American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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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.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

March 21, 2016 at 9:24 am

Gurney Halleck

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Gurney Haleck (from the Dunepedia)

I love survivals of forgotten poets in popular culture. This one (it’s two, actually) comes from Dune, which I was inspired to reread by the recent heat wave. Or rather, read for the first time: as a teenager, I found the book too tedious to finish.

One of the characters, Gurney Halleck, is a warrior and troubadour; he serves the House of Atreides. Though played by Patrick Stewart — Capt. Picard — in the David Lynch film, Frank Herbert’s description posits a far less handsome man:

Gurney Halleck strode alone at the point of the crowd, bag over one shoulder, the neck of his nine-string baliset clutched in the other hand. They were long-fingered hands with big thumbs, full of tiny movements that drew such delicate music from the baliset.

The Duke watched Halleck, admiring the ugly lump of a man, noting the glass-splinter eyes with their gleam of savage understanding. Here was a man who lived outside the faufreluches while obeying their every precept. What was it Paul had called him? “Gurney, the valorous.”

Halleck’s wispy blond hair trailed across barren spots on his head. His wide mouth was twisted into a pleasant sneer, and the scar of the inkvine whip slashed across his jawline seemed to move with a life of its own. His whole air was of casual shoulder-set capability.

The character’s name is a compound allusion, derived from the names of two poets with warrior associations: Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) and Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867). The associations are particularly fitting with the former, since the real Gurney, a Brit, was a soldier and musician. Halleck, an American, was a clerk and poet, but he wrote one of the more beloved martial poems of the nineteenth-century, “Marco Bozzaris,” a favorite even of Emily Dickinson. (Actually, I don’t know why I say even: Dickinson is a pretty good index of nineteenth-century taste.) The poem is set in the Greek War of Independence, fought against the Ottoman Empire. Bozzaris (also written Botsaris) was a Suliote warrior. Halleck’s poem describes the raid in which Bozzaris fell:

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Written by Ben Friedlander

July 25, 2010 at 12:31 am

The American Flag: 2009, 1819

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Fourth of July thoughts on Dick of the Dead and the Croaker poems, continuing on from what I wrote a few days ago:

The biggest difference between the two bodies of work may lie in their authors’ views of the United States. Dick is a product of post-Watergate America, of the Bush years and the Patriot Act. The Croaker poems were written after the War of 1812, in which Fitz-Greene Halleck (“Croaker, Junior”) took drills as a member of the Iron Grays, a New York militia. He and his collaborator, Joseph Rodman Drake (“Croaker”), were patriots in the old-fashioned sense; they waved their flag without anxiety or qualms. Rachel Loden, who wrote Dick of the Dead, is also a patriot, but she waves her flag under threat of confiscation, in opposition to the security state; her anxieties and qualms are inevitable: Read the rest of this entry »

Inquisitor of Sprats and Compost!

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Rachel Loden

Rachel Loden

On a recent train ride down through New England and New York to Washington I read Rachel Loden’s marvelous new book Dick of the Dead. I chose Loden”s book for the last leg in particular: the Dick of her title is Nixon; I thought him a good talisman to carry into the nation’s capital. A kind of rabbit’s foot, something like the leg of Brezhnev broken off white marble in the book’s third poem, “In the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments.” What I did not expect is that the book brought New York to mind more insistently than D.C.; but not the New York of my own experience, the decaying urban shell of the 1970s; nor the gentrified metropolis of today. Rather, Loden’s poems reminded me of the city mocked and celebrated and preserved for a dubious posterity in the Croaker poems of Fitz-Greene Halleck and Joseph Rodman Drake, written for the New York Evening Post in 1819 and published under the names Croaker (Drake), Croaker, Jr. (Halleck), and Croaker & Co. (Drake and Halleck together).

What do the Croaker poems and Dick of the Dead have in common? Two things: first, a tone — by which I mean a certain attitude about their subjects; and then, a luxuriation in fact, in the whimsical properties of data.

The tone is easier to describe with the Croaker poems, but reading Loden in light of them makes it easier to hear the equivalent quality in hers: the sprightly, even agitated sound of language that comes from mocking a thing and loving it at the same time. You can hear this sound in one of the Croaker poems written by Drake; a fierce bit of nonsense addressed to the surgeon general of the State of New York, sprinkled with as many exclamation marks as a poem by Frank O’Hara:

Joseph Rodman Drake

Joseph Rodman Drake

Oh! Mitchill, lord of granite flints,
Doctus, in law — and wholesome dishes;
Protector of the patent splints,
The foe of whales — the friend of fishes;
“Tom-Codus” — “Septon” — “Phlogobombos!”
What title shall we find to fit ye?
Inquisitor of sprats and compost!
Or Surgeon General of Militia!

We hail thee! — mammoth of the state!
Steam frigate! on the waves of physic —
Equal in practice or debate,
To cure the nation or the phthisic:
The amateur of Tartar dogs!
Wheat-flies, and maggots that create “em!
Of mummies! and of mummy-chogs!
Of brick-bats — lotteries — and pomatum!

The sentiments are just as wonderfully unbalanced in Loden’s work; one never feels that she has seized on Nixon out of disdain, or disdain alone. And the same is true when she writes about other monsters: Cheney, Dubya, George Costanza. “Must not let on that my feelings are increasingly inappropriate,” she writes in “My Subject,” a poem that figures the writer as some kind of researcher. In a lunatic asylum? Perhaps so. But the inappropriate feelings are essential, more so than the research: the latter merely situates Loden’s language; the former gives it an audible character. Consider the sprightliness of “Nineveh Fallen”: Read the rest of this entry »

Are You an Astor? No. I’m a Whitman.

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DeMille cover Last week I read The Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille, about a Mafia don on the North Shore of Long Island, the same setting as The Great Gatsby. But the book’s most delicious twist on literary precedent is not the setting, but the blueblood narrator, John Sutter, a Wall Street lawyer whose middle name is Whitman.

Early on there is a scene in which Sutter takes a brief Rabbit, Run-like flyer on his life, ending up in a working class bar. He’s asked there by a biker, “Do you live around here?” Then comments to the reader:

You have to understand that even in jeans and sweatshirt, unshaven, and with a Bronco outside, John Whitman Sutter was not going to pass for one of the boys, especially after I opened my preppie mouth. You understand, too, that there was deeper meaning in that question. I replied, “Latting-town.”

“La-di-da,” he responded musically.

I’m honestly glad there is no class animosity in this country, for if there were, the leather gentleman would have been rude.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

February 1, 2009 at 4:11 pm