In Memoriam of Fitz-Greene Halleck, Along With “Fitz-Greene Halleck” by John Greenleaf Whittier
by Ann Neilson
This day marks a significant milestone for writer Fitz-Greene Halleck, being the 150th anniversary of his death. He may go relatively unrecognized by today’s readership, which is truly a pity; however, this man was so celebrated and beloved by several 19th century social and literary circles of his day, that it makes one question why his name hasn’t stood the tests of time. A statue serves as reminder of this immortal writer—you can read more information about that statue here, as well as at the end of this post. But who or what does this statue represent–what purpose does it serve? Surely, it implies prominence, being the last statue to be dedicated and installed in the Literary Walk in Central Park (source). But what more to it is there, besides being a handsome, decorative lawn piece?
Halleck sits erect, his legs elegantly crossed, his foot alight in communication with his thoughtful, musing gaze. His right hand delicately pinches his quill, while his left is preoccupied with a manuscript or “tablet” of sorts; perhaps this is to signify that his thoughts are unceasingly flitting about the streets of New York. He is not merely a fleeting writer of yore—to say such would only besmirch the other writers on the lawn, including Scott and Burns—nor should it be given credence that he was only known for his sociable behaviour. Who he was, and where his legacy remains, is in that he helped mould American poetry into what it was. His poetic voice laid the groundwork for the American voice. His style inspired future writers, while he, himself, drew upon foregone poets. In fact, a descendant of his labeled him the “American Byron.” William Cullen Bryant, quoted in The Poets and Poetry of America, had this to say about Halleck’s writing,
His poetry, whether serious or sprightly, is remarkable for the melody of the numbers. It is not the melody of monotonous and strictly regular measurement. His verse is constructed to please an ear naturally fine and accustomed to a range of metrical modulation…He is familiar with those general rules and principles which are the basis of metrical harmony; and his own unerring taste has taught him the exceptions which proper attention to variety demands. He understands that the rivulet is made musical by obstructions in its channel. In no poet can be found passages which flow with more sweet and liquid smoothness; but he knows very well that to make this smoothness perceived, and to prevent it from degenerating into monotony, occasional roughness must be interposed (172).
But to what standard of proclamation are these words given? Observe a stanza from Halleck’s poem, “Twilight,” being that a passage of “sweet and liquid smoothness,”
In youth the cheek was crimson’d with her glow;
Her smile was loveliest then; her matin song
Was heaven’s own music, and the note of wo
Was all unheard her sunny bowers among.
Life’s little world of bliss was newly born;
We knew not, cared not, it was born to die.
Flush’d with the cool breeze and the dews of morn,
With dancing heart we gazed on the pure sky,
And mock’d the passing clouds that dimm’d its blue,
Like our own sorrows then—as fleeting and as few. (source)
The impetus of this lyric is Hope, which is, at first, seemingly swayed through life’s progress. However, Halleck argues, through painted imagery, that Hope remains formidable and shines from Heaven with an “angel-smile of tranquil loveliness,” being “A moon-beam in the midnight cloud of death” (lines 33, 40). In the stanza especially extracted, we see Halleck describe Hope, in youth, as being the “crimson’d” glow that concealed life’s “passing clouds [which] dimm’d [the pure sky’s] blue.” The musicality of the piece brings it a dreamy, ethereal quality, which is sure to enchant the reader of any age.
The stanza above serves as only one example of Halleck’s masterful hand, though. Reading through the few, yet golden pieces which stemmed from his pen, a few other poems stick out for these same notable qualities. For example, “On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake”* is a touching eulogy, which, albeit short and succinct, being comprised of six quatrains, evocatively imbues sentiment through such lines as, “Green be the turf above thee, / Friend of my better days! / None knew thee but to love thee, / Nor named thee but to praise” and “Tears fell, when thou wert dying, / From eyes unused to weep, / And long where thou art lying, / Will tears the cold turf steep” (lines 1-8). Another poem of high regard is Fanny, which is notably Halleck’s greatest piece. Fanny satirizes American culture and politics of the 19th century, and is undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek whilst doing so. Consider stanzas 28 and 29, which are, humorously, as follows,
“He struggled hard, but not in vain, and breathes
The mountain air at last; but there are others
Who strove, like him, to win the glittering wreaths
Of powers, his early partisans and brothers,
That linger yet in dust from whence they sprung,
Unhonour’d and unpaid, though, luckily, unhung.
