President And Poet
by Donald Hall
Granted that what we summon is absurd:
Mustaches and the stick, the New York fake
In cowboy costume grinning for the sake
Of cameras that always just occurred;
Granted that his Rough Riders fought a third-
Rate army badly general’d, to make
Headlines for Mr. Hearst: that one can take
Trust-busting not exactly at its word:
Robinson, alcoholic and unread,
Received a letter with a White House frank.
To court the Muse, you’d think T. R.’d’ve killed her
And had her stuffed, and yet this mountebank
Chose to belaurel Robinson instead
of famous men like Richard Watson Gilder.
Of the more than 200 poems included in Donald Hall’s self compiled anthology published in 1990 titled Old and New Poems, this is the lone sonnet. It is so out of place in terms of Hall’s body of work and so obscure, that the only thing I can make of it is that Donald was hoping we would all get the joke and laugh along with him. There is a long history of using sonnets either as a vehicle to honor or insult a specific literary or political figure. Miguel de Cervantes wrote a series of sonnets that were so clever in delivering their barbed critique that his insults seemed more like good-natured advice and remarkably made their way through the sensors of his day.
So what is going on in this sonnet? Hall is skewering both Teddy Roosevelt and Edwin Arlington Robinson. History has not been kind to Robinson’s legacy as a poet. Although the recipient of three Pulitzer prizes, largely because of the notoriety Roosevelt created by promoting Robinson as a poet, most of Robinson’s writing is dismissed by modern poets and critics as weak and worse, uninteresting. Robinson may have been a significant American poet in his day, who willingly paid the price in poverty and obscurity at the beginning of his career. But his success rested on Roosevelt’s patronage, securing for him a government position, giving him a steady source of income and increased his literary stature through his personal praise. As for his work, his once-popular Arthurian trilogy has fallen out of favor and considered mediocre at best.
And how has Richard Watson Gilder faired in terms of history? Well obviously Hall feels he should have been treated better. Despite being a prolific and popular poet, who was skilled at rhyme and meter, Gilder’s work has faded into obscurity as well. Gilder was the editor of the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, one of the nation’s most esteemed periodicals in the late 19th century. As such Gilder was a person of influence in American letters during this period. None of his sonnets would make my top 100 list. But, as the punch line to Hall’s riddle, he is certainly worthy of a little investigating.
By Richard Watson Gilder
What is a sonnet? ‘Tis the pearly shell
That murmurs of the far-off murmuring sea;
A precious jewel carved most curiously:
It is a little picture painted well.
What is a sonnet? ‘Tis the tear that fell
From a great poet’s hidden ecstasy;
A two-edged sword, a star, a song–ah me!
Sometimes a heavy-tolling funeral bell.
This was the flame that shook with Dante’s breath;
The solemn organ whereon Milton played,
And the clear glass where Shakespeare’s shadow falls:
A sea this is–beware who ventureth!
For like a fjord the narrow floor is laid
Mid-ocean deep to the sheer mountain walls.