Archive for the ‘forgotten poets’ Category
“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.
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
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.
James Russell Lowell is for me the epitome of a perfectly good program uninstalled from most computers because the software is no longer supported. Which is to say: there are no more updates or fixes coming. And compatibility with other programs? Forget about it.
Yet some people — very few, it is true — still read him. Why? Here are some thoughts borrowed from the software world:
- Many people read forgotten poets simply because they didn’t keep current or don’t read poetry very often.
- Some actively choose to read forgotten poets. What are they thinking?
- Contemporary writing is too difficult or too annoying. This is a common reason for sticking with Longfellow and Whittier.
- Setting the old aside might risk values you need. Conceptual Writing is a good example. Its demands for attention and indifference to response caused accessibility problems for a number of users.
- There’s a huge amount of nervousness around keeping up to date. It’s also difficult and time-consuming to find new poets. Why risk the search when the old standbys are just fine?
- You’re busy and have better things to do. To be honest, this is often why I don’t read new poetry. I have my own work to do and a life to live. I just don’t have time to for non-essential reading.
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.” 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. 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.” 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. …”
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.” 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.
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. 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)
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)
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.
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:
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 )
Back in June, in a post called “The Best of the Rest,” I asked about the nineteenth century’s third-best poet (Whitman and Dickinson coming first, of course) and offered a list of candidates. I also copied out the names of the poets covered by The Norton Anthology of American Literature (the teaching anthology I sometimes use), taking up the Heath more briefly in a footnote. I stand by my list — for now, anyway — but it’s frustrating how much got left out.
Which is no surprise: I knew at the time my approach would marginalize a fair amount of work I do admire. Worse still: I knew at the time my list was premature. If my goal was to ignite interest in unread poets — and it was — a more flammable material would have made for a better start: a pile of logs with a single match is not the best way to get a fire started; logs are a good way to keep it going, but brush and twigs make for better tinder; even branches make for better tinder, if they’re not too green.
It seems, then, that a method is needed for building a fire that can eat through logs.
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.
Since 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.
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 »