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Sweep on, O River…’

American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume One: Philip Freneau to Walt Whitman

edited by John Hollander
Library of America, 1,099 pp., $70.00 boxed set

American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume Two: Herman Melville to Trumbull Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals

edited by John Hollander
Library of America, 1,050 pp., $70.00 boxed set

In the summer of 1832 a cholera epidemic ravaged New York City and something like a third of the population fled. One of those who remained behind, alone in his family house, was thirteen-year-old Walt Whitman, whose job as a printer’s apprentice kept him city-bound. His parents must have been terrified that he would be one of the epidemic’s victims. Let’s assume he was. And assume, likewise, that Emily Dickinson, whose childhood illnesses caused her to miss whole terms of school, failed to reach adulthood. Neither of them, that is, lived long enough to become poets. What would the map of nineteenth-century American poetry now look like?

It’s a question implicitly but powerfully raised by this new Library of America two-volume set edited by John Hollander. Needless to say, it scants neither Whitman nor Dickinson; the complete Leaves of Grass is here (as well as another hundred pages of Whitman), and one hundred and seventy-two Dickinson poems. But these paired volumes in their range and intelligence and sheer comprehensiveness do more than any predecessor to populate that sparse mountain at whose summit Whitman and Dickinson—those two colossi—have long stood.

Their shared reign has no counterpart in twentieth-century American literature—or in the prose of their own era. If from the pantheon of nineteenth-century American fiction writers we were to remove, say, James and Twain, the resulting holes would be tremendous, but we still would have Irving, Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Jewett, Howells, Harte, Chopin, Crane. Poetry is another matter. It almost seems that Whitman and Dickinson are nineteenth-century American verse. To imagine the landscape without them is like imagining Colorado without the Rockies, Louisiana without the Mississippi. Bereft of our primary landmarks, we hardly know where we are.

While inviting us to contemplate the field without the two of them, the anthology also manages, ironically, to advance their supremacy. For anybody who has ever had trouble appreciating either poet, I can’t think of a course of action more likely to clarify their virtues than a thoroughgoing immersion in their contemporaries. We’ve grown accustomed to reading Whitman and Dickinson in conjunction with modern poets—beside whom they still succeed in looking innovative and arresting. But their triumphant originality emerges all the more vividly when they are placed beside not Eliot, Cummings, Pound, Moore but beside Henry Timrod, James Russell Lowell, John James Piatt, Nathaniel Parker Willis.

Criticism abhors a vacuum, and if Whitman and Dickinson had never appeared, other reputations would have expanded to claim our attention. Who would now loom as the century’s paramount figures? Longfellow and Poe? Whittier and Bryant? These two volumes do what anthologies so frequently promise but so rarely achieve: they inspire us to reassemble the landscape.

When you add in the biographical and textual notes, there are more than two thousand pages here—more than a thousand poems, more than a hundred and fifty poets. In its magnitude, this isn’t a collection one easily steps back from in order to gather together a few summary observations. My own were scattered, but I suppose the overriding impression was of the remoteness of this material to what’s being written today. Most of these poems feel distant. It isn’t so much a matter of alterations in tone and diction—considerable though these are—as of a dissolution of loyalties. Somewhere along the line, for poets and the general reading public alike, our ties to this body of poetry seem to have frayed.

It’s certainly difficult to envision this anthology sparking any sort of outrage. Are we going to see many critics, driven not by some cheap impulse to appear superior but by a heart-sore sense of loss, lamenting the absence of this or that verse by Philip Freneau or Washington Allston? One can no more picture a nineteenth-century collection’s stirring up this kind of discontent than a twentieth-century anthology’s pleasing most everyone.

The poems of even the early decades of the twentieth century, whose authors’ roots lay deep in the nineteenth, press urgently upon us. Pound, Williams, Frost—these are artists who inspire feelings of contention, as the greatest of their immediate predecessors do not. The contrast sharpens when we look to lesser figures. While modern poets like Jeffers or Bogan or Ransom may be considered “minor,” they can ignite spirited debate as William Vaughn Moody or James Whitcomb Riley or Louise Imogen Guiney no longer can.

The remoteness of so much nineteenth-century verse stems partly from the striking fact that many of the its finest poets—Melville, Emerson, Poe, Thoreau—eclipsed their own poetry by writing still finer prose. One would scarcely have it otherwise. (Melville was at times a marvelous poet, but who would trade Moby-Dick for his collected verse?) Nonetheless, in turning reflexively to their prose when we decide to explore Melville or Emerson or Poe or Thoreau, we marginalize much of what’s best in nineteenth-century poetry.

We might feel closer to this material had it not been such a bleak era for comic verse. By and large, the anthology seems almost determinedly unfunny. When its poets attempt to shake off their firm-jawed earnestness, the characteristic result’s a heavy-stepping whimsy. What amusement these pages do supply is often unwitting, derived from verses whose solemnity presents irresistible grist for the parodist:

Woodman, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me,
And I’ll protect it now.

Or:

Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said….

“Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.

