Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s career as a poet illustrates a typical pattern in American letters: Honored by some recognition during his lifetime, he received virtually no critical attention until 1931, when his poetry was rediscovered, reexamined, and placed back on the reading lists of American scholars. This critical revival—like that of the Metaphysical school of poetry or that of the poetry of Robert Browning—has been sustained primarily in the academic world. With this pattern in mind, it is difficult to arrive at an objective evaluation of Tuckerman’s work. Contemporaries such as Emerson, Hawthorne, and Longfellow gave his poetry careful praise. Emerson was most enthusiastic, commenting favorably on Tuckerman’s “love of native flowers, the skill to name them and delight in words that are melodies. . . .” Hawthorne judged the 1860 volume of poems to be “A remarkable one,” but he cautioned:I question whether the poems will obtain a very early or wide acceptance from the public . . . because their merit does not lie upon the surface, but must be looked for with faith and sympathy, and a kind of insight as when you look into a carbuncle to discover its hidden fire.
Longfellow assured Tuckerman that he had a “very favorable” opinion of the poems, but, like Hawthorne, he warned that “external success with the world” might be something quite different from “internal success.”
Tuckerman’s “Rhotruda,” which Emerson singled out for praise, is a good example of the kind of narrative poetry that won Tuckerman the cautious approval of his contemporaries. The poem, set in the time of Charlemagne, is about two lovers, Rhotruda and Eginardus. Visiting Rhotruda after curfew one night, Eginardus is trapped by a snowstorm; he cannot return to his room across the courtyard because the snow would reveal his footsteps. Rhotruda carries him on her shoulders so that only her footsteps mark the snow. Charlemagne, however, has seen the act. The next morning, he confronts the lovers with the truth. Instead of sentencing Eginardus to death, however, he orders the two lovers to marry. The final image of the poem is vividly expressed:
like a picture framed in battle-pikesAnd bristling swords, it hangs before our view—The palace court white with the fallen snow,The good king leaning out into the night,And Rhotruda bearing Eginard on her back.
It is Tuckerman’s unconventional sonnets, however, rather than his more traditional Tennysonian narratives, that have won for him his current recognition. Witter Bynner, in his appreciative introduction to the sonnets, sounded the keynote in Tuckerman’s revival by recognizing in his work a style “as modern as any twentieth century sonneteer.” He defended Tuckerman’s liberties with metrics and rhyme schemes, asserting: “He was as tenderly conscious of his form as was ever any maker of the sonnet. Instead of bungling or staling the sonnet-form, he renewed it and, moulding it to his emotion, made...
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