October 6, 2010

Boker: O Poet of the present day!

Born to a wealthy Philadelphia family on October 6, 1823, George Henry Boker became a poet, a playwright and, for a time, a diplomat (like his friend Bayard Taylor). Another friend, Charles Godrey Leland, noted that even as a boy, "Boker's knowledge of poetry was remarkable." His family fortune made him comfortable enough that he devoted much of his time to the pursuit of scholarly studies.

Boker, along with his group of literary friends, preferred looking to the Old World for inspiration. As Richard Henry Stoddard wrote to Boker: "Read Chaucer for strength, read Spenser for ease and sweetness, read Milton for sublimity and thought, read Shakespeare for all these things... Get out of your age as far as you can." Boker tended to agree, and often chose not to treat American subjects.

Boker, Taylor, Leland, and Stoddard were never as popular as the earlier generation of American poets (major names like Longfellow, Holmes, Bryant and others). As the second wave of American writers in the 19th century, they often struggled to get respect from critics. That struggle may be what Boker referred to in his poem "Ad Criticum":

...The world grows sage. The harmless tales
That took her in her infant years,
Now stretch her patience till it fails,
And weary her averted ears.

The poem continues by referring to the typical thought of the day that a new American literature must reflect the unique landscape of the country. To Boker, however, "this landscape, bought and sold" make up "the pictured scenes, no more... these are the scenery, not the play." The poem concludes:

O Poet of the present day!
Range back or forth, change time or place,
But mould the sinews of your lay
To struggle in the final race!

Your triumph in the end stands clear;
For when a few short years have run,
The past, the present, there and here,
To future times will be as one.

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