19th Century American Poetry

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Last updated: December 13, 2019
Emily Dickinson
Idiosyncratic use of dashes and unconventional capitalization. Short and enigmatic poems.

Because I could not stop for Death
Poem by Dickinson: Since then — ’tis Centuries — and yet/ Feels shorter than the Day/ I first surmised the Horses’ Heads/ Were toward Eternity – /

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I reason, Earth is short
Poem by Dickinson: I reason, that in Heaven — / Somehow, it will be even — / Some new Equation, given — / But, what of that?

If I can stop one heart from breaking
Poem by Dickinson: .

..Or help one fainting Robin/ Unto his nest again/ I shall not live in Vain/

That after Horror-that ’twas us
Poem by Dickinson: …

The possibility — to pass/ Without a Moment’s Bell — / Into Conjecture’s presence — / Is like a Face of Steel — / That suddenly looks into ours / With a metallic grin –/ The Cordiality of Death — / Who drills his Welcome in –/

Walt Whitman
Born 1819. ‘The Child’s Champion’ established the theological foundation for his lifelong theme of the profoundly redemptive power of manly love. ‘Leaves of Grass,’ ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ and ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed’ were both influenced by his grief at Lincoln’s assassination.

Song of Myself
Poem by Whitman. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

..I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass…I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard/Nature without check with original energy.”

Pioneers! O Pioneers!
Poem by Whitman. “Come, my tan-faced children.

..We, the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend…

We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world/ Fresh and strong the world we seize…”

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
Poem by Whitman.

“…How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick/ Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself/ In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time/ Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom
Poem by Whitman.


And the great star early droop

Democratic Vistas
Prose by Whitman. This essay is a criticism of America for its “mighty, many-threaded wealth and industry” that mask an underlying “dry and flat Sahara” of the soul. He calls for a new kind of literature to revive the American population.

“Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does.”

Democratic Vistas
“We see our land, America, her literature, esthetics, &c., as, substantially, the getting in form, or effusement and statement, of deepest basic elements and loftiest final meanings…

/…the main thing being the average, the bodily, the concrete, the democratic, the popular, on which all the superstructures of the future are to permanently rest.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
1st American translation of the Inferno, Sonnet on Keats, ‘The Song of Hiawatha,’ ‘Paul Revere’s Ride,’ ‘Evangeline.’

Sonnet by Longfellow. “The young Endymion sleeps Endymion’s sleep/ The shepherd-boy whose tale was left half told!.


..’The smoking flax before it burst to flame/ Was quenched by death, and broken the bruised reed.”

Evangeline, Tale of Acadie
A poem by Longfellow. The betrothal of an Acadian peasant girl to her lover, Gabriel, and their separation as the British deport the Acadians from Canada in the Great Expulsion.

The girl crosses America seeking her lover, and finally settles in Philadelphia as an old woman. While working as a nurse among the poor, she finds Gabriel among the sick, and he dies in her arms. “This is the forest primeval….”

The Song of Hiawatha
Epic poem by Longfellow, based on the legends of the Ojibway Indians. “By the shores of Gitche Gumee/By the shining Big-Sea-Water/ Stood the wigwam of Nokomis/ Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.


Oliver Wendell Holmes
(1809-1894) Physician/poet. ‘Old Ironsides,’ ‘The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.

‘ Coined the word ‘anaesthesia.’

The Chambered Nautilus
Poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes. “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul/ As the swift seasons roll! / Leave thy low-vaulted past! / Let each new temple, nobler than the last, / Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast, / Till thou at length art free, / Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!”

William Dean Howells
(1837-1920) A late 19th, and early 20th century critic. He believed that literature was potentially injurious and devoid of thought.

He is most famous for his literary criticism and editorial support of authors like Mark Twain, Thorstein Veblen and Henry James.

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