Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone




Just at this day, when the acknowledged chiefs of American song for the most part have fallen, or have laid down the pen, it may be of interest to examine the qualifications of some of those younger poets on whom the leadership will next devolve. It is evident, at first glance, that the new generation is not following the traditions of the old. On this account, before dealing directly with my subject, I may be permitted to review very briefly those names which have become representative in American poetry. Between these poets and their contemporaries in England a striking difference exists, in the absence on the American side of that quality which goes to the formation of "schools", or gathers a following of pronounced disciples. This really proves less than might at first be imagined, but it suggests and emphasizes several points of difference, besides accounting for what was noticed above—that the methods of the new men are new.

Of all the earlier singers, the pioneers of American verse, Edgar Poe is perhaps the one who has stamped himself most on the work of other men; but it is certain that he has founded no school, such as those that carry on the traditions of Keats or Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, or Rossetti. He has left his impress to a certain extent on the music of other masters, even upon that of Tennyson himself, and has exerted an influence on some of the later French singers; but in America even less than elsewhere will he be found to have gathered disciples. Upon Bryant is the mark of Wordsworth more ineffaceably than upon any writer is stamped the mark of Bryant. Emerson himself, who has indeed a devoted and illustrious following, can hardly be said to have a single imitator, or any who could directly assert that from him they had learned their art.

Again, what poet owes as much to Longfellow as does Longfellow to the German Romanticists? So far as I have been able to observe, Longfellow has scarcely left a trace on those of the younger verse writers who are worth taking into account. Where his influence is perceptible it shows mainly in the fashion of quaint similes— a fashion of which he knew how to wear to advantage and with new and exquisite effect, but which most readily grows offensive upon a lesser wearer. Let me not be misunderstood as joining in what is just now quite prevalent, a wholesale depreciation of Longfellow’s genius. Some slight depreciation at the hands of the literary class was inevitable, from his fervent acceptation by the masses. But his best work—unfortunately very restricted in quantity—possesses qualities which have perhaps quite failed to hit the sight of the admiring people, excellences other than those which have won him his wide-spread popularity. These are, a consummate grace of thought and diction, an undistorted vision, and sweetness and purity of tone, which, with his wholesome naturalness and his universal tenderness, must set his fame secure, if not high, as time goes on, even among those who now somewhat decry him. His individuality, though much less obtrusive and insistent than, for instance, that of Emerson, is none the less a fact. And that his genius is, to some extent, begotten of German romanticism on one of the finer developments of New England culture, no more detracts from his originality than does the general theory, that Tennyson is the outcome of Wordsworth and Keats make Tennyson’s title less secure. But neither has there arisen, nor from the nature of his genius is there likely to arise, from among Longfellow’s throng of admirers a group of disciples to perpetuate his style and traditions.

As for Whitman, who, in the judgement of many of the finest intellects of the day stands out the most prominent figure in American poetry, with all his admirers he has no imitators, for which we are devoutly thankful. Yet Whitman’s genius is so great that, in spite of his immodesties, his irritating egotism, his extravagant affections, his reckless constructions, his inapt and awkward coinage of unnecessary words—in spite of the deadly dullness of his catalogues, his pages on pages of utter failure, at length the most hostile critic, unless blind of the mind’s eye, is constrained to yield him homage. When most truly himself, the inspired interpreter of Nature in her largest and freest moods, his genius refuses to be hidden by the rags wherewith he decks it. The elemental strength and the truth of it will out. Whitman’s song has the power to set one face to face with nature. It is perhaps the fullness of satisfaction to be obtained, in certain moods, from Whitman, which has made his advocates so unqualified, almost furious, in their advocacy. Yet how rarely is he at his best, or even at his second best! And who could tolerate his manner in a smaller poet? Himself we accept gratefully, with all the bitterness he will sometimes force down our throats. But the prospect of feebler Whitmans who could endure? Therefore it is a matter for congratulation that his admirers, some of whom themselves are poets, display no tendency to become his imitators.

It is Dr. Holmes, I think, of whom it may most safely be predicted that a follower will not be lacking to him while cultured society in America continues to exist. He is the unquestioned master in this country of what is called "society verse"; and no future writer in this form can afford to neglect his instruction. His following indeed will probably ever be small, as the qualifications for a successful society poet are most rare; but it will be select, discriminating, and also very devoted. Dr. holmes has written a few poems in the purely serious vein—poems like "The Chambered Nautilus" and the "Iron Gate"—which take their place with the best of American song; but his title will be derived from his most characteristic and individual work, his vers de societé, a form of verse which has been moulded and altered in his hands, and on which he has set the impress of his genius indelibly.

Why is this species of verse so hard to fit with a name? No one appears quite satisfied to call it "society verse". But this title, under protest as it were, has been universally adopted, and must, I think, stand as the best attainable. It has been suggested, and not without a grain of wisdom, to call it "evening verse"—this earnest with a smile upon its lips, this laughing song that is never quite unmindful of life’s pathos. Such a definition is particularly applicable to Dr. Holmes’s verse, of which the tone and manner and language are those of such refined and informal social intercourse as an evening gathering alone can best afford. Of such society, whence broad buffoonery is excluded, where the strong passions and the tragedies of life, though recognized, are not dwelt upon, where hearts are sound and flippancy is not acceptable, the verse of Dr. Holmes is the expression.

Further particularizing is not necessary to show that among our elder poets, as compared with their brethren in England, there has been some lack of those characteristics which are apt to exert deep influence on future song. Whether they have adequately stamped themselves on the mass of their fellow-countrymen is quite another question. For instance, we see no trace of Whittler upon the new verse, yet undoubtedly his influence has been wide and deep in American life and sentiment.

We may omit discussion, therefore, of Stoddard and of Bayard Taylor; as well as of the essayist-poets Lowell and Stedman, the former of whom is less a master in his verse than in his prose, while the latter, speaking to us as our wisest critic of song, proves his title to this office, now and again, by the production of perfect lyric. Passing over, also, a later poet, Mr. Aldrich, whose standing has been fully secured to him, whose gem-like richness and elaborate art have long been widely recognized, we come at last to what may be considered as distinctively the younger school. The most prominent members of this are:—Joaquin Miller, Edgar Fawcett, Sidney Lanier, Richard Watson Gilder, Charles de Kay, Miss Ellen Mackay Hutchinson, H.H. Boyesen, Maurice Thompson, F.S. Saltus, Starr H. Nichols, Miss Edith M. Thomas, with others who may be referred to later.

I have mentioned here the name of Miss Thomas, although as far as I am aware her poems are not yet gathered in book form, and are therefore only to be obtained, few in number, by gleaning from the magazines and periodicals. Yet so red-blooded are these verses, of thought and of imagination all compact, so richly individual and so liberal in promise, that the name of their author is already become conspicuous. Miss Thomas’s work, in some of its best characteristics, recalls to me Shakespeare’s sonnets. We are justified in expecting much from her genius.


"Notes on Some of the Younger American Poets," The Week 1:21, 24 April 1884, 328-29 [back]