American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for November 2009

A Thanksgiving

with 2 comments

Celia Thaxter's Cottage, Appledore, Isles of Shoals, N.H. (image courtesy NYPL Digital Gallery)

Celia Thaxter (1835-1894) is best known today for her prose (An Island Garden and Among the Isles of Shoals, two beautiful works of observation and description, set off the coast of New Hampshire), and for her friendships with other writers, most notably Sarah Orne Jewett. She was also a very fine poet, able to convey in verse the same attention to detail one finds in her prose. Her best poems are more or less free of the effusion and gentility and deliberate anachronism that marked so much verse of the Gilded Age, which is why I’m surprised her reputation hasn’t rebounded. Perhaps it will in the coming years, especially with the growing interest (pardon the pun) in ecopoetics.

Here, in any case, for Thanksgiving Day, is an example of her work. The text comes from The Poems of Celia Thaxter (Houghton Mifflin, 1896); the poem was first published in Atlantic Monthly, November 1871:

A Thanksgiving

High on the ledge the wind blows the bayberry bright,
Turning the leaves till they shudder and shine in the light;
Yellow St. John’s-wort and yarrow are nodding their heads,
Iris and wild-rose are glowing in purples and reds.

Swift flies the schooner careering beyond o’er the blue;
Faint shows the furrow she leaves as she cleaves lightly through ;
Gay gleams the fluttering flag at her delicate mast;
Full swell the sails with the wind that is following fast.

Quail and sandpiper and swallow and sparrow are here:
Sweet sound their manifold notes, high and low, far and near;
Chorus of musical waters, the rush of the breeze,
Steady and strong from the south, — what glad voices are these!

O cup of the wild-rose, curved close to hold odorous dew,
What thought do you hide in your heart? I would that I knew!
O beautiful Iris, unfurling your purple and gold,
What victory fling you abroad in the flags you unfold?

Sweet may your thought be, red rose, but still sweeter is mine,
Close in my heart hidden, clear as your dewdrop divine.
Flutter your gonfalons, Iris, the paean I sing
Is for victory better than joy or than beauty can bring.

Into thy calm eyes, O Nature, I look and rejoice;
Prayerful, I add my one note to the Infinite voice:
As shining and singing and sparkling glides on the glad day,
And eastward the swift-rolling planet wheels into the gray.

Though offered as a poem for the holiday (hence the November publication in Atlantic Monthly), the poem is surely set sometime before Thanksgiving Day. But how long before remains an open question. To answer it, I thought I’d look into Thaxter’s prose. In Among the Isles of Shoals, she describes the late fall on her island as a time of unlikely beauty.

Sometimes it is as if the order of nature were set aside in this spot; for you find the eyebright and pimpernel and white violets growing side by side until the frost comes in November; often October passes with no sign of frost, and the autumn lingers later than elsewhere. I have even seen the iris and wild-rose and golden-rod and aster in blossom together, as if , not having the example of the world before their eyes, they followed their own sweet will, and bloomed when they took the fancy.

And later she writes:

If summer is a laggard in her coming, she makes up for it by the loveliness of her lingering into autumn; for when the pride of trees and flowers is despoiled by frost on shore, the little gardens here are glowing at their brightest, and day after day of mellow splendor drops like a benediction from the hand of God. … Through October and into November the fair, mild weather lasts. At the first breath of October, the hillside at Appledore fires up with the living crimson of the huckleberry-bushes, as if a blazing torch had been applied to it; the slanting light at sunrise and sunset makes a wonderful glory across it. … In December the colors seem to fade out of the world, and utter ungraciousness prevails. … Some sullen day in December the snow begins to fall, and the last touch of desolation is laid upon the scene; there is nothing any more but white snow and dark water, hemmed in by a murky horizon.

Thanksgiving Day falls somewhere in a zone she neglects to describe: after the “fair, mild weather” of late October, early November; before the “sullen day” of first snow in December.

