American Poetry. *


Literatur: anonym
Literatur: Fraser's Magazine


AFTER the Americans had established their political nationality beyond cavil, and taken a positive rank among the powers of the civilized world, they still remained subject to the reproach, that in the worlds of Art, Science, and Literature, they had no national existence. Admitting, or, at any rate, feeling, the truth of this taunt, they bestirred themselves resolutely to produce a practical refutation of it. Their first and fullest success was, as might be expected from their notoriously utilitarian character, in practical inventions. In oratory, notwithstanding a tendency to more than Milesian floridness and hyperbole, they have taken no mean stand among the free nations of Christendom. In history, despite the disadvantages arising from the scarcity of large libraries, old records, and other appliances of the historiographer, they have produced some books which are acknowledged to be well worthy a place among our standard works, and which have acquired, not merely an English, but a Continental reputation. In the fine arts, notwithstanding obviously still greater impediments – the want at home, not only of great galleries and collections, but of the thousand little symbols and associations that help to educate the artist – the consequent necessity of going abroad to seek all that the student requires – they have still made laudable progress. The paintings of Washington Allston are the most noteworthy lions in Boston; the statues of Powers command admiration even in London. In prose fiction, the sweet sketches of Irving have acquired a renown second only to that of the agreeable essayists whom he took for his models, while the Indian and naval romances of Cooper are purchased at liberal prices by the chary bibliopoles of England, and introduced to the Parisian public by the same hand which translated Walter Scott. In poetry alone they are still palpably inferior: no world-renowned minstrel has yet arisen in the New Atlantis, and the number of those versifiers who have attained a decided name and place among the lighter English literature of their day, or whose claims to the title of poet are acknowledged in all [10] sections of their own country, is but small.

If we come to inquire into the causes of this deficiency, we are apt at first to light upon several reasons why it should not exist. In the first place, there is nothing unpoetical about the country itself, but everything highly the reverse. All its antecedents and traditions, its discovery, its early inhabitants, its first settlement by civilized men, are eminently romantic. It is not wanting in battle-grounds, or in spots hallowed by recollections and associations of patriots and sages. The magnificence of its scenery is well known. The rivers of America are at the same time the most beautiful and the most majestic in the world: the sky of America, though dissimilar in hue, may vie in loveliness with the sky of Italy. No one who has floated down the glorious Hudson (even amid all the un-ideal associations of a gigantic American steamer), who has watched the snowy sails – so different from the tarry, smoky canvass of European craft – that speck that clear water; who has noticed the faultless azure and snow of the heaven above, suggesting the highest idea of purity, the frowning cliffs that palisade the shore, and the rich masses of foliage that overhang them, tinged a thousand dyes by the early autumn frost – no one who has observed all this, can doubt the poetic capabilities of the land.

A seeming solution, indeed, presents itself in the business, utilitarian character of the people; and this solution would probably be im mediately accepted by very many of our readers. Brother Jonathan thinks and talks of cotton, and flour, and dollars, and the ups and downs of stocks. Poetry doesn't pay: he cannot appreciate, and does not care for it. 'Let me get something for myself,' he says, like the churl in Theocritus. 'Let the gods whom he invokes reward the poet. What do we want with more verse? We have Milton and Shakespeare (whether we read them or not). He is the poet for me who asks me for nothing;' and so the poor Muses wither (or as Jonathan himself might say, will) away, and perish from inanition and lack of sympathy. Very plausible; but now for the paradox. So far from disliking, or underrating, or being indifferent to poetry, the American public is the most eager devourer of it, in any quantity, and of any quality; nor is there any country in which a limited capital of inspiration will go farther. Let us suppose two persons, both equally unknown, putting forth a volume of poems on each side of the Atlantic; decidedly the chances are, that the American candidate for poetic fame will find more readers, and more encouragement in his country, than the British in his. Very copious editions of the standard English poets are sold every year, generally in a form adapted to the purses of the million; to further which end they are frequently bound two or three in a volume (Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats, for instance, is a favourite combination). Even bardlings like Pollok enjoy a large number of readers and editions. Nor is there – notwithstanding the much-complained-of absence of an international copyright law – any deficiency of home supply for the market. Writing English verses, indeed, is as much a part of an American's education, as writing Latin verses is of an Englishman's, – recited 'poems' always holding a prominent place among their public collegiate exercises; about every third man, and every other woman of the liberally-educated classes, writes occasional rhymes, either for the edification of their private circle, or the poets'-corner of some of the innumerable newspapers that encumber the land; and the number of gentlemen and ladies one meets who have published a volume of Something and Other Poems, is perfectly astounding.

