December 24, 2014

Whitman's curious warble: Out of the cradle

"Our readers may, if they choose, consider as our Christmas or New Year's present to them, the curious warble by Walt Whitman." So said the Saturday Press issue for December 24, 1859, an issue which included Whitman's poem "A Child's Remembrance," later renamed "A Word Out of the Sea." Perhaps better known by its opening lines, "Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking," the poem went through several versions in Whitman's lifetime. Here is how its most frequently republished version begins:

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander'd alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower'd halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous'd words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing...

Whitman had read an early version of the poem at the famous Pfaff's and one of those in attendance, Henry Clapp, secured its publication. Though one reviewer called it "hopeless drivel," many scholars today consider the poem one of Whitman's best. The poem offers somewhat of a narrative: the speaker remembers a time on the beach in his boyhood when he sees two birds which soon fly away; one never returns. Many have seen the poem as describing the birth of a poet, particularly as it opens with a cradle, before culminating in a profound grasp of nature and death. The poem, then, explores both a beginning and an ending. "Pains and joys," Whitman says he has since explored, "here and hereafter."

My American literature professor as an undergraduate, Dr. Joseph Zaitchik, once told me that the opening lines of this poem represented the best-sounding line in American poetry. "Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking" has a certain cadence, a rising and falling, a harshness with "k" and "g" sounds, along with more sonorous "o" and "s" sounds. Those sounds, perhaps, represent the same ups and downs, opposing ideas of beginning and ending, in the poem itself.

With this post, I have officially posted 1,000 articles of new content, all exploring various aspects of American literary history (mostly in the 19th century). I have had the great opportunity of rediscovering forgotten writers, of enthusiastically promoting some of the greatest, and sharing it all with you, the readers of the American Literary Blog, since my first post in December 2009. I dedicate the entirety of this project to Dr. Zaitchik, who first inspired me to love American literature.

As I retire from adding new posts to the American Literary Blog, I want to offer some of Whitman's own words from this poem: "The rest might not, but I have treasur'd every note." After the narrator calls out to the sea, the poem ends with an understanding that, although there was a finality in what he learned from the bird, the moment was in fact just the starting point for him:

Whereto answering, the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper'd me through the night, and very plainly before daybreak,
Lisp'd to me the low and delicious word death,
And again death, death, death, death
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous'd child's heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.
Which I do not forget.
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok's gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs at random,
My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper'd me.

December 19, 2014

Riley and Garland: Dont y' Darst!

James Whitcomb Riley was not long involved with politics, but he visited Washington, D.C. and the White House in 1888 and advocated for international copyright. When his friend and fellow Hoosier stater Benjamin Harrison became President of the United States, there were rumors that Riley would get some kind of political appointment. Nothing came of these rumors but, years later, when William McKinley was President, rumors were renewed. Wisconsin-born writer Hamlin Garland warned his friend in a letter dated December 19, 1898:

There is some talk here of your going abroad as a consul — but dont y' do it. Dont y' Darst! You've got a bigger mission than t'go to any dam ol' forin port. 


Garland was playfully using the same kind of dialect Riley became known for in his poetry. Garland also couldn't resist a stab at another writer, Bret Harte, who had recently taken successive consul appointment in Germany and Scotland. After his political appointments were up, Harte stayed in Europe and settled in London — causing some critics to suggest that his time overseas took the American-ness out of him. As Garland writes to Riley:

You'll be like Bret Harte git fat an' forget what y'r country looks like — an you'll fergit the "County Ditch" an' Kingry's Mil an' all them thare things we like t' hear about.

Riley never was offered an appointment after all, and his work continued to utilize the same kind of folksy tone that Garland seemed to love, like that used in Riley's poem "Kingry's Mill":

On old Brandywine — about
Where White's Lots is now laid out,
And the old crick narries down
To the ditch that splits the town,—
Kingry's Mill stood. Hardly see
Where the old dam ust to be;
Shallor, long, dry trought o' grass
Where the old race ust to pass!

