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:

Read the rest of this entry »

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

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

A Thanksgiving

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Celia Thaxter's Cottage, Appledore, Isles of Shoals, N.H. (image courtesy NYPL Digital Gallery)

Celia Thaxter (1835-1894) is best known today for her prose (An Island Garden and Among the Isles of Shoals, two beautiful works of observation and description, set off the coast of New Hampshire), and for her friendships with other writers, most notably Sarah Orne Jewett. She was also a very fine poet, able to convey in verse the same attention to detail one finds in her prose. Her best poems are more or less free of the effusion and gentility and deliberate anachronism that marked so much verse of the Gilded Age, which is why I’m surprised her reputation hasn’t rebounded. Perhaps it will in the coming years, especially with the growing interest (pardon the pun) in ecopoetics.

Here, in any case, for Thanksgiving Day, is an example of her work. The text comes from The Poems of Celia Thaxter (Houghton Mifflin, 1896); the poem was first published in Atlantic Monthly, November 1871:

A Thanksgiving

High on the ledge the wind blows the bayberry bright,
Turning the leaves till they shudder and shine in the light;
Yellow St. John’s-wort and yarrow are nodding their heads,
Iris and wild-rose are glowing in purples and reds.

Swift flies the schooner careering beyond o’er the blue;
Faint shows the furrow she leaves as she cleaves lightly through ;
Gay gleams the fluttering flag at her delicate mast;
Full swell the sails with the wind that is following fast.

Quail and sandpiper and swallow and sparrow are here:
Sweet sound their manifold notes, high and low, far and near;
Chorus of musical waters, the rush of the breeze,
Steady and strong from the south, — what glad voices are these!

O cup of the wild-rose, curved close to hold odorous dew,
What thought do you hide in your heart? I would that I knew!
O beautiful Iris, unfurling your purple and gold,
What victory fling you abroad in the flags you unfold?

Sweet may your thought be, red rose, but still sweeter is mine,
Close in my heart hidden, clear as your dewdrop divine.
Flutter your gonfalons, Iris, the paean I sing
Is for victory better than joy or than beauty can bring.

Into thy calm eyes, O Nature, I look and rejoice;
Prayerful, I add my one note to the Infinite voice:
As shining and singing and sparkling glides on the glad day,
And eastward the swift-rolling planet wheels into the gray.

Though offered as a poem for the holiday (hence the November publication in Atlantic Monthly), the poem is surely set sometime before Thanksgiving Day. But how long before remains an open question. To answer it, I thought I’d look into Thaxter’s prose. In Among the Isles of Shoals, she describes the late fall on her island as a time of unlikely beauty.

Sometimes it is as if the order of nature were set aside in this spot; for you find the eyebright and pimpernel and white violets growing side by side until the frost comes in November; often October passes with no sign of frost, and the autumn lingers later than elsewhere. I have even seen the iris and wild-rose and golden-rod and aster in blossom together, as if , not having the example of the world before their eyes, they followed their own sweet will, and bloomed when they took the fancy.

And later she writes:

If summer is a laggard in her coming, she makes up for it by the loveliness of her lingering into autumn; for when the pride of trees and flowers is despoiled by frost on shore, the little gardens here are glowing at their brightest, and day after day of mellow splendor drops like a benediction from the hand of God. … Through October and into November the fair, mild weather lasts. At the first breath of October, the hillside at Appledore fires up with the living crimson of the huckleberry-bushes, as if a blazing torch had been applied to it; the slanting light at sunrise and sunset makes a wonderful glory across it. … In December the colors seem to fade out of the world, and utter ungraciousness prevails. … Some sullen day in December the snow begins to fall, and the last touch of desolation is laid upon the scene; there is nothing any more but white snow and dark water, hemmed in by a murky horizon.

Thanksgiving Day falls somewhere in a zone she neglects to describe: after the “fair, mild weather” of late October, early November; before the “sullen day” of first snow in December.

Reading these descriptions, one might almost imagine a miraculously blooming Thanksgiving Day. But the presence of birds in the poem poses a more serious problem. Or so I assume. According to Thaxter, birds make their last appearances on her island as part of their southern migration; they don’t linger. Here is a scene from An Island Garden set in late September:

The whole garden is a mass of bloom and fragance, still haunted by birds, bees, butterflies, and dragonflies; the humming-birds are gone, I know not whither, not to return this year. The withering vines are alive with many little creepers and warblers and flycatchers; indeed, the island is full of distinguished bird-strangers on their way south. Scores of golden woodpeckers, or flickers, or yellow-hammers (they have dozens of striking names) are here, and just now two great ospreys perch on the vane above the highest ridge-pole, and soar and perch again, uttering strange, harsh cries. This morning a large flock of wild geese flew over toward the south, so low we could see the colors and the markings of their plumage. … The clumps of wild Roses glow with their red haws in the full light; the Elder bushes are laden with clusters of purple berries; Goldenrod and wild Asters bloom, and a touch of fire begins to light up the Huckleberry bushes, “Autumn laying here and there a fiery finger on the leaves.” The gray rocks show so fair in the changing lights, and all the dear island with its sights and sounds is set in the pale light summer-blue of a smiling sea as if it were June, with hardly a wave to break its happy calm.

