Louis Untermeyer Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

The poetry of Louis Untermeyer (UHN-tuhr-mi-uhr) represents only a fraction of his total work. He put his name on well over a hundred books, ranging from The Kitten Who Barked (1962, a children’s story) to A Treasury of Ribaldry (1956), and from his historical novel Moses (1928) to A Century of Candymaking, 1837-1947 (1947). Most of his effort, however, went into four areas: anthologies of poetry, criticism, biography, and children’s literature. Some of the most important works that he edited were Modern American Poetry (1919), Modern British Poetry (1920), and A Treasury of Great Poems (1942, 1955). He broke new ground in criticism with The New Era in American Poetry (1919, 1971) and provided a useful literary reappraisal in American Poetry from the Beginning to Whitman (1931), which he edited. His early textbook Poetry: Its Understanding and Enjoyment (1934, with Carter Davidson) paved the way for Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students (1938), edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, and a host of other works. Although Untermeyer published one massive analytical biography, Heinrich Heine: Paradox and Poet (1937), he was better known for the biographical essays in Makers of the Modern World (1955) and Lives of the Poets (1959). Untermeyer’s contributions to children’s literature include collections of poetry such as This Singing World (1923-1926) and Stars to Steer By (1941), as well as many stories and collections of stories—among them, Chip: My Life and Times (1933), The Donkey of God (1932; winner of the 1932 Italian Enit Award for a book on Italy by a non-Italian), The Last Pirate: Tales from the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas (1934), and The Golden Treasury of Children’s Literature (1959, with Byrna Untermeyer).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Louis Untermeyer exerted a shaping influence on modern American poetry. That influence, however, did not derive from his own voluminous verse. Indeed, Untermeyer has not been greatly honored as a poet. His verse has escaped the scrutiny of modern scholars, and his work was never awarded a Pulitzer Prize, although he did serve as consultant in poetry (poet laureate) to the Library of Congress from 1961 to 1963. Moreover, Untermeyer seemed to regret his poetic profligacy and lamented that “too many facile lines of praise and protest” had filled his volumes. In Long Feud, he trimmed the canon of poems he cared to preserve to a spartan 118 pages.

If Untermeyer’s impact as a poet was limited, his impact as a critic, critical biographer, and anthologist was almost limitless. He has been described as Robert Frost’s Boswell, but he really ought to be seen as a twentieth century version of James Boswell and Samuel Johnson combined. Through appreciative reviews, loving editorial labors, and reverent selections in his anthologies, Untermeyer was able to do more for Frost than Boswell ever did for Johnson. Moreover, Untermeyer’s engaging Lives of the Poets is a worthy sequel to Johnson’s biographical sketches and is massively supplemented by the scientific, political, and literary biographies in his Makers of the Modern World.

Although Untermeyer modestly understated his contribution to Frost’s success, Frost himself was quick to acknowledge it, saying publicly, “Sometimes I...

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Frost, Robert, and Louis Untermeyer. The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963. The most valuable collection of Frost’s letters to Untermeyer in a correspondence that lasted almost fifty years. The letters are remarkably edited.

Harcourt, Brace. Sixteen Authors: Brief Histories, Together with Lists of Their Respective Works. New York: Author, 1926. Offers short histories of sixteen authors and their works, including Sinclair Lewis, Carl Sandburg, Virginia Woolf, and Untermeyer. The entry on Untermeyer provides a fine assessment of his poetry and poetic development. Contains illustrations and a bibliography.

Lowell, Amy. “A Poet of the Present.” Review of These Times. Poetry 11 (December, 1917): 157-164. This review of Untermeyer’s early verse volume, These Times, turns out to be a lovely appreciation of the young poet.

Pound, Ezra. EP to LU: Nine Letters Written to Louis Untermeyer by Ezra Pound. Edited by J. A. Robbins. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963. A fine collection of letters written by Pound to Untermeyer. Useful as a source of information on Pound’s perception of Untermeyer.

Untermeyer, Louis. From Another World: The Autobiography of Louis Untermeyer. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1939. Untermeyer’s first attempt at autobiography is devoted to anecdotes and comments on the author’s friends and acquaintances among the literary community. Untermeyer passes judgments, comments on works and relationships, and tells stories and jokes. In general he deals only with the surfaces of events and encounters and does not explore any issue in great depth. His style and energy are as vivid as the range of his acquaintances is impressive.

_______. Bygones: The Recollections of Louis Untermeyer. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965. The second of Untermeyer’s reminiscences, in which the eighty-year-old looks back on his life. Where the earlier (1939) “autobiography” was about other people, this one is primarily, and self-consciously so, about the author. It is a very personal volume focusing on the highlights of Untermeyer’s career, including excellent chapters on the McCarthy years, his tenure at the Library of Congress, and his travels.