27 February, 2021

Longfellow and the Decline of American Poetry


 Last summer the New Yorker published an essay by James Marcus that asks the following question: why was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow so loved in his own lifetime when today he is so little read or respected? There is one very compelling answer to this that the article that does not discuss—indeed, that the article itself is an unconscious illustration of. This answer touches on not only Longfellow’s reputation, but the broader place of poetry in American intellectual and social life. Longfellow’s fall from the top of the American pantheon foreshadows the fall of American poetry as a popular art form. 

Now this “decline of poetry” is the subject of many long debates and essays. It is an over-determined phenomena. Everybody has their own favorite explanation for why poetry is no longer read and why poets have lost so much of their past esteem. The explanation most popular among dogmatists (as well as most non-readers of poetry) has to do with the disappearance of rhyme and meter. There is some truth to that—and Longfellow was nothing if not a man of easily discerned rhymes and meters—but the story I want to tell today is more subtle and fundamental than a move towards free verse. 

Near the end of Marcus’ essay we find the following tidbit about Longfellow’s writing:

It was not in Longfellow’s nature to write about himself. He once described “I” as “that objectionable pronoun.” But he did produce a handful of lyrics throughout his career that seemed to spring directly from his own suffering.[1]
What Marcus does not note is that this aversion to “I” was once the dominant mode of English poetry. Historians of the English lyric note a 19th century shift in the form and focus. We are the heirs of this shift and our conceptions of the poetic are framed entirely inside of it. We think of poetry as the art of poignantly capturing interior experience on the page. The natural focus of the poet, we believe, is emotions, perceptions, and other subjective experiences. But this was not always the case. Here how one scholar of English literature describes the shift:
Many readers nowadays tend to think of poetry as a form of self-expression—a way to convey thoughts and feelings that are pent up inside of us. But what might happen to our reading of older poetry if we were to find out that this common assumption is, historically speaking, relatively recent? 
In fact, thinking of poetry as the expression of a poet’s unique inner life is a legacy of cultural shifts that began to take place in the West during the period of Romanticism starting around the last decades of the eighteenth century. By contrast, during earlier centuries poets and their audiences did not automatically assume that the main purpose of poetry was to express the feelings of a unique individual. Instead, they lived in a culture that valued the skillful use of language because of its potential effects on an audience. Educated readers and writers shared the assumption that the function of poetry is to delight, teach, and move us. If we are stuck with the post–Romantic expectation that all poetry is about the self-expression of a unique individual, we will miss out on much of what remains valuable and interesting in earlier lyric masterpieces. Our understanding and enjoyment of older poetry will be greatly increased if we try to orient ourselves to the rhetorical culture that helped shape it.[2]

The rest of that book (The English Lyric Tradition: Reading Poetic Masterpieces of the Middle Ages and Renaissance) goes on to explore how most lyric poems in the renaissance era were “rhetorical” lyrics, not "interiorized" ones. But the bulk of Renaissance and Restoration poetry were not even lyric poems to start with. They were dramatic or narrative poems. Poets like Chaucer, Spencer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, and Pope, who reigned supreme as the exemplary poets of their respective centuries, made their fame not through short lyric poems, but through plays, masques, epics, dramatic dialogues, poetic narratives, and poetic essays. 

The poet most responsible for elevating the interior over the rhetorical was William Wordsworth. Wordsworth famously saw poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” [3]  Wordsworth’s poetry was thus mostly about himself— or the wider world as he personally perceived it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Wordsworth’s poems are beautiful and touching, and because of that they were hugely influential. So influential, in fact, that they completely changed what the intellectual castes of the English-speaking world considered the purpose of poetic art. Thus by 1860 we already see John Stuart Mill arguing things like this:

