American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for August 2017

Self-balanced in a mailed hand!

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A postscript to the other day’s mention of a torn-up copy of Democratic Review found for a dollar…

I focused on the editorial calling for a statue of Andrew Jackson. The issue also included a poem for the old demagogue, the authorship of which surprised me: Walter Savage Landor. Though little read today, Landor was a much-beloved writer among American poets, though admired more for his prose than poetry. He produced multiple volumes of “Imaginary Conversations” (extended dialogues between historical figures, meetings that never occurred), and these were gobbled up in his own lifetime by Emerson and Fuller, both of whom met Landor, and after his death by Ezra Pound. Robert Pinsky, who wrote a book about Landor, is only the most recent in this line.

American love for Landor was apparently reciprocated. Or why else this ode? First published, as the editor notes here, in the second volume of Landor’s epistolary Pericles and Aspasia (London, 1836), where the poem serves as a midpoint dedication. I’ve not read the book, though many consider it Landor’s best (“as beautiful an illustration of the blander aspects of wisdom as there can be in any language”).[*] I have sampled the poems, pastiches of Greek verse interspersed among the letters (Greek verse as translated in Landor’s time, of course: they’re rhymed), and these are excellent. The Jackson poem? Not so good, though I did like this passage:

How rare the sight, how grand!
Behold the golden scales of Justice stand
Self-balanced in a mailed hand!

That “mailed hand” has a truth to it.

The pages from the Democratic Review are reproduced below (click on the images for a closer view).

Note

* Ernest Dilworth, Walter Savage Landor (New York: Twayne, 1971), 122. [Back to text]

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Written by Ben Friedlander

August 19, 2017 at 1:37 pm

A Rhyme

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Historical consciousness is often out of joint, wrenching awareness away from the present, submerging now in then, coloring then in now‘s diffused tinctures. At present, for instance, the past appears to me a blood-red sea, and blood is all I can see of history.

Historians have other ways of inhabiting and appraising time, though they too, I imagine, have moments of confusion: moments when the past seems to encompass the present, while remaining out of reach, and when the present no longer seems the past’s successor. As a mode of analysis or understanding, this uncanny or untimely experience of history can be an achievement, a way of knocking the present off its pedestal. For not all successors are deserving. And sometimes, it takes a crisis to appreciate that.

This experience of history can also be alienating. Encompassed by the past, the present loses its autonomy, and we, as creatures of the present, lose ours, held captive by a past we thought to have escaped. In such a circumstance, the best we can hope to do is sever ties with the past, break off from those who would retain them, commence anew. A necessary, revolutionary program that is also, to some extent, a self-annihilating one, since the consciousness that rids itself of history is itself historical. The ordinary work of generations, frightening because it occurs in a flash instead of at the stately pace of centuries.

There is, however, an aesthetic version of this alienation: a sudden recognition of similitude between two finite moments, past and present coming together with just that shade of difference needed to keep them from collapsing together, yielding in their conjunction the pleasing qualities of a rhyme.

An instance of that rhyme today: a torn up old copy of the Democratic Review, found in a used book stall in Bangor, bought for a dollar. It contains many interesting literary artifacts (one of Whittier’s “Songs of Labor”; and an early work of Whitman’s, “Tale of a Murderer Escaped”), but what really caught my eye was the opening editorial, “Statue to Jackson.” God help us, will we ever be free of these statues? And Jackson, of all monstrous precedents; truly a rhyme with our present rogue populist. The entire text is reproduced below.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

August 17, 2017 at 8:05 pm

Nauseating Flatteries

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The upsurge in far-right violence, gathering momentum with the current President’s coaxing, has taken the removal of Confederate monuments as a cause, most recently in an assault on the city of Charlottesville, Virginia. That city has two such monuments, one of Robert E. Lee, an equestrian statue whose much-debated fate is now in the hands of the courts.

Following from afar the awful events, and then their aftermath (including the stirring destruction of monuments), I was moved to reread Melville’s long poem in Battle-PiecesLee in the Capitol.” It did not suit the moment, but seemed instead to belong to the long recuperation of this treasonous general, defender of slavery. More pertinent was an editorial by Frederick Douglass in his Reconstruction-era newspaper New National Era. Under the headline “Bombast,” he denounced the growing chorus of voices in the North as well as South eulogizing Lee.

Writing a month after Lee’s death, Douglass asked:

Is it not about time that this bombastic laudation of the rebel chief should cease?

And he continued:

We can scarcely take up a paper that comes to us from the South, that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late ROBERT E. LEE; and many Northern journals also join in these undeserved tributes to his memory.

The Library of Congress has digitized the paper. I reproduce the editorial from the 10 November 1870 issue below:

lee

sift through from (not remove (as noted by Siva Vaidhyanathan in an essay of cool, necessary fury) voted two years ago to relocate

Written by Ben Friedlander

August 17, 2017 at 12:05 pm