The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XXIII. Writers of Familiar Verse

§ 13. Early Writers

It is in a half dozen of the ineffably graceful lyrics of the Greek anthology and in a like number of the more personal songs of Horace that we may find the earliest analogue of English familiar verse, better and more abundant than the French vers de société, even though the native English form has been compelled to borrow a French name for itself. The Greek anthology has the freedom of the fields and of the solitary hillside, and therefore it lacks a little of the social tone which is the dominating quality of familiar verse. Yet Horace is never rustic—he belongs to the town; and Stevenson is right in saying that Horace is urban, even when read outdoors; he has the abundant urbanity and the total absence of rusticity which familiar verse must ever reveal. Familiar verse is a species of poetry which can flourish only where men and women meet frequently, without undue parade, not wearing their hearts on their sleeves, and hiding their deeper feelings behind the semi-transparent mask of conventional detachment from the serious duties of life.

Familiar verse can develop only when men congregate in cities; it is a town-product; and Boston can claim a share in Holmes’s success in this difficult department of song. Other Americans in other cities have been inspired to risk the dangers of familiar verse and to rhyme the sayings and doings of their fellow citizens. Sometimes they give to their airy nothings a local habitation and a name as easily recognizable as the background of Dorothy Q. Could Nothing to Wear, detailing the sad plight of Miss Flora McFlimsy of Madison Square, and the Visit from Saint Nicholas on

  • the night before Christmas, when all through the house,
  • Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse
  • —could either of these have been composed elsewhere than in New York? And could The Truth about Horace have been told with such stern veracity anywhere else than in Chicago?

    In the first century of the American republic there were only a few large cities, and yet urban amenity was to be discovered here and there in towns where the social organization had advanced beyond its elementary stages. Benjamin Franklin, a pioneer in so many different departments of human endeavour, seems to have been the earliest American to adventure himself among the difficulties of this lighter poetry, so closely akin to prose in its directness and in its seeming lack of effort; and perhaps his lines on Paper could open an American selection of familiar verse only by favouritism. Philip Freneau essayed it more than once; so did Royall Tyler, our first writer of comedy; so did John Quincy Adams and James Kirke Paulding and Washington Irving,—prose men all of them, dropping into rhyme only occasionally, and only when the spirit moved them. And it is a significant fact, supported by a host of examples in both branches of English literature, British and American, that it is in familiar verse that the expert essayist is most likely to be successful when he risks himself in the realm of rhyme.