When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame

Modernist American poetry has two parents, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, but it’s been awhile since we’ve presented any Whitman here. Dickinson is a subversive Modernist, ironically skewing the expected tropes. Whitman on the other hand is the provocateur, the poet who is proud to say right out front everything he wishes to change.

As Whitman prepared his 1860 edition of his evolving Leaves of Grass,  he was about to cross a Rubicon of a sort. He had decided that erotic material needed to be added to his great collection. Since he wished to be all-inclusive and unabashed, starting with himself, that material would vary, but it would include expressions of male homosexual longing and relationships.

Whitman in 1860 - caricature from Harpers Monthly

Walt Whitman as caricatured in 1860 in Harper’s Weekly

 

Once again, my knowledge of the historical context here is not extensive, but some brief reading this weekend indicates that to the mid-19th century American audience, the homosexual elements of what Whitman was to publish was little or no more disturbing than the erotic element generally. For a man who was already wishing to revolutionize English poetry with his free-verse and universalist message including what would surely be considered shockingly fleshy writing about desire, longing, and connection was certain to complicate his goals for a wide audience. His leading ally within American High Culture, the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, counselled him to not include, or to greatly tone down that material.

Whitman didn’t take that council. The 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass  included a section, Calamus, that was full of love and desire between men. Emerson was right, that would complicate Whitman’s task of revolutionizing American poetry.

When Transcendentalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson* asked Emily Dickinson if she had read Whitman shortly thereafter, Dickinson replied: “You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book but was told that he was disgraceful.” If one is of a speculative mind, one can imagine Emily Dickinson getting a plain brown wrapper delivery of Leaves of Grass  that she would never acknowledge.

This Monday is Veteran’s Day/Remembrance Day, and as he prepared the Calamus  poems Whitman was not a veteran or a survivor with war memories, as the American Civil War that would add another tremendous shaping force on his poetry was still more than a year off. Still he would write this moving comparison that I present today.

When I Peruse the Conquer'd Fame as published

Today’s poem as it appeared in the 1860 edition of “Leaves of Grass.”

 

“When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame”  is a comparison of two things: fame and envy. Perhaps the fame part will strike you first, along with the implications of worth and value. The fame in the title most often comes to prominent men: victorious generals, Presidents who bask in their election and men who put their names on large buildings. The U.S. Presidents that Whitman would have had in mind then were bumbling ineffectual men, totally incapable of coming to grips with the immense and deadly crisis they were careening toward, but famous none the less.**  What generals would he have in mind? Napoleon or his adversaries perhaps, men who could shuffle the borders and crowned heads back and forth in tides.

And for comparison, Whitman sets out “the brotherhood of lovers.” Does he mean men who love men? As this is part of the homoerotic Calamus  poems section I think we need to accept that is significantly so. He goes on to praise the lovers who are steadfast in their love as aging and fate and even the numbing of time is arrayed against them.

This task of enduring love is not something unique to same-sex lovers, and I suspect that Whitman, the universalist, recognizes that too. But in his particular, he’s saying that unfaltering love which would not then be socially acknowledged is all the more extraordinary, though unknown compared to the war-heroes and political potentates.

Did Whitman, and I suppose myself in my choice to present this poem at this time, just dis veterans? That objection would assume that the two groups are mutually exclusive, at odds. That isn’t so. And if Whitman was here to answer he’d point out he spoke of Generals, Presidents, and rich men, not the soldiers he later comforted and whose wounds he dressed in the upcoming war.

And of course, in the U. S. today it’s Veterans Day, set aside for those who after their service may well have continued as or became those ardent lovers whatever their sexual orientation. We honor them for their service in the one regard, Whitman asks that we consider the second as well.

What of the other comparison, the one you may not have noticed, the one concerning envy? Whitman has chosen not to weigh his comparison between the two sets of roles only by their levels of objective fame, but specifically in the example of his own state of envy. He says he doesn’t envy those powerful and rich men—but of the “long and long” lovers, there he says he is bitterly envious.

