American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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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

The Great Rejected

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etna

“The City of Catania and Mount Aetna” by W. L. Leitch, 1851

“The Great Rejected” is a poem I discovered in an old literary magazine while seeking out the original printing of another text, Fitz-Greene Halleck’s “Connecticut, Part 2.” It leapt out at me because of the subject: Mount Etna. My wife is from Catania, which sits at the mountain’s foot; and my sister-in-law lives directly on the mountain. Further, a good friend of mine in Sicily is a vulcanologist in love with the mountain, which he knows through and through — as native son, hiker, and geologist.

“The City of Catania and Mount Aetna” by W. L. Leitch, 1851

Needless to say, “The Great Neglected” is a fairly forgettable bit of doggerel (unlike Halleck’s “Connecticut, Part 2,” a neglected masterpiece), and under other circumstances I would have let it disintegrate in the acid bath of my restless attention, which eats away at page after page and retains very little, just a word or two here or there. As it happened, however, a suitable occasion arose several years ago, which gave me a reason print the poem anew, as a present for my friend the vulcanologist.

Friendship aside, I have to admit it tickled me to be rescuing so negligible a bit of writing from oblivion. One shouldn’t confuse artists with their artworks, but it does feel at times that one is dealing with the person when dealing with the work, the more so the more awful the work may be. Great works survive their creators, who are nonetheless remembered as a consequence of their creations; bad art dies with its creator. As a consequence, in the latter case, rediscovery is a resurrection of memory in the broadest sense: the artist as well as the artwork is retrieved from limbo.

Below is a copy of the poem as published by “porci con le ali” (“pigs with wings”), an imprint I’ve often used for self-published chapbooks.

THE GREAT REJECTED :

Or How Mount Ætna Courted an Iceberg, and Got “The Mitten”

————

BY GEORGE P. BISSELL

————

Originally published in The Knickerbocker, May 1852

————

This edition, prepared by his friends,

is affectionately inscribed to

Carmelo Ferlito

in honor of his admission to the faculty

of the Dipartimento di Scienze Geologiche,

Università di Catania

————

As Mount Ætna sat smoking his pipe t’other day,
With his head in the clouds and his foot in the bay,
He began to think over the course he had run;
The fields he had wasted, (not fields he had won;)
And he thought it was time that an old man like he
Should have sowed his wild oats, should have finished his spree.
He resolved to be steady the rest of his life,
And quietly settle—first taking a wife.
But who should he get, which way should he go,
And how to begin, he didn’t quite know.
He must have some tall mountain or hill for his bride:
Or some prominent object to stand by his side
He thought of the Ural Mountains or Andes:
He was too old for them; they were partial to dandies.
Then he thought of the Pyramids down at Cairo:
Them he didn’t quite fancy—he couldn’t tell why, though:
He knew they were “bricks,” as the phrase is, but then
He looked somewhat at beauty, like most other men;
And they were no beauties, though well built and trim:
They were rather too peaked, he thought, to suit him.
Mount of Olives he thought of, and was strongly inclined
To see her at once, and to tell her his mind;
But then he was fearful of subsequent wars,
For Olives, he’d heard, were always in jars.

Then he thought for a while of Miss Mount Moriah,
And once almost concluded to step up and try her;
But he “wasn’t acquainted;” didn’t know her face:
He had heard of her goodness, her talent and grace,
But he wished a “perfectly beautiful creature,”
And her temple, ’t was said, was her only fine feature.
He then sighed for Mont Blanc; she was too far in-land,
And, beside, he much doubted if she’d give him her hand:
If he wrote her a note, or if even he went,
It was doubtful indeed if she yielded assent;
For many had heard, to their sorrow and pain,
The ascent of Mont Blanc not so easy to gain.
Mount Tabor, Mount Ida, and Ararat, too
With old Mount Parnassus, all passed in review:
The first were old maids, and all of a piece,
And Parnassus, the slattern was always in Greece.
No, these none of them suited; ’t was really too bad:
Old Ætna in earnest began to feel sad.
He sat himself down, scalding tears did he shed,
And he sprinkled hot ashes all over his head.
At last, when his thoughts were most dismal and drear,
There shot through his head the most brilliant idea:
He’d make love to an Iceberg, so stately and trim,
So tall and majestic, so blue and so slim;
There were crowds of them floating up in the north seas,
And an Iceberg, he thought, would be easy to please.
He at once laid his plans; to the cold frigid zone
He would go the next morning, afoot and alone:
He would call on old Hecla, that sturdy old hero,
Whose heart was so warm in that climate of zero:
Old Hecla would show him the way it was done,
And perhaps tie the knot when the Iceberg was won.
The next morning, as good as his plan, he was there,
Somewhat nipped, to be sure, with the cold frosty air;
But Hecla was cordial: he at once spread the cloth,
And served him up, hot, some delightful snow-broth.
The meeting was happy; the greeting was warm;
And Ætna forgot soon the cold and the storm.
When the table was cleared, he took Hecla aside,
And in confidence told him he had come for a bride;
That he had an idea it would be very nice
In his warm southern home to have one made of ice:
In short, that if Hecla would give him a lift,
He would take the first Iceberg found floating adrift.

