American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Poems of Places 10

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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.

A Roman city in Spain, Italica was the birthplace of three Roman emperors and the subject of a poem long attributed to Francisco de Rioja; it was actually written by Rodrigo Caro, who lived at about the same time. William Cullen Bryant made his translation while passing through Madrid. Though Rioja’s authorship was already contested — George Ticknor noted the fact in History of Spanish Literature (1849) — Bryant, like Ticknor himself, accepted the traditional attribution. He called his version “The Ruins of Italica — From the Spanish of Rioja,” adding the following note for Thirty Poems (1867):

The poems of the Spanish author, Francisco de Rioja, who lived in the first half of the seventeenth century, are few in number, but much esteemed. His ode on the Ruins of Italica is one of the most admired of these, but in the only collection of his poems which I have seen, it is said that the concluding stanza, in the original copy, was deemed so little worthy of the rest that it was purposely omitted in the publication. Italica was a city founded by the Romans in the South of Spain, the remains of which are still an object of interest.

I don’t know the original work, or any other translation, but Bryant’s version is a respectable poem; in fact, it’s one of the best things he published in later years. Though the subject (ruins) and style (Roman) give the entirety a neoclassical feel. Which must have come easily to Bryant given his own earliest work, which was eighteenth century in style.

Longfellow includes all of Bryant’s translation in Poems of Places, also crediting the original to Rioja, but leaving out the numbers that divide the sections. The excerpt above presents the fourth, penultimate section.

Having reached my tenth installment, I should say a few words, perhaps, about these excerpts. There are 31 volumes of Longfellow’s Poems of Places (list here) and I hope to include one excerpt from each before reappraising my approach, which is more or less haphazard and superficial. Though many of the authors included are familiar — and many of the translators too (as is the case here, with Bryant) — I’m trying to choose poems that require at least a little bit of research, meaning just enough Googling to figure out who the author was, and when the poem was written. The anthologies are without apparatus, and not all names are given in full, so a minimal amount of research is frequently needed. As it happens, I enjoy that sort of easy labor; it’s like doing a Monday crossword puzzle, or jogging around the block.

I also have a broader aim in these excerpts: I’d like to gain a better understanding of what world literature might have meant in the nineteenth century, and what it might have meant to Longfellow in particular. In particular because of Charles C. Calhoun’s claim — based on these anthologies — that Longfellow was the era’s “most ambitious multiculturalist.” He also claims that Longfellow “more or less invented the discipline of comparative literature in American colleges.”

The claim about comp lit seems reasonable to me (see, on this point, Kirstin Silva Gruesz’s Ambassadors of Culture). The multiculturalism …  well, let’s just say it’s overstated. For one thing, the vast majority of Longfellow’s authors are British and American. For another, the individual volumes make no attempt to represent writers from the areas in question. Even the translated poems are likely to be by visitors, or drawn from antiquity. Take the Turkey section: I count only four poems out of thirty in languages native to the empire — “Ottoman,” “Roumanian,” “Servian” — and three more in Greek that date from antiquity; there are six more translated from Italian, French, and German, and seventeen were written in English. Even the Spain volumes, which are richer than most in native sources, give half their space to anglophone authors; the remainder is shared by Spanish poets with Andersen, Brentano, Dante, Heine, Gautier, Lucan, and Uhland, among others. The range of poets is impressive, but what it includes or excludes is not, finally, a matter of concern. If given a choice between adding a city and adding another native poet, Longfellow, I suspect, would add a city.

My general sense, then, is that Longfellow’s imagination of the world is capacious in these books; his imagination of world literature, comparatively small. Or to put this in another way: his interest in geography is broad and methodical; his interest in comparative literature, scattered and accidental.[1] Which makes him, I think, just as much an imperial poet here as a multicultural one, though both descriptions are hyperbolic. He was curious about the world, and about the world’s poets, and went far in trying to share what he knew about both, much farther than I ever have. So who am I to judge?

Anyhow, I’m not trying to judge, just understand. We’ll see where it leads.


1 [Back to text] I’ve not spent any time with Longfellow’s earlier Poets and Poetry of Europe, which tells a very different story. A difference that is well worth considering. Is it simply a matter of Longfellow the professor vs. Longfellow the fireside poet? Or is another change involved as well, say, between the 1840s and 1870s? Poems of Places, in any case, encapsulates a very different idea of world literature than the earlier anthology, and it’s the later project I’m trying to understand right now.


Written by Ben Friedlander

November 18, 2009 at 8:58 am

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