Halleck, Fitz-Greene

Fitz-Greene Halleck is next in my tour through nineteenth century American poetry, courtesy of the Library of America.

The selection begins with “On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake” (Drake was a friend of Halleck’s, and, per Wikipedia, possibly an unrequited love interest). The poem itself is of mild interest. It gives no sense of Drake the man, filled as it is with imprecise praise. “None knew thee but to love thee,” we are told, but we are given no insight into why. The best we are told is that his is one of those “hearts, whose truth was proven.” The first two stanzas are devoted to this, and forebode a dull poem. In the third stanza, however, things begin to change. A man like Drake, when he dies, ought to have his worth publicized (stanza three), and I ( = Halleck), as his close friend, should be the publicist (stanza four). But, Halleck finds, he can’t:

While memory bids me weep thee,
Nor thoughts nor words are free,
The grief is fixed too deeply
That mourns a man like thee.

In this stanza, the poem comes to grips with its own incapacity, its inability to provide Drake with the remembrance he deserves. The very love that made Halleck fit to honor Drake makes him unable to do so—and will until the feeling of love fades. This catch-22 is the heart of the poem, and somewhat rescues it from its opening clichés (which, of course, are by the end seen to be deliberately so).

But only somewhat. It is a delicate, difficult poem to write, the one that both uses and addresses its use of clichés. I don’t think Halleck quite manages it here. A cliché holds the reader at a distance: by its very familiarity it is not conducive to deep feeling and close engagement. The poem, in using clichés, must encourage such engagement in other ways. And that’s where this poem fails. It gets across the idea of the conflict, but never quite makes me feel it. It is a touching tribute, but not a great poem.

The second poem included here, “Alnwick Castle”, appears to be a lament that trade is eliminating the unity of Christiandom. “The age of bargaining, said Burke, / Has come”, with the result that “The Moslem tramples on the Greek, / And on the Cross and alter stone, / And Christendom looks tamely on”. An early bit of hand-wringing about globalization, I suppose. But two formal features of the poem stand out. First, though it pops up only once in the poem, there is a very nice use of enjambment:

Gaze on the Abbey’s ruined pile:
Does not the succouring Ivy, keeping
Her watch around it, seem to smile,
As o’er a loved one sleeping?

I highlight this because most of the poetry in this volume has been meticulously end-stopped, and that has been part of why it has often felt so stilted. Read these lines aloud, though, and the single enjambment immediately gives them a fluidity and naturalness that would otherwise be lacking.

The second formal feature of note comes midway through the poem, when it transitions from memorializing the castle’s beauty and history to lamenting current states of affairs:

I wandered through the lofty halls
Trod by the Percys of old fame,
And traced upon the chapel walls
Each high, heroic name,
From him who once his standard set
Where now, o’er mosque and minaret,
Glitter the Sultan’s crescent moons;
To him who, when a younger son,
Fought for King George at Lexington,
A Major of Dragoons.
*   *   *   *
That last half stanza—it has dashed
From my warm lip the sparkling cup;
The light that o’er my eye-beam flashed,
The power that bore my spirit up
Above this bank-note world—is gone;
And Alnwick’s but a market town…

As in the poem for Drake, the poem acknowledges itself with a comment on what it is trying (and failing) to do. Here, as before, this meta-commentary is a window into the speaker’s mind. The poem becomes, not just a description of the experience, but the experience itself. It isn’t, after all, the crescent moons that “dash” the poet’s pleasant mood, but “That last half stanza”. It is an intriguingly contemporary touch in otherwise very 19th century poem, and a welcome one. As with the previous poem, it isn’t enough to make the poem one I much care to read again, but it does make Halleck more memorable than most of the rest of what I’ve read from this volume.

About the other three poems by Halleck in this collection—“Marco Bozzaris”; “Red Jacket”; and a selection from “Connecticut”—I have less to say, though “Red Jacket” deserves mention for romanticizing the Native American chieftain only to acknowledge the inaccuracy of this (the replacement picture then introduced is another romanticization, but I suppose you take what you can in C19). It also, if I’m reading the end aright, at least partially acknowledges the tragedy of the treatment of Native Americans.

I’ll end with an appreciation: Halleck is the best writer thus far in this volume. His poems read smoothly. He isn’t breathless, or stilted. While none of the poems quite capture me as poems, each moves fluidly and engagingly—they’re never a chore to read.