September 11, 2013

Willis's Fugitive Poetry: cheer me as I go

It was on the September 11, 1829 that Nathaniel Parker Willis copyrighted his book Fugitive Poetry, a collection mostly of previously published works. Willis, only 23 years old upon the book's publication, had already met with early success and popularity as a writer. This was in no small part due to his family's long history in publishing and journalism. Willis's title page included a quote from Washington Irving, repeated on his copyright page: "If, however, I can, by lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care, or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can, now and then, penetrate the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good humor with his fellow beings and himself, surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain." His earliest major biographer said most of the book was "of no importance."

Many of the poems in Fugitive Poems remained among his famous works throughout Willis's career, including his free verse poem "April." Several showed the influence on him from his conservative religious father. Many are addressed to women — some romantically, some more platonic — and those poems with titles like "On Seeing Through a Distant Window a Belle Completing Her Toilet for a Ball" did little to remove rumors that Willis was living a dissipated and idle life. Even so, at about the same time he was preparing Fugitive Poetry for the press, he was also beginning his career as a periodical editor, first of an annual giftbook called The Token and then a new newspaper he called the American Monthly Magazine. After its failure a couple years later, Willis moved to Europe for a time; it was there that his reputation as a writer began to soar. His poem "The Solitary":

Alone! alone! How drear it is
     Always to be alone!
In such a depth of wilderness,
     The only thinking one!
The waters in their path rejoice,
     The trees together sleep—
But I have not one silver voice
     Upon my ear to creep!

The sun upon the silent hills
     His mesh of beauty weaves,
There's music in the laughing rills
     And in the whispering leaves.
The red deer like the breezes fly
     To meet the bounding roe,
But I have not a human sigh
     To cheer me as I go.

I've hated men—I hate them now—
     But, since they are not here,
I thirst for the familiar brow—
     Thirst for the stealing tear.
And I should love to see the one,
     And feel the other creep,
And then again I'd be alone
     Amid the forest deep.

I thought that I should love my hound,
     And hear my cracking gun
Till I forgot the thrilling sound
     Of voices—one by one.
I thought that in the leafy hush
     Of nature, they would die;
But, as the hindered waters rush,
     Resisted feelings fly.

I'm weary of my lonely hut
     And of its blasted tree,
The very lake is like my lot,
     So silent constantly.
I've lived amid the forest gloom
     Until I almost fear—
When will the thrilling voices come
     My spirit thirsts to hear?

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