The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.X. Later Poets
§ 13. Joaquin Miller
Possibly the truest representative of the Far West in the poetry of the nineteenth century is Joaquin Miller (1841–1913). Like Whitman, whom he resembles in more ways than one, Miller won a following first of all in England, ever watchful for signs of the indigenous in American literature and finding them in Miller’s poetry as in his leonine mane, flannel shirt, and high boots. In 1870–71 the “Oregon Byron,” then in London, achieved a popularity as sudden as that of his master. Songs of the Sierras, first published many thousand miles from the Sierras themselves, was widely applauded, and Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, and Rossetti received this “typical American” author as a brother bard. Then America, too, discovered him, and he was soon known from London to San Francisco. Although his debt to Byron, Coleridge, and other romanticists is obvious to any reader, his verse is by no means purely imitative. If his subject matter had been less novel, it is hard to say what his poetry would have been; certainly we may say that it owes at least as much to its novelty of theme as to its essential qualities. The element of imitation, plain as it is, is superficial; his poetry may best be regarded, as Miller regarded it himself, as indirect autobiography, as the extraordinary product of an extraordinary life.
“My cradle,” he wrote in a lively prose account of his life, “was a covered wagon, pointed West.” In this wagon he was born, he tells us, as it was crossing the border line of Indiana and Ohio, in the year 1841, and he was named Cincinnatus Hiner Miller. His family settled on the Middle Western frontier, where they suffered many hardships without becoming dispirited. Fascinated, however, by accounts of the Far West, the family began, in March, 1852, a three-thousand-mile journey to Oregon, lasting more than seven months, beset by cholera, tornadoes, and hostile Indians. Thus as a boy of eleven Joaquin Miller came to know that terrible and alluring westward journey to the ultimate frontier. After only two years on the Oregon farm, he began a roving life of adventure that led him into half a dozen Indian campaigns, and into repeated struggles with mountain flood and prairie fire, desert thirst and buffalo stampede, until he understood the life of that region outwardly, perhaps inwardly too, as nobody else in American literature. In the course of this life bristling with action he found time to write verse constantly, publishing, first, Specimens in 1868; a year later Joaquin et al, whence his rechristening derisively as “Joaquin Miller”; and another year later, at his own expense, in London, Pacific Poems, which had an astonishing reception before being promptly republished as Songs of the Sierras. Of the many volumes that followed, none fulfilled the promise that readers not unnaturally found in the Songs. He wrote dramas, too, and novels, uniformly without success.
Little as Joaquin Miller had in common with the Pre-Raphaelites, his view of poetry—“To me a poem is a picture,” he stated at a Rossetti dinner—was not uncongenial to them. One would expect his work to be concerned with action first of all, but it is not: nearly always the action, even in the ostensibly narrative poems, is subordinate to the description. He loved the West as he loved nothing else, and his best work is a pictorial treatment of it: the West from Central America to Alaska, from the Great Plains to the coast, its grand Sierras,— “white stairs of heaven,”—its canyons, its great rivers, its ocean, —“the great white, braided, bounding sea,”—its chaparral and manzanita, its buffaloes and noble horses, its stars overhead “large as lilies.” Then the figures that peopled this vast setting—gold-miners, Indians, Mexicans, and the romantic adventurers who are commonly his heroes, restless, rebellious, and misunderstood. All these Miller had lived among till he knew them as well as he, at least, could know anything, and in his best work they stand forth vividly. His poems of the Personal life are forgotten, but the power of Yosemite lives. One reads again and again, with renewed pleasure, such poems as Exodus for Oregon and Westward Ho!, which picture the heroic wanderings of the pioneers across the continent, “A mighty nation moving west,” in long wagon trains, with their yoked steers, shouting drivers, crashing whips, “blunt, untutor’d men,” and “brave and silent women.” This westward movement is the theme of Miller’s most impressive poems, from Columbus who sailed “on and on” (a phrase that recurs repeatedly in these poems) to The Last Taschastas, an old chief who is driven, in an open boat, from the Pacific shore, as the Indians of the Atlantic coast had been driven westward centuries earlier. More than anyone else, Joaquin Miller is the poet of our receding frontier.
In narrative poetry he could use to the full his immense energy, which is his chief excellence. He was not a man of ideas; he reflected objectively less perhaps than Byron, and certainly was less fond of introspection, despite his later years as a sort of hermit on the heights above Oakland, where he built the cairn upon which his ashes rest. Primarily he was a man of action in an active society. If there was something of the theatrical about him, it became so habitual, as C. W. Stoddard testifies, as to be natural. Compared with Harte at least, who exploited the West, he is the unfeigned expression of the West. If he had not much culture, he fortunately did not pretend to have, but relied upon the force within him. His “rough, broken gallop,” as a London reviewer described his style, has a charm that draws the reader “on and on,” disregarding the defects of his quality—his lack of proportion, his crudity in music and in taste. In the end, his defects may be fatal, so far as purely literary values are concerned, but he had the good fortune to record the Western scene in poetry as no one else has done, an achievement that will not soon be forgotten. He was so Western as almost to be a caricature of his section, as Emily Dickinson is of New England.