What I don’t know is if the quail and sandpiper and swallow and sparrow are also migratory birds. And if they are, when they tend to leave.

As I type this, it’s an unnaturally warm November in Maine. I’m looking out my window at lush, green grass, but also at bare branches and shriveled flowers. Thaxter’s New Hampshire is a good three hours drive from here. Are the flowers any less shriveled there? And does it matter? Whatever day it was that Thaxter was describing, it ended with the planet wheeling into gray. It’s certainly a gray day in Maine, with December wheeling into view…

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 26, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Songs of the Diaspora (part two)

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Back in August I was definitely fooling myself, thinking I could write about Yiddish poetry while trying to pack an apartment — and without sustained access to a library. Now I am probably fooling myself again, thinking I can pick up where I left off . It’s tempting, in fact, to say, “the hell with it”; “let it all hang.” This blog was meant to be a record of distraction. When distraction becomes obligation, it’s time to play hooky, right? Hooky from hooky, as it were … or maybe not, since that would mean going back to school.

Anyway, for good reason or bad — or just because — I’ve gone ahead with part two, half a conclusion to my reading of  Alice Stone Blackwell’s Songs of Russia (1906), focusing now on the first of the two Yiddish poets.

Part one is here. Part three to follow.

representing-190Since abandoning these notes in August, I’ve acquired Marc Miller’s Representing the Immigrant Experience (2007), a study of Morris Rosenfeld (I’m still looking for good source material on David Edelstadt). Miller’s book doesn’t mention Blackstone’s anthology, so I don’t feel entirely superseded … but I do feel superseded a little. My one consolation: Miller answers a question dogging me while I wrote part one. “Did Rosenfeld write either of his two poems in Russia?” The answer, I now know, is nyet. His earliest poems date from after his arrival in the U.S. (heretofore, the best I’d been able to ascertain was that his first publications came after his arrival, not quite the same thing).

Rosenfeld was already in his twenties when he left the Russian empire for good, so it’s not surprising that both of his poems, though written in the U.S., retain a Russian perspective, which certainly invites a reader to see them as Old World creations (and nothing in Blackwell’s anthology suggests otherwise). The first, “The Jewish Soldier,” recalls the 1877 Siege of Plevna; the second, “On Ocean’s Bosom,” concerns the flight of Jews across the Atlantic … but with a twist. This twist — reverse emigration — is not revealed until the 20th and 21st stanzas.

The poem divides roughly into three sections. The first (stanzas 1-9) gives the setup: a ship at sea, in terrible danger from storm (1-4); awful noise from the passengers (5-6); inexplicable calm from two men in steerage (7-9). Next comes the speaker’s questioning of the two men (stanzas 10-14). Finally, after a pause in which the setting is again described (stanza 15), the men explain themselves tearfully (16-24): they are Jews, and though they have nothing to look forward to in Russia, save pogroms, they are leaving America; not of their own free will, as with the speaker, but from poverty.

Morris Rosenfeld (from the first volume of his collected works, 1908)There is, perhaps, an autobiographical element in this encounter: Rosenfeld came to America for six months in 1882, returning briefly to Russia before the draft forced him to flee for good. When he made his own reverse voyage, it may well be that he met men like those in the poem. Does it make a difference, then, that he only wrote the poem after reversing his reversal? Only if we take his speaker’s voluntary return to Russia as a sincere preference for the Old World on the part of the poet. A reading of that sort (especially in the context of Songs of Russia ) might well admit an inference of Russian patriotism — an inference turned ironic when we learn more about the poet.

Ironies notwithstanding, the poem is indeed a song of Russia, also of America. And also, emphatically, of the diaspora: a protest against dispersal, international in its address. A reader’s appreciation of all this requires, however, a little context. Blackwell’s sophisticated readers no doubt brought that context to their reading. But as the book and its historical moment receded into memory (and then out of memory, into the archive), this preparation for understanding became less likely. I take my own rough understanding as typical: I get the general idea, but the fine points escape me. I did not know, for example, that the two Jews are not returning to Russia (as I at first presumed) because they find poverty more threatening than the pogroms. Their departure is involuntary for a more concrete reason. As explained by Abraham J. Karp, “The two Jews were turned back by the March 3, 1891, immigration law which barred entry to ‘paupers or persons likely to become a public charge.’” The poem, then, has complexities, but they’re frangible. Our care for them is a direct function of how much we know. Read the rest of this entry »