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Sandburg, Carl 1878–1967
Sandburg was a poet, biographer, novelist, children's author, and folklorist who is often said to have captured the essence of America in his works. He recorded and celebrated the history of the American people in such free-verse poems as "Chicago" and The People, Yes, works which reflect his respect and hope for the common man. Sandburg's own background provided a basis for his strong populist feeling. The son of illiterate immigrant parents, he traveled through the Midwest as a self-styled hobo, working a variety of odd jobs before becoming an organizer for the Socialist party and a Chicago newspaperman. Early in his career Sandburg began to accumulate material on Abraham Lincoln, the result of which was an exhaustive six-volume biography for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939. Sandburg's second Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 1951 for his Collected Poems. In his poetry Sandburg often presented his images in the language of America, using colloquial and idiomatic lines and phrases which are both colorful and eloquent. Although his poetry has been criticized as being "subliterary," its readers have recognized themselves and their land in it. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
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Carl Sandburg has been around a long time. In that period, during which modern art has celebrated some of its greatest triumphs, he has accumulated a mass of poems which have now been published as a single volume [Complete Poems]….
Search as we will among them we must say at once that technically the poems reveal no initiative whatever other than their formlessness; there is no motivating spirit held in the front of the mind to control them. And without a theory, as Pasteur once said, to unify it, a man's life becomes little more than an aimless series of random and repetitious gestures. In the poem a rebellion against older forms means nothing unless, finally, we have a new form to substitute for that which has become empty from the exhaustion of its means. There never has been any positive value in the form or lack of form known as free verse into which Sandburg's verse is cast.
That drive for new form seemed to be lacking in Sandburg. (p. 272)
There are those all too ready to take the opportunity of Sandburg's comparative failure to reject the whole that he represents—which at least ran synchronously with the upsurge of the modern impetus—ready at any excuse to reject the whole new configuration at sight of any flaw…. Sandburg may not have known what he was doing, it may never have entered his mind that there was anything significant to do with the structure of the verse itself, but the best of him was touched with fire.
Carl Sandburg petered out as a poet ten years ago. I imagine he wanted it to be that way. His poems themselves said what they had to say, piling up, then just went out, like a light. He had no answers, he didn't seek any. Without any attempt at the solace which the limitations of art (as with a Baudelaire) might bring, the formlessness of his literary figures was the very formlessness of the materials with which he worked. That was his truth. That was what he wanted truthfully to make plain, that was his compulsion. That form he could accept but at a terrible cost: failure deliberately invited, a gradual inevitable slackening off to ultimate defeat.
"Chicago," his first brilliantly successful poem, should have been his last. Between the writing of that and "Number Man" (for the ghost of Johann Sebastian Bach), one of his latest, occurs the mass of his work. It is that bulk that makes up the book with which we are dealing, pushing it on our attention. The devotion he has spent on it, the painstaking and voluminous notes he has gathered, the indignation it has caused him—tripped him up. He refused to lie, or was incapable of taking his eyes away from what he saw. Nor could he be neat, or choosy, or selective about it. It overwhelmed him. He couldn't get over it. He let it dictate its own terms, he was willing to go under with it. He must have looked occasionally at some pleasant guys and the way they could train the words to stand on tubs and jump through hoops. He kept wandering off behind the scenes to talk with the hands who set up the props. (pp. 273-74)
For twenty years he kept this up with diminishing force, book after book, Chicago Poems, 1916, Cornhuskers, 1918, Smoke and Steel, 1920, Slabs of the Sunburnt West, 1922, Good Morning America, 1928, and The People, Yes, 1936. In Cornhuskers occurs a different sort of poem from his usual wont, it was called "Ashurnatsirpal III" (From Babylonian tablet, 4000 years before Christ) and shows a more indirect approach to the theme from that which Sandburg usually exploited. Had he followed that lead the man's natural love of violence, so wonderfully exhibited at the start of his career in the poem "Chicago," might have carried him on to great distinction. But the theme remains neglected.
