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Outlines of English and American Literature
Poetry Since 1876
by Long, William J.


It is commonly assumed that the last half century has been almost exclusively an age of prose. The student of literature knows, on the contrary, that one difficulty of judging our recent poetry lies in the amount and variety of it. Since 1876 more poetry has been published here than in all the previous years of our history; and the quality of it, if one dare judge it as a whole, is surprisingly good. The designation of "the prose age," therefore, should not blind us to the fact that America never had so many poets as at present. Whether a future generation will rank any of these among our elder poets is another question. Of late years we have had no singer to compare with Longfellow, to be sure; but we have had a dozen singers who reflect the enlarging life of America in a way of which Longfellow never dreamed. He lived mostly in the past and was busy with legends, folklore, songs of the night; our later singers live in the present and write songs of the day. And this suggests the chief characteristic of recent poetry; namely, that it aims to be true to life as it is here and now rather than to life as it was romantically supposed to be in classic or medieval times. [Footnote: The above characterization applies only to the best, or to what most critics deem best, of our recent poetry. It takes no account of a large mass of verse which leaves an impression of faddishness in the matter of form or phrase or subject. Such verse appeals to the taste of the moment, but Time has an effective way of dealing with it and with all other insincerities in literature.]

This emancipation of our poetry from the past, with the loss and gain which such a change implies, was not easily accomplished, and the terrible reality of the great war was perhaps the decisive factor in the struggle. Before the war our poetry was largely conventional, imitative, sentimental; and even after the war, when Miller's Songs of the Sierras and John Hay's Pike-County Ballads began to sing, however crudely, of vigorous life, the acknowledged poets and critics of the time were scandalized. Thus, to read the letters of Bayard Taylor is to meet a poet who bewails the lack of poetic material in America and who "hungers," as he says, for the romance and beauty of other lands. He writes Songs of the Orient, Lars: a Pastoral of Norway, Prince Deukalion and many other volumes which seem to indicate that poetry is to be found everywhere save at home. Even his "Song of the Camp" is located in the Crimea, as if heroism and tenderness had not recently bloomed on a hundred southern battlefields. So also Stedman wrote his Alectryon and The Blameless Prince, and Aldrich spent his best years in making artificial nosegays (as Holmes told him frankly) when he ought to have been making poems. These and many other poets said proudly that they belonged to the classic school; they all read Shelley and Keats, dreamed of medieval or classic beauty, and in unnumbered reviews condemned the crudity of those who were trying to find beauty at their own doors and to make poetry of the stuff of American life.

Stedman and Aldrich

It was the war, or rather the new American spirit that issued from the war, which finally assured these poets and critics that mythology and legend were, so far as America was concerned, as dead as the mastodon, and that life itself was the only vitally interesting subject of poetry. Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833-1908), after writing many "finished" poems that were praised and forgotten, manfully acknowledged that he had been following the wrong trail and turned at last to the poetry of his own people. His Alice of Monmouth, an idyl of the war, and a few short pieces, such as "Wanted: a Man," are the only parts of his poetical works that are now remembered. Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907) went through the same transformation. He had a love of formal beauty, and in the exquisite finish of his verse has had few rivals in American poetry; but he spent the great part of his life in making pretty trifles. Then he seemed to waken to the meaning of poetry as a noble expression of the truth or beauty of this present life, and his last little book of Songs and Sonnets contains practically all that is worth remembering of his eight or nine volumes of verse.

Joaquin Miller

One of the first in time of the new singers was Cincinnatus Heine Miller or, as he is commonly known, Joaquin Miller (1841-1912). His Songs of the Sierras (1871) and other poems of the West have this advantage, that they come straight from the heart of a man who has shared the stirring life he describes and who loves it with an overmastering love. To read his My Own Story or the preface to his Ship in the Desert is to understand from what fullness of life came lines like these:

  Room! room to turn round in, to breathe and be free,
  To grow to be giant, to sail as at sea
  With the speed of the wind on a steed with his mane
  To the wind, without pathway or route or a rein.
  Room! room to be free, where the white-bordered sea
  Blows a kiss to a brother as boundless as he;
  Where the buffalo come like a cloud on the plain,
  Pouring on like the tide of a storm-driven main,
  And the lodge of the hunter to friend or to foe
  Offers rest, and unquestioned you come or you go.
  My plains of America! seas of wild lands!...
  I turn to you, lean to you, lift you my hands.


