American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Parnassian Categories

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parnassusIs 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.

NATURE.

Land.Sea.Sky.

HUMAN LIFE.

Home.Woman.Love.Friendship.Manners.Holy Days.Holidays.

INTELLECTUAL.

Memory.Inspiration.Imagination.Fancy.Music.Art.Beauty.Moods.

CONTEMPLATIVE.MORAL.RELIGIOUS.

Man.Virtue.Honor.Time.Fate.Sleep.Dreams.Life.Death.Immortality.Hymns and Odes.

HEROIC

Patriotic.Historic.Political.

PORTRAITS.PERSONAL.PICTURES.

NARRATIVE POEMS AND BALLADS.

SONGS.

DIRGES AND PATHETIC POEMS.

COMIC AND HUMOROUS.

Satirical.

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.[1] 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.

Notes

1 [Back to text] Virginia Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 9.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

March 21, 2016 at 3:27 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Just ran across this Ben, and enjoyed it! I think many of those categories are commonplaces — that is, topics from the commonplace book he shared with Thoreau and that became the basis of the collection. I wrote about Parnassus a bit in my article “Common Places” (ALH, Spring 2007) — which is mostly on Thoreau’s Week, but spends a bit of time with Emerson. Some day we should meet at Houghton and look through the poetry notebooks together — they’re fascinating!

    mlmcgill

    May 16, 2016 at 12:58 pm

  2. And now I’m late catching your comment! But yes, we should definitely meet someday or shared reading in an archive, Houghton or elsewhere. I’d learn so much from that. Regarding the categories: I did read somehow that Parnassus was based on the Commonplace Books. Whatever the source, the categories create an odd picture of poetry. I have more to say about that–and your essay!–and hope an afternoon will arrive before long when I can scribble it down.

    Ben Friedlander

    May 27, 2016 at 1:42 pm


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