He seems to have lost hope finally at directly invoking the imagination by aid of poetic invention in favor of a single image, Abraham Lincoln, which he exploited in prose. That he used indirectly, as an image; he meant it to carry the whole burden of what he had been saying directly in his human catalogues. (pp. 274-75)
To him it is an image, a magnificently effective image. But he couldn't hold the figure he'd begun, he couldn't hold it off. He fell into the facts themselves. He couldn't limit himself to being a mere poet, the facts were too overpowering, he himself was swept off his feet by their flood.
There is a steady diminution of the poetic charge in his verses from about the period of Cornhuskers to The People, Yes. He seems to have lost the taste for it. (pp. 275-76)
Sandburg, convinced that the official democracy he was witnessing was rotten, abandoned his art to expose it. He suffered the inevitable results. He knew what he was doing. To have persisted as a pure poet would have maimed what to him was the outstanding thing: the report of the people, the basis of all art and of everything that is alive with regenerative power.
He didn't see that the terms the people use are so often the very thing that defeats them. It is by his invention of new terms that the artist uniquely serves. The process is much more complex than Sandburg realizes. It is not, as between the mob and supremely sensitive man, a direct process though its incentives are no less simple for that. The most inspired artist is moved by SIMPLE designs dormant in the very "people" of which Sandburg speaks. It doesn't matter how compelled to distortion their inventions may appear on the canvas or the page, in fact it is the very character of distortion which has shaped their truth. (p. 276)
In this massive book covering a period of close to forty years the poems show no development of the thought, in the technical handling of the material, in the knowledge of the forms, the art of treating the line. The same manner of using the words, of presenting the image is followed in the first poem as in the last. All that can be said is that a horde walks steadily, unhurriedly through its pages, following without affection one behind the other.
It is a monstrous kind of show. It isn't even a pageant, it might be a pilgrimage. It comes off best as a pilgrimage, but look at Chaucer's varied art. That is all the unchanging meaning to be got, a massive pilgrimage: good and bad, male and female, the sheer weight of numbers going in one direction (the same as the sun) they seem unable to turn right or left and never back. Its unchanging burden, unchangeable it seems as we read, is the failure to find happiness. The theme of happiness in Sandburg is always something remembered and lost. Even the hope for it is lost. There is only a pressing forward (without understanding), pressing forward, an unrelenting drive, oxlike you might almost call it. That is the great image Sandburg draws.
It is hopeful, it is massive, it is impressive—but not for itself. Fatigue is the outstanding phenomenon as it affects the characters, they walk as if doped. (pp. 277-78)
Nowhere among the poems will you find anything that you can speak of as a recurrence: nowhere a rhyme, a stated line, a recognizable stanza, it is one long flight. This could not be different. It is the very formlessness of the material, its failure to affirm anything formal, the drift of aimless life through the six hundred and seventy-six pages that is the form. It had to be shapeless to affirm what was being said: persistence in change. (p. 278)
William Carlos Williams, "Carl Sandburg's 'Complete Poems'" (originally published in Poetry, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 6, September, 1951), in his Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (copyright 1951, by William Carlos Williams; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), Random House, 1954, pp. 272-79.
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In Honey and Salt over two hundred eighty-five color references occur, either by overt naming or by suggestion (in sixty-five pages of the Complete Poems)….
[Sandburg] had a vivid sense of color which he relied on all his life. His first book, Chicago Poems (1916), although not quite so "colorful" as Honey and Salt, nevertheless made use of hue and shade over two hundred fifty times. In this first book reds are prominent, for there is a great deal of brawling and heartiness as well as a sense of social injustice here (red being a color of violence)….
