Archive for March 2016
I love Leaves of Grass, but sometimes, it’s true, I get more pleasure from the six volumes of notebooks and unpublished prose manuscripts, scraps of paper scattered across archives, transcribed lovingly, with notes, and organized by theme. This comes from the section “Natural History,” in volume five.
Hersschel’s theory is that the millions of orbs are not promiscuously scattered through space, but collected in a great line or highway, with two branches, something like the letter Y — and that the position of our sun system, earth &c. is about at the crotch or centre.
In 1933, in a review of Emily Dickinson’s letters, Marianne Moore wrote:
As Mr. Trueblood has noted, “What she said seems always said with the choicest originality.” Whittier, Bryant, and Thoreau were choice; and to some extent Emerson. Hawthorne was a bear but great. All of these except Whittier seem less choice than their neighbor — “Myself the only kangaroo among the beauty” she called herself, not realizing the pinnacle of favor to which her words of dejection were to be raised.
OK, wait a second. Moore preferred Whittier? To all of the others? Choice indeed.
The songs of a nation are like wild flowers pressed, as it were, by chance between the blood-stained pages of history.
So wrote James Russell Lowell at the start of his essay “Song-Writing,” published in The Pioneer, no. 2 (Feb. 1843), and then again in Voices of the True-Hearted (Philadelphia: Merrihew & Thompson, 1846), and then again, many years later, as part of the expanded, unauthorized edition of Conversations on Some of the Old Poets (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1893).
Lowell’s perspective is historical, with all of his quoted examples drawn from England’s past: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, Jonson, William Browne, Davenant, Herrick, William Habington, Carew, Lovelace, Cowley, Milton. The nearest he gets to his own time is Burns, mentioned in the opening remarks. “After beginning this article,” he writes, “we soon found that the limits of a single number were far too narrow to bring down our specimens to the neighborhood of the present day.” Even so, he declares, “Many of the modern songs are the best that have been written,” and he ends with a promise to “resume the subject at some future day.
Still, I wondered, reading Lowell’s opening sentence, what American songs he might have had in his head, that seemed to him like wild flowers. It is easy enough to imagine what he meant by blood-stained pages. Lowell was an abolitionist and made no disguise of his feelings about slavery even in his literary criticism. There are remarks on slavery all through the original edition of the Conversations (Cambridge, MA: John Owen, 1845), and Lowell was duly criticized for those by some reviewers. But what was his imagination of American song?
There are a few clues in the essay. Before getting to his extracts, Lowell offers some general comments about the nature of song, by which he means the nature of a certain kind of poetry. By and large, he is focused on “the good song” and “true song,” on song as ideal and height of achievement.
Full of grandeur, … and yet fuller of awful responsibility, is the calling of the song-writer. It is no wild fancy to deem that he may shape the destiny of coming ages.
Yet Lowell allows
that the sight of the rudest and simplest verses in the corner of a village newspaper oftener bring tears of delight into our eyes than awaken a sense of the ludicrous.
Instantly, Lowell conjures a “rustic” New England couple, Reuben and Dorcas. Their love rouses a new appreciation for beauty, he becoming “as truly a poet as Burns,” she alive to the effusion, able to feel “as keenly as ever Sappho did.” The direction of Lowell’s thought here seems to be leading to that corner of the village newspaper, to Reuben’s rude, Burns-like songs. Just here, however, Lowell goes off on a tangent. Politics creeps in, for it is not simply beauty to which his couple are roused. “Love,” he writes, “is the truest radicalism, lifting all to the same, clear-aired level of humble, thankful humanity.” Turning satirical, he says of her:
Dorcas begins to think that her childish dream has come true, and that she is really an enchanted princess, and her milk-pans are forthwith changed to a service of gold plate, with the family arms engraved on the bottom of each, the device being a great heart, and the legend, God gives, man only takes away.
And of him:
Reuben has grown so tender-hearted that he thought there might be some good even in “Transcendentalism,” a terrible dragon of straw, against which he had seen a lecturer at the village lyceum valorously enact the St. George, — nay, he goes so far as to think that the slave women (black though they be, and therefore not deserving so much happiness) cannot be quite so well off as his sister in the factory, and would sympathize with them if the constitution did not enjoin all good citizens not to do so.
The tangent ends here, but Lowell does not return to the idea of rustic song:
But we are wandering — farewell Reuben and Dorcas! remember that you can only fulfil your vow of being true to each other by being true to all.
And from there he turns to the “unspeakably precious” songs of “our great poets,” precious because they preserve the feelings of a Reuben or Dorcas (“those irrepressible utterances of homely fireside humanity”) in a context — literature — otherwise inhospitable to such expression. This is why Lowell’s extracts include so many songs from plays: their appearance in Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, Jonson shows them as indeed moments of exception, bright, momentary pleasures in the midst of grander emotion.
The faint records of flitting impulses, we light upon them sometimes imbedded round the bases of the basaltic columns of the epic or the drama, like heedless insects or tender ferns which had fallen in while those gigantic crystals were slowly shaping themselves in the molten entrails of the soul all aglow with the hidden fires of inspiration, or like the tracks of birds from far-off climes, which had lighted upon the ductile mass ere it had hardened into eternal rock. They make the lives of the masters of the lyre encouragements and helps to us, by teaching us humbly to appreciate and sympathize with, as men, those whom we should else almost have worshiped as beings of a higher order.
Had America yet raised its “basaltic columns of the epic or the drama”? Were there “heedless insects” or “tender ferns” of American song? No, to judge from Lowell’s wholly English examples. But what of the rustic song? the newspaper verse? Coaxing a tear when it does not provoke laughter, such verse — cut with scissors from the news, tucked between blood-stained pages — is the real subject of Lowell’s essay, not quite gotten to, put off till another time.
Is there a list of important works of nineteenth-century American literature that no one reads or talks about? Ralph Waldo Emerson’s anthology, Parnassus (1874), must reside high there — a different sort of airy reach than the one he meant by that title.
After C19 and the poetry seminar organized by Virginia Jackson and Michael Cohen, I began to wonder about the tradition of English poetry as understood in Victorian America. Who did they love, and who did they respect without love, and who did they care about not one little bit? Perhaps someone has already answered those questions.
Lacking time to investigate this issue, I did pull Parnassus off the shelf, to see what poetry Emerson loved, respected, allowed himself to forget. Emerson, of course, was not the only anthologist in this period, was not even the only poet anthologist (Bryant and Whittier also made treasuries of verse, and Longfellow the more peculiar Poems of Places). Nonetheless, Emerson is as close to a central figure as one might find among the anthologists, and his treasury is the one I happened to have on hand. Perusing his contents, however, I found myself drawn from his list of names to the categories under which the names were gathered. A fascinating itinerary, truly, and perhaps a better clue to the nature of his canon than the canon itself.
Man.—Virtue.—Honor.—Time.—Fate.—Sleep.—Dreams.—Life.—Death.—Immortality.—Hymns and Odes.
NARRATIVE POEMS AND BALLADS.
DIRGES AND PATHETIC POEMS.
COMIC AND HUMOROUS.
POETRY OF TERROR.
ORACLES AND COUNSELS.
Good Counsel.—Supreme Hours.
At C19, Emerson was cited as a crucial figure in the replacement of “poetic genres” with “the genre of poetry,” a critical turn that Virginia Jackson influentially analyzed as “lyricization”: “the progressive idealization of what was a much livelier, more explicitly mediated, historically contingent and public context for many varieties of poetry,” such that poetry and lyric become conflated terms — and the lyric of this conflation a particularly attenuated version of the genre. In this respect, it might be useful to think of Emerson’s Parnassian categories as the road not taken on the way to lyricization. Genres are included (hymns, odes, ballads, songs, satires), but intermixed with modes (the contemplative, picturesque, comic), themes and subjects (nature, history, personal life), functions (religion, storytelling, counsel), and affects (pathos, humor, terror). The categories are not quite distinct and not quite coordinated, so that what we have is a messy attempt to sort the objects of an idealization according to their piecemeal pleasures, even as that form of appreciation is discounted as trivial.
In his preface, Emerson writes:
The poet demands all gifts, and not one or two only. Like the electric rod, he must from a point nearer to the sky than all surrounding objects, down to the earth, and into the wet soil, or neither is of use. The poet must not only converse with pure thought, but he must demonstrate it almost to the senses. His words must be pictures: his verses must be spheres and cubes, to be seen and handled. His fable must be a good story, and its meaning must hold as pure truth.
The sphere and cube are ideal forms, pure as the poets of Emerson’s Parnassus. In the end, however, they are not the right categories for the poems.
1 [Back to text] Virginia Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 9.
