Frederick Goddard Tuckerman: Poems Background

Frederick Goddard Tuckerman: Poems Background

Frederick Goddard Tuckerman was to the manor born among the Bostonian elites in 1821. He would eventually establish long-term correspondences with such literary elites of New England as Hawthorne and Longfellow. While attending Harvard, his tutor in Greek was noted lyric poet Jones Very and 20th century literary Yvor Winters declared him to be a more essential writer of his time than Ralph Waldo Emerson with whom Tuckerman also corresponded. And yet, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman was almost completely unknown for much of the late 19th century and even after his rediscovery in the 20th century, he still remains an obscure figure in American poetry for many even while his status continues to rise ever upward among scholars and critics. What’s the deal?

To begin with, Tuckerman published just one volume of poetry while he was alive. Poems first appeared in 1860 with reprints in 1864 and then again 1869. Both the first edition and the second edition had to compete for attention with something that was getting a lot more attention from potential reader: the American Civil War. By virtue of the fortunate circumstances of his birth, Tuckerman became a lawyer despite being wealthy enough that he didn’t really need to work. He enjoyed practicing law, however, and also enjoyed pursuing interests other than writing verse. That wealth enabled him to spend at least as much time engaging in scientific study in disciplines like botany and astronomy as he spend reading and writing poetry.

Although he had toyed with poetry for much of his life, it was apparently the death of his wife after ten years of marriage as a result of complications of childbirth that stimulated the unstoppable muse for Tuckerman. Her passing would inspired more than 100 sonnets he would complete before his own death, none of which he himself titled. The most famous was given the title “The Cricket.” Separated into five seconds, its 131 lines are a heartbreaking attempt to answer in verse the question of how—or if—one can ever accept the loss of a wife and infant daughter to the point of somehow moving beyond the grief. Such a loss was sadly not uncommon at the time, yet it was not a poem to be shared with those who had experienced such loss; “The Cricket” would not be published until 1950.

That was forty years after drama critic Walter Eaton began the process of resurrecting attention for this lost poet with the discovery of two unpublished sonnets. Those two sonnets captured the imagination of American poet Witter Brynner who stablished contact with Tuckerman’s family and was thus introduced to the mass of unpublished poetry when he collected and published in 1931 as The Sonnets of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. In turn, those sonnets inspired future Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday to write his college dissertation on the poetry of Tuckerman.

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