Fitz-Greene Halleck (July 8, 1790 – November 19, 1867) was a poet notable for his satires and as one of the Knickerbocker Group. He was sometimes called "the American Byron". His poetry was popular and widely read but later fell out of favor. It has been studied since the late twentieth century for its homosexual themes and insights into nineteenth-century society.
Born and reared in Guilford, Connecticut, in a house at the corner of Whitfield and Water Streets. He had an older sister Marie, and his father owned a store in the town. At the age of two, the young Halleck suffered when two soldiers fired off their guns next to his left ear; he was partially deaf for the remainder of his life. He left school at 15 to work in his family's shop in Guilford.
He went to New York City at the age of 20, and lived and worked there for nearly four decades. In May 1811, the 20-year-old Halleck moved to New York City to find work. After a month of searching, he had all but given up and made plans to move to Richmond, Virginia, but he was hired by a banker named Jacob Barker. He worked for Barker for the next 20 years.
Halleck began to write with his friend Joseph Rodman Drake. In 1819 they wrote and published the anonymous Croaker Papers, which were satires of New York society. These 35 poems were published individually in The Evening Standard and National Advertiser over several months. An unauthorized collection was published in 1819 with 24 selections. They published the poems under the pseudonyms Croaker; Croaker, Jr.; and Croaker and Co., taken from a character in Oliver Goldsmith's The Good‐Natured Man. The "Croakers" were perhaps the first popular literary satire of New York, and New York society was thrilled to be the subject of erudite derision.
That year, Halleck wrote his longest poem Fanny, a satire on the literature, fashions, and politics of the time. It was modeled on Byron's Beppo and Don Juan. Published anonymously in December 1819, Fanny proved so popular that soon the initial 50 cent-edition was fetching up to $10. Two years later, its continuing popularity inspired Halleck to append an additional 50 stanzas.
Both Halleck and Drake became associated with the New York writers known as the Knickerbocker Group, led by William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, pioneers in their fields.
Drake advised Halleck to pursue becoming a nationally known poet and to sit on "Appalachia's brow." He thought contemplating the immense power of American nature would inspire his friend's imagination.
A medical student, Drake died in 1820 of consumption (tuberculosis) at age 25. Halleck commemorated his friend in "The Death of Joseph Rodman Drake" (1820), which begins, "Green be the turf above thee".
On The Death of Joseph Rodman Drake
Green be the turf above thee,
Friend of my better days!
None knew thee but to love thee,
Nor named thee but to praise.
Tears fell, when thou went dying,
From eyes unused to weep,
And long where thou art lying,
Will tears the cold turf steep.
When hearts, whose truth was proven,
Like throe, are laid in earth,
There should a wreath be woven
To tell the world their worth;
And I, who woke each morrow
To clasp thy hand in mine,
Who shared thy joy and sorrow,
Whose weal and woe were thine;
It should be mine to braid it
Around thy faded brow,
But I've in vain essayed it,
And I feel I cannot now.
While memory bids me weep thee,
Nor thoughts nor words are free,
The grief is fixed too deeply
That mourns a man like thee.
Sarah Eckford Drake, the student's young widow, was left with their daughter. She showed interest in having Halleck as her second husband. His satires included her as a figure, and in one he referred to her as a witch. She died young in 1828. Halleck never married.
In 1822, Halleck visited Europe and Great Britain, which influenced his poetry. "Alnwick Castle" was written that year and refers to a stately home in Northumberland. His long poem Marco Bozzaris (1825) was dedicated to the heroic Greek freedom fighter against the Turks, showing the continuing influence of Byron's example. In 1827 Halleck published a collection, Alnwick Castle, with Other Poems, but after that his writing decreased.
At midnight, in his guarded tent,
The Turk was dreaming of the hour
When Greece, her knee in suppliance bent,
Should tremble at his power;
In dreams, through camp and court he bore.
The trophies of a conqueror;
In dreams his song of triumph heard;
Then wore his monarch's signet ring;
Then pressed that monarch's throne-a king:
As wild his thoughts and gay of wing
As Eden's garden bird.
At midnight, in the forest shades,
Bozzaris ranged his Suliote band,
True as the steel of their tried blades,
Heroes in heart and hand.
There had the Persian's thousands stood,
There had the glad earth drunk their blood
On old Plataea's day;
And now there breathed that haunted air
The sons of sires who conquered there,
With arm to strike, and soul to dare,
As quick, as far as they.
