American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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

“the others have only knelt at her feet”

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In 1860, one Simeon Carter, “a Wood Choper by profession,” wrote a fan letter to Emerson:

Being housed with a bad cold & a cut thumb for a few days I have been reading your Essays for the 2nd time, I have to laugh right out, or make some exclamation of surprise evry few moments, they are just as fresh evry time you them them up as the Bible is. I call them concentrated Poetry, or a cargo of Poetry in bulk. It dont make any odds where you begin to read whether at the beining midle or end, They are rather too rich diet for ‘evry day.’ but if a Wood Choper cant digest them I dont know who can, for I believe smart exercise in the open air is about as necessary for the digestion of thought as for pork and beans….

The letter was printed in the Harvard College Bulletin in 1979 along with a few others to Emerson that touch on Leaves of Grass (the others are from a Harvard undergraduate, a geologist and Presbyterian clergyman, and a gentleman philosopher–this last James Eliot Cabot, who became Emerson’s editor. But the letter from Simeon Carter is the most interesting, in part because it’s the sort of response I associate with Whitman’s own reception, and Thoreau’s, more than Emerson’s. Here is what he writes of the other two men:

Is Thoreaus cabin yet alive? I should judge from what little I have read of him that he was one of the untamed. I have never read his book “Walden” but I swam across walden pond one day, some years ago, just to see what I could do and a fine pond to swim in it is. I have lately got hold of a book with which I am delighted, viz. “Leaves of Grass” by Walt. Whitman, and I must just whisper, Ralph, look well to your laurels or this uncouth bawler will slide them off your brows. He is a new man, he is fresh, he has been in the real presence; he has embraced the Goddess naked, while the others have only knelt at her feet, kissed the tips of her fingers, & some few, her lips. His Egotism is admirable, equal to that of Jesus, hear him, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” “My voice is Orotund sweeping & final!” Could anything beat that? we are all groping in shadows, he takes hold of the reals. God bless him! I should like to hug & kiss him.

The article containing this , by Eleanor M. Tilton, is freely available online, in volume 23, number 3 of the Bulletin. Begins here.

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 3, 2015 at 9:40 pm

A Sweet Dedication

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From George P. Marsh, Lectures on the English Language (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1885).

lecturesonengli06marsgoog_0009

Written by Ben Friedlander

June 27, 2015 at 3:45 pm

A Disused Poet

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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.

 

Written by Ben Friedlander

June 18, 2015 at 8:47 am

Posted in forgotten poets

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)]

img_palmyra_syria_001

“© 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

False Construction (found poem)

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From Noah Webster’s Grammatical Institute of the English Language … Part Second. Containing a Plain and Comprehensive Grammar (1800):

False Construction

That 1 pens want mending. That 2 books are torn.
These 3 is a fine day. That 4 will make excellent scholars.
These 5 lad will be an honor to his friends. This 6 ladies
behave with modesty.

1 these. 2 those. 3 this. 4 those. 5 this. 6 these.

Written by Ben Friedlander

January 2, 2015 at 9:27 pm

Posted in Everything Else

Tagged with , ,

The Missing Years

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farmersalmanacfo1800amer_0001

The FARMERS Almanac, for the Year of our Lord 1800; BEING ONE OF THE CENTURIAL YEARS, NOT BISEXTILE (click on image to see the text)

I’m preparing a syllabus for nineteenth-century American lit, one of several new reading-intensive surveys in my department, bridges between the lower-division methodology requirements (poetics, narratology, theory) and the upper-division seminars, and so I’m working with the Norton anthology for the first time in many years. To be more specific, I’m working with the shorter eighth edition, which I adopted in part because the students could use it again for a sister course, if I’m assigned one, in part because it makes a sturdy reference work. The full-length Norton is now a five-volume monster, and since I can’t imagine a circumstance in which a student would need to acquire all five, the shorter it was. I also adopted A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, so whatever else transpires next semester, the students will at least yield the benefit of a small library — those who don’t dump their texts for cash at the end. Can I say it? I hate that dump, and in so many ways: I hate that students want to be rid of what they study. I also hate that the campus bookstore abets their desire, pawnshop fashion. Most of all, I hate that the books get sold again, no matter how shoddy their condition, Can you learn from a book with wrinkled cover and dog-eared pages, plastered with stickers, marked by highlighter? Of course. But not with the same sense of clarity and purpose, not with the same joy as brought by a new text. A clean copy is like clean clothing; its newness becomes our own.

