One of the several poems that my father used to recite at the slightest provocation was “Little Boy Blue,” by Eugene Field, at fact that placed the otherwise eclipsed Field on my radar. This weekend, while accompanying my delightful wife on a thirtieth-anniversary expedition to St. Joseph, Missouri, I noticed a spot on the area map that again suggested Field. The poet, I remembered as I drove north through the parkways of the little city, hailed from St. Joseph, and one of his popular poems, “Lover’s Lane,” evoked memories of a road by that name, a road still easily accessible on the north side of town.
In the spirit of Robert Browning writing, “Oh to be England, now that April’s there,” Field found himself in a foreign city–London in his case–thinking about home.
Let us sit awhile, beloved,
And dream of the good old days,—
Of the kindly shade which the maples made
Round the stanch but squeaky chaise;
With your head upon my shoulder,
And my arm about you so,
Though exiles, we shall seem to be
In Lover’s Lane, Saint Jo.
I would argue that Browning’s poem, “Home Thoughts from Abroad,” is far from that writer’s best work, yet it stands superior to Field’s poem with its unhealthy dollop of nostalgia atop the plate. Since driving down that road yesterday, I’ve found myself humming a completely unrelated song, “The Old Lamplighter,” a 1946 tune by Nat Simon and Charles Tobias. When I realized the song had invited my consciousness, I wondered why, but quickly realized that its nostalgic pining for old days that probably never existed as described, just like Eugene Field’s evocation of courtship along Lover’s Lane.
That reliance on sentiment and nostalgia helps to explain the low esteem that Field elicits from critics a century and more after his death. His work falls much more in the paths of Henry Longfellow than those of Walt Whitman, which helps to explain his neglect. Longfellow and Field, after all, are so plain and straight-forward. They were the poetic Norman Rockwells of their day. While they might test a reader’s vocabulary, they are unlikely to push the reader into uncomfortable areas of thought. Whitman, on the other hand, challenges the reader, verging at times into areas that elave a reader puzzled as to just what the fellow is after.
I wonder, having driven Lover’s Lane, if the Whitman path is necessarily the better one. Or maybe I should ask whether we are not a poorer culture for not being able to laud and embrace a poet who simply voices commonplace feelings in a beautiful and surprising manner. There’s something to be said for the versifier, since those verses can be read for the delight of the sound of the language and the universality of the idea as well.
In decades hence, the feeling of homesickness expressed in this poem and the feeling of loss carried in “Little Boy Blue,” will, I’m fairly confident, remain current. After all, both the love lyrics and religious verse of John Donne speak to readers some four centuries after their composition. Can the same be said of the more esteemed poets from Field’s time and the succeeding decades?