Reading these descriptions, one might almost imagine a miraculously blooming Thanksgiving Day. But the presence of birds in the poem poses a more serious problem. Or so I assume. According to Thaxter, birds make their last appearances on her island as part of their southern migration; they don’t linger. Here is a scene from An Island Garden set in late September:

The whole garden is a mass of bloom and fragance, still haunted by birds, bees, butterflies, and dragonflies; the humming-birds are gone, I know not whither, not to return this year. The withering vines are alive with many little creepers and warblers and flycatchers; indeed, the island is full of distinguished bird-strangers on their way south. Scores of golden woodpeckers, or flickers, or yellow-hammers (they have dozens of striking names) are here, and just now two great ospreys perch on the vane above the highest ridge-pole, and soar and perch again, uttering strange, harsh cries. This morning a large flock of wild geese flew over toward the south, so low we could see the colors and the markings of their plumage. … The clumps of wild Roses glow with their red haws in the full light; the Elder bushes are laden with clusters of purple berries; Goldenrod and wild Asters bloom, and a touch of fire begins to light up the Huckleberry bushes, “Autumn laying here and there a fiery finger on the leaves.” The gray rocks show so fair in the changing lights, and all the dear island with its sights and sounds is set in the pale light summer-blue of a smiling sea as if it were June, with hardly a wave to break its happy calm.

What I don’t know is if the quail and sandpiper and swallow and sparrow are also migratory birds. And if they are, when they tend to leave.

As I type this, it’s an unnaturally warm November in Maine. I’m looking out my window at lush, green grass, but also at bare branches and shriveled flowers. Thaxter’s New Hampshire is a good three hours drive from here. Are the flowers any less shriveled there? And does it matter? Whatever day it was that Thaxter was describing, it ended with the planet wheeling into gray. It’s certainly a gray day in Maine, with December wheeling into view…


Written by Ben Friedlander

November 26, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Songs of the Diaspora (part two)

with one comment

Back in August I was definitely fooling myself, thinking I could write about Yiddish poetry while trying to pack an apartment — and without sustained access to a library. Now I am probably fooling myself again, thinking I can pick up where I left off . It’s tempting, in fact, to say, “the hell with it”; “let it all hang.” This blog was meant to be a record of distraction. When distraction becomes obligation, it’s time to play hooky, right? Hooky from hooky, as it were … or maybe not, since that would mean going back to school.

Anyway, for good reason or bad — or just because — I’ve gone ahead with part two, half a conclusion to my reading of  Alice Stone Blackwell’s Songs of Russia (1906), focusing now on the first of the two Yiddish poets.

Part one is here. Part three to follow.

representing-190Since abandoning these notes in August, I’ve acquired Marc Miller’s Representing the Immigrant Experience (2007), a study of Morris Rosenfeld (I’m still looking for good source material on David Edelstadt). Miller’s book doesn’t mention Blackstone’s anthology, so I don’t feel entirely superseded … but I do feel superseded a little. My one consolation: Miller answers a question dogging me while I wrote part one. “Did Rosenfeld write either of his two poems in Russia?” The answer, I now know, is nyet. His earliest poems date from after his arrival in the U.S. (heretofore, the best I’d been able to ascertain was that his first publications came after his arrival, not quite the same thing).

Rosenfeld was already in his twenties when he left the Russian empire for good, so it’s not surprising that both of his poems, though written in the U.S., retain a Russian perspective, which certainly invites a reader to see them as Old World creations (and nothing in Blackwell’s anthology suggests otherwise). The first, “The Jewish Soldier,” recalls the 1877 Siege of Plevna; the second, “On Ocean’s Bosom,” concerns the flight of Jews across the Atlantic … but with a twist. This twist — reverse emigration — is not revealed until the 20th and 21st stanzas.

The poem divides roughly into three sections. The first (stanzas 1-9) gives the setup: a ship at sea, in terrible danger from storm (1-4); awful noise from the passengers (5-6); inexplicable calm from two men in steerage (7-9). Next comes the speaker’s questioning of the two men (stanzas 10-14). Finally, after a pause in which the setting is again described (stanza 15), the men explain themselves tearfully (16-24): they are Jews, and though they have nothing to look forward to in Russia, save pogroms, they are leaving America; not of their own free will, as with the speaker, but from poverty.