Forty-seven years later, his life drawing to a close, Sandburg is still painting his images in varied and brilliant, often dazzling colors. (p. 94)
The first poem of Chicago Poems records details of a brawny metropolis; the last poem in Honey and Salt, over seven hundred fifty pages later, celebrates the evolutionary rise and triumph of the Family of Man. Between are hundreds of poems, long and short, made of particulars touched. smelled, tasted, heard, and above all seen, that add up to a holistic picture of life itself. This impressionistic collection emphasizes immediate objects and action without analytical attention or intellectual speculation. It reminds one of the painters of the last third of the nineteenth century (Monet, for example) whose short brush strokes of bright colors in close proximity put the burden of mixing on the mind and psychological reaction of the beholder. Honey and Salt's seventy-six poems focus on love and alienation (and evanescence), compassion and indifference, identity and the impersonality of number, but Sandburg's steady theme is empirical: the vanity of trying to attain abstract definitions of the big concepts. Day-by-day living and observing yield what answers are available. No one poem settles the matter; all the poems add up to the all-important sum total. His many metaphors for love, for example, are to be found in the unexpected little quotidian experiences. These seemingly inconsequential sights and sounds, to return to the Impressionists, become in juxtaposition the differentiated whole. (pp. 94-5)
In view of his clear loyalty to the United States, and particularly his continuing interest in Lincoln, the American common man, and the historic growth of the country (Remembrance Rock provides a sweeping panorama), it is a startling coincidence that the poet's vision of this land as recorded in Honey and Salt is dominated by red, white, and blue. (p. 102)
Perhaps if Sandburg had turned his attention away from tints and shades toward (for old men) the normative abstractions of form, line, and structure, he would have been able to achieve greater profundity and to arouse more widespread critical interest, but he probably would have lost his readership. The direct, simple, mainly primary coloring of his images may have been related to his lack of interest in the intricacies of philosophic speculation that attracted, for example, Frost, Stevens, and Eliot in their last works. He appeared rather to find satisfaction in accurately recording the outward appearance of what he saw in his kaleidoscopic universe.
In part, then, his continued youthful eye for color can be attributed to his determined purpose to direct his poems toward the "simple people," as he himself called the common folk of America…. As Sandburg grew old, his experience of the world naturally affected his intellectual views. But his hope for mankind was irrepressible in the face of social breakdown or even holocaust, and he tempered what he was seeing with the constant idealism we generally attribute to youth not yet made cautious by a tragic view. Sandburg, the old man, transcended tragedy. He lifted up his eyes and was refreshed by nature both around him and in his memories of Illinois. Hence, his poems were colorful to the very end. His capacity for enjoying and sharing with his readers the scenes he loved was part of the reason his lines retained the colors that are said to appeal to the young. His never-discarded esteem for the man of the masses restrained him from extended philosophical profundity even in his last book. This caused him to create descriptions of a bright environment that such a man would read with appreciation. Those pictures would at the same time be recognizable to the ordinary reader and also open up his experience of the universe through the insights of a poet who loved him and spoke his language. (pp. 102-03)
Richard H. Crowder, "Sandburg's Chromatic Vision in 'Honey and Salt'," in The Vision of This Land: Studies of Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg, edited by John E. Hallwas and Dennis J. Reader (copyright © 1976 by Western Illinois University), Western Illinois University, 1976, pp. 92-104.
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Sandburg's life and times can be found in his poetry, biography and history. He struck out, most notably, in his one novel, Remembrance Rock. Though parts of it have an epic quality, it was written during and after the Second World War, and suffered from patriotism and giantism.
Where does Sandburg stand in American letters? Among the establishment literary personages, about where they place John Steinbeck, which is not very high. Yet readers, young and old, keep discovering and rediscovering both of them. I remember hearing Steinbeck, who had already received his Nobel Prize in Literature, say at Sandburg's 85th birthday party: "All of us could have learned from you and thank God some of us have."
His verse helped to free poetry from the old strictures at the same time that artists and sculptors and novelists were breaking their lines. He opened up new regions of the country to literature; and he dignified the most ordinary people and subjects. He was aware of the poetry of many countries. Ezra Pound wanted to turn him into an Imagist, but he refused to be put into that or any other mold. He admired the Japanese Haiku, and experimented with that form in "Fog" and other poems. But like another newspaperman-poet, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg was writing of the open road and songs of himself….
Sandburg was an original who broke out of the narrow life of the Middle West, along the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy tracks, where his poor Swedish immigrant father had swung a hammer and sledge at the railway blacksmith shop. He also broke out of the narrow column-rule measure of journalism into the wider fields of creative writing. Long ago Sandburg heard the night whistles of the CB&Q, summoning him on the road to Chicago and then across the America that he put into many idealistic words. (p. 26)
Herbert Mitgang, "Carl Sandburg," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 178, No. 2, January 14, 1978, pp. 24-6.
