American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson


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James Russell Lowell in 1843, etched by W. H. W. Bicknell, from the painting by William Page. From Horace Elisha Scudder, James Russell Lowell: A Biography, vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1901).

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.


Written by Ben Friedlander

March 22, 2016 at 11:12 am

Posted in songs

Tagged with ,

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