American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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Poems of Places 14

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From Poems of Places, vol. 21, Asia: Syria (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1878), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Palmyra (Tadmor)]


“© UNESCO, Syria: Destruction of Palmyra’s historical monuments (March 2014)” (link)


A chain of associations led me from Longfellow to Longinus, by way of Nicholas Michell and Charles Morris. It began with the news from Syria. Or rather, it began with a drive past Palmyra, Maine, which brought the news from Syria back into mind. Getting home, I turned to Longfellow’s anthology, wondering if there were any poems for the fallen city. In fact, there were three: a prize-winning undergraduate poem from the 1820s by John Henry Bright; “Tadmor of the Wilderness” by Connecticut poet Jesse Erskine Dow; and a section from Ruins of Many Lands by Nicholas Michell. All three were written in Longfellow’s own lifetime, two by Brits, one by an American, and all are forgotten today. I dare say they were already forgotten in Longfellow’s day. Finding poems for all the cities of Syria was no easy task— and Arabic poems are notably absent. Obscurities were necessary to fill out the pages.

The extracts from Michell take more space than the other two choices combined, but they caught my eye for the phrase “Murdered Longinus,” which occurs in this passage:

The street of graves! where kings laid down their pride,
And many a restless phantom yet may glide:
Murdered Longinus here may wander still,
And she whose dust was laid by Tibur’s hill,
Far-famed Zenobia, for her kingdom wail,
Sweeping with viewless form the desert gale.

I’ll admit, I did not know the story of Longinus, but a little Googling brought me to Charles Morris’s telling of it in Historical Tales: The Romance of Reality (1896), a book that enjoyed wide circulation and so may have appeared in many a house alongside Longfellow’s anthology. The gist of the story is this: born, apparently, in Syria, Longinus was secretary and counselor to Queen Zenobia, whose realm, encompassing Egypt, “extended from the Euphrates over much of Asia Minor and to the borders of Arabia.” Her seat of power was Palmyra. A decisive victory over Rome maintained her independence, at least while Claudius was emperor. With Aurelian’s succession, hostilities were renewed. Rome advanced on Palmyra, subjugating the city after several hard-fought battles. Zenobia, for her part, misjudged the chances of victory, which led her to reject Rome’s first terms of surrender. This in turn unleashed Rome’s fury, and the city succumbed:

The soldiers, with angry clamor, demanded [Zenobia’s] immediate execution, and the unhappy queen, losing for the first time the courage which had so long sustained her, gave way to terror, and declared that her resistance was not due to herself, but had arisen from the counsels of Longinus and her other advisers. It was the one base act in the woman’s life. She had purchased a brief period of existence at the expense of honor and fame. Aurelian, a fierce soldier, to whom the learning of Longinus made no appeal, at once ordered his execution. The scholar died like a philosopher. He uttered no complaint. He pitied, but did not blame, his mistress. He comforted his afflicted friends. With the calm fortitude of Socrates he followed the executioner, and died like one for whom death had no terrors. The ignorant emperor, in seizing the treasures of Palmyra, did not know that he had lost its choicest treasure in setting free the soul of Longinus the scholar.

But this was not the end.

What followed may be more briefly told. Marching back with his spoils from Palmyra, Aurelian had already reached Europe when word came to him that the Palmyrians whom he had spared had risen in revolt and massacred his garrison. Instantly turning, he marched back, his soul filled with thirst for revenge. Reaching Palmyra with great celerity, his wrath fell with murderous fury on that devoted city. Not only armed rebels, but women and children, were massacred, and the city was almost levelled with the earth. The greatness of Palmyra was at an end. It never recovered from this dreadful blow.

I put the above together over a week ago and neglected to post it. In the meantime, the flow of news from Palmyra has slowed considerably. A few days ago the Independent (UK) published survivor stories. The occupation has been bloody but so far the city’s archeological remains are more or less intact.

A few more lines of Longfellow’s excerpt from Ruins of Many Lands:

 Deserted Tadmor! queen of Syria’s wild!
Well may’st thou fill with rapture Fancy’s child;
Yet not by day  too garish, harsh, and rude
The eye should scan thy fairy solitude;
But when the still moon pours her hallowing beam,
And crumbling shrine and palace whitely gleam,
Then pause beneath the lofty arch, and there
Survey the mouldings rich and sculptures fair;
See how like spectral giants columns stand,
And cast long shadows o’er the yellow sand;
How the soft light on marble tracery plays,
And busts look life-like through that silvery haze!