The true secret seems to be, that the Americans, as a people, have not received that education which enables a people to produce poets. For, however true the poeta nascitur adage may be negatively of individuals, it is not true positively of nations. The formation of a national poetic temperament is the work of a long education, and the developement of various influences. A peculiar classicality of taste, involving a high critical standard, seems necessary, among the moderns, to high poetic [11] production; and such a taste has not yet been formed in America. True, there are kinds of poetry – the Ballad and the Epic, which, so far as we can trace them, are born, Pallaslike, full-grown; which sound their fullest tone in a nation's infancy, and are but faintly echoed in its maturity. But there are numbers in which lisps the infancy, not of a nation merely, but of a race. And the Americans were an old race though a young nation. They began with too much civilization for the heroic school of poetry: they have not yet attained enough cultivation for the philosophic.

If this be not the right theory of American poetical deficiency, it remains only for us to take the line which many American critics really do * – to deny the fact itself – to maintain that the American poetry of the present day is at least as good as the English; that Marco Bozzuris is on a par with the Battle of the Baltic, or any other pet lyric of Campbell's; that Thanatopsis goes a-head of anything in the Excursion; that the Raven is considerably better than Locksley Hall, and Evangeline beats the Eve of St. Agnes 'all to smash.' And may it not be so after all? Really the answer is not so easy to put into words, however obvious it may be to the minds of all of us. It is a very delicate matter to be judges in our own case. And an appeal to a third party, the French critics, for instance, would still be open to exceptions. It might be said that a writer in verse is slowly read and understood by those who speak a foreign language; that the necessity of waiting for a translation is a sore impediment to the growth of his fame abroad; that some of our poets would come off but badly if judged by this standard. How should we be prepared, it might be asked, to accept Tennyson's French reputation as a test of his place on Parnassus?

Making all allowances for the difficulty, we think there is one proof which the most ferociously patriotic 'States-Man' must admit. American productions in the other branches of literature have been received with no petty jealousy or niggard praise. The sober histories of Prescott and Bancroft; the romantic fictions of Irving and Cooper; the vivid seasketches of Dana and Melville, have all been deservedly approved and read by a British public, nay, some of them have acquired an English reputation at least simultaneous with, if not absolutely prior to, their native renown. Why should American poets alone be treated with injustice? Or is the public of England competent to decide in all other branches of literature, and incompetent only in this? But, in truth, the infancy of American poetry is clear to any candid and well-informed man from one single quality, setting all others out of the question – its character of imitation. Very few of the Transatlantic bards show distinctive features of originality, either in thought or expression. Take out some halfdozen from the ninety and more tenants of Mr. Griswold's poetical menagerie, and the verses of the rest might be shaken up promiscuously and re-distributed among them without its making much difference. The authors might possibly discriminate between their respective productions, but we doubt very much if the readers could. And even among the few selected poets, we should find at least as many reminiscences excited as new suggestions supplied. Thus Halleck reminds us sometimes of Byron, and more frequently of his favourite Campbell; Bryant brings up associations of Wordsworth, with an occasional dash, or rather dilution, of Collins, Whittier has evidently studied Macaulay's ballads, and so on. Poe and Longfellow perhaps exhibit the most originality of thought, and marked expression in language, of any whom the volume contains; yet the former often shows the direct influence of Tennyson, Miss Barrett, and the Keats' school generally, while the latter's quaint and pretty verses are occasionally redolent of the earlier English sacred poets.

