American Poetry.




"BETWEEN Shakespeare in his cradle and Shakespeare in Hamlet there was needed but an interval of time; and the same sublime condition is all that lies between the America of toil and the America of art. "This principle is equally true when applied to the province of poetry, and a full comprehension of its truth is of great importance in assisting us to form a true critical estimate of the present general tendencies of the American poets. It has frequently been asserted that as yet we have no distinctively national school of poets; but the statement is too extreme in its conception to warrant a belief. Those who accept this belief disregard the natural mode of development of any poetical school and restrict the word national within narrowest limits. They have ignored the fact that poetry is a growth,and not a creation; and they have examined American poetry with the expectation of finding its characteristics as definitely and distinctly outlined as are those of foreign schools. In the first instance unquestionable facts have been overlooked, and on the other hand the law of comparison has been violated.

[156] The comparison of our material with our literary progress as a nation, admits of certain conclusions being deduced, but care must be taken not to carry the comparison too far; for notwithstanding that the material and literary development of a nation are in many respects closely connected, when viewed from another standpoint they are almost as widely separated. Here, then, is where we need to draw a careful line of distinction, and to keep continually before our minds the fact that while "the America of toil" is closely allied to the "America of art," the laws which govern and regulate their existence are essentially different. To form a just estimate of the American school of poetry it is absolutely necessary that we have at least a fair comprehension of the nature and potency of the principal obstacles that have affected its development; and to accomplish the desired end we must admit that the growth of our poetry has been subsidiary to that of all other forms of literature, and if we seek still further for the primary causes, we find abundant exemplification of the fact that literature is continuously governed by the law of supply and demand.

As we study the social and political history of the Colonies, we find the principle of utilitarianism so strongly imbedded in all classes and conditions of society as to afford little vantage ground to the idealists in poetry. In this period we fail to detect a true and sincere genius in poetry, while its presence is readily detected in other branches of literature. Hot until we reach the first part of the present century do we find a truly national school of bards. In the midst of that little group composed of Pierpont, Dana, Bryant and their followers, the first idealistic and creative movement in American poetry receives its initiative impetus. As we listen to the songs of these our earliest writers in verse, it is easy to trace the introduction and propagation of the many principles, tenets and poetical creeds that have at last raised up a school of poets to whom we can apply not only the term national, but also that of universal. Where, then, must we look for the source from which their [157] inspiration flows? It surely is not in that great middle-class of our society, whose influence many would have us believe is all-pervading; but patriotism, loyalty, piety and other kindred sentiments are the key-notes of their songs. Here it is that we find our poets have drawn closer and ever closer to that ideal poet – a man among his fellow-men possessed of similar sympathy and kindred feelings, only more sensitive and intense. If the conceptions and accessories are oftentimes rude and unpolished, the fault lies in the models from which they have been recast. But we must acknowledge in this early period the absence of a sufficient amount of that higher and world-wide criticism essential to the growth of any poetical school. However we may regard the province of criticism, it cannot be denied that at this time our poets show the need of insufficient criticism. It is true that the critical and creative faculties do not attain their highest development at the same period, but if the spirit of the times passes into our poetry, if our thoughts, words and deeds find embodiment in verse, surely prior to all this there is need that some estimate be put upon it all. The movement has comparatively recently had its advocates, and the wit and learning of Emerson, of Longfellow, of Lowell, and others, have put the Philistine to scorn.

To-day, on the other hand, we are beginning to ask ourselves if "the disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world" through wrong application of its principles has not been the source from which have sprung the technicalities and pedantries that have shrouded the former simplicity of American metrical literature. Doubtless criticism, when combined with certain other principles and restricted by certain limitations, is beneficial, and, in fact, absolutely indispensable; but how frequently do we find that the elegance and finish of construction are the paramount elements in a poem. The illusions are too placid and literary, and the beat and throb of life are wanting. Again and again we are told what Life is, and though the pictures are simple and true, the sensations [158] produced have not been abiding ones. The intuitive and imaginative powers in our poetry have been set free; why is it, then, that their development should cease? How long must we wait before we see Life reflected in other than in a common-place aspect.

Although, as some one has said, it is more difficult for the American poets to be national than it is for the English, the characteristics of the two schools are easily distinguishable. Contrast our present school of poets with the Victorian group in England. In Tennyson's productions alone, and then only in his latest works, do we find reference made to that home-life and its attendant virtues which have made England what she is to-day. Almost without exception every member of this illustrious group has drawn his models from the past, from the field of legendary yore and antiquity. Let us read again the productions of Longfellow, Whittier and Lowell, and ask ourselves the question, which school reveals most clearly the people among whom its works were first brought to light? In the poetry of both schools we note the presence of those Saxon qualities of character which remind us that the bards in England and America are members of one and the same great school; but the reader of "Evangeline," of "Under the Willows," and of "Snow Bound," can recall forms of language and imagery, descriptive and imaginative, distinctively American, even to every accessory and detail. The same universal sentiments of piety, of patriotism, of loyalty, are present in the works of both schools, but at times the note sounded from across the sea seems to be strengthened and more lasting. The same spirit that pervades Burns' "a man's a man for a' that" and has set it continually running in the ears of man, has found expression in the following lines of one of our own poets:

"Where'er a single slave doth pine
 Where'er one man may help another,
 Thank God for such a birth-right, brother;
That spot of earth is thine and mine,
 There is the true man's birth-place grand,
 His is a world-wide fatherland."

[159] As we see the completion of the first era in our school of national poets, and as we analyze and record its successes, judging them as we do from an epoch which has been called the Twilight of the Poets, we feel as sured that the foundations at least for a great national school of poets have been laid. Whether the twilight warns us of the approach of night or is that which heralds the day, it is difficult to predict, but we are certain that it is only an interval of time, whether it be of long or short duration, that lies between the "America of toil" and "the America of art." Often in the study of literature we have noticed that a creative period is followed by an interregnum when the creative faculties of the mind are apparently at rest, but underneath all there is unconsciously being formed a current of ideas which ultimately results in a still wider expansion of these faculties. Surely we have had a creative period, and its influences and forces are still extant. To-day we recognize the fact that on the force of that tide of kindred sympathies and feelings which uninterruptedly flows through the works of our truly national poets, depends not only the development of American Poetry but also that of the American Nation.






The Nassau Literary Magazine.
Bd. 41, 1885, Nr. 4, Oktober, S. 155-159.


Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The Nassau Literary Magazine   online
URL: https://library.princeton.edu/special-collections/databases/nassau-literary-magazine-1842-2015
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006892825





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PURL: http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:hbz:6:1-124617
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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer