McDonald Clarke's Adjustment to Market Forces: A Lesson for Walt Whitman
by Andrew C. Higgins
On March 7, 1842,Walt Whitman wrote a brief two paragraph editorial about a lecture by RalphWaldo Emerson called "The Poetry of the Times," probably Emerson's lecture version of "The Poet." Mostly, Whitman was concerned with describing the audience ("a few beautiful maids -- but more ugly women, mostly blue stockings..." [Rubin and Brown 105]). However, he briefly praises Emerson, declining to summarize the Concord Sage's ideas because he could not do them justice:
...the business of the poet is expression -- the giving of utterance to the emotions and sentiments of the soul; and metaphors. But it would do the lecturer great injustice to attempt anything like a sketch of his ideas. Suffice it to say, the lecture was one of the richest and most beautiful compositions, for both its matter and style, we have ever heard anywhere, at any time. (105)
While Whitman was obviously impressed by Emerson, it should be noted that hyperbole was the order of the day in the competitive newspaper world of the 1840s.
Many critics have noted Whitman's early exposure to Emerson as a watershed in his career; however, on the day Whitman was listening to Emerson, March 5, 1842, an event occurred that, at least in the short run, seemed to affect Whitman a great deal more than the lecture: McDonald Clarke drowned in his cell in Blackwell Island's insane asylum. A few days later, on the 8th, Whitman wrote a lengthy eulogy for Clarke, and another article praising Clarke four days later (Rubin and Brown 108-09). Then on March 18th, he published his poem "The Death and Burial of McDonald Clarke."
While Clarke hastended
to be a footnote in Whitman studies, he is an important figure in Whitmans
long foreground both for the way he anticipates many of Whitman
But as the literary
market place changed in the 1830s and 40s, Clarke adapted his poetry to meet
the new conditions. The American publishing
industry began to concentrate in New York and Philadelphia.
however, with the ability to adapt to local conditions, thrived.
During the 1830s, as newspaper and magazine verse was growing, Clarke was making a reputation for himself as "The Mad Poet of Broadway," a local character and poet who's only source of income came from selling his poems to newspapers (Rubinand Brown n144). Clarke, according to most accounts, was a bizarre but harmless lunatic who was popular among the Knickerbocker crowd as a source of amusement. William Stone, in an 1868 letter to the New York Evening Post describes Clarke as "a poetic scintillator of some what odd fancies, who kept the town laughing while he was sometimes starving," and reports that Clarke, on occasion, would be seen wearing "one boot and one shoe." As C. Carroll Hollis describes it, "Clarke's 'Mad Poet' role was much like that of the old time jester" (193).
Yet Clarke's reputation
as a harmless eccentric was not universally held.
Whoever has power, in hiswriting, to draw bold, startling images, and strange pictures -- the power toembody in language, original, and beautiful, and quaint ideas -- is a true son of song. Clarke was such an one; not polished, perhaps, but yet one in whose faculties that all important vital spirit of poetry burnt with a fierce brightness.... We always, on perusing Clarke's pieces, felt, in the chambers of the mind within us, a moving and responding, as of harp cords, struck by the wind. (Rubin and Brown 106)
That Clarke was
eccentric is certain, but whether that eccentricity is due to madness, or
the fact that he was the impoverished illegitimate son of a wealthy family
Contrary to Rubinand Brown's assertions, Clarke did not begin surviving on his magazine publications until fairly late in his career. Clarke's earliest books, The Eve of Eternity (1820), The Elixir ofMoonshine (1822), The Gossip(1823), and Afara, a Poem (1829) are examples of pre-magazine verse of the early 1800s. For example, the privately printed The Elixir of Moonshine is typical of the small cottage-industry publishing economy of the early 1820s. Where as magazine-verse tended to be written as entertainment for a generic audience, Clarke's early poetry is written with fairly specific readers in mind. Clarke's book, Afara, a Poem (1829), essentially a chapbook, has an intimate feel about it, as if you -- the reader -- were one of a select group who could appreciate the poet. Sometimes this small circle is limited to specific people, as in the last poem of the volume, "To Theodore, Theresa, Cousin Cora, and Ann," written on "Theodore's Birth-day, 10th Feb. 1829.":
For ye four Faithful Ones have always been,
Kind to the haughty Outcast, through each hour,
When clasped by feeling, fancy, sense, and sin,
He sunk a heavenly in a hellish power. (20)
One poem, "To* *," is interesting for what it reveals about the difficulties of an impoverished outcast like Clarke taking on the conventions of the romantic upper middle-class tradition of poetry. The poem is written to a wealthy woman loved at a distance by some third person identified only as "He." While "He" and the speaker are not identified as being the same person, given that the speaker describes "He's" actions in such intimate detail, it is clear that we are to infer that the speaker is "He." The use of the third person gives the poem an eerie quality. The speaker describes "He" following the woman:
He watched your footsteps to the door -- those archeyes half peeped out;
He felt so 'shamed, his own were dropped, and quickly turned about. (17)
This theme of the poor poet scorned by the beautiful society woman, common in Clark's early poetry, is significant not only for what it says about Clarke's love life (of lack there of), but also because the situation bears striking parallels to Clarke's authorial situation. In a time when books of poetry were still spread through small, wealthy, literary circles, often by word of mouth,Clarke, the illegitimate grandson of a wealthy shipbuilder, was a hapless outsider.
One way for Clarke
to breech the circles of literary society was to adopt the persona of "the
Mad Poet." As a madman, those
circles could simultaneously include and exclude him, giving him access to
an audience, even while that audience read him for comic relief.
It was read with not only tongues, but the teeth of the -- [sic] rats and mice of Fulton-street(sic), and they, in my modest opinion, are the most literary part of the Gothamite gentle folks. (226)
By the 1830s, however,
Clarke dampened the "Mad Poet" role somewhat and began writing more
conventional verse for a wider public. In
1833 he published Deathin Disguise:
A Temperance Poem, a fairly standard temperance story about the rise of
young Sam Sub to power and fame and his subsequent downfall due to drunkenness.
By 1836, his Poems of M'Donald
Clarke, has much more in common with the magazine verse of Nathaniel Parker
Willis and Fitz-Greene Halleck than with Clarke's earlier poetry. The
poems of this volume are more public and more prone to narrative.
For example, "The Dead Midshipman" tells the story of a sailor
who died at sea.
In these poems the link between the poet and the reader is tenuous. The individual character of the speaker is suppressed in favor of the public voice of the balladeer. Gone is the impression of a small, intimate readership. In its stead is the implied moderately educated, patriotic middle-class reader: the magazine and newspaper buying public.
impact on American literature may seem to be negligible, his impact on Whitmanis
in fact quite significant. The two
share many thematic concerns, such as the unity of the body and the soul,
and Clarke most likely provided Whitman with a model of the poet as unappreciated
outsider, what David S. Reynolds calls the "neglected artist" myth
(WWA 339-40), a pose Whitman would cultivate throughout his career.
Of pre-Leaves of Grass American poets, Clarke was one of a handful to articulate his poetics in a preface to a book of poetry, as Whitman would do in Leaves of Grass. Reynolds has written:
In a sense, Clarke was an early sketch of Whitman: a literary rebel who dressed indefiance of custom, wearing his shirt collar open at the neck to expose his upper chest..., and who broke poetic rules. (89)
But most important
of all, the early poetry of McDonald Clarke gave Whitman a model of a poetry
in which the poet and the reader are intimately involved.
Click image to view photo
between Clarke and Whitman extend to the poems.
What prodigious queer feelings will leap in the breast,
And make us feel funny in more parts than one,
If a fine girl is only transparently drest,
And shows what would puzzel a seraph to shun. (9)
As Reynolds has argued, this passage prefigures Whitman's use of eroticism in his poetry(89). But Clarke soon backs away from sexuality. Though in light of his voyeurism, its difficult to take the poet seriously when he later pleads:
I mean not that mangled connexion of foul
or unclean sensations, that squalid minds love;
But the delicate union of body and soul
That angels might witness -- nor wish to reprove (14)
of body and soul" may be the
key theme of Leaves of Grass.
I mind how once welay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach'd till you felt my beard, and reach'd till you held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth. (LG 6)
In the 1836 edition of Poems of M'Donald Clarke,Clarke's range is broader, and the connections to Whitman fuller. In the picture of the poet in the 1836 book he is dressed in casual but not workman's, dress. His collar is open, and he wears an open great coat, anticipating Whitman's famous photograph from the 1855 edition. The poems of the 1836 collection are much more diverse. There are poems like "The Dignity of Democracy," about "an old Wood-Sawyer” who has some how obtained a turkey for Christmas dinner. Marching up Broadway with it flung over his back,
He cock'd his eye at two Aldermen, as he past,
As if to say -- my belly will beat yours, at last. (32)
The scene is oneWhitman
would have relished, and might have included in "Song of Myself."
The sawyer cocks his eye just as Whitman cocks his hat "indoors
or out" (CPCP 45); the encounter occurs on the street in New York;
the theme is democracy.
And Clarke's poem"New-York" is striking in its parallels to Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." Like Whitman's poem,"New-York" opens with the poet looking out over New York harbor at twilight:
I love to lean on the Battery's rail,
When the ghost of daylight leaves the fading west (33)
He describes "our
broad unfetter'd bay, / Wreath'd with the canvass of a hundred flags--"
(33). The poet imagines New York as
a great center of commerce, where business "answers with a golden smile,
/ The sign of Poverty's silvery lips" (34).
But the mind faints, before Future's spell --
Imagination turns, and shuts her eyes --
Reason, ere then, will ring Pomp's funeral bell --
Democracy shroud her -- never more to rise (35)
It is unclear just what causes this turn of events, but some how reason could not sustain Clarke's vision. Whitman would solve this problem by side stepping reason, and looking straight into the eyes of his reader:
What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face?
Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you? (LG164)
Perhaps more significant
to Whitman is the intimacy of Clarke and his readers in the early books.
I've sunk my headon many a breast
As white, but --warmer than thine own;
But, could my cheek but there be press'd,
'Twoud be more sweet than all I've know. (45)
Though one has to wonder at the efficacy of such praises, in that the poet was writing a poetry that anticipated some response from the reader, and in fact (or fiction) occasionally solicited one, the poems anticipate Whitman's own"seduction" of the reader, as when he writes "I stop somewhere waiting for you" (LG 89).
poetry seems disjointed, confused, or merely unoriginal.
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