American Poetry : in The 19th Century

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Age of Experimentation:

      The history of the nineteenth century American poetry was a record of constant experimentations in the art of versification. American poetry was in a state of turmoil and flux. The American poets made serious and concerted efforts to give it a sense of direction. They tried to explore the possibilities of the American verse and to provide a new face-lift to its dwindling image. American poetry consolidated Own position by the end of the nineteenth century. This chapter is devoted to the study of the leading trends in the nineteenth American poetry and how they affected its growth and development.

The American poets made serious and concerted efforts to give it a sense of direction. They tried to explore the possibilities of the American verse and to provide a new face-lift to its dwindling image.
American Poet's

Revolt Against 18th Century Poetry:

      The romantic fervent was the dominant aspect of the nineteenth century American poetry. There was a strong reaction against the spirit of the eighteenth century. American poets revolted against the disintegrating authorities and institutions of Europe. They challenged the conventions of their elders, and probed their own hearts with a restlessness born of impatient curiosity. They refuse to be guided by the eighteenth literary and critical concepts which had lost their relevance.

Poetry of Emotions:

      The nineteenth century American poets liberated the sensibility of the people by revolting against the authority of the eighteenth century neo-classicism. There was a sharp reaction against the 'age of reason' which exalted reason at the expense of emotion. The nineteenth century American poets challenged the philosophy of neo-classicism which was based on the infallibility of reason, to which feelings and passions must be subjected. The appeal of the eighteenth American poetry was to the intellect rather than to the heart. The main stress was on reason and wit.

      The nineteenth century poetry was known for its spontaneous emotional flow. Intense emotion supported and fed the new poetry. The entire gamut of human emotion - joy, love, fear, regret, hope, faith, etc. were richly reflected in the poetry of Romantics. The Romantic poets looked into themselves, seeking in their own lives for strange sensations. In the poetry of all of them, there was a sense of wonder, of life seen with new sensibilities and fresh vision. The mysterious regions of instinct, of feeling were explored. They led the reader to the strange areas of human experience. Often they succeeded in transmuting emotion into forms of enduring beauty. They were automatically drawn towards the picturesque, the exotic, the sensuous, the sensational, and the supernatural. W.C. Bryant conceived of poetry as primary feeling, not intellect. He believed that only poetry conceived in deep feeling was made of lasting stuff. E.A. Poe's verse showed his perennial tendency to go in for'. The Beauty alone'. H.W. Longfellow preferred to be called 'the dreamer of dreams'. R.H. Stoddard was interested in remote lands and unfamiliar things.

Stress of Imagination:

      Imagination was the main driving force of the nineteenth century American poetry. There was a complete liberation of imagination and spirit from the fetters of the eighteenth century cult of reason. There was also new a emphasis on Imagination, the power of seeing and sympathizing became a powerful instrument. Romantics regarded the freedom of imagination as a creative and elastic power in the poet. Only with Romantics did imagination really come to the forefront. The new flowering of the creative energy in the nineteenth century was the result of the decay of the eighteenth neo-classicism. Imagination can allow them to see them beyond the Surface reality to the immanent ideal. The American poets were keenly conscious of the gulf between the transient, commonsense world of appearance and the eternal, infinite realm of ideal truth which man could perceive by means of imagination. The power of imagination was held in great esteem. In general, there was an ascendancy of feeling and imagination.

Time of Individualism:

      Classical literature was a central core of reference to normal human experience Neo-classicists had an abiding faith in society. They believed that the life of the individual derived it existence from the social norm and was conditioned by it. Their lives were shaped by conceptions of conformity to social ethics. They had no distinct rights of their own, but rights in common with all others as members of society. Laws and rules of discipline were not to be challenged or flouted by self- aggrandizing individuals. The nineteenth century American romantic poets ceased to speak on behave of a whole community. They often spoke only for themselves. The sense of a widely shared purpose, of belonging to an ordered and comprehensive society, was lost. Literature became personal instead of being social. They were confirmed individualists.The nineteenth century was an era of individualism. There was an heightened awareness of the individual and the significance of personality. There was a marked tendency to glorify the individual and the common man. The life of common man was thought to be richer in plain humanity, unrepressed by the artificial restraints of cultivated society. The Romantics recognized the romantic doctrine of the worth and excellence of the individual man. They emphasized the dignity of the individual soul in its immediate relationship with God. They demanded respect for the individual soul and looked on man with humanitarian sympathy.