Let me suppose Whitman was sincerely speaking here (he has almost no other mode in his poetry than sincerity). But there is an element in Leaves of Grass  where the poet speaking—“Walt Whitman” as the character in his great collection of poems—is meant to be an example, as his verse is an example, of an imperfect thing striving to find a different, better path to something new and not fully known. Whitman, like the best of Modernist art, like various America, like many veterans, ardent as a lover is running faithfully and with a heart open toward an affectionate and unknown future.

Once more I marshal the ranks of my marcato orchestral instruments for “When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame”  into another “punk orchestral” piece. Harmonically, I’m working a three-chord trick here, just as if the composer/conductor’s podium was stocked with Ramones. Other than the use of a rock’n’roll drum set, the other unusual textures are mixed subtly into the low-end where there’s a contrabassoon line and Fender electric piano bass (ala Ray Manzarek). You can hear it with the player below.

 

 

 

 

*It’s possible that a canny Dickinson might have been telling Higginson what Higginson would want to hear, since Higginson, though au fait with political and social radicalism, was also of the opinion that Whitman was disgusting.

**Coincidentally, the U. S. President when the Calamus  poems including edition of Leaves of Grass  was published was James Buchanan, who may have been gay himself. Though Donald Trump has already selected Andrew Jackson as his favorite President, Buchanan may also prove to be indispensable to his legacy in that Buchanan has long been the consensus choice among historians as the worst-ever President of the United States.

Amy Lowell’s November

To my knowledge, there’s no situation, no case, in the Modernist revolution of English poetry quite like that of Amy Lowell, who for around a decade from 1915 to 1925 made herself a significant force in the popularization and dissemination of short free verse,*  yet was often derided by others writing in this style, and whose own concise verse was largely forgotten until this century.

That her name and place in Modernism survived at all, it was largely because of her brief connection with the original Imagists in London which led to a running feud with Ezra Pound. Pound said that Lowell’s promotion of the same poetic principles that he had been propounding was a descent into “Amygism.” It wasn’t just Pound, D. H. Lawrence said of her work “In everything she did she was a good amateur.” Witter Bynner, the literary-hoaxster who wanted to mock this form of Modernism tagged the overweight Lowell as the “hippopoetess.”

Young Amy Lowell

The young Amy Lowell. “Does this hat make my…oh, forget it…”

 

What was their beef? Was it that she was a woman and she was generally considered a lesbian? Even though the early-20th century Modernists often fail contemporary standards for wokeness, the Modernist movement included other women** and gay artists. Likewise, Lowell was eccentric, but that too was no mark of uniqueness in their artistic world.

I should make it clear, that even though I often write here of encountering writers from this era as I present their work, I’m not an expert or scholar on the era, and there’s a great deal I don’t know. But my quick read of the situation is that Lowell was seen by Pound and many of his cohort as a wanna-be. She came from a wealthy and prestigious family.*** She seems to have bought her way into some of her influence—but once again, wealthy arts patronage can’t be what makes Lowell unique. That was common then as it is now.

What made her unique is that she wasn’t content with being a patron, she believed herself a poet and a critic, and worked extraordinarily hard in her short career at exercising herself in those roles. Controversy may be good for short-term fame, but some of the most lauded poets of her time didn’t think much of her work as hierarchies and canons were being formed by those that outlived her death in 1925. Did they make their judgements cavalierly because they didn’t like her as a person or by reputation?

Let me cut to the chase: I don’t know. I’ve probably encountered a few Amy Lowell poems over the years, and none of them left an impression on me. But transient mood and expectation and the randomness of anthologized selections could account for that. As this project has come to use a lot of poetry from Amy Lowell’s contemporaries, I’ve figured that someday I should tackle one of hers if I found something I thought I could do something with. And this fall, her poem called “November”  was brought to my attention.****

November

I can’t find any good Internet links to this poem, so here it is.

 

What did I notice about it? “November”  follows the style of the early Imagists, including the one thing that I’ve come to recognize about early Imagist writing that later Modernism came to reject: the modesty and directness of its statements. You could knock Lowell and say that when she wrote this she had Pound, T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, H. D., and so on to model this poem on. But if you believe, as I’ve come to, that this mode of poetry was abandoned too soon for longer, more elaborate and esoteric statements, then continuing to use those valid methods is no crime.

