In 1855 the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) published The Song of Hiawatha, whose drumbeat rhythms have been much anthologized:
On the shores of Gitche Gumee,
Of the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood Nokomis, the old woman
Pointing with her finger westward,
O’er the water pointing westward.
That same year, the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to Longfellow, "No other poet has anything like your vogue" in both England and America. Not only was Longfellow wildly popular; he was widely praised by his fellow writers. William Cullen Bryant wrote of his "exquisite music," and theSpectator in London praised Hiawatha’s "sweet and limpid purity."
Longfellow wanted to be a writer from his early years. While he worked as a professor of modern languages at his alma mater, Bowdoin College, and then Harvard, he spent as much time as he could on his own poetry and prose; he finally resigned from Harvard in 1854. Thereafter he published a string of major poetic books such as Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), and The Hanging of the Crane(1874). Steeped in the lore and fable of his native New England, Longfellow crafted his verse from American subjects, creating a literary history of America in such poems as "Paul Revere’s Ride" or "The Village Blacksmith." His distinction, far from being merely literary nationalism, arose from his having the technical facility to render homely American subjects in a style that could compete with his English contemporaries. Longfellow, who claimed to find his stories in "the bird’s-nest of the forest," specialized in the ballad, a form "that like voices from afar off/Call to us to pause and listen." And his genteel audience of Anglo-American Victorians did pause and listen to hear Longfellow’s "exquisite simplicity of expression."
Yet Longfellow suffered the fate known by many of those who are the most popular writers of their day: a voice of its time frequently lacks staying power. Thus Longfellow, whose sensibility was that of a mild romantic and whose life in Cambridge was placidly comfortable, has now been eclipsed by his "darker" contemporaries such as Hawthorne or Herman Melville. Now, the rhythms of Longfellow’s ballads are quaint artifacts of a New England as bygone as the village blacksmith. Ironically, as Longfellow’s fame was still cresting in 1855, his poetic future was sealed with the self-publishing of a little book calledLeaves of Grass by an unknown Brooklyn newspaper editor, Walt Whitman (1819–1892). The first printing sold few copies and the subsequent seven editions did little better. The book’s form and content was bitterly condemned by guardians of Victorian literature and morals. As opposed to Longfellow’s idealized blacksmith ("His brow is wet with honest sweat,/He earns whate’ver he can"), Whitman observed workers as they really were:
The butcher-boy puts off his killing-clothes,
or sharpens his knife at the stall in the market,
I loiter enjoying his repartee and his shuffle
The rawness of Whitman’s eye shocked and horrified Americans used to genteel, gently moralizing verses; Longfellow himself said that his rival’s verse wanted education and "delicacy of feeling."
Like Longfellow, Whitman took his subjects from America, but instead of memorializing the past, he celebrated the present and the future. Above all, he was the poet of the individual, of the rampant ego expressing itself in the unbounded promise of American life. The opening of Leaves of Grass, "I celebrate myself, and sing myself," kicks down all the doors in an exultation of the American experience. So great was Whitman’s exuberance that he invented a new poetic form—free verse—to break the boundaries of English poetry’s traditional and formalized rhythmic structure; in his long lines, Whitman’s words overspilled to match his emotions. "I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured and/never will be measured.//I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)."
An unruly poet of an unruly subject—Americans themselves—Whitman found few willing to listen to his message, but important writers took note. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Whitman, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start." For Whitman, as for Emerson, it was not just that the poet celebrated America but that he did so with a vocabulary drawn from the streets and with a new method that claimed a literary declaration of independence. Whitman created a poetry that captured the expansiveness and contradictions of American nature and society. In his romantic modernism, Whitman was the progenitor of a line of American artists—from Hart Crane to the Beats—who adapted his lessons to their own artistic and cultural circumstances. Whitman’s unfurling of his long line of free verse created a means of self-expression that has influenced artists, writers, and musicians to the present day. Whitman, unlike Longfellow, is a continuing force in American culture, one who has had to be reckoned with by all who came after him.
Longfellow and Whitman are linked together by the curious coincidence of 1855, when the past and the future of American poetry passed, but never met.