American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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William Cullen Bryant, Poems (1821)

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For a Library of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry
William Cullen Bryant, Poems (Cambridge: Hilliard and Metcalf, 1821). 44 pp.

Scarce less the cleft-born wild-flower seems to enjoy
Existence, than the winged plunderer
That sucks its sweets.

― “Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood”

The Bryant statue in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library.

The Bryant statue in Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library.

Bryant showed an early gift for poetry, “composing tolerably clever verses” by the age of nine and learning Greek while still a boy. His first book, The Embargo (1808), identified him as “a Youth of Thirteen” (his name did not appear until the second, enlarged edition of 1809), but it was only with “Thanatopsis” that his work really got going. Written in 1811, the poem first appeared in The North American Review in 1817; it was subsequently revised for its first book publication in Poems. Since he refused in later years to reprint “The Embargo,” “Thanatopsis” became the earliest work Bryant was willing to embrace; and despite his later prolificness (he lived until 1878), “Thanatopsis” was also the high point. Indeed, it remains the high point of Bryant’s era, roughly the quarter century between the War of 1812 and Longfellow’s rise to prominence at the end of the 1830s. Other poets more interesting to me were active in the same years ― Fitz-Greene Halleck, Edgar Allan Poe ― but “Thanatopsis” is clearly the era’s epitaph, a forecasting of the transcendentalism that would wash its memory away. This is ironic, perhaps, given the poem’s message: that one should cheerfully accept the erasure of one’s epitaph. But then, what better poem to remember a largely forgotten era in American verse? Articulating in advance the values of the rural cemetery movement, “Thanatopsis” (Greek for “vision of death”) sought meaning in nature, not monuments: Read the rest of this entry »

Notes for a Library of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry (part two)

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(See part one for context.)

A list! Or rather several lists ― actually just two, one short, the other long ― of essential books of nineteenth-century American poetry, with “essential” remaining blissfully unexplained, at least for now, so as to permit the inclusion of just about anything that interests me. But then, isn’t interest essential when it comes to poetry?

The short list will be twenty-five items long, with at least one item from each decade and no author represented more than once. I have it in mind, however, to shrink this list to ten and use it as the basis for a syllabus. Going in the other direction, the long list will include fifty items, at least two from each decade and multiple titles from individual authors permitted (temptation may force me to set a cap). I have a feeling, however, that fifty will not be enough to accommodate the really weird, really obscure stuff, and why bother with a long list if it sticks to what is already known? (To give some perspective: the Library of America anthology covering this period has nearly 150 poets.) So I’m thinking a list of one hundred titles will also be needed.

Call it a thought experiment, or geek party game. Either way, the rules will be simple:

  • No collected or selected works
  • Every book must have an original publication date in the nineteenth century (1801-1900)
  • Every decade must be represented (at least one book from each on the short list; at least two on the long list; the list of ten is exempted)
  • Multiple books from a single author on the long list only

Commentary and/or reasoning about the choice optional.

Since my aim here is to take the measure of the century’s poetic cultures, some effort at breadth is necessary, but I am not sure how to codify that into a rule. Anyhow, inconsistency is inevitable. Some poets will appear in their maturity, others in their youth, and this will be a result of publication histories as much as any balance of interest in their work. My rules will also force me to make certain decisions: push me to choose a book from one decade instead of another, or lead me to diminish one poet’s importance and raise up another’s. I can live with that.

I am well aware that this list will miss many important works. First of all such posthumous publications as Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s “The Cricket,” which Witter Bynner discovered in manuscript and published in 1950 through the Cummington Press (which was bringing out work by William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens at the same time). There are, in addition, significant poems first published in book form in collected editions — my favorite poem by Fitz-Greene Halleck, the second part of “Connecticut,” went directly from its serial publication in The Knickerbocker to Halleck’s Poetical Works of 1852. And serial publications will also be missed. (See Paula Bernat Bennett’s Nineteenth-Century American Women Poets: An Anthology for a fine survey of what the journals and newspapers still hold in their archive.)

I will not apologize for my blind spots. I have yet to connect with the poems of Oliver Wendell Holmes (I do love his prose) and I am not yet especially enamored or well-acquainted with the century’s beginning or end.

I have my first book in mind and hope to write up a brief note on it in the coming days.

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 30, 2009 at 9:12 am