A new century from the genteel poets to Robinson and Frost

With the deaths of both Walt Whitman and John Greenleaf Whittier in 1892, an era in American poetry came to a close. Practically the entire generation which had defined American poetry in the latter half of the nineteenth century was now gone, such grey eminences as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell having passed away in the preceeding decade. Yet if the major American poets of the nineteenth century had departed, the first important generation of twentieth-century poets was still far from its maturity. Edwin Arlington Robinson was an undergraduate student at Harvard, four years away from publishing his first book of verse; Robert Frost was two years away from his first published poem and over two decades from his first volume; and Wallace Stevens was a thirteen-year-old schoolboy, three decades from the publication of his first book.

The years from 1880 to 1910 were something of a dark age for American poetry. During a time when the novels of Mark Twain, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, and Edith Wharton established the undeniable importance of American fiction, poetry was pushed to the margins of the literary world. Not able to compete with novelists in terms of popularity, and not willing to risk moving beyond the familiar models of nineteenth-century verse, poets settled for an uncontro-versial mediocrity of idea, form, and rhetoric. As Ezra Pound later put it in his harshly critical appraisal of the era, it was a time of "pseudo-artists" working under a stultifying system of control by the major publishers. Indeed, under the editorial reign of the large-circulation magazines that published poetry - such as Harper's, The Century, and The Atlantic - the prevailing poetic style progressed little between the 1870s and the early 1910s. There was no room in America for a poet who sought to become, in Pound's terms, a "serious artist."

In order to embark on a modern poetic career, poets like Frost, Pound and T. S. Eliot would be obliged to go abroad. To a great extent, as David Perkins has suggested, it was still London and not New York or Boston that served as the cultural capital of the United States: it was the poems of the London avant-garde and not those of the American magazines that "commanded the attention of American literary undergraduates."1 Still more provocative for young Americans was the literature of France, including the fiction of Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola, the essays of Theophile Gautier, and the poems of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stephane Mallarme.

However, the number of American poets of the period who looked to the contemporary literature of London or Paris for inspiration was still relatively small. On the whole, younger poets embraced the dominant poetic mode of the American "genteel tradition." The genteel poets - whom E. A. Robinson called the "little sonnet men" and Whitman derided as the "tea-pot poets" - wrote sonnets, odes, and dramatic monologues in imitation ofEnglish Victorian poetry, expressing what Pound would characterize as "nice domestic sentiments inoffensively versified." According to Henry Adams - one of the more astute cultural commentators of his day - poetry had become so artificial and removed from social reality that it no longer served as a "natural expression of society itself."2 Instead, poetry now functioned both as a refuge from contemporary society - with its growing cities, massive immigration, capitalist greed, and political corruption - and as a reaction against the realist and naturalist fiction that attempted to depict that society.

The most prominent of the genteel poets were those of the so-called "Harvard School," which included George Santayana, William Vaughan Moody, Trumbull Stickney, and George Cabot Lodge. The Harvard poets were an extremely cultivated and erudite group: Santayana was a Harvard professor and one of the most prominent American philosophers of his day; Moody taught literature at both Harvard and the University of Chicago; Stickney was the first American ever to earn a doctorate in letters from the Sorbonne in Paris; Lodge, the son of the prominent United States senator Henry Cabot Lodge, studied Schopenhauer in Berlin as well as classics and Romance languages in Paris. Cultivated as they were, however, these poets displayed little true originality; they were, as Larzer Ziffsuggests, a school of poets "held in suspension," still tied to past models and unable to articulate a viable American poetics for the next century.3 Though they were skilled versifiers, the Harvard poets had nothing new to say: as a result, their poems quickly fell into a relative obscurity.

The Harvard poets were dedicated to what they considered a "balanced" attitude in art and literature and to an avoidance of all extremes. While they respected Whitman, they did not attempt to imitate the power of his style. Instead, they emulated the dominant style of Victorian poetry: earnest, traditional, elegiac, formally crafted, and often highly sentimental. Santayana's most famous poem, the sonnet "O World, thou choosest not the better part" (1894) concludes with the following lines:

Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine That lights the pathway but one step ahead Across a void of mystery and dread. Bid, then, the tender light of faith to shine By which alone the mortal heart is led Unto the thinking of the thought divine.

The metaphor of human or worldly knowledge as a smoky torch unable to light the way through life is quite effective, but the overall power of the image is weakened by the sentimental language and the artificial syntax of the subsequent lines. Constructions such as "void of mystery and dread," "the tender light of faith," and "the thinking of the thought divine" express what were relatively hackneyed ideas by the end of the nineteenth century.

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