August 21, 2012

Miller: the whole desolate twelve days

He paid $65 for his second-class cabin on board the steamer Europa, which set out from New York towards Europe on August 21, 1870. It was well worth the money: during this trip Cincinnatus Hiner Miller solidified his image as the poet Joaquin Miller, the self-styled Western American that captivated British intellectuals like the Rossetti brothers.

He was armed not only with a pseudonym, but an entirely new persona (encouraged in part by San Francisco writer Ina Coolbrith, who equally re-branded herself). Dressing the part of a rough cowboy, both in manner and speech, Miller had also printed up a few business cards with his self-appointed nickname, "Joaquin Miller: Byron of the Rockies." In California, he had been a charming novelty, increasing his already ballooning self-esteem. His trip to New York, however, burst his bubble a bit: an attempt to use his European trip for financial gain as an overseas correspondent for the New York Tribune was a failure, as editor Horace Greeley had never heard of him and refused to see him.

Instead, Miller started his voyage in sadness. "I don't think I spoke a dozen words in the whole desolate twelve days," he admitted. Later, he would earn a reputation as an avid chatterbox and storyteller. Still, he intended to get himself noticed in England. Stopping at the grave of Lord Byron, his self-styled hero, he began loudly reciting an ode to the poet, attracting a crowd:

O master, here I bow before a shrine;
              Before the lordliest dust that every yet
Moved animate in human form divine.
              Lo! dust indeed to dust. The mould is set
              Above thee, and the ancient walls are wet,
And drip all day in dark and silent gloom;
              As if the cold gray stones could not forget
They great estate shrunk to this sombre room,
But learn to weep perpetual tears above thy tomb.

Sure enough, the American wearing cowboy boots (complete with spurs), often wielding a riding crop or a whip, with a massive cowboy hat atop his long unkempt locks of hair, received ample attention in England, fitting a certain expectation (or stereotype) among British fans.

*For much of this information, I am indebted to the cheeky biography Splendid Poseur: Joaquin Miller - American Poet (1953) by M. Marion Marberry.

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