Faith in Self-Esteem:

      The nineteenth century American poets had unshakable faith in the cult of the individual. Thoreau was the prophet of romantic individualism. In him, the spirit of independence had become a way of life. He believed in self-reliance. He would not let the society interference with the growth of the individual. Emerson attached top considerations to the cult of the individualism. He tried to find out the genuine and authentic man. Whiteman emphatically declared that, 'everything comes out of the people as you find them'. Emily Dickinson made a frequent use of 'I' and her achievements were peculiarly autobiographical. The continuity between her personal history and her poems was great. Her empire was her soul having renounced the outer world, she turned to the inner. Sidney Lanier's early poems are almost entirely centrifugal as regards his relation to the world. His egotism provided basic rhythms to his poems. Poe formulated his own principles of poetics and the measured poetry by these private yardsticks.

Sense of Past:

      The sense of the past was another major feature of the nineteenth century American poetry. They were the 'amorous of the far'. They sought to escape from the familiar experience and delighted in the marvelous and abnormal. Love of the past and revival of the Middle Ages were the leading features of the Romantic poetry. The poets showed deep passion for the distant and the remote, the novel, the exotic and the mysterious. They looked to the Middle Ages for beauty, picturesque and passion. They turned to the supernatural stories, legends, and the colourful periods of history. Their favourite themes were the colonial past and the Revolution. The American poets considered the Indian and recognized him as a survivor of an ancient people still in primitive state, whose history was shrouded in legend and myth. There was the considerable interest in the pre-historic features of the Ohio valley.

      The remote in place offered an appeal similar to that of the remote in time. The archetypal romantic poet lured his fancy to the utmost scope.The typical romantic poet did not reconstruct the past, but fashioned it anew. Longfellow was absorbed in the past, both of Europe and of America. For him, the remote in time held a fascination for the remote in space, He chose themes from the American past in 'Evangeline' and 'Hiawtha'. Whittier was a genial balladist of New England life and of older times. Sidney Lanier's The Revenge of Hamish' was full of medieval balladry.

Love of Nature:

      The neo-classical treatment of nature had not been extensive in the eighteenth century. The real nature of the countryside did not appeal to the classical poet. They, thus, methodized Nature. A note of personal observation and sincere emotion was absent from this poetry. During the nineteenth century, America poets were awakened to the studies of nature. They began to leave the cultivated landscape of the city and went out into the open country to observe nature for themselves. Deep interest was shown in nature, not only as a center of beautiful scenes but also as an informing and spiritual influence on life. Communion with nature tended to develop fundamental virtues such as religious reverence, courage, self-reliance, and integrity. The Romantic poets considered nature as a moral teacher.

Varied Response to Nature:

      W.C. Bryant's poetry was the record of his own personal response to Nature's beauty and meaning. He imparted to the pictured scene a personal quality, a mood. He invested natural scenes with an aura of mystery, and wonder. Bryant believed in the curative power of nature. He suggested that nature was and emanation of God, but he was no pantheist. Jones Very identifies nature with purity and innocence. The primitivist's conception of nature as a moral teacher coloured the poetry of Thoreau. He regarded nature as the best companion of man. Emerson was totally identified with nature. Sidney Lanier regarded natural objects almost as living beings. His love for nature was very delicate and passionate. He addressed her various forms with terms of endearment. He spiritualized nature and called it God's world. F. G. Tickerman discovered God in nature. Emily Dickinson's close observation of nature gives her poetry its individual angle of perception. Her reaction to nature was one often one of dread.

Race of Nationalism:

      The growth of nationalism was another important feature of the nineteenth century American poetry. The Romantic Movement gradually awakened national consciousness. The American poets celebrated the pride of national character inspiring feeling for the national glory and inculcating a love for the country. They were inspired by American history, American culture and American regional atmosphere. There was a call for the new and indigenous body of writings, The growth of nationalism served to stimulate home production and led to idealistic impulses, W.C. Bryant was the first national poet who embodied the national spirit in his poetry. He was an early advocate of the rights of labour and abolition. In Emerson, American poetry found a truly native voice.

Note of Classicism:

      The nineteenth century American poetry also drifted in the direction of classicism. Thee was a free mingling of romanticism and classicism in it. The new poets often used gaudy and artificial diction. There was no dearth of strained wit and elegant language n their poetic works. W.C. Bryant blended classicism and romanticism in his poetry. He was Puritan in terms of seriousness and restraint. He was also romantic in his responsiveness to nature, to the emotion, and to the past. 'O. W. Holmes' poetry also came under the twin impact of classicism and romanticism. He gave full expression to elegant wit and humour and was a typical embodiment of lingering neo-classicism. Poe's poetry was mechanical and he allowed the rules to triumph over him. He was also influenced by romanticism and explored the regions of dreamlands and fairylands. Emerson was also torn between the desire to be free and tendency to be discursive and diffuse. Longfellow's romanticism was coloured by classicism. His poetry is known for its didacticism and refinement.

Spirit of Transcendentalism:

      The nineteenth century American poetry was influenced by transcendentalism also. It emerged after 1830 in the works of Emerson and Thoreau. It aimed at the destruction of the Calvinist theory about the depravity of human nature. It propagated faith in man's capacity for knowing truth intuitively or by attaining knowledge transcending the reach of senses.The transcendentalists advanced the realistic conception of reality. Nature was accepted as the symbol of the spirit that was immanent in all the universe. They regarded conscience as the highest faculty given by God. American was the leading exponent of American Transcendentalism. He claimed the glorification of intuition of intuition and repudiation of all external religious authority. He observed that the voices of orthodoxy, of tradition were to be rejected in favour of one's own intuitive searchings. Man's only duty was to be true to himself. Thoreau favoured the richness and value of experience. He sought to attain it at the higher level of human consciousness. The inner life was to Thoreau an end in itself.

Rise of Realism:

      The nineteenth century American poetry showed a sudden shift towards - realism. The American poets showed greater awareness of life and its problems. They showed an enlightened sympathy for the poor and the oppressed. There is a good deal of realism in their nature poetry. It dealt with humble life and the individual rights. It showed a definite provincial bias. The poets described the life as they had seen it. The Local Movement was an honest attempt to view American life. Whittier was the poet of the humbler New England people who based his poems on local scenes and characters. Washington Allston dealt with men of humble origin. Bret Hart's poems were a mixture of realism and sentiments. He dealt with the life of the cabin, the mining camp and the gambling hall. Henry Timrod was the poet laureate of the South.

Art of Versification:

      There was a revolt against the conventional versification of the eighteenth century. The new poetry relaxed the hold of classical convention and displayed them beyond traditionalism. They experimented with a variety of forms and poetic techniques. Poe defined poetry as the 'rhythmical creation of Beauty'. He succeeded in using internal and external rhyme and regular rhythm. Longfellow managed to get both rhyme and rhythm in his poems. Lanier blended poetry and music in a masterly manner.

Liberation of Form:

      The nineteenth century poets were the champions of freedom in poetry. They preferred lyrical to the fixed metrical forms in their poems. Lowell was a pioneer in the freedom of verse. Bryant's poetry is marked by the change from the established patterns of great variety and flexibility. Emerson worked for the freedom of poetry from the restrictions of metre. Sidney Lanier attempted free verse which was reminiscent of Whitman.


      Subjectivism coloured the poetry of the nineteenth century American poets. The main emphasis was on the personal, the intimate. Bryant's poetry is a true kind of personal poetry. Emerson's poetry was the record of his own 'man thinking'. Lowell's style bore the stamp of his personality. Poe's style was an intense introspective searching of his soul. Dickinson's poems carried the stamp of her personality. Thoreau's style was the the sign of his romantic introspection.


      American poetry was is a state of turmoil in the nineteenth century. It was a record of experimentations in the art of versification. There was a revolt against the eighteenth century classical poetry. The nineteenth century American poetry was the poetry of emotion rather than reason or wit. Imagination was the main driving force of the nineteenth century American poetry. It was known for its individualism and glorified the cult of self-esteem. The sense of the past was another major feature of the nineteenth American poetry. Love of Nature is also one of the leading features of this poetry. The rise of nationalism colours was the characteristic feature of the 19th century poetry. There was the free mingling of romanticism and classicism in it. It was also marked by the spirit realism and transcendentalism. It witnessed new experimentation in the art of versification.

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