That's be'n forty years ago —
Forty years o' frost and snow —
Forty years o' shade and shine
Sence them boyhood-days o' mine—!
All the old landmarks o' town.
Changed about, er rotted down!
Where's the Tanyard? Where's the Still?
Tell me where's old Kingry's Mill?

Don't seem furder back, to me,
I'll be dogg'd! Than yisterd'y,
Since us fellers, in bare feet
And straw hats, went through the wheat,
Cuttin' 'crost the shortest shoot
Fer that-air old ellum root
Jest above the mill-dam — where
The blame' cars now crosses there!

Through the willers down the crick
We could see the old mill stick
Its red gable up, as if
It jest knowed we'd stol'd the skiff!
See the winders in the sun
Blink like they wuz wonderun'
What the miller ort to do
With sich boys as me and you!

But old Kingry—! Who could fear
That old chap, with all his cheer—?
Leanin' at the window-sill,
Er the half-door o' the mill,
Swoppin' lies, and pokin' fun,
'N jigglin' like his hoppers done—
Laughin' grists o' gold and red
Right out o' the wagon-bed!

What did he keer where we went—?
"Jest keep out o' devilment,
And don't fool around the belts,
Bolts, ner burrs, ner nothin' else
'Bout the blame machinery,
And that's all I ast!" says-ee.
Then we'd climb the stairs, and play
In the bran-bins half the day!

Rickollect the dusty wall,
And the spider-webs, and all!
Rickollect the trimblin' spout
Where the meal come josslln' out—
Stand and comb yer fingers through
The fool-truck an hour er two—
Felt so sorto' warm-like and
Soothin' to a feller's hand!

Climb, high up above the stream,
And "coon" out the wobbly beam
And peek down from out the lof'
Where the weather-boards was off—
Gee-mun-nee! w'y, it takes grit
Even jest to think of it—!
Lookin' 'way down there below
On the worter roarin' so!

Rickollect the flume, and wheel,
And the worter slosh and reel
And jest ravel out in froth
Flossier'n satin cloth!
Rickollect them paddles jest
Knock the bubbles galley-west,
And plunge under, and come up
Drippin' like a worter-pup!

And to see them old things gone
That I onc't was bettin' on,
In rale p'int o' fact, I feel
kindo' like that worter-wheel—,
Sorto' drippy-like and wet
Round the eyes — but paddlin' yet,
And in mem'ry, loafin' still
Down around old Kingry's Mill!

December 17, 2014

Birth of Dawson: if my hand may hold the pen

Daniel L. Dawson was born in Lewiston, Pennsylvania on December 17, 1856. As an adult, he began contributing original poems to the Philadelphia-based Lippincott's Magazine; these contributions were eventually collected in The Seeker in the Marshes; and Other Poems (1893). Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, effused praise for the book, calling Dawson "one of the truest, most inevitable poets of this age. His poems are intensely lyrical and of permanent worth." He further compared him to Walt Whitman.

Much of his writing reflected his interest in mythology and folklore — to the chagrin of one reviewer for the Methodist Review, who accused Dawson of paganism and that paganism, in turn, was "fatal" to the creating of literature. The reviewer noted that the poet "had been intimate with various heathen divinities of doubtful reputation; but we judge from his poetry that he did not know Christ even when he saw him." Further, he said, if Dawson, a perpetual bachelor, was in any way comparable to Whitman, it was because both men had a similar "animality, not so healthy and well-kept."

Even so, Dawson was fairly prolific as a poet and, further, was extremely athletic, tall, and well-built — as one critic noted, "little looked the poet he was." One friend said he had never known a "manlier man" than Dawson. His poem "To-day and To-morrow" was, presumably, written about the time of his 30th birthday (he died at age 38):

Sometime when the sun is fair and warm
       And blue and bright on a summer's day,
That is, if I fall not in any harm,
       I shall write some things I have wished to say;
That is, if my hand may hold the pen,
I will say some things for the ears of men.

But I fear sometimes that a little pain
       Will come in this weary heart of mine;
Or peace like night on my tangled brain;
       Or the lungs cease drinking the air like wine,
And blood flow over these pallid lips
And cloud the life in a red eclipse.

