Today on Project Gutenberg we have…
East and West: Poems by Bret Harte
This is a fascinating find. A contemporary of Mark Twain, Bret Harte was another American writer who penned witty, often satirical tales about life in the West (not that Twain would approve of the comparison; apparently he hated this guy). Harte’s area of Western expertise was California, specifically during the Gold Rush era of the 1840s and 1850s. He lived and worked in California during the tail-end of that period, and he drew on his experiences there when he began writing poems and short stories in the mid-1860s. I’m having trouble placing an exact date on this particular publication, but my guess is 1871. That was around the time that Harte moved back east to New York, making plans for a more illustrious writing career–plans that ultimately didn’t work out.
Not that Harte didn’t have a great deal of talent. These poems are all pretty fun to read, and Harte’s passion for his subjects shine through. The subjects in question range from musings on nature to spooky folktales to the anecdotes of larger-than-life characters. For example, there’s the poem titled “Seventy-Nine,” in which a boisterous prisoner turns the tables on the fellow trying to interview him. Or there’s “The Wonderful Spring of San Joaquin,” in which a town forms around an apparent fountain of youth that turns out to be contaminated with arsenic. Arsenic that I guess only kills you when you’re not constantly drinking it? It’s not very clear. And then there’s “On a Cone of the Big Trees,” in which Harte writes an ode to a pinecone sitting on his desk:
Brown foundling of the Western wood, Babe of primeval wilderness! Long on my table thou has stood Encounters strange and rude caresses; Perchance contented with thy lot, Surroundings new and curious faces, As though ten centuries were not Imprisoned in thy shining cases! Thy sire saw the light that shone On Mohammed's uplifted crescent, On many a royal gilded throne And deed forgotten in the present; He saw the age of sacred trees And Druid groves and mystic larches; And saw from forest domes like these The builder bring his Gothic arches. And must thou, foundling, still forego Thy heritage and high ambition, To lie full lowly and full low, Adjusted to thy new condition? Not hidden in the drifted snows, But under ink-drops idly spattered, And leaves ephemeral as those That on thy woodland tomb were scattered.
I gotta say, I’ve never read about the tragedy of a pinecone before. Gotta give Harte points for creativity.
While the poems here focus mostly on the “West” part of the title, there’s a little bit of “East” at the very beginning with two somber ghost tales, “A Greyport Legend” and “A Newport Romance.” The former is about a group of children who vanish when the rotten ship hulk they’re playing on drifts out to sea, while the latter chronicles the narrator’s encounter with a brokenhearted spirit on a gloomy night. This story also includes what might be my favorite bit of poetry in the whole book, with some fun alliteration and a clever rhyme:
Her lover was fickle and fine and French: It was nearly a hundred years ago When he sailed away from her arms—poor wench— With the Admiral Rochambeau.
Between the way “fickle and fine and French” just rolls off your tongue and the choice of rhyming “ago” with “Rochambeau,” it’s just really playful and fun to read.
I enjoyed getting to spend some time looking at this book, and I would recommend you look at it as well. Is it great poetry? Eh, not for the most part. But it’s vivid, colorful and filled with regional flavor. Above all, it’s fun. And we could all use a bit of fun.
And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!