Joaquin Miller: Contribution as American Poet

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      Cincinnatus Hiner Miller was born in 1841. “My cradle was a covered wagon, pointed west. I was born in a covered wagon, I am told, at or about the time it crossed the line dividing Indiana from Ohio.” His father was born of Scotch immigrant stock—a natural frontiersman, but a man with a love of books and a teacher among his fellow-wanderers. In 1852, moved by the same restlessness that had taken the Clemens family to Missouri seventeen years earlier, the Millers started on the three-thousand-mile roundabout journey to Oregon, finding their way without roads over the plains and mountains in a trip lasting more than seven months. It was from this that the boy gained his lasting respect for the first pioneers.

Throughout all this time—he was now nearly thirty—Miller’s primary passion had been for poetry and for casting in poetic form something of the rich, vivid romance of the great West and Southwest. In 1868 a thin booklet, “Specimens,” was issued and in San Francisco, in 1869, “Joaquin et al.” For naming his book in this fashion instead of “Joaquin and Other Poems,” his legal friends repaid him with a derisive nickname that finally became the one by which the world knows him. Bret Harte, then in an influential editorship, gave the book a fair review, but in general it was slightingly treated.
Joaquin Miller

 O bearded, stalwart, westmost men,
 So tower-like, so Gothic built!
 A kingdom won without the guilt
 Of studied battle, that hath been
 Your blood’s inheritance....

      After two years in the new Oregon home the coming poet ran away with a brother to seek gold. They seem to have separated, and in the following years the one who came to celebrity survived a most amazing series of primitive experiences and primitive hardships among the Indians. Part of his time, however, with “Mountain Joe” preserved his contact with books, for this man, a graduate of Heidelberg, helped him with his Latin. The boy returned to Oregon early enough to earn a diploma at Columbia University in 1859—an institution in which the collegiate quality was doubtless entirely restricted to its name. According to Miller the eagerness of study there was no less intense than the zest for every other kind of experience among the early settlers. In the next decade he had many occupations. For a while he was express messenger, carrying gold dust, but safe from the Indians, who had become his trusted friends. “Those matchless night-rides under the stars, dashing into the Orient doors of dawn before me as the sun burst through the shining mountain pass—this brought my love of song to the surface.” Later he was editor of a pacifist newspaper which was suppressed for alleged treason. But the largest proportion of his time was spent at the law. From 1866 to 1870 he held a minor judgeship.

      Throughout all this time—he was now nearly thirty—Miller’s primary passion had been for poetry and for casting in poetic form something of the rich, vivid romance of the great West and Southwest. In 1868 a thin booklet, “Specimens,” was issued and in San Francisco, in 1869, “Joaquin et al.” For naming his book in this fashion instead of “Joaquin and Other Poems,” his legal friends repaid him with a derisive nickname that finally became the one by which the world knows him. Bret Harte, then in an influential editorship, gave the book a fair review, but in general it was slightingly treated.

      Impulsive in mood and accustomed to little respect for the hardships of travel, Miller started East, and three months later, as he records, was kneeling at the grave of Burns with a definite resolve to complete his life in the country of his forefathers. In the volume of poems of his own selection he wrote of “Vale! America,” “I do not like this bit of impatience nor do I expect anyone else to like it, and only preserve it here as a sort of landmark or journal in my journey through life.” But for the moment in his sensitiveness he doubtless wrote quite truly:

 I starve, I die,
 Each day of my life. Ye pass me by
 Each day, and laugh as ye pass; and when
 Ye come, I start in my place as ye come,
 And lean, and would speak—but my lips are dumb.

      He had, of course, no reputation in London, where he soon settled near the British Museum, and the period was an unpropitious one for poetry. A descendant and namesake of the John Murray who had refused to deal with “The Sketch Book” gave a like response to Miller’s offer of his “Pacific Poems.” But Miller carried the risk-taking spirit of the pioneer to the point of privately printing one hundred copies and sending them broadcast for review, with the result of an immediate and enthusiastic recognition. The “Songs of the Sierras” were soon regularly published in London, and the poet was received in friendliest fashion as a peer of Dean Stanley, Lord Houghton, Robert Browning, and all the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.

      The period from 1873 to 1887 is distinctly a middle zone in Joaquin Miller’s career. The restless eagerness of his formative years still dominated him, but it led him for the most part to rapid changes, most of which were in the world of men and many of which were in the largest cities. His moves on both continents are difficult to follow and have not been clearly unraveled by any biographer. One can get a fairly clear idea of their nature if not of their order by an attentive reading of his poems and particularly of the chatty footnotes with which he accompanied the collections he edited. He continued to use the frontier experience of the early days. His most characteristic poems were stories of thrilling experience in the open. In “My Own Story,” “Life Amongst the Modocs,” “Unwritten History, Paquita,” and “My Life Among the Indians” he recorded the same material in prose. In certain other poems, particularly the “Isles of the Amazons” and “The Baroness of New York,” he set in contrast the romance of the forest with the petty conventions of the metropolis, and in “The Song of the South” he attempted—not to his own satisfaction—to do for the Mississippi what he had done for the mountains. Shorter lyrics show his response to world events such as the death of Garfield and the American war with Spain. In two poems of 1901 he wrote in withering condemnation of England’s policy toward the Boers.

