John G. Neihardt Essay - Critical Essays

John Greenleaf Neihardt


With his pockets filled with poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning, pulling weeds for a living, John G. Niehardt composed his first major work. The Divine Enchantment is a long narrative poem inspired by his readings in Hindu mysticism. It received some favorable reviews, but most of the five hundred copies of the first and only edition ended in his stove as needed fuel. Niehardt later gave these same ideas theoretical expression in Poetic Values (1925). Throughout his life, he sustained a mystical view that all parts of life are an interconnected expression of the life force, and his associations with the Sioux would reveal new facets of this harmonious unity.

A Bundle of Myrrh

Neihardt published thirty-one love lyrics in his first successful book of poetry, A Bundle of Myrrh. In his 1965 prefatory note, he indicated that this volume represented the beginning of a spiritually progressive sequence with its “experiences of groping youth.” The reviewers were enthusiastic, and even though this is apprentice work, there are indications of the powers of the future poet. “Recognition” is the outpouring of a lover who sees lovers of the past in himself and his beloved:

O I have foundAt last the one I lost so long agoIn Thessaly.

Here the poet claims a link to the great poets of antiquity. In many of his works, Neihardt insists on the unity of all time and human experience. With Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, he celebrated a transcendent organic tradition and, like T. S. Eliot, felt that a writer should not write only with his own times in mind, but rather in the light of the whole tradition of literature from Homer forward.

“Let Me Live Out My Years,” the most popular poem in this volume, exemplifies the heroic resolve of Tennyson’s Ulysses:

Let me live out my years in heat of blood!Let me die drunken with the dreamer’s wine!Let me not see this soul-house built of mudGo toppling to the dust—a vacant shrine!

Here is a memorable expression of Neihardt’s love of adventure, of living life on an epic scale, and of not settling for a faded or mechanical life: “Give me high noon,” the poet shouts, displaying the fire and idealism of adolescence.

Man Song

Neihardt’s 1909 volume Man Song contains twenty-seven lyrics that examine various aspects of manhood, including the contemplative life and struggles with the dehumanizing world of labor (“Lonesome in Town” and “Song of the Turbine Wheel”). “A Vision of Woman” is a mature love song, a long meditation in blank verse, more conversational and more philosophical than the earlier love lyrics.

The Stranger at the Gate

After expressing youthful rapture and then the joys of matrimony in his two previous collections of lyrics, Neihardt, in The Stranger at the Gate (1912), celebrates in twenty-one lyrics the mystery of new life at the birth of his first child. Some reviewers felt the poems were unabashedly sentimental, while others found their spiritual insights worthy of careful study.

The long poem The Poet’s Town, included in The Stranger at the Gate, explores the poet’s relationship to society...

(The entire section is 1460 words.)