- Anthology Form and the Field of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry:The Civil War Sequences of Lowell, Longfellow, and Whittier
Reading through the tables of contents in nineteenth-century volumes of poetry—often long lists of short lyric poems with mostly unfamiliar titles—can be a daunting experience for a present-day reader: how was this welter of material organized for readers in its own day? Reviewing those tables of contents, I have found myself drawn to clusters in the data, typographical galaxies in what otherwise can appear as darkly organized matter: that is, to sequences and other associated groups of poems, as well as to long poems and narratives in which shorter lyrics feature. Trying to appreciate how nineteenth-century American readers put "poems in their place," in Neil Fraistat's apt title phrase, I began to gather some of these sequences and longer works under the term "anthology form." My focus is not the development of the poetry anthology itself as a publishing genre, although that history—running from pedagogical readers and gift annuals early in the century through Civil War anthologies to the enormously influential collections An American Anthology and A Victorian Anthology, assembled by Edmund Clarence Stedman at the century's end—intersects in many places with the development of the loose baggy generic monster I aim to describe. As I'm conceiving this rubric, "anthology form" comprises a wide range of nineteenth-century literary works that in one way or another assemble discrete, formally demarcated, and formally diverse shorter poems—lyrics or ballads, conventionally—within a longer narrative setting or into a sequence marked by formal variation among its constituent poems.1 [End Page 217]
By this definition, "anthology form" comprehends a surprising number of nineteenth-century American long poems and poetic sequences, among them some of the century's best-selling works of poetry, and some hybrid prose works as well. What this definition does not comprehend, it is worth observing, are today's most familiar instances of the nineteenth-century American poetic sequence: neither Dickinson's fascicles, nor Whitman's Song of Myself nor Sea-Drift, nor his Civil War sequences answer to the patterned formal diversity characteristic of anthology form. The major twentieth-century study of the poetic sequence, M. L. Rosenthal and Sally Gall's The Modern Poetic Sequence: The Genius of Modern Poetry, takes Whitman and Dickinson as its proto-modernist models, locating the "genius" of the modern sequence in moments of lyric intensity.2 The history of anthology form I am setting out to assemble is not structured by this modernist aesthetic teleology;it instead reads anthology form as widespread and influential in its own time, a vehicle of popular as well as elite literary aspiration.
What this story of anthology form does include are works like Lowell's The Biglow Papers, Longfellow's Tales of a Wayside Inn, and Whittier's The Tent on the Beach, which embed series of ballads and lyrics inside a fictional frame of their oral recitation; narrative-dramatic long poems, like Josiah Holland's Bitter-Sweet (second only to Longfellow's Hiawatha in nineteenth-century sales of book-length poems) and Lucy Larcom's An Idyl of Work, which embed lyric poems within a surround of blank-verse speeches and narrative integument; smaller-scale versions of closet drama and masquelike forms with, again, embedded lyrics, like Annie Fields's Orpheus: A Masque and Trumbull Stickney's Prometheus Porphyrus; and at one boundary of the category, even works of fiction, like Lydia Sigourney's Lucy Howard's Journal, which naturalistically embed within their plots small collections of lyric poems. I'm calling works in this group "nested" anthology forms—lyrics or ballads inside a dramatic or narrative frame. The three Civil War-era works by Lowell, Longfellow, and Whittier that are my subject here—The Biglow Papers, Second Series; Tales of a Wayside Inn; and The Tent on the Beach—mark the high point of this form's public influence. Another group of poems I'm calling "serial" anthology forms: these works, like [End Page 218] Herman Melville's Battle-Pieces, Edmund Clarence Stedman's sequence "The Carib Sea" and Emma Lazarus...