For almost 40 years, Eli Siegel, the noted poet, critic, and founder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, gave thousands of lectures on a great variety of subjects: poetry, economics, art, history, literature, science, and more. In each he presented the subject with a depth, width, respect, and honesty that are unequaled. One of these, which we love, was "New York Begins Poetically," given on October 11, 1970, through which we came to see the city we care for with so much greater wonder and exactitude.
We are Barbara Buehler, a planner with New York City's Department of City Planning since 1973, and John Stern, a senior planner for 19 years with the Tri-State Regional Planning Commission, headquartered in Manhattan,. Both of us have had a lifelong care for the city. But we had never associated the factual history of New York with poetry. In this lecture, we learned that poetry is inseparable from the history of New York. For example, legend has it that in 1626 the Dutch official Peter Minuit exchanged a few trinkets with the Manhates, Native Americans living there, to purchase all of Manhattan Island. Mr. Siegel explained there is something poetic in the interchange of a few small things for a large wooded island that has a lot of history waiting for it, and it goes along with the famous line by the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, "infinite riches in a little room." Of course we know today that the natives of Manhattan Island did not believe land could be bought and sold, and they saw this as an exchange for peaceful cohabitation. Still, Mr. Siegel was commenting not on the ethics of the exchange, but the poetic equivalence of small and large.
He read from American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, which includes some of the earliest recorded documents of New York's colorful history. In the book is a Dutch historian, who wrote that in that same year, 1626, Minuit built a fort to protect the little colony, which already had 270 inhabitants. In describing the island at that time Mr. Siegel explained that Manhattan looked like places in upstate New York that picnickers haven't got to yet: "when wild land gets real estate on it--like a fort or houses--we have that mingling which is in poetry-- roughness and form."
The little colony of Nieuw Amsterdam grew, but in 1664 it surrendered to an armed English expedition, which renamed the colony New York. A report of the time stated that the Dutch gave in without resistance because the propertied people were more interested in preserving their possessions undamaged than in resisting foreign rule.
We learned about two of the most important writers of early 18th century America: Benjamin Franklin and the theologian Jonathan Edwards, and that the greatest compliment to New York is by the latter. This surprised us, because Edwards has always been associated primarily with New England. Yet in 1722, at the age of 19, he came to New York and stayed three years. In his Personal Narrative he says that the city had an effect on him that deepened his spirit, had him know himself better, and see God better. When he left to return to Connecticut, he wrote,
My heart seemed to sink within me leaving the family [I had lived with] and the city where I had enjoyed so many sweet and pleasant days. As I sailed away I kept sight of the city as long as I could.
Mr. Siegel commented that it is as if he were talking of a dear friend, it is so personal. And yet it is impersonal too, because he is talking about geography, the land. "It is this sense of loss that is the compliment to New York."
In 1775 the American Revolution came to the city. Mr. Siegel spoke about patriot agitation, the pulling down of King George's statue, and in 1776, after General Washington was defeated in the Battle of Long Island, harsh occupation by the British. Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, but the treaty of peace wasn't signed until 1783. In that year the British commanded by Sir Guy Carleton finally left New York and the Americans marched in, led by George Washington. Mr. Siegel read a lively poem by an unknown author, titled "Evacuation of New York by the British, November 25, 1783." It has such a feeling of the city's joy that the victorious Americans and peace are finally returning to New York
They come! they come! The heroes come!
With sounding fife, with thundering drum:
Their ranks advance in bright array--
The heroes of America(y).
He comes! 'Tis mighty Washington
(Words fail to tell all he has done),
Our hero, father, guardian, friend
His fame can never, never end
He comes!--he comes!--our Clinton comes!
Justice her ancient seat resumes:
From shore to shore let shouts resound,
For justice comes with Freedom crown'd.
She comes!--the angelic virgin Peace,
And bids stern War his horrors cease;
Oh! blooming virgin, with us stay,
And bless, oh! bless America(y).
Since Freedom has our efforts crowned,
Let flowing bumpers pass around:
The toast is, "Freedom's favorite son--
Health, peace and joy to Washington!
"The charm of this," explained Mr. Siegel, "is in its mingling of the stolid, sedate, and the lively. All in all, it is one of the most likable, charming bits of poesy of the 18th century in America."
Then he read a poem so different--one, he said, that Edgar Allan Poe helped to make famous. It is called "Unseen Spirits" by Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867), the poet and writer who also gave Storm King Mountain north of the city its romantic name. Commented Mr. Siegel, "It gets in what used to be called a social problem--why love at any time has to be paid for." While in the "Evacuation Poem" we felt many people united in one voice, cheering the triumphant return of Washington, in this poem there was a strong feeling of just two persons alone in the midst of New York, at twilight, with their own thoughts--one well-to-do with many suitors, the other poor. Here is the first stanza:
The shadows lay along Broadway
'T was near the twilight-tide--
And slowly there a lady fair
Was walking in her pride
Alone walked she; but, viewlessly,
Walked spirits at her side.
"A good many novels have downtown Broadway getting darker," said Mr. Siegel, "and shadows did come, and then there was a feeling water is very near. And we have ladies walking on Broadway." The poem continues:
Peace charmed the street beneath her feet,
And Honor charmed the air;
And all astir looked kind on her,
And called her good as fair;
For all God ever gave to her
She kept with chary care.