At what age is the passion for a story, for almost any kind of story, merely as a story, the most intense? In childhood. But that also is the age at which poetry, even of the simplest description, is least relished and least understood; because the feelings with which it is especially conversant are yet undeveloped, and, not having been even in the slightest degree experienced, cannot be sympathized with.
In what stage of the progress of society, again, is story-telling most valued, and the story-teller in greatest request and honor? In a rude state like that of the Tartars and Arabs at this day, and of almost all nations in the earliest ages. But, in this state of society, there is little poetry except ballads, which are mostly narrative,---that is, essentially stories,---and derive their principal interest from the incidents. Considered as poetry, they are of the lowest and most elementary kind: the feelings depicted, or rather indicated, are the simplest our nature has; such joys and griefs as the immediate pressure of some outward event excites in rude minds, which live wholly immersed in outward things, and have never, either from choice or a force they could not resist, turned themselves to the contemplation of the world within.
Passing now from childhood, and from the childhood of society, to the grown-up men and women of this most grown-up and unchild-like age, the minds and hearts of greatest depth and elevation are commonly those which take greatest delight in poetry: the shallowest and emptiest, on the contrary, are, at all events, not those least addicted to novel-reading. This accords, too, with all analogous experience of human nature. The sort of persons whom not merely in books, but in their lives, we find perpetually engaged in hunting for excitement from without, are invariably those who do not possess, either in the vigor of their intellectual powers or in the depth of their sensibilities, that which would enable them to find ample excitement, nearer home. The most idle and frivolous persons take a natural delight in fictitious narrative: the excitement it affords, is of the kind which comes from without. Such persons are rarely lovers of poetry, though they may fancy themselves so because they relish novels in verse. But poetry, which is the delineation of the deeper and more secret workings of human emotion, is interesting only to those to whom it recalls what they have felt, or whose imagination it stirs up to conceive what they could feel, or what they might have been able to feel, had their outward circumstances been different.
Poetry, when it is really such, is truth; and fiction, if it is good for anything, is truth: but they are different truths. The truth of poetry is to paint the human soul truly: the truth of fiction is to give a true picture of life. The two kinds of knowledge are different, and come by different ways, come mostly to different persons. Great poets are often proverbially ignorant of life. What they know has come by observation of themselves: they have found within them one, highly, delicate and sensitive specimen of human nature, on which the laws of emotion are written in large characters, such as can be read off without much study. Other knowledge of mankind, such as comes to men of the world by outward experience, is not indispensable to them as poets: but, to the novelist, such, knowledge is all in all; he has to describe outward things, not the inward man; actions and events, not feelings; and it will not do for him to be numbered among those, who, as Madame Roland said of Brissot, know man, but not men.[4]

By the time the modernists roll around a half century later poetry had been completely “interiorized”—or in Mill’s terms, had become the art of the human soul, not that of human life. We still speak about poetry this way. See, for example, Edward Hirsch's 2006 column celebrating poetry as the medium that “delivers on our spiritual lives precisely because it simultaneously gives us the gift of intimacy and interiority, privacy and participation.”[5] Not surprisingly, our canon of great poets has shifted towards the poets of “the intimate.” 

This impulse runs through Marcus’s essay. He compares Longfellow unfavorably to Emily Dickinson—but Dickinson 20th century reputation as America’s best 19th century poet rests entirely on her mastery of compact statements of interior self-expression. It is not surprising that Marcus’ favorite Longfellow poems are those few which deal with the most interior of topics: grief. 

This century long shift away from rhetorical or narrative poems towards intimate, interiorized lyrics is one of the central engines of poetry’s declining popularity as an artform. This is not because lyric poetry is less meaningful than narrative or dramatic poetry. Rather, it lends itself to a different sort of social experience. Marcus notes with some wonder that Longfellow’s epic Evangeline “went through six printings in a matter of months.” What were those printings used for? What exactly did Evangeline mean to the antebellum Americans who bought it up in droves? 

Here is what they were not doing: retreating to some secluded corner to ponder Longfellow’s verse and puzzle out the subtleties of its real intent! Those who bought Longfellow’s epic bought it to read aloud or recite to friends and family. In the 19th century this was one of most common types of household entertainment. Families would gather together around the hearth to recite dramatic scenes from plays or read long sections of narrative poems. Poetry was a social experience.[6]

This helps account far Longfellow’s metrical choices, which often sound silly or forced to modern ears. We feel this way because we do not actually experience Longfellow’s verse with our ears. We experience it with our eyes. The ceaseless ta-tum, ta-tum of Longfellow’s Hiawatha is ideal for recitation and memorization. Marcus pokes fun at Longfellow’s extended similes, but here again we find a poetic device designed for someone listening to poetry. The listener cannot ‘pause’ the poem to ponder out what a given metaphor might mean, but must instead catch this meaning before the reciter moves forward with the narrative. Spending extra lines on a clever metaphor ensures that a listener is able comprehend it in time.