Written by Ben Friedlander

June 7, 2015 at 1:00 pm

Poems of Places 13

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From Poems of Places, vol. 4, England and Wales (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1876), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Plynlimmon, Wales]

Though not Welsh himself, Michael Drayton (1563–1631) has eleven poems out of the 74 that Longfellow chose for the Wales portion of his anthology, more than any other poet, all of these extracted from Poly-Olbion, a poetic geography of England and Wales. Written in Alexandrian couplets, Poly-Olbion is divided into thirty “Songs,” each “illustrated,” as the work puts it, by copious notes from John Selden (Pope preferred these notes to the poetry). It takes up three volumes in Drayton’s collected works (full text here: vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3).

completeworksofm01dray_0033Longfellow does not identify these selections as extracts, but it speaks well to his editorial abilities that the fact is not immediately obvious. The fragments work as poems in their own right, at least in the context of Longfellow’s anthology. For those who are curious, the eleven are listed below, with links for comparison’s sake  to anthology and original source:

Anglesea (Mona) (Poly-Olbion, The Ninth Song)

Caerleon-upon-Usk (Poly-Olbion, The Fourth Song)

The River Clwyd (Poly-Olbion, The Tenth Song)

The River Conway (Poly-Olbion, The Tenth Song)

Ewias (Poly-Olbion, The Fourth Song)

Milford Haven (Poly-Olbion, The Fifth Song)

Plynlimmon (Poly-Olbion, The Sixth Song)

Rivers of Wales (Poly-Olbion, The Ninth Song)

St. David’s (Poly-Olbion, The Fifth Song)

Teg-Engle (Poly-Olbion, The Tenth Song)

The River Tivy (Poly-Olbion, The Sixth Song)

In choosing one for presentation, I was drawn to the verses for Plynlimon (spelled “Plynillimon” by Drayton), for the recollection it yields of Melville’s Pierre. One of that novel’s more celebrated portions is a lecture delivered by “Plotinus Plinlimmon.” Melville’s allusion to the mountain in Wales is hard to ignore given the overall significance of stone in his novel (most obviously in the title and dedication, but not there alone). I have a faint suspicion that he in fact had Drayton’s Plynlimon in mind: the title of the lecture is “Chronometricals and Horologicals“; Poly-Olbion is subtitled “A Chorographicall Description.”

completeworksofm01dray_0037Longfellow’s extract runs to seventeen lines. It begins with the second half of a couplet, but the lack of rhyme for that line is not so noticeable given the off-rhymes that follow. The full rhyme at the end is more important, since it gives a satisfying sense of closure. The fifth line is the subject of one of Selden’s illustrations.

PLYNILLIMON’S high praise no longer, Muse, defer.
What once the Druids told, how great those floods should be
That here (most mighty hill) derive themselves from thee.
The bards with fury rapt, the British youth among,
Unto the charming harp thy future honor song
In brave and lofty strains; that in excess of joy,
The beldam and the girl, the grandsire and the boy,
With shouts and yearning cries, the troubled air did load
(As when with crowned cups unto the Elian god
Those priests his orgies held; or when the old world saw
Full Phoebe’s face eclipsed, and thinking her to daw.
Whom they supposed fallen in some inchanted swound,
Of beaten tinkling brass still plied her with the sound),
That all the Cambrian hills, which high’st their heads do bear
With most obsequious shows of low subjected fear,
Should to thy greatness stoop: and all the brooks that be
Do homage to those floods that issued out of thee.


Written by Ben Friedlander

March 3, 2014 at 8:08 pm

Poems of Places 12

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From Poems of Places, vol. 27, America: Middle States (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Fire Island, N.Y.]

Alfred Leslie, The Telephone Call, 1970-71,
part of a cycle originally called The Killing
of Frank O’Hara
(image via Isola di Rifiuti;
see also Leslie’s website)

I am tempted to call Fire Island the most haunted spot in American literature: two notable writers met their end there, one at sea, the other on land — and these were gruesome deaths as well. In 1850, Margaret Fuller drowned just offshore. Her body was never recovered, but others from the same ship — including that of her son, Nino — washed onto the beach where Frank O’Hara would be struck by a jeep in 1966.

O’Hara died young — he was 40 years old — and before the great majority of his writing had seen print. This surely added to the sense of emergency that attended his loss. According to O’Hara’s biographer, Brad Gooch, three of the poet’s friends — Kenneth Koch, Frank Lima, Larry Rivers — took possession of the manuscripts in fear that they would be destroyed or disappear.

