of view, which folds in a very stupid prejudice against Corsica. A more hagiographic assessment of the brilliant, raging boy opens Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), viewable at Dailymotion (here). A beautiful stretch of film, with music by Arthur Honegger. In the film, the teacher’s anti-Corsican prejudice makes us sympathize with Napoleon. Here are some screen captures of the classroom sequence: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

September 2, 2009 at 3:08 pm