The trick of this kind of compressed poem is how to be simple and subtle at the same time in some way that the reader will find a working expression of beautiful. After finding “November”  worthwhile, I quickly looked at a few other shorter Lowell poems and I’m not sure she consistently manages that, but I believe this one does. Even famous and much anthologized poems in the Imagist style can be read quickly as superficial “Is that all there is?” poems. Their simplicity asks for a engaged reader, not one blown-over by some kind of surface filigree.

As with our other autumn poems, this one touches some common tropes: leaves, bare branches, dark, rain. But Lowell keeps this fresh, where many other poems would seem to just be checking off the boxes. The leaves’ color is secondary, we are subtly asked instead to hear the sound of the crisp leaves rattling against the walls of the poet’s house. Yes, there are fallen leaves too, but they gather under the evergreen pines, sheltered there. The lilac bushes sound-move with the rich word “sweep” against the overhead starlight.

And that translates then to an interior scene where the sheltered poet is too under the lights, a lamp, writing, perhaps handwriting with a sweep of the hand. And another unshowy, but well-chosen, phrase says what the subject is: “The emptiness of my heart.”

Let’s pause there for a moment. Is that a simple epithet for longing? Yes it is, but there are others for that too that weren’t chosen, and “The emptiness of my heart” is more ambiguous than most, for it may indicate a feeling of unworthiness and unreciprocity too—but then to think to explore that, to write of it, to experience it in an autumn moment, is a self-reflection that a callused always cold and empty heart will never do.

The poem’s closing image, following up on that, gives us one more sheltered, or barely sheltered thing: the cat who “will not stay with me” and is huddled in a window casement.

In summary, there is considerable complexity of feeling encoded in these images without the emotions being explicitly named and listed, but rather invoked in the Imagist manner. And the poem hides its craft so that one may not notice it reading quickly, particularly the subtle repetitions in the three scenes. I chose in my performance to repeat the writer under the lamp scene once more at the end to emphasize that I heard that key point the other two scenes turn around.

Musically, I worked on this performance yesterday which was Joni Mitchell’s birthday, so I wanted to try something in an unfamiliar alternate tuning. And today is Bonnie Raitt’s birthday, so it was good that the one I settled on (G minor DGDGBbD) worked well when played with a bottleneck slide. You can hear how Amy Lowell worked with that music using the player below.

 

 

 

 

*A year after her death in 1925 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and besides editing and helping to publish several anthologies of Modernist verse, she promoted it by popular lectures and articles in mainstream publications. Louis Untermeyer in his summarizing American Poetry Since 1900  published in 1923 says that “No poet living in America has been more fought for, fought against and generally fought about than Amy Lowell.” But to speak about her poetry (which he does praise) he writes first about her work as promoter and provocateur: “Her verve is almost as remarkable as her verse” indicating that the element of celebrity and controversy was already masking her actual poetry.

**Oddly, the path in the 20th century seems to have been to increasingly under-rate, value, and remember women poets of the Modernist era as the century went on. By the time I came along to encounter Modernism in school 50 years later it was a sausage-fest—but the 21st century is working to re-evaluate that. Canons and reputations are one thing, but every poem and its poet lives or dies each time a reader encounters it. That’s always a present act.

***Some of the Modernists came from what appear to be upper middle-class families, though of those, some had broken family ties and their financial support in some way. How much richer was Amy Lowell? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect noticeably so. Wealthy and gay poet Bynner had to reach for the body-shaming to find something to ridicule Lowell.

****Once more, I first saw this poem at the Interesting Literature blog.

Elizabeth at Woodstock

I like to mix things up with this project, presenting Poetry’s Greatest Hits but also less-known poems and poets too. One oddity is that two of the most popular pieces here over the past four years have been by unknown poets known rather as heads of state: a teenage love poem by George Washington and a lament from Abraham Lincoln.

History is unavoidably entangled with literature, so I’m often pleased to present poems that are personal witnesses to history. Today’s piece uses three texts written by Queen Elizabeth I of England, or rather by a young princess who wasn’t queen at the time of their writing, but was instead a political prisoner.

As someone who grew up in the U.S. I didn’t have a good grasp of British history for most of my life. Over the years I’ve picked up bits and pieces, but one element that I discovered was the degree to which that the era surrounding the vigorous birth of English literature was a dangerous, violent, unstable political situation. And the woman who would give her name to that era, was not protected from those horrors.

