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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

X. Later Poets

§ 3. Thomas Bailey Aldrich

Also born a New Englander, Thomas Bailey Aldrich remained essentially a New Englander all his days. It is true that he never sympathized with the occupations of the New England mind in his time, and that his dedication of his art to beauty is not in the tradition of that “reformatory and didactic” section, and that, on the other hand, New York left its metropolitan imprint on nearly all his work. Yet most of his career belongs to New England, and he himself liked to say that if he was not genuine Boston he was at least Boston-plated; nor is it quite fanciful to assert that his somewhat painful artistic integrity is largely a re-orientation of New England principle and thoroughness. In him, Puritan morality, after passing through Hawthorne, half artist and half moralist, becomes wholly artistic.

Aldrich’s Salem was Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the “Rivermouth” of The Story of a Bad Boy, sleepy, elm-shaded, full of traditions, bordered by the ocean, where he spent many an hour, as he wrote reminiscently, “a little shade wandering along shore, picking up shells, and dreaming of a big ship to come and carry him across the blue water.” Three years of his boyhood he lived in New Orleans, imbibing sights and moods quite other than those of the North Shore boy, travelling, too, up and down the Mississippi and receiving impressions never to be forgotten. A professed and hot-headed Southerner, he returned to Portsmouth to prepare for college, but, on the death of his father, gave up Harvard and went to New York at the age of seventeen, where he entered upon a career as counting-room clerk, contributor to periodicals, and assistant editor of the Home Journal under N. P. Willis. During these early years he published several volumes of poems. The first, The Bells (1855), does little more than indicate his juvenile masters—Chatterton, Keats, Tennyson, Longfellow, Poe, Willis, among whom Tennyson is perhaps the most important in the light of his later work. The fourth, The Ballad of Babie Bell, and Other Poems (1859), marks his first success—Babie Bell itself he wrote when but nineteen. Then came the war, and adventurous war correspondence, but Aldrich was by nature nearly as timeless as Hawthorne, and in 1862 returned to his versecraft by no means transformed. Two or three of his poems, including The Shaw Memorial Ode, show the influence of war idealism, but most of his best work apparently owes nothing to the incitements of those stirring days. To him, indeed, the victory of 1865 meant not Appomatox but marriage, an excellent editorial position in Boston, and the publication of his collected poems in the renowned Blue and Gold series of Ticknor and Fields—an event in Boston, as Bliss Perry remarks, equivalent to election to the French Academy.

In New York he had been associated with the foremost writers of the “school” there—most intimately with Bayard Taylor, the Stoddards, Stedman, William Winter, and Fitz-James O’Brien. These and other members of the group agreed in condemning Boston and respectability in general, and espousing beauty and an enfranchised moral life. Yet their freedom was one of manners ratherthan of morals; even the Bohemians—headed by the satiric Henry Clapp—who foregathered at Pfaff’s below the pavement at 647 Broadway and gave free rein to their impulses, seem to have had the usual impulses of the Hebraizing Anglo-Saxon if not of the Puritan. Aldrich was not a Bohemian of any type; nor was he by temperament a Manhattan journalist, but rather a gently mirthful New Englander, who felt eminently at home in the company of Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, and others whom he met through Fields, and who preferred the “respectable” social standing of a knight of the pen in Boston to the incomplete Bohemianism of New York. For nine years he edited Ticknor and Field’s Every Saturday, while in the next room Fields and William Dean Howells edited The Atlantic Monthly; then, upon Howells’s resignation in 1881, he entered upon a nine-years’ editorship of the Atlantic. Travel was an item of importance in these later years. He wandered through Spain, one of his old castles in the air, and through the rich Orient, where his poetic fancy was always at ease, and he travelled round the world twice. Travel, and reading in foreign literature, added to an attractive cosmopolitanism in his spirit that marks him off from some of his Boston friends. He retained to the end a boyishness of disposition that made him personally winning, together with an intellectual liveliness that earned him a national reputation as a wit and the friendly admiration of no less a man than Mark Twain. He died in Boston in 1907.

Aldrich’s unfailing good fortune was only a fitting reward for a single-hearted devotion to art that is too rare in the history of American literature. His faith as an artist was that, while many fine thoughts have perished through inadequate expression, even a light fancy may be immortal by reason of its “perfect wording.” There is here a suggestion of embellishment that marks the limit of Aldrich’s reach. It was well enough for him to object to “Kiplingese” and to the negligèe dialect of James Whitcomb Riley, but he himself went to the other extreme in his solicitude for beautiful form. Even more than his master Tennyson, he loved fine form so ardently that he cared too little whether the embodied thought was equally distinguished. That he realized his danger is indicated by his verses At the Funeral of a Minor Poet. Some thought the poet’s workmanship, he says,

  • more costly than the thing
  • Moulded or carved, as in those ornaments
  • Found at Mycenæ
  • and yet in defence it may be said that Nature herself works thus, lavishing endless patience “upon a single leaf of grass or a thrush’s song”; or, as he puts it in one of his prose papers, “A little thing may be perfect, but perfection is not a little thing.”

    Many of Aldrich’s poems, however, have substance enough to deserve the embalming power of fine form. Their extraordinary neatness, precision, and delicacy, their fascinating melody, are again and again conjoined with a mood or conception so subtly true or so vividly felt that we discern in them the classic imprint. Latakia, On Lynn Terrace, Resurgam, Sleep, Frost-Work, Invita Minerva, The Flight of the Goddess, Books and Seasons, Memory, Enamoured Architect of Airy Rhyme, Palabras Cariñosas, are poems that we may re-read repeatedly with an ever renewed sense of their beauty. They offer no profound criticism of life; but much great literature does not. Aldrich’s other work—his long narrative poems, of which he regarded Wyndham Towers and Friar Jerome as the best; his Judith of Bethulîa, a dramatic poem; and his occasional poems, such as the Ode on the Unveiling of the Shaw Memorial on Boston Common—is work in kinds in which other American poets have done better. But none of them has done better than he in vers de societè, in sonnets, and very short poems generally; indeed, the quality of Aldrich is the more apparent the shorter the poem, many of his best poems being quatrains. In Songs and Sonnets, a selection from his work published in 1906, the shorter poems have been brought together in a captivating little volume. Aldrich called Herrick “a great little poet”; he merits the title himself.