Thursday, August 19, 2010

The greatest poem in English of the century

The nineteenth century.  So says Yvor Winters:

Tuckerman is flawed by the vices of his century; but The Cricket, I feel sure, is the greatest poem in English of the century, and the amount of unforgettable poety in the sonnets is large. (xvi)

Winters greatly underestimates the power of my memory, but he is otherwise correct about the sonnets of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman.  I'm much less sure about The Cricket, although I like Winters' confidence, of which there is more:

F. G. Tuckerman (1821-73) was one of the three most remarkable American poets of the nineteenth century. The others were Jones Very (1813-80) and Emily Dickinson (1830-86). Emerson had talent, which was badly damaged by foolish thinking; Bryant might be described as a fine second-rate poet, better than most of the British poets of the century. Of Poe and Whitman, the less said the better. (ix)

Winters grants the superiority of “an occasional line or short passage in Wordsworth.”  I love this sort of thing. I wish I could do it myself, but my temperament is too strongly Appreciationist.  The less said – for a while, I couldn’t shut up about Poe.  Winters presumably backs up his slagging somewhere.

So what is in The Cricket, the greatest etc?  It’s an ode, more or less, about four pages long, written in the 1860s, but unpublished until 1950.  It has some resemblance to Milton’s “Lycidas” and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.”

At first, the poem really is about crickets, or listening to crickets:

At hand, around, illimitably
Rising, and falling like the sea,
  Acres of cricks!

Soon, the chirp of the "cricks" becomes something more, a harbinger of death, or the sound of grief:

Thou bringest, too, dim accents from the grave
To him who walketh when the day is dim,
Dreaming of those who dream of him no more;

A baffling pastoral section follows, which at least let me know I was reading an ode.  Then the final canto, the longest and strangest, which features an enchanter mucking about in a swamp for poisonous herbs and much more poetic poetry, lines such as:

Or garden gravemound tricked and dressed -

The ceaseless simmer in the summer grass

Naught in innumerable numerousness. [profound, or ludicrous?]

And, the end:

It matters not. Behold! The autumn goes,
   The shadow grows,
The moments take hold of eternity;
Even while we stop to wrangle or repine
   Our lives are gone –
   Like thinnest mist,
Like yon escaping color in the tree;
Rejoice! Rejoice! whilst yet the hours exist –
Rejoice or mourn, and let the world swing on
Unmoved by cricket song of thee or me.

Some real wisdom here, although a little banal?  Seize the day, have some perspective on your own life, and so on?  “The moments take hold of eternity” is a line that works well for me, but I can’t really explain it, since it verges on meaninglessness.  “[T]ake hold” is the tricky part, something moments can’t do.

Winters detects touches, long before the fact, of Paul Verlaine and Paul Valéry, poets he values highly.  I find the comparison helpful, unlike the “greatest poem” business, which might very well impede my reading.  Harold Bloom’s anointing of “Lycidas” as the greatest poem in the language has a similar effect on me.  I turn it this way and that, and say, really?  Heaven knows what sort of damage I have been doing to Dead Souls (Greatest Novel of the First Half of the Nineteenth Century).  Well, I have no authority, so not much.

By the way, anyone curious about Winters’ own poetry should visit Anecdotal Evidence, which also contains some fine slagging.

Page numbers from The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, ed. N. Scott Momaday, Oxford University Press, 1965.


  1. I can understand not liking Poe. I enjoy him but his prose is very purple, his characters very wangst-ridden, and his stories and poems generally overheated. But Whitman? What's wrong with Whitman? Didn't he pioneer freeverse?

  2. Maybe pioneering free verse is exactly what's wrong with him? I need to get to know Yvor Winters. He says amazing things.

    For example (scroll down to the bio): "The doctrine of Emerson and Whitman, if really put into practice, should naturally lead to suicide." Outstanding!

    Poor, misunderstood Poe. Greatest critic of his time. Worst comedian of his time. I've written more about Poe than I have about anyone except Dickens.