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Let’s keep churning them out, shall we? Next up in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry is Samuel Woodworth’s poem “The Bucket.” It’s a pleasant enough bit of nostalgia written in anapestic tetrameter, but hardly a memorable poem. It is all content, with the form as nothing more than the shape of the vessel.

The poem announces itself in the first line:

How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood […]

There is to be no surprise in this poem: an adult is remembering his childhood, and we know that straight away. The nostalgia is specifically for the moss-covered bucket in the well on his father’s plantation. As far as I can tell from the poem, it was a nice enough bucket and I can well imagine the childhood joy of drinking from it. But the poem tends toward the twee, especially in the refrain that ends each stanza (the last quarter of it varies by stanza; the first three quarters do not):

The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket,
The moss-covered bucket which hung in the well.

It also occurs to me, hearing it so many times in quick succession, that “bucket” is in fact a rather strange sounding word, which doesn’t help Woodworth out here.

Okay, I’ll stop—I really don’t have much interesting to say about this poem.

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!

It is frustrating to be given only a selection of Washington Allston’s “The Sylphs of the Seasons” in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry, since it is the strongest poem in the compilation thus far. The basic premise is that each of the seasons argues to the narrator its charms, and he is then to choose his favorite from among them. (If any information is given about who this narrator is, it is not included in the selection.) The selection includes the case for Autumn and for Winter. The poem is written entirely in eight line stanzas with an AABCCCB rhyme scheme, the A and C lines in iambic tetrameter, the B lines in iambic trimester. It can get a little wearying, but Allston mostly wields it competently, and I admit to some friendliness simply on the grounds that he didn’t use heroic couplets.

The poem has the same commitment to moralizing that has been present in so many of these selections. Here, for instance, is the Sylph of Autumn:

‘Twas I, when thou, subdued by woe,
Didst watch the leaves descending slow,
To each a moral gave;
And as they mov’d in mournful train,
With rustling sound, along the plain,
Taught them to sing a seraph’s strain
Of peace within the grave.

I am not much moved by this, I think because I have no sense of who the narrator is. (I stress that I do not know if this is the fault of Allston or of John Hollander, who made the selections for this volume.) Because the narrator is faceless, this moral appears as universal. To see this in the leaves becomes the universal experience of autumn. But the moralism of nature is always more personal than this. Nature needs the aid of individual experience to put on such garb, and the poem (or selection) lacks that necessary element. So it lacks some credibility.

But there are portions I enjoy, as these three stanzas spoken by the Sylph of Winter:

Though Autumn grave, and Summer fair,
And joyous Spring demand a share
Of Fancy’s hallow’d power,
Yet these I hold of humbler kind,
To grosser means of earth confin’d,
Through mortal sense to reach the mind,
By mountain, stream, or flower.

But mine, of purer nature still,
Is that which to thy secret will
Did minister unseen,
Unfelt, unheard; when every sense
Did sleep in drowsy indolence,
And Silence deep and Night intense
Enshrowded every scene;

That o’er thy teeming brain did raise
The spirits of departed days
Through all the varying year;
And images of things remote,
And sounds that long had ceas’d to float,
With every hue, and every note,
As living now they were:

The crucial moment is in the second stanza: the enjambment of the third line. The spillover, the way it is not contained within the natural boundaries of the form, accentuates the mystic power of Winter’s ministry. As it happens, I think Allston is wrong here: the appeal that Winter makes to us is precisely through our senses. The austere minimalism of the winter landscape does not bring our senses to “sleep in drowsy indolence.” Just the opposite—it invigorates them. It is rather more the messy abundance of spring that is likely to berate my senses into a stupor. But no matter: that small moment of poetic craft makes the falsehood believable.

The poem ends on a disappointing note, with the narrator failing to choose between the seasons:

“Oh blessed band, of birth divine,
What mortal task is like to mine!”—
And further had I spoke,
When, lo! there pour’d a flood of light
So fiercely on my aching sight,
I feel beneath the vision bright,
And with the pain I woke.

Such tepid indecision, combined with the “reveal” (which may not be such in the context of the full poem) that it is all a vision, undermines what is good in the words of the Sylphs.

Well, now I know that it was Clement Moore who wrote the poem entitled, “’Twas the night before Christmas,” and also I now know that the title of the poem is actually “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Also, it’s the first time I’ve read this poem in its entirety. I am not sure there’s much more to say about this poem. And yet I have laid down for myself the rule that I will comment on all the poets in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry, so I suppose I’ll say some grumpy, joyless things about it.

This poem is to poetry what Christmas music is to music: a pleasant trifle if you can really get into the Christmas spirit, and otherwise kind of excruciating. It’s written in anapestic tetrameter with nothing bolder than the occasional iambic substitution, which means it gets sing-song-y pretty quickly. (It also has a number of lines that, while metrical, have to be forced into the meter a little bit.) Contributing to this sing-song-y effect is the AABBCC… rhyme scheme. Early American poets were not good at using this rhyme scheme, let me say.

