Popular Poetry

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Editors: Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer
Date: 2006
American History Through Literature 1820-1870
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1370L

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The 1820–1870 period was early recognized as a remarkable time for American poetry production and consumption. Widespread 1890s nostalgia rightly heralded the culturally prominent role the genre had assumed. Poets during the earlier era wrote best-selling and profitable books, filled editorial posts at newspapers and magazines, and were in demand as commemorative voices at public occasions. Readers clipped verses from periodicals, memorized favorite lines, and turned to poets' lives for entertainment or moral edification. Russel Nye has argued that early-nineteenth-century readers were aware of the distinction between "'great' or 'high' poetry; and poetry that might guide, teach, and elevate the majority of people without being 'great'": "The nineteenth-centuryPage 903  |  Top of Article reader who was moved by Lydia Sigourney knew quite well that he was not reading Milton" (pp. 93–94). The period is remarkable in part, however, because of the extent to which poets of both orders mixed company. The Library of Poetry and Song (1870), edited by William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878), in setting out to capture "the best Poems of the English language," included those "of merit though not of fame" and those "which, though less perfect than others in form, have, by some power of touching the heart, gained and maintained a sure place in the popular esteem" (p. iii). Not only could "best" poems be popular poems; "popular esteem" was a legitimate factor in determining which poems were among the "best." The second and third poems of an 1890s Saturday Evening Post series ("The Best Poems of the World"), apparently meant to complement each other, were Bryant's well-known and much lauded "Thanatopsis" (1817) and the popular graveyard favorite by J. L. McCreery (1835–1906), "There Is No Death" (1863). Readers apparently did not need critically distinct classes of poems separated for them.

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The reach of this poem by J. L. McCreery is captured in Burton Egbert Stevenson's claim that "there is no poem in the language which has been spoken so often above an open grave, none which has brought so much consolation to stricken hearts" (p. 15).

There is no death! The stars go down
 To rise upon some fairer shore;
And bright in Heaven's jeweled crown
 They shine for evermore.
There is no death! The dust we tread
 Shall change beneath the summer showers
To golden grain or mellowed fruit,
 Or rainbow-tinted flowers.
The granite rocks disorganize,
 And feed the hungry moss they bear;
The forest leaves drink daily life
 From out the viewless air.
There is no death! The leaves may fall,
 And flowers may fade and pass away;
They only wait through wintry hours
 The coming of the May.
There is no death! An angel form
 Walks o'er the earth with silent tread;
He bears our best-loved things away,
 And then we call them 'dead.'
He leaves our hearts all desolate;
 He plucks our fairest, sweetest flowers;
Transplanted into bliss, they now
 Adorn immortal bowers.
The bird-like voice, whose joyous tones
 Made glad these scenes of sin and strife,
Sings now an everlasting song
 Around the tree of life.
Where'er he sees a smile too bright,
 Or heart too pure for taint and vice,
He bears it to that world of light,
 To dwell in Paradise.
Born unto that undying life,
 They leave us but to come again;
With joy we welcome them the same—
 Except their sin and pain.
And ever near us, though unseen,
 The dear immortal spirits tread;
For all the boundless universe
 Is life—there are no dead.

McCreery, "There Is No Death," p. 13.


The early figure of the popular poet was Lydia Sigourney (1791–1865). Known as the "American Felicia Hemans" and the "Sweet Singer of Hartford," Sigourney published fifty-six volumes of poetry, starting with Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse (1815), and was a ubiquitous presence in the day's periodicals. Others of early note included Fitz-Greene Halleck, Richard Henry Dana Sr., and Nathaniel Parker Willis; later ones included Josiah Gilbert Holland and the sisters Alice Cary and Phoebe Cary. But the dominantPage 904  |  Top of Article figures of this era undoubtedly were the "Fireside Poets": William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), James Russell Lowell (1819–1891), and John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892). Their poetry, like much of this period's verse, largely has been characterized as sentimental and accessible, concerned with morality, and conventional in form and style.

