Peter Viereck

1916–2006
Heralded by critics for his "comic sense" and "lyrical element," Peter Viereck received numerous awards for his works of poetry and historical nonfiction. Endorsing a philosophy which seeks to join humankind with what he described as the rhythmic heritage of the universe, Viereck sought to synthesize extremes in much of his poetry. In a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay, Idris McElveen explained: "The lyrical element is present in finely crafted lines of sounds and rhythms. When Viereck is at his best, he can have both intelligence and lyricism in the same poem.... As a result of this risk-taking, his range in tone and in subject matter is exceptional. Also as a result, he often fails disastrously and conspicuously." Not surprisingly, Viereck received similarly mixed reviews throughout his long and successful career. McElveen concluded that Viereck's risk-filled poetry can either display an "energetic control of language for purposes of wit and variety in tone and subject matter" or can occasionally "disintegrate into contrivances and verbal clowning."

Upon its publication in 1941, Viereck's first book made a strong impression on reviewers. Books' John Barnes called Metapolitics: From the Romantics to Hitler "a corrosive analysis of some of the ideas of National Socialism.... It does as much as any book since the [Second World War] began to define the specifically German elements of what Mr. Viereck calls the 'theology of nightmare.'" A reviewer for Christian Science Monitor found the work "an extremely important book, notable because it makes it possible for the normal western mind to understand at least partially the disease which has warped the thinking of the German people. This is no easy task because no German has ever been able to explain it intelligently." Crane Brinton wrote in the Saturday Review of Literature: "This is the best account of the intellectual origins of Nazism available to the general reader. It is a controversial book, packed with points worth disputing."

Catholic World writer Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn expressed a similar opinion of Viereck's later nonfiction book, Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals: Babbitt, Jr. Versus the Rediscovery of Values. He commented: "In this ... internally cohesive and brilliant statement of a young conservative spokesman, the reader will be intellectually stimulated by a scintillating wealth of ideas. He will also be introduced to the indignation of a true American idealist and forced to shake with laughter at the salty humor of a highly amusing author." Saturday Review 's Elmer Davis added, "[Viereck] has a good many things of importance to say and we had better listen to him."

While reviewers have been generally favorable toward Viereck's nonfiction work, some critics commented on the time it took for him to "mature" as a poet. Although Chad Walsh's 1956 review of The Persimmon Tree described Viereck as a "lyricist who is now coming into his own," this maturation process was lengthy, as reviewers of Terror and Decorum: Poems 1940-1948 reflect. In Nation, Rolfe Humphries pointed out that "Mr. Viereck has.... A good deal to learn," and David Daiches noted in a review for the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review that while there was great promise evident in Viereck's earlier work, "much in [Terror and Decorum] is still promise." Though Saturday Review of Literature's Selden Rodman acknowledged that "his book as a whole is so rich in experimental vigor, so full of new poetic attitudes toward civilization and its discontents, so fresh and earthy in its reanimation of the American spirit, that it seems to offer endless possibilities of development—both for Viereck himself, and for other young poets," he also wrote that Viereck's "style is much less finished."

Other reviewers of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book faulted more than Viereck's supposed lack of maturity. Robert Fitzgerald noted that "the poems are lively and a few of them sustain a neat, coarse clarity and a satiric turn of fancy that is not disagreeable. However, he has a warm, breezy, familiar way of being acutely embarrassing." Fitzgerald continued: "The favorable reception of this patter may be significant, but I judge it to be momentary, for Viereck has as yet written very little to which one could wish to return often or with serious interest." Paul Goodman agreed in a Poetry review, complaining "it is hard to read these verses seriously because, though Viereck has many lively talents, he seems to have no personal language."

James Reaney echoed Goodman's opinion in Canadian Forum: "Peter Viereck's poems, for the most part ... are the results of forced fancy, of imagination overdriven by a sort of imagery-engine.... At their best these poems describe a horrifying, harsh world not even our own but always five centuries ahead.... His poems ... are a perfect illustration of the proverb: One may be a visionary and a visionary with all the correct myths, symbols and assorted gobbets of erudition on their right places and still not be a poet."

At the time of its publication in 1950, the collection Strike through the Mask generated comments as to Viereck's classification as a lyric poet. While New York Times reviewer W. C. Williams argued that "Viereck's talent is ... in the purest sense lyrical, sensitive, [and] distinguished in feeling," Rodman, writing in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, contested the real trouble with Strike through the Mask is that Viereck is not a lyric poet at all.... His great gifts are in the realm of the didactic, the meditative and perhaps the pastoral. And if he exercises them in these fields with restraint, he can well become the universal catalyst he aspires to be." But Anne Freemantle's review of The First Morning in Commonweal echoes the early complaints of Viereck's maturity as a poet: "Dr. Viereck is staying young too long. His 'