November 23, 2011

Birth of Saltus: it is new

Born in New York on November 23, 1849, Francis Saltus Saltus became an accomplished linguist, musician, poet, and humorist. His first foray into literature came in 1873 when he published Honey and Gall. After that, his pen never stopped. One posthumous review of his work claimed he could dash off six sonnets in a single sitting; when he died, he left some 5,000 unpublished pieces.

Saltus wrote several volumes of poetry, a humorous history of the United States (among other comedic works), a few plays, and scored a few operas, including comic operas. He was a main character in Bohemian 19th-century New York, though his work was never particularly famous nationwide. One critic blamed his subject matter and style. Saltus was, after all, influenced by the "strangely weird work" of French poets like Baudelaire and Gautier. He also had a fondness for drink, particularly absinthe; in fact, he wrote an entire series of poems dedicated to alcohol.

For his birthday, however, perhaps it is best to focus on his humor. His poem, "The Modern Critic" (1895):

With pompous mien and all-important air,
   He'll say your views are premature and rash,
And with a grave grandiloquence declare
   That all the verse of later years is trash.

To satisfy his most aesthetic mind,
   In all the modern work he labors through,
He grieves to state he really cannot find
   One worthy line, one thought supremely new.

He calmly adds that it appears to him
   There's lack of power in overrated Keats,
That Shelley's very commonplace and dim,
   That Tennyson the same old song repeats.

You ask: "And Swinburne?" Well, he has some fire,
   He will allow; "but then so very crude."
"Browning?"—" Bah! verbose, of his style you tire."
   "Hugo?"—" A bard of second magnitude."

"Longfellow?"—" Dabbles in all kinds of verse."
   "Lowell?"—" A fraud, and so was Bryant, too.
They do not write," he cries, "in language terse,
   As real and god-born poets always do."

Then he will say, to your surprise,
   That Whittier is a rhymester, very low;
And finally, will harshly criticise
   The morbid ravings of that " crazy Poe."

"Rosetti?"—" Never made a decent rhyme,"
   He shrieks, while Bret Harte has no lofty flight.
"Byron?"—" A loon, he never was sublime."
   "And William Morris?" "Don't know how write."

And as he talks it seems as if the air
   Were tinted red with Tennysonian gore;
While bits of lacerated Baudelaire
   Seem to exist and quiver on the floor.

And as you gasp and dare not add a word,
   This critic gently smiles and says to you:
"I wrote a poem which you never heard;
   I think you will admire it—it is new."

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