George H. Boker Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although George H. Boker is remembered primarily as a dramatist, he wanted to be remembered as a poet. To this end, he wrote hundreds of poems. The Book of the Dead, written in 1859 and 1860 and published in 1882, is his vindication of his father’s name. After his father, a banker, died, the Girard Bank tried unsuccessfully to sue his estate for more than a half million dollars. The emotion in these 107 poems is sincere, and the events prompting the collection are interesting, but the poems are less well crafted than those in Boker’s other volumes of poetry.

After Boker ceased to write about the problems of his father’s estate, he wrote many poems about the Civil War. Nearly every poem of this type is precisely dated, offering a narrative of a particular battle. Published soon after they were written in periodicals and leaflets, these poems, sentimental yet sincere and richly detailed, inspired patriotism in Northern readers. In 1864, Boker collected his Civil War verse in Poems of the War.

Boker’s third important collection of poetry, Sonnets: A Sequence on Profane Love, consists of poems written between 1857 and 1887, but the work was published posthumously in 1929. Of the 313 sonnets in the sequence, the first 282 seem to be about one woman, the next thirteen about another, and the last eighteen about a third woman. Written in the Italian form, these sonnets are generally well constructed and evoke intense images. The classical allusions are forced, but the descriptions of nature are powerful. Writing in 1927, Edward Sculley Bradley, the eminent critic who served as Boker’s biographer and as editor of the sequence, argued that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the only American to equal Boker as a sonneteer.

George H. Boker Achievements

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Important American literary figures of the nineteenth century respected George H. Boker as both a dramatist and a poet. He received praise from William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He was also elected to the Authors’ Club of New York and the American Philosophical Society. Boker failed, however, to achieve comparable recognition from the American public: Francesca da Rimini and The Betrothal were his only popular plays.

Although fame eluded him, Boker was a master of the romantic tragedy. Romantic tragedy , like classical tragedy, depicts a hero or heroine, usually an admirable aristocrat, who suffers defeat or death because of fate or a fatal character flaw. For example, Leonor, the noble mistress of a king in Leonor de Guzman, dies a victim of circumstances and her own determination to see her son crowned king. In Francesca da Rimini, Paolo and Francesca, both of royal birth, die because of their predestined love for each other and their inability to assert reason over emotion.

The conventions of romantic tragedy are less rigid than those governing classical tragedy; also, in contrast to classical tragedy, romantic tragedy emphasizes the emotions and personalities of the characters rather than the plot. In Francesca da Rimini, the personality of Lanciotto, Francesca’s deformed and savage husband, is more interesting than the play’s inevitable end. Similarly, Leonor’s passionate and forceful personality is more interesting than the palace intrigue.

Other characteristics of romantic tragedy include blank verse and remote, exotic settings. Boker’s two best tragedies, Francesca da Rimini and Leonor de Guzman, are both written in blank verse and take place during the fourteenth century, the former in Italy and the latter in Spain.

William Shakespeare was the finest playwright in the tradition of romantic tragedy. If Boker’s works clearly do not belong in such company, he nevertheless wrote romantic tragedies superior to those of any of his contemporaries. The only other American to approach Boker’s success with romantic drama was Robert Montgomery Bird, an earlier nineteenth century novelist and playwright. Francesca da Rimini marks the end of romantic tragedy as a viable form in the United States and stands as the best play written by an American before the twentieth century.

George H. Boker Bibliography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)


Bradley, Edward Scully. George Henry Boker: Poet and Patriot. 1927. Reprint. New York: B. Blom, 1972. A classic literary biography, examining Boker’s works in conjunction with his life. Bradley concludes that Boker was the victim of nineteenth century provincials who were reluctant to praise anything American and attempts to kindle interest in Boker among early twentieth century readers. Illustrations, bibliography of Boker’s writings, general bibliography, and index.

Evans, Oliver H. George Henry Boker. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A basic biography of Boker, with criticism of his drama and poetry. Includes bibliography and index.

Kitts, Thomas M. The Theatrical Life of George Henry Boker. Vol. 3 in Artists and Issues in the Theatre. New York: P. Lang, 1994. Kitts examines Boker’s life and his dramatic works. Includes bibliography and index.