Female poets were classed as most able to produce poetry of sentiment and moral purity. Both male and female poets, however, responded to and helped create public demands for such poetry by writing inspirational nature verses, narrative poems of stirring national events, and sentimental poems of domestic concern. And an ability to write all of these types certainly aided a poet's appeal. In Rufus Wilmot Griswold's Readings in American Poetry: For the Use of Schools (1843), Sigourney represented a range of short popular modes with "The Western Emigrant," "Indian Names," "Winter," and "Death of an Infant." And Longfellow, whose long narrative poems were dominant best-sellers, achieved significant success first as a lyric poet. Nineteenth-century readers not only chanted and lampooned rhythmic lines from The Song of Hiawatha (1855); they also learned his "A Psalm of Life," which famously begins, "Tell me not, in mournful numbers, / Life is but an empty dream!—" (p. 20) and admonishes in closing,

Let us, then, be up and doing, 
With a heart for any fate!
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor, and to wait.

(P. 22)

Single-poem successes perhaps display best the qualities of sentiment and moral order often associated with the era's poetry. The British poet Martin Tupper's (1810–1889) admonishment "Never give up! it is wiser and better / Always to hope than once to despair" joined optimism with heightened sentiment in a poem purportedly "placed in each patient's room" in "an American lunatic asylum" (Hart, p. 132). And "There Is No Death," a popular favorite by J. L. McCreery, pictured a "boundless universe" of "life," where angels take away "our best-loved things" and fill the world again with the "unseen" (p. 13).

Longfellow's "The Day Is Done," in requesting a "simple and heartfelt lay" to "soothe this restless feeling, / And banish the thoughts of day," rejects the "grand old masters" and the "bards sublime." Instead, the verse asks,

Read from some humbler poet, 
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;

(P. 222)

Poems like those by Tupper and McCreery (and Longfellow himself) fulfilled the larger public's similar demands for affect and sentiment.

The idea that poetry was socially and morally beneficial contributed to its distribution and preservation. American poetry anthologists of the 1820s and 1830s selected poetry in large part for its morality; later anthologists like Griswold typified the belief "that American poetry should be represented by specimens of the utmost moral purity, that poetry's function is inspirational" (Golding, pp. 6, 14). Such qualities helped the genre gain a dominant classroom presence. Schoolroom assignments furthered the popularity of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Classroom reliance on memorization and recitation help explain how. Textbooks like Joseph Alden's (1807–1885) Studies in Bryant (1876) illustrate the process of classroom canonization. Alden follows Bryant's popular "To a Waterfowl," for example, with seventy-one questions and answers designed to help students dissect the poem. And Whittier's own 1866 Snow-Bound group, trapped by a blizzard, entertained itself when it "stammered from our school-book lore / 'The Chief of Gambia's golden shore.'" Attaining a place in schoolbooks allowed a poet to become part of the nation's conscience and consciousness.

Still, the belief that much popular poetry during this period was simply inoffensive—conforming to standard and accepted formal requirements of meter and rhyme and proffering generally held political and social beliefs—belies the variety of voices, themes, and forms that successfully found an audience. In fact, the entire class of women's poetry, long characterized as highly conventional, has been increasingly recognized by Paula Bennett and others for its political concerns and voices of protest. Nineteenth-century readers were hardly a singular group, moreover. Whittier's Snow-Bound, a fireside scene of New England domesticity, was popular, but so, too, was Lowell's The Biglow Papers, which argued strongly against the Mexican-American War in comic dialect verse (first in serial form in 1846, then as a book in 1848). Furthermore, in responding to Whittier's Snow-Bound invitation to

Sit with me by the homestead hearth, 
And stretch the hands of memory forth
To warm them at the wood-fire's blaze!

(P. 406)

"worldling" readers not only forgot "city ways" for a time. They embraced, as postbellum readers, a poemPage 905  |  Top of Article by a famously abolitionist author who mixed his tranquil domestic portrait with reminders of those abolitionist views.

