IHAS: Poet
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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 AND WORK.

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.

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!

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