For a score and ten are treble a score,
       The price we pay is dear for the years;
The wisdom that falls to thirty or more
       Is purchased by travail and change and tears;
We look and learn with larger scope,
But the price we pay for this is—hope.

And so would I fain myself deceive,
       As well as I may in my lonely room,
When the shadows are falling over the eve,
       And night is coming with cloud and gloom,
In hope that much is mine to say,
Though I know to-morrow is only to-day.

December 4, 2014

Sigourney: an ungathered sunbeam

For her latest book, Lydia Huntley Sigourney produced over 300 pages of poems and sketches about North America, from her native state of Connecticut to the Wyoming Territory. She poeticized historical or cultural objects or events, including the Washington Elm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bunker Hill, Plymouth Rock, and the Jamestown settlement. Her poems were set all over New England (where she spent much of her life) and even Niagara Falls. The book, then, lived up to its title, Scenes in My Native Land. In its final pages, dated December 4, 1844, from Hartford, Connecticut, she offered a conclusion:

And now, reader and friend, our hour of pleasant gossip is finished. We have said nothing of the pictured rocks, or the great western caverns, nor wandered together in spirit on the borders of our mighty lakes, or the shores of the " father of waters."

No. I have spoken only of such places as "keepers at home" may readily reach, and which probably you have yourself visited. Still it is as useful, and vastly more convenient, to admire objects near at hand than those far away; and on what the eye hath oft-times looked, we may still discover an unplucked flower, or an ungathered sunbeam, to cheer and to uplift the heart...

So now, reader and friend, unknown, perchance, but still a friend, Farewell. If it is morning with you, may the day be blessed and happy; and if it is evening,
                                                  "a fair good night,
              And pleasant dreams, and slumbers light."

The last words were a quote from Sir Walter Scott. Many of the poems in the collection are several pages long. Perhaps most appropriate here is a portion of her poem "The Snow-Storm" which, though without a specific location mentioned in the text, gives a fairly good image of New England:

How quietly the snow comes down,
        When all are fast asleep,
And plays a thousand fairy pranks
        O'er vale and mountain steep.
How cunningly it finds its way
        To every cranny small,
And creeps through even the slightest chink
        In window, or in wall.

To every noteless hill it brings
        A fairer, purer crest
Than the rich ermine robe that decks
        The haughtiest monarch's breast.
To every reaching spray it gives
        Whate'er its hand can hold —
A beauteous thing the snow is,
        To all, both young and old...

November 25, 2014

Death of B. P. Shillaber ("Mrs. Partington")

Benjamin Penhallow (B. P.) Shillaber died in Chelsea, Massachusetts on November 25, 1890, after a half a century in the world of publishing. The New Hampshire-born Shillaber began working at a printing office in his teen years. In 1847, he created what would become his most enduring work: the humorous persona of "Mrs. Partington." The character was inspired by English critic Sydney Smith, who had mentioned a character by that name attempting to mop up the Atlantic Ocean. Shillaber continued with that vein of ridiculous humor by introducing his character this way:

Mrs. Partington says that the price of bread may have advanced, but that she never pays more than fifty cents for half a dollar's worth.

These short, witty "epitaphs," often inspired by current events or concerns, became his hallmark. After several years working with Mrs. Partington at the Boston Post, Shillaber and Charles G. Halpine established their own humorous magazine, Carpet Bag, in 1852. Shillaber himself admitted the magazine "had more character than patronage" and it "died happily" about a year later. He took the opportunity, however, to publish a book, Life and Sayings of Mrs. Partington in 1854. By 1866, he was mostly retired and spent the rest of his life just outside Boston. Upon his death in 1890, newspapers reported of his unending cheerfulness, much like his work, and predicted that his Mrs. Partington character "will doubtless ever remain a unique figure in American humour."

Mrs. Partington's/Shillaber's commentaries included references to violinist Ole Bull, the opening of the new Boston Music Hall, the temperance movement, and more. Perhaps the best representation considering the time of year is this short one:

What kin is that which all Yankees love to recognize, and which always has sweet associations connected with it? Why, pump-kin, to be sure.