      In all the material of this middle period the dominant feature is his praise of the elemental forces of nature. Nature itself for him was always dynamic. The sea and the forest at rest suggested to him their latent powers. His best scenes deal with storm, flood, and fire, and when occasionally he painted a calm background, as in the departure of “The Last Taschastas,” the burnished beauty of the setting is in strong contrast with the violence of the episode. In human experience he most admired the exertion of primitive strength. It is this which endeared the early pioneers to him. Man coping with nature thrilled him, but for human conflict he had little sympathy. His women were Amazonian in physique and character—a singularly consistent type, almost a recurrence of one woman of various complexions. In the judgment of Whitman—his Washington intimate of two years—he must have fallen from grace in his treatment of love. If he did not vie (to paraphrase Burroughs) “with the lascivious poets in painting it as the forbidden” passion, he did compete with the fleshly school in depicting all its charms. Yet even here in that strange concluding romance “Light” he struggled to overcome the sensuous with the spiritual element.

      The form of all this mid-period work was quite conventional and, in view of the content, smacked strangely of the library and the drawing room. He ran as a rule to four-stressed lines, indulged in insistent riming, rarely missing a chance, and cast his stanzas into a jogging and seldom-varied rhythm. In their assault on the ear his verses have little delicacy of appeal. They blare at the reader like the brasses in an orchestral fortissimo. They clamor at him with the strident regularity of a Sousa march. This dominant measure accords well with the rude subject matter of his poems—the march of the pioneer, the plod of oxen yoked to the prairie schooner, the roar of prairie fire or of the wind through the forest; and, with a difference, the hoof-beat of galloping horses or of stampeding buffalo. And it expresses the rhetorical magniloquence which is the natural fruit of life in a country of magnificent distances. At the same time Miller found a poetical justification for his style in the narrative rhythms of Scott and Byron and Coleridge, by whom he was often and evidently influenced. Until he was well past mid-career he was boyishly open to direct literary influences. He had no theory of prosody; his originality was inherent in the harmony between himself and his wild material; so he tried his hand at writing in the manner of this, that, and the other man.

      In his final revisions, however, he was ruthless in rejecting his imitative passages and in his reduction of earlier work to what was unqualifiedly his own. This is best illustrated by what he did to “The Baroness of New York” before he had done with it. In its original form of 1877 it filled a whole volume, a poem—not a novel, as often erroneously stated—in two parts. The former is a sea-island romance of love and desertion after the manner of Scott; the sequel presents Adora in New York as the Baroness du Bois, where she lives in scornful indifference until the original lover turns up with a title of his own and carries her off in triumph; this second part is in the manner of Byron. When Miller included this poem in his collected edition of 1897, he dropped all the Byronic, metropolitan portion and reduced the rest to less than half—the fraction that was quite his own.

      Such a revision was in the fullest sense the work of matured judgment. Miller was now in his last long period of picturesque retirement on “The Heights,” looking back over his prolific output of former years, recognizing the good in it, and depending upon the public to reject what had no right to a long life. At times he still wrote poem-stories located in settings of tumultuous abundance, but he supplemented these with more and more frequent short lyrics, and he studied continually to achieve that simplicity which is seldom the result of anything but perfected artistry. In 1902 he wrote:

 Shall we ever have an American literature? Yes, when we leave sound and words to the winds. American science has swept time and space aside. American science dashes along at fifty, sixty miles an hour; but American literature still lumbers along in the old-fashioned English stage-coach at ten miles an hour; and sometimes with a red-coated outrider blowing a horn. We must leave all this behind us.

      In the main his hope now was to pass from objective poetry to “the vision of worlds beyond,”—a vision which he more nearly approached in “Sappho and Phaon” than in any other poem, and a vision for which the motive is stated in the second stanza of “Adios”:

 Could I but teach man to believe—
 Could I but make small men to grow,
 To break frail spider-webs that weave
 About their thews and bind them low;

      In the meanwhile, by way of a practical application of his ideals, Miller was attempting to lead his life sanely and, by an association that suggests the old Greek academy, to point the way for the younger generation of poets. In his final note to the 1902 edition he described himself as living on “a sort of hillside Bohemia.” No lessons were taught there except, by example, the lesson of living. Three or four “tenets or principles of life” were insisted upon: that man is good; that there is nothing ugly in nature; that man is immortal; that nature wastes no thing and no time; and that man should learn the lesson of economy. So in a way he returned to the simple conditions in which his earliest life had grounded his affections.

      Miller naturally invites comparison with Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. The likeness starts with the simple origins of all three and with the rough-and-ready circumstances of their upbringing. It continues with their resultant sympathetic feeling for the common men and women who make up the mass of humankind. It is maintained in their conscious personal picturesqueness: Whitman gray-bearded, open-collared, wearing his hat indoors or out; Mark Twain in his white serge, regardless of season; and Miller with long hair, velvet jacket, and high boots—evidence of the humanizing personal vanity in each which was quite apart from the genuine bigness of their characters. It follows in the high seriousness of all three. And it is confirmed in the fact of their early recognition in England and their less respectful reception at home (see pp. 293 and 367). Miller, like these others, was in the 70’s what the Old World chose to think the typical American ought to be. He was fresher to them than those other Americans whom their countrymen were eagerly describing as “the American Burns,” “the American Wordsworth,” “the American Scott,” and “the American Tennyson”; and to this degree—though he was not a representative of the prevailing American literature—he was actually a representative of the country itself and especially of the vast stretch from the Mississippi to the Pacific. For Miller and the America he knew best were both full of natural vigor, full of hope and faith, conscious of untold possibilities in the nearer and the remoter future, and, withal, relatively naïve and unformed.

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