An hour passed on-the Turk awoke;
That bright dream was his last;
He woke-to hear his sentries shriek,
'To arms! they come! the Greek! the Greek!'
He woke-to die midst flame and smoke,
And shout and groan and sabre-stroke,
And death-shots falling thick and fast
As lightnings from the mountain-cloud;
And heard, with voice as trumpet loud,
Bozzaris cheer his band:
Strike-till the last armed foe expires!
Strike-for your altars and your fires!
Strike-for the green graves of your sires,
God, and your native land!'
They fought like brave men, long and well;
They piled that ground with Moslem slain;
They conquered-but Bozzaris fell,
Bleeding at every vein.
His few surviving comrades saw
His smile when rang their proud hurrah,
And the red field was won;
Then saw in death his eyelids close
Calmly, as to a night's repose,
Like flowers at set of sun.
Come to the bridal chamber, Death!
Come to the mother's when she feels,
For the first time, her first-horn's breath;
Come when the blessed seals
That close the pestilence are broke,
And crowded cities wail its stroke;
Come in consumption's ghastly form,
The earthquake shock, the ocean storm;
Come when the heart beats high and warm
With banquet-song and dance and wine;
And thou art terrible-the tear,
The groan, the knell, the pall, the bier,
And all we know or dream or fear
Of agony, are thine.
But to the hero, when his sword
Has won the battle for the free,
Thy voice sounds like a prophet's word,
And in its hollow tones are heard
The thanks of millions yet to be.
Come when his task of fame is wrought,
Come with her laurel-leaf, blood-bought,
Come in her crowning hour, and then
Thy sunken eye's unearthly light
To him is welcome as the sight
Of sky and stars to prisoned men;
Thy grasp is welcome as the hand
Of brother in a foreign land;
Thy summons welcome as the cry
That told the Indian isles were nigh
To the world-seeking Genoese,
When the land-wind, from woods of palm
And orange-groves and fields of balm,
Blew oer the Haytian seas.
Bozzaris, with the storied brave
Greece nurtured in her glory's time,
Rest thee-there is no prouder gave.
Even in her own proud clime.
She wore no funeral-weeds for thee,
Nor bade the dark hearse wave its plume,
Like torn branch from death's leafless tree,
In sorrow's pomp and pageantry,
The heartless luxury of the tomb.
But she remembers thee as one
Long loved and for a season gone;
For thee her poet's lyre is wreathed,
Her marble wrought, her music breathed;
For thee she rings the birthday bells;
Of thee her babes' first lisping tells;
For throe her evening prayer is said
At palace-couch and cottage-bed;
Her soldier, closing with the foe,
Gives for thy sake a deadlier blow;
His plighted maiden, when she fears
For him, the joy of her young years,
Thinks of thy fate and checks her tears;
And she, the mother of thy boys,
Though in her eye and faded cheek
Is read the grief she will not speak,
The memory of her buried joys,
And even she who gave thee birth,
Will, by their pilgrim-circled hearth,
Talk of thy doom without a sigh,
For thou art Freedom's now and Fame's,
One of the few, the immortal names,
That were not born to die.
By 1830 Halleck had become a kind of celebrity for his poetry, sometimes called the American Byron. In 1832, Halleck was hired as the private secretary to John Jacob Astor. The wealthy fur trader merchant turned philanthropist later appointed him as one of the original trustees of the Astor Library of New York (the basis of the Public Library). Halleck also served as Astor's cultural tutor, advising him on pieces of art to purchase.
During this period, Halleck was widely read and was part of New York literary society. As one of the younger members of the Knickerbocker Group, he published with them and met associated visiting writers, such as Charles Dickens. His satires were thought to challenge the era's "sacred institutions" and Halleck was known for his wit and charm.
At Astor's death in 1848, he left Halleck an annuity in his will: of only $200 annually. Astor’s son William increased the amount to $1,500. Astor was the wealthiest person in the United States, leaving an estate estimated to be worth at least $20 million. His estimated net worth, if calculated as a fraction of the U.S. gross domestic product at the time, would have been equivalent to $110.1 billion in 2006 U.S. dollars.
With the annuity by Astor's estate, in 1849 Halleck retired to Guilford, where he lived with his sister Marie Halleck for the remainder of his life.