Poems of every kind succeeded during this period. Popular poems included panegyrics to national landmarks (John G. C. Brainard on "The Falls of Niagara"), long occasional poems (John Godfrey Saxe's 1846 "Progress"), and elegies (Fitz-Greene Halleck's "On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake"). Too, whereas regional and national topics proved popular, British poets like George Gordon, Lord Byron, Tennyson, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning also had sizable American audiences—Tennyson apparently gained a larger and broader audience in the United States than in England, in part because of the publication of cheap editions of his poems. When critics lamented poetry's decline in the late nineteenth century, they did not only cite the succession of deaths of the Fireside Poets from 1878 to 1894. They often included British poets in that list as well. Even the success of one category like narrative verse illustrates the variety available. Longfellow reigned as the era's most popular poet in part through his long narrative poems, Evangeline (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858). Much different in tone and focus was Edgar Allan Poe's (1809–1849) "The Raven" (1845), which became a classroom standard. Whittier's Snow-Bound, which related his family's entrapment during a winter blizzard, offered not simply narrative but an "idyl," a portrait of bygone rural home life with meditations on the function of memory. And William Allen Butler's (1825–1902) "Nothing to Wear" (1857), a long poem that gained notoriety beyond its author's name, tells the story of "Miss Flora M'Flimsey" in a sharp social satire that criticizes wealthy and fashionable women who claim "nothing to wear" because they lack "Brussels point lace," "camels'-hair shawls," "real ermine tippets," "a new Russian sable," an Indian shawl, and "the choicest assortment of French sleeves and collars" (p. 751).


Although best-selling novels easily outperformed bestselling poetry volumes, book sales numbers indicate the popular audience poetry enjoyed. Josiah Gilbert Holland's (1819–1881) long narrative poem BitterSweet (1858) proved immensely popular, and his Kathrina: Her Life and Mine (1867), another long narrative poem, "was reprinted fifty times in nine years" (Nye, p. 106). Lowell's The Vision of Sir Launfal (1848) also sold well—"nearly 175,000 copies during the decade after publication" (Radway and Frank, p. 304). By far the single most successful author, however, was Longfellow. His The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and Evangeline all were best-sellers. Hiawatha in particular attracted attention: four thousand copies sold in advance of publication and "fifty thousand in five months" (Mott, p. 107). Money earned also makes the point. Whittier earned more than $100,000 from Snow-Bound. And the popularity of the genre at large seems proved further by the impressive payments poets received from places like the young Atlantic Monthly.

But tracking poetry's popularity depends on viewing it in all its forms of distribution. William Charvat rightly questions "the value of a statistical approach to the subject" (p. 33). Poetry's fragmented and diffuse means of production and reception affected standard indicators of popularity such as book sales numbers. Poetry was printed in periodicals, performed at public ceremonies, and collected in anthologies. And such venues offered countless ways by which poetry could be recorded, received, and re-performed. Periodicals offered poems not only through original publication and reprints; reviews regularly featured the liberal quotation of poems, offering multiple ways by which people could clip or transcribe favorite poems for scrapbooks. And poetry's significant ceremonial role not only offered an outlet for original compositions, commissioned for the occasion; it offered the expectation of poetry recitation so that some poems gained popularity in part from their suitability for public performance. Poetry also had tremendous circulation through collections and anthologies. Successful volumes like the 1870 Bryant-edited Library of Poetry and Song claimed sales of between 70,000 and 80,000, and Rufus Wilmot Griswold's popular anthology sold 300,000 copies, according to Frank Luther Mott. A proliferation of smaller collections offered their own gatherings of the day's verse. According to Bryant, "the same household contains several of these publications" (p. 1). The existence of all these modes of distribution suggests that poems and poets could achieve a degree of popularity not signaled by the sales numbers of single titles or even collected volumes.

