Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The name of Halleck

"The name of Halleck is at least as well established in the poetical world as that of any American," Edgar A. Poe once wrote. At the time, the name "Halleck" needed no further introduction or definition. Today, however, that name has long since faded into obscurity.

Fitz-Greene Halleck was born in Guilford, Connecticut on July 8, 1790. He first received attention as a writer in 1819 (the same year Washington Irving's Sketch-book was published) when he and collaborator Joseph Rodman Drake anonymously published his humorous series of "The Croaker Papers." He continued writing, even while holding jobs at banks and libraries (even working directly for John Jacob Astor for a number of years). He earned the nickname "the American Byron" and his admirers included Charles Dickens, Abraham Lincoln, William Cullen Bryant, and others.

Poe wasn't as convinced. He wrote of Halleck's poetry: "to uncultivated ears... [it is] endurable, but to the practiced versifier it is little less than torture." Of Halleck's then-famous poem Fanny, Poe concluded that "there is really very little about this poem to be admired." Nevertheless, when Halleck's poetic output slowed to a crawl while he focused on other work, Poe lamented that Halleck "has nearly abandoned the Muses, much to the regret of his friends and to the neglect of his reputation."

Yet, Halleck's personal life deserves scrutiny. Even Poe, at the end of his entry on Halleck in The Literati of New York, made sure to point out: "He is unmarried." What an odd conclusion... Did he do the same for reviews of other writers? The answer may be this: Halleck was probably well-known as a homosexual. His relationship with Drake, before Drake's early death at age 25, was exceptionally close. Halleck's memorial poem to Drake noted that "none knew thee but to love thee" and, particularly, "I who woke each morrow to clasp thy hand in mine... shared thy joy and sorrow."

Did it diminish his popularity? Apparently not at all. When Halleck died in 1867, his friends and admirers (led by Bryant) immediately set about memorializing him. In 1877, a large bronze statue was erected in New York's Central Park — as I understand, Halleck remains the only American writer so immortalized. President Rutherford B. Hayes was present for the unveiling — as were some 10,000 others.

Poe also noted Halleck's character: "Personally, he is a man to be admired, respected, but more especially beloved." Certainly, in 2009, none of that seems true of Halleck any more (despite the efforts of some). Personally, I can't help but see irony here: for a poet so richly celebrated in the 19th-century, it turns out that Poe's questioning his talent (going against the grain) made a good point.

Nevertheless, happy birthday, Halleck. I'll conclude with a few of your lines which Poe thought belonged "to a very high order of poetry" and which he considered "gloriously imaginative... The passage is, I think, the noblest to be found in Halleck, and I would be at a loss to discover its parallel in all American poetry." These lines are from "Alnwick Castle":
Wild roses by the Abbey towers
Are gay in their young bud and bloom —
They were born of a race of funeral flowers
That garlanded, in long-gone hours,
A Templar's knightly tomb.

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