American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Civil War

Books of Poetry: The 1860s

with 3 comments

Joanne Dobson

One of the projects I’ve been working on for the past few years, in spare moments, is a counterfactual edition of Emily Dickinson’s war poetry: an attempt to imagine what a book of Dickinson’s war poems might have looked like, had she allowed one to be published at the end of the Civil War. I’m not the first to use this approach; I cribbed it from Joanne Dobson, who produced “a hypothetical Table of Contents for a volume of Verses by Emily Dickinson” as part of her own Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence. Dobson’s Verses was comprised of fifty poems run together in a continuous sequence; it had an imagined publication date of 1864, the year five of Dickinson’s poems poems did appear in print, on ten different occasions, her most public year as a writer. The point of the exercise: to make vivid the fact that many of Dickinson’s unpublished poems would not have been out of place in the literary market of the time, as previous critics had imagined. The point of my exercise is a little different: to make vivid the particularity of Dickinson’s war poems by putting them in a form that makes comparison easier with other war poets of the time (those, anyhow, who published whole volumes on the subject). Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 10, 2012 at 7:07 am

Lines of Inquiry

with 5 comments

Eliza Richards

A few weeks back, I spent some time with “Poetry, Journalism, and the U.S. Civil War” by Eliza Richards, part of a special issue on nineteenth-century American poetry (ESQ 51.1-4). Richards begins with an essay on the war news by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (whose prose writings on the Civil War are key texts in my view — and not only mine: Tyler B. Hoffman, Alice Fahs, and Franny Nudelman make canny use of him in scholarly works that I much admire).[1]

Here are two important sentences from Holmes that Richards cites, the second with a little abridgment (the date refers to the South’s attack on Fort Sumter):

Now, if a thought goes round through the brain a thousand times in a day, it will have worn as deep a track as one which has passed through it once a week for twenty years. This accounts for the ages we seem to have lived since the twelfth of April last, and, to state it more generally, for that ex post facto operation of a great calamity, or any very powerful impression, which we once illustrated by the image of a stain spreading backwards from the leaf of life open before us through all those which we have already turned.

The previous illustration to which Holmes refers is a passage from The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858):

A great calamity … is as old as the trilobites an hour after it has happened. It stains backward through all the leaves we have turned over in the book of life, before its blot of tears or of blood is dry on the page we are turning. For this we seem to have lived…. After the tossing half-forgetfulness of the first sleep that follows such an event, it comes upon us afresh as a surprise, at waking; in a few moments it is old again, — old as eternity.

Holmes belongs, clearly, to a small number of theorists whose models of the mind look forward to Freud. And like Freud, Holmes was a medical doctor. This surely gave his models a clinical authority to readers of the time. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 27, 2010 at 9:16 am

March!

with one comment

Since today, March 4th, is National Day of Action to Defend Education, I thought I’d post some lines in solidarity from one of Bayard Taylor’s Civil War poems. Dated March 1, 1862, and titled “March,” the poem’s first three stanzas are eminently suited to the present moment (you can read the whole poem here):

With rushing winds and gloomy skies
The dark and stubborn Winter dies.
Far-off, unseen, Spring faintly cries,
Bidding her earliest child arise:

March!

By streams still held in icy snare,
On southern hillsides, melting bare,
O’er fields that motley colors wear,
That summons fills the changeful air:

March!

What though conflicting seasons make
Thy days their field, they woo or shake
The sleeping lids of Life awake,
And hope is stronger for thy sake,

March!

Stop the privatization of knowledge! Save our schools!

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 4, 2010 at 11:35 am

Where’s That Back Pay!

with 3 comments

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

Emily Dickinson and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff

with one comment

edbb7I guess one purpose of a blog is self-advertisement, so I may as well announce that I have an essay in the October PMLA, a special issue on the topic of war. My contribution looks closely at one of Emily Dickinson’s Civil War poems,  a soldier elegy written for a distant relative, Francis Howard Dickinson, who was killed at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. The elegy, as I read it, was written specifically for publication, though it didn’t see print until 1890. I base my inference on a variety of contextual cues … but I won’t repeat myself here. You can read the essay, if you think it sounds interesting. Or you can take a peek at an excerpt given by Robin Tremblay-McGaw at X-Poetics (one of my favorite blogs).

edbb4What really tickles me about Robin’s excerpt: she cites me in the midst of an interview with Beverly Dahlen (link here). I consider Bev one of the five or six most important teachers I’ve ever had, and the most important outside of any actual school. I’m in debt to her in particular for leading me to think more carefully about Dickinson and the Civil War. Back in 1985, in the literary journal Ironwood, Bev published an essay on Dickinson and abjection that included a picture of the dead at Antietam. I was already convinced that the war was a key to understanding Dickinson’s work, so I told her how thrilled I was to see her make the connection, which was unusual at the time. No, no, she replied, saying something like, “I already regret including that picture; it was a frivolous juxtaposition.” I tried to say otherwise, but she just shook her head no.

edbb6Out of this brief exchange began a correspondence. And Bev, though far kinder to my dubious reasoning than she was to her own flash of insight, brought me by turns to see how inadequate my reasoning was. Some of our conversation concerned a poem from the end of the war, “Further in Summer than the Birds.” I was convinced — and still am — that the variant word choice “Antiquest,” an intensification of “Antiquer,” intimates “Anti-quest,” accentuating the hint, perhaps, of Antietam in antique. But Bev was not convinced. And this, along with her prodding questions, led me to see more clearly than any methodological training I ever received what a compelling account of Dickinson and the Civil War might require. That was almost a quarter century ago! Graduate school — and research — and dissertation — and publication — were all a long way off. But the work got started then.