“The Great Rejected” is a poem I discovered in an old literary magazine while seeking out the original printing of another text, Fitz-Greene Halleck’s “Connecticut, Part 2.” It leapt out at me because of the subject: Mount Etna. My wife is from Catania, which sits at the mountain’s foot; and my sister-in-law lives directly on the mountain. Further, a good friend of mine in Sicily is a vulcanologist in love with the mountain, which he knows through and through — as native son, hiker, and geologist.
Needless to say, “The Great Neglected” is a fairly forgettable bit of doggerel (unlike Halleck’s “Connecticut, Part 2,” a neglected masterpiece), and under other circumstances I would have let it disintegrate in the acid bath of my restless attention, which eats away at page after page and retains very little, just a word or two here or there. As it happened, however, a suitable occasion arose several years ago, which gave me a reason print the poem anew, as a present for my friend the vulcanologist.
Friendship aside, I have to admit it tickled me to be rescuing so negligible a bit of writing from oblivion. One shouldn’t confuse artists with their artworks, but it does feel at times that one is dealing with the person when dealing with the work, the more so the more awful the work may be. Great works survive their creators, who are nonetheless remembered as a consequence of their creations; bad art dies with its creator. As a consequence, in the latter case, rediscovery is a resurrection of memory in the broadest sense: the artist as well as the artwork is retrieved from limbo.
Below is a copy of the poem as published by “porci con le ali” (“pigs with wings”), an imprint I’ve often used for self-published chapbooks.
THE GREAT REJECTED :
Or How Mount Ætna Courted an Iceberg, and Got “The Mitten”
BY GEORGE P. BISSELL
Originally published in The Knickerbocker, May 1852
This edition, prepared by his friends,
is affectionately inscribed to
in honor of his admission to the faculty
of the Dipartimento di Scienze Geologiche,
Università di Catania
As Mount Ætna sat smoking his pipe t’other day,
With his head in the clouds and his foot in the bay,
He began to think over the course he had run;
The fields he had wasted, (not fields he had won;)
And he thought it was time that an old man like he
Should have sowed his wild oats, should have finished his spree.
He resolved to be steady the rest of his life,
And quietly settle—first taking a wife.
But who should he get, which way should he go,
And how to begin, he didn’t quite know.
He must have some tall mountain or hill for his bride:
Or some prominent object to stand by his side
He thought of the Ural Mountains or Andes:
He was too old for them; they were partial to dandies.
Then he thought of the Pyramids down at Cairo:
Them he didn’t quite fancy—he couldn’t tell why, though:
He knew they were “bricks,” as the phrase is, but then
He looked somewhat at beauty, like most other men;
And they were no beauties, though well built and trim:
They were rather too peaked, he thought, to suit him.
Mount of Olives he thought of, and was strongly inclined
To see her at once, and to tell her his mind;
But then he was fearful of subsequent wars,
For Olives, he’d heard, were always in jars.
Then he thought for a while of Miss Mount Moriah,
And once almost concluded to step up and try her;
But he “wasn’t acquainted;” didn’t know her face:
He had heard of her goodness, her talent and grace,
But he wished a “perfectly beautiful creature,”
And her temple, ’t was said, was her only fine feature.
He then sighed for Mont Blanc; she was too far in-land,
And, beside, he much doubted if she’d give him her hand:
If he wrote her a note, or if even he went,
It was doubtful indeed if she yielded assent;
For many had heard, to their sorrow and pain,
The ascent of Mont Blanc not so easy to gain.
Mount Tabor, Mount Ida, and Ararat, too
With old Mount Parnassus, all passed in review:
The first were old maids, and all of a piece,
And Parnassus, the slattern was always in Greece.
No, these none of them suited; ’t was really too bad:
Old Ætna in earnest began to feel sad.
He sat himself down, scalding tears did he shed,
And he sprinkled hot ashes all over his head.
At last, when his thoughts were most dismal and drear,
There shot through his head the most brilliant idea:
He’d make love to an Iceberg, so stately and trim,
So tall and majestic, so blue and so slim;
There were crowds of them floating up in the north seas,
And an Iceberg, he thought, would be easy to please.
He at once laid his plans; to the cold frigid zone
He would go the next morning, afoot and alone:
He would call on old Hecla, that sturdy old hero,
Whose heart was so warm in that climate of zero:
Old Hecla would show him the way it was done,
And perhaps tie the knot when the Iceberg was won.
