Poetry of the Hudson River
Paul Kane, Professor of English
“Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things?”
When the brooding, temperamental explorer Henry Hudson sailed around Sandy Hook into New York Bay exactly 400 years ago, in 1609, and then proceeded up the river that was eventually to bear his name, it is unlikely that he had much poetry on his mind. He had been sent out by the highly pragmatic Dutch East India Company to find a shortcut across the Atlantic to Asia - or “Cathay” - that rich source of European mercantile wealth. And yet, if we think of the fabled Northwest Passage as a form of mythic imagining, perhaps there was a piece of poetry in the voyage after all. Certainly from the decks of the Half Moon, the broad estuary must have looked promising as it took them upriver past the Palisades to the Tappan Zee and beyond for 100 miles. The English mariner and his crew, half Dutch and half English, may have had their appetites whetted by the prospect of glory and riches from the East Indies, but once they encountered the unnavigable upper reaches of the river, any poetic musings would have shifted to the immediate scenes before them, especially the abundance of wildlife and the possibility of trade with the numerous natives. The Delaware, or Lenape, tribe who first welcomed these adventurers, apparently described the Half Moon as “a large house of various colors” that floated on the water - certainly a poetic, if accurate, description.1 In fact, one name for the river was equally poetic, “the river that flows in two directions” (denominating the daily tides that flow up as far as Troy).2 Clearly, the poetry of the Hudson begins with Native Americans, long before the river’s discovery by Europeans.
The Delaware were the primary Native Americans in the lower Hudson Valley, with the Mohicans (or Mahicans) occupying the middle to upper regions. Both were of the Algonquian linguistic group, and included a number of independent bands, such as the Wappingers (close kin to the Mohicans). By the time of Henry Hudson’s arrival, the Iroquois Mohawks had made their way east to the river as well, which made for uneasy relations between the Algonquian and Iroquois tribes. In all cases, whatever the tribe or band, poetry was part of the fabric of life. Native Americans would not have thought of poems in the terms we do today; for them, poetry was mainly song, and it occurred in a wide range of circumstances, from religious and ceremonial occasions to secular and recreational events, whether public or private in utterance. It was an oral tradition and much of it is lost to us. What has survived is mainly found in nineteenth-century transcriptions, such as the one by John Heckewelder in 1819, “The Song of the Lenape Warriors Going Against the Enemy,” which begins:
O poor me!
Who am going out to fight the enemy,
And know not whether I shall return again,
To enjoy the embraces of my children
And my wife.
It closes with an invocation to the “Great Spirit”: “Take pity on me and preserve my life/ And I will make to thee a sacrifice.”3 It is impossible to know how accurate such transcriptions are, but in the case of the Lenape we have a compilation of at least two hundred myths and stories that appear authentic.4 One famous Delaware historical narrative, The Walam Olum, was published by the antiquarian and botanist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque in 1836. It recorded the history of the Lenape, from the time of creation up until the advent of the white man, in highly poetic verses that interpreted fascinating pictographs. This document, however, has been recently affirmed to be a hoax - that most poetic of all our deceptions.5 Written poetry by Native Americans first occurs in English and doesn’t begin until late in the nineteenth century, when many of the original tribes from the Hudson had dispersed or entirely disappeared.
The Hudson has always been a storied river. An early legend says the god Manitou imprisoned rebellious spirits in the Hudson Highlands but the mighty river broke through the highland wall and many of the spirits (but not all) escaped.6 Those that remain continue to haunt it. But when we think of American legends, we often associate the Hudson River Valley with Washington Irving, especially his renowned story, “Rip Van Winkle,” which, along with other such stories, slyly suggests that these tales and legends were passed down to us by credulous and superstitious Dutch settlers. But perhaps Irving’s most lasting contribution to the poetry of the Hudson was his simple phrase, “the lordly Hudson,” which occurs more than once in his work. Here, for instance, is Rip Van Winkle overlooking a scene from high up in the Catskills: “He saw at a distance the lordly Hudson, far, far below him, moving on its silent but majestic course, with the reflection of a purple cloud, or the sail of a lagging bark, here and there sleeping on its glassy bosom, and at last losing itself in the blue highlands.”7 Irving’s lyrical prose can be very close to poetry, and this description has become as iconic for the Hudson as many of the famous paintings of the Hudson River School, such as Kindred Spirits by Asher B. Durand.8
The collector Jonathan Sturges commissioned this painting as a gift to poet and editor William Cullen Bryant to commemorate Bryant’s good friend, the painter and poet Thomas Cole who had recently died. The title is taken from a sonnet by John Keats, “To Solitude”: “and it sure must be/ Almost the highest bliss of human kind,/ When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.” The scene, a composite of sites in the Highlands, pairs the two men as kindred poetic spirits, for indeed both had written poems about the Hudson: Bryant in “A Scene on the Banks of the Hudson” and Cole in “The Falls at Caterskill in Winter.” Both are poems in the Romantic tradition, though Bryant’s invokes the Hudson in its most placid and serene mood, glittering and unrippled, while Cole adumbrates the wild and forbidding nature of a Catskill mountain winter, as it sits among crags “hoary, stern and strong.” Taken together, the two poems, like Kindred Spirits, run the gamut from the picturesque to the sublime.