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Nobody in America could have written [the lines of The People, Yes] but Carl Sandburg. They have the thumbprint of his personality, his ear for a good yarn, his sense of the revealing detail, his empathy with folk wisdom, his unique ability to transform the raw materials of common speech into a lyricism with a swing and rhythm recognizably his own. Other poets may from time to time touch on his materials, but their touch is inevitably different from Sandburg's. (p. 392)
The People, Yes [displays] Sandburg's zest for language—the language, as he called it, of "the people," the seemingly endless scroll on which he recorded their talk, their sayings, their self-contradictory wisdom, their resilience, the barbed solace of their wit…. "Fine words butter no parsnips," he says—perhaps he quotes a woman trying to feed a family of seven on a railroad blacksmith's pay, what his Swedish mother might have said. "Moonlight dries no mittens." But let us not too quickly conclude that Sandburg, because he values parsnips and dry mittens, therefore despises moonlight, or what moonlight—traditionally anciently, the emblem of imagination—can mean to "the people," the very sort of people whose apothegms he so delighted in making into lines of poetry. (p. 393)
[Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories] are a minor classic, a successful attempt to make for American children fairy tales without the supernatural, to give children stories conceived in pure delight. Sandburg, who wrote them for his own daughters, made up several dozen tales that are cadenzas upon the child's pleasure in names, in the sounds of words, in the setting loose of fantasy in a village as wide as the sight in a child's eye. Some of these tales have, or may be interpreted to have, something in them akin to a moral, but none is much burdened thereby. A pedant might extrude a lesson about the badness of being a braggart from the story of "How Bozo the Button Buster Busted All His Buttons when a Mouse Came," or make a preachment about uncontrolled ambition from the tale of "Slipfoot and How He Nearly Always Never Gets What He Goes After," but most readers of whatever age will prefer to take Sandburg's fables for the pleasure that is in them and let other values—I don't say higher values—follow as they may. I choose these examples from the second of Sandburg's Rootabaga volumes, for in it he did not so often lapse into the sentimentality which mars the whimsy of the first.
Rootabaga Stories are reminiscent in their plot structures of George Macdonald's fairy tales, sometimes of Kipling's Just So Stories, but everywhere in Sandburg the roots of his tales in literary and older folklore traditions have been pulled up and replanted in native soil. Their formulaic plots, their repetitions and increments, the way things happen in threes may suggest old Irish fairy stories or the Hausmärchen of the Brothers Grimm. Rootabaga Stories offer a child enjoyment of patterns of language and of action as old as mankind, set, not in a peasant's cottage in a frightening forest in a foreign country, nor in a king's castle behind a moat menaced by wicked enchanters or witches, but in a village of easy-going and likeable characters as friendly and engaging as Hatrack the Horse or the Potato-Faced Blind Man. The tales they tell are not like Jack the Giant Killer, or Cinderella. There are no boy-eating ogres, no cruel stepmothers in Rootabaga Country. There, children do not need the solace of imagined triumphs over their surrogate parents, as in those European folk-tale dreams. No, Sandburg's fables offer the child a sunny, cheerful world of pure pleasure, with few shadows and no menacing monsters. In the spirit of oldtime American self-reliance, Rootabaga people come to mischance only through their own flaws: Slipfoot's greed, the Button Buster's pride, the folly of the wheelbarrowmen and plasterers who keep building a tower to the moon to stop the moon moving. But no one is ever killed, or eaten, or even hurt in this country, where imagination triumphs doing the work done by magic in tales from other lands and times. (pp. 395-96)
["Chicago"], perhaps overly famous, has become a sort of albatross to Sandburg's reputation. He was capable of many other notes than "Stormy, husky, brawling," but they may be drowned out in the memories of everyone who has read "Chicago." One such note is joyousness in the most ordinary life, in sights other poets had not noticed, sounds made by people other poets hadn't listened to…. (pp. 396-97)
["The Shovel Man" and "Fish Crier"] are but two from Sandburg's scores of poems that describe and celebrate the infinite variety of American life. The first fact one confronts in reading Sandburg is his inclusiveness, his liberality. Although many of his poems are brief—I believe the best ones to be so—the sensibility of the poet embodies what Whitman once called "acceptation." Sandburg excludes nothing, or at any rate very little, of his own experience from his poetry. If what he sees on a crowded city street on a wintry day includes a fish peddlar, his poem will tell us this, and will tell us what feelings the sight of that peddlar evokes in him.
