A study of Hawthorne's poetry and poetic attitudes encompasses three separate but integrally related areas. First, few people realize that Hawthorne wrote verse, and no other investigation of the nature and significance of the meager surviving body of this poetry has yet been undertaken. But Hawthorne's failure to create verse of enduring quality is intimately connected with the second part of the study, Hawthorne's own views of 19th century poetry and the motives surrounding his deliberate rejection of poetry as his dominant creative mode. And when his contemporaries glowingly label him as a "poet," despite his strong refusal to write much verse, understanding what those contemporaries mean by the term and to what extent Hawthorne the prose artist conformed to that definition becomes an important third section of the study. Taken as a whole, these different but coherent areas offer biographical as well as literary historical value. They also help illuminate a neglected corner of Hawthorne's early creative efforts. And they provide glimpses into a selected area of the form-content development of a respected literary artist.
As a verse poet, Hawthorne ranges from embarrassingly poor to yawningly mediocre. Responding strongly to the Romantic interest in the subjective imagination, the "atmospheric" possibilities of the Gothic elements of death, horror, and the unusual, the sentimental and therapeutic qualities of nature, and the exultation over wild, unregulated nature, Hawthorne, nevertheless, dampens the potential effect of these lively qualities by forcing all content into a needlessly restricted range of verse forms, using couplets most frequently. And while his interest in the didactic potential of poetry reflects a similar concern in his contemporaries' verse, Hawthorne's didactic poetry preaches rather than suggests, frequently moving from a powerfully "atmospheric" and emotional tone in the poem's body to a church pew lesson ending that does not grow organically out of the verse itself. Further, besides this fundamental inability to couple effective form with content, making him a type of "atmospheric formalist," Hawthorne often contents himself with ineffective stock poetic devices like overused foreshortening of words, a formalized and stilted vocabulary, and personification of abstractions. Frequent incomplete or inappropriate rhymes and contradictions in meaning within poems reinforce this poor showing of the verse. Most disappointing, however, is the superficiality of the poetry. On the whole, the poems are simplistic, lack mature subtlety, irony, ambiguity, multi-level interpretation, and are seldom written with admirable poetic technique or control. An occasional poem, of course, like the devotional "Star of Calvary," organically links the right content with the right form, producing a verse that may be typically mediocre in meaning but which shows real potential in its facility with the language.
On the other hand, the poems serve a useful purpose in highlighting a more responsive, optimistic side of Hawthorne's personality, a side easily obscured by the brooding prose. His unflinchingly traditional Christian orthodoxy in the poems is significant in view of the prose stories that display a vast amount of complex ambiguity toward the Puritan culture. And the poems contain early expressions of significant themes that were to find fuller and more mature development in the prose. The circular journey motif, Hawthorne's disgust over efforts of men to manipulate each other, the role of moonlight as the symbolic fusion of the actual and the imaginary, a disenchantment with attempts at external reform or purely material progress without changing "that inward sphere," and an unusual juxtaposition of life with death, good with evil, find skeleton development in the poetry before being filled out into complex maturity in the prose.
Hawthorne's own inability to write significant verse did not imbue him with respect for contemporary poets, however. Throughout his adult life, he fairly consistently denied that he enjoyed modern verse, scorned contemporary poetry, and rather intolerantly failed to see the importance of 19th century verse as a creative form. His rejection of and scoffing attitude toward contemporary poetry was not rooted in jealous naivete. He had read extensively both older and contemporary English and American verse. Perhaps he recognized his lack of poetic potential and, knowing poetic glory would elude him, left the arena; perhaps he had a "musical insensibility" as some critics suggest. More likely, however, is that his decision to reject poetry arose out of his belief that contemporary verse was antithetical to what he felt great art should accomplish. Hawthorne's literary theory insisted that art is an. idealization of reality and serves a vital moral purpose. The artist creates a new reality, in fact, in some ways better than the "old" reality, and helps the reader grasp the universals he may miss in the glaring reality of daily life. Such a view of art demanded a form that provided for intricate, detailed explorations into men's characters and world. A capacious, flexible form that could completely trace the symbolic relationship of outer with inner reality was needed. Contemporary poetry, Hawthorne felt, failed to meet these requirements. The depths of the mind and heart could not be probed with the lilt and jingle of measured feet. The "airiness," fancy, and confessional aspects of Romantic poetry made it too insubstantial for moral weight, he thought, and the popular, brief lyric poem was simply too circumscribed to provide a roomy medium with which to explore men and a complicated reality. And, Hawthorne insisted, men like Browning, with their obscure measures, lacked the clarity to speak to the present nations of men. Given such a view, however unjust it is, Hawthorne moved single-mindedly and inevitably into a prose form he could tolerate while rejecting in the process a medium he interpreted as incapable of supporting the "sobriety of earnest utterance." Despite his denunciations, however, contemporary critics, novelists, poets, friends, and publishers frequently called Hawthorne a "Poet." Hawthorne wrote his mature works in an age that attributed great analytical and intuitive powers to "The Poet," described by men like Carlyle, Emerson, and Goethe as a person who sees below external data and wrests the inner meaning and ultimate harmony out of a confusing, often contradictory outer nature. He is a "Deep-seer," a man who turns the external world to clear glass by using imaginative language, whether it be prose or verse. Hawthorne's pervasive habit of using external sense data, objects, physical emblems, and symbols to suggest deeper abstract principles or moral meanings qualifies him him for this dominantly philosophical poet title so frequently attributed to him. It is dangerous, however, to assume that this philosophical attribution implies that Hawthorne's prose language also exhibited all the basic qualities of 19th century Romantic verse. Hawthorne frequently prefers a stilted or formal word of Latin derivation over an equally effective simpler or more concrete word. He often chooses to write a wordy, "pleonastic" sentence over a concise one. And he tends to use an involved and complex sentence structure rather than an equally adequate simpler and more direct formation. Any future, more definitive study of the poetic language of Hawthorne's prose might profitably consider these suggested limitations, based on verse language preferences of Hawthorne's age.
Delmer I. Davis
Thomas A. Little
Helen F. Little
Master of Arts (MA)
Year Degree Awarded
Date (Title Page)
Library of Congress/MESH Subject Headings
Hawthorne; Nathaniel; 1804-1864--Criticism and interpretation.
Loma Linda University Libraries
This title appears here courtesy of the author, who has granted Loma Linda University a limited, non-exclusive right to make this publication available to the public. The author retains all other copyrights.
Evans, David L., ""Measured Feet and Jingling Lines" : The Poetry and Poetic Attitudes of Nathaniel Hawthorne" (1972). Loma Linda University Electronic Theses, Dissertations & Projects. 1056.
Loma Linda University Electronic Theses and Dissertations
Loma Linda University. Del E. Webb Memorial Library. University Archives