Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1460
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.
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 and community, which for Neihardt at this time was the provincial midwestern town of Bancroft, Nebraska. He decries the poet’s poor reception by the greedy philistines in the town:
None of your dream-stuffs, Fellow,Looter of Samarkand!Gold is heavy and yellow,And value is weighed in the hand!
He also explores other themes: an acceptance of the genteel poverty of a poet, the heroic ideals found in Greece and Rome, nature’s great organic power, the degradation and futility of the business ethic, and the development of a cosmic consciousness.
After this apprenticeship in lyric poetry, as well as a brief attempt at dramatic verse, Neihardt was a mature poet with developed views and a clear goal. He then set out to spend his next thirty years writing his epic cycle of songs on the West.
A Cycle of the West
Neihardt’s extended national epic celebrates important figures of the American fur trade and of the American Indian wars. It consists of five songs composed over twenty-nine years and totaling more than sixteen thousand lines. The five songs merge in a unified work around a central theme: the conflict over the Missouri River Valley from 1822 to the 1890 Battle of Wounded Knee, which marks the end of Sioux resistance.
Neihardt chose the heroic couplet to help underscore his topic’s universal significance. He also modeled his poetry after other heroic epics, noting in The River and I that the story of the American fur traders had such literary potential, it made the Trojan War look like a Punch and Judy show.
The Song of Three Friends, though composed second, begins the cycle with Will Carpenter, Mike Fink, and Frank Talbeau starting up the Missouri River in 1822 with a beaver-trapping expedition. These comrades end up destroying one another’s potential over what starts as a rivalry for a chief’s half-breed daughter. The descriptive passages are powerful because, as Neihardt notes in his 1948 introduction, “If I write of hot-winds and grasshoppers, of prairie fires and blizzards, . . . of brooding heat and thunderstorms in vast lands, I knew them early.”
The second book of the cycle is The Song of Hugh Glass, based on the historical trek of an old trapper who survives because he knows the ways of the wilderness. Left to die by the others after being mauled by a grizzly, Glass is filled with a desire for revenge. He crawls for miles, endures starvation, thirst, near drowning, and freezing to track his betrayers. However, instead of a brutal revenge, he chooses to nobly forgive. Much like the Ancient Mariner, Glass is brought back to his better self by the vision of a ghostly brother:
Stripped of his clothes, Hugh let his body drinkAt every thirsting pore. Through trunk and limbThe elemental blessing solaced him
The Song of Jed Smith, though last to be completed, presents the third song of the cycle. This story is told by three first-person narrators, all trapper friends of Smith. Also, while the first two songs center on the larger-than-life, but brutish, figures of Mike Fink and Hugh Glass, Jed Smith represents a more perfect flowering of the frontiersman. He is an awe-inspiring hero, a frontier saint, finding water in the desert, trail-blazing the unknown.
The Song of the Indian Wars begins in 1865 with the period of migration; it focuses on the last great contest for the bison lands between the Plains Indians and the superior technology of the invading white race. The Sioux cannot understand the white people’s lust for land and gold, for their faith assumes a sacred unity with the earth and its resources.
Because Neihardt intended his cycle to show a progress in spirit, in this song he turns from the mere indomitable physical prowess celebrated in the earlier songs to the spiritual triumph of the Sioux, even in the midst of their defeat. After his victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse is hounded into starvation and surrender. The last section of this song, “The Death of Crazy Horse,” was Neihardt’s most popular work and was most often requested at his recitations. Here the landscape and animals reflect the agony of the tragic hero as Crazy Horse surrenders for the sake of his people. He
loosed the bonnet from his headAnd cast it down. “I come for peace,” he said;“Now let my people eat.” And that was all.
The last moments of the brave young man are dignified and noble, his language simple and straightforward.
The Song of the Messiah, the fifth and last song of the cycle, records the conquered people, whose time for heroic deeds is over. The beavers, the buffalo, and the mighty hunters are gone; all that remains of these native people is their spirit. Although the whites appear to have mastered the continent, the poet indicates that he still needs to attend to his spiritual self if he is to be whole.
The reduced Sioux people turn to the Ghost Dance religion, which offers nonviolence and a mystical link to ancestors, but this desire for rebirth is doomed; the song ends with the massacre at Wounded Knee. As the leader Sitanka dies, he has a vision of the soldier who smashes his skull:
. . . And he knewThe shining face, unutterably dear!All tenderness, it hovered, bending near,. . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . He strove to rise in vain,To cry “My brother!” And the shattered brainWent out.
Although the white solders seem to have won, they have not yet understood the harmony of the flowering tree or the sacred hoop’s mystery of universal brotherhood and transcendental unity.
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