American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Sill

Edward Rowland Sill on Bedtime

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sill-c2Edward Rowland Sill (1841-1887) first caught my eye because he taught high school in Oakland and later taught at U.C. Berkeley. I did some of my schooling at Berkeley, and lived in Oakland for over a decade. Not that I’m rah rah for California. But I noticed it, the link I mean. And I later noticed the tortured praise in the following paragraph, written for an anthology of forgotten poets from the nineteenth century:

In the 1930s, Newton Arvin, who admired Sill’s probing intellect and sense of irony, condemned Sill with extravagant praise, declaring him one of the three important post-Civil War poets (the other two were Emily Dickinson and Sidney Lanier), yet a failure for not making fuller use of those attributes. Time has not borne out the former assertion, though Sill deserves credit for a score of truly fine poems, and for rejecting sentimentalism and easy piety.

Though you can see how carefully the words were weighed in this paragraph, the judgment seems, overall, unbalanced. I mean, if the writer really believes that Sill wrote a score of fine poems, he ought to be explaining why later readers have failed to care about them, not calling out the few who did for overstatement. And if Sill’s rejection of sentimentalism is indeed a strength, why are there so many sentimental poets alongside him? Of course, the explicit purpose of the anthology is not to rescue forgotten poets from neglect, but to understand — I kid you not — “how history has played its jokes” on their reputations. Overall, then, the effect of this tortured praise was to rouse my interest, then soothe it back to sleep. So I developed a kind of fondness for Sill, without ever taking the trouble to look into his work. Until recently.

As his dates indicate, Sill died young, and much of his work appeared posthumously. The reception was modest, but respectful. Collected editions appeared in 1900 and 1906 (of his prose first, then the poetry). A biography followed in 1915. Who knows what history would have made of him if World War One and modernism hadn’t intervened, rewriting the rules of success.

The poem I like best so far is “Field Notes,” and nature, as the title suggests, is something that interested Sill in general. There are seven essays on that theme at the start of his collected prose. The last of them, however, is less about nature than human nature. It’s ostensible subject is dawn, but the following wonderful paragraphs are the heart of the essay — a polemic on bedtime: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 31, 2009 at 9:13 am