Comfort for the Soul: American Poems From the Past

Poems that we love can carry us back in time and around the world.
Comfort for the Soul: American Poems From the Past
Poems we love can comfort and heal. (Nejron Photo/Shutterstock)
Jeff Minick

In his introduction to “The Best Loved Poems of the American People,” which was first published in 1936 and remains in print today, writer Edward Frank Allen put down some thoughts intended to remind readers of the “necessity” of poetry. “It recaptures beauty,” he writes. “It stirs wholesome emotions and gives glimpses across the border that, vague as they may be, are a preview of eternal things. It entertains, it inspires, and, in time of need, it comforts.”

A friend’s email prompted me to reopen my copy of “Best Loved Poems.” She’d been reading an  Ideals publication, a 60-year-old treasure kept by her parents while they lived, and was struck by some of the poetry she found, the sense of peace these verses offered. If I correctly interpreted her email, my friend, who favors tradition in the arts, misses the mac-and-cheese comforts so often absent in today’s poetry.
Because of when it was published and because of its editor, “The Best Loved Poems of the American People” is a treasure house of such verse.

The Woman Behind the Book

Let’s meet Hazel Felleman (1884–1975), a version of Google in human form.
Her name is likely unfamiliar to us, but Hazel Felleman worked almost 50 years at The New York Times, beginning as a teenager dusting books and advancing into an editorship. Soon her principal job involved handling the paper’s Queries and Answers in The Book Review, where she received numerous requests from readers around the country asking her to help them identify a poem or track down some obscure line. She consulted her large collection of reference books, kept track of thousands of these searches, and dug up answers. In her obituary, the Times reported Miss Felleman’s solitary failure:

“Only once was she stumped. A reader asked an unusually tough question, and she took her problem to the public library. The library’s experts tackled the query, finally admitted they could not find the answer and referred her to ‘Miss Hazel Felleman of the New York Times.’”

Eventually, Felleman compiled “The Best Loved Poems of the American People,” taking her title from the queries submitted by those thousands of readers and poetry hunters. Later, she edited an equally large anthology, “Poems That Live Forever,” which also remains available today.
 "Solid Comfort" by William Henry Lippincott. (Public Domain)
"Solid Comfort" by William Henry Lippincott. (Public Domain)
Though not all of Felleman’s selections are available today outside of her book, here is a sampling of those less familiar American poets whose works are available online and who sing to us of the peace and comfort sought by my friend.

‘Strains of One Familiar Song’

T.C. O’Kane (1830–1912) wrote songs, hymns, and verse. In his piece “My Mother’s Prayer,” a man visits his old home, comes across the trundle bed in which he once slept, and is immediately whisked by memories into boyhood, when his mother would tuck him between the sheets with prayers and a kiss. Through word choice, rhythm, and the imagery of a mother in the shadows, the poet skillfully creates a picture of a child falling to sleep. At one point, the narrator once again hears his mother’s voice:

Strains of one familiar song, Often sung by my dear mother To me in that trundle bed: “Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber, Holy angels guard thy bed.

Even at the poem’s end, when the narrator wakes from his revery, the sweet, languid memories of “dusky eventide” and his mother’s whispers remain:

Yet I am but only dreaming, Ne’er I’ll be a child again, Many years has that dear mother In quiet churchyard lain. But the memory of her counsels O’er my path a light has spread, Daily calling me to heaven, Even from my trundle bed.

‘All the Lovely Wayside Things’

Today, Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885) is chiefly remembered as an advocate for Native Americans in books like “A Century of Dishonor” and “Ramona.” Yet in her day, she was also widely known for her poetry, and given the season, it’s fitting to look at her poem “October’s Bright Blue Weather.”
 Poems can help us imagine sites on the wayside. The Wayside Inn Grist Mill in Sudbury Mass. (Jay Yuan/Shutterstock)
Poems can help us imagine sites on the wayside. The Wayside Inn Grist Mill in Sudbury Mass. (Jay Yuan/Shutterstock)
In this piece, Jackson offers readers pure joy while placing us in touch with the earth, word-painting the change of season with bright colors and buoyant rhythm. Here, for instance, is the fourth stanza:

When on the ground red apples lie In piles like jewels shining, And redder still on old stone walls Are leaves of woodbine twining …

Jackson also begins and ends her poem by humorously comparing October to June, that season of warm weather and weddings perhaps more celebrated by poets:

O sun and skies and flowers of June, Count all your boasts together, Love loveth best of all the year October's bright blue weather.

‘Friends at Hand’

Wilbur Nesbit (1871–1927) earned his livelihood in journalism and advertising. Popular during World War I, and both recited and sung by school children, his best-known poem was “Your Flag and My Flag.”
We may revel along with H.H. Jackson in the fragrances of bright October, but that snap in the air foretells the coming of winter and more time spent indoors.  Because I’m always drawn to books, and because books and cold weather go together like cocoa and marshmallows, here I present the first stanza of Nesbit’s short poem “Who Hath a Book.”

Who hath a book Hath friends at hand, And gold and gear At his command; And rich estates, if he but look, Are held by him Who hath a book.

Like Emily Dickinson in “There Is No Frigate Like a Book,” Nesbit reminds us that the union of ink, paper, and a writer’s imagination can carry us through time and around the world.

‘Growing Old’

Born in Arkansas, Karle Wilson Baker (1878–1960) fell in love with Texas in 1906, just about the same time she fell in love with her future husband. She was a teacher and a well-known poet and writer in her time. And though little known today, she was nominated for a Pulitzer in 1931.
A number of thinkers and writers down through the ages have proclaimed that as we grow older, we acquire the faces we deserve. In “Let Me Grow Lovely,” Baker hopes that she may exude beauty and quiet splendor as she ages:

Let me grow lovely, growing old— So many fine things to do: Laces, and ivory, and gold, And silks need not be new; And there is healing in old trees, Old streets a glamour hold; Why may not I, as well as these, Grow lovely, growing old?

Perhaps it is Baker’s inclusion of fine old things—laces, silks, and trees—along with the fourfold use of “old” in this short poem, but as in so many other poetic works from earlier times, we find a sweetness here, a tenderness that marks the poem and leaves it beautiful.
 “Old Memories,” circa 1883, by John George Brown. (Art Renewal)
“Old Memories,” circa 1883, by John George Brown. (Art Renewal)

Chicken Soup Poetry

Human nature may remain the same, but human circumstances change. Here’s just one example: Most of us living today were born in a hospital under professional care, and most of us will die in a hospital or in nursing facilities. Most of the people living at the time of these poets were born at home, and most of them, including the many children stricken with disease, died there as well.

Those two realities placed their stamp on the poets of that day. Some consider their verses saccharine, but they had earned the right to their sentimentality. In general, they were also closer to the things of the earth—crops, animals, the weather—than we are today, a familiarity reflected in their writing. Perhaps as a result of all these factors, they were likely closer to God as well, which may explain why so many of the pieces appearing in “The Best Loved Poems of the American People” invoke a deity.

Today, we face trials and fears that our not-so-distant ancestors never dreamed of. We sprint through each day, for instance, trying to make a living and raise a family, all the while bombarded by myriad bits of information and ubiquitous news reports that the sky is falling.

The result? In that earlier time, it was common for people to die of sepsis, or blood poisoning. In our day, it is more common for people to die of sepsis of the soul.

Eighty-seven years ago in “The Best Loved Poems of the American People,” Edward Allen wrote: “Today poetry is an absolute necessity. The world needs it for its vitiating strength. Poetry came into being because of this need, and it is perpetuated for the same reason.”

If you’re in need of some vitiating strength, look to some of these poets and others for comfort, for some chicken broth in verse for the mind and spirit.

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Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.