August 7, 2010

Birth of Joseph Rodman Drake

Recognized in his lifetime mostly for his poems "The Culprit Fay" and "The American Flag," Joseph Rodman Drake was born on August 7, 1795 in New York. He is today known just as much for his friendship with Fitz-Greene Halleck, who became the more popular poet (and was more than a little obsessed with Drake).

Drake was part of a first generation of American poets who mostly tried to emulate British writers, usually with excessively didactic purposes. Yet, that same first generation recognized a need to break away thematically from European traditions. A conversation on the idea between Drake, Halleck, and James Fenimore Cooper led to "The Culprit Fay."

The poem, which does not feature a single human character, explores the American scenery: Drake set the poem mostly in the lands surrounding the Hudson River. It is a lengthy poem which deviates which uses an ever-changing metric structure. The end result of three days writing,  A fantastic mix of nature and mythology, "The Culprit Fay" is an interesting exploration of early American poetry:

'Tis the middle watch of a summer's night
The earth is dark, but the heavens are bright;
Naught is seen in the vault on high
But the moon, and the stars, and the cloudless sky,
And the flood which rolls its milky hue,
A river of light on the welkin blue...

The stars are on the moving stream,
   And fling, as its ripples gently flow,
A burnished length of wavy beam
   In an eel-like, spiral line below;
The winds are whist, and the owl is still;
   The bat in the shelvy rock is hid;
And naught is heard on the lonely hill
But the cricket's chirp, and the answer shrill
       Of the gauze-winged katydid;
And the plaint of the wailing whippoorwill,
Who moans unseen and ceaseless sings,
   Ever a note of wail and woe...

The poem then introduces a series of fantasy creatures, including elves and fairies (one wears an acorn for a helmet)... and more:

The goblin marked his monach well;
   He spake not, but he bowed him low,
Then plucked a crimson colen-bell,
   And turned him round in act to go.
The way is long; he cannot fly;
   His soiled wing has lost its power,
And he winds adown the mountain high
   For many a sore and weary hour.

Drake was only 25 years old when he died in 1820.

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