ROBERT UNDERWOOD JOHNSON
American poet, translator, and editor of CENTURY MAGAZINE from 1873-1909,
Underwood Johnson was by temperament a latter-day Romantic. His poetic models were
the Georgians, Tennyson, the Brownings Shelley, and Keats. With these last three he
shared a passion for Italy--serving as the American Ambassador from 1920-1921--and his
special reverence for Keats caused him to co-found in 1903 the Keats-Shelley Memorial
Association and establish the library at the house by the Spanish Steps in Rome where
Keats had died.
After the success of his 1910 occasional poem ST. GAUDENS, AN ODE, Underwood
Johnson was widely regarded as America's unofficial Poet Laureate. He published his
memoirs, REMEMBERED YESTERDAYS, in 1923 and his collected verse in 1931 as POEMS OF FIFTY
YEARS. Charles Ives was drawn to Johnson's work in the 1920's, when he set AT SEA, LUCK
AND WORK, THE HOUSATONIC AT STOCKBRIDGE, and PREMONITIONS. The affinity Ives felt for
Underwood Johnson is no mystery: Both shared the Transcendental faith, and to both Nature
was a mystic, empathetic, often healing power whose harmonies held the key to man's
understanding of life's underlying rhythms.
Listen to "The Housatonic at Stockbridge" in the Songbook
Underwood Johnson & Ives
Underwood Johnson's THE HOUSATONIC AT STOCKBRIDGE is a longer poem from which Ives
excerpted the text he used for his song. In the complete verses, the poet has the
opportunity to ramble as leisurely as the river--which is a metaphor for life's journey
and the eternal source of creation--gathering strength and wisdom before rushing forward
into the unknown. Similar water imagery defines AT SEA, though here the distant shoreline,
which holds the beloved, is definable only by the heart. The adventurous, even
death-defying poetic spirit is again the subject of PREMONITIONS, in which Nature's
intimations leave a vague uneasiness--a "shadow on the grass, a song which falters in
the throat"--and yet the poet answers the forward call of new horizons. It is this
courage to act and to take responsibility for actions that is also the theme of LUCK
For Underwood Johnson, as for so many American Romantics who were weaned on the 19th
century's passion for our primeval wilderness, life's journey was, by definition, a voyage
to the unknown in which Nature left roadmarkers for the soul.
THE HOUSATONIC AT STOCKBRIDGE
by Robert Underwood Johnson
Contented river in thy dreamy realm
The cloudy willow and the plumy elm:
Thou beautiful! from ev'ry dreamy hill
What eye but wanders with thee at thy will.
Contented river! And yet overshy
To mask thy beauty from the eager eye;
Hast thou a thought to hide from field and town?
In some deep current of the sunlit brown.
Ah! there's a restive ripple,
And the swift red leaves
September's firstlings faster drift;
Wouldst thou away, dear stream?
Come, whisper near!
I also of much resting have a fear;
Let me tomorrow thy companion be,
By fall and shallow to the adventurous sea!