Sandburg touches many emotions as well as observing facts and faces. Alongside his celebrations of the various fulfilments of human life are his moments of poignance, of longing, as in "Gone."… (pp. 397-98)
So much has been said about Sandburg's vitality and his celebration of life that his ability to see sharply the darker side of life—its doubts, its defeats, its despairs—is often overlooked. Yet these too are among the emotions his poems keenly define…. (p. 398)
It is often said that Whiman is Sandburg's model, even that Sandburg is Whitman's successor. Surely he learned from Whitman the possibilities of a long prose-rhythmed strophe. And just as surely he learned even more from the Bible, where Whitman learned it, of the uses of incremental repetition. But anyone leafing through Sandburg's Collected Poems may be surprised at how often he used short lines, a different swing altogether from Whitman's lyrical legato. True, Whitman preceded him in glorifying the details of the common life; but I agree with Professor Gay Wilson Allen that Sandburg's divergences from Whitman are greater than his resemblances. Chief of these divergences is in these poets' attitude toward death. Sandburg has little of Whitman's welcoming of death as the unifier and completion of life; for Sandburg death is merely life's end, not its fulfilment. Death is central to Whitman's work, the deep dark river that flows through all of his lines, while Sandburg is a poet of living. His vision of life does not include tragedy.
Impatient of theory, Sandburg in the preface to his Collected Poems tells us that "the more rhyme there is in poetry the more danger of its tricking the writer into something other than the urge [he had] in the beginning." As Mark Van Doren justly said of him, "He feels free only when he thinks he has escaped from form. He seems to have known nothing about the freedom that flows from mastery of form." Yet at his best Sandburg contrived his own form—without apparently being aware of it as form at all. He regarded his free verse as entirely free. The question his readers ultimately have to face, because the experience of reading more than a few anthology pieces by any poet raises it, is whether the structures as well as the language Carl Sandburg devised to take the place of those he spurned have the look and the feel of necessity. As the pioneers of the prairies knew, it takes more than sod to build sod houses. There must be a rudimentary architecture to hold up the roof, keep the doors and windows hung squarely on their sills, let the smoke go up the chimney. This principle is equally true of those other indigenous structures, the skyscrapers, which Sandburg was among the first to praise in his poems. (pp. 401-02)
Sandburg is concerned with the effects and materials of his poetry but not with creating those effects from new modes of perception. He would … "achieve a synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits,"—or of moonlight and mittens—simply by juxtaposing the one with the other. And yet we know that his practice is a little more uncasual than his protestations. His best poems, and the best passages in his longer, uneven poems, are shaped with a kind of caring of his own.
The case against Sandburg was made by William Carlos Williams, reviewing the Collected Poems in Poetry [see excerpt above]. (p. 403)
[Although] many of his strictures are true, I think he undervalues Sandburg, undervalues him for not doing what he himself was doing: searching for a language, making it new, instead of finding a language ready-made as in The People, Yes. In the first section of this long poem Sandburg offers us a myth which the rest of the work will embody. The myth is that of the Tower of Babel. It's not that Sandburg was a naïf who didn't know what he was doing, or what he wasn't doing. His effects are very different from those of Williams, for instance, but it doesn't follow that they were not deliberate. Sandburg sets out to capture Babel, the very diction of the tongue-wagging, loquacious, self-defining entity he imagined as "the people." He did not, like Williams, or like Whitman before him, construct a central identity, a "single separate person" who is at the same time a corporate sensibility. No, his crowd of many voices … offer their contradictory proverbs, their yarns, their japes, and their quizzical observations. Sandburg puts in a number of characters too, quickly sketched as they drive bargains, get gypped, laugh at themselves, or shoot themselves in despair. The effect is not one of plan or structure, not one of experience understood through intellectual or analytical processes; nor is it an effect in which there is the felt coherence of an artistic unity. It's a sprawl, a packed jumble of human activity, of talk in a sometimes tedious but often interesting chaos. It is a celebration of human survival, of the vitality of the people whose language it uses. The People, Yes is Sandburg's lengthy charm against adversity. It survives its own randomness. More successfully than other poems written during the 1930's it depicts the character of the people who, by their grit and their guts, came through the Great Depression. It does in its lyrical, kaleidoscopic way what The Grapes of Wrath attempts in epic narrative.