November 19, 2014

Favorite last words from poets

"Hand me my pantaloons, if you please."

These were the last recorded words of Connecticut-born poet Fitz-Greene Halleck before his death 147 years ago today on November 19, 1867.

In honor of those not-so-glamorous last words, here are a few of my other favorite last words of American writers highlighted on the blog (in no particular order):

"I want to go away."
—Ohio/NY poet Phoebe Cary (died February 12, 1871)

"All is perfect peace with me."
—Georgia poet Thomas Holley Chivers (died December 18, 1858)


"Take me away. Take me away."
—"Poet of the Sierras" Joaquin Miller (died February 17, 1913)


"Your kisses are always sweet to me."
—Painter/poet Thomas Buchanan Read (died May 11, 1872)

"Beautiful!"
—New Hampshire poet Samuel Burnham (died June 22, 1873)

"Moose... Indian."
—Massachusetts writer Henry David Thoreau (died May 6, 1862)
*Note: The above was a guest post by historian Richard Smith

"In spite of it all, I am going to sleep; put out the lights."
—"Bad Boy" and poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich (May 19, 1907)

November 12, 2014

Harris: under the spell of the old town

The people of Eatonton, Georgia were proud of their native son, Joel Chandler Harris, as he rose to literary fame. Best known for his Uncle Remus tales, Harris was then living in Atlanta, in a home he called Wren's Nest. He was some 80 miles from the town of his birth — not so very far, which made it so hard for him to turn down an offer to return to Eatonton. In a letter dated November 12, 1901, he wrote:

I have delayed answering your letter hoping to see my way clear to accepting the invitation which you were kind enough to send me, and which I assure you is very highly appreciated. Though I have been away so many years, I still feel that Eatonton is my home and the people there my best friends. I love them all, so much so that I have never written anything to be published in book form that I did not ask myself if there could be anything in it which my friends there would not approve. Thus, in a way, they have been my most helpful critics. I thank you heartily for the invitation and regret that a pressure of work will prevent me from accepting.

Harris was then working on what would become Gabriel Tolliver, a book which he dedicated to his friend James Whitcomb Riley. He also admitted to Riley that he had allowed the interest of his characters to overshadow the story. Even so, the book was set in Shady Dale, a fictionalized version of Eatonton, which served as an equally important character in Harris's writings.

The book begins not unlike the invitation he received in 1901: "Cephas! here is a letter for you, and it is from Shady Dale! I know you will be happy now." The narrative voice then admits that he far too often spoke of the town of his youth, that his recollections of Shady Dale were "coloured" and that he saw the people only through his "boyhood-eyes." The other character in that opening, Sophia, warns Cephas that if he were to go back, he'd learn they weren't so different from everyone else after all. "This was absurd, of course—or, rather, it would have been absurd for any one else to make the suggestion; for at that particular time, Sophia was a trifle jealous of Shady Dale and its people."

From Gabriel Tolliver's chapter "A Town with a History":

Before, during, and after the war, Shady Dale presented always the same aspect of serene repose. It was, as you may say, a town with a history. Then, as now, there were towns all about that had no such fortunate appendage behind them to explain their origin... Shady Dale is no city, and it may be that its public spirited citizens stretch the meaning of the term when they call it a town. Nevertheless, the community has a well-defined history...

But to set forth its origin is not to describe its beauty, which is of a character that refuses to submit to description... You are inevitably impressed with a sense of the attractiveness of the place; you fall under the spell of the old town... And yet if you were called upon to define the nature of the spell, what could you say? What name could you give to the tremulous beauty that hovers about and around the place, when the fresh green leaves of the great trees are fluttering in the cool wind, and everything is touched and illumined by the tender colours of spring? Under what heading in the catalogue of things would you place the vivid richness which animates the town and the landscape all around when the summer is at its height? And how could you describe the harmony that time has brought about between the fine, old houses and the setting in which they are grouped?

All these things are elusive; they make themselves keenly felt, but they do not lend themselves to analysis.