 Modernism, free verse forms, and the puzzle-like nature of so much modern poetry are all fruits of this transition--the transition from the social and spoken to the solitary and written. Could this shift have occurred if poets had not abandoned older forms in favor of dense, subjective lyrics? [7] To be sure, there are older poems of the puzzling sort, poems almost certainly written to be read, not spoken. John Donne’s poems are a perfect example of this—they must be read closely before subtle meanings can be drawn out of them. But then again, John Donne’s verse was largely ignored until the 20th century, when T.S. Eliot agitated for his central place in the canon. [8] As with Emily Dickinson, Donne’s rehabilitation is a story of meditative, cryptic lyricists lionizing poets from the past who most approached their own ideals. We understand poetry through the lens of early 20th century critics (not coincidentally, the last years poetry or its critics mattered to the wider world). 

Line for line and word for word the interior lyricists write with more beauty and insight than most dramatic or narrative poets ever managed (much less the exterior, rhetorical lyric poets of centuries past). But the cost of this transition are clear: poetry has become less approachable for the general educated public, less enjoyable to those without special training, and less central to intellectual life writ large. This may have been inevitable—I do not know if bedside poetry jams would ever have been able to compete with the television.[9] But resistance to narrative and dramatic forms does make things harder on professional poets. Today's poets give little honor to poems which do not reach an absurd standard of insight and irony. No one starts out loving that sort of stuff. Poetry lovers find their love young, but today’s young adults never get much exposure to more accessible forms—a love of which might one day propel them on to more subtle and sensitive lyric works. 

I submit that a 21st century poetry revival, if it is to occur, must occur as a revival of verse as a vehicle for telling stories. Two books come to mind as admirable examples of what this might look like in practice—thoroughly modern, 21st century narrative poems. The first is Christopher Logue's War Music, a work from last century. War Music is an attempt to retell the story of the Iliad in a more modern poetic form (complete with epic similes comparing ancient Greek battle to “the joy of the Uzi shuddering warm against your hip”).[10] Unfortunately Logue's work assumes a close familiarity with the Iliad and will not make sense to people who have not read the original. But for those who have read their Homer it is a wild ride—the first book I give people when they want to see the potential that poetry might have as a narrative form today. 

Less profound, but more fun, is Aaron Poochigian’s Mr. Either/Or. The protagonist of this noir-mystery is a secret agent who must defeat a cult who wants to use a secret artifact to destroy New York City. Really! On the face of it is complete pulp, a mishmash of Spielberg films and Bond tropes—but a mishmash of Spielberg films and Bond tropes written entirely in iambic pentameter. 

Look: I have read novels in verse before. Most of them suck. They are not readable. Poochigan understands that narrative poetry only works if the poetry carries the reader forward. And his does! It takes a few minutes to acclimate yourself to the form, but once you have gotten used to the style you will not want to put Poochigan's mystery-action-science fiction thriller down. It isn’t Shakespeare or Paradise Lost or even Idylls of the King. It is more fun than deep. But in terms of craftmanship it is a near perfect book. This is what 21st century narrative poetry should read like. When some man or woman does write our century’s Idylls of the King that poet will be writing in the style that Poochigan pioneered. A poet who can marry the depth of War Music to the poetic style of Mr. Either/Or will have produced a masterpiece. 

Hopefully that masterpiece will be written. Of course, not all dramatic or narrative poetry needs to be book length—most of Longfellow’s certainly wasn’t. But unless we see more poets as committed to narrative art as Longfellow was, I doubt poetry will ever be able to reclaim an honored place at the center of American high culture.