The friendship of Bryant and Cole follows on from an earlier one of note among poets of the Hudson, that of Joseph Rodman Drake and Fitz-Greene Halleck. Both were New Yorkers, though Halleck came originally from Connecticut, and the two were linked in the public’s mind through their collaboration on a series of comic and satiric poems in the New York Evening Post, written under the pseudonym “Croaker.” Both traveled the Hudson and wrote about it in imaginative ways. Drake’s long poem, “The Culprit Fay,” tells of the adventurous trials of a fairy who has transgressed the code of the fays by falling in love with a mortal woman. It is a charming and beautifully wrought entertainment, enhanced by the precise descriptions of the river and the land around Crow’s Nest in the Highlands. At one climatic point, a sturgeon leaps from the river: “And the bend of his graceful bow is seen - /A glittering arch of silver sheen,/ Spanning the wave of burnished blue,/ And dripping with gems of the river dew” (XI: 9-12). Drake died young, at the age of twenty-five; his good friend Halleck, though five years older, outlived him by forty-seven years. Halleck’s “The Rhyme of the Ancient Coaster” was occasioned by a boat trip to West Point where, at Stony Point near Peekskill, he passed the shipwrecked remains of an old sloop. Halleck, in response, spins a yarn about a young Dutch couple who survive the disaster through the strength of the woman’s love.
The poem may serve as a reminder that in the last 400 years there have been more than 200 shipwrecks in the Hudson, including the infamous destruction of the steamer Henry Clay in 1852 that took the life of the celebrated architect Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing was largely responsible for the romantic landscape movement that brought us so many of the gardens and villas found along the Hudson. One such landscaped terrain is Poets’ Walk Park, found near Redhook, within view of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge. It got its name because Fitz-Greene Halleck and Washington Irving used to walk there on their visits to the Astor family at the “Rokeby” estate. Some say it was there that Irving was inspired to write “Rip Van Winkle,” from gazing upon the lofty Catskills in the distance across the river. But that’s surely just another legend.
A third famous pairing of poets of the Hudson occurs in the second half of the nineteenth century, the friendship of Walt Whitman and John Burroughs. Whitman may be more properly thought of as a poet of the lower Hudson and its bays, as seen in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “Ah, what can ever be more stately and admirable to me than mast-hemm’d Manhattan?/ River and sunset and scallop-edg’d waves of flood-tide?” But his prose work collected in Specimen Days records his fondness for the Hudson Valley as well, where he would go to visit his friend. As he says, in an entry for June 21, 1878, entitled “Happiness and Raspberries”: “Here I am, on the west bank of the Hudson, 80 miles north of New York, near Esopus, at the handsome, roomy, honeysuckle-and-rose-embower’d cottage of John Burroughs.” The following year he would join Burroughs again, this time making a visit across the river to Vassar College. Burroughs, though a great admirer of Whitman, is not often thought of as a poet himself. His one volume of verse, Bird and Bough, carries the self-deprecating epigraph from the seventeenth-century English preacher John Bunyan: “’Some said, John, print it; others said, Not so.’” But Bird and Bough collects many sensitive poems of nature that accord with the famous naturalist’s vision of the life around him, including “Midsummer in the Catskills” and especially “June’s Coming,” which regards the Hudson at dawn, when it “seems a shade - / A liquid shadow deep as space.”
New York City is also a site on the Hudson and poets have thought of it in that way since its early days. Philip Freneau, known as the “Poet of the Revolution,” was often critical of the avaricious and overweening impulses behind much of the “progress” he witnessed in the early Republic (just as he was skeptical of certain claims of moral and racial superiority over Native Americans). His reaction in 1797 to the construction of “moles” (or wharves) out into the Hudson in lower New York - which also served as real estate landfill projects - suggests an appreciation for the autonomous power of nature. His poem, “On the City Encroachments on the River Hudson,” warns that the river may well reclaim what New Yorkers attempt to wrest from it: “When Hudson’s passion, swelling high/ May in a foam his wrongs repay/ And sweep both house and wharf away.”
Almost 100 years later, in 1883, the poet Emma Lazarus looked out into New York Harbor and imagined quite a different scene taking place “at our sea-washed, sunset gates”: the “Mother of Exiles,” the newly wrought Statue of Liberty, lifting her lamp “beside the golden door.” Like the statue itself, her poem stands at the threshold of the Hudson as a poetic celebration of what the river, as it laves the shores of the great city, has meant to so many people entering its port and embarking upon new lives in America. That the Hudson has often been called “America’s river” was not lost upon the poet Hart Crane when he came to write his epical poem, “The Bridge.” The second section, “Powhatan’s Daughter” opens with the poem “The Harbor Dawn,” with its vision of waking from sleep’s “tide of voices” while across “Manhattan waters/- Two - three bright window-eyes aglitter.” The second poem, “Van Winkle,” updates Irving’s character as a tenement sweeper on Avenue A, while the next poem, “The River,” extrapolates the Hudson as an archetypal force crossing the continent and inhabiting our dreams. “What are you,” the poet asks, “lost within this tideless spell?” It is a question that, a generation later, receives a darker answer than Crane would propose. Robert Lowell, in “The Mouth of the Hudson” (from his 1964 volume For the Union Dead) gazes across the Hudson “in the sulphur-yellow sun” and sees “an unforgivable landscape.” The “single man” he describes here is not the solitary individual communing with nature that we might find in the nineteenth century, but rather a modern man who “has trouble with his balance,” who sees the ice floes on the Hudson as the meaningless “blank sides of a jig-saw puzzle.” The mouth of the Hudson, for Lowell, speaks of alienation and despair.
