Bryant. In 1818 the young lawyer William Cullen Bryant published a review of Solyman Brown's verse Essay on American Poetry in the North American Review. Not particularly interested in or impressed by Brown's poetry, Bryant instead used the opportunity to make his own pronouncements on the state of poetry in the American republic. Bryant criticized American poets for too closely imitating older English poets, especially Alexander Pope and John Dryden, and suggested that such imitation had left early American poetry artificial, empty, and cold. As a poet Bryant himself had been influenced by newer movements in English poetry, particularly by the Romantic poet William Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798), which called for the use of a simple and less ornate language. Considered in his own time to be the “first of American poets,” Bryant earned that title because his work was clearly different from earlier poetry. One of his best-known poems, “Thanatopsis” (1817), was much praised for its simple and morally inflected language and its stirring natural imagery.
Romantic Influences. Although American critics considered Wordsworth a model poet whose works provided both pleasure and moral uplift, his poetry did not become widely popular in the United States until the
1830s. In contrast George Gordon, Lord Byron’ darkly passionate poetry was enormously popular among American readers even though critics objected to Byron's questionable behavior (including abuse of his wife and religious skepticism) as well as what they considered the dangerous moral influence of Byron's treatment of such subjects as adultery, incest, and murder. Other Romantic thinkers and poets found their way into American thought, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Coleridge's prose work, particularly The Friend (1809–1810), Biographia Literaria (1817), and Aids to Reflection (1825), had a significant influence on the liberal Unitarian community in Boston, particularly on those who sympathized with the Transcendentalist movement.
Emerson. Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson was particularly influenced by Coleridge. Following Coleridge's interpretations of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, Emerson asserted a distinction between the Fancy and the Imagination, the Imagination being both a passive and an active faculty of the mind that received information and transformed that information into an original work of art. In 1838 Emerson shocked the conservative Harvard Divinity School faculty with an address to the graduating class which, among other things, suggested that man's knowledge of God was essentially intuitive and could be gained by meditating on nature. Emerson went on to describe Jesus as a divinely inspired poet and called for Divinity School graduates to see themselves as poet-priests, “newborn bards” of the spirit who would revitalize the Unitarian Church by casting behind them “all conformity, and acquaint[ing] men at first hand with Deity.” Dabbling in poetry himself, throughout the 1830s and 1840s Emerson argued that the American poet could (and should) play a vital role in the development of a national culture. Emerson's writings on poetry and poets called for a great American poet to express and transform American cultural beliefs, a call that more-recent critics believe was best answered by Walt Whitman when he wrote Leaves of Grass, published in 1855.
Fireside Poets. Until well into the twentieth century a group of poets that included Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier were frequently represented in school readers and popular anthologies for their celebrations in verse of civic virtue and home-and-hearth values. Often referred to as the Fireside, or Schoolroom, Poets, these writers produced a body of poetry that was simple and unpretentious; if critics in later years found their works to be of lesser quality as poetry, American readers have nevertheless embraced them as representative of American civic Page 32 | Top of Articleand domestic virtue. The Fireside Poets stressed the utility of poetry rather than calling for art for art's sake, as Edgar Allan Poe would. Consequently, these men contributed to a general understanding of poetry that emphasized the content and function of a poem rather than the niceties of its form or diction. They understood poetry to be a valuable means of improving society and thus incorporated antislavery and other reform sentiments into their verse. The Fireside Poets’ work also offered readers a set of strategies for coping with personal setbacks, by offering solace as well as calls to moral action. In later decades virtually all of these poets were criticized for their heavy-handed moralism. Yet the moralistic tone of their poetry was a primary reason for its popularity. During the first half of the nineteenth century critics and readers alike expected a work of art to transmit a moral narrative or story and offer a lesson to be drawn by the reader. The quality of a poem's moral meaning and the service it provided to the reader were the indicators of a poem's success, not the (usually meager) income it generated. By this definition these Fireside Poets were highly successful in their time.
Livelihood. Readers looked for a combination of pleasure and moral uplift in their poetry, and the most successful American poets were the ones who managed a happy blend of those elements. The popularity of Bryant and Longfellow kept them in anthologies of American literature for decades. Ranked somewhat lower were poets whose fame proved more temporary: Fitz-Greene Halleck, James G. Percival, Charles Sprague, James Hillhouse, Richard Henry Dana Sr., and many others. However, with the exception of Longfellow, no matter how popular his poetry was, no nineteenth-century poet would ever earn a living through poetry alone. Only after the publication and great success of his long poem Evangeline (1847) did Longfellow begin to think seriously about giving up his “day job’ as a Harvard professor. Longfellow proved himself to be not only a successful and popular poet but also a shrewd businessman who learned how to publish profitably through his experiences writing and publishing foreign-language textbooks during his academic careers at Bowdoin College and Harvard. For other male poets writing poetry was a sideline, done alongside the more prosaic work that earned them their livelihoods.
Women. Female poets were also popular in the United States. Felicia Hemans, an Englishwoman, was unquestionably one of the most popular poets in the United States; conservative Harvard professor (and sometimes poet) Andrews Norton favorably contrasted John Milton's “colossal forms that repel our human sympathy” with Hermans's portrayals of domestic life. Lydia Sigourney's poetry was published alongside Bryant's, both anonymously, in the North American Review before it stopped printing original poetry in 1818. As literary and popular magazines proliferated, more and more women found space for publication (of prose and poetry alike) in the pages of Graham's, Godey's, the Ladies’ Magazine, and other periodicals of the 1830s and 1840s. But male and female poets were held to different literary standards: while men conventionally addressed more-intellectual and more-universal themes, women were expected to treat domestic issues and feelings. As Emerson, Bryant, and Longfellow pondered the meaning of the universe, Hemans, Sigourney, Frances Osgood, and other female poets wrote about more-particular issues, such as loved ones and household concerns, in works that were generally thought to appeal only to other women.
Poe. Romantic thought, which was only partially embraced in the United States, emphasized the figure of the highly creative, deeply sensitive poet who used words to convey profound, personal, and sincerely felt emotion to his readers. This image of the poet downplayed the hard work and attention to detail and polish inherent in the poet's craft. “Being a poet” gradually became separate form “writing poetry”. Edgar Allan Poe’ essay and lecture “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846) struck back at this image by graphically illustrating the process he claimed to have followed in writing his extremely popular poem “The Raven” (1845). The essay shows a poet meticulously working to pick out just the right word—even the right sound—by considering the emotional effect he hoped the overall poem to convey. The iconoclastic Poe strongly resisted the blending of pleasure and moral uplift followed by the era's more successful poets and instead asserted that the object of poetry was pleasure alone. Poe died unable to fulfill his dream of establishing a literary magazine that would teach Americans what he considered the proper way of reading and understanding poetry.
William Charvat, The Origins of American Critical Thought, 1810–1835 (New York: Barnes, 1961);
Charvat, The Profession of Authorship in America, 1800–1870: The Papers of William Charvat, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1968);
Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977).