1856 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Fitz-Greene Halleck

George and Evert Duyckinck, in Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856; 1875) 1:932-34.



FITZ-GREENE HALLECK was born at Guilford, in Connecticut, July 8, 1790. He early wrote verses. One of his effusions — it is said there were some earlier — was published in a New Haven paper, in 1809, when he was nineteen. At the age of twenty-one, in 1811, he came to New York, and entered the banking-house of Jacob Barker, with which he was associated for many years, subsequently performing the duties of a book-keeper in the private office of John Jacob Astor. Not long after the decease of that eminent millionaire, he retired to his birth-place, where he has since resided.

It is said that Halleck's second appearance in print was in the columns of Holt's Columbian, New York, where, in 1813, a poem appeared, with the signature of "A Connecticut Farmer's Boy," which the editor introduced with the remark, that he did not credit that authorship — the verses were too good to be original!" At this time too, Halleck belonged to "Swartwout's gallant corps, the Iron Grays," as he afterwards wrote in Fanny, and stimulated their patriotism by a glowing Ode.

THE IRON GRAYS.
We twine the wreath of honor
Around the warrior's brow
Who, at his country's altar, breathes
The life-devoting vow,
And shall we to the Iron Grays
The meed of praise deny,
Who freely swore, in danger's day,
For their native land to die.
For o'er our bleeding country
Ne'er lowered a darker storm,
Than bade them round their gallant chief,
The iron phalanx form.
When first their banner waved in air,
Invasion's bands were nigh,
And the battle-drum beat long and loud,
And the torch of war blazed high!

Though still bright gleam their bayonets,
Unstained with hostile gore,
Far distant yet is England's host,
Unheard her cannon's roar.
Yet not in vain they flew to arms;
It made the foeman know
That many a gallant heart must bleed
Ere freedom's star be low.
Guards of a nation's destiny!
High is that nation's claim,
For not unknown your spirit proud,
Nor your daring chieftain's name.
'Tis yours to shield the dearest ties
That bind to life the heart,
That mingle with the earliest breath,
And with our last depart.
The angel smile of beauty
What heart, but bounds to feel?
Her fingers buckled on the belt,
That sheathes your gleaming steel;
And if the soldiers honoured death
in battle be your doom,
Her tears shall bid the flowers be green
That blossom round your tomb.

Tread on the path of duty,
Band of the patriot brave,
Prepared to rush, at honor's call,
"To glory or the grave."
Nor bid your flag again be furled
Till proud its eagles soar,
Till the battle-drum has ceased to beat,
And the war-torch burns no more.

Halleck, however, gained his first celebrity in literature as a town wit, one of the producers, in connexion with his friend Drake, of the poetical squibs which appeared in the columns of the Evening Post in 1819, with the signature "Croaker & Co.," when they quizzed Cobbett, Dr. Mitchill, the politicians of Tammany, the editors, aldermen, and small theatrical characters of the day, in poetical epistles to Edmund Simpson, Esq., manager of the theatre, and other vehicles of simple fun and well aimed satire. If these had nothing more to bring them into notice than their local allusion, they would have been forgotten, as hundreds of series of the kind have been; but their keen wit and finely moulded poetical phraseology have preserved them; and were it not for some delicacy in the avowed authorship and publication of verses filled with personalities, they would be an indispensable part of the volume which contains the collection of the poet's writings. As it is, several specimens of them are there, as of the simply poetical effusions — The World is Bright before Thee, There is an Evening Twilight of the Heart; and of the lighter pieces, Domestic Peace. The rest will undoubtedly be in request, and be some day accompanied by learned prose annotations from civic history.

As we have mentioned a number of these poems usually assigned to Drake as their author, we may add the titles of some of the others understood to be from the pen of Halleck. Among them are The Forum, a picture of a literary debating society, to which the public were admitted, which had for its supporters some of the political celebrities of the city; To Simon —, a kick at a fashionable folly which reigns among the sons and daughters of the higher order, in the renowned city of Gotham, at this present writing; Simon being a black caterer of fashionable entertainments—

Prince of pastry cooks,
Oysters and ham, and cold neat's tongue,
Pupil of Mitchill's cookery books,
And bosom friend of old and young;

several highly humorous epistles To Edmund Simpson, Esq., Manager of the Theatre, in one of which he advises that stage director, if he would secure a profitable season, to disband his old company and employ the political actors at Albany, from the boards of the state legislature.

Halleck's lines To Twilight, one of his earliest poems, appeared in the Evening Post of October, 1818. The next year, when the Croakers had made a reputation for themselves, the little poem was reprinted by the editor Coleman, with the following introduction: — "We republish the following beautiful lines from our own files of October last, for the three following reasons: first, because they deserve it for their intrinsic merit; they are the inspirations of poetry itself. Second, because they were injured in their first publication by a typographical error: and lastly, because they show that our correspondent Croaker (whose we have just discovered they are) no less resembles P. Pindar in his elegiac than in his humor and satiric vein."

Several of the Croakers appeared in The National Advocate published by Noah, and there are several longer pieces in the author's volume, as The Recorder, and the lines To Walter Bowne, which, though not numbered with the Croakers, have their general characteristics.

Fanny, which grew out of the success of the Croakers, was published in 1819. It is a satirical squib in Don Juan measure, at the fashionable literary and political enthusiasms of the day. The story which is the vehicle for this pleasantry, is simply the emergence of a belle from low birth and fortune to an elysium of fashionable prosperity, when the bubble bursts in bankruptcy. Like everything of the kind, which has the good fortune to be both personal and poetic, it made its hit. It owed its permanent success, of course, to its felicitous execution, in the happiest of musical verses. The edition was soon exhausted; it was not reprinted, and copies were circulated, fairly copied out in manuscript, though a stray copy now and then, from a bookseller, who re-published the poem in Glasgow, helped to keep alive the tradition of its humor. The authorship was for a long while unacknowledged. In 1839 it was published by the Harpers, in a volume, with a few poems of similar character, collected by the author, and is now included in the standard edition of his writings.

In 1822 Halleck visited England and the Continent, of which tour we have a reminiscence in the poet's Alnwick Castle.

In 1825, and subsequently, he was a contributor to Bryant's periodicals, the New York Review, and U. S. Review, where his Marco Bozzaris, and Burns first appeared. A collection of these and other poems was published in a volume in 1827. They were reprinted, in other editions, by the Harpers; the Appletons, with illustrations by Weir, in 1847; and by Redfield, with additions to the poem Connecticut, in 1852.

The characteristic of Halleck's poetry is its music; its perfection of versification, whether embalming a trifle of the hour or expressing a vigorous manly eloquence, a true lyric fire and healthy sentiment. Though of an old school of English literature, and fastidiously cultivated with a thorough knowledge of the author's predecessors, the poetry of Halleck is strictly original. In some of his poems he appears to have been led by dislike to even the suspicion of sentimentality, to fasten a ludicrous termination to a serious emotion; but this is more dangerous to his imitators than injurious to his own powers. In Connecticut, which appears to be indebted to a happy idea struck out by Brainard, in his New Year's verse on the same theme, his subtle humor has happily blended the two qualities. For separate examples the reader may consult his Field of the Grounded Arms, his Burns, and his Fanny.