The presence of popular poets, as much as popular poetry, means there were authors who attracted attention as personalities beyond the numbers generated by sales of their individual titles. The early- to mid-century sensation Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–1867) suggests the keen interest in poets as people. An 1854 United States Magazine and Democratic Review article dismissed the urbane poet as a creature "produced" by "modern Frankenstein" "by making his skeleton out of a satin corset, with Eau de Cologne for blood, a nervous system of silk, a ball of almond soap for a heart,Page 906  |  Top of Article and a bottle of hair-dye or cosmetic for a moral centre." But Willis, whose popularity played out during his lifetime, was highly read during the period when his antics surrounded his publishing. His writings and personality were emphasized in periodicals like the New York Mirror, which he helped edit during the 1830s and 1840s, and the Southern Literary Messenger. In the Southern Literary Messenger in the 1830s and 1840s, Willis's sketches from Europe depicted a sophisticated urban life; the periodical defended his reputedly wanton work habits as a Yale student; and his published poems carried intrigue—one because an editor mistakenly thought he had commemorated Benedict Arnold. Later, the society poet's decreased fame served as a touchstone for the famous Saturday Evening Post article that bemoaned the "twilight" of the genre: an informal survey revealed, to the expressed shock of the surveyor, that "to three or four Nathaniel Parker Willis was merely a name, to the majority he was not even that" (McKinney, p. 426).

The American Fireside Poets and their British contemporaries attracted most attention, however—their lithographed faces reproduced in periodicals and the lines of their poems quoted in essays and popular novels. In 1869, for example, Appletons' Journal closed the calendar year by bestowing on its readers an elaborately illustrated 18 December cover featuring Bryant, "The Poet of Our Woods," and a more simple 25 December cover of Longfellow that linked to an article on "The Home of Longfellow"—the only two of that year's twenty-seven illustrated covers that were of actual people. How even the most prominent poets reached widespread recognition varied significantly, however. Although Longfellow's popularity is proved easily by his book sales numbers, Bryant illustrates the accumulated reputation of a lyric poet. He met with early critical acclaim, but his popular recognition mounted with widespread quotation of lines from "Thanatopsis," with repeated mention of him as America's nature poet, and with his classroom presence ("Thanatopsis" leads Griswold's 1843 Readings in American Poetry: For the Use of Schools). A late-nineteenth-century textbook on Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier, and Holmes says of Bryant's poems: "Take one, and read it until by very force of habit you learn to love it" (Cody, p. 67). The higher sales numbers achieved by his collected works (and his translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey) near the end of his life no doubt speaks of the diffuse distribution of lyric poets. It also suggests, perhaps, the extent to which he had become a larger public "habit." The work of making and keeping these poets popular often was the product of more than an immediate popular reception, and it continued even after their deaths.


Plenty of poetry circulated separately from authors' names, however. In the early part of the nineteenth century, writers regularly were published anonymously. As a result, in George B. Cheever's The American Common-Place Book of Poetry (1831), for one example, the editor not only includes anonymous texts alongside popular poets like Sigourney, Willis, Bryant, and Dana but also lists numerous texts under place of periodical publication rather than author. Moreover, in the case of the most famous "single poems," poems could be spread and distributed under multiple authors' names. Authorship disputes arose about McCreery's "There Is No Death," Sarah Josepha Hale's "Mary's Lamb," and J. W. Watson's "The Beautiful Snow." Watson's 1858 poem apparently was "ascribed to seven other poets" (Nye, p. 126). The prevalence of one-hit wonders thus further suggests why book sales numbers alone fail to signify poetry's reach.

In fact, single-poem successes, realized by a poem's frequent reprinting, recitation, or absorption into the popular music tradition, highlight the extent to which one measures popularity on the basis of critical comments and tales, rather than numbers, of demand and success. To claim that Sarah Josepha Hale's "Mary's Lamb" (1830), George Pope Morris's "Woodman, Spare That Tree!" (1830), and Major Henry Livingston Jr.'s "Visit from St. Nicholas" (1823; the scholar Donald W. Foster reattributes the authorship of this poem, long credited to Clement Clarke Moore) were popular poems from this era hardly demands proof for the simple fact that one can readily recognize their popularity. To note that Daniel Decatur Emmett's "Dixie" (1859) and Julia Ward Howe's "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (1862) were poems spread widely as part of a popular song tradition seems proof enough. "Who is there that has not sung or read or heard 'The Old Oaken Bucket?'" asks George M. Young (p. 661) in an 1892 article about the 1817 poem by Samuel Woodworth, which recounts "How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood, / When fond recollection presents them to view!" (p. 658). Anecdotal accounts also shored up the reputations of authors with impressive sales figures: Longfellow's "Psalm of Life" (1838) purportedly prompted a "laborer" fan to seek his handshake and kept another "from suicide. I found it on a scrap of newspaper, in the hands of two Irish women, soiled and worn" (quoted in Cody, pp. 108–109). The storied benefits of poetry not only marked but also supported poems' popularity, and tales of effect repeatedly were conjoined with the poems themselves.

Page 907  |  Top of Article


At the close of the nineteenth century, the Saturday Evening Post offered its readers "The Best Poems in the World," an elaborately illustrated series that paired poems with anecdotes and biographical sketches. The forthcoming poems, the 28 May 1898 introduction explained

will be selected, not from the standpoint of the ultra-literary man or woman, but for their appeal to lovers of sentiment. They will be poems of the emotions, those that appeal to the heart, poems that tell a story, those that are filled with human interest. They belong to what may be called the "Pocket-Book School of Poetry"—those poems that one cuts from a newspaper and carries in the pocket-book till they are worn through at the creases. (P. 8)

Post editors included lullabies of unknown origin, eighteenth-century patriotic lyrics, and recent poets like James Whitcomb Riley. But the series, despite a wide-ranging timeline, also solidified a critically prominent idea with its generous sampling of an earlier generation of American and British poets: that a culture of American poetry, better and better-loved, had only recently passed. The poems, it appeared, had been made popular by a particular poetry culture that appeared to be passing too. With that nostalgia, an earlier culture of American poetry since has been remembered as popular by, if nothing else, comparison. And whereas the demise of the genre was exaggerated, nineteenth-century poetry certainly deserves recognition for its cultural centrality, its wide and varied distribution, and its socially fostered consumption.


Primary Works

"The Best Poems in the World." Saturday Evening Post, 28 May 1898, p. 8.

Bryant, William Cullen. "Publishers' Preface." In New Library of Poetry and Song, edited by William Cullen Bryant, pp. iii–v. New York: J. B. Ford, 1876.

Butler, William Allen. "Nothing to Wear: An Episode of City Life." Harper's New Monthly Magazine (November 1857): 746–753.

Cody, Sherwin. Four American Poets: William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Book for Young Americans. 1899. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1977.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Vol. 1. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 1886.

McCreery, J. L. "There Is No Death." Saturday Evening Post, 4 June 1898, p. 13.

McKinney, M. S. "In the Twilight of Poetry." Saturday Evening Post, 31 December 1898, p. 426.

"Nathaniel Parker Willis." United States Magazine and Democratic Review (June 1854): 340–344.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl. 1866. In The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, pp. 399–406. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1927.

Woodworth, Samuel. "The Bucket." New England Magazine, January 1892, pp. 658–660.

Young, George M. "The Author of 'The Old Oaken Bucket.'" New England Magazine, January 1892, pp. 661–662.

Secondary Works

Bennett, Paula Bernat. Poets in the Public Sphere: The Emancipatory Project of American Women's Poetry, 1800–1900. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Charvat, William. Literary Publishing in America: 1790– 1850. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959.

Foster, Donald W. "Yes, Virginia, There Was a Santa Claus." In his Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous, pp. 221–275. New York: Henry Holt, 2000.

Golding, Alan. From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

Hart, James David. The Popular Book: A History of America's Literary Taste. 1950. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.

Mott, Frank Luther. Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1947.

Nye, Russel. The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America. New York: Dial Press, 1970.

Radway, Janice, and Perry Frank. "Verse and Popular Poetry." In Handbook of American Popular Literature, edited by M. Thomas Inge, pp. 299–322. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988,

Stevenson, Burton Egbert. Famous Single Poems and the Controversies Which Have Raged around Them. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1923.

Ingrid Satelmajer

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Satelmajer, Ingrid. "Popular Poetry." American History Through Literature 1820-1870, edited by Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer, vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, pp. 902-907. Gale Ebooks, https%3A%2F%2Flink.gale.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX3450700191%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dmlin_m_newtnsh%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3D3ba9387a. Accessed 14 Oct. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3450700191

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