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American Poetry, 1609-1870


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About this Collection

Introduction

Introduction

American Poetry: 1609-1870 is a major, comprehensive collection on microfilm of nearly 300 years of American verse--the works of major and minor poets, the doggeral and "poor and pious poetry" of obscure poets, and the poetical works of such prose giants as Thoreau, Melville, and Hawthorne. All of those American poets who have an established place in world literature are represented, often in first editions. The collection also contains the works of minor poets, some of whom have been consigned to relative oblivion by literary criticism, or have been overlooked because the circumstances of their publication have made their work inaccessible. Based on the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays at Brown University and on two major bibliographies compiled by Oscar Wegelin and Roger E. Stoddard,1 this collection is much more than poetry; it is a record of America during its formative years. The works represent what people thought, reflect the sentiments of a particular period, and record an event or intellectual phenomenon in American history.

The oldest work included in the collection, Les Muses de la Nouvelle France by Marc Lescarbot (Paris, 1609), is a pageant in verse and was the first play written and acted north of the Rio Grande. Much of the poetry of early America was dedicated to the service of God. The work of Anne Bradstreet, who authored the first book of original poems written in New England, is represented by three editions of The Tenth Muse (London, 1650; Boston, 1758 and 1768). Elegies and poems written by Cotton Mather are included in the collection also, as well as Michael Wigglesworths grim, Calvinistic description of Judgment Day, The Day of Doom.

The approach of the American Revolution and independence spurred a flurry of intellectual activity as well as social and political change. The works included in the collections first segment (1609-1820) trace the slow emergence from the constraints of British verse style of the Revolutionary period typical of such poets as the Connecticut wits Richard Alsop, Joel Barlow, and John Trumbull. Also included are works of Philip Freneau, considered the first American lyric poet of distinction, who wrote satiric anti-British poems during the years of the American Revolution.

Segment II of American Poetry: 1609-1870, which included the years 1821-1850, is heavily represented with the skilled and emotional works of Edgar Allen Poe, as well as with those of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hugh Swenton Legare, Epes Sargent, and William Gilmore Simms. By 1826, William Cullen Bryant had distinguished himself as the leading poet of America, and his call for a return to nature had a profound impact on the transcendentalists as well as on American poetry as a whole. During this period, transcendentalism, temperance, antislavery, humanitarianism, and other movements were frequent themes, and the sentimental, melancholic, and morbid warblings of the Victorians were ever-present. Gradually, the American frontier, folklore, history, and nature were incorporated into a truly American verse.

The years between 1851 and 1870, which represent the third segment of the collection, were dominated by the prolific works of John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellows work, more than that of any other poet, created or popularized American myths. The abolitionist cause was evident in the works of both Whittier and Lowell, the latter of whom began as a regionalist employing Yankee humor and dialect. Also included is Walt Whitmans Leaves of Grass, first printed in 1855, which demonstrated a new kind of poetry and proclaimed the optimism of U.S. democracy.

Abolition, the Civil War, the death of Abraham Lincoln, and the beginnings of Reconstruction were themes that frequently occupied the poets of the period. The collection contains a significant representation of the abolitionist writings of Whittier and Lowell, and the northern Civil War poetry of Henry Howard Brownell, Edmund Clarence Stedman, Thomas Buchanan Read, Herman Melville, and Charles Graham Halpine. Lincolns assassination occassioned a great outpouring of poetry, notably Whitmans "When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloomd." Also represented are the light verse of Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Godfrey Saxe, the sonnets of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, and the writings of Thomas Baily Aldrich, Thomas William Parsons, and George Henry Boker. There are also works by a number of American women poets from this period, among them suffragist Julia Ward Howe, Alice and Phoebe Cary, Elizabeth Akers Allen, and Lucy Larcom.

Footnote

1 Oscar Wegelin, Early American Poetry; A Compilation of the Titles of Three Volumes of Verse and Broadsides by Writers Born or Residing in North America North of the Mexican Border (1650-1820). (New York, Peter Smith, 1930)
Roger E. Stoddard, A Catalogue of Books and Pamphlets Unrecorded in Oscar Wegelins "Early American Poetry," 1650-1820. (Providence, Friends of the Library at Brown University, 1969)