But Dr. Williams' objections cannot be completely obviated. Here, as everywhere, he would say, Sandburg accepted that which is, while it is demanded of a great poet that he impose upon reality his own imaginative vision. Such is the unification of experience we find in Whitman, in Emily Dickinson; such is what Williams, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Frost each in his own way strove for.
I find something like this in Sandburg too, though not as powerfully crafted as in these other poets. What I find as the unification of his vision is in fact inherent in the very amplitude, vitality, and inclusiveness with which Sandburg's work spreads itself before us. We must accept the seeming artlessness of his diction, the sprawl of his forms, and the fact that the tensile strength of his individual lines is seldom taut, as we expect great verse to be. Yet his ear, his tone, his lilt, his voice are unmistakable. Out of what Williams termed his weaknesses Sandburg made an individual style. His work is based on the faith that poetry is a quality of life itself. It is easy to over-simplify Sandburg's view of "the people"; sometimes he oversimplified it himself. And it is easy to dismiss his conviction that in the demotic diction of American life there is a vein of real poetry; he himself often quarried more dross than the genuine article. But Sandburg's conviction that the real thing was there, that he could find and shape it into poetry, is not a mere submission to whatever is. It is this conviction that I take to be Sandburg's democratic ideal, his insistence that the lives and lingo of blue-collar people could bring him not only the subjects of art but the materials of art, and that from these he could make poetry.
Much of his work is flawed, but in at least two periods of his long career he achieved a democratic art that lasts. Sandburg's best poems still speak of lives of people in small towns, in city ghettoes, and of the energy and broken patterns of industrial life with the force, the clarity, and the pleasure that first was found in them. And the poetic vision in The People, Yes is felt, not in the invention of a new language or a novel presentation for poetry, but in the poet's faith that "the bookless people" could, in their adversity, provide a thesaurus of idioms commensurate with their strength to endure and their will to survive.
Like the men who broke the plains in Illinois, Carl Sandburg was a pioneer. His vision of life was neither tragic nor cheery, but inclusive of defeat, of doubt, of despair even; these conditions he found life to transcend by its own resilience. He was deeply in the American grain in his pragmatism, his hopefulness. He once said, "The past is a bucket of ashes." He wrote of the present he knew. Now that that present and his work have become parts of our past, we can look back at Sandburg's best poems with gratitude for their capturing a portion of the reality of his time. We can thank Sandburg, too, for enlarging the possibilities of subject and language for other poets who came in our century. (pp. 404-06)
Daniel Hoffman, "'Moonlight Dries No Mittens': Carl Sandburg Reconsidered" (copyright, 1978, by Daniel Hoffman; originally a lecture delivered at The Library of Congress on January 6, 1978), in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 390-407.
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Most of us non-Americans probably think of Carl Sandburg … as a Mid-West Walt Whitman writing poems which move to the steady puff puff of a long cow-catcher prairie express. The train is bound for Democratic Progress; and the poet, aboard the observation car, announces to 'the People' all the delights—and horrors—the passengers must pass through as they make their way to Utopia. A worthy somewhat dated itinerary though much preferable to Aragon's USSR/USSR and other childish obeisances.
But there were aspects of Sandburg which most of us British readers did not know—the amatory Imagist, for example…. Breathing Tokens contains one hundred and twenty-five poems, all but three appearing in print for the first time…. [It is a] collection full of attractive surprises. There is nothing like a posthumous volume for helping us to re-assess our picture of a poet. (p. 34)
Derek Stanford, "The Scholar-Poet" (© copyright Derek Stanford 1979; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 25, No. 2, November, 1979, pp. 33-5.∗
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