Anyway, I’ve been looking at the anthology again, struck as I ever was by the book’s lacunae but in a new way. Sure, the old gaps are there too: missing authors, disappearing genres, underrepresented groups. That sort of gap is inevitable, even in a five-volume monster, and I’ve nothing new to say about it in any case. What caught my attention this time was a gap in time. Do such lacunae matter in the same way? Are they equally regrettable? Does it pose a problem when periods of time are skipped over, whole decades scanted?

It took me a while to see that there were such lacunae. Though the book is organized historically, the primary division is by author, arranged in order of birth date. The sequence of works is more haphazard, even within the individual author selections. With Poe, for instance, born 1809, the poetry comes before the prose, which means that “The Raven” (1845) precedes “Ligeia” (1838). Both, however, come after Whittier’s “Snow-Bound” (1866), owing to the fact that Whittier, born 1807, comes before Poe. Sequencing is also made difficult by publication history. Red Jacket’s “Reply to the Missionary Jacob Cram” was delivered as a speech in 1805 and first printed in 1809, but taken in the Norton from an 1841 biography, The Life and Times of Red-Jacket, or Sa-go-ye-wat-ha. (The speech, by the way, is not slotted by author, which would place it nearly 200 pages later, but in a short thematic section, “Native Americans: Contact and Conflict.” There are a few other thematic sections, and some of them also contain work by authors with their own sections. Jefferson, for example, appears in the section with Red Jacket, then under his own name, and then in a section titled “Slavery, Race, and the Making of American Literature.” This too makes a knot of chronology since the sequence of Jefferson texts does not go from early to late.)

The historical structure of the book is not limited to author birth dates. The nineteenth century is encompassed by three sections: 1790-1820, 1820-1865, and 1865-1914. Not surprisingly, the long careers of individual authors transgress those boundaries, especially the one marked by the end of the Civil War. The postbellum section begins with Twain, but many of the earlier figures were still alive and still publishing when he first made his mark (the infamous Whittier birthday address speaks to that). What the book presents is a notion of historical progression, one that occasionally depends on a depleted sense of period. Whitman as a contemporary of Douglass and Melville he appears between the two men paints one picture. Another would emerge if his “Song of Myself,” which the Norton gives in the 1881 version, appeared between “Daisy Miller” (1878) and Huck Finn (1884).

If the 1865 border is ever transgressed, the 1820 border is just the opposite: scarcely approached from either side. The situation is of course somewhat different in the five-volume monster, but the shorter edition yields nary a work from 1800 to 1820, and things don’t really pick up until the 1830s. Oddly, the most distinguished of the exceptions on the early side, “Rip Van Winkle” (1819), is credited to the later: Washington Irving is the first figure in the 1820-1865 section, a fine example of how narrative supersedes chronology. Irving aside, the first two decades are a real hole. There’s a poem by Freneau, “On the Religion of Nature” (1815), and Red Jacket’s speech falls here. There’s also a Tecumseh speech printed in 1823, but credited to “1811 or 1812.” Scarcely a portrait of the period.

The 1820s do better, marginally, complementing the 1800-1820 selections with a somewhat larger number of texts: a chapter from The Last of The Mohicans (1826) balances even with “Rip Van Winkle”; Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” and “To a Waterfall” (both 1821) double the one poem by Freneau; and there are more Native American texts in the later decade, chiefly related to Cherokee history. One might also count Jefferson, though his Autobiography (1821) is given for its account of “The Declaration of Independence” (and appears with the offerings from 1790-1820). There is also an excerpt, a very brief one, from David Walker’s Appeal (1829). It’s not much, but more than what we get for the two decades before.

There’s one other meager period in the Norton’s nineteenth century: the 1870s. The meagerness here is strange given the figures active at the time. There are two poems from the decade: Dickinson’s “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (1872) and Frances Harper’s “Learning to Read” (1872), and there are also two stories: “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1870) and “Daisy Miller.” Not so much a gap in the narrative as a pause.

And what does it all mean? That’s what I’m sorting out, in my head, as I prepare for next semester, putting together my own story of the century. Mine too will have holes, but probably not the same ones.

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 28, 2014 at 9:59 am