‘Twas theirs to fill with gas the huge balloon
Of party ; and they hoped, when it arose,
To soar like eagles in the blaze of noon,
Above the gaping crowd of friends and foes.
Alas! like Guillé’s car, it soar’d without them,
And left them with a mob to jeer and flout them.”
This successful poem, first published in 1819, found its place in several subsequent volumes of Halleck’s poetry, and was eventually given fifty extra appended verses by the author. According to James Grant Wilson in The Life and Letters of Fitz-Greene Halleck, “The Popularity of ‘Fanny’ was so great, that the publisher offered Halleck five hundred dollars for another canto, an offer which he accepted,” and thus came the extra canto (234). Halleck, in a letter to his sister Maria, however, remarked, “The popularity of ‘Fanny’ is far above my expectations, and certainly far above its merits; but the great secret is, that it is fashionable to admire it, and, fortunately for its author, the general class of readers does not know good from bad” (236). Regardless of its “merits,” whether they be perceived by readers who “know good from bad” or not, the poem represents to modern readership an insightful, humorous perception of American culture during the early 1800s.
Therefore, whether it be for his witty tongue and praised pen, or his friendly demeanour and sociable conversation, Halleck more than deserves that high throne on which he rests. “Personally,” exclaims Edgar Allan Poe in his article entitled “Fitz-Greene Halleck,” “he is a man to be admired, respected…With his friends he is all ardor, enthusiasm and cordiality…He is a good modern linguist, and an excellent belles lettres scholar…”
But what was Halleck to his other peers? The viewpoints of Bryant, Poe, and Drake have been presented (see footnote for Drake); however, famed poet John Greenleaf Whittier excellently bids warm wishes and praise to his friend in the poem, “Fitz-Greene Halleck: At the Unveiling of His Statue.” This poem, as may be inferred, was a companion piece to the unveiling of the Halleck statue—thus, I present this poem. Perhaps, if you have not been convinced of Halleck’s notability as a poet, or the significance of this statue, Whittier’s words may convince you.
John Greenleaf Whittier
AT THE UNVEILING OF HIS STATUE.
AMONG their graven shapes to whom
Thy civic wreaths belong,
O city of his love, make room
For one whose gift was song.
Not his the soldier’s sword to wield,
Nor his the helm of state,
Nor glory of the stricken field,
Nor triumph of debate.
In common ways, with common men,
He served his race and time
As well as if his clerkly pen
Had never danced to rhyme.
If, in the thronged and noisy mart,
The Muses found their son,
Could any say his tuneful art
A duty left undone?
He toiled and sang; and year by year
Men found their homes more sweet,
And through a tenderer atmosphere
Looked down the brick-walled street.
The Greek’s wild onset Wall Street knew;
The Red King walked Broadway;
And Alnwick Castle’s roses blew
From Palisades to Bay.
Fair City by the Sea! upraise
His veil with reverent hands;
And mingle with thy own the praise
And pride of other lands.
Let Greece his fiery lyric breathe
Above her hero-urns;
And Scotland, with her holly, wreathe
The flower he culled for Burns.
Oh, stately stand thy palace walls,
Thy tall ships ride the seas;
To-day thy poet’s name recalls
A prouder thought than these.
Not less thy pulse of trade shall beat,
Nor less thy tall fleets swim,
That shaded square and dusty street
Are classic ground through him.
Alive, he loved, like all who sing,
The echoes of his song;
Too late the tardy meed we bring,
The praise delayed so long.
Too late, alas! Of all who knew
The living man, to-day
Before his unveiled face, how few
Make bare their locks of gray!
Our lips of praise must soon be dumb,
Our grateful eyes be dim;
O brothers of the days to come,
Take tender charge of him!
New hands the wires of song may sweep,
New voices challenge fame;
But let no moss of years o’ercreep
The lines of Halleck’s name.
Edit: I found this newspaper clipping in my personal collection and thought it may be of interest for those further interested in the unveiling of the Halleck statue. It is from Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine, Vol. II, pg 226.