An American Poet

The Complete Poems of Frederick Tuckerman

edited by N. Scott Momaday
Oxford, 288 pp., $6.50

Frederick Tuckerman, almost forgotten and certainly neglected, was a nineteenth-century New England poet, contemporary with the Transcendentalists but sharply different from them in outlook and style. During his lifetime he published a single volume, Poems, in 1860, which went through three further printings with minor textual changes; he won a very modest recognition, mostly through private letters from Hawthorne, Emerson and Longfellow. Living in near-isolation in the Berkshires, Tuckerman seems not to have cared about getting into print the work he composed after 1860; he was genuinely, and not as a mere literary strategy, the kind of poet who writes to himself; and once he died, in 1873 at the age of fifty-two, he passed into obscurity.

Some thirty-five years later an American critic, Walter Eaton, published an essay calling attention to Tuckerman’s verse, an incomplete selection of which he had seen and admired; this article, in turn, came to the notice of the poet Witter Bynner, who in 1931 issued a volume bringing together the five series of sonnets written by Tuckerman (only the first two series had appeared in the 1860 Poems) and providing a fine introductory appreciation. In the main, however, criticism of Tuckerman has been sparse and unsatisfactory.

For the first time, all of Tuckerman’s work has now been brought together in a single and decidedly impressive volume. Professor Momaday, who has edited the texts with care, has also provided a biographical-critical Introduction, and further to grace the occasion there is a critical Foreward by Yvor Winters. With characteristic assurance Winters makes extremely high claims for Tuckerman, whose long poem “The Cricket,” he declares to be “the greatest poem in English of the century.”

I offer this little chronicle because it seems, unnervingly, to retrace the pattern of neglect and discovery that has characterized too much of American literary history. That so unspectacular a poet as Tuckerman could become the subject of strong popular interest, is unlikely; but this would not preclude a boom in the academic world, where the need for “subjects” grows omniverously. One can only hope that the appearance of Mr. Momaday’s edition will end the injustice of neglect without provoking the vulgarity of a “revival.”

About Tuckerman himself not much is or needs to be known. Son of a wealthy merchant, he was graduated from Harvard with a law degree but chose not to practice. He retired to western Massachusetts, where, equipped with telescope and herbarium, he lived as a country gentleman distinguished by a semi-professional interest in science. In 1847 he married, and happily; ten years later his wife died, after childbirth; and from this blow Tuckerman seems never to have recovered—indeed, he seems, in some deeply serious way, to have chosen not to recover.

A good part of Tuckerman’s work consists of narrative and reflective pieces, some of them derivative from the Romantic poets, most of them too long and limp, and few of them memorable. Emerson liked “Rhotruda,” an amusing versetale set in Charlemagne …

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