American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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A Sweet Dedication

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From George P. Marsh, Lectures on the English Language (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1885).

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Written by Ben Friedlander

June 27, 2015 at 3:45 pm

Books of Poetry: The 1860s

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Joanne Dobson

One of the projects I’ve been working on for the past few years, in spare moments, is a counterfactual edition of Emily Dickinson’s war poetry: an attempt to imagine what a book of Dickinson’s war poems might have looked like, had she allowed one to be published at the end of the Civil War. I’m not the first to use this approach; I cribbed it from Joanne Dobson, who produced “a hypothetical Table of Contents for a volume of Verses by Emily Dickinson” as part of her own Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence. Dobson’s Verses was comprised of fifty poems run together in a continuous sequence; it had an imagined publication date of 1864, the year five of Dickinson’s poems poems did appear in print, on ten different occasions, her most public year as a writer. The point of the exercise: to make vivid the fact that many of Dickinson’s unpublished poems would not have been out of place in the literary market of the time, as previous critics had imagined. The point of my exercise is a little different: to make vivid the particularity of Dickinson’s war poems by putting them in a form that makes comparison easier with other war poets of the time (those, anyhow, who published whole volumes on the subject). Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 10, 2012 at 7:07 am

Of True Work

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Lucy Larcom (1824-1893)

To celebrate May Day and mark a tentative return to the pleasurable labor of this blog, I thought to share a passage from Lucy Larcom’s unjustly neglected An Idyl of Work (1875), a long poem in blank verse — or mostly in blank verse; a small number of ballads, hymns, sonnets, and the like are embedded in the narrative.

For a few weeks now, I have been rereading the Idyl, taking notes on the complexities generated by its simple story — a simplicity long denigrated by those who judge a narrative entirely by its plot — and I hope at a later date to write about the text at length. For now, let me introduce and comment upon a single passage, a quiet moment in the story, in which a great many of Larcom’s themes — labor, poetry, memory, nature, religion, vocation — are woven together, with an ease that is at once a crucial aspect of the narrative and a fitting confirmation of the justness of Larcom’s argument.

Set in the 1840s, An Idyl of Work concerns the material, moral, intellectual, and emotional lives of five women laboring in one of the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. To speak of a weaving of themes in this context is thus to situate the labor of writing within a factory of the imagination; is to equate Larcom’s narrative facility with the skills of her mill girls. Saying so might seem to be a cheapening of what the poem celebrates, a generalizing of the factory that empties out mill work — and the poem — of its historical specificity. But this equation of one kind of work with another is how Larcom celebrates factory labor. Lowell’s mills were famous in their own day as sites of literary activity, as represented in The Lowell Offering, “A Repository of Original Articles, Written by Females Employed in the Mills.” The journal was founded in 1840 and continued for five years, “a life span” — as Sylvia Jenkins Cook notes — “almost identical to that of the Dial.”[1] Nor was the former journal overshadowed by the latter, not during their years of mutual operation. Praised by Charles Dickens in his American Notes, the Offering was as much a part of transatlantic literary culture as the organ of Transcendentalism, a fact alluded to in the Idyl in Book X, in a conversation that moves easily from Brook Farm to the equally profound experiment of Lowell.[2] Thus one of the five women, Eleanor Gray, says of another, Esther Hale: “Esther, and our one little room, is more / To me than ten Brook Farms.”[3] And soon after, another of the five, Minta Summerfield, says this in support of Eleanor’s statement — addressing the aristocrat Miriam Willoughby, “[a] lovely gray-haired … / … single woman with a mother’s heart” (104-5):

“[D]o you know, Miss Willoughby,,
[Esther] studies History, and German, too,
And Moral Science, somehow, between work;
And — do not mind her threatening shake of head —
She can write prose and poetry; I’ve seen both
In the ‘Offering’ — you know the magazine
That the girls publish. …”

Dedication page for An Idyl of Work

Larcom knew whereof she spoke: she herself had been a contributor to the Offering, having gone to work in the mill at age 11. But her equation of writing and factory work was not limited to formal publication; active reading, energetic conversation, and the life of the mind were also involved. As Mary Loeffelholz notes in her fine essay on the poem, “it is the mill girls’ improvised technologies of literacy, not the technologies of manufacturing, that occupy the foreground of An Idyl of Work.”[4] In this sense, the poem, untroubled by the ordinary concerns of labor literature — and so apolitical to some readers — is implicitly engaged in seizing the means of production. Not the production of cloth, but of people; a democratic nobility of working-women.[5]

This seizing occurs above all through education, in language. Larcom’s use of protest words is pointed when she has Esther say, in the midst of the conversation cited above:

“I came to agitate this very theme, …
I long for — what I know not! — to strike out
For something new, — to learn what’s in me. Work?
As well quit living as quit work, and yet
Heads like to be employed, as well as hands” (138, emphasis added)

— which is Larcom’s argument in nuce.