Indeed, there was a splendid promise in Miller, but the promise was never fulfilled. He wrote voluminously, feeling that he must express the lure and magic of the boundless West; but he wrote so carelessly that the crude bulk of his verse obscures the originality of his few inspired lines. To read the latter is to be convinced that he was a true poet who might have accomplished a greater work than Whitman, since he had more genius and manliness than the eastern poet possessed; but his personal oddities, his zeal for reforms, his love of solitude, his endless quest after some unnamed good which kept him living among the Indians or wandering between Mexico and the ends of Alaska,--all this hindered his poetic development. It may be that an Indian-driven arrow, which touched his brain in one of his numerous adventures, had something to do with his wanderings and his failure.

There is a poetry of thought that can be written down in words, and there is another poetry of glorious living, keenly felt in the winds of the wilderness or the rush of a splendid horse or the flight of a canoe through the rapids, for which there is no adequate expression. Miller could feel superbly this poetry of the mountaineer, the plainsman and the voyageur; that he could even suggest or half reveal it to others makes him worthy to be named among our most original singers.

Irwin Russell

The hundred other poets of the period are too near for criticism, too varied even for classification; but we may at least note two or three significant groupings. In one group are the dialect poets, who attempt to make poetry serve the same end as fiction of the local-color school. Irwin Russell, with his gay negro songs tossed off to the twanging accompaniment of his banjo, belongs in this group. His verses are notable not for their dialect (others have done that better) but for their fidelity to the negro character as Russell had observed it in the old plantation days. There is little of poetic beauty in his work; it is chiefly remarkable for its promise, for its opening of a new field of poesie; but unfortunately the promise was spoiled by the author's fitful life and his untimely death.

Carleton and Riley

Closely akin to the dialect group in their effective use of the homely speech of country people are several popular poets, of whom Will Carleton and James Whitcomb Riley are the most conspicuous. Carleton's "Over the Hills to the Poorhouse" and other early songs won him a wide circle of readers; whereupon he followed up his advantage with Farm Ballads and other volumes filled with rather crude but sincere verses of home and childhood. For half a century these sentimental poems were as popular as the early works of Longfellow, and they are still widely read by people who like homely themes and plenty of homely sentiment in their poetry.

Riley won an even larger following with his Old Swimmin' Hole, Rhymes of Childhood Days and a dozen other volumes that aimed to reflect in rustic language the joys and sorrows of country people. Judged by the number of his readers he would be called the chief poet of the period; but judged by the quality of his work it would seem that he wrote too much, and wrote too often "with his eye on the gallery." He was primarily an entertainer, a platform favorite, and in his impersonation of country folk was always in danger of giving his audience what he thought they would like, not what he sincerely felt to be true. Hence the impression of the stage and a "make-up" in a considerable part of his work. At times, however, Riley could forget the platform and speak from the heart as a plain man to plain men. His work at such moments has a deeper note, more simple and sincere, and a few of his poems will undoubtedly find a permanent place in American letters. The best feature of his work is that he felt no need to go far afield, to the Orient or to mythology, but found the beauty of fine feeling at his door and dared to call one of his collections Poems Here at Home.

Typical Poets

In a third group of recent poets are those who try to reflect the feeling of some one type or race of the many that make up the sum total of American life. Such are Emma Lazarus, speaking finely for the Jewish race, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, voicing the deeper life of the negro,--not the negro of the old plantation but the negro who was once a slave and must now prove himself a man. In the same group we are perhaps justified in placing Lucy Larcom, singing for the mill girls of New England, and Eugene Field, who shows what fun and sentiment may brighten the life of a busy newspaper man in a great city.

Finally come a larger number of poets who cannot be grouped, who sing each of what he knows or loves best: Celia Thaxter, of the storm-swept northern ocean; Madison Cawein, of nature in her more tender moods; Edward Rowland Sill, of the aspirations of a rare Puritan soul. More varied in their themes are Edith Thomas, Emily Dickinson, Henry C. Bunner, Richard Watson Gilder, George Edward Woodberry, William Vaughn Moody, Richard Hovey, and several others who are perhaps quite as notable as any of those whom we have too briefly reviewed. They all sing of American life in its wonderful complexity and have added poems of real merit to the book of recent American verse. And that is a very good book to read, more inspiring and perhaps more enduring than the popular book of prose fiction.

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