August 31, 2010

Cawein and Riley: bridging the gap

By the end of the 19th century, the so-called Fireside Poets were all dead, writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell LowellJohn Greenleaf Whittier, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. But, with their deaths, who took their place as the greatest American poets?

Kentucky poet Madison J. Cawein earned the nickname "The Keats of Kentucky" and published over 1,000 poems. But, he looked to another as a leader among poets. To James Whitcomb Riley, he wrote on August 31, 1898:

You are surely making your way among the best readers of poetry; after the death of Holmes,—is borne in upon me more and more with every new book by you—that you are our greatest poet, the worthy successor and equal of our greatest,—Longfellow, Emerson, and Lowell. In all respect and honor to you I take my hat off... you are their equal, against odds, in literary art; and in my estimation surpass them often in truth, imagery and music:—winning, or having won, your way through your own efforts and inherent genius.

Cawein and Riley were part of a period in American poetry growing beyond the old-fashioned traditions of the Fireside Poets. In fact, when both died early in the 20th century, a critic noted in 1916 that they belonged to "the same school," an era of transition, "bridging the gap between the older poets, Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier and the rest." After their deaths, "that period may be said to have closed; and it was a period that deserves memory and respect."

Cawein once noted proudly "I have met all the poets that are poets at present in the United States." He listed Holmes and Lowell as people he visited at their homes but warned, "It would take too long to enumerate all the writers who have been my guests." From Cawein's poem "Beauty and Art":

The gods are dead; but still for me
  Lives on in wildwood brook and tree
Each myth, each old divinity...

To him, whose mind is fain to dwell
  With loveliness no time can quell,
All things are real, imperishable.

To him — whatever facts may say —
  Who sees the soul beneath the clay,
Is proof of a diviner day.

The very stars and flowers preach
  A gospel old as God, and teach
Philosophy a child may reach;

That cannot die; that shall not cease;
  That lives through idealities
Of Beauty, ev'n as Rome and Greece.

That lifts the soul above the clod,
  And, working out some period
Of art, is part and proof of God.

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