Christopher Pearse Cranch Introduction

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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Christopher Pearse Cranch 1813-1892

American poet, journalist, and artist.

Recognized by contemporaries for his poetry, essays, and landscape paintings, Cranch is best remembered today as the member of the New England Transcendentalist movement with a sense of humor, depicting Ralph Waldo Emerson and other leading members of the group in caricature. He was considered a dilettante by many contemporaries because his interests and talents covered a variety of fields, including painting, literature, and music. He was associated with the Hudson River School of painting and was, for a time, a member of the American expatriate colony in Italy.

Biographical Information

Cranch was born in Alexandria, Virginia, on March 8, 1813, the youngest son of thirteen children. His father, William Cranch, was a judge and his mother, Nancy Greenleaf, was the niece of John Quincy Adams. Cranch attended Columbian College (now George Washington University), graduating in 1832, and the Harvard Divinity School, graduating in 1835. Although he was never ordained, he worked for several years as an itinerant minister, traveling from Maine to Virginia and eventually to what was then the West—Illinois, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. There he joined the staff of the Western Messenger, a journal whose purpose was to spread Transcendentalism into that part of the country. In 1837-38, he moved to Louisville and filled in for Western Messenger editor James Freeman Clarke, who spent two winters in New England. During these years Cranch struggled with his own perceived inadequacy for the ministry, a career he considered his duty to pursue, and his attraction to literature and art. His personal struggle was exacerbated by the ongoing conflict between conservative Unitarianism and Transcendentalism, and in 1843 Cranch left his ministry. In October of that year Cranch married New Yorker Elizabeth de Windt and the couple settled in New York City. In 1844 Cranch published Poems, a collection of his pieces reflecting the Transcendentalist outlook.

Cranch soon began drifting away from Transcendentalism and concentrating more on his painting, becoming associated with the Hudson River School. Beginning in 1846, the Cranchs spent three years abroad, during which time they made the acquaintance of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, whom Cranch greatly admired. They returned to New York in 1849 where they took up residence in the city, although they summered in Niagara, the Hudson River, the Berkshires, and the Catskills, where Cranch could find inspiration for his landscape painting. On a return visit to Europe in 1853, Cranch met James Russell Lowell and the two became life-long friends. Cranch spent the next ten years in Paris painting, writing children's books, and translating Vergil's Æneid. Although his paintings sold, his income as an artist was not sufficient to support his family. When an inheritance at last brought him financial stability, Cranch abandoned art and concentrated once again on literary pursuits. In 1880 Cranch returned to Europe for two years, accompanying his daughter Caroline, a promising painter, so that she might be exposed to the work of the European masters. He published three more collections of poetry, the last in 1887. Cranch died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1892.

Major Works

Cranch's first poem was published in 1836, a parodic ballad entitled “Childe Christopher,” followed by “Correspondence” (1839) and “Enosis” (1840), often anthologized as an example of Transcendental poetry and warmly praised by Emerson. Beginning in 1836, Cranch became a regular contributor of both poetry and prose, most of it religious in nature, to the Western Messenger, and he continued to write for the magazine even after he had returned east. His poems “To the Aurora Borealis” (1840) and “Enosis” were recommended by Emerson to Margaret Fuller, editor of the new Transcendentalist journal The Dial; both pieces appeared and Cranch was the chief contributor of poetry to the magazine for the first two issues. He continued to write for The Dial from 1840 to 1844, and also contributed Transcendental poetry to the Harbinger, Graham's, Godey's, and the Democratic Review. His most famous prose pieces were his review of Emerson's The American Scholar (1837) and “Transcendentalism,” a defense of the movement, written in 1841. Both pieces were written for the Western Messenger.

Cranch's first poetry collection appeared in 1844 and was titled simply Poems. Although he continued to write for periodicals, he did not produce another book for nearly 30 years when he published Satan: A Libretto (1873), well received by critics but ignored by the public. The following year Cranch published The Bird and the Bell, with Other Poems, a collection whose title poem had been written many years earlier with advice and assistance from Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. His final volume of poetry, Ariel and Caliban (1887), brought the total number of sonnets published over the course of his career to nearly 100.

In addition to his poetry and essays, Cranch's best known works are his children's tales, The Last of the Huggermuggers (1856) and its sequel Kobboltozo (1857), and his translation of Vergil's Æneid (1872) into blank verse.

Critical Reception

Critical assessment of Cranch's work is mixed. In his own time, he was called a dilettante; his detractors believed that although he was talented in many fields, he pursued none with the intensity required to become great in any of them. Emerson gently acknowledged a similar sentiment in a letter to Cranch: “I have always understood that you are the victim of your own various gifts; that all the muses, jealous of each other, haunt your brain.” Edgar Allan Poe, who despised the Transcendentalist movement, granted Cranch faint praise as “the least intolerable of the school of Boston Transcendentalists,” although he later conceded that Cranch was “one of our finest poets.” The assessment of Cranch as a dabbler followed him into the twentieth-century. J. C. Levenson, calling him a “minor talent,” claims that the poet was “locked in a world of banal conventionality.” Yet Joseph M. DeFalco believes he is one of the five greatest Transcendentalist poets and one of the few Transcendentalists with a sense of humor.

Even critics unimpressed with the complete body of Cranch's work single out one or two poems for distinction. Levenson suggests that the pair of sonnets entitled “The Garden” represents the best of Cranch's poetry, while Greta D. Little and Joel Myerson consider “Correspondence,” which draws heavily from Emersonian philosophy, to be among his finest. Little and Myerson concede, however, that the conventional criticism of Cranch is well-founded: “Like many people who have spread their abilities over a number of fields, Cranch failed to make a significant name for himself in any one of them.” Even Cranch himself acknowledged that: “I have wooed too many mistresses; and the world punishes me for not shutting my eyes to all charmers but one.”