The Romantic Legacy and the Genteel Tradition

At the beginning of the century the American poetry that found most favor in general circulation magazines, and in magazines devoted entirely to poetry, largely conformed to the expectations firmly established in the nineteenth century as to what a poem should be about, and how it should express itself. Rhymed lyric poetry was to the fore, and such poetry was directly addressed to the reader, usually expressed the feelings of the poet - feelings that were heightened in some way - and, even if the emotions conveyed were not entirely those of pleasure, the lyric quality of the poem, its rhyme, and its summary conclusion, were intended to make reading it a pleasurable, uplifting experience. Arthur Davison Ficke, in a poem titled "Poetry," and as late as 1912, demonstrated many of the qualities that had been to the fore in the American poetry of the previous two decades, and against which by 1913 many of the modernist poets would rebel. The modernist poets were helped a great deal in this rebellion by the very journal, Poetry, published in Chicago, that carried this poem as the first poem of its first issue:

It is a little isle amid bleak seas -An isolate realm of garden, circled round By importunity of stress and sound, Devoid of empery to master these. At most, the memory of its streams and bees, Borne to the toiling mariner outward-bound, Recalls his soul to that delightful ground; But serves no beacon toward his destinies.

It is a refuge from the stormy days, Breathing the peace of a remoter world Where beauty, like the musking dusk of even, Enfolds the spirit in its silver haze;

While far away, with glittering banners furled, The west lights fade, and stars come out in heaven.1

In this definition of poetry, expressed in the traditional form of the sonnet, poetry has no power to direct or comment influentially upon the "stress and sound" of the modern industrial world. Poetry offers instead an escape from that world, via a series of sentimental and conventional abstractions, to a now diminished but nevertheless unsullied island of culture where the pleasures of poetry are appreciated. Some of the same late Romantic imagery had appeared in Yeats's much more distinguished "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" (1890), where, homesick on a busy London street, the poet longs for an island with "a hive for the honey-bee" where he can "live alone in the bee-loud glade."

As James Breslin has pointed out, Ficke's sonnet was the kind of poetry that William Carlos Williams was reading in the first years of the century as he prepared to write his first self-financed book of poems, locally published in Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1909. Williams's "On a Proposed Trip South," which, like his other 1909 poems, he never collected and in fact preferred to forget, reproduces the same landscape. The poet will shortly be leaving the cold north for "a southern flight" - and "shall shortly view / The lush high grasses, shortly see in air / Gay birds and hear the bees make heavy droon."

Williams sent this volume of poems with pride to his friend Ezra Pound, by then in London and moving into the center of the London avant-garde. Pound replied unsparingly that the poems were decades out of date and that Williams needed to modernize himself, and Pound included a list of writers for his friend to read, none of whom was American. There was nothing for a modernist writer to learn, for Pound, from the American poets of the previous generation. In his poem "The Return" (1912), Pound writes of the "pallid" classical gods returning from decades of neglect, to bring poetry back into the present rather than retreating from it. His near-contemporary poem "Surgit Fama" offers a similar prophecy. Wallace Stevens, in his "Sunday Morning," of 1915, pointed out that all such islands of retreat, including for Stevens in this poem the Palestine of Christianity, are cultural constructions that become eventually merely rhetorical souvenirs. For Stevens, there is no isle

Melodious, where spirits gat them home, Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm

1 Quoted in James Breslin, William Carlos Williams: An American Artist (New York, 1970), 29, and Robert Buttel, Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium (Princeton, 1967), 47.

Remote on heaven's hill, that has endured As April's green endures; or will endure

Again the present world returns to poetry. One way this happens is the American poets' embrace of the concrete pictorialism of imagist poetry, by Williams as much as anybody, as a way to dispel the "haze" of a vision such as Ficke's.

The situation at the turn of the century in American poetry did not give any hint of the extraordinary achievement of American poets that was to come in the 1920s. Nationally, the newspapers and magazines with the highest status and circulation generally treated poetry as a filler item for the corner of columns, and preferred to print formal, uplifting, uncontroversial verse. For reasons connected with the historical development of the continent, the main base of the literary establishment in 1900 was the northeastern seaboard. The main publishers were in Boston and New York, and the oldest universities (any rivals in the South still recovering from the devastation of the Civil War) were also in that region. The universities, writers, and publishers generally looked to England for the standards they wanted to be seen as upholding with equal rigor, and were viewed by writers in much of the rest of the country as in effect a powerful, if provincial, extension of the London scene. A group of poets associated with Harvard, George Santayana, William Vaughn Moody, Trumbull Stickney, and George Cabot Lodge, exemplified the most refined versions of the genteel style. Written in traditional forms, their verse was inspirational, earnest, and carefully crafted, vaguely spiritual, and usually confined to abstractions. Moody is usually considered the most ambitious of the group, although uneven in his execution, while Santayana (in old age many years later the subject of a well-known poem by Wallace Stevens) the most intellectually rigorous. A blander version of this group existed in New York, with E. C. Stedman its leading figure.

