American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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For a Commonplace Book 8

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No, let it stay. It speaks but truth:
My Autumn’s day is dawning.
The dream is past; sweet dream of youth.
Hair, I accept thy warning.

— Mary E. Tucker, opening lines of “The First Grey Hair” (Poems [1867])

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 22, 2010 at 6:21 pm

For a Commonplace Book 7

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I found this gleeful dirge while poking through Documenting the American South; it comes from Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, Twenty-four Years a Slave (1857), one of four “Songs of Freedom” appended to the final chapter — an antidote to the tearful death scenes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

The Slave’s Song When the Tyrant Master Dies

Come all my brethren and let us take a rest,
While the moon shines so bright and so clear;
Old master has died, and left us all at last,
He has gone to the bar to appear.
CHORUS: — Brethren, hang up the shovel and the hoe,
Take down the fiddle and the bow;
Old master’s gone to the slaveholder’s rest,
He’s gone where they all ought to go.

He will no more trample on the neck of the slave,
His back he’ll no longer score;
Old master is dead and he’s laying in his grave,
He is gone where they all ought to go.
CHORUS: — Brethren, &c.

I heard the old doctor say, the other night,
As he passed by the dining room door,
“Perhaps the old gentleman may live thro’ the night,
But I think he will die about four.”
CHORUS: — Brethren, &c.

Then old mistress sent me, at the peril of my life,
For the pastor to come down to pray;
“For,” says she, “old master is now about to die;”
And I says, “God speed him on his way.”
CHORUS: — Brethren, &c.

At four o’clock this morning the family were called
Around the old man’s dying bed,
And I tell you now I laughed to myself when I was told
That the old man’s spirit had fled.
CHORUS: — Brethren, &c.

The children all did grieve, and so did I pretend;
The old mistress nearly went mad;
And the old parson groaned so that the heavens fairly rend,
But I tell you now I felt mighty glad.
CHORUS: — Brethren, &c.


Written by Ben Friedlander

December 19, 2009 at 11:31 pm

For a Commonplace Book 6

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With a Pair of Spectacles

The glass set in gold
May soon break from its hold,
But the gold no such accident fears;
And so our frail senses
Are like these brittle lenses,
But the heart keeps the same all the years.

— Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham, Metrical Pieces, Translated and Original (1855)

I found this while looking into the Frothingham poem on Berlin; it comes from Metrical Pieces, Translated and Original, which carries a lovely dedication: “To the Friends of My life and of Its Lighter Studies.” Among the translations are poems by Propertius, Martial, Manzoni, Goethe, and Schiller. There is also a large number of poems by Friedrich Rückert, best known for his lyrics to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. Emerson chose one of the Goethe versions for Parnassus.

“With a Pair of Spectacles” relates to the translations, sort of. It’s one of ten (or eleven; I’m not sure about the last) grouped under the heading “Xenia,” which Frothingham introduces with the following prose note:

This Greek word has found its way into the English Dictionary. It meant originally the presents that were made by a host to his departing guests; but afterwards through various transitive meanings, came to denote gifts in general. Epigrammatic inscriptions for articles thus bestowed form a department, though a very humble one, of Latin literature. The word has been adopted by the French and Germans; the former using it most in the sense of new-year’s gifts.

I was attracted to this because it offers some context, I think, for Emily Dickinson’s practice of pinning notes to flowers and cakes.

Also noteworthy in Metrical Pieces: a poem on “The McLean Asylum, Somerville” (where Plath, Lowell, and Sexton all had stays), and a hymn for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Female Asylum. The latter includes these quatrains:

It does not loose, but hold;
It says not, Go — but, Come;
And pens the feeblest in its fold,
And builds the orphan’s home.

O thanks for fifty years
Of woman’s pity shown!
For all it saved of Misery’s tears,
And Ruin’s heavier moan!

I also liked the opening quatrain of “To a Sigh”:

I am not ill, I am not grieved,
Pain has not wrung, nor hope deceived;
Why, then, thou sad, unmeaning guest,
Disturb the comforts of my breast?

Written by Ben Friedlander

July 25, 2009 at 11:14 am

For a Commonplace Book 5

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Neglected record of a mind neglected,
Unto what “lets and stops” art thou subjected!
The day with all its toils and occupations,
The night with its reflections and sensations,
The future, and the present, and the past, —
All I remember, feel, and hope at last,
All shapes of joy and sorrow, as they pass, —
Find but a dusty image in this glass.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, October 22, 1838

Posthumously published in Samuel Longfellow‘s 1886 biography of the poet and Volume III of the Poetical Works, in the latter case with three other notebook jottings gathered under the heading “Fragments.”

Written by Ben Friedlander

July 10, 2009 at 8:05 am

For a Commonplace Book 3

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In June

With a Difference. — Hamlet.

Who saw the June come ? Wel-a-day!
My neighbor’s bushes, one and all,
And grew white after God’s old way,
Behind the garden wall.