But the conversation in Book X is not the passage I wanted to give for May Day. In keeping with Larcom’s emphasis on mental occupation, I thought instead to share a still moment from Book III. Here Esther, who, in addition to her intellectual virtues, looks out for the other women, has gone to comfort Ruth Woodburn, first met in Book II, a stranger whose “words, /[whose] every tone, showed culture” (we learn in Book VII that Ruth writes poetry), and who seems to Esther and the others “as one by trouble stupefied” (30). At this point in the narrative very little is known of Ruth, but the biblical origin of her name — made explicit in the passage below — suggests a story of loss, fidelity, and wandering.[6] As if in response to the biblical suggestion, Esther, contemplating the stranger, lets her mind wander, so that “Ruth” becomes quite naturally a quality of existence that pertains to Esther’s own life:

Poor Ruth! There was no need
Of many words. To Esther’s pleasant voice,
She yielded, like a child, and let herself
Be dressed, and led to Esther’s room, and laid
On Esther’s bed, who sat beside her there,
With kind pretence of book and sewing-work…,

Ruth lightly dozed. Esther, intent to keep
The slumberer undisturbed, let drop her work,
And yielded herself partly to her book
(Poems of Wordsworth, Eleanor’s New-Year’s gift),
And partly to the south-wind’s tenderness,
While memory led her back beside the sea,
Where she had played with many little ones
In childhood, on a sunny homestead-slope.
The deep, eternal murmur of the waves
Upbearing on its monotone the song
Of bluebird, wren, and robin, blending all
In a wild, sweet entanglement. Home-dreams,
As in all womanly souls, made undertone
To her life’s music. But her hopes and plans
And fancies were a garden builded in
Behind great walls of duty. Her true work
She sought the clew of, here, ‘mid endless threads
Shaped from crude cotton into useful cloth.

Not always to be here among the looms, —
Scarcely a girl she knew expected that;
Means to one end their labor was, — to put
Gold nest-eggs in the bank, or to redeem
A mortgaged homestead, or to pay the way
Through classic years at some academy;
More commonly to lay a dowry by
For future housekeeping. But Esther’s thought
Was none of those; unshaped and vague it lay, —
A hope to spend herself for worthy ends.
Aliens were in her childhood’s home. No past
Could be revived for her, and all her heart
Went forth into the Future’s harvest-field,
A Ruth who never of a Boaz dreamed.
Whatever work came, whoso crossed her path,
Lonely as this pale stranger, wheresoe’er
She saw herself a need, there should be home,
Business, and family. She raised her eyes,
As her soul said Amen to this resolve,
And saw Ruth languidly peruse her face
Through mists of thought; who murmured “Read aloud.”

A smile from Esther answered. (33-35)

Mind amongst the Spindles: A Selection from The Lowell Offering, a Miscellany Wholly Composed by the Factory Girls of an American City (London: Charles Knight & Co., 1844)

Reading Larcom’s poem through our own mists of thought, we might surmise, before coming to the end of this passage, that Esther, wisest among the girls, is the biblical Naomi to Ruth’s Ruth, though Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, is not figured, or not primarily, as a caregiver, but is featured instead as one to whom care is given. In this sense, Esther — a queen in the Bible — is more Ruth-like than Ruth Woodburn. Which is precisely what makes Esther a queen among the mill girls: her ability to establish “home, / Business, and family” wherever she sees “a need.” She is a queen who labors, without thought of the reward Ruth receives in the Bible. As Larcom puts it in a passage that gives me a pang whenever I read it, “No past / Could be revived for her, and all her heart / Went forth into the Future’s harvest-field, / A Ruth who never of a Boaz dreamed.”

How noteworthy that “Business” comes between “home” and “family” in Esther’s resolution (a prayer of sorts, since her soul says amen to it). Work in this Idyl (a pun, as Loeffelholz notes, on idle) has an ambiguous role, at once dividing life and joining its different parts together. One way to read this poem, then, is as a pilgrim’s progress in which the search would lead from work as division to work as joining. That quest is hinted at in the passage above, in Esther’s dropping of her “sewing-work” to muse upon the nature of her own “true work,” a musing that is itself modeled on sewing-work: a search for clues “‘mid endless threads / Shaped from crude cotton into useful cloth.”

