American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘William Cullen Bryant

On Usury Laws

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Stan Apps has written a delightful essay on Pound’s “Usura” canto (link here), giving the poem credit for its beautiful language while calling in the chit for meaning. He does Pound a favor, taking the poem’s economic theory at face value — as Pound himself would have wanted — but of course this is no favor at all since Pound’s thinking is so shoddy in this context. Confronted with that shoddiness, many a critic has lent Pound a hand, and done such a good job, you cease to recognize the original structure. Other critics pause to gander, but move on quickly after noting the filth. A few others, very few, go through Pound’s premises room by room, identifying all the violations of code. The delight of Stan’s essay is its restraint: he observes Pound’s thought in all its ramshackle glory, but only in order to make a sketch, which he does with an architect’s eye. A piercing, disengaged appraisal.

My excuse for mentioning Pound here: Stan’s post brought to mind an 1836 essay by William Cullen Bryant, “On Usury Laws,” which adopts the exact opposite stance as The Cantos. For Bryant, money is a commodity like any other, entitled like any other to profitable investment; the usury laws, which fix the interest on loans, are a fetter on free trade. Like Pound, he denounces the ignorance of common understanding, but his ignorance is Pound’s corrective. Here is  Bryant’s opening paragraph:

The fact that the usury laws, arbitrary, unjust, and oppressive as they are, and unsupported by a single substantial reason, should have been suffered to exist to the present time, can only be accounted for on the ground of the general and singular ignorance which has prevailed as to the true nature and character of money. If men would but learn to look upon the medium of exchange, not as a mere sign of value, but as value itself, as a commodity governed by precisely the same laws which affect other kinds of property, the absurdity and tyranny of legislative interference to regulate the extent of profit which, under any circumstances, may be charged for it, would at once become apparent.

Bryant’s arguments are familiar enough: a lender’s return should be proportionate to risk; without that return, fewer loans would be made, and economic development would stifle. Also familiar: the laws hurt the very people they’re supposed to protect. OK, not very interesting. Worth maybe a sentence or two in a book on poetry and economics.

But it did give me a thought. Call it a thought bubble — better than an economic bubble: an episode of Deadliest Warrior, with Pound and Bryant doing battle. Crank up those computer simulations! If it’s not too prejudicial saying crank…

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 21, 2009 at 7:01 pm

Poems of Places 10

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From Poems of Places, vol. 14, Spain 1 (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1877), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


italicaFabius, if tears prevent thee not, survey
The long dismantled streets, so thronged of old,
The broken marbles, arches in decay,
Proud statues, toppled from their place and rolled
In dust, when Nemesis, the avenger, came,
And buried, in forgetfulness profound,
The owners and their fame.
Thus Troy, I deem, must be,
With many a mouldering mound;
And thou, whose name alone remains to thee,
Rome, of old gods and kings the native ground;
And thou, sage Athens, built by Pallas, whom
Just laws redeemed not from the appointed doom.
The envy of earth’s cities once wert thou, —
A weary solitude and ashes now.
For fate and death respect ye not: they strike
The mighty city and the wise alike. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 18, 2009 at 8:58 am

Go Forth

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Walt Whitman is so much a part of our world, even still, I’ve not felt the need to mark his occasional appearances in popular culture. But yesterday, in a blog post for the Poetry Foundation, Edwin Torres drew attention to the use of Whitman by Levi’s, and I found myself getting more interested than usual in this sort of appropriation. His post is called “Brand World Atheist,” and in it he describes one of the company’s Whitman ads — which uses the text of “America” — as follows (you can see the ad here):

It’s a 60-second spot that uses a wax-cylinder recording of Whitman reciting the poem, black & white footage, jittery camera-work, and synthed-operatic soundtrack to create a manifesto-themed gauntlet thrown at America’s youth with the phrase “Go Forth” emblazoned as a nicely designed logo on a flapping banner at the end. The spot is basically a poetry video, using beautifully filmed images of the disenfranchised reflecting the poem’s tone without literal interpretation. [1]

And later, after mentioning the company’s “Declaration Gallery” (for leaving your own manifesto; Torres: “but isn’t that what Twitter’s for?”), he writes:

The Go Forth campaign has a patina of self-seriousness in its, “getting a platform to sound out,” …very Rebel Without A Cause. Expertly designed around a unifying theme: to be heard and seen, not even understood, just acknowledged so that you may go forth and discover your voice. Core values in America’s heartland of equal chances, right? Re-imagine America as a teen. Use language in the reinvention of American youth that reflects each generation’s media-drenched libido. And the retro-hooligan implied under the layers of a smoothed-over-DIY-aesthetic is what obscures the poem that tries to mix rebellion with business. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 2, 2009 at 2:55 pm


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Minute shreds of information gathering in my head, as in a pocket or belly button…

I was watching an episode of Law & Order: SVU the other day and saw that one of the scenes was filmed in front of the statue of William Cullen Bryant. I tried to get a picture but was too slow. It’s the episode with Robin Williams (appropriately titled “Authority“).

Emerson was Harvard’s class poet the year Bryant read his Phi Beta Kappa poem in Cambridge (something I mention here). I’ve now found the poem Emerson wrote for commencement, and it bears comparison. Sample lines:

In this bright age, with seeds of glory sown,
The hand of fate hath placed us, — not our own.
When the old world is crumbling with decay,
And empires unregarded, pass away…

Bryant’s poem was called “The Ages”; here’s a sample:

Thus error’s monstrous shapes from earth are driven;
They fade, they fly — but truth survives their flight;
Earth has no shades to quench that beam of heaven;
Each ray that shone in early time to light
The faltering footstep in the path of right,
Each gleam of clearer brightness shed to aid
In man’s maturer day his bolder sight,
All blended, like the rainbow’s radiant braid,
Pour yet, and still shall pour, the blaze that cannot fade.

In a comment a few weeks ago, David Sheidlower praised Emerson’s phrase “horizon walls” from “The Romany Girl.” I see now that Emerson liked the phrase too: he drew it from his earlier poem “The Humble Bee.”

Lacan citing Julia Ward Howe???

Yes. In “Psychoanalysis and Its Teaching.” The reference comes after a brief discussion of Jeremiah’s sour grape, leading into a self-quotation. Here’s the reference:

This is what made me pen the following passage … , restoring the import of paternal authority … , conjoining it as one must — in the Biblical terms used by the female author of the American “Battle Hymn of the Republic” — with the curse of the mother:

And here’s the self-quotation (it comes from “The Freudian Thing”):

For the sour grape of speech by which the child received the authentication of the nothingness of existence from a father too early, and the grapes of wrath that responded to the words of false hope with which his mother lured him with the milk of her true despair, set his teeth on edge more than if he had been weaned from an imaginary jouissance or even deprived of some real attentions.

Howe wrote her “Battle Hymn” in 1861, at the start of the Civil War, during an exciting visit to the front line. She had the idea of writing new words to “John Brown’s Body”; the visit inspired her. She tells the story in her 1899 autobiography. The description is worthy of analysis by Freud; strange to think it was written at the same time as The Interpretation of Dreams: Read the rest of this entry »

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 »