Forgotten Writers: Philip White on Frederick Goddard Tuckerman

Philip White:

It’s been too hard for too long to find the poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman.  I’m glad to see a new Selected due out soon.  I hope it has all of the sonnets, since there, for me, is where Tuckerman’s strength lies.  A few are already familiar, tucked between the big names in anthologies of nineteenth century poetry.  There’s the uncannily luminous shading of the natural world in the one beginning “Dank fens of cedar” (1.7.1), for example, and the near-symbolist fraying of syntax under emotional pressure in the one that ends

And, with a swooning of the heart, I think

Where the black shingles slope to meet the boughs

And—shattered on the roof like smallest snows—

The tiny petals of the mountain-ash. (1.10.11-14)

Dozens of sonnets in Tuckerman’s five part sequence are just as evocative.

But Tuckerman, though raised in Brahmin Boston, was a naturalist—a recognized authority on stars and local flowers. He doesn’t, in the sonnets, simply strike easy romantic attitudes toward nature.  Nature for him is ground and material—the scene, subject, and source of human attention.

Each sonnet, like the sequence as a whole, is an act of a credible emotional intelligence driven by the “bitter need” (2.35.11) of grief to interrogate itself, its art, and its world.  Natural pain binds Tuckerman to his surroundings, sharpening his attunement to its allures and its dangers. His desire that “in his thought should be / Some power of wind, some drenching of the sea; / Some drift of stars across a darkling coast” (5.15.5-7) is everywhere manifest and achieved, but he can also find in that absorption a horror equal to that of mortality:

‘Lo! Death is at the doors,’ he [Ecclesiastes] cries, ‘with blows.’

But what to him, unto whose feverish sense

The stars tick audibly, and the wind’s low surge

In the pine, attended, tolls, and throngs, and grows

On the dread ear,–a thunder too profound

For bearing,–a Niagara of sound. (1.17.9-14)

Stars that “tick,” a “low” wind that “tolls,” “throngs,” and “grows”: presence to nature is here presence to temporality itself.  The abyssal sublimity of this ordinary moment approaches Sartrean nausea, that crisis of an even later romanticism.

There are pieties, religious and romantic, to be sure, in the sequence.  But even these, taken in context and read home, seem feelingly weighed and idiosyncratic. In one of his valedictory sonnets, he asks to be thought of as

one, who from his window look’d and saw

His little hemlocks in the morning sun,

And while he gaz’d, into his heart, almost

The peace that passeth understanding, past. (5.15.11-14)

“Almost,” “past”—the poem at once half-offers and half-retracts.  Two rhymes from earlier in the poem teeter together in a hovering not-quite couplet close.  The third person self-address, the standing as if in spectatorship of one’s grief as on one’s moment of “almost” transcendence—and on one’s entire life in poetry—Tuckerman’s layering of qualifications here is not dithering, but scrupulousness, poetic honesty.

Three American Poets: Melville, Tuckerman and Robinson. Ed. Jonathan Bean.  New York: Penguin, 2003.

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