In April 1860, a lingering illness made Halleck give instructions for his funeral and burial, but he recovered. He often turned down requests for public appearances in his later years, and he complained about being pestered by "frequent appeals for letters to hard-hearted editors". When people named children after him, Halleck seemed annoyed rather than honored. He wrote, "I am favored by affectionate fathers with epistles announcing that their eldest-born has been named after me, a calamity that costs me a letter of profound gratefulness".
On November 19, 1867, around 11:00 at night, he called out to his sister, "Marie, hand me my pantaloons, if you please." Then he died. He is buried at Alderbrook Cemetery in Guilford.
Halleck never married. His biographer Hallock believes that he was homosexual. He found that Halleck was enamored at the age of 19 with a young Cuban named Carlos Menie, to whom he dedicated a few of his early poems. Hallock suggests that Halleck was in love with his friend Joseph Rodman Drake
In his will Halleck asked for Drake's body and family to be exhumed and reburied with him. In 1903, plans were set to move the bodies of Drake, his wife, daughter, sister, and nephew to Halleck's plot in Guilford.
In 2006 the Fitz-Greene Halleck Society was founded to raise awareness of this nearly forgotten historical figure.
Fanny was younger once than she is now,
And prettier of course: I do not mean
To say that there are wrinkles on her brow;
Yet, to be candid, she is past eighteen—
Perhaps past twenty—but the girl is shy
About her age, and Heaven forbid that I
Should get myself in trouble by revealing
A secret of this sort; I have too long
Loved pretty women with a poet’s feeling,
And when a boy, in day dream and in song,
Have knelt me down and worshipp’d them: alas!
They never thank’d me for’t—but let that pass.
Her father kept, some fifteen years ago,
A retail dry-good shop in Chatham-street,
And nursed his little earnings, sure though slow,
Till, having muster’d wherewithal to meet
The gaze of the great world, he breathed the air
Of Pearl-street—and "set up" in Hanover-square.
Money is power, ’tis said—I never tried;
I’m but a poet—and bank-notes to me
Are curiosities, as closely eyed,
Whene’er I get them, as a stone would be,
Toss’d from the moon on Doctor Mitchill’s table,
Or classic brickbat from the tower of Babel.
But he I sing of well has known and felt
That money hath a power and a dominion;
For when in Chatham-street the good man dwelt,
No one would give a sous for his opinion.
And though his neighbours were extremely civil,
Yet, on the whole, they thought him—a poor devil,
A decent kind of person; one whose head
Was not of brains particularly full;
It was not known that he had ever said
Any thing worth repeating—’twas a dull,
Good, honest man—what Paulding’s muse would call
A “cabbage head”—but he excelled them all
In that most noble of the sciences,
The art of making money; and he found
The zeal for quizzing him grew less and less,
As he grew richer; till upon the ground
Of Pearl-street, treading proudly in the might
And majesty of wealth, a sudden light
Flash’d like the midnight lightning on the eyes
Of all who knew him; brilliant traits of mind,
And genius, clear and countless as the dies
Upon the peacock’s plumage; taste refined,
Wisdom and wit, were his—perhaps much more.
’Twas strange they had not found it out before.
Dear to the exile is his native land,
In memory’s twilight beauty seen afar:
Dear to the broker is a note of hand,
Collaterally secured—the polar star
Is dear at midnight to the sailor’s eyes,
And dear are Bristed’s volumes at “half price;”
But dearer far to me each fairy minute
Spent in that fond forgetfulness of grief;
There is an airy web of magic in it,
As in Othello’s pocket-handkerchief,
Veiling the wrinkles on the brow of sorrow,
The gathering gloom to-day, the thunder cloud to-morrow.
Since that wise pedant, Johnson, was in fashion,
Manners have changed as well as moons; and he
Would fret himself once more into a passion,
Should he return (which heaven forbid!), and see,
How strangely from his standard dictionary,
The meaning of some words is made to vary.
For instance, an undress at present means
The wearing a pelisse, a shawl, or so;
Or any thing you please, in short, that screens
The face, and hides the form from top to toe;
Of power to brave a quizzing-glass, or storm—
’Tis worn in summer, when the weather’s warm.
But a full dress is for a winter’s night.
The most genteel is made of "woven air;"
That kind of classic cobweb, soft and light,
Which Lady Morgan’s Ida used to wear.
And ladies, this aërial manner dress'd in,
Look Eve-like, angel-like, and interesting.