Poetry to Thrill an Oyster

Gregory Woods

  • The American Byron: Homosexuality and the Fall of Fitz-Greene Halleck by John W.M. Hallock
    Wisconsin, 226 pp, £14.95, April 2000, ISBN 0 299 16804 2

When the American poet Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867) travelled to Europe in 1822 he was carrying letters of introduction to Byron, Scott, Southey, Wordsworth, Lafayette and Talleyrand, though he never actually met any of them – whether through shyness or negligence or something else is not clear. Dickens called on Halleck on arrival in New York in 1842, but later wrote him off as a mere imitator. Richard Dana thought his ‘Marco Bozzaris’ was America’s best lyric poem. John Quincy Adams referred to one of his poems in a speech to the House of Representatives in 1836. Most inexplicable of all, on 15 May 1877, fifty thousand people gathered in Central Park to see President Hayes unveil a statue of Halleck in the so-called Poet’s Corner of America which, until that day, had contained memorials only to English and Scottish writers (Shakespeare, Burns, Scott).

The whole nation was still finding it hard to shake off the convention whereby nothing American could achieve real distinction except by comparison with a European model. (Such comparisons almost invariably do American achievements a disservice, since only towering European achievements were chosen as models.) So Halleck was the American Byron and his friend and collaborator Joseph Drake was the American Keats. Together, somewhat more compromisingly, Halleck and Drake were referred to as the Damon and Pythias of American poets.

As one would expect of a man so highly honoured, Halleck could count major cultural figures among his friends – Mozart’s librettist Da Ponte and James Fenimore Cooper, for instance. Others he kept at a slight distance. Having done time with the notorious bore Hawthorne, he had the wit to remark: ‘Last night Nathaniel Hawthorne and I sat together at dinner and talked for an hour, although Hawthorne said nothing.’ His admirers included some of the nation’s greatest men: in 1860, thanking a friend for a gift of Halleck’s poems, Abraham Lincoln wrote: ‘Many a month has passed since I have met with anything more admirable than his beautiful lines.’ His poetry was often extravagantly reviewed. ‘Should I beget children, it shall descend to them,’ a critic said of one of his volumes, but then added, obscurely: ‘such poetry would thrill an oyster, if the march of mind had penetrated the dominions of conchology.’ As if all this were not enough, Halleck gained a kind of afterlife in other men’s books. He is apparently present as Marko in Herman Melville’s Mardi (1849) and he and Drake reappear posthumously, living and working together under their own names, in Gore Vidal’s Burr (1973). So why is he now forgotten?

It is the aim of Hallock’s book to restore Halleck’s reputation. (As their names do and don’t suggest, poet and biographer are distant relatives.) He wants to make him interesting to a 21st-century audience. To do so, he has to out him. Homosexuality becomes the talent which recommends this versifier to our attention. Hallock refers to the unveiling of the statue as ‘the auspicious occasion commemorating America’s earliest homosexual poet’, as if that were the distinction for which the President was honouring Halleck. But Hallock goes further: he wants Halleck not only to happen to have been homosexual, but to act as a template for the late 20th century’s gay writers and, indeed, gay men in general. This is why he asks his key question: ‘What’s a gay man like Halleck doing in the 19th century?’

Hallock’s Halleck is a gay poet before the fact. The crux of the matter is his friendship with Joseph Drake, a handsome young doctor. They met in 1813, either in Battery Park or on a ferryboat or at the Ugly Club, a bizarre institution whose members were all beautiful men but had to pretend to appreciate one another’s ugliness. In 1819, Halleck and Drake published a sheaf of co-written poems under the shared pseudonym of the Croakers. Drake’s early death on 21 September 1820 appears to have been the defining emotional moment in Halleck’s life. Like Tennyson and Queen Victoria after him, he seems to have drifted off into a listless widowhood from which he never wholly emerged. But ‘On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake’ is not exactly In Memoriam. It barely gets beyond a stuttering of conventional tropes before lapsing into far more expressive silence.

Halleck’s only substantially homoerotic poem is a strange confection called ‘Young America’, in which the nation is personified as a beautiful 14-year-old boy (‘A bonny boy, with eye-delighting eyes,/Sparkling as stars, and blue as summer’s skies’), fast asleep in the midst of spring foliage. Quite how his eyes manage to be so delightful while he sleeps is not made clear. Three adults in succession wander by and admire this desirable child: a preacher, a soldier and a teacher. Each wants to adopt him and shape him in his or her own image. The language is more or less erotic – ‘Would that I might wake,/And woo, and win him,’ thinks the preacher, but ‘for his soul’s sweet sake’ not his body’s. Only the teacher, a woman, dares to kiss him – whereupon, every inch the sleeping beauty, he wakes up. Although Halleck explicitly lays claim to the influence of Thomas Gray (‘I borrow music from the Muse of Gray’), his Grayness keeps veering off uneasily into the tones of Alexander Pope (‘And I – a victim to love’s cruel dart,/Went – to the Opera – with a broken heart!’) – in this case, the satirical invasion saves the poem from drowning in its own reserves of treacle. As soon as the lad wakes up we are shown that he does have some of the attributes of a real 14-year-old, ‘not fond of early rising’.