Old Hecla looked wise, and then he looked queer,
And he gazed at his guest with a comical leer.
Said he: “Mister Ætna, the idea may be pleasing
To a hot-head like you, but to me it is freezing.
You will find it cold work, and I rather guess
It won’t be so easy to make one say ‘Yes.’
These damsels, you know, are afloat far and wide,
And though always at sea, they hate to be tied.
Experience taught me, I’ll own to the truth;
I had just such a flame, myself, early in youth.
We met at a dance in the Arctic ball-room,
And we whirled through a waltz in the mighty Maëlstrom:
I fell deeply in love, and Cupid’s swift dart,
In the form of an icicle, cut to my heart:
I proposed on the spot; I made vows by the score,
And used very freely the phrase, ‘I adore;’
But ’t was all of no use; she plainly said ‘No!’
Was surprised at the offer: (they always say so:)
‘She liked me,’ she said, ‘very well as a friend,’
But there all my hopes and my wishes must end.
By this answer so cold I was badly frost-bitten,
And in kindness, at parting, she gave me a mitten.”

This story of Hecla’s made Ætna feel glum;
It chilled his young ardor, and set him back some:
But he would go ahead; he wasn’t the man
To turn short about in the midst of a plan;
So he told his kind host he was bound to propose
To the next passing Iceberg, if it thoroughly froze
The lava within him; and as to the “nay,”
He would risk getting that;—’t wasn’t often the way
That young ladies answered a positive “catch,”
Such as himself was: (the conceited young wretch!)

Hecla urged him no more; for he saw with regret
That on having an Iceberg his mind was firm set:
He fell in with his plan; and to best lend his aid,
The very next night a large party he made,
To which all the belles from the pole he invited.
As well as some others, that none might feel slighted.
For beaux they had glaciers and men of that class—
Ice glaciers, I mean; not glaziers of glass.

The party was splendid; the invited all came:
There were Bergs from the north, of all nations and name:
Some came from the pole; some from quite the north-west,
Where they say there’s a passage for which they’re in quest:
Some came from the east; and some, no wise inferior,
Came all the way down from the coast of Siberia:
Some glittered with jewels from the head to the heels,
And some, like our dandies, were loaded with seals.

Mount Ætna, of course, was presented to all:
Some names he forgot, some he could not recall;
But he got along well, take all things together,
And, ’t was noticed by all, was in very high feather.

Well! the party broke up, as all parties do,
And then was the strife who should go home with who.
Our hero, of course, succeeded quite well,
For he cut them all out, and went home with the belle.
She lived at the axis: ’t was quite a long walk;
But the longer the road, of course longer the talk.
She put on her things, and muffled up warm;
He carried her slippers and she took his arm;
They chatted awhile as they walked on together;
They talked of the moon and remarked of the weather.
A silence ensued: then Ætna began
To make desperate love like a desperate man:
He told her his love with a heart-felt out-pouring,
And, as all lovers do, he fell to adoring:
He told her he loved her when first they had met,
And his love was enduring, for he loved her well yet:
He loved her, he said, as he did his own life;
He offered, in short, to make her his wife.

Just as Hecla predicted, the beauty was cold;
She gave him the sack, and poor Ætna was “sold.”
She answered him “no,” and was really unkind,
For she seasoned the dose with a piece of her mind.
She told him she knew nothing of him, except
That he came from the south, and was quite an adept
At burning rich fields, and such youthful corruptions,
And she’d heard he was troubled with awful eruptions.

This last was a damper; it froze him clear through:
He was cut to the quick; but what could he do?
His eyes were glare ice; his tongue could not speak;
He tried, but could only just gibber and squeak:
For the rest of the walk he said nothing more,
But saw her in silence quite home to her door;
Then he turned on his heel: with a bound and a whistle, he
Struck a bee-line for the island of Sicily.

Springfield, Mass.

