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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’s court, and Hawthorne praised “The Stranger.” a sketch of country character; both judgments were sound. There are passages in which Tuckerman, writing about New England life, somewhat anticipates E. A. Robinson, though without Robinson’s genius for psychological penetration:

Where silence brooded, I longed to look within
On the completed story of his life;
So easy still it seemed to lift the hand,
And open it, as I would a disused door
Locked with a dusty web: but he passed out;
And if he had a grief it went with him,
And all the treasure of his untold love.

Tuckerman’s distinguished work is to be found in the sonnets and “The Cricket,” and these are strikingly different from most American poetry of his time. He had no interest in blending the roles of poet and prophet, no temptation to employ his writing as a platform from which to rise to a condition of transport, whether traditionally Christian or romantically pantheistic. He had no taste for the soaring line, the vatic pronouncement, the inflammation of selfhood which Emerson was drawn to and Whitman practised; he was incapable of the mystical exaltation of Jones Very or the gnomic compression of Emily Dickinson. All of these poets, whatever their differences, were linked by a desire somehow to achieve union—or at least enter intimate relation—with a transcendent principle, in part because they found ordinary life insufficient. And they tried to achieve this through a variety of spiritual exercises and exposures.

Tuckerman wrote from a sharper endowment of common-sense realism. Like anyone raised in nineteenth-century New England, he felt the gradual slipping-away of God as a personal trouble; but he never tried to force his way into belief or bludgeon his soul into ecstasy (“Still craves the spirit: never Nature solves/That yearning which with her first breath began”). If he fails to reach Very’s sublimities or Dickinson’s intensities, neither is he guilty of forcing his emotions or pumping up his self. And he abstains from the characteristic temptation of nineteenth-century writers, which is to spiritualize the natural world as a way of relocating a displaced and diminished God.

In the sonnets and “The Cricket” Tuckerman writes out of a hard awareness of human limitation: he does not confuse himself with the cosmos, the trees, or the spiritual aether. He is not a soul on the lookout for mergers, and he knows himself as a discrete and particular being. Just as he does not wish to spiritualize the outer world, so he does not try to mythicize himself. Perhaps all writers create a persona for their work that is distinct from their actual selves, but in the case of Tuckerman the distinction between the two is minimal. One feels that the poems contain the direct reflections of a serious and thoughtful man: not very hopeful in regard to himself but strongly alive toward the world about him. And in the nineteenth-century American context, where poets too often are straining to inflate the self into a universal presence or to roll it into a neat capsule of wisdom, this even-voiced meditation—it is by no means conversational speech—comes as something of a relief.

Though marred by an occasional breakdown of syntax and archaism of diction, Tuckerman’s poems are realistic in psychology and moral tone. His characteristic topics—the burden and value of grief, the way in which distance enables a proper inspection of the world, the pressures of ennui tempting one to sink back into insentience—are all treated as elements of common experience. Nothing in his work reaches the exalted power of Very’s Thy Brother’s Blood, but one can feel about Tuckerman, as not about Very, that he is a recognizable psychic contemporary.

Tuckerman’s descriptions of the natural world are sharp and clean, as one might suppose the descriptions of an imaginative scientist would be:

Dank fens of cedar, hemlock branches gray,
With trees and trail of mosses, wringing-wet,
Beds of the black pitchpine in dead leaves set
Whose wasted red has wasted to white away,
Remnants of rain and droppings of decay…

This is very fine, especially the fourth line in which an aura of implication like that in Frost’s “Spring Pools” is achieved through striking exactness of detail. Emerson courted the essence of Nature, Tuckerman observed the local phenomena of nature. Distinguished poetry can be written from both outlooks, but to most modern tastes Tuckerman’s control of particulars will seem the more congenial. In another sonnet he reflects upon the settling of his countryside:

Here, but a lifetime back, where falls tonight
Behind the curtained pane a shelter- ered light
On buds of rose or vase of violet
Aloft upon the marble mantle set,
Here in the forest-heart, hung black- ening
The wolfbait on the bush beside the spring.

Perhaps there is a slight drop into flatness in the third and fourth of these lines, but the opening (“but a lifetime back”) and the magnificent concluding lines are of a very high order.

Respecting the integrity, the “thereness,” of the natural world, Tuckerman refused to assimilate it into any metaphysical improvisation. In a way that makes him seem a modern sensibility even though no one would suppose him a modern poet, Tuckerman keeps returning to the experience of duality between the perceiving self and the perceived world—an experience that seemed to him basic to the human situation, so that no theory can undo it or sophistication dismiss it.

A poetry of observation, dwelling mainly on the pleasures and qualities of appearance, gives way in Tuckerman’s work to a poetry of meditation, dwelling mainly on the sensibility of the bereft. The first is usually more successful than the second, for the poet’s anguish, insufficiently grounded in precise situations and lacking variety of pitch, comes to sound like a minor chord struck over and over again. But when Tuckerman fuses the meditative and descriptive modes, when he brings together the ruminative speaker and a setting of brilliantly observed phenomena, he usually avoids that emotional droop which Mr. Winters describes as the “romantic…divorce of feeling from motive.” There follows a compressed drama in which the self rallies almost against its will, responding to a sky “blue with white tails of cloud” and noticing that even as graves remain stirless “Creation moveth, and the farmboy sleeps/A still strong sleep till but the east is red.”

In my own experience, the sonnets do not invite a sustained reading: there are more than a hundred of them. Read systematically, they reveal frequent lapses into stock filler and mannerism; they have a way of not completing themselves; and most troubling of all, they betray a lack of emotional energy and will. The problem with depletion as a subject for poetry is that too often it ends up as the condition of poetry. Precisely the sorrow one recognizes as utterly authentic gets to be dulling, soporific, clotting. Tuckerman’s voice becomes too predictable, like that of a friend in mourning whose sorrow one credits but concerning which one becomes guiltily impatient.

Let me quote, however, one of the lovelier sonnets, which also has its soft lines and Romantic commonplaces, but which nevertheless illustrates Tuckerman’s high meditative eloquence:

An upper chamber in a darkened house,
Where, ere his footsteps reached ripe manhood’s brink,
Terror and anguish were his lot to drink;
I cannot rid the thought nor hold it close
But dimly dream upon that man alone:
Now through autumn clouds most softly pass,
The cricket chides beneath the door- step stone
And greener than the season grows the grass.
Nor can I drop my lids nor shade my brows,
But there he stands beside the lifted sash:
And with a swooning of the heart, I think
Where the black shingles slope to meet the boughs
And, shattered on the roof like smallest snows,
The tiny petals of the mountain ash.

About “The Cricket” I must be brief. Respecting Mr. Winters, I have reread the poem a number of times to see why he thinks it superior to, say, Keats’s Odes or Wordsworth’s major poems. I do not see: perhaps time will teach what study cannot.

The poem is a complex meditation, composed in alternating groups of long and short iambic lines which establish a curiously hypnotic, trance-like effect. First there is a quiet description of the cricket in a sleepy afternoon; gradually the poet, observing the creature, yields to the somnolent enticements of the natural world; and then, through images of lapsed energy and associations with the sea, there follows a development in which the speaker is drawn further toward the temptations of insentience, an end to awareness and pain. But, breaking away from the romantic primitivism to which he has momentarily surrendered, the poet ends by asserting the imperatives of individual consciousness, be it glory or burden, and acknowledges, somewhat ruefully, the helplessness of any human desire before the motions of time.

It matters not. Behold! the autumn goes,

The shadow grows,

The moments take hold of eternity
Even while we stop to wrangle or repine
Our lives are gone—

Like thinnest mist

Admirably serious as the poem is in its dialectic of temptation and restraint, and notable as are lines and passages for refinement of perception (“The moments take hold of eternity”), “The Cricket” suffers from Tuckerman’s characteristic lapses. It is as if now and again the lights go out or, to change the figure, a voice suddenly loses its weight and timbre through some unseen blockage. Perhaps the cogent thing to say is that it does not seem an unavoidable duty for the critic to name “the greatest poem of the century” and that even if Tuckerman didn’t write it, he is very much worth reading.

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