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American Poetry
If we define poetry as the heart of man expressed in beautiful language, we shall not say that we have no national poetry. True, America has produced no Shakespeare and no Milton, but we have an inheritance in all English literature; and many poets in America have followed in the footsteps of their literary British forefathers.

Puritan life was severe. It was warfare, and manual labor of a most exhausting type, and loneliness, and devotion to a strict sense of duty. It was a life in which pleasure was given the least place and duty the greatest. Our Puritan ancestors thought music and poetry dangerous, if not actually sinful, because they made men think of this world rather than of heaven. When Anne Bradstreet wrote our first known American poems, she was expressing English thought; "The tenth muse" was not animated by the life around her, but was living in a dream of the land she had left behind; her poems are faint echoes of the poetry of England. After time had identified her with life in the new world, she wrote "Contemplations," in which her English nightingales are changed to crickets and her English gilli-flowers to American blackberry vines. The truly representative poetry of colonial times is Michael Wigglesworth's "Day of Doom. This is the real heart of the Puritan, his conscience, in imperfect rhyme. It fulfills the first part of our definition, but shows by its lack of beautiful style that both elements are necessary to produce real poetry.

Philip Freneau was the first American who sought to express his life in poetry. The test of beauty of language again excludes from real poetry some of his expressions and leaves us a few beautiful lyrics, such as "The Wild Honeysuckle," in which the poet sings his love of American nature. With them American poetry may be said to begin.

The first historical event of national importance was the American Revolution. Amid the bitter years of want, of suffering, and of war; few men tried to write anything beautiful. Life was harsh and stirring and this note was echoed in all the literature. As a result we have narrative and political poetry, such as "The Battle of the Kegs" and "A Fable," dealing almost entirely with events and aiming to arouse military ardor. In "The Ballad of Nathan Hale," the musical expression of bravery, pride, and sympathy raises the poem so far above the rhymes of their period that it will long endure as the most memorable poetic expression of the Revolutionary period.

Poetry was still a thing of the moment, an avocation, not dignified by receiving the best of a man. With William Cullen Bryant came a change. He told our nation that in the new world as well as in the old some men should live for the beautiful. Everything in nature spoke to him in terms of human life. Other poets saw the re1ation between their own lives and the life of the flowers and the birds, but Bryant constantly expressed this relationship. The concluding stanza of "To a Waterfowl" is the most perfect example of this characteristic, but it underlies also the whole thought of his youthful poem "Thanatopsis" (A View of Death). If we could all read the lives of our gentians and bobolinks as he did, there would be more true poetry in America. Modern thinkers urge us to step outside of ourselves into the lives of others and by our imagination to share their emotions; this is no new ambition in America; since Bryant in "The Crowded Street" analyzes the life in the faces he sees.

Until the early part of the nineteenth century American poetry dealt mainly with the facts of history and the description of nature. A new element of fancy is prominent in Joseph Rodman Drake's "The Culprit Fay." It dances through a long narrative with the delicacy of the fay himself.

Edgar Allan Poe brought into our poetry somber sentiment and musical expression. Puritan poetry was somber, but it was almost devoid of sentiment. Poe loved sad beauty and meditated on the sad things in life. Many of his poems lament the loss of some fair one. "To Helen," "Annabel Lee" "Lenore," and "To One In Paradise" have the theme, while in "The Raven" the poet is seeking solace for the loss of Lenore. "Eulalie--A Song" rises, on the other hand to intense happiness. With Poe the sound by which his idea was expressed was as important as the thought itself. He knew how to make the sound suit the thought, as in "The Raven" and "The Bells." One who understands no English can grasp the meaning of the different sections from the mere sound, so clearly distinguishable are the clashing of the brass and the tolling of the iron bells. If we return to our definition of poetry as an expression of the heart of a man, we shall find the explanation of these peculiarities: Poe was a man of moods and possessed the ability to express these moods in appropriate sounds.

The contrast between the emotion of Poe and the calm spirit of the man who followed him is very great. In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow American poetry reached high-water mark. Lacadio Hearn in his "Interpretations of Literature" says: "Really I believe that it is a very good test of any Englishman's ability to feel poetry, simply to ask him, `Did you like Longfellow when you were a boy?' If he says `No,' then it is no use to talk to him on the subject of poetry at all, however much he might be able to tell you about quantities and metres." No American has in equal degree won the name of "household poet." If this term is correctly understood, it sums up his merits more succinctly than can any other title.

Longfellow dealt largely with men and women and the emotions common to us all. Hiawatha conquering the deer and bison, and hunting in despair for food where only snow and ice abound; Evangeline faithful to her father and her lover, and relieving suffering in the rude hospitals of a new world; John Alden fighting the battle between love and duty; Robert of Sicily learning the lesson of humility; Sir Federigo offering his last possession to the woman he loved; Paul Revere serving his country in time of need; the monk proving that only a sense of duty done can bring happiness: all these and more express the emotions which we know are true in our own lives. In his longer narrative poems he makes the legends of Puritan life real to us; he takes English folk-lore and makes us see Othere talking to Arthur, and the Viking stealing his bride. His short poems are even better known than his longer narratives. In them he expressed his gentle, sincere love of the young, the suffering, and the sorrowful. In the Sonnets he showed; that deep appreciation of European literature which made noteworthy his teaching at Harvard and his translations.

He believed that he was assigned a definite task in the world which he described as follows in his last poem:

               "As comes the smile to the lips,
                    The foam to the surge;

               So come to the Poet his songs, 
                    All hitherward blown
               From the misty realm, that belongs 
                    To the vast unknown.