Morris Rosenfeld (from the first volume of his collected works, 1908)There is, perhaps, an autobiographical element in this encounter: Rosenfeld came to America for six months in 1882, returning briefly to Russia before the draft forced him to flee for good. When he made his own reverse voyage, it may well be that he met men like those in the poem. Does it make a difference, then, that he only wrote the poem after reversing his reversal? Only if we take his speaker’s voluntary return to Russia as a sincere preference for the Old World on the part of the poet. A reading of that sort (especially in the context of Songs of Russia ) might well admit an inference of Russian patriotism — an inference turned ironic when we learn more about the poet.

Ironies notwithstanding, the poem is indeed a song of Russia, also of America. And also, emphatically, of the diaspora: a protest against dispersal, international in its address. A reader’s appreciation of all this requires, however, a little context. Blackwell’s sophisticated readers no doubt brought that context to their reading. But as the book and its historical moment receded into memory (and then out of memory, into the archive), this preparation for understanding became less likely. I take my own rough understanding as typical: I get the general idea, but the fine points escape me. I did not know, for example, that the two Jews are not returning to Russia (as I at first presumed) because they find poverty more threatening than the pogroms. Their departure is involuntary for a more concrete reason. As explained by Abraham J. Karp, “The two Jews were turned back by the March 3, 1891, immigration law which barred entry to ‘paupers or persons likely to become a public charge.’” The poem, then, has complexities, but they’re frangible. Our care for them is a direct function of how much we know. Read the rest of this entry »

Poems of Places 10

leave a comment »

From Poems of Places, vol. 14, Spain 1 (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1877), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


italicaFabius, if tears prevent thee not, survey
The long dismantled streets, so thronged of old,
The broken marbles, arches in decay,
Proud statues, toppled from their place and rolled
In dust, when Nemesis, the avenger, came,
And buried, in forgetfulness profound,
The owners and their fame.
Thus Troy, I deem, must be,
With many a mouldering mound;
And thou, whose name alone remains to thee,
Rome, of old gods and kings the native ground;
And thou, sage Athens, built by Pallas, whom
Just laws redeemed not from the appointed doom.
The envy of earth’s cities once wert thou, —
A weary solitude and ashes now.
For fate and death respect ye not: they strike
The mighty city and the wise alike. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 18, 2009 at 8:58 am

Emily Dickinson and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff

with one comment

edbb7I guess one purpose of a blog is self-advertisement, so I may as well announce that I have an essay in the October PMLA, a special issue on the topic of war. My contribution looks closely at one of Emily Dickinson’s Civil War poems,  a soldier elegy written for a distant relative, Francis Howard Dickinson, who was killed at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. The elegy, as I read it, was written specifically for publication, though it didn’t see print until 1890. I base my inference on a variety of contextual cues … but I won’t repeat myself here. You can read the essay, if you think it sounds interesting. Or you can take a peek at an excerpt given by Robin Tremblay-McGaw at X-Poetics (one of my favorite blogs).

edbb4What really tickles me about Robin’s excerpt: she cites me in the midst of an interview with Beverly Dahlen (link here). I consider Bev one of the five or six most important teachers I’ve ever had, and the most important outside of any actual school. I’m in debt to her in particular for leading me to think more carefully about Dickinson and the Civil War. Back in 1985, in the literary journal Ironwood, Bev published an essay on Dickinson and abjection that included a picture of the dead at Antietam. I was already convinced that the war was a key to understanding Dickinson’s work, so I told her how thrilled I was to see her make the connection, which was unusual at the time. No, no, she replied, saying something like, “I already regret including that picture; it was a frivolous juxtaposition.” I tried to say otherwise, but she just shook her head no.

edbb6Out of this brief exchange began a correspondence. And Bev, though far kinder to my dubious reasoning than she was to her own flash of insight, brought me by turns to see how inadequate my reasoning was. Some of our conversation concerned a poem from the end of the war, “Further in Summer than the Birds.” I was convinced — and still am — that the variant word choice “Antiquest,” an intensification of “Antiquer,” intimates “Anti-quest,” accentuating the hint, perhaps, of Antietam in antique. But Bev was not convinced. And this, along with her prodding questions, led me to see more clearly than any methodological training I ever received what a compelling account of Dickinson and the Civil War might require. That was almost a quarter century ago! Graduate school — and research — and dissertation — and publication — were all a long way off. But the work got started then.