The story is complex, here’s the best brief summary I can come up with. Europe had been in the throes of religious-affiliated warfare between Catholics and the Protestant wings of Christianity mixed in with the usual imperial cross-conflicts for some time. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII had moved England into the Protestant camp largely so that he could divorce his wife and marry the woman who would be Elizabeth’s mother. That new Queen eventually was executed as Henry VIII moved on through his infamous marital history. At Henry’s death, his young male child and heir Edward became king in name, but with an adult Protector running the country, but that protector’s brother sought to marry the teenage Elizabeth and take over. That plot failed, and the Protector’s brother was beheaded.

On the sickly Edward’s death at age 15, Elizabeth’s older half-sister Mary (daughter of Henry VIII’s first, divorced, queen) became ruler of England, and she switched the country back to the Catholic side. Every time the state religion changed, suppression of the other religion occurred, and plots from the outs faction against the new establishment were rife.

Elizabeth was, on paper, next in the line of succession at this point, but aligned with the Protestants. This barely protected her and made her a target at the same time. And in 1554 a Protestant plot that aimed to unseat Mary and put Elizabeth in her place was discovered. Elizabeth was now 21, some suspected her being a participant, not just a pawn being moved surreptitiously to the queen’s row on the chessboard, and once more executions will be going forward for the discovered plotters.

Elizabeth was taken to the Tower of London. Her imprisonment began, interrogation was in store, even torture and execution were possible.

After several months in the Tower, a compromise was reached between those who wished to rid Queen Mary of the plausible rival and those that thought it better to not martyr Elizabeth. She was shipped off to a disused old castle, Woodstock, away from the court and other plotters. It could be said she was now at a royal palace, not the Tower where traitors were imprisoned and executed. In reality, she was still imprisoned, kept in the half-ruined castle’s gatehouse under guard.

The story goes that today’s poem was written in charcoal on the interior wall of that gatehouse by the imprisoned princess. As a poem it’s also a political statement, a rather clever one at that. On its face it’s not addressed to those who’ve imprisoned her, rather it’s addressed to impersonal fortune, fate. Like a candidate sticking to the message, she’s not charging her Queen and half-sister with being behind this, but she is calling out injustice. She’s not issuing a call to overthrow the government, but only slyly praying in conclusion that a just God may send “to my foes all that they have thought.”

In today’s performance I’ve framed that poem written on a prison wall with two other shorter texts: a couplet titled “In Defiance of Fortune”  and an ending: three lines scratched into the glass of a window pane in the gatehouse by a diamond, an even starker statement by a political prisoner.

Musically, I’ve been thinking of The Byrds, and so it was time to break out the electric 12-string. I even thought of punning off the title of the half-ruined castle that Elizabeth was imprisoned at by referring to Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”  musically—but in the end there is only an echo of that song’s chord progression left in my music.

There are more stories in the swerving era of revolution and counter revolution, secret police and royal executions. Elizabeth’s eventual reign doesn’t end the religiously affiliated plots. After her death and a new Protestant king, one of the last serious Catholic-affiliated plots against the government ends when Guy Fawkes is found watching over some great store of gunpowder in a crypt under the parliament building. An English holiday is born, celebrated on November 5th: a burlesque of treason or revolution, suitable for children. Effigies are burned, there are taffy apples, and fireworks smell in loud colors.

Guy_Fawkes_arrested

Arrest, torture, head on a pike, then centuries as the but of holiday villainy. Only Alan Moore can save him now!

 

Of course it was deadly serious for Fawkes, ready to kill in defense of his oppressed religion, and deadly serious for the government, ready to execute him for such a plan. Someone—do we call them Fortuna or God—had a joke to tell us. As Fawkes was led up the execution platform, he tripped, fell off the platform, and broke his neck. History, like literature, has so many sad stories, some uplifting ones, and then again some jokes.

To hear Elizabeth’s prison poem performed, use the player below. Want to read the texts and a few other poems attributed to Elizabeth, they are available here.*

 

 

*I found out about these most directly Elizabethan poems over at the Interesting Literature blog. Highly recommended.