Perhaps the failure here is simply one of missing progenitors; the contours of an entire century’s verse might have looked different had America been blessed at the outset, as England was, with the great comic genius of a Byron. Clearly, any culture whose Byron substitute is Christopher Pearse Cranch (“His horn is so long, and he blows it so strong, / He would make Handel fly off the handle”) or Joseph Rodman Drake (“Go on, great Painter! dare be dull; / No longer after nature dangle”) is in a bad way for humor.

In our own century, especially the first half, good comic verse writers were abundant enough that we can now cavalierly slight them. But if Phyllis McGinley or Dorothy Parker—charming presences who don’t regularly make their way into our anthologies—could somehow have been transported back a century, she would doubtless have flourished as a comic master. Certainly, when we consider the best of twentieth-century light verse lyrics—poems like Frost’s “Departmental” and “The Telephone,” Howard Nemerov’s “A Primer of the Daily Round,” Howard Moss’s “Tourists,” Ogden Nash’s “The Private Dinning Room”—there’s nothing in the nineteenth century to approach them. (The one exception I can think of belongs to an allied genre: children’s verse. Eugene Field’s “Dutch Lullaby,” otherwise known as “Wynken, Blynken and Nod,” and his “The Duel”—both included in the Hollander anthology—are as winsome as anything in that Child’s Garden of Verses of his exact English contemporary Robert Louis Stevenson, if not quite on a level with Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat.”)

Wherever our observations about it begin, this anthology prods us ultimately to confront the question of whether poetry has lost some central place in our culture. It’s an issue that colors much current poetry criticism, and that served as a pervading theme for the leading poet-critic of our age, Randall Jarrell, whose four volumes of essays worry it again and again. It’s a divisive issue—some contemporary poets taking perverse comfort in their perpetual social irrelevance (we’ve never counted…), others defiantly pointing out signs of a grass-roots resurgence (everybody and his uncle is now enrolled in a poetry workshop…).

The anthology makes a strong case for poetry’s loss of centrality. It isn’t an issue merely of the fame granted to many of the poets assembled here (not only prolific and august figures like Longfellow, but those who brought renown on themselves with a single lyric, as did Elizabeth Akers Allen with her “Rock Me to Sleep,” or Edwin Markham with his “The Man with the Hoe”). Nor of the sheer number of prose writers who intermittently resorted to verse (virtually everyone…not just Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville, but Hawthorne, Harte, Howells, Henry Adams, Bierce, Jewett, Wharton, Chapman, Santayana, Crane).

No, one feels the loss of centrality in the poems themselves, in the poised, unself-conscious way in which they air their views on the varied concerns of the day: abolition, the Civil War, temperance, Bismarck’s politics, the advent of ironclad ships, humanitarian aid for victims of the Great Chicago Fire. These are poems that take for granted their role and relevance in social and political debate—as well they could, since the public figures they address might plausibly be poets themselves. Hollander includes verses by two presidents (Lincoln and John Quincy Adams), and by all sorts of lesser statesmen and public figures: secretaries of state, diplomats, mayors, congressmen, judges, ambassadors, commissioners, educational administrators, priests…. Perhaps the greatest benefit these volumes provide is to recreate an era and an atmosphere in which “Let My People Go,” Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” John Rollin Ridge’s “The Stolen White Girl,” Bret Harte’s “What the Bullet Sang,” Henry Adam’s “Brahma and Buddha,” Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” (“Give me your tired, your poor./Your huddled masses…”), and Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” might spring out of a common milieu.

One could grow far more sentimental over poetry’s loss of position were the verse of the nineteenth century brighter and more memorable. But to judge by depth—the number of poets occasionally capable of resonant, haunting verses—American poetry is undeniably healthier today than a hundred years ago. Even so, the forfeiture of any meaningful social role is a grievous casualty on the road to excellence. Posterity may view ours as the century when American poetry found its voice and lost its audience.

How are those readers who have proceeded resolutely through both volumes apt to feel when they turn its final pages? If they’re like me, gratitude for an editorial task well done will be the primary emotion. Formidable amounts of work clearly went into this project. One doesn’t envy Hollander the job of combing one more sprawling, multicanto epic about Columbus or the Seminole wars for a viable excerpt. I know of no other anthology of the period that begins to match this one’s comprehensiveness. In addition to conventional lyrics, one finds here Christmas carols, anonymous folk ballads, Indian chants, popular songs, African American spirituals, and hymns. Hollander has performed the essential task of compiling a sort of American Collected from which—through criticism, classroom analysis, rival anthologies—an American Selected might be arrived at.

One is grateful, too, for all kinds of quirky revelations. Who would have guessed that what are almost definitely the two best-known American poems would be written by men who were born in the same year—1779—and whose work is otherwise forgotten? (I’m thinking of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”) Or that Melville could sound so much like Lewis Carroll: “Within low doors the boozy boors/Cat-naps take in pipe-bowl light”? Or that an American poet published a novel entitled Keep Cool in 1817? Or that Trumbull Stickney once composed three lines as surreally odd and lovely as these:

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