American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Edward Rowland Sill on Bedtime

with 4 comments

sill-c2Edward Rowland Sill (1841-1887) first caught my eye because he taught high school in Oakland and later taught at U.C. Berkeley. I did some of my schooling at Berkeley, and lived in Oakland for over a decade. Not that I’m rah rah for California. But I noticed it, the link I mean. And I later noticed the tortured praise in the following paragraph, written for an anthology of forgotten poets from the nineteenth century:

In the 1930s, Newton Arvin, who admired Sill’s probing intellect and sense of irony, condemned Sill with extravagant praise, declaring him one of the three important post-Civil War poets (the other two were Emily Dickinson and Sidney Lanier), yet a failure for not making fuller use of those attributes. Time has not borne out the former assertion, though Sill deserves credit for a score of truly fine poems, and for rejecting sentimentalism and easy piety.

Though you can see how carefully the words were weighed in this paragraph, the judgment seems, overall, unbalanced. I mean, if the writer really believes that Sill wrote a score of fine poems, he ought to be explaining why later readers have failed to care about them, not calling out the few who did for overstatement. And if Sill’s rejection of sentimentalism is indeed a strength, why are there so many sentimental poets alongside him? Of course, the explicit purpose of the anthology is not to rescue forgotten poets from neglect, but to understand — I kid you not — “how history has played its jokes” on their reputations. Overall, then, the effect of this tortured praise was to rouse my interest, then soothe it back to sleep. So I developed a kind of fondness for Sill, without ever taking the trouble to look into his work. Until recently.

As his dates indicate, Sill died young, and much of his work appeared posthumously. The reception was modest, but respectful. Collected editions appeared in 1900 and 1906 (of his prose first, then the poetry). A biography followed in 1915. Who knows what history would have made of him if World War One and modernism hadn’t intervened, rewriting the rules of success.

The poem I like best so far is “Field Notes,” and nature, as the title suggests, is something that interested Sill in general. There are seven essays on that theme at the start of his collected prose. The last of them, however, is less about nature than human nature. It’s ostensible subject is dawn, but the following wonderful paragraphs are the heart of the essay — a polemic on bedtime:

For my part, I should be glad if I could go back and cut away from my life all that ever occurred in it beyond early bedtime, as the cook goes round a pie-plate and shears off the outlying dough. Mere ragged and formless shreds of existence those gaslight hours have been, containing, on the whole, far more evil than good; far more yawns, and the dreadful pangs of yawns suppressed, than refreshing eye-beams and voices.

Then there is another thing: could not the act of going to bed be made, from childhood up, a less depressing operation? The one daily torture of my own otherwise kindly handled childhood was the going to bed in the dark. I hated the dark, and have always hated it. Why could not some softly shaded light have been left for me to go to sleep by, and then withdrawn, instead of crashing down on my wide-awake eyes that horrible club of blackness? Or how much better to have “cuddled doon” in the still faintly glimmering twilight, and let the slowly coming starlight draw the child to sleepiness, and softly “kiss his eyelids down”!

And why must one assume a garb for the night that even the child feels to be ridiculously unsuitable? To take off one’s warm and comfortably fitting garments, and barely cover the shrinking pudency of the limbs with some brief apology of flapping inadequateness, — it is an insult to the Angel of Sleep. They do this better, I am told, in Japan. There the man has a night-suit of entire and comely garments. He does not unclothe and then half clothe himself, and sneak in mortified helplessness underneath a weight of vein-compressing sheets and blankets and uncomfortable “comfortables,” squeezing him out as if he had covered himself with the cellar-door. He lies down in his complete warm suit, and throws over him some light affair of gossamer silk. It only needs a sudden cry of “fire” in the house to make us realize the preposterous condition we are every one of us in.

The time of Going to Bed ought in some way to be made the pleasantest, and most decorous, and most dignified, even — if you like — the most picturesque, and certainly the most comfortable hour of the whole twenty-four. Then it would need no polite euphemism of “retiring” to veil its horrors. Then the child would no longer hold back from it, as if he were being thrust into a hideous cave of darkness, to be seized by all the nightmares of Dreamdom.

And then, best of all, we should be ready to rise at the whistle of the first chirping bird, perfectly rested, thoroughly refreshed, with the brain vocal only with light echoes of the wholesome day before, instead of still jangling with the cultured rumpus of a “social evening,” or an “evening of amusement,” or the uncanny, fevered visions which are only such evenings gone to seed.

— from “A New Earth in the Old Earth’s Arms” (in The Prose of Edward Rowland Sill [1900]).

I hope to write about “Field Notes” in a later post.

Bonus Factoid

From the Best American Poetry blog I learn that Sill’s poem “Opportunity” was recited by Governor David Paterson of New York in his last State of the State address. This led me to look up the coverage of the speech in the New York Times, which has the following choice paragraph:

The governor, who is legally blind, spent 60 hours memorizing his speech, which lasted about an hour — longer than he usually speaks. The speech was interspersed with examples of his trademark buoyant humor and with poetry — he recited “Opportunity” by Edward Rowland Sill, which grandiosely muses about a wounded prince who makes the most of a broken sword he discovers on a battlefield.

For the poem itself, go to the BAP blog (link here).

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 31, 2009 at 9:13 am

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Awesome, as always.


    October 31, 2009 at 10:23 am

  2. Wonder if he was an ancestor of Judee Sill…


    October 31, 2009 at 11:00 am

  3. I think I love New York State Governor Paterson. He’d be great to play Dungeons and Dragons with.

    Reading Sill’s poem reminds me how many of the pleasures of 19th-century poetry–or the themes and emotional gestures that pleased its readers–live on in popular culture: children’s poetry, fantasy role playing, sword and sorcery flicks, soap opera plots. Did Modernism win the war or just throw down the broken sword for screenwriters to find?

    Thanks for another discovery.

    rodney k.

    October 31, 2009 at 2:20 pm

  4. Thanks, Nada! Peter — dunno! Rodney, how great would it be to find a recording of the Gov reading that poem? Must be available. You’re so right about popular culture. And boy, yes, modernism is getting the movies it deserves!

    Ben Friedlander

    October 31, 2009 at 6:16 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: