American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for October 2009

Poems of Places 9

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From Poems of Places, vol. 22, Asia 2 (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1878), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Afghanistan: Cabul (Cabool)]

Excerpted from Ruins of Many Lands: A Descriptive Poem (1850), by the Cornish poet Nicholas Michell. Longfellow cuts the awkward opening of the Cabul section, which reads like this:

A moment yet we linger ’mid the bowers
Of Northern Ind — a land of fruits and flowers,
Where the proud Affghan treads a blessed soil,
That yields all Nature asks with little toil,
A land where God his heavenliest smile hath thrown
On all beneath — man, man the blot alone.

That last line casts an ominous shadow on the poem — a shadow of original sin, I thought, reading the description of earthly paradise that followed. Alas, no; it’s a thicker, uglier shadow. But here’s the Longfellow excerpt: Read the rest of this entry »

Dipping into Tocqueville

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tocqueville-loaFor me, Democracy in America is a book to dip in and out of, not a cover-to-cover read, not even in the flowing new translation of Arthur Goldhammer (which I strongly recommend).

I suspect that historians and political scientists feel differently; that they read Tocqueville’s careful and extended analyses with as much pleasure as I do the anecdotes and first-hand observations. The latter, alas, are in much shorter supply than one might expect given Tocqueville’s yearlong stay and extensive travel in North America. It’s a testament to his integrity, I suppose, that he relied so little on subjective impressions, giving precedence to verifiable facts and deductive reasoning.

Democracy has little in common with the travel narratives of Frances Trollope or Charles Dickens, writers who toured the States in roughly the same period. There are several FAQ-like sections, especially at the start, and these can be tedious reading, though Tocqueville’s contemporaries in Europe probably found them the most useful. There are also several theoretical sections, usually structured as comparisons of aristocratic and democratic societies, and these too can be tedious, though not because they are overstuffed with fact. Quite the contrary; they remind me of nothing so much as Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. Except that they’re far less silly.

But I don’t want to mischaracterize my interest. If cover-to-cover reading has never worked for me, I’ve never failed to find something of value when I dip in and out. For instance, in the midst of a very long chapter on the Constitution, I found this lovely aphorism on the limits of electoral politics: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 3, 2009 at 1:59 pm