Fuller, also 40, had published more extensively than O’Hara (three books and a great many uncollected essays), but in her case an important manuscript did disappear: her history of the Italian revolution, in which she participated as a director of one of Rome’s hospitals during the street fighting. The copy of her book that Fuller carried across the ocean sank, and no other copy ever came to light, despite the assiduous searching of her friends. From letters, and from Fuller’s dispatches for the New-York Tribune (the same newspaper for which Marx would later write), we have a good sense of what she witnessed. But what she learned after, and what she withheld, and what she made of it all in hindsight, these are gone for good.

The gruesome facts of O’Hara’s death were not set aside or forgotten in the grief over his loss. His death came in a hospital after 40 hours of intense pain, and O’Hara’s friends were witness to that suffering. Larry Rivers was especially graphic in his eulogy, evoking O’Hara’s mangled body for the assembled mourners: Read the rest of this entry »

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:


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

Poems of Places 10

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From Poems of Places, vol. 14, Spain 1 (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1877), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


italicaFabius, if tears prevent thee not, survey
The long dismantled streets, so thronged of old,
The broken marbles, arches in decay,
Proud statues, toppled from their place and rolled
In dust, when Nemesis, the avenger, came,
And buried, in forgetfulness profound,
The owners and their fame.
Thus Troy, I deem, must be,
With many a mouldering mound;
And thou, whose name alone remains to thee,
Rome, of old gods and kings the native ground;
And thou, sage Athens, built by Pallas, whom
Just laws redeemed not from the appointed doom.
The envy of earth’s cities once wert thou, —
A weary solitude and ashes now.
For fate and death respect ye not: they strike
The mighty city and the wise alike. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 18, 2009 at 8:58 am

Poems of Places 9

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From Poems of Places, vol. 22, Asia 2 (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1878), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Afghanistan: Cabul (Cabool)]

Excerpted from Ruins of Many Lands: A Descriptive Poem (1850), by the Cornish poet Nicholas Michell. Longfellow cuts the awkward opening of the Cabul section, which reads like this:

A moment yet we linger ’mid the bowers
Of Northern Ind — a land of fruits and flowers,
Where the proud Affghan treads a blessed soil,
That yields all Nature asks with little toil,
A land where God his heavenliest smile hath thrown
On all beneath — man, man the blot alone.

That last line casts an ominous shadow on the poem — a shadow of original sin, I thought, reading the description of earthly paradise that followed. Alas, no; it’s a thicker, uglier shadow. But here’s the Longfellow excerpt: Read the rest of this entry »

Poems of Places 8

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From Poems of Places, vol. 9, France 1 (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1880), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


In honor of the new school year, “The School-Boy King” by Walter Thornbury, a poem that also appears in A Metrical History of the Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte, edited by William J. Hillis (1896). There the poem is given the following introduction:

Of Napoleon’s early childhood little is positively known. Accepting the corroborated record, as it stands, it would appear that he was a child with a disposition and a manner peculiarly his own. Not a loving or a companionable boy, but rather of a sullen, retiring nature; melancholy and irritable in his temperament and impatient of restraint. While his companions were enjoying themselves at play, natural to their age, he would wander off by himself and spend hours, with no other company than his own thoughts. There is still to be seen in Corsica the isolated rock, known as “Napoleon’s Grotto.” Tradition tells us that this was the favourite resort of the child, destined to become the conqueror of the world. He, himself, has said: “In my infancy I was extremely headstrong; nothing ever awed me; nothing disconcerted me. I was quarrelsome, mischievous; I was afraid of nobody; I beat one; I scratched another; I made myself formidable to the whole family.”

At the age of ten Napoleon entered the Military School at Brienne, near Paris, where he remained upwards of five years. His career while at that school is very aptly and concisely told in the following verses.

Thornbury’s poem is written from the teacher’s point of view, which folds in a very stupid prejudice against Corsica. A more hagiographic assessment of the brilliant, raging boy opens Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), viewable at Dailymotion (here). A beautiful stretch of film, with music by Arthur Honegger. In the film, the teacher’s anti-Corsican prejudice makes us sympathize with Napoleon. Here are some screen captures of the classroom sequence: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

September 2, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Poems of Places 7

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From Poems of Places, vol. 17, Germany 1 (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1877), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


I’ve spent the past month packing up my father’s library, in preparation for his move to Maine. He and his late wife were historians, both doing their principal work on the holocaust, and the vast majority of the books are on that and related topics. Going through them, I’ve paid particular attention to items that touch on family history: my father is a survivor, born in Berlin, then deported to Łódź with his family, and after that to Auschwitz and other camps. There are a great many books that touch on those places, and I find them evocative even when they don’t pertain precisely to my father’s experience — as in the book shown below, which does not appear to include the Jewish school my father attended in the 1930s.