The next morning, as good as his plan, he was there,
Somewhat nipped, to be sure, with the cold frosty air;
But Hecla was cordial: he at once spread the cloth,
And served him up, hot, some delightful snow-broth.
The meeting was happy; the greeting was warm;
And Ætna forgot soon the cold and the storm.
When the table was cleared, he took Hecla aside,
And in confidence told him he had come for a bride;
That he had an idea it would be very nice
In his warm southern home to have one made of ice:
In short, that if Hecla would give him a lift,
He would take the first Iceberg found floating adrift.
Old Hecla looked wise, and then he looked queer,
And he gazed at his guest with a comical leer.
Said he: “Mister Ætna, the idea may be pleasing
To a hot-head like you, but to me it is freezing.
You will find it cold work, and I rather guess
It won’t be so easy to make one say ‘Yes.’
These damsels, you know, are afloat far and wide,
And though always at sea, they hate to be tied.
Experience taught me, I’ll own to the truth;
I had just such a flame, myself, early in youth.
We met at a dance in the Arctic ball-room,
And we whirled through a waltz in the mighty Maëlstrom:
I fell deeply in love, and Cupid’s swift dart,
In the form of an icicle, cut to my heart:
I proposed on the spot; I made vows by the score,
And used very freely the phrase, ‘I adore;’
But ’t was all of no use; she plainly said ‘No!’
Was surprised at the offer: (they always say so:)
‘She liked me,’ she said, ‘very well as a friend,’
But there all my hopes and my wishes must end.
By this answer so cold I was badly frost-bitten,
And in kindness, at parting, she gave me a mitten.”
This story of Hecla’s made Ætna feel glum;
It chilled his young ardor, and set him back some:
But he would go ahead; he wasn’t the man
To turn short about in the midst of a plan;
So he told his kind host he was bound to propose
To the next passing Iceberg, if it thoroughly froze
The lava within him; and as to the “nay,”
He would risk getting that;—’t wasn’t often the way
That young ladies answered a positive “catch,”
Such as himself was: (the conceited young wretch!)
Hecla urged him no more; for he saw with regret
That on having an Iceberg his mind was firm set:
He fell in with his plan; and to best lend his aid,
The very next night a large party he made,
To which all the belles from the pole he invited.
As well as some others, that none might feel slighted.
For beaux they had glaciers and men of that class—
Ice glaciers, I mean; not glaziers of glass.
The party was splendid; the invited all came:
There were Bergs from the north, of all nations and name:
Some came from the pole; some from quite the north-west,
Where they say there’s a passage for which they’re in quest:
Some came from the east; and some, no wise inferior,
Came all the way down from the coast of Siberia:
Some glittered with jewels from the head to the heels,
And some, like our dandies, were loaded with seals.
Mount Ætna, of course, was presented to all:
Some names he forgot, some he could not recall;
But he got along well, take all things together,
And, ’t was noticed by all, was in very high feather.
Well! the party broke up, as all parties do,
And then was the strife who should go home with who.
Our hero, of course, succeeded quite well,
For he cut them all out, and went home with the belle.
She lived at the axis: ’t was quite a long walk;
But the longer the road, of course longer the talk.
She put on her things, and muffled up warm;
He carried her slippers and she took his arm;
They chatted awhile as they walked on together;
They talked of the moon and remarked of the weather.
A silence ensued: then Ætna began
To make desperate love like a desperate man:
He told her his love with a heart-felt out-pouring,
And, as all lovers do, he fell to adoring:
He told her he loved her when first they had met,
And his love was enduring, for he loved her well yet:
He loved her, he said, as he did his own life;
He offered, in short, to make her his wife.
Just as Hecla predicted, the beauty was cold;
She gave him the sack, and poor Ætna was “sold.”
She answered him “no,” and was really unkind,
For she seasoned the dose with a piece of her mind.
She told him she knew nothing of him, except
That he came from the south, and was quite an adept
At burning rich fields, and such youthful corruptions,
And she’d heard he was troubled with awful eruptions.
This last was a damper; it froze him clear through:
He was cut to the quick; but what could he do?
His eyes were glare ice; his tongue could not speak;
He tried, but could only just gibber and squeak:
For the rest of the walk he said nothing more,
But saw her in silence quite home to her door;
Then he turned on his heel: with a bound and a whistle, he
Struck a bee-line for the island of Sicily.