The Poets and Poetry of America/To the Reader

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The Poets and Poetry of America
by Rufus Wilmot Griswold
To the reader.

This work is designed to exhibit the progress and condition of Poetry in the United States. It contains selections from a large number of authors, all of whom have lived in the brief period which has elapsed since the establishment of the national government. Considering the youth of the country, and the many circumstances which have had a tendency to retard the advancement of letters, it speaks well for the past and present, and cheeringly for the future.

Although American has produced many eminent scholars and writers, we have yet but the beginning of a national literature. There have been few greater metaphysicians and theologians than Jonathan Edwards; James Marsh occupies a high rank in philosophy; Prescott belongs to the first class of historians; Franklin, Audobon, and Webster have been among the most successful investigators of the sciences; Irving, Cooper and Hawthorne have composed fictions that will keep green their memories for centuries; Channing and Everett have won unfading laurels in the departments of polite letters in which they have written; and some whose names are in this book are Poets, in the strictest and highest sense of that term. But how many of them all are free from that vassalage of opinion and style which is produced by a constant study of the literature of that nation whose language we speak, whose manners we adopt, and which was the home of our ancestors, and is the holy land to which our own spirits turn?

It is said that the principles of our fathers are beginning to be regarded with indifference; that love of country is decaying; and that the affections of the people are in the transition state from the simplicity of democracy to the gilded shows of aristocratic government. If it be so, here is the cause: The national tastes and feelings are fashioned by the subjects of kings; and they will continue to be so, until, by an honest and politic system of reciprocal copyright, such protection is given to the native mind as will enable men of the first order of genius to devote themselves to authorship. Literature, not less than wealth, adds to a nation's happiness and greatness; the man of letters should receive as much of the fostering care of the government as is extended to the agriculturist or the manufacturer.

There are, connected with this country, no lack of subjects for poetry and romannce. The perilous voyages of the old Norsemen; the sublime heroism of Columbus, his triumphs, and his sufferings; the fall of the Peruvian and Mexican empires; the vast ruins indicating where annihilated nations once had their capitals; the colonization of New England by the Puritans; the beliefs in witchcraft; the persecutions of the Quakers and Baptists; the wars of Philip of Mount Hope; the rise and fall of the French dominion in Canada; the extinction of the great confederacy of the five nations; the settlement of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, by persons of the most varied and picturesque characters; the sublime and poetical mythology of the aborigines; and that grand revolution, resulting in our political independence and the establishment of the democratic principle, which forms for the present a barrier between the traditional literary past, and our own time, too familiar to be moulded by the hand of fiction: all abound with themes for the poet. A true creator, with a genius as great as John Milton's, might invent an equal to "Paradise Lost," by restoring Palenque and Copan to their meridian splendour, peopling them with a polished and chivalrous race, and describing their decline and final extinction, so that only ruins of temples and palaces, overgrown with trees whose roots penetrate the loam of centuries, tell the brief history that they were and are not.

Turning from the subjects for heroic, to those for descriptive poetry, we have a variety not less extensive and interesting. The mountains of New England and the West; the great inland seas between Itasca and the Saint Lawrence, with their thousand islands; the lesser lakes; the majestic rivers and their cataracts; the old and limitless forests; the sea-like prairies; the caves in which cities might be hid; the pure and beautiful climate of the north—

                     Her clear, warm heaven at noon, the mist that shrouds
                       Her twilight hills, her cool and starry eyes,
                     The glorious splendour of her sunset clouds,
                       The rainbow beauty of her forest leaves,
                     That greet his eye in solitude and crowds,
                       Where'er his web of song her poet weaves;
                     Her autumn scenery—

surpassing in glorious magnificence all sights in the transatlantic world; and all the varieties of land, lake, river, air, and sky, which lie between the bay of Hudson and the straits of Panama—afford an unbounded diversity of subjects and illustrations for the descriptive poet. No historical associations are needed; a landscape by Wier or Cole would be no more beautiful because the hills and valleys had been crimsoned by battles a thousand years ago; nor would a written picture possess deeper interest for such a reason.

He who looks on Lake George, or sees the sun rise on Mackinaw, or listens to the grand music of a storm, is divested, certainly for a time, of a portion of the alloy of his nature. The elements of power in all sublime sights and heavenly harmonies should live in the poet's song, to which they can be transferred only by him who possesses the creative faculty. The sense of beauty, next to the miraculous divine suasion, is the means through which the human character is purified and elevated. The creation of beauty, the manifestation of the real by the ideal, "in words that move in a metrical array," is poetry.

This volume embraces specimens from numerous authors; and though it may contain the names of all who deserve admission, the judicious critic will be more likely to censure me for the wide range of my selections than for any omissions he may discover. In regard to the number of poems I have given from particular writers, it is proper to remark that considerations unconnected with any estimates of their genius have in some cases guided me. The collected works of several poets have been frequently printed, and are already familiar to nearly every American, while poems of much merit, scattered in magazines and other periodicals, unaccompanied by the names of their authors, are comparatively unknown. I have endeavoured to present as much good verse as possible that is new and inaccessible to the reader.

There is in all this nation hardly a native inhabitant of Saxon origin who cannot read and write. Every house has its book-closet, and every town its public library. The universal prevalence of intelligence, and that self-respect which is imparted by the democratic principle, have caused a great increase of writers. Yet, owing to the absence of a just system of copyright, the rewards of literary exertion are so precarious, that but a small number devote to letters their entire attention. A high degree of excellence, especially in poetry, can be attained only by constant and quiet study and cultivation. With multitudes of verse-writers, we have few poets.

In selecting the specimens in this work, I have regarded humourous and other rhythmical compositions, not without merit in their way, as poetry, though they possess but few of its true elements. So many mistake the form for the divine essence itself, that I might have experienced difficulty in filling so large a volume, had I been governed by a more strict definition. It is a gratifying fact that nearly every thing in the poetic manner produced in this country is free from licentiousness, and harmless, if not elevating in its tendencies. Thus far the chief distinguishing characteristic of American poetry is its moral purity. May it so remain forever.

Philadelphia, March, 1842