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 21, 2016 at 9:24 am

Gurney Halleck

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Gurney Haleck (from the Dunepedia)

I love survivals of forgotten poets in popular culture. This one (it’s two, actually) comes from Dune, which I was inspired to reread by the recent heat wave. Or rather, read for the first time: as a teenager, I found the book too tedious to finish.

One of the characters, Gurney Halleck, is a warrior and troubadour; he serves the House of Atreides. Though played by Patrick Stewart — Capt. Picard — in the David Lynch film, Frank Herbert’s description posits a far less handsome man:

Gurney Halleck strode alone at the point of the crowd, bag over one shoulder, the neck of his nine-string baliset clutched in the other hand. They were long-fingered hands with big thumbs, full of tiny movements that drew such delicate music from the baliset.

The Duke watched Halleck, admiring the ugly lump of a man, noting the glass-splinter eyes with their gleam of savage understanding. Here was a man who lived outside the faufreluches while obeying their every precept. What was it Paul had called him? “Gurney, the valorous.”

Halleck’s wispy blond hair trailed across barren spots on his head. His wide mouth was twisted into a pleasant sneer, and the scar of the inkvine whip slashed across his jawline seemed to move with a life of its own. His whole air was of casual shoulder-set capability.

The character’s name is a compound allusion, derived from the names of two poets with warrior associations: Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) and Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867). The associations are particularly fitting with the former, since the real Gurney, a Brit, was a soldier and musician. Halleck, an American, was a clerk and poet, but he wrote one of the more beloved martial poems of the nineteenth-century, “Marco Bozzaris,” a favorite even of Emily Dickinson. (Actually, I don’t know why I say even: Dickinson is a pretty good index of nineteenth-century taste.) The poem is set in the Greek War of Independence, fought against the Ottoman Empire. Bozzaris (also written Botsaris) was a Suliote warrior. Halleck’s poem describes the raid in which Bozzaris fell:

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Written by Ben Friedlander

July 25, 2010 at 12:31 am

Poems of Places 11

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From Poems of Places, vol. 1, England 1 (London: Macmillan and Co., 1877), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Laken]

To A Bird That Haunted the Waters of Laken in the Winter

O melancholy bird, a winter’s day,
Thou standest by the margin of the pool;
And, taught by God, dost thy whole being school
To patience, which all evil can allay:
God has appointed thee the fish thy prey;
And given thyself a lesson to the fool
Unthrifty, to submit to moral rule,
And his unthinking course by thee to weigh.
There need not schools nor the professor’s chair,
Though these be good, true wisdom to impart:
He who has not enough for these to spare
Of time or gold may yet amend his heart,
And teach his soul by brooks and rivers fair:
Nature is always wise in every part.

— Lord Thurlow

Written by Ben Friedlander

April 9, 2010 at 9:12 am

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

March!

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Since today, March 4th, is National Day of Action to Defend Education, I thought I’d post some lines in solidarity from one of Bayard Taylor’s Civil War poems. Dated March 1, 1862, and titled “March,” the poem’s first three stanzas are eminently suited to the present moment (you can read the whole poem here):

With rushing winds and gloomy skies
The dark and stubborn Winter dies.
Far-off, unseen, Spring faintly cries,
Bidding her earliest child arise:

March!

By streams still held in icy snare,
On southern hillsides, melting bare,
O’er fields that motley colors wear,
That summons fills the changeful air:

March!

What though conflicting seasons make
Thy days their field, they woo or shake
The sleeping lids of Life awake,
And hope is stronger for thy sake,

March!

Stop the privatization of knowledge! Save our schools!

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 4, 2010 at 11:35 am

Where’s That Back Pay!

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A little Christmas cheer for tough times, a Civil War poem by J. Ward Childs, of the 53rd Massachusetts Reg’t. Admittedly, the Christmas connection is very thin, but what the hay. Here’s the first stanza:

Boys, our back pay is a coming;
Nearly three months now is due;
And if Samuel don’t fork over,
We will put our Uncle through.
Yes, it’s coming: so is Christmas,
Which will get here first, I vow;
It is very hard to tell, boys,
But we’ll have it any how.

What I like best in the poem: the word “spondoolix,” an Americanism for money (derived from “greenbacks” according to Eric Partridge), which appears in the last stanza:

But, cheer up, boys, it’s coming,
Sure as rats it’s on the way;
Wont we have a time though, soldiers,
When we get hold of that back pay
The spondoolix must come down, boys,
That is all I’ve got to say;
For, that is what’s the matter, boys,
We must have that back pay.

For Christmas is coming, sure as rats. The spondoolix must come down, that is all I’ve got to say.

(The original broadside is reproduced below, thanks to America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets.)

Here’s the entry from Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English:

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 24, 2009 at 9:58 am