Wilde, Richard Henry

I return in this young year to my long project of familiarizing myself with the American poetic tradition. Richard Henry Wilde is next up in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry.

The first poem of his included is “The Lament of the Captive,” a poem in three stanzas. The first goes like this:

My life is like the summer rose
That opens to the morning sky,
And, ere the shades of evening close,
Is scattered on the ground to die:
Yet on that rose’s humble bed
The softest dews of night are shed;
As if she wept such waste to see—
But none shall drop a tear for me!

In the final analysis it’s nothing spectacular, but it’s less tortured than much of the work in this volume so far: it’s easy in its rhythm and natural in its rhymes. It flows smoothly within its formal constraints, rather than calling attention to them. And turning the nightly dew into tears is a nice touch. The subsequent two stanzas are much the same, with different images, each culminating in an image of nature lamenting (“The wind bewail the leafless tree” / “On that lone shore loud moans the sea”). As printed on the page, the poem’s failure to develop is a blemish, though as a song (it was set to music) it is more forgivable.

Taken by itself, then, I think it’s one of the better selections in the volume thus far, though still such as to justify Emerson’s sense that the United States still lacked its national literature. But the appeal of the piece fades when one realizes that Wilde was a slaveowner. True, he was writing about his brother, but it cheapens the feeling behind the piece to discover that it was so haphazardly applied.

The other selections from Wilde are the forgettable sonnet “To the Mocking-Bird” and selections from his unfinished long poem “Hesperia”. Interestingly, in both cases Wilde shows a fondness for within-line lists (if there’s a more technical term for this, I don’t know it):

Thou pour’st a soft, sweet, solemn, pensive strain… (“To the Mocking-Bird”)

Hill, dale, brook, forest, lake, or lawn supplies… (“Hesperia” 3.50)

Wood, water, rocks, turf, flowers, salute the eye… (“Hesperia” 3.101)

Victims of love, hope, anger, fear, remorse… (“Hesperia” 4.67)

Gigantic Sauri, lizards, bats, and fern… (“Hesperia” 4.86)

A fertile, verdant, woodless, boundless plain… (“Hesperia” 4.91)

All that can awe, delight, o’erpower, amaze… (“Hesperia” 4.104)

He’s not as good at it as John Donne, alas:

All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes… (Holy Sonnet VII)

In Wilde’s hands, it feels like a crutch.

It isn’t that Wilde isn’t capable of a nice line here or there, sometimes even a nice stanza (“Hesperia” is written in eight-line iambic pentameter stanzas with an ABABABCC rhyme scheme). The skeptic in me especially enjoys the stanza that begins with the line, given above, about the “Gigantic Sauri”—the stanza goes on to tell us how these fossils might teach us “How limited at last is human thought!” (I may like the sentiment more than the poetry, I admit.)

But, so far as I can tell from the selections provided, “Hesperia” is a sort of paean to the American landscape, turning breathlessly from beauty to beauty. But in doing so it doesn’t capture anything of what it is to be American, to live in this landscape. It is pure spectation. Most frustrating is that Wilde at times hints at a better version of his poem:

If the romantic land whose soil I tread
Could give back all its passions—first and last—… (“Hesperia” 4.74)

But this is left as a mere tantalizing hint. Nowhere in the given text does the land give back its passions. Wilde himself almost realizes this, when he laments his inability to tell certain stories, and wishes for an “Indian Dante” or Homer:

Stern Nature’s monument of savage pride,
Before that rock of famine well might quail,
Did but an Indian Dante tell its tale. (“Hesperia 4.92)

Assiniboin and Sioux both confessed
Such prize well worth the struggle to destroy
A kindred people; but no Homer kept
The memory of thy charms, and so they slept. (“Hesperia” 4.105)

All that Wilde is competent to give us, unfortunately, is “a scene to gaze on!”, as he writes in one stanza. And in another:

…Where fields of cane, with orange-groves between
Embosoming white villas, interlace,
Making a bright and happy sylvan scene,
Viewed by its very serfs with laughing face… (“Hesperia” 4.69)

A scene to gaze on. But, it would seem, nothing more.