American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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James Russell Lowell in 1843, etched by W. H. W. Bicknell, from the painting by William Page. From Horace Elisha Scudder, James Russell Lowell: A Biography, vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1901).

The songs of a nation are like wild flowers pressed, as it were, by chance between the blood-stained pages of history.

So wrote James Russell Lowell at the start of his essay “Song-Writing,” published in The Pioneer, no. 2 (Feb. 1843), and then again in Voices of the True-Hearted (Philadelphia: Merrihew & Thompson, 1846), and then again, many years later, as part of the expanded, unauthorized edition of Conversations on Some of the Old Poets (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1893).

Lowell’s perspective is historical, with all of his quoted examples drawn from England’s past: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, Jonson, William Browne, Davenant, Herrick, William Habington, Carew, Lovelace, Cowley, Milton. The nearest he gets to his own time is Burns, mentioned in the opening remarks. “After beginning this article,” he writes, “we soon found that the limits of a single number were far too narrow to bring down our specimens to the neighborhood of the present day.” Even so, he declares, “Many of the modern songs are the best that have been written,” and he ends with a promise to “resume the subject at some future day.

Still, I wondered, reading Lowell’s opening sentence, what American songs he might have had in his head, that seemed to him like wild flowers. It is easy enough to imagine what he meant by blood-stained pages. Lowell was an abolitionist and made no disguise of his feelings about slavery even in his literary criticism. There are remarks on slavery all through the original edition of the Conversations (Cambridge, MA: John Owen, 1845), and Lowell was duly criticized for those by some reviewers. But what was his imagination of American song?

There are a few clues in the essay. Before getting to his extracts, Lowell offers some general comments about the nature of song, by which he means the nature of a certain kind of poetry. By and large, he is focused on “the good song” and “true song,” on song as ideal and height of achievement.

Full of grandeur, … and yet fuller of awful responsibility, is the calling of the song-writer. It is no wild fancy to deem that he may shape the destiny of coming ages.

Yet Lowell allows

that the sight of the rudest and simplest verses in the corner of a village newspaper oftener bring tears of delight into our eyes than awaken a sense of the ludicrous.

Instantly, Lowell conjures a “rustic” New England couple, Reuben and Dorcas. Their love rouses a new appreciation for beauty, he becoming “as truly a poet as Burns,” she alive to the effusion, able to feel “as keenly as ever Sappho did.” The direction of Lowell’s thought here seems to be leading to that corner of the village newspaper, to Reuben’s rude, Burns-like songs. Just here, however, Lowell goes off on a tangent. Politics creeps in, for it is not simply beauty to which his couple are roused. “Love,” he writes, “is the truest radicalism, lifting all to the same, clear-aired level of humble, thankful humanity.” Turning satirical, he says of her:

Dorcas begins to think that her childish dream has come true, and that she is really an enchanted princess, and her milk-pans are forthwith changed to a service of gold plate, with the family arms engraved on the bottom of each, the device being a great heart, and the legend, God gives, man only takes away.

And of him:

Reuben has grown so tender-hearted that he thought there might be some good even in “Transcendentalism,” a terrible dragon of straw, against which he had seen a lecturer at the village lyceum valorously enact the St. George, — nay, he goes so far as to think that the slave women (black though they be, and therefore not deserving so much happiness) cannot be quite so well off as his sister in the factory, and would sympathize with them if the constitution did not enjoin all good citizens not to do so.

The tangent ends here, but Lowell does not return to the idea of rustic song:

But we are wandering — farewell Reuben and Dorcas! remember that you can only fulfil your vow of being true to each other by being true to all.

And from there he turns to the “unspeakably precious” songs of “our great poets,” precious because they preserve the feelings of a Reuben or Dorcas (“those irrepressible utterances of homely fireside humanity”) in a context literature otherwise inhospitable to such expression. This is why Lowell’s extracts include so many songs from plays: their appearance in Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, Jonson shows them as indeed moments of exception, bright, momentary pleasures in the midst of grander emotion.

The faint records of flitting impulses, we light upon them sometimes imbedded round the bases of the basaltic columns of the epic or the drama, like heedless insects or tender ferns which had fallen in while those gigantic crystals were slowly shaping themselves in the molten entrails of the soul all aglow with the hidden fires of inspiration, or like the tracks of birds from far-off climes, which had lighted upon the ductile mass ere it had hardened into eternal rock. They make the lives of the masters of the lyre encouragements and helps to us, by teaching us humbly to appreciate and sympathize with, as men, those whom we should else almost have worshiped as beings of a higher order.