She kept with care her beauties rare
From lovers warm and true,--
For her heart was cold to all but gold,
And the rich came out to woo,—
But honored well are charms to sell
If priests the selling do.
We have a different lady presented in the last two stanzas:
Now walking there was one more fair--
A slight girl, lily-pale;
And she had unseen company
To make the spirit quail:
'Twixt want and scorn she walked forlorn,
And nothing could avail.
No mercy now can clear her brow
For this world's peace to pray:
For, as love's wild prayer dissolved in air,
Her woman's heart gave way!
But the sin forgiven by Christ in heaven
By man is cursed alway!
Mr. Siegel understood with the greatest compassion what people, including women, had to endure. "The jobs for girls were very limited. You could work for a family, or sell sweet potatoes--teaching by women hadn't come to be a big thing yet. This girl isn't respected and she doesn't have enough money....This poem is a romantic way of describing sin, but it does present New York and how some people had to make their living."
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) has many things about Manhattan that are poetic and fairly exact. To us, his writing has the feeling, the motion, the visual essence that are still true about the city almost a century and a half later. Mr. Siegel read excerpts from Whitman's prose work, Specimen Days. In "My Passion for Ferries," he describes the excitement of the harbor: "What oceanic currents, eddies underneath--the great tides of humanity also, with ever-shifting movements. Indeed, I have always had a passion for ferries; to me they afford inimitable, streaming, never-failing, living poems."
Notables of the mid-19th century and the busy streets are depicted in "Broadway Sights." Whitman mentions seeing James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, and the aged and feeble John Jacob Astor, who owned so much Manhattan real estate. He writes:
Besides Fulton ferry...I knew and frequented Broadway--that noted avenue of New York's crowded and mixed humanity, and of so many notables. Here I saw, during those times, Andrew Jackson, [Daniel] Webster, [Henry] Clay, [William H.] Seward, Martin Van Buren, [Louis] Kossuth, Fitz Greene Halleck, [William Cullen] Bryant, the Prince of Wales, Charles Dickens, the first Japanese ambassadors, and lots of other celebrities of the time. Always something novel or inspiriting; yet mostly to me the hurrying and vast amplitude of those never-ending human currents.
What Mr. Siegel called a fine prose sentence of Whitman, written in 1878, is "Manhattan from the Bay," describing how it looked then, so different yet the same:
And rising out of the midst, tall-topt, ship hemm'd, modern, American, V-shaped Manhattan with its compact mass, its spires, its cloud-touching edifices, group'd at the center--the green of the trees, and all the white, brown, and gray of the architecture well blended and as I see it, under a mirage of limpid sky, delicious light of heaven above, and June haze on the surface below.
Eli Siegel explained that one of the best poems about Manhattan is by Anna Hempstead Branch (1875-1937). She sees New York from some high place, an apartment building, with that haze and soft timeless quality the city can have. Here is "New York at Sunrise," written about 1900:
When with her clouds the early dawn illumes
Our doubtful streets, wistful they grow and mild
As if a sleeping soul grew happy and smiled,
The whole dark city radiantly blooms.
Pale spires lift their hands above the glooms
Like a resurrection, delicately wild,
And flushed with slumber like a little child,
Under a mist, shines forth the innocent Tombs.
Thus have I seen it from a casement high.
As unsubstantial as a dream it grows.
Is this Manhattan , virginal and shy,
That in a cloud so rapturously glows?
Ethereal, frail, and like an opening rose,
I see my city with an enlightened eye.
"Manhattan is seen as virginal," commented Mr. Siegel, "and that is how it can seem, soft and innocent in early morning, a mingling of brightness and darkness."
He read a passage from Landmarks of New York and Historical Guide to the Metropolis about a building that has in it so much of the history and emotion of the city, the Municipal Building, completed in 1914. It is a monumental structure, pierced by a three-story-high arch at street level, and he observed, "As you walk up Chambers Street towards the East River, you meet it looking twice at you. It was a grand place and still is for New York records."
A poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), who once lived on Bedford Street, describes the sound of leaves rustling which is often lost among the other noises of the city.
City TreesThe trees along this city street,
Save for the traffic and the trains,
Would make a sound as thin and sweet
As trees in country lanes.
And people standing in their shade
Out of a shower, undoubtedly
Would hear such music as is made
Upon a country tree.
Oh, little leaves that are so dumb
Against the shrieking city air,
I watch you when the wind has come,--
I know what sound is there.
Returning to Walt Whitman, Mr. Siegel read from "Human and Heroic New York," a section of Specimen Days . Whitman describes the vitality of the city in this passage:Again I resume with curiosity the crowds, the streets I knew so well, Broadway, the ferries, the west side of the city, democratic Bowery--human appearances and manners as seen in all these, and along the wharves, and in the perpetual travel of the horse-cars, or the crowded excursion steamers, or in Wall and Nassau streets by day--in the places of amusement at night--bubbling and whirling and moving like its own environment of waters--endless humanity in all phases.
And he calls all this activity, "The best, most effective medicine my soul has yet partaken."
Throughout this lecture we saw New York City with new eyes, as we felt lively and unexpected relations among time, the feelings of people, history, and the fact that poetry and the poetic are very much of New York--from Peter Minuit to the age of skyscrapers.