Fitz-Greene Halleck Critical Essays

Introduction

Fitz-Greene Halleck 1790-1867

(Also published under the pseudonym Thomas Castaly) American poet.

Halleck was one of the most popular and respected American poets of the nineteenth century. Known for both satirical verses and sentimental lyric poetry on serious subjects, he was part of New York's Knickerbocker literary circle, a witty and urbane coterie of writers which included James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, Caroline Kirkland, and James Paulding.

Biographical Information

A descendant of early Puritan colonists, Halleck was born and raised in rural Guilford, Connecticut. His first published verses, on a dying Indian warrior, appeared in a New Haven newspaper in the winter of 1809-10. After moving to New York City in 1811 at the age of 21, Halleck worked as a clerk, first for wealthy banker and businessman Jacob Barker, and after 1832 as personal secretary to noted entrepreneur John Jacob Astor. In 1813, Halleck made the acquaintance of Joseph Rodman Drake, a young New York doctor and fellow poet. In 1819, Halleck and Drake published a series of satirical verses on New York society in the New York Evening Post, some written jointly under the pseudonym "Croaker & Co.," others written by Drake as "Croaker" or by Halleck as "Croaker, Jr." These poems enjoyed enormous popularity, provoking much speculation as to their authorship. After Drake died of tuberculosis the following year, Halleck continued to publish his own poems. Many first appeared in publications edited by Bryant, including the New York Review, the United States Review, and the New York Evening Post. In 1849 Halleck retired to his native Guilford. Although he published only two new poems after 1827, his work remained popular with readers well after his death in 1867.

Major Works

Halleck's humorous "Croaker" verses, with their pointed observations on contemporary life and personalities, first brought him to public attention, and his long poem Fanny, published anonymously the same year, established his place among a wide readership. Modelled on Lord Byron's Beppo, Fanny was a poem of nearly fifteen hundred lines mocking the pretenses of New York's nouveaux riches It went into several editions, including a London edition, and was such a success that at the publisher's request Halleck provided an additional fifty stanzas in 1821. A trip to Europe in 1822 provided the occasion for two of his most highly praised poems, "Burns," a tribute to the eighteenth-century Scottish poet, and "Alnwick Castle," a meditation on the ruins of Percy Castle in Alnwick, England. The following year he published "Marco Bozzaris," a melodramatic account in verse of the death of a Greek patriot in a raid against the Turks. "The Recorder," first published in 1828 under the pseudonym Thomas Castaly, is a biting and occasionally bitter satire directed against Richard Riker, a New York City judge who had had a hand in ruinous litigation involving Halleck's employer Jacob Barker. The first collection of Halleck's work, Alnwick Castle, with Other Poems, appeared in 1827 and quickly sold out; numerous further editions appeared during the next four decades. Halleck virtually stopped writing poetry after 1827, although he remained active in literary circles, translating European verse and editing a collection of Lord Byron's work in 1833. His most enduring work is his elegy on the death of his friend Drake, a version of which is inscribed on the memorial at Drake's grave site in the Bronx.

Critical Reception

Much of Halleck's historical importance, like his literary reputation, may be credited to the thinness of American literary production during the first decades of the nineteenth century. Even at the height of his considerable popularity, critics generally portrayed him as a competent poet who displayed occasional flashes of brilliance; subsequent criticism has not revised that assessment. One of his most ardent admirers was his friend and fellow poet Bryant, who praised Halleck's melodic versification, his rich imagery, and his use of irony and self-deprecating wit to alleviate the solemnity of even his most serious poems. Other contemporary critics, however, concurred with poet and critic Edgar Allan Poe that Halleck's mixing of humor and seriousness spoiled the effect of many of his poems. Poe also pilloried Halleck for marring his best works with syntactical errors and careless versification. By the end of the century Halleck was remembered primarily as a relic of the unsophisticated early days of American letters.