Other than the friendship with Drake and the occasional moment of apparent homoeroticism in the verse, nothing in Halleck’s life and career (unlike, say, Whitman’s or Melville’s) is particularly helpful to the reader who wants to reconstruct him as a gay writer. As a consequence, the over-extended effort of Hallock’s critical approach gives rise to frequent moments of absurdity. For instance, a female character in one of the poems is called Margaret, so we are told that ‘close to the time when’ (but far from the place where) Halleck wrote this poem, ‘Margaret’ was an alternative term for the ‘mollies’ (cross-dressing, man-loving men) of old England. Without evidence that Halleck knew this, the information is gratuitous. Indeed, much earlier in the book, Hallock admits that ‘he was probably never directly made aware of the molly subculture in London.’ I would have said this was a virtual certainty, though unprovable. Given that, the best we can say about Margaret is that it is a woman’s name.

Commenting on a ‘campy’ letter to Halleck from a male friend, Hallock locks on the sentence ‘When I take you by the hand (a dangerous thing coming from Scotland), I’ll tell you all’ and feels it might be illuminated for us with the information that some people – who? – entertain ‘the notion that hand size, finger length or distance between digits betrays penis size’. This then leads into a remark to the effect that Halleck’s manual imagery in ‘Marco Bozzaris’ and the elegy on Drake ‘was more than adequately rivalled by other homosexual writers’, followed by a much more convincingly masturbatory quote from Whitman. Hands are, of course, a fairly common feature in erotic writing, hetero and homo alike; as are other prominent features of the human body. It would be churlish to argue with that. Another correspondent speaks of looking forward to ‘the gratification of once more taking’ Halleck ‘by the hand’, a phrase which, Hallock speculates, ‘may have conveyed masturbatory meaning in the 19th-century homosexual vernacular’. On the other hand, at a time when the handshake was a routine courtesy, it may merely have meant a handshake.

There is a passage in ‘Young America’ which speaks of the founding fathers ‘Who, oppression-driven,/High their rainbow flag unrolled’. Hallock sees these as ‘prophetic images of the rainbow flag that has come to symbolise gay liberation and solidarity’. This is just coincidence, not prophecy; it certainly adds nothing rational to the case for Halleck as a gay writer. Elsewhere, Halleck’s green umbrella is invoked in parallel with the claim that green symbolised homosexuality throughout the 19th century. This may or may not be so, but whether Halleck knew it was when he went into the umbrella shop is not discussed. It seems far more plausible that, had he known of this significance, he would have bought a pink one.

Anyone who speaks of the ‘seminal overtones of wet cement’ without explaining himself is, frankly, asking to be buried in the stuff. But it is in his strategic use throughout the book of the non sequitur as a means of establishing a connection by juxtaposition, virtually by innuendo, that Hallock does most to undermine his own argument. An especially jarring example concerns ‘The Fortunate Family’, a poem Halleck wrote during his adolescence. It tells of a boy called Dick (‘a name that may have doubled as slang for an erect penis since the 17th century’) and his brother Bill, who runs away to sea. So far so routine. But Hallock interposes a jaunty paragraph on sodomy and piracy ‘on the high seas’ in the 17th and 18th centuries, before leaping to the conclusion that ‘by the age of 13, Halleck’s family values had transported the orthodox adventure genre into the realm of homosexual emancipation literature.’

The most prominent example of this stratagem of arguing by association is the book’s subtitle, ‘Homosexuality and the Fall of Fitz-Greene Halleck’. To look at it, you would imagine there was a causal relationship; that, as in the later case of Oscar Wilde, the homosexuality led to the fall. But in Halleck’s career there is no fall: no arrest in a hotel room, no judicial examination of the sheets, no being spat at on a station platform, no bankruptcy, no divorce, no hard labour. And – much as it pains me to say so – there is no homosexuality either. The truth is much less dramatic, although possibly no less interesting. For ‘fall’ read slow decline into obscurity and genteel poverty. For ‘homosexuality’ read – well, what? Misogynistic bachelorhood is a major part of the matter. So is a propensity for sentimental friendship.