berlinIn the midst of all this packing and browsing, it occurred to me to look up the family sites in Poems of Places, just to see if anything interesting was there. I’m a big believer in the value of bibliomancy: ever since learning about the medieval practice of using Virgil’s Aeneid as an oracle, I’ve paid attention to randomly chosen text; fortuitous juxtapositions are even better. It’s not that I believe in such oracles, only in the value of exploring their hermeneutic possibilities. I have greater respect for chance than divination; I trust in fortune, not fortunetelling.

juvens1All that said, very few of the places I looked up were represented. There are some evocative poems about Poland in the Russia volume, but none about Łódź or Oświęcim. Nor are there poems in the Germany volumes about the cities of Braunschweig, where my father was briefly a prisoner near the end of the war, or Brandenburg, where the family went to stay in the days after Kristallnacht. I did find a few interesting resonances with other cities, most notably the text below, Longfellow’s sole entry for Berlin.

I have to wonder what other choices Longfellow had, since the poem has almost nothing to do with Berlin, or even with Germany. It concerns a Greek statue from 300 BC commonly known as “The Praying Boy.” Of course, since the Nazis considered Jews a foreign element, I find it fitting that Longfellow’s choice for Berlin should concern an outsider, indeed a refugee, if only a refugee from antiquity. And if this interpretation seems forced, note that the poem itself presents the boy in just this way: as a survivor miraculously pulled from the mass grave of history.

A few minutes with Google unearths the poem’s prior publication in The Monthly Religious Magazine (1862), as well as a later publication in Every Other Sunday (1900), the latter as part of an article on the statue that inspired the poem. Given these pious contexts, it is not surprising that the author, Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham, was a minister. A Unitarian minister, part of the broader circle of New England intellectuals that included the Transcendentalists, with whom Frothingham was on friendly terms.

According to Frothingham’s headnote, “The Praying Boy” was dredged from the Tiber at the end of the seventeenth century, an origin central to the poem’s story, though it doesn’t seem to agree with what the curators in Berlin currently say about the statue. Indeed, according to some commentators, the statue is not even a depiction of prayer. They say the boy’s arms are raised because he is carrying a lost object. But whatever the statue’s original meaning, its altered meaning — the very fact that its meaning has altered — only adds to the sense that the bronze is alive, that it’s subject like any actual person to the vicissitudes of time. For this reason, the story of the boy’s recovery from the Tiber is as meaningful as his pose, whether that story is true or merely a myth.

If you look closely at the cover of Jüdische Schulen in Berlin, you’ll see that there’s a tall boy in the center of the crowd with his arms raised in a manner that rhymes with that of the statue. The meaning of the poses is of course different, but the natural gesture of upraised arms makes an evocative parallel, suggesting welcome and fellowship in one case, solitary thanks in the other:
Read the rest of this entry »

Poems of Places 5

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From Poems of Places, vol. 31, Oceanica: Australasia, Polynesia, and Miscellaneous Seas and Islands (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


Under the heading “Sandwich Islands,” Longfellow includes two poems in translation. Googling the authors’ names for some biographical information, I jumped to the conclusion that Longfellow had made a simple error of transposition, giving the title “Hawaiian National Anthem” to a lyric by Lilia K. Dominis instead of the actual anthem, by King Kalakaua, which is also included in the volume, under the title “Kamehameha Hymn” (both are translated by H. L. Sheldon).

Wikipedia told me that King Kalakaua “wrote Hawaii Pono’i, which is the state song of Hawaii today,” and further Googling brought me to recordings of “Hawaii Pono’i” identified as Hawaii’s national anthem. A quick comparison of translations showed that “Hawaii Pono’i”  was indeed the same poem as “Kamehameha Hymn.”

Rereading the two poems with this information in mind, it seemed silly that I had not noticed earlier how martial Longfellow’s “Hymn” sounds (it begins, “Hawaii! sea-girt land! / Strong for thy monarch stand”), or the hymn-like quality of his “Anthem” (“Eternal Father! mighty God! / Behold us, from thy blest abode”). A howler, right? Read the rest of this entry »

Poems of Places 4

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From Poems of Places, vol. 8, Scotland 3: Scotland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1880), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


In this instance I am going to give the entire poem (anyway, the entire poem as presented by Longfellow), as the full text is not available online; also because the poem is pretty delightful. A trek through the southern provinces of Sweden, with special attention paid to the wildness of the people and their way of life.  Terrifyingly rich mutton-steaks, biscuits only a hammer could break; men with frost-bit faces, dressed in “beast-skins”; houses made from upright trees, with rooms where fifty people all sleep together on beds of straw. Who needs Winnetou when there are Gothlanders around? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 29, 2009 at 9:42 pm