The reactions against the genteel style were usually light-hearted, humorous poems by writers who were largely entertainers and newspaper poets. These poems would make fun of the formality and Anglophile values of the genteel style by being in rollicking ballad or regional conversational style, expressly about "American" characters and pursuits - such as farming, fishing, hunting, or baseball. Humor and sentiment ruled the day in these poems, and their most famous exponent, James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916) was the best selling poet of his day. The African American poet Paul Dunbar (1872-1906) had more serious ambitions, but the racial climate of the time was such that serious verse from a black writer was not particularly welcome, and his audience demanded "plantation" lyrics from him which painted a sentimental, nostalgic, and largely fictitious account of life for black slaves in the pre-Civil War South or later. Dunbar's reputation has risen since the 1960s with the rediscovery of his many lyric poems outside of the "plantation" vein. But it would take the Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes in the 1920s to present American black speech stripped of the dialect stereotypes expected of Dunbar. Other poetic forms that found some favor around the turn of the century were the social protest poems of Edwin Markham, and the "vagabond-style" Romantic wanderer verse of such poets as Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey.

A factor that handicapped the development of American poetry was the vast distances between poets who showed some talent and may have thrived in a center which allowed writers to communicate with one another. London was such a center in England, but the United States saw no movement at the end of the century to resemble the 1890s poets in London who rebelled against the Victorian moralities and the late nineteenth-century version of Romanticism. Outside of the Harvard and New York centers, American poets worked alone, educating themselves on anthologies of English poetry, and finding most publishing outlets wanting verse that conformed to the established conventions expected by their readers. Frustration with the cultural climate of the United States had already by the turn of the century contributed to the exodus to Europe of the painters Whistler and Mary Cassatt, and the writers Henry James and Gertrude Stein - as it would a few years later to the exodus of Pound, H.D., and T. S. Eliot, and in the 1920s to a generation of expatriates, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But there were other developments in nineteenth-century American poetry which produced poets whose work would be recognized in the coming century as major. Although Walt Whitman had published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 and had died in 1892, his achievement was still questioned into the 1940s in some academic circles. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, Allen Ginsberg had found hostility to Whitman's work among the English faculty. Nevertheless, for more radical poets of the 1910s Whitman's work offered a possible direction for American poetry: it sanctioned both free verse and a frankness about physical matters that was alien to the genteel tradition. Even Pound accepted, in his poem "A Pact," that he had "one sap and one root" with Whitman. Another poet whose work became important in the new century was Emily Dickinson, whose poetry began to be published in 1890. Her wit, verbal inventiveness, and ambiguity were a sharp contrast to the hopeful, formal pieties of mainstream verse, while her sophistication was quite different from the academic formality of the Harvard poets. The poetry of Stephen Crane also prefigured some aspects of the modernist style to come. Although best known for his prose writing, the two volumes of poetry that he published around the turn of the century ridiculed conventional religious piety, condemned the material values of the age, and used a direct, prosaic form of address borrowed from his fiction writing and from journalism.

Two other poets who borrowed techniques from prose writing, and whose work would produce major contributions to American poetry in the first two decades of the new century, were Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost. Both used narrative in their tales of individual characters, community, and hardship, and both initially had trouble finding publishers and an audience. Both developed their styles largely by reading English poets, and separate from urban centers - Robinson in Maine, and Frost in New Hampshire. Robinson finally found success when he moved to New York, and Frost when he moved to England and found a publisher in London willing to print his work. Both writers worked within the subject matter of Romantic poetry - human potential, the relationship of man to nature, man's place in the universe, and the relations between men and women. But theirs is poetry which, like the poetry of Hardy in England, questions the assumptions of Romanticism. In the case of Robinson's work, ideals and hope function as fantasies to allow his characters to escape for a time the realities of their defeated lives. For Robinson much remained unknown about the spiritual condition of mankind, an uncertainty that his poetry dramatized the difficulties of facing.

Frost, in a quieter but more varied way, wrote poetry about the limitations imposed upon the human desire for limitless possibility - limitations imposed by a nature probably indifferent to human wishes, and by the physical and intellectual limits of the human condition, limitations all the more quietly tragic when set against the boundless reach of human imagination. Such poetry set Frost and Robinson against the poetry of genteel spiritual comfort. Once the poetry of Frost and Robinson found an audience in the early decades of the century, they, more than the modernist poets who soon followed, were awarded the literary prizes and embraced by the wider poetry-reading public. The formal qualities of their poetry still appeared, for some readers, to suggest the possibilities of an order, even if it were only Frost's "momentary stay against confusion." But this "stay" became a more contingent order in a poet like Wallace Stevens, whose order was self-consciously a necessary fiction, and even more problematic in poets such as Pound, H.D., and T. S. Eliot, where such possibilities seemed to be located in the past, if at all, and certainly not an immediate past for which a reader might feel the indulgence of a sentimental nostalgia.

0 0

Post a comment