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If this post on the social role of literature in American life has caught your interest, consider reading my earlier posts "Shakespeare in American Politics," "Where Have all the Great Works Gone?" "On Adding Phrases to the Language," and "Living in the Shadow of the Boomers," To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] James Marcus, "What is There to Love About Longfellow?," The New Yorker (1 June 2020)

[2] James Goldstein, The English Lyric Tradition: Reading Poetic Masterpieces of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing, 2017), 11.

[3] William Wordsworth, "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" (or. published 1802, available at Wikisource).

[4] John Stuart Mill, "Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties," The Crayon, vol 8 (April 1860), 94.

[5] Edward Hirsch, "In the Beginning Is the Relation," Poetry Foundation Website (or. pub. Washington Post, 2006; accessed 27 Feb 2020).

[6] See Joan Rubin, Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Michael C Cohen, The Social Life of Poems in 19th Century America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) for many vignettes of exactly this sort of thing.

[7] Probably not. One of the interesting piece of evidence I might provide here is that this movement from spoken to read, and from external to internal, also occurred in Chinese poetry—and there occurred twice. See

[8] As in T. S. Eliot, review of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler. Selected and edited, with an Essay, by Herbert J. C. Grierson (Oxford: Clarendon Press. London; Milford) in the Times Literary Supplement (October 1921). 

[9] For more on how television came to replace the role that poetry once played, see Tanner Greer, "On Adding Phrases to the Language," Scholar's Stage ( 13 October 2019).

[10] Christopher Logue, War Music: An Account of Homer's Iliad (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), Kindle Locations 3162-3177.


20 comments:

Anonymous said...

The premise is a little odd; poetry is just as much of a popular art form today as it's ever been. We just call it "music" rather than "poetry", but this is a change in what the words refer to, not a change in people's behavior.

T. Greer said...

@anon- Music existed in 1900s. Popular music today is the evolution of popular music then. Poetry was replaced for the most part by TV. See my piece https://scholars-stage.blogspot.com/2019/10/on-adding-phrases-to-language.html for more on this

Anonymous said...

Great post, I'm curious how you think this maps to East Asia? Du Fu and Li Bai seem to stay as the classic poets with wide public regard for centuries despite being more on the private/interior side of subject matter. Were they not as publicly revered as I think?

Do you know Falen's Eugene Onegin Translation or Seth's The Golden Gate. Onegin got me excited about narrative and rhyme in a way no other poem really ever had, and I'm sad there hasn't been more like it.

John Thacker said...

One of the things that I loved about my high school English teacher is that we used Norton's Anthology for both American and British Literature, and had a course consisting of mostly poetry, with strong representation from the Fireside poets and others in the American course, natch.

John Thacker said...

I love Longfellow and the fireside poets, thanks to my high school English teacher Dr. Jon Miller using the Norton Anthologies for both American and British Literature, and doing a poetry heavy class of the old sort.

Anonymous said...

Whether there'll be a revival will depend more on the social conditions necessary to make poetry reading a social activity again, I think, and less on whether any particular poet figures out how to blend Poochigian's style with Homerian content.

gordianus said...

The reference is missing in footnote 7:

[7] Probably not. One of the interesting piece of evidence I might provide here is that this movement from spoken to read, and from external to internal, also occurred in Chinese poetry—and there occurred twice. See

Anonymous said...

> Wordsworth’s poetry was thus mostly about himself— or the wider world as he personally perceived it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this.

Yes there is. It turns poetry into an exercise in narcissistic self-indulgence.

> Line for line and word for word the interior lyricists write with more beauty and insight than most dramatic or narrative poets ever managed (much less the exterior, rhetorical lyric poets of centuries past). But the cost of this transition are clear: poetry has become less approachable for the general educated public, less enjoyable to those without special training, and less central to intellectual life writ large.

The attitude expressed in your first sentence is precisely the problem. Aside from the fact that it's false, it betrays a snobbish disdain for anything that would appeal to the masses. BTW, popular narrative poetry continued past Wordsworth into the 20th century, e.g., pulp writers like Howard and Lovecraft, as well as inklings like Lewis and Tolkien also wrote poetry. Much of it packed with insight without being self-indulgent.

AwesomeLemon said...

