Our American Poets


In the spring of 1963 I lived for a semester with a handful of fellow students in a pleasant wood-frame house in Berkeley, Calif. The house was perhaps 50 years old and in good condition, but it was to be demolished that May to make room for an apartment building.

In a hallway that I walked through several times a day hung a wood-framed glass-fronted collection of photographs of six distinguished-looking people. And though they were mainly looking at each other — three on the left looking toward three on the right, and vice versa — every now and then one of them seemed to glance at me, telling me to take notice.

After all, I was studying literature — one of about 500 graduate students in English — and those portraits were captioned “Our American Poets.” These, I realized, were our great poets, the ones we would have been expected to study if we had been there around the year 1900, with the 19th century just gone by.

From left to right, these six were:

  • Whittier, John Greenleaf, 1807-92. Author of Snow-Bound.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-82. Author of “Days” and “Concord Hymn.”
  • Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, 1807-82. Author of The Song of Hiawatha.
  • Lowell, James Russell, 1819-91. Author of The Biglow Papers.
  • Holmes, Oliver Wendell, 1809-94. Author of “The Chambered Nautilus.”
  • Bryant, William Cullen, 1794-1878. Author of “Thanatopsis.”

Strangely, though, most of them were not the American poets of the 19th century we were most likely to study in 1963.

Nobody came by to rescue these portraits from imminent destruction. When the semester was coming to an end, therefore, I couldn’t resist taking it with me, without asking anyone’s permission. After all, “Our American Poets” taught a lesson that stuck with me ever since.

It was this: From the perspective of the turn of the previous century, to be a great American poet, you needed to be an elderly white male, born around 1800, given three names and using all of them; conservatively dressed, with facial hair. (Emerson was the exception to that last; perhaps that’s why he alone managed to keep his high reputation beyond 1900.) You needed a stern gaze and tight lips, for life and poetry were serious.

Coming in a later time, I had different tastes in 19th-century American poetry. But I couldn’t decide whether to feel superior to the narrow tastes of that century, or to feel less certain about the durability of my own tastes in the centuries that followed.

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