Listen, and you shall hear of the “Fireside Poets,” a group of five writers from New England who captivated the Nation in the late 19th century. The Fireside Poets wrote for the everyperson, using conventional forms of poetry to tell tales of history, environmentalism, legends, and contemporary home life and politics in America.
Music by Phil Vivori
Craig: Welcome to What’s in the Basement? a new podcast from the Berkshire Museum. In each episode, we will explore objects and stories from our collection of over 40,000 pieces of art, historical artifacts, and natural specimens. I’m Craig Langlois, Chief Experience Officer for the Berkshire Museum and host of What’s in the Basement. Today we are joined by…
Brent: My name is Brent Ashby. I am the Guest Services Manager at Berkshire Museum.
Craig: Hi, Brent! Thanks for joining us today. You have brought us quite a few objects to explore. Let’s start by having you describe what we’re looking at.
Brent: Hi Craig, I have a selection of five handwritten letters, some that include prints or drawings of the authors. They are a small part of our larger collection of letters and signatures donated by the museum’s founder Zenas Crane in the early 20th century.
Craig: Interesting. So you said we have many more, why did you pick these five, what do these letters tell us, or how are they related?
Brent: Well, I selected these not because of the content of the letters but instead because of the connection between the authors. William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell. These five men made up a group of poets known as the “Fireside Poets” or the “Schoolroom Poets.” They were hugely popular in the second half of the 19th century, like the pop stars of their time. They were the only poets of their time to rival British poets in popularity, especially in New England, as they were all born here in Massachusetts.
Craig: So they were the nineteenth century poetry equivalent to pop stars? Would I, or any of our listeners, recognize their work?
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,—
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm.”
Craig: I have definitely heard that one before!
Brent: That was Paul Revere’s Ride written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, arguably the most successful and well known of the Fireside Poets. He was world-famous during his lifetime, reaching a level of international acclaim never seen by an American literary figure before. Longfellow is one of the few American writers honored in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. He is, in fact, believed to be the first American writer to receive that honor.
Craig: Can you tell me a little bit about their style and where they got their name?
Brent: They were part of Romanticism, a movement that originated in Europe and encompassed art, literature, music and intellectual thought. In the American context, it dominated the artistic scene from around the 1820s until the end of the Civil War. The Romantics turned from the disciplined scientific inquiry of the Enlightenment and looked to nature, emotion and feeling and morality and equality.
Within this movement, the Fireside Poets created a name for themselves by writing for the masses, for the everyman. Their moniker is a reference to how families, before the era of TV, radio and the internet, would gather around the fireplace at night and recite their poetry. They mostly stuck to conventional forms like long narrative poems, often with rhyming stanzas. This made their work easier to memorize and recite, making the Fireside Poets popular in schools.
Craig: I enjoy the imagery of families gathering around the fire at night, reciting these poems. From Paul Revere’s Ride I can guess they wrote about history, what else can you tell us about the interests of the Fireside Poets?
Brent: They wrote frequently about environmentalism, legends, and contemporary home life and politics in America. They all had personal interests and passions that informed their poetry as well as their other work. John Greenleaf Whittier, the son of Quakers, was the most political among them, a radical abolitionist who wrote prolifically on the subject and co-founded the Atlantic Monthly in 1859 which continues to cover contemporary political affairs today. Oliver Wendell Holmes was a physician and medical professor at Harvard, who also had a home here in Pittsfield. When he wasn’t writing poetry, he was researching Puerperal Fever, which was causing high mortality rates in women after childbirth. He concluded that physicians needed to sterilize their instruments and burn their clothes between patients. These ideas were controversial at the time, and not taken seriously, but are now revolutionary in the germ theory of disease.
Craig: Thanks, Brent. You have sort of already hit on the topic of our last question here on What’s in the Basement? which is always—revolves around the concept of relevancy. The Fireside Poets are an amazing example of the intersection between art and science and people’s interests. It’s interesting to hear that some of their theories around germ theory weren’t taken seriously during their time. Would you agree that we’re taking them seriously right now?
Brent: Indeed, we are. Our lives and routines are continuing to adjust and adapt as we try to control the spread of covid19. I think we need to remember that humans throughout our history have had similar struggles. And what I like most about the Fireside Poets is they wrote about topics that very much resonate today: the environment, social responsibility, and human rights. People shared their words not only in classrooms, but in much more intimate conversations at home. Even with all the many sources of entertainment we have in modern times, there is something very memorable about sharing poetry with the people closest to you. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I could relate to the work of the Fireside Poets, and I look forward to not only learning more about them but exploring some similar themes in my writing throughout the weeks ahead. April is, after all, National Poetry Month.
Craig: Museum basements can be magical places. Even though we can’t have all 40,000 objects on display, we can glimpse at the depth and breadth of the Museum collection through programs like this. I am Craig Langlois, Chief Experience Officer for the Berkshire Museum. I hope you can join us for future episodes of What’s In The Basement?