Esther’s prayer-like resolution brings a similar moment to mind from Book VI, a more literal entangling of manual and mental labor. Here Eleanor, sitting by her factory window, turns from troubled thoughts (inspired, like Esther’s, by concern for another) to her work at the loom, taking comfort from some surreptitious reading:

The shuttles clattered on. The red rose leaned
Out toward the wonder of the open sky;
And Eleanor leaned out too, and longed for light
That souls might see by. Bending then again
Over her work, she spread a little book
Open, beneath a warp-fringe from her loom, —
A book of hymns she loved; and as she toiled,
Her voice made music, hid within the noise, —
A bird’s note in a thicket; and her heart
Rose, with her voice, in singing that was prayer. (83)[7]

Notes

1 [Back to text] Sylvia Jenkins Cook, Working Women, Literary Ladies: The Industrial Revolution and Female Aspiration (New York: Oxford UP, 2008), 41. Reading the Offering and Dial in relation to one another (Cook neatly calls them “two regional yet curiously cosmopolitan little magazines”) rectifies the more partial accounts of literary and labor historians, the former represented for Cook by Lawrence Buell, the latter by Philip Foner. Her book also includes a chapter on Larcom’s Idyl.

2 [Back to text] Charles Dickens visited the mills during his 1842 tour of America, noting in his subsequent account: “I brought away from Lowell four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.” And he adds: “Of the merits of the Lowell Offering as a literary production, I will only observe, putting entirely out of sight the fact of the articles having been written by these girls after the arduous labours of the day, that it will compare advantageously with a great many English Annuals.” American Notes, ed. Patricia Ingham (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 78-79.

3 [Back to text] Lucy Larcolm, An Idyl of Work (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1875), 139. Further references to the poem will be given parenthetically.

4 [Back to text] Mary Loeffelholz, “‘A Strange Medley-Book’: Lucy Larcom’s An Idyl of Work,” The New England Quarterly 80.1 (March 2007): 22.

5 [Back to text] This democratic nobility is the first subject of conversation in the poem. In Book I, the girls argue playfully over the meaning of lady, with Esther — described as “a walking dictionary” — citing the original meaning, “Giver of loaves,” so as to give “excellence and sweetness” as he definition: “‘Lady,’ though / Can slip its true sense, leaving an outside / Easy to imitate” (15).

6 [Back to text] Like Ruth in the Bible, who supports herself and her mother-in-law by going to work in the fields, Ruth Woodburn, who describes herself when first met as “homesick,” is, in her own words, “a hireling” (30).

7 [Back to text] There is a passage in Larcom’s autobiography that reads like a postscript to this passage; it speaks, in any case, to the poetry-labor relationship so central to the poem:

Since I am writing these recollections for the young, I may say here that I regard a love for poetry as one of the most needful and helpful elements in the life-outfit of a human being. It was the greatest of blessings to me, in the long days of toil to which I was shut in much earlier than most young girls are, that the poetry I held in my memory breathed its enchanted atmosphere through me and around me, and touched even dull drudgery with its sunshine.

A New England Girlhood, Outlined from Memory (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1889), 134.

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 1, 2012 at 11:12 pm

A Vast Extent of Brine

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I’m a big fan of the University of Michigan’s digital library, Making of America. MOA gives page images for some 10,000 nineteenth-century American books. The format is far from ideal — for online reading I prefer the Internet Archive — and the images are poorly formatted for printing (which may be due to Michigan’s proprietary interest in selling bound reprints), but the material itself is invaluable. I’ve spent many hours there browsing, finding incredible things. Incredibly useful, important, memorable, and delightful. Also: incredibly strange, amusing, dreadful, and dull.

The item below falls somewhere in the latter camp. To me, it’s dreadful amusing; to you, perhaps, dreadful dull.

Choice rhymes follow, with thumbnails that open onto larger views; click on the title page for a link to the complete text.

poetical-geography2

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Written by Ben Friedlander

November 14, 2009 at 12:19 pm

Parker’s Kaleidoscope

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parker1

Theodore Parker at Age 39

In 1859, no longer able to speak from a pulpit (he had TB), Theodore Parker wrote a long letter to his congregation, in effect an autobiography. It was published as Theodore Parker’s Experience as a Minister, a book precious in its succinct eloquence, and surely one of the earliest retrospects on a revolutionary period.  A premature retrospect, one might say, except that Parker, 49 years old, knew he was dying.

But the letter is not just a retrospect. Parker is also concerned here to set forth theological and political principles. At one point, he slyly notes that these principles often went disguised in literary drag. Only in this disguise, he implies, could his ideas be shared freely in public. Why? Because literature is a sphere apart, valued for its independence from worldly strife. Or rather, it operates under the illusion of that independence.

For Parker, the illusion is intrinsic to literature’s social function, a function he describes in terms Stuart Hall might embrace. An early member of “the party of resentment” (Harold Bloom’s derisive name for those who would reform the world through culture), Parker believed that literature is not simply an expression of social forces, but one of the ways those forces gain legitimacy. He also believed that literature’s ability to do good — which is to say, its ability to question legitimacy and so reshape society — is kept in check by the powers and authorities that control its dissemination. Read the rest of this entry »

For a Commonplace Book 6

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xenia

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