- Three American Poets: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville
William C. Spengemann's book comprises three introductory essays on Walt Whitman, Dickinson, and Herman Melville. Focusing on verbal craft and thematic concerns, the essays engage closely with the poems of each poet in turn and survey widely his or her overall work. The main aim of the book is to understand the distinctive poetic signature and excellence of each poet.
In terms of method, the book relies heavily on piecemeal quotation and paraphrase to allow the poems to speak for themselves. For the most part, the book attempts to be descriptive, which means that the essays are more taxonomic than argumentative. Context is invoked, but very broadly since, in the author's view, it can but inadequately account for a dead poet's still living appeal to present readers. The book mentions in passing some of the major upheavals of the nineteenth century, but only in order to reveal the modernity of each poet and make the point that all three were, more or less, writing in response to threatened belief. Earlier scholarship and criticism of the poets, dismissed as "prosing" in the preface, is not a feature of this study.
The central essay on Dickinson is, at ninety pages, the longest in the book. It attempts to come to terms with the poet's difficulty by comprehensively mapping out the various features of her verse, both formal and thematic, addressing one after another. These include: the speaker, meter, dashes, capitals, stanzaic arrangement, rhyme, repetition, circularity, God, the sea, nature, animals, the Civil War, and loss. Spengemann is especially strong and thorough on the aspects of form that give rise to Dickinson's ambiguity, such as grammar, sentence structure, and diction. In general, the effort by the author to catalogue meticulously Dickinson's poetry is commendable, not least because he notes many of the poems that apply in each case. This makes the essay a resource for students and teachers alike. Yet while the essay tries to be exhaustive, it can be exhausting for the reader on account of the sheer abundance of references to individual poems. Page 127, to take a not untypical example, cites twenty-four poems. Moreover, citations are often made by number and not by first line, necessitating that the reader have the Franklin [End Page 119] edition by his or her side. The denseness of reference, coupled with the speed of movement from poem to poem, makes the essay difficult to navigate. In this respect, the book is not well served by the omission of an index. What is more, the lack of an overarching argument takes away some urgency and direction from the prose. One thing that this essay does not do is explicate at length entire poems. Instead, it largely refers to parts of poems detached from the cumulative meaning of the whole. Notwithstanding the author's rigorous attention to form, the effect is to reduce autonomous works of art to paraphrasable content.
The essay on Melville, whose work as a poet is even now insufficiently attended to, is perhaps the best in the book. It begins by exploring the relation of his poetry to his prose, and makes a number of helpful comparisons between him and the other two poets under consideration. Spengemann thinks of him as a poet essentially, pointing out that Melville thought of himself "as a poet who wrote prose early in his career in order to support his habit, rather than as a novelist who wrote some verse late in life as a sort of hobby." Extended readings are offered of two poems: "After the Pleasure Party" and "Pebbles." Among Melville's notable characteristics that the author explores are his unusual diction, his thematic conflicts, his allusiveness, and his use of impersonation. Spengemann considers how the poems belong to their age, but also, interestingly, how they prefigure poetic modernism. In the essay on Whitman, he reflects suggestively on Whitman's vacillations between completeness and endlessness, leading to telling comments...