Needless to say, this problem plays havoc with Hallock’s wish to offer Halleck as an early model of the gay writer. Indeed, he chooses to argue that Halleck is a better model than Walt Whitman, for the following reason: ‘Whitman’s pederastic gaze was conspicuously aimed at boys who were almost exclusively blue-collar youths of inferior education (preferably illiterate). Whitman, unlike his predecessor Halleck who sought an egalitarian and committed connection, represents a gay throwback to the Greek model.’

Many of his 19th-century readers recognised this aspect of Whitman, especially those who were themselves classically educated. In ‘A Problem in Modern Ethics’ (1891), John Addington Symonds argued that, reading some of Whitman’s poems, ‘we are carried back to ancient Greece – to Plato’s Symposium, to Philip gazing on the Sacred Band of Thebes after the fight at Chaeronea.’ Oscar Wilde said there was ‘something so Greek and sane’ about Whitman’s poetry. Gerard Manley Hopkins spoke of his ‘essentially Greek character’. Edward Carpenter (‘the English Whitman’ – an early reversal of the traditional deference) called Whitman ‘the most Greek in spirit and in performance of modern writers’. Greece was the obvious precedent; but it appears to be male-male love in general these men are referring to in his work, rather than specifically man-boy love. In any case, unlike so many classically-educated homosexual men of his period, especially Anglophone Europeans, Whitman did not think of himself in Greek terms.

Hallock’s distinction between Whitman (man-boy) and Halleck (man-man) is characteristic of an assimilationist discourse that is especially prevalent in American gay scholarship. The taboo on inter-generational relationships has been strengthened by the drive for mainstream respectability. But what is it, precisely, that makes Halleck’s love and subsequent grief for Drake a model or precursor for contemporary gay ‘egalitarian and committed’ relationships? What is the difference between, on the one hand, Halleck and Drake, whom this book presents as homosexuals, and, on the other, Milton and Edward King, or Thomas Gray and Richard West, or Shelley and Keats, or Tennyson and Hallam, or Matthew Arnold and Arthur Clough? The aesthetic difference is, of course, that Halleck’s poem ‘On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake’ is a paltry thing in comparison with Lycidas or the Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard or Adonais or In Memoriam or ‘Thyrsis’.

The other difference between the two poets is that Whitman was a democrat and Halleck was not. Hallock’s Halleck is ‘egalitarian’ only insofar as he seems to have had affectional relationships with men of his own age and class, which might, of course, be read as non-egalitarian; snobbish, indeed. He was openly anti-democratic. He declared towards the end of his life: ‘As a Federalist in my boyhood and a monarchist in my manhood, I prefer a government representing property, and, let me add, probity, to a government of numbers.’ There speaks the faithful lackey of John Jacob Astor. (Halleck worked as the robber baron’s private secretary on a paltry stipend for 16 years, only to be rewarded when Astor died, the richest man in America, with an insultingly small annuity.) It seems to me, then, that Halleck is far more of a ‘throwback’ to an English tradition of sentimental friendships than Whitman is to Greece. In both his life and the themes of his poetry, Whitman has much more in common with gay American men of today – regardless of whether Hallock finds his apparent promiscuity and his liking for younger men an embarrassment. Besides, Whitman never wrote anything as mawkishly paedophile as ‘Young America’.

Mario Lanza was no Caruso, Dan (‘Potatoe’) Quayle was no Jack Kennedy. And Fitz-Greene Halleck was no Lord Byron. His satires have hardly any life left in them. Only the occasional poem is technically innovative, and then only to a limited extent. Hallock sets much store by Halleck’s ‘The Field of the Grounded Arms’ and, wanting Halleck to have stolen a march on Whitman, describes it as being in ‘a form that suggested what would later be termed free verse’, although he admits that it is ‘not technically free verse’. Indeed not. But Hallock does not appear to have the critical vocabulary to describe what it is: namely, a sequence of 24 unrhymed stanzas of four lines each, the first two lines of each one in iambic pentameter, the third and fourth in iambic trimeter. Rigorously regular, in other words, and, aside from the lack of rhyme, manifestly unfree.

In 1821, Halleck lit out for Wyoming and found himself having to think about non-metropolitan ways for the first time since his childhood in rural Connecticut. When he courteously threw his cigar out of the coach he was sharing with an elderly woman, she shocked him by taking out her own tobacco and puffing away at it for the next fifteen miles. This is a commonplace moment in the uncomfortable American history of East meets West (and how it must have tweaked Halleck’s misogyny!) but it says something important about Halleck’s incapacity to speak for the new civilisation. For all that much of it was bluster and humbug, Whitman’s attempt to come to terms with the whole nation remains a far more impressively ambitious and radical project than Halleck’s rudimentary imitations of romantic Byronism.