In considering the poetry of the Hudson, we begin to see how the river moves as an imaginative force through the lives and perceptions of poets. It is not a single entity, and it is never the same river twice. At the end of the twentieth century we find John Ashbery, in the long poem Flow Chart, reflecting upon this process, as if the river, too, were consciously involved:
And the river threaded its way as best it could through sharp obstacles and was sometimes not there
and was triumphal for a few moments at the end. I put my youth and middle age into it,
and what else? Whatever happened to be around, at a given moment, for that is the best
we have; no one can refuse it, and, by the same token, everyone must accept it.
The tone of acceptance here, which extends to the river and to our relations with each other, is an acknowledgement of the endless flow of experience. As Emerson says, in Nature, “Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things?” Such a perception can easily give rise to an elegiac sense of the world, but it can also issue in a celebration of continuity, of the magnificent necessity that governs life - what Emerson once referred to as the lords of life. There is something of that spirit in Paul Goodman’s marvelous appreciation of the river in “The Lordly Hudson,” which picks up the phrase from Irving and gives it new life: “‘It is our lordly Hudson hardly flowing,’/ he said, ‘under the green-grown cliffs.’” Years later, in The New Yorker magazine for December 24, 2007, Grace Paley remembers that poem and incorporates it - or rather, folds her own poem into it - in “Suddenly There’s Poughkeepsie.” As Paley follows the course of the river from Lake Tear of the Clouds to Poughkeepsie (“except for its spelling/ an ordinary town” which the sea, nonetheless, strives to reach twice a day with its tides), she, too, is pulled along into the poetic stream of the Hudson. “Look,” she says, “it has/ become our Lordly Hudson/ hardly flowing/ and we are / now in a poem by the poet/ Paul Goodman.” In the face of such wonder, what can one say but,
be quiet heart
then the sea.
As the Hudson flows by the city of Poughkeepsie, it is not surprising that it should find its way into the work of writers associated with Vassar College. And, we might say, it’s only natural that photographers, too, should combine with writers to bring the river to us. Eamon Grennan’s poem, “By the Hudson,” reprises the familiar trip by train along the river during winter, evoking “complicated” thoughts of love and mortality; and Nancy Willard, in the section “The River That Runs Two Ways” from In the Salt Marsh, writes of the trail through Constitution Marsh, in her poem “The Boardwalk, ” where “water sounds the same as the word for land.” The photograph by Eric Lindbloom accompanying Willard’s poem suggests that sense of yearning we feel when a path of beauty opens up before us. William Clift’s photograph of the same vicinity, in A Hudson Landscape, underscores our sense that there are as many Hudson landscapes as there are viewers to behold them.
Finally, as we look to the future, we might note how students at Vassar College have published little magazines and chapbooks independently as a way to gather poems and carry forward the poetry of the Hudson. Both the All Night Review and the neologistic Versimilitudes come out of courses students were taking at the time. They help us see in our present moment that, between the past and the future, poetry itself is like the Hudson River, constantly flowing in two directions.
- John Heckewelder, History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1881), p. 72.
- This phrase is often said to be a translation of the Delaware name, Muhheakantuck, but that is a version of an Iroquois name meaning “Mohegan River.” Native American names for the Hudson abound and it is difficult to ascertain their meaning or their authenticity.
- Heckewelder, History, Manners, and Customs, p. 211.
- See: John Bierhorst, Mythology of the Lenape: Guide and Texts (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995).
- The image is from Special Collections, University of Pennsylvania Library: “Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, Wallam Olum: First and Second Parts of the Painted and Engraved Traditions of the Linnilinape.” Accessed at: http://www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/rbm/kislak/colonial/walam2.html. For an article on the hoax, see: David M. Oestreicher, “Tale of a Hoax: Translating the Walam Olum,” in Algonquian Spirit: Translations of the Algonquian Literatures of North America, ed. Brian Swann (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005): 3-41.
- The story is told in several versions. See, for instance: Charles Montgomery Skinner, Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1896), reprinted by Fireship Press (Tucson, 2007), p. 280.
- Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle,” The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. in Washington Irving: History, Tales and Sketches, ed. James W. Tuttleton (New York: Library of America, 1983), p. 774.
- Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits, 1849. Property of Crystal Bridges—Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Accessed at: http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/kindred_spirits/kindred_spirits.php.