The photographs are from a summer visit to the site of the battle in Virginia. I was surprised that the tour guide in costume wore a Union uniform, though Ball’s Bluff is in the South (and the battle was an early, decisive victory for the Confederates). The view through the trees looks beyond the Potomac into Maryland (I’m pretty sure). Dickinson’s poem mentions the river in the first quatrain:

When I was small, a Woman died —
Today — her Only Boy
Went up from the Potomac —
His face all Victory

The state in the last:

I’m confident, that Bravoes —
Perpetual break abroad
For Braveries, remote as this
In Yonder Maryland —

Meanwhile, since this is America, Ball’s Bluff is now a shopping center.

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 15, 2009 at 3:18 pm

A Vast Extent of Brine

with 3 comments

I’m a big fan of the University of Michigan’s digital library, Making of America. MOA gives page images for some 10,000 nineteenth-century American books. The format is far from ideal — for online reading I prefer the Internet Archive — and the images are poorly formatted for printing (which may be due to Michigan’s proprietary interest in selling bound reprints), but the material itself is invaluable. I’ve spent many hours there browsing, finding incredible things. Incredibly useful, important, memorable, and delightful. Also: incredibly strange, amusing, dreadful, and dull.

The item below falls somewhere in the latter camp. To me, it’s dreadful amusing; to you, perhaps, dreadful dull.

Choice rhymes follow, with thumbnails that open onto larger views; click on the title page for a link to the complete text.


Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 14, 2009 at 12:19 pm

Can I Complain?

with 2 comments

How often have you opened a book in the middle and found something interesting, only to get frustrated trying to find the right note? Not often? Well, it happens to me all the time. Most recently: while skimming Eric Gardner’s Unexpected Places, which looks to be a very fine book. But last night, skimming in bed, I had a little fit of frustration.

I was reading around in a section on a little-known temperance play. At one point, Gardner writes:

[W]hat at first glance might seem an apolitical stance is more usefully understood as a sense that temperance is a kind of uber-issue governing all political choices and more.

Which is followed by an endnote number: 41.

Now, this idea about temperance as “uber-issue” made me curious, not least because I occasionally teach a similar play, so I turned to the back of the book, to see what else might be said, and lo! there were no running heads. No top margin reading “Notes to Pages 70-75,” which would have been nice, since the reference I wanted was on page 71. Making matters worse: the header on page 71 gave the chapter title (“Black Indiana”) but no number, while the endnote section used numbers but not titles. So I went back to page 71, flipping to the start of the chapter — all the way back to page 56 — until I saw that “Black Indiana” meant “2,” and then I went to the endnote section again, flipping pages until I found “Chapter 2.” At which point I flipped a few pages forward, and came at last to the actual note.

Way too much work!

Really, books should be designed by people who use them.

OK, end of complaint.

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 11, 2009 at 8:58 pm

Posted in scholarship

Tagged with , ,

Parker’s Kaleidoscope

with 13 comments


Theodore Parker at Age 39

In 1859, no longer able to speak from a pulpit (he had TB), Theodore Parker wrote a long letter to his congregation, in effect an autobiography. It was published as Theodore Parker’s Experience as a Minister, a book precious in its succinct eloquence, and surely one of the earliest retrospects on a revolutionary period.  A premature retrospect, one might say, except that Parker, 49 years old, knew he was dying.

But the letter is not just a retrospect. Parker is also concerned here to set forth theological and political principles. At one point, he slyly notes that these principles often went disguised in literary drag. Only in this disguise, he implies, could his ideas be shared freely in public. Why? Because literature is a sphere apart, valued for its independence from worldly strife. Or rather, it operates under the illusion of that independence.

