American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘George Borrow

The Romany Girl

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George Fuller, The Romany Girl, 1877-79 (click for link to a color image)

Although it is not an anthologized poem today, “The Romany Girl” by Ralph Waldo Emerson was highly regarded in the nineteenth century, and often included in short lists of Emerson’s best work. It appeared in the first issue of Atlantic Monthly (1857), alongside “The Chartist’s Complaint,” “Days,” and “Brahma.” All four of these poems later appeared in May Day and Other Pieces (1867), Emerson’s second collection. In the 1870s, George Fuller took the poem’s title for a painting, and this too was highly regarded in the nineteenth century. The idea for the title came from William Dean Howells, who later produced a Gypsy image of his own for his last novel, The Vacation of the Kelwyns (1920).

Emerson’s poem was written in the first person, with Emerson-as-Gypsy defending the outdoors life of a social outcast, and doing so with a grand self-possession. The impersonation stands out from his other work in verse, which pays little heed to social types and rarely takes shape in dramatic monologues. The approach may have been more common among his contemporaries — this was, after all, the age of the minstrel show — but comparable poems by John Greenleaf Whittier focus on facts and actions, not self-understanding; their interest does not lie in characterization. [1] Nor is characterization a strength of William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy,” though here at least self-understanding was at issue. This may be why one nineteenth-century critic (W. S. Kennedy) invoked Blake when citing “The Romany Girl.”

A comparison of the Blake and Emerson poems is revealing. Blake’s speaker, born in the “southern wild,” looks forward to a day when his racial difference will disappear — when he and the “little English boy” can embrace in heaven. Emerson’s speaker insists on her difference. She finds nothing worth embracing in the “Pale Northern girls” who scorn her. She sports with their men, but has no intention of leaving her own kind. That would mean accepting captivity in a city and she has nothing but disdain for that prospect, an attitude that Emerson clearly finds attractive: Read the rest of this entry »