Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Joseph Rodman Drake (1795–1820)

CONSPICUOUS among the young poets, essayists, and journalists, who made up literary New York in the early part of the century, was Joseph Rodman Drake, the friend of Halleck, and the best beloved perhaps of all that brilliant group. Hardly known to this generation save by ‘The Culprit Fay’ and ‘The American Flag,’ Drake was essentially a true poet and a man of letters. His work was characteristic of his day. He had a certain amount of classical knowledge, a certain eighteenth-century grace and style, yet withal, an instinctive Americanism which flowered out into our first true national literature. The group of writers among whom were found Irving, Halleck, Willis, Dana, Hoffman, Verplanck, Brockden Brown, and a score of others, reflected that age in which they sought their literary models. With the exception of Poe, who belonged to a somewhat later time and whose genius was purely subjective, much of the production of these Americans followed the lines of their English predecessors,—Johnson, Goldsmith, Addison, and Steele. It is only in their deeper moments of thought and feeling that there sounds that note of love of country, of genuine Americanism, which gives their work individuality, and which will keep their memory green.

Drake was born in New York, in August 1795. He was descended from the same family as the great admiral of Elizabethan days, the American branch of which had served their country honorably both in colonial and Revolutionary times. The scenes of his boyhood were the same as those that formed the environment of Irving, memories of which are scattered thick through the literature of the day. New York was still a picturesque, hospitable, rural capital, the center of the present town being miles distant in the country. The best families were all intimately associated in a social life that was cultivated and refined at the same time that it was gay and unconventional; and in this society Drake occupied a place which his lovable qualities and fine talents must have won, even had it been denied him by birth. He was a precocious boy, for whom a career was anticipated by his friends while he was yet a mere child; and when he met Halleck, in his eighteenth year, he had already won some reputation.

The friendship of Drake and Halleck was destined to prove infinitely valuable to both. A discussion between Cooper, Halleck, and Drake, upon the poetic inspiration of American scenery, prompted Drake to write ‘The Culprit Fay’—a poem without any human character. This he completed in three days, and offered it as the argument on his side. The scene of the poem is laid in the Highlands of the Hudson, but Drake added many pictures suggested by memories of Long Island Sound, whose waters he haunted with boat and rod. He apologized for this by saying that the purposes of poetry alone could explain the presence so far up the Hudson of so many salt-water emigrants. ‘The Culprit Fay’ is a creation of pure fancy, full of delicate imagery, and handled with an ethereal lightness of touch. Its exquisite grace, its delicate coloring, its prodigality of charm, explain its immediate popularity and its lasting fame. But the Rip Van Winkle legend is a far more genuine product of fancy.

Drake’s few shorter lyrics throb with genuine poetic feeling, and show the loss sustained by literature in the author’s early death. Best known of these is ‘The American Flag,’ which appeared in the Evening Post as one of a series of jeux d’esprit, the joint productions of Halleck and Drake, who either alternated in the composition of the numbers or wrote them together. The last four lines only of ‘The American Flag’ are Halleck’s. The entire series appeared between March and July, 1819, under the signature of “The Croakers.” Literary New York was mystified as to the authorship of these skits, which hit off the popular fads, follies, and enthusiasms of the day with so easy and graceful a touch. Politics, music, the drama, and domestic life alike furnished inspiration for the numbers; some of whose titles, as ‘A Sketch of a Debate in Tammany’ and ‘The Battery War,’ suggest the local political issues of the present day. There is now in existence a handsome edition of these verses, with the names of the authors of the several pieces appended, and in the case of the joint ownership with the initials D. and H. subscribed.

Drake’s complete poems were not published during his lifetime. Sixteen years after his death by consumption in his twenty-sixth year, his daughter issued a volume dedicated to Halleck, in which were included the best specimens of her father’s work. Many of the lesser known verses indicate his true place as a poet. In the touching poem ‘Abelard to Eloise,’ in the third stanza of ‘The American Flag,’ and in innumerable beautiful lines scattered throughout his work, appears a genuine inspiration.

In his own day, Drake filled a place which his death left forever vacant. His rare and winning personality, his generous friendships, his joy in life, and his courage in the contemplation of his inevitable fate, still appeal to a generation to whom they are but traditions. The exquisite monody in which Halleck celebrated his loss, links their names and decorates their friendship with imperishable garlands.