American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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1856 daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau (image by way of the Thoreau Society)

Hawthorne found Thoreau “ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners”; while Alfred Munroe, a schoolmate, in later years recalled, “He seemed to have no fun in him.” But seeming only went so far; Mary Hosmer Brown: “During his father’s illness his devotion was such that Mrs. Thoreau in recalling it said, ‘If it hadn’t been for my husband’s illness, I should never have known what a tender heart Henry had.'” This perhaps explains Elizabeth Hoar’s remark, recorded by Emerson: “I love Henry, but do not like him.” Not contradicted by Whitman but turned at an angle: “I liked Thoreau, though he was morbid.”

(Some choice bits from The Quotable Thoreau.)


Poems of Places 13

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From Poems of Places, vol. 4, England and Wales (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1876), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Plynlimmon, Wales]

Though not Welsh himself, Michael Drayton (1563–1631) has eleven poems out of the 74 that Longfellow chose for the Wales portion of his anthology, more than any other poet, all of these extracted from Poly-Olbion, a poetic geography of England and Wales. Written in Alexandrian couplets, Poly-Olbion is divided into thirty “Songs,” each “illustrated,” as the work puts it, by copious notes from John Selden (Pope preferred these notes to the poetry). It takes up three volumes in Drayton’s collected works (full text here: vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3).

completeworksofm01dray_0033Longfellow does not identify these selections as extracts, but it speaks well to his editorial abilities that the fact is not immediately obvious. The fragments work as poems in their own right, at least in the context of Longfellow’s anthology. For those who are curious, the eleven are listed below, with links for comparison’s sake  to anthology and original source:

Anglesea (Mona) (Poly-Olbion, The Ninth Song)

Caerleon-upon-Usk (Poly-Olbion, The Fourth Song)

The River Clwyd (Poly-Olbion, The Tenth Song)

The River Conway (Poly-Olbion, The Tenth Song)

Ewias (Poly-Olbion, The Fourth Song)

Milford Haven (Poly-Olbion, The Fifth Song)

Plynlimmon (Poly-Olbion, The Sixth Song)

Rivers of Wales (Poly-Olbion, The Ninth Song)

St. David’s (Poly-Olbion, The Fifth Song)

Teg-Engle (Poly-Olbion, The Tenth Song)

The River Tivy (Poly-Olbion, The Sixth Song)

In choosing one for presentation, I was drawn to the verses for Plynlimon (spelled “Plynillimon” by Drayton), for the recollection it yields of Melville’s Pierre. One of that novel’s more celebrated portions is a lecture delivered by “Plotinus Plinlimmon.” Melville’s allusion to the mountain in Wales is hard to ignore given the overall significance of stone in his novel (most obviously in the title and dedication, but not there alone). I have a faint suspicion that he in fact had Drayton’s Plynlimon in mind: the title of the lecture is “Chronometricals and Horologicals“; Poly-Olbion is subtitled “A Chorographicall Description.”

completeworksofm01dray_0037Longfellow’s extract runs to seventeen lines. It begins with the second half of a couplet, but the lack of rhyme for that line is not so noticeable given the off-rhymes that follow. The full rhyme at the end is more important, since it gives a satisfying sense of closure. The fifth line is the subject of one of Selden’s illustrations.

PLYNILLIMON’S high praise no longer, Muse, defer.
What once the Druids told, how great those floods should be
That here (most mighty hill) derive themselves from thee.
The bards with fury rapt, the British youth among,
Unto the charming harp thy future honor song
In brave and lofty strains; that in excess of joy,
The beldam and the girl, the grandsire and the boy,
With shouts and yearning cries, the troubled air did load
(As when with crowned cups unto the Elian god
Those priests his orgies held; or when the old world saw
Full Phoebe’s face eclipsed, and thinking her to daw.
Whom they supposed fallen in some inchanted swound,
Of beaten tinkling brass still plied her with the sound),
That all the Cambrian hills, which high’st their heads do bear
With most obsequious shows of low subjected fear,
Should to thy greatness stoop: and all the brooks that be
Do homage to those floods that issued out of thee.


Written by Ben Friedlander

March 3, 2014 at 8:08 pm