Frederick Goddard Tuckerman (1821–73) wrote poems too weird to be much appreciated in his own milieu, the United States of the nineteenth century, and not weird enough to distinguish the poet for many of his later readers who, failing to squint, saw little more than an accomplished sonneteer. Those contemporaries of Tuckerman’s who might have otherwise enjoyed his work tended to quibble and find his handling of form a bit “rough.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, an admirer of the 1860 edition of Tuckerman’s Poems, a privately printed affair, appears to have had a grasp of the problem. “[I]f you could be read twice,” Hawthorne wrote to Tuckerman, “the book might be a success; but who reads (in a way that deserves to be called reading) so much as once, in these days?” Hawthorne reminds us that holding the attention of the distracted is a social problem that predates the hyperlinked webpage.
Selected Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, edited by Ben Mazer and introduced by Stephen Burt, offers current readers an opportunity to pass over the passed-over poet all over again. They really shouldn’t; this is a crisp edition of some pretty fine verse. Still, a frustrated well-wisher may wish the poet had thought ahead and taken pains to include a few more surface novelties—a few more em dashes, maybe—to push the modern angle and scare up an audience.
But then, as Samuel A. Golden, his biographer of 1966, put it, “Tuckerman never thought of himself as a pioneer; he went his solitary way exploiting the sonnet form, experimenting with diction and imagery to satisfy only himself.” At the age of ten, Tuckerman, already the anti-rebel, authored a memorandum in which he pledged “to try to behave better at table and to try to break myself of being so set and always wanting to have just what I like best all the time.” The adult would go on to become something like a recluse. “Critics sometimes wonder about the reason for this,” wrote the critic Yvor Winters, “but I am sure that the isolation was caused merely by intense boredom—it could not have been otherwise.” This is the humane speculation of an advocate. It frees the serious artist—who has withdrawn from his society—from the image of the neighborhood crank, that loner who keeps snakes and enlivens the folklore of the locals.
Tuckerman’s poems, especially the ones composed in the wake of his wife’s death in 1857, grieve and grieve. They fess up to a powerlessness in the face of a larger, incomprehensible force we might call variously God, Time, Nature. In “Sonnet V,” from the third of his terrific sonnet sequences, the centerpiece of Tuckerman’s achievement, the speaker recalls an anxious trot which he and a little sister took through a “burial place”:
The stones that grudg’d us way, the graveside weed
The ominous wind that turn’d us half about.
Smit by the flying drops, at what a speed
Across the paths, unblest, & unforgiven
We hurried homeward when the day was late
And heard with awe that left no place for doubt
God’s anger mutter in the darken’d heaven.
The stones make up a half-alive hoard, shuffling aside to let interlopers through. (The alliteration of “gr-” emphasizes the reluctance with which nature grindingly gives way to our timid trespasses.) The thunder isn’t mere Gothic effect; it’s the inexplicable muttering of an inexplicable deity—the speaker’s younger self’s sure of it and duly awed.
Tuckerman’s early work can be vague, even clichéd. But where the immature poet saw “pine-trees weep” and “pining woodland ways,” the mature poet of the sonnet sequences notes
Dank fens of cedar; hemlock-branches gray
With tress and trail of mosses wringing-wet;
Beds of the black pitch-pine in dead leaves set
Whose wasted red has wasted to white away.
It’s as if the bout of glaucoma that impaired the younger poet has reversed, and a foggy landscape can now assert its alien and complex self in high definition, augmented by sparkling sound. Here is a “low brook drawling by.” There is a “worm, that touch’d, a twig-like semblance takes.” Tuckerman elected to see out his years among the flora and fauna of his New England; rarely have flora and fauna enjoyed the privilege of such precise attention.
Tuckerman is good about giving some definition to abstract stuff, too. Scandal, which a lesser poet would be tempted to personify, is positively pungent: “bleeding-new, or journal dank,” as a nineteenth-century sensibility would’ve experienced it. In another sonnet, the speaker, with a mind to describe his terrible, roiling grief, pictures the rock in which “the sea/ Has worm’d long caverns, like my tears in me.” In yet another,
Went back & forth upon its bar of shells,
Wash’d & withdrew, with a soft shaling sound,
As though the wet were dry, & joy were grief.
In Tuckerman, a pleasant visit to the beach can turn like a sonnet; a New England home can turn derelict. Civilization, ever provisional, is mostly a matter of front-facing. Light falls on a mantelpiece, on a “vase of violet,” but Tuckerman is privy to what once occupied the same spot: “the forest-heart, hung blackening/ The wolf-bait on the bush beside the spring.”
It’s the curse of a Tuckerman—like the toy monkey who won’t stay buried—to be rediscovered over and over. Critics looking to promote the poet will bring up his run-ins with the likes of Hawthorne or Tennyson. It may be that they want to provide some historical context or, perhaps, that they hope the dandruff of fame will rub off on the wanting figure. Tuckerman has also been enlisted in the service of lost causes. Yvor Winters, who nursed an animus against Romanticism, thought Tuckerman one of the best American poets of the nineteenth century and Tuckerman’s “The Cricket” “the greatest poem in English of the century” and “a greater poem than Sunday Morning.” Burt’s sensible, sober introduction to Mazer’s selection, however, appeals to a sense of perspective. “The most ambitious claims that have been made for Tuckerman,” writes Burt, “(Winters’s in particular) are more against other American poets than for him; he deserves to be remembered for what he did well.” This is probably true, even if one can’t help but secretly enjoy ambitious, if not perversely untenable, claims. Winters’ opinion of Tuckerman writhes within the critical consensus like an insoluble tonic, compelling in its own right.
Tuckerman has always relied on the kindness of second readings. (He has already been reappraised a few times in the last century or so.) Perhaps the best one can hope for Tuckerman is that this new edition recruits a fresh cohort of devotees who will give his poems their next second reading.