“Specimens of American Poets, with Facsimiles of Autographs”—Being a very serious article about very serious poets—Part One.
by Ann Neilson
This is a humorous article written exclusively for the December, 1849 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book (pp. 416-420), which presents letters and accompanying poems from five prominent 19th century authors and poets. Be mindful of the date attached to each letter as you read this. With that being said, I advise the reader take this with a grain of salt. Students, don’t use this article for serious research.
Because of the length of this article, being the letters with the poems, I have this divided into two parts. You will find only the “letters” here, and the “poems” here.
Specimens of American Poets, with Facsimiles of Autographs
Philadelphia, April 1st, 1849.
Sir: I am a foreigner, who has been traveling in this country for a year past. Anxious to take away with me some memento of American literature, I addressed notes to various authors, requesting them to furnish me, free of cost, the means of complying with my desire. Most of these were polite enough to accede to my request. Others there were, I am sorry to chronicle the fact, mean and illiberal enough to take no notice of my very reasonable request. One, indeed, whose name I charitably suppress, was wicked enough to write me a reply, couched in very brief but expressive terms.
Having achieved what I wished, my next object is to make something out of it. I showed my collection to several publishers, who all declined to enter into the publication of these specimens. Some one or two—not more than two; and it may be less than one, since my memory is treacherous—expressed doubts as to their authenticity. Under these circumstances, I appeal to you. Let your endorsement of their genuine character be given, and I shall have all the publishers bidding, like so many buyers as a mock-auction, for my wares. You will not, surely, lack charity so far as to refuse this, my first, and by far the most reasonable offer I ever made you. To be sure, it may cause you a pang of conscience; but what of that? Charity, you know, covers a multitude of sins. I gave a bad sixpence to a blind man, yesterday, myself; and you should comfort yourself with this assurance.
I am, imploringly, yours,
To L. A. Godey, Esq.
We have examined the MSS. sent, and are willing to publish a few of them; but express no opinion in regard to their authenticity. The signature which accompany some of the letters look very like originals—the poems, we should say, were very original.
New York, April 1st, 1848.
MY DEAR BOY: I received your note this moment. I am very happy to be of any service to you, and enclose a poem. I hope you will succeed. Pray, let me know if I can be of any use. Would you like a notice in the Home Journal? I can do you any good, only indicate the mode, and at once. Believe me, my dear fellow,
For Willis and self, cordially yours,
Worcester, 4th Mo. 1st, 1848.
ESTEEMED FRIEND: I am enabled to comply with thy request, and dispatch to thy address, by the mail of to-day, an effusion, which I sincerely trust may answer thy purpose. Thou wilt observe that it touches upon a subject which concerns the most ordinary business of life, and will therefore find its response in the hearts, or in a more tender portion, of every member of the human family. With my most earnest wishes for all proper prosperity to attend thee, I am,
New York, April 1st, 1848.
MY DEAR SIR: To be obliged to penetrate with the pump-buckets of necessity, prompted by the piston of a fifty-dollar compensation, with a publisher as the pump-handle, in search of a poem, is, of itself, annoying enough. To draw one up with the rope and bucket of gratuity, is a labor which qualifies for a long residence in fatiguedom. Your letter found me fagging away over my work-desk—chasing a brilliant idea in and out of the myriads of convolutions of my brain. All the while that I was aping Prometheus (the window being half-opened), I could sniff the delightful odors of a rose, which a fair neighbor will insist on keeping (poor Tantalus I), and could see, occasionally, white, ring-loved fingers parting the curtains on the opposite side of the street. My poor bird—Canary and I are fellow-prisoners here—was wearing his wing-feathers against the bars; and speaking with his wings what Sterne’s starling did with his throat. It was impossible for me to write anything for you with such sights, and smells, and sounds before and near me. But the Brigadier, good-naturedly, insisted that I should do something for you. I send you therefore an old scrap, which lies by me, with a protest against such demands. I cannot see that you have any more right to drag from me, as forced gifts, the products made in my workshop of a brain, than I would have to ask my neighbor’s goose to convert himself into my special quill manufactory.
Fordham, April 1st, 1848.
SIR: The true purpose of poetry appears to have been misunderstood by poets in all ages. It has been reserved for the moderns, or one of them at least, to discover its proper uses—or, more correctly speaking, want of use. Poetry is but the rhythmical creation of beauty. Its true office is the beautiful only. It may verge on the grotesque, but must not enter it. It must never deal with the terrible, the vividly fearful—the horrid, or the profound. Didactic poetry is a misnomer, as reason is not rhyme. A poem should never have its moral, nor should it ever possess a meaning. I trust I make myself sufficiently clear, even to the meanest comprehension. To aid my exposition, I send you an example, in the singularly beautiful and strikingly peculiar poem which I inclose.
Your obedient servant,
April 1st, 1848.
SIR: Here you have an extract from a new poem—the Battle of the Engines. For my own part, I care nothing for my own poetry—nor do other people, may be; however, they lose by that—besides, poetry is in itself an art—art is unproductive—and while I am on the subject of unproductiveness, I may as well mention that you did not pay the postage on the letter directed to