Ah, yes, I remember why I got bogged down in my reading of the Library of America’s collection of 19th century American poetry: heroic couplets. Every man and his dog tried his hand at an epic in this worst of all forms, or so it seems. First was John Barlow’s wretched Columbiad; then came James Kirk Paulding’s more anodyne The Backwoodsman. And now I return to the volume to find John Pierpont’s Airs of Palestine. I don’t doubt dread of it kept me away these last 9+ months.
But here I am—let’s give it a go. Mostly, it’s bland in the way Paulding’s poem was bland, and would be inoffensive but for the sheer volume of it. (This collection includes 122 lines of at least 777, and it’s already too many.) They wash over me in a mostly undifferentiated mass. Pierpont even indulges in a pointless alexandrine at the end of the first selection:
In Carmel’s holy grots, I’ll court repose,
And deck my mossy couch, with Sharon’s deathless rose. (95-96)
About this, Alexander Pope has said all there is to say:
A needless alexandrine ends the song
That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.
Beyond that, Pierpont has a tendency to the breathless:
Here let us pause:—the opening prospect view:—
How fresh this mountain air!—how soft the blue… (55-56)
How the wide landscape laughs upon the sky!
How rich the light, that gives it to the eye! (63-64)
How fondly then, from all but Hope exil’d,
To Zion’s woe recurs Religion’s child! (525-26)
How mild the empire of that virgin queen!
How dark the mountain’s shade! how still the scene! (581-82)
And how! But let me be fair. In the selections given here, Pierpont does manage one passage of true beauty:
He sees the tear of Judah’s captive daughters
Mingle, in silent flow, with Babel’s waters;
While Salem’s harp, by patriot pride unstrung,
Wrapp’d in the mist, that o’er the river hung,
Felt but the breeze, that wanton’d o’er the billow,
And the long, sweeping fingers of the willow. (527-32)
The volume also includes two other selections of Pierpont’s work: a couple forgettable stanzas from “A Word from a Petitioner,” as well as the full text of “The Fugitive Slave’s Apostrophe to the North Star.” This last is his best showing. Pierpont was a minister, and apparently had to resign after his anti-slavery views (expressed in his poetry) led to conflict with his congregation. This particular anti-slavery poem is a moving tribute to the north star, written from the perspective of a fugitive slave. It’s remarkable more for its content than the quality of its writing (though it’s perfectly competent in the latter regard), especially its sharp critique of the American symbol of the eagle:
Star of the North! in bright array
The constellations round thee sweep,
Each holding on its nightly way,
Rising, or sinking in the deep,
And, as it hangs in mid heaven flaming,
The homage of some nation claiming.
This nation to the Eagle cowers;
Fit ensign! she’s a bird of spoil;—
Like worships like! for each devours
The earnings of another’s toil.
I’ve felt her talons and her beak,
And now the gentler Lion seek.
Star of the North! upon that shield
Thou shinest!—O, for ever shine!
The negro, from the cotton-field,
Shall then beneath its orb recline,
And feed the Lion couched before it,
Nor heed the Eagle screaming o’er it!