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  • "The Story of Boon"; or, The Poetess
  • Virginia Jackson (bio)

One of the things that the recent resurgence of interest in nineteenth-century American poetry has taught us is that nineteenth-century American poetics still hovers on the dark side of the moon. As scholars begin to explore that shadowy verse culture, the study of historical poetics may follow, but it seems just as likely that we will only be able to turn back so far or so much before we turn that sequence around. Until we learn more about pre-twentieth-century U.S. poetics, we will continue to read nineteenth-century poetic genres in twentieth and twenty-first-century terms. Since those are the very terms that have rendered even such prominent nineteenth-century figures as Bryant and Longfellow relatively obscure, it's a pretty sure bet that we won't replace our settled blindness with many new insights as long as we continue to read Bryant as if he were an early, failed Whitman, or Longfellow as if he were Dylan without a guitar.1 The introduction to the 2004 volume of The Cambridge History of American Literature devoted to nineteenth-century poetry is instructive:

If poetry is, as Wordsworth suggested, "the history of feeling," we have here an elucidation of human feeling as it formally confronts the conditions of experience in an ever-increasingly liberal-individualistic society. The ambivalent post-colonial relationship to the cultural parent; the difficult negotiation of the [End Page 241] highly charged boundary between the public and the private spheres; the self-discovery and self-assertion of minorities and women; the exhilarations of nationalism; the alienations of capitalism and the search for countervailing values; the multiple identifications of pluralism and the accompanying nostalgia for more easily knowable communities; these and other problematics of what might be called social feeling are richly and accessibly articulated in nineteenth-century American poetry.2

The sweeping range of the catalog betrays the problem: if we define poetry as "the history of feeling," then what can't it do? While the Wordsworthian phrase is suggestive, it is difficult to imagine what it could not be used to describe.3 The novel might also be described as such a history, as might the essay or painting or sculpture or letter writing or drama or fashion design. It is an impossibly broad but surprisingly common way to describe poetry as such, just as "poetry" is an impossibly broad but surprisingly common way to describe a diverse range of poetic genres. How could we trace the articulations of social feeling more precisely in nineteenth-century American verse? We would need to begin by thinking more precisely about verse genres and especially about the ways in which nineteenth-century poets and readers thought and felt about those genres.

One reason the Cambridge History's list can include so many "conditions of experience in an ever-increasingly liberal-individualistic society" is that, for us, poetry in general has come to mean personal experience in general. As I have argued elsewhere, that identification has become not only possible but inevitable because of the lyricization of poetry, or the historical process through which ballads, odes, hymns, songs, elegies, epitaphs, sonnets, and many other verse genres have been read lyrically.4 Put simply, that retrospective reading usually renders all kinds of poems as first-person statements, and renders that person as the poem's "speaker." This is how poetry can be understood as a history of social feeling—especially since not only the writing but also the reading of poetry has become a [End Page 242] matter of personal identification. Thus even in a recent cultural history that attempts to revive interest in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American poetry on a grand scale, Joan Shelley Rubin writes that this revival should be possible because of "the emotional work [poetry] has performed for the readers in whose lives it has been a vital presence."5 As long as we read poetry as a history of feeling that produces a history of feeling, as emotional work that produces the opportunity for more emotional work, the historical poetics that informed nineteenth-century verse culture will remain obscure...


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