A really interesting post; now I understand that the poetry I like is narrative poetry. I think there's a tradition of such poetry in Russian (though I don't have a clue of poetry more modern than the first half of the 20th century). I'm delighted that someone mentioned Eugene Onegin before me - I'm a fan; the Golden Gate is great too (it reads like a variation of Onegin in a more modern setting).
To Anonymous I'd also recommend "Vasili Tyorkin: A Book About A Soldier", which is more a collection of novellas than a novel, but I enjoy it nonentheless.

Roger Sweeny said...

Economists are wrong about a lot of things, but the good ones know, "it's all about the alternatives." There are now *easier* alternatives to poetry, movies and tv for narrative poetry, songs for rhythm and meter and emotion. Easier to get and easier to process. A double whammy that has poetry pushed to the margins like some hunter-gatherer people.

Nick Weininger said...

I'd say the Metaphysical poets generally, not just Donne, put a greater emphasis on interiority in their verse than your historical narrative would suggest-- George Herbert comes to mind as one whose poetry is much more accessible on first hearing than Donne, and who is a favorite of choral composers for that reason. Were they all so recently rediscovered? (Honest question, I don't know enough about the history of poetic fame to have an answer.)

And I'd add Vikram Seth's _The Golden Gate_ to the list of solid recent novels in verse, though it's much easier to appreciate if you live in the Bay Area.

Kade U said...

I wonder if this might have some relation to the surprising break-out nature of Amanda Gorman's poetry. Well, "break out" by poetry standards. It wasn't exactly household conversation, but it did appear in the Super Bowl, which is pretty incredible given the status of formal poetry in America today!

I personally did not think either of her spoken poems were particularly great, and I think most critics kind of shared my view here. But her poems were rhetorical, pretty straightforward, and focused most on clever use of language (particularly its sonic elements) rather than on clever use of figurative meaning. So the college-educated public really enjoyed it, and it ended up earning a few relatively high profile articles and, again, a spot at the Super Bowl.

Perhaps we just need more people willing to write poetry those of us conditioned to expect poetry-as-sublime-puzzle would see as banal.

Alex Jameson said...

First, I appreciate the recommendations, and I have ordered both on the strength of your enthusiasm.

I don't disagree with this history of egoism in poetry, but is the cause and effect backwards? Were the poets mostly to blame? The great figures after Wordsworth (Shelley, Byron, Keats, Tennyson, the Brownings - excuse my British bias) produced reams of narrative, dramatic and epic poetry, much of it popular in its own time. Hardly any survived for long: Prometheus Unbound, St Agnes Eve, Goblin Market, Don Juan at a stretch. The prospects for successfully reviving long-form verse seem to depend partly on the extent to which this great literary bonfire was a spontaneous rejection by the public rather than a Modernist campaign of suppression (as Marcus has it in the case of Longfellow). The Wordsworthian mode seems frighteningly contagious for readers as much as poets, like the 3-5 minute pop song in music.

TS Eliot, with a brain the size of a planet, devoted half his life (admittedly the worse half) to developing a popular verse-drama, with miserable results. Clearly he had not the popular touch, but Auden's long poems share the same oblivion. A daunting task! I look forward to the new volumes.

Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with your point that film has done much to enter lines into popular lexicon, I'm taking a slightly different tack thinking about what a 21st century of poetry revival is going to look like. I think that anyone who is trying to revive the form in the 21st century is going to have to consider hip hop as a main source and form of widely recognized poetry. Certainly you have to consider Hamilton as being significant here for recognizing this and capitalizing on it. I cite that work as a kind of history play revival and it's certainly widely known among my peers.

I also wouldn't dismiss hip hop as just falling into the same lineage as previous "popular" music. There's people who are still buzzing about hearing Elevators for the first time today even though it came out over 20 years ago; there was a mass lament over the recent death of MF Doom and obvious interest in the detailed if irreverent poetry in his verse; Aesop Rock is a fabulous storyteller (CF Ruby 81) and social critic who even incorporates "classical" referencing into his work in fun ways (CF Leisureforce). All of those artists paint stories in a way that may be in a "popular music" form (with a few obvious OutKast singles rising into full pop single status) but I don't think that somehow diminishes their "poetic" qualities.


T. Greer said...

Lots of interesting comments folks.