Also, to end by going full curmudgeon, isn’t it terribly anti-climactic to go from “Happy Christmas to all” to “and to all a good night”? To go from the greeting specific to the season to a greeting that applies generically to every night of the year? Or is that just me?

James Kirke Paulding is the second author in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry to attempt a grand epic of his still-young country… in heroic couplets. The happy optimism at but recently gained independence appears to have generated a desire to enshrine the country’s origin and its virtues in poetic form. Whatever the results, I appreciate the impulse, and the attempts. But there are still the heroic couplets to deal with.

Paulding’s poem, The Backwoodsman, (at least the selections herein included) is not the disaster that Barlow’s Columbiad is—it is merely mediocre. The first selection, from very early in Book I, makes clear its grand ambition:

Neglected Muse! of this our western clime,
How long in servile, imitative rhyme,
Wilt thou thy stifled energies impart,
And miss the path that leads to every heart?
How long repress the brave decisive flight,
Warm’d by thy native fires, led by thy native light?
Thrice happy he who first shall strike the lyre,
With homebred feeling, and with homebred fire…

And he goes on to explicitly contrast declining Europe with the vigorous youth of America: “And all the splendours of [Europe’s] bright career / Shall die away, to be relighted here…”

The attitude here is at once bold and insecure. Bold for the obvious reason: he wishes to write the grand American epic, the one that will mark the birth of a new and great American poetic tradition. But also insecure, for Paulding recognizes that even if Europe is declining, it is still she who has had the great career, and America as yet has nothing to its name except “servile, imitative rhyme.” Paulding thus diagnoses the same failure of American cultural self-reliance that Emerson would later enshrine in “The American Scholar.”

Unfortunately, this is not the poem to inaugurate the new American poetry. Like with Barlow, the fussy adjectives browbeat the reader, leaving no room for original feeling. There is also a strain of hyperbole that I find difficult to take seriously, as in this description of “our native Eagle”:

Oft in the warring of the whistling gales,
Amid the scampering clouds, he bravely sails,
Without an effort winds the loftiest sky,
And looks into the Sun with steady eye:
Emblem and patron of this fearless land,
He mocks the might of any mortal hand,
And, proudly seated on his native rock,
Defies the World’s accumulated shock.

This is so overwrought that the eagle appears not as majestic but as caricature. We’ve got “warring,” whistling,” “scampering,” and “bravely” before we’ve even cleared two lines, and it just goes on. The eagle flies “without an effort,” staring into the sun to boot (this absurdity is where it really collapses into caricature for me). None of the Eagle’s grace comes through here—only Paulding’s frothy admiration thereof.

The lack of nuance in the depiction of the eagle points toward a more general failing of the poem. It exists entirely in moral black and white (another feature it shares with Barlow’s Columbiad). There are the good guys and the bad guys. The eagle, as the “emblem and patron of this fearless land,” is good. Benedict Arnold is bad. And so forth. Compare this to that greatest of nation-origin epics, Virgil’s Aeneid, where even the central obstacle in Aeneas’ path, his foe Turnus, is a deeply sympathetic character, despite his flaws and despite the fact that he fights on the “wrong” side.

Paulding also has a tendency to overuse certain words. Here is a sampling of lines from the second selection in the volume, Book II lines 61-122:

(61) In truth it was a landscape wildly gay
(65) Save where some rocky steep aloft was seen
(66) Frowning amid the wild romantic scene
(68) Our native Eagle makes his high abode
(71) Without an effort winds the loftiest sky
(75) And, proudly seated on his native rock
(78) His winding way majestic Hudson found
(79) And as he swept the frowning ridge’s base
(83) Now might be seen, reposing in stern pride
(89) Beneath its frowning brow, and far below
(110) Two lofty promontories darkly frown’d
(113) Grimly they frown’d, as menacing the wave

I had initially meant only to highlight the five (five!!) descriptions of some feature of nature “frowning,” but reviewing the selection to find them all revealed several further examples of Paulding’s repetition. It gives the poem an air of imprecision, as if Paulding had certain words ready to hand and used them whenever they were close enough to the needed meaning.

I have considered here only the first two selections in the volume, but the others suffer from the same flaws: overbearing hyperbole, overuse of favorite words, and unsubtle moralism.

So Paulding, like Barlow, cannot be considered to have written the great American epic poem. But I do not hold this against him. As he put it himself:

Come then, neglected Muse! and try with me
The untrack’d path—‘tis death or victory;
Let Chance or Fate decide, or critics will,
No fame I lose—I am but nothing still.

If I cannot admire the results, nonetheless I salute the attempt.