Had America yet raised its “basaltic columns of the epic or the drama”? Were there “heedless insects” or “tender ferns” of American song? No, to judge from Lowell’s wholly English examples. But what of the rustic song? the newspaper verse? Coaxing a tear when it does not provoke laughter, such verse cut with scissors from the news, tucked between blood-stained pages is the real subject of Lowell’s essay, not quite gotten to, put off till another time.


Written by Ben Friedlander

March 22, 2016 at 11:12 am

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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

Variation on a Historical Theme

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I’ve been trying to get a fix on antebellum popular song, something that’s hard to do when you can’t read music. Something that’s probably hard to do anyway, since there aren’t any recordings. But even without reading music, it’s fun to nose around through the sheet music of the time. Something that’s easy to do thanks to American Memory, the Library of Congress website, which has an endless supply of it (drawn from the archives of Brown, Duke, and the Library of Congress itself).

What sort of stuff can you find there? Stuff like “Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe” (1853), an anti-abolitionist minstrel song with words by Charles Soran, music by Charles M. Stephani. I posted a page of the sheet music the other day, with a transcription of the lyrics. What follows are some contextual comments, of the sort I might make in the classroom … a first attempt to assimilate song to my account of the period’s poetic cultures.

I singled out this song in part because there’s a recording (link here) at one of my favorite websites, Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture; in part because the song illustrates so nicely the way art takes shape in response to historical events. And by “events” I don’t mean the overarching events like slavery and class stratification that gave shape to minstrelsy as a whole (a subject treated extensively by scholars, my favorite of these being William T. Lhamon in Raising Cain). I mean the more easily forgotten episodes that produce topical songs. “Topical” as in a medicine: something applied to the surface of the social body. Of course, when hucksters sell medicine, the result is often poison, and that’s the case here.

I won’t be speaking of the song as song, only of the sheet music as literary artifact. Not that I lack interest in the music. Rather, I feel inadequate to the task, not knowing, for instance, how accurate the recording might be in its instrumentation, performance style, or adherence to the score. I will say, though, that the available rendition — by Japher’s “Original” Sandy River Minstrels — reminds me of a record I had as a boy, from which I learned a number of classic children’s songs, among them two minstrel numbers that outlived blackface: “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “Oh! Susanna.” But to the sheet music… Read the rest of this entry »

Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe

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Words: Charles Soran
Music: Charles M. Stephani

A blackface minstrel song, and a good indication of the controversy stirred up by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. For a modern recording, go here. Lyrics below, as transcribed from the sheet music, racist language and all. Brief commentary to follow.

Image courtesy the Library of Congress (click for link to collection)

Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe

I went to New York city, a month or two ago,
Hunting for dat lady, Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe;
I see’d de Abolitions, dey said she’d gone away,
Dey told me in de city it was no use to stay.
She take away de dollars, and put ’em in her pocket,
She laid her hand upon it, and dar she safely lock it.
Dey said if Massa come for me, den dey would quickly meet;
Dey’d make a Lion of me, and gib me ’nuff to eat.

O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe
How could you leave de country, and sarve poor niggers so.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe
How could you leave de country, and sarve poor niggers so.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe
How could you leave de country, and sarve poor niggers so.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe
How could you leave de country, and sarve poor niggers so.


Dey treated dis ere child, as doe I was a Turk,
Den told me for to leve dem and go away to work;
I couldn’t get no work, I couldn’t get no dinner,
And den I wish de Fugitive was back in Ole Virginny.
Oh! when I was a picanin, Ole Uncle Tom would say,
Be true unto your Massa, and neber run away.
He told me dis at home, he told me dis at partin,
Don’t trust you de Ab’litions, for dey seem quite unsartin.

O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe, &c.


Ole Massa’s very kind, ole Missu’s kind at home too,
And much I love my Dinah, in ole Virginny true,
Now I’ll go back and stay dar, and neber more will roam,
Lor bress de Southern Ladies, and my ole Virginny home,
But don’t come back, Aunt Harriet, in England make a fuss,
Go talk against your Country, put money in your puss,
And when us happy niggers, you pity in your prayer,
Oh! don’t forget de White slave, dat’s starvin ober dare.

O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe, &c.


Now de rules of dis here house, don’t admit of no encore,
So afore we go just listen, I’ll sing you one verse more,
Aunt Harriet Beecha Stowe, she tried to see de Queen,
But Victoria was too smart for her, and could not be seen;
She den went o’er to France, and tried to come it dere,
But de Empress and Emperor, know’d ‘xactly what dey were,
So de best way to fix it, and hab it understood,
Is dat she left de Country, for her own Country’s good.

O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe, &c.

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 12, 2009 at 10:55 pm