For Parker, the illusion is intrinsic to literature’s social function, a function he describes in terms Stuart Hall might embrace. An early member of “the party of resentment” (Harold Bloom’s derisive name for those who would reform the world through culture), Parker believed that literature is not simply an expression of social forces, but one of the ways those forces gain legitimacy. He also believed that literature’s ability to do good — which is to say, its ability to question legitimacy and so reshape society — is kept in check by the powers and authorities that control its dissemination. Read the rest of this entry »

While Shoddy’s on the Brain

leave a comment »

To mark Maine’s ignoble defeat of the Gay Marriage law, here’s a song from another era, about another war that extended “from Gulf to Maine” (the war stretches even further today). As partial explanation of what’s meant by the chorus — and why it pertains to the present moment — here are some passages from an article by E. P. Whipple in The Atlantic Monthly (1871). The article begins in the Civil War, with the profiteers who grew fat on government money:

Soon came the cry from the camps that cheats at home were thriving on the miseries of the volunteers; that the soldier starved in order that the contractor might feast; especially that the defenders of the nation, hurrying from their homes to insure safety to the homes of their plunderers, were so sleazily clothed that they were literally left naked to their enemies and a word of ominous and infamous significance, a word in which is concentrated more wrath and wretchedness than any other in the vocabulary of the camp, the word shoddy, flew into general circulation, to embody the soldiers’ anathema on the soldiers’ scourge.

Then Whipple continues:

But it seems to us that a word of such ill repute should not be confined to one class of offences, but should be extended to follies, errors, vices, and policies which, though they boast of softer names, illustrate the same essential quality. For what is the essential characteristic of shoddy clothing? Is it not this, that it will not wear? In its outside appearance it mimics good cloth, but use quickly reduces it to its elemental rags. Now; it might be asked, have we, in our experience during the past ten years, been deceived by no other plausible mockeries of reality than shoddy uniforms? Have we not all, more or less, been wearing shoddy clothing on our minds and consciences? … The essential mischief of this shoddy clothing for the popular mind is due, in a great degree, to the name it assumes. It eludes the grip of thought by calling itself common sense. If its object were to distinguish itself thus from real sense, its modesty might be commended; but when its purpose palpably is to point the finger at all clear perception and sound thinking, its impudence merits the rod.

And more:

The meaning of common sense, then, is plain; but how often do we use the term as a cover for common nonsense, the nonsense which one mind has in common with others; or, what is worse, as a convenient phrase to impart dignity to any narrow opinion or obstinate misjudgment or foolish crochet, which we may personally pamper and pride ourselves upon, and thus give to our private whim the character of a universal belief. This shoddy common sense is the most detestable of all forms of nonsense.

— Detestable thinking certainly won yesterday.

“Shoddy on the Brain” is not exactly “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In denouncing the profiteers, it more or less dismisses the aim of stamping out slavery. Or anyway, it dismisses the notion that this is the actual aim. But after two editorial verses, the song veers elsewhere.  The song itself is shoddy! Ending in a church, in marriage.

Anyway, for me today, shoddy is indeed on the brain.

The image comes from the Library of Congress American Memory website, from the collection America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets. I found the Whipple article in a second collection: The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals.

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 4, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Go Forth

with 8 comments


Walt Whitman is so much a part of our world, even still, I’ve not felt the need to mark his occasional appearances in popular culture. But yesterday, in a blog post for the Poetry Foundation, Edwin Torres drew attention to the use of Whitman by Levi’s, and I found myself getting more interested than usual in this sort of appropriation. His post is called “Brand World Atheist,” and in it he describes one of the company’s Whitman ads — which uses the text of “America” — as follows (you can see the ad here):

It’s a 60-second spot that uses a wax-cylinder recording of Whitman reciting the poem, black & white footage, jittery camera-work, and synthed-operatic soundtrack to create a manifesto-themed gauntlet thrown at America’s youth with the phrase “Go Forth” emblazoned as a nicely designed logo on a flapping banner at the end. The spot is basically a poetry video, using beautifully filmed images of the disenfranchised reflecting the poem’s tone without literal interpretation. [1]

And later, after mentioning the company’s “Declaration Gallery” (for leaving your own manifesto; Torres: “but isn’t that what Twitter’s for?”), he writes:

The Go Forth campaign has a patina of self-seriousness in its, “getting a platform to sound out,” …very Rebel Without A Cause. Expertly designed around a unifying theme: to be heard and seen, not even understood, just acknowledged so that you may go forth and discover your voice. Core values in America’s heartland of equal chances, right? Re-imagine America as a teen. Use language in the reinvention of American youth that reflects each generation’s media-drenched libido. And the retro-hooligan implied under the layers of a smoothed-over-DIY-aesthetic is what obscures the poem that tries to mix rebellion with business. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 2, 2009 at 2:55 pm