edbb5

The photographs are from a summer visit to the site of the battle in Virginia. I was surprised that the tour guide in costume wore a Union uniform, though Ball’s Bluff is in the South (and the battle was an early, decisive victory for the Confederates). The view through the trees looks beyond the Potomac into Maryland (I’m pretty sure). Dickinson’s poem mentions the river in the first quatrain:

When I was small, a Woman died —
Today — her Only Boy
Went up from the Potomac —
His face all Victory

The state in the last:

I’m confident, that Bravoes —
Perpetual break abroad
For Braveries, remote as this
In Yonder Maryland —

Meanwhile, since this is America, Ball’s Bluff is now a shopping center.

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 15, 2009 at 3:18 pm

While Shoddy’s on the Brain

leave a comment »

shoddy
To mark Maine’s ignoble defeat of the Gay Marriage law, here’s a song from another era, about another war that extended “from Gulf to Maine” (the war stretches even further today). As partial explanation of what’s meant by the chorus — and why it pertains to the present moment — here are some passages from an article by E. P. Whipple in The Atlantic Monthly (1871). The article begins in the Civil War, with the profiteers who grew fat on government money:

Soon came the cry from the camps that cheats at home were thriving on the miseries of the volunteers; that the soldier starved in order that the contractor might feast; especially that the defenders of the nation, hurrying from their homes to insure safety to the homes of their plunderers, were so sleazily clothed that they were literally left naked to their enemies and a word of ominous and infamous significance, a word in which is concentrated more wrath and wretchedness than any other in the vocabulary of the camp, the word shoddy, flew into general circulation, to embody the soldiers’ anathema on the soldiers’ scourge.

Then Whipple continues:

But it seems to us that a word of such ill repute should not be confined to one class of offences, but should be extended to follies, errors, vices, and policies which, though they boast of softer names, illustrate the same essential quality. For what is the essential characteristic of shoddy clothing? Is it not this, that it will not wear? In its outside appearance it mimics good cloth, but use quickly reduces it to its elemental rags. Now; it might be asked, have we, in our experience during the past ten years, been deceived by no other plausible mockeries of reality than shoddy uniforms? Have we not all, more or less, been wearing shoddy clothing on our minds and consciences? … The essential mischief of this shoddy clothing for the popular mind is due, in a great degree, to the name it assumes. It eludes the grip of thought by calling itself common sense. If its object were to distinguish itself thus from real sense, its modesty might be commended; but when its purpose palpably is to point the finger at all clear perception and sound thinking, its impudence merits the rod.

And more:

The meaning of common sense, then, is plain; but how often do we use the term as a cover for common nonsense, the nonsense which one mind has in common with others; or, what is worse, as a convenient phrase to impart dignity to any narrow opinion or obstinate misjudgment or foolish crochet, which we may personally pamper and pride ourselves upon, and thus give to our private whim the character of a universal belief. This shoddy common sense is the most detestable of all forms of nonsense.

— Detestable thinking certainly won yesterday.

“Shoddy on the Brain” is not exactly “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In denouncing the profiteers, it more or less dismisses the aim of stamping out slavery. Or anyway, it dismisses the notion that this is the actual aim. But after two editorial verses, the song veers elsewhere.  The song itself is shoddy! Ending in a church, in marriage.

Anyway, for me today, shoddy is indeed on the brain.

The image comes from the Library of Congress American Memory website, from the collection America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets. I found the Whipple article in a second collection: The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals.

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 4, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Drum Beat

with 6 comments

drum beat2

Blazing ... quenching ... Leaping ... Laying ... to die

Over the summer, Modern Books and Manuscripts (the blog for the Houghton Library) posted a note on Emily Dickinson’s Drum Beat appearances. The post is called “From the stacks … Three early Dickinson publications” (link here), and it includes two clippings: the paper’s decorative banner, and Dickinson’s “Flowers” (from the March 2, 1864, issue).

Drum Beat was a Brooklyn-based newspaper that raised money for the U.S. Sanitary Commission near the end of the Civil War. Dickinson’s three unsigned poems, which appeared in three different issues, were discovered in the 1980s by Karen Dandurand, a period when the old view of Dickinson as cut off from history underwent substantial change. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, nothing of substance has been said about the poems since, at least nothing I’ve seen. The context in which they appear is evocative in the extreme … but evocative of what? As MB&M notes, the paper was edited by an Amherst graduate, Richard Salter Storrs, an acquaintance of Dickinson’s brother. Did her brother, then, send the poems in? Or was it a friend? Or Dickinson herself? And if it was Dickinson herself, did she do so in answer to a request? Or as an unsolicited contribution? In sympathy with the cause? Or from friendship alone? Or was it for the sake of publication? And why those poems?

As with so much else about Dickinson, we know just enough to ask precise questions. Not enough to give precise answers.

The image above shows Dickinson’s “Sunset” (from the February 29, 1864, issue). Note that the other poem, “Enigma,” is signed with the letter G. There was no house style in Drum Beat for attribution; there’s nothing peculiar about the way Dickinson’s poem is given.

You can click on the image to see more of the page, and for enlargements.

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 12, 2009 at 11:19 am