[12] Among the proximate influences which impede the poetic progress of the Americans, one of the most evident, as well as one of the most active, is the great deficiency of wise and independent criticism. The tendencies of American reviewers are to undeviating eulogy – in the words of one of their number, they consider that 'books, like men, should be judged by their goodness rather than their badness' – doubtless a very charitable and engaging rule, but one likely to be productive of unfortunate consequences to the innocent who invariably adopts it in judging of either books or men. One cause of this erroneous theory and practice of criticism we have already hinted at; another is to be found in the adroit system of puffery adopted by the large American publishing-houses; and a mis-directed national vanity has, probably, its share in producing the effect. It is customary for these writers to boast, with much self-complacency, of the superiority of their 'soft sawder' over the condemnatory tone familiar to English reviewers. Certainly one of the most captivating of democratic fallacies is the idea that excellence can be best obtained by lowering the standard of it; but men of critical pretension might at least recollect, that if nil admirari is a deadening and chilling mistake, omne admirari is as dangerous an error the other way; that if the former is the mark of a blasé and a misanthrope, the latter is equally the attribute of the rustic who, on his first visit to town, takes all the tinsel he sees in the streets for gold, all the stucco for stone, and all the 'ladies fair and free' for great women of fashion.

To estimate the respective merits of the numerous American candidates for poetic fame, is a task not easily accomplished to the satisfaction of the reviewer, and still harder to achieve without giving grave offence to the parties most immediately interested. We have already adverted to the multiplicity of versifiers. When Halleck said of New York, –

                  Our fourteen wards
Contain some seven-and-thirty bards,

he rather understated than exaggerated the fact. Mr. Griswold, besides the ninety regular poets in his collection, gives an appendix of about seventy fugitive pieces by as many authors; and bitter complaints have been made against him in various quarters for not including some seventy, or a hundred and seventy more, 'who,' it is said, and probably with truth, 'have as good a right to be there as many of those admitted.' Still it is possible to pick out a few of general reputation, whom literati from all parts of the Union would agree in sustaining as specimens of distinguished American poets, though they would differ in assigning their relative position. Thus, if the Republic had to choose a laureate, Boston would probably deposit a nearly unanimous vote for Longfellow; the suffrages of New York might be divided between Bryant and Halleck; and the southern cities would doubtless give a large majority for Poe. But these gentlemen, and some three or four more, would be acknowledged by all as occupying the first rank. Perhaps, on the whole, the preponderance of native authority justifies us in heading the list with Bryant, who, at any rate, has the additional title of seniority in authorship, if not in actual years.



[Die Anmerkungen stehen als Fußnoten auf den in eckigen Klammern bezeichneten Seiten]

[9] * 1. The Poets and Poetry of America. By Rufus Willmot Griswold. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart. 1843.

2. Bryant's Poems. New Edition. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart. 1849.

3. Fanny, with other Poems. By Fitz-Greene Halleck. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1845.

4. Voices of the Night. By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Cambridge: J. Owen. 1840.

5. Ballads and Other Poems. Cambridge: J. Owen. 1842.

6. Poems. By John G. Whittier. Philadelphia : 1838.

7. The Raven and Other Poems. By Edgar A. Poe. New York: Wiley and Putnam. 1845.

8. A Fable for Critics. New York: G. P. Putnam. 1848.

9. The Biglow Papers. Cambridge: George Nichols. 1848.   zurück

[11] We have before us an article which opens with this quiet assumption: – 'The fact is as undeniable as it is generally acknowledged, that, since the death of Lord Byron, the best fugitive poetry of the United States has been greatly superior to that of England.'   zurück





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country.
Bd. 42, 1850, Juli, S. 9-25.


Unser Auszug: S. 9-12.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country   online
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Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country   inhaltsanalytische Bibliographie
The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900.
Hrsg. von Walter E. Houghton. Bd. 2. Toronto 1972.





Brandmeyer, Rudolf: Poetiken der Lyrik: Von der Normpoetik zur Autorenpoetik. In: Handbuch Lyrik. Theorie, Analyse, Geschichte. Hrsg. von Dieter Lamping. 2. Aufl. Stuttgart 2016, S. 2-15.

Jackson, Virginia: Before Modernism. Inventing American Lyric. Princeton, NJ: 2023.

Kete, Mary L.: The Reception of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry. In: The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Poetry. Hrsg. von Kery Larson. Cambridge 2011, S. 13-35.

Peterfy, Margit: Imagined and Memorialized Fame: Longfellow and Lowell in England. In: Symbiosis. Transatlantic Literary and Cultural Relations 25.1 (2021), S. 75-93.

Pionke, Albert D.: "Horn-Handed and Pig-Headed": British Reception of The Poets and Poetry of America. In: Philosophy and Literature 41.2 (2017) S. 319-337.



Literatur: Fraser's Magazine

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DOI: 10.14361/9783839451137-018



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer