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.

II. Poets of the Civil War I

§ 2. Effect upon the Poets

Readers of poetry in the fifties had enjoyed the verse of Bryant and Longfellow and of others who modestly portrayed aspects of quiet nature, mildly moralized upon conduct, or willingly submitted to the spell of beauty. For not a few of the poets, poetry was something apart from the actuality of life, too often little more than commonplace sentiment inspired by earlier poets. It is interesting to find Longfellow writing in his diary in 1856:

  • Dined with Agassiz to meet Emerson and others. I was amused and annoyed to see how soon the conversation drifted off into politics. It was not until after in the library that we got upon anything really interesting.
  • Longfellow, Taylor, Story, and Stoddard (in his early days) were practitioners of the poetic art rather than workers in the real material of human experience. There were other singers, however, who, though surrounded by much that was crude and raw, petty and vulgar, still had visions and felt pulses throbbing beneath the rude exterior of American life. Of such were Lowell, Whittier, Whitman, and various more ephemeral writers who felt the stirring times. To them it was not satisfying merely to dream of the past or yearn for the land of the Lotos Eaters. As if called to a great service, they saw a work to be done and prepared for its doing. Stedman at twenty-eight could write:

  • I have cared nothing for politics—have been disgusted with American life and doings. Now for the first time I am proud of my country and my grand heroic brethren. The greatness of the crisis, the Homeric grandeur of the contest, surrounds and elevates us all.… Henceforth the sentimental and poetic will fuse with the intellectual to dignify and elevate the race.
  • Stedman himself, brought up in an older school of lovers of beauty, turned to a more resonant lyre, and wrote such pieces as How Old Brown Took Harper’s Ferry, Kearny at Seven Pines, Wanted—A Man, Gettysburg, and the stirring romance Alice of Monmouth—pieces full of metrical energy, strong, high spirit, and convinced devotion to the union. Stoddard, writer of delicate “Melodies and Catches,” rose to the grave, noble tones of his Horatian ode Abraham Lincoln, among the finest of all the poems commemorative of the chief personage of the War. Lowell wrote a second series of The Biglow Papers, confirming his right to be called the great American satirist in verse; and Whittier, already, like Lowell, no uncertain voice speaking against slavery, almost forgot his Quaker traditions in the eager strophes with which he encouraged the fighters for freedom and exulted over the victory of their aims. Whitman, already the prophet, though as yet hardly heard, of a mystical union of his people, composed, during the struggle to destroy the Union of the states, battle-pieces that are without rancour, and, after that Union had been assured, splendid hymns of triumph that contain no insults to the conquered, vying with Lowell for the honour of producing the loftiest and best Northern poetry of the War.