Who saw the June come? Nay, not she,
My neighbor’s daughter, slim and shy,
Long since she left her father’s house,
Ere yet the rose was nigh.

Last year, last year, there in the sun
She stood and smiled. I did not know
Which was the whitest thing in June,
She, or that bush a-grow.

But now; ah, now; yea, now ’tis plain!
When folk be dead, how wise we be!
God’s boughs were black beside her snow;
Ah, now; yea, now I see!

My neighbor’s bushes blow, blow, blow,
And blow about his silent door!
Ye call that white? Nay, ’tis not so;
June has been here before.

Ye cannot mock me, blossoms sweet;
I know too well your looks of yore;
My neighbor knows (yet blow, blow, blow),
June has been here before.

— Lizette Woodworth Reese (1856-1935)

Photo by Emily Spencer Hayden, 1915, from <a href=From Reese’s first, self-published book, A Branch of May, 1887; the poem was reprinted in A Handful of Lavender, 1893, her first from a commercial publisher. Both volumes are available in full through Google Books; the second is archived by Making of America. The photo is by Emily Spencer Hayden, 1915, and comes from Maryland in Focus, an exhibit mounted by the Digital Library of the Maryland Historical Society.

Written by Ben Friedlander

June 8, 2009 at 9:54 am

For a Commonplace Book 2

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Walt Whitman, 1989+

Walt Whitman, 1989

Tuesday, December  25, 1888.

8 P.M. … As we sat there talking Ed [1] brought in a card — a reporter’s card — a fellow I knew well and whom W. knew when I explained who he was: connected with The Record. W. put on his glasses: read the name off deliberately —  “Charles [something] Bacon” — repeating it several times as if to job up his memory…. Bacon shortly came in — shook hands: W. saying some few welcoming words and inviting B. to take the chair. B. explained that he had been sent by The Record to find out how W. had spent his Christmas. W. thenceforward affable — full, free, communicative…. Spoke of his confinement — of his “half paralyzed” condition. “It is now almost twenty years. Do you know what hemiplegia is? In my case it started here” — pressing his finger to the back of his neck — “then came down the whole side — arm, leg, face: the leg never recovered: the arm recovered quickly. Luckily the stroke did not affect, such as it is, my power of speech, or my brain: up to the time of the present attack I was able to work — to write, read — as any time before: only my power to locomote, to get about, was gone — or partly gone.” “My bete noir,” he said, “is indigestion.” But “the last two or three days” he had “in all respects” felt “wonderfully” bettered — “better, clearer of active trouble, than for five months past.” Spoke of himself as “leaning towards gain”…. He assured B. he “always” had “warning” of the attacks. “Thanks to my dear father and mother, I have been wonderfully fortunate in my constitution — my body.” He was “gifted with cheer” and that was “certainly worth more than five or ten thousand dollars a year.” “”By nature, by observation, by the doctors, I have learned that the thing to do when I am down is to rely upon the vis,  as it is called — the inherited forces: to lay low — attempt nothing — rest — recuperate: if the vis comes to the rescue — meets the peril — well and good: then for another lease! But if it does not, then all may as well be given up at once.”  He did not know — “it is not at all certain” — but “I may go from this out upon my ordinary condition of the past seventeen years.” B. asked W.’s age. “I am in my seventieth year — celebrated the end of the sixty-ninth the last of May, this year.”… B. asked about W.’s “outings.” But W. shook his head: “I have none — I have not been out for seven months: I can scarcely get from this chair to the door there unassisted — must help myself with a chair, the table, anything — sometimes calling the nurse.”

— Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, volume 3

The photograph is one of four taken on the same day and comes (like the text above) from the wonderful Walt Whitman Archive. Click on the image for a link to the gallery  (and a larger view). The caption reads: “My 71st year arrives: the fifteen past months nearly all illness or half illness — until a tolerable day (Aug: 6 1889) & convoy’d by Mr. B and Ed: W I have been carriaged across to Philadelphia (how sunny & fresh & good look’d the river, the people, the vehicles, & Market & Arch streets!) & have sat for this photo: wh- satisfies me. Walt Whitman.” A note at the Whitman Archive identifies “Mr. B” as “Geoffrey Buckwalter, Camden teacher and Whitman’s friend, who insisted on the photos.”

1 [Back to text] Ed Wilkins, Whitman’s nurse.

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 6, 2009 at 10:13 am

For a Commonplace Book 1

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All bent one way like flickering flame,
Each blade caught sunlight as it came,
Then rising, saddened into shade;
A changeful, wavy, harmless sea,
Whose billows none could bitterly
Reproach with wrecks that they had made.

Not all the sorrow man hath known,
Not all the evil he hath done,
Have ever cast thereon a stain.
It groweth green and fresh and light
As in the olden garden bright,
Beneath the feet of Eve and Cain.

— from “A Tuft of Grass” by Emma Lazarus (written when she was 17 and published in her first book, Admetus)

Written by Ben Friedlander

February 5, 2009 at 1:58 am

Posted in Commonplace Book

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