Alex says: " was a spontaneous rejection by the public rather than a Modernist campaign of suppression"

To which I raise you the two most popular poems of the 20th century: "the Cremation of Sam McGee" and the "Shooting of Dan McGrew." No one says narrative poems have to be book length slogs, after all.

@Kade --

I think you are right. Supporting this is the fantastic popularity of the "spoken word" performances on Youtube. The best of those rack up 5-7 million hits.

@Nick -- Metaphysical poets as a whole didn't fair well under the classicist regime of the 18th century. The Romantics dethroned the classicists without resurrecting the metaphysicals. T.S. Eliot really was a big deal here. Read the review I linked to in the footnote to see how people thought about the metaphysicals as a whole c. 1900.

@Roger Sweeney -- The question then is why in some places (like China and the Arab world) poetry is still avidly read. The Arab version of American idol is an original poetry competition; I have watched poetry recitation and poetry discussion programs on Chinese tv.

@Anon February 27, 2021, the one obsessed with snobbery --

That is silly. Robert Frost was a very interior poet who was also very approachable and much beloved.

@JohnThacker-- When I taught 9th grad English to high level Chinese high schoolers my first semester was entirely poetry. I think this is a much better strategy than many allow.

Roger Sweeny said...

@Roger Sweeney -- The question then is why in some places (like China and the Arab world) poetry is still avidly read. The Arab version of American idol is an original poetry competition; I have watched poetry recitation and poetry discussion programs on Chinese tv.

I suspect the answer is that poetry there is composed to be popular, to be "easy" to read and listen to. American poetry is composed to be literature, with what is good literature defined by academics and fellow poets (Jazz lost a good deal of its popularity when after WW II, jazz musicians did a lot more playing to impress other musicians.)

Any American who wants to write popular poetry writes song lyrics--or rap lyrics.

Alex Jameson said...

Interesting, I didn't know about Robert Service. They remind me of our Alfred Noyes' Highwayman, one of the handful of genuinely popular poems here (and which I notice is passed over in the latest Oxford Book of English Verse...).

Whatever we hope or expect for a revival of popular verse - and I am not hopeful - poets with high-brow ambitions are still going to have to attack the thing directly. I was unkind about Eliot's verse-dramas, but he did make a serious effort to identify and solve the problems as he saw them in his own time, and expressed hope that others would develop his work. Did anyone even try to do that? (Sweeney Agonistes especially is a fascinating experiment entirely without progeny that I know of.)



Roger Sweeny said...

@Roger Sweeney -- The question then is why in some places (like China and the Arab world) poetry is still avidly read. The Arab version of American idol is an original poetry competition; I have watched poetry recitation and poetry discussion programs on Chinese tv.

To answer, you'd really have to know more about the poetry. Does it have rhythm or meter or rhyme? Is it clever in ways that ordinary people can understand? Is it clever in ways that only connoisseurs can understand? Is it written "to be enjoyed" or "to be analyzed"? My hypotheses say, YES YES YES, YES, NO, YES NO.

Anonymous said...

"Hopefully that masterpiece will be written. Of course, not all dramatic or narrative poetry needs to be book length—most of Longfellow’s certainly wasn’t. But unless we see more poets as committed to narrative art as Longfellow was, I doubt poetry will ever be able to reclaim an honored place at the center of American high culture."

There is hope if you expand your criteria for what poetry is and where it comes from. If you are looking for some verse that is not all about someone moping in a corner fondling their feelings like Scrooge McDuck fondles his money: https://genius.com/discussions/37040-Most-poetic-lines-and-verses-in-hip-hop-music.

Joshua said...

"Modernism, free verse forms, and the puzzle-like nature of so much modern poetry are all fruits of this transition--the transition from the social and spoken to the solitary and written."

I don't think that's a key factor. Much of classical European poetry, e.g. Callimachus, Virgil, Ovid, Martial, wasn't written to be spoken. The shift from narrative action to character, including feelings of the author, seems to me more convincingly explained by a broad shift from competition for acclaim to competition for attention. Here's some analysis:
https://www.acrosswalls.org/section/communicative-structure/formal-constraints/action-character/