               His, and not his, are the lays
                    He sings; and their fame
               Is his, and not his; and the praise 
                    And the pride of a name.

               For voices pursue him by day
                    And haunt him by night,
               And he listens and needs must obey,
                    When the Angel says: 'Write!'


John Greenleaf Whittier seems to suffer by coming in such close proximity to Longfellow. Genuine he was, but his spirit was less buoyant than Longfellow's and he touches our hearts less. Most of his early poems were devoted to a current political issue. They aimed to win converts to the cause of anti-slavery. Such poems always suffer in time in comparison with the song of a man who sings because "the heart is so full that a drop overfills it." Whittier's later poems belong more to this class and some of them speak to-day to our emotions as well as to our intellects. "The Hero" moves us with a desire to serve mankind, and the stirring tone of "Barbara Frietchie" arouses our patriotism by its picture of the same type of bravery. In similar vein is "Barclay of Ury," which must have touched deeply the heart of the Quaker poet. "The Pipes of Lucknow" is dramatic in its intense grasp of a climactic hour and loses none of its force in the expression. We can actually hear the skirl of the bagpipes. Whittier knew the artists of the world and talked to us about Raphael and Burns with clear-sighted, affectionate interest. His poems show varied characteristics; the love of the sterner aspects of nature, modified by the appreciation of the humble flower; the conscience of the Puritan, tinged with sympathy for the sorrowful; the steadfastness of the Quaker, stirred by the fire of the patriot.

The poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson is marked by serious contemplation rather than by warmth of emotional expression. In Longfellow the appeal is constantly to a heart which is not disassociated from a brain; in Emerson the appeal is often to the intellect alone. We recognize the force of the lesson in "The Titmouse," even if it leaves us less devoted citizens than does "The Hero" and less capable women than does "Evangeline." He reaches his highest excellence when he makes us feel as well as understand a lesson, as in "The Concord Hymn" and "Forbearance." If we could all write on the tablets of our hearts that single stanza, forbearance would be a real factor in life. And it is to this poet whom we call unemotional that we owe this inspiring quatrain:

               "So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
               So near is God to man,
               When duty whispers low, Thou must,
               The youth replies, I can!"


James Russell Lowell was animated by a well-defined purpose which he described in the following lines:

               "It may be glorious to write
                 Thoughts that make glad the two or three
               High souls like those far stars that come in sight
                 Once in a century.

               But better far it is to speak
                 One simple word which, now and then
               Shall waken their free nature in the weak
                 And friendless sons of men.  

               To write some earnest verse or line
                 Which, seeking not the praise of art,

               Shall make a clearer faith and manhood shine
                 In the untutored heart."


His very accomplishments made it difficult for him to reach this aim, since his poetry does not move "the untutored heart" so readily as does that of Longfellow or Whittier. It is, on the whole, too deeply burdened with learning and too individual in expression to fulfil his highest desire. Of his early poems the most generally known is probably "The Vision of Sir Launfal," in which a strong moral purpose is combined with lines of beautiful nature description:

               "And what is so rare as a day in June?
                  Then, if ever, come perfect days.


Two works by which he will be permanently remembered show a deeper and more effective Lowell. "The Biglow Papers" are the most successful of all the American poems which attempt to improve conditions by means of humor. Although they refer in the main to the situation at the time of the Mexican War, they deal with such universal political traits that they may be applied to almost any age. They are written in a Yankee dialect which, it is asserted, was never spoken, but which enhances the humor, as in "What Mr. Robinson Thinks." Lowell's tribute to Lincoln occurs in the Ode which he wrote to commemorate the Harvard students who enlisted in the Civil War. After dwelling on the search for truth which should be the aim of every college student, he turns to the delineation of Lincoln's character in a eulogy of great beauty. Clear in analysis, far- sighted in judgment, and loving in sentiment, he expresses that opinion of Lincoln which has become a part of the web of American thought. His is no hurried judgment, but the calm statement of opinion which is to-day accepted by the world:

              "They all are gone, and, standing like a tower, 
               Our children shall behold his fame, 
               The kindly-earnest, brave, foreseeing man, 
               Sagacious, patient, dreading, praise, not blame, 
               Now birth of our new soil, the first American."


With Oliver Wendell Holmes comes the last of this brief American list of honor. No other American has so combined delicacy with the New England humor. We should be poorer by many a smile without "My Aunt" and "The Deacon's Masterpiece." But this is not his entire gift. "The Chambered Nautilus" strikes the chord of noble sentiment sounded in the last stanza of "Thanatopsis" and it will continue to sing in our hearts "As the swift seasons roll." There is in his poems the smile and the sigh of the well- loved stanza,

              "And if I should live to be
               The last leaf upon the tree
                  In the Spring.
               Let them smile; as I do now;
               As the old forsaken bough
                  Where I cling."


And is this all? Around these few names does all the fragrance of American poetry hover? In the hurry, prosperity, and luxury of modern life is the care if the flower of poetry lost? Surely not. The last half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth have brought many beautiful flowers of poetry and hints of more perfect blossoms. Lanier has sung of the life of the south he loved; Whitman and Miller have stirred us with enthusiasm for the progress of the nation; Field and Riley have made us laugh and cry in sympathy; Aldrich, Sill, Van Dyke, Burroughs, and Thoreau have shared with us their hoard of beauty. Among the present generation may there appear many men and women whose devotion to the delicate flower shall be repaid by the gratitude of posterity!

Contributed by Carhart, Margaret Spraque
22 June 2003

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