American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Jackson

Parnassian Categories

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parnassusIs there a list of important works of nineteenth-century American literature that no one reads or talks about? Ralph Waldo Emerson’s anthology, Parnassus (1874), must reside high there a different sort of airy reach than the one he meant by that title.

After C19 and the poetry seminar organized by Virginia Jackson and Michael Cohen, I began to wonder about the tradition of English poetry as understood in Victorian America. Who did they love, and who did they respect without love, and who did they care about not one little bit? Perhaps someone has already answered those questions.

Lacking time to investigate this issue, I did pull Parnassus off the shelf, to see what poetry Emerson loved, respected, allowed himself to forget. Emerson, of course, was not the only anthologist in this period, was not even the only poet anthologist (Bryant and Whittier also made treasuries of verse, and Longfellow the more peculiar Poems of Places). Nonetheless, Emerson is as close to a central figure as one might find among the anthologists, and his treasury is the one I happened to have on hand. Perusing his contents, however, I found myself drawn from his list of names to the categories under which the names were gathered. A fascinating itinerary, truly, and perhaps a better clue to the nature of his canon than the canon itself.




Home.Woman.Love.Friendship.Manners.Holy Days.Holidays.




Man.Virtue.Honor.Time.Fate.Sleep.Dreams.Life.Death.Immortality.Hymns and Odes.











Good Counsel.Supreme Hours.

At C19, Emerson was cited as a crucial figure in the replacement of “poetic genres” with “the genre of poetry,” a critical turn that Virginia Jackson influentially analyzed as “lyricization”: “the progressive idealization of what was a much livelier, more explicitly mediated, historically contingent and public context for many varieties of poetry,” such that poetry and lyric become conflated terms  and the lyric of this conflation a particularly attenuated version of the genre.[1] In this respect, it might be useful to think of Emerson’s Parnassian categories as the road not taken on the way to lyricization. Genres are included (hymns, odes, ballads, songs, satires), but intermixed with modes (the contemplative, picturesque, comic), themes and subjects (nature, history, personal life), functions (religion, storytelling, counsel), and affects (pathos, humor, terror). The categories are not quite distinct and not quite coordinated, so that what we have is a messy attempt to sort the objects of an idealization according to their piecemeal pleasures, even as that form of appreciation is discounted as trivial.

In his preface, Emerson writes:

The poet demands all gifts, and not one or two only. Like the electric rod, he must from a point nearer to the sky than all surrounding objects, down to the earth, and into the wet soil, or neither is of use. The poet must not only converse with pure thought, but he must demonstrate it almost to the senses. His words must be pictures: his verses must be spheres and cubes, to be seen and handled. His fable must be a good story, and its meaning must hold as pure truth.

The sphere and cube are ideal forms, pure as the poets of Emerson’s Parnassus. In the end, however, they are not the right categories for the poems.


1 [Back to text] Virginia Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 9.

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 21, 2016 at 3:27 pm

William Cullen Bryant, Poems (1821)

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For a Library of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry
William Cullen Bryant, Poems (Cambridge: Hilliard and Metcalf, 1821). 44 pp.

Scarce less the cleft-born wild-flower seems to enjoy
Existence, than the winged plunderer
That sucks its sweets.

― “Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood”

The Bryant statue in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library.

The Bryant statue in Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library.

Bryant showed an early gift for poetry, “composing tolerably clever verses” by the age of nine and learning Greek while still a boy. His first book, The Embargo (1808), identified him as “a Youth of Thirteen” (his name did not appear until the second, enlarged edition of 1809), but it was only with “Thanatopsis” that his work really got going. Written in 1811, the poem first appeared in The North American Review in 1817; it was subsequently revised for its first book publication in Poems. Since he refused in later years to reprint “The Embargo,” “Thanatopsis” became the earliest work Bryant was willing to embrace; and despite his later prolificness (he lived until 1878), “Thanatopsis” was also the high point. Indeed, it remains the high point of Bryant’s era, roughly the quarter century between the War of 1812 and Longfellow’s rise to prominence at the end of the 1830s. Other poets more interesting to me were active in the same years ― Fitz-Greene Halleck, Edgar Allan Poe ― but “Thanatopsis” is clearly the era’s epitaph, a forecasting of the transcendentalism that would wash its memory away. This is ironic, perhaps, given the poem’s message: that one should cheerfully accept the erasure of one’s epitaph. But then, what better poem to remember a largely forgotten era in American verse? Articulating in advance the values of the rural cemetery movement, “Thanatopsis” (Greek for “vision of death”) sought meaning in nature, not monuments: Read the rest of this entry »