Jeffrey H. Gray’s essay “Poets’ Puffery” is a standard-issue grouse about the hyping of everything that gets published as “one of the most original voices in contemporary American poetry” and the like (hey, no man cries “stinking fish”), but it has a nice excursus on disparaging references to earlier poets, irrelevant to his point but entertaining:
Nathaniel Evans (18th century) is “noted by most historians as a ‘fledgling versifier’ whose occasional verses were wholly ‘unremarkable.’” Elizabeth Akers Allen (19th century) “was considered a minor Victorian poet even by her contemporaries.” Her sentiments were “expressed competently, but with no attempt at innovation in style or content.” William Byrd’s (18th-century) “contribution to poetry is not at all significant.” Indeed, “he published merely a few short, uninteresting poems.”
In our present-day culture of inflation, such humble assessments are appealing. Faint praise is sometimes appropriate. Charles Henry Phelps’s “Love-Song” (1892), a political overture to Canada, makes a poor bid for immortality:
Why should we longer thus be vexed?
Consent, coy one, to be annexed.
But even William Cullen Bryant, surely a bright star of 19th-century poetry — the prodigy who, at 17, wrote “Thanatopsis” — is treated with disdain: “By the end of the 20th century, most critics pronounced him ‘minor’ when they took note of him at all.”
My own favorite entry, on Gertrude Bloede (19th century), sums up a poet’s bad dream of posterity: “Interest in her work, always limited, declined after her death.”
You can actually see a portrait of poor Gertrude here, along with a brief biographical sketch; she looks like she wouldn’t be a bit surprised by her posthumous reputation, or lack thereof. (Thanks, Paul!)
Incidentally, I had to read “Thanatopsis” in grade school; I’ll bet few of my readers can say that, and those who can are of my graying generation.