Poem of the Day: ‘On the Mississippi’

The Midwest is central to any understanding of the American story, yet it has been dismissed for over a century as dull, stultifying, and soul-killing.

Via Wikimedia Commons
The American writer Hamlin Garland in 1893, aged 33. Via Wikimedia Commons

Hamlin Garland (1860–1940) was a wildly prolific author, pouring out biographies, memoirs, and fiction. Several of his books are especially important for the foundation of what in recent years is called “Midwestern Studies” — a strangely late-coming addition to literary and historical interest in regional studies, especially the South and the West. What’s strange about this recent interest is how central the Midwest is to any understanding of the American story and yet how easily it has been dismissed for over a century as dull, stultifying, and soul-killing. It’s just flyover country, in current coastal parlance.

In an earlier introduction to a Poem of the Day, the Sun nominated Indiana’s James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916) as the creator of Midwestern literature. The claim was exaggerated, of course, but something in the late 19th century seems to have set off new ideas in writers whose interests were Midwestern, rather than focused on the literary centers of Boston and New York. And the Wisconsin-born and Chicago-associated Hamlin Garland was a key figure in the movement, especially for “Main-Travelled Roads,” his 1891 collection of local-colorist short stories, and a pair of autobiographical works, “A Son of the Middle Border” (1917) and the Pulitzer-prize winning “A Daughter of the Middle Border” (1921).

He also wrote an 1893 collection of poetry: “Prairie Songs,” with the revealing subtitle “Being Chants Rhymed and Unrhymed of the Level Lands of the Great West.” And he was also something of a nutball, or, at least, an enthusiast for slightly nutty ideas: a cheerleader for several years for the single-tax theories of the homegrown American economist Henry George (1839–1897) before supporting claims of paranormal phenomena.

In honor of his September 14 birthday, The New York Sun presents one of Garlin’s Prairie Songs — his 1893 “On the Mississippi.” Mostly in tetrameter, with an irregular rhyme scheme of abcbcdeefc, the poem tells of a steamboat pushing along the Mississippi River at night, drawing the fireflies and startling with its steam whistle a heron into flight.

On the Mississippi
by Hamlin Garland

Through wild and tangled forests
 The broad, unhasting river flows —
 Spotted with rain-drops, gray with night;
Upon its curving breast there goes 
A lonely steamboat’s larboard light,
A blood-red star against the shadowy oaks; 
Noiseless as a ghost, through greenish gleam
Of fire-flies, before the boat’s wild scream —
 A heron flaps away   
 Like silence taking flight.

With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems are drawn from the deep traditions of English verse: the great work of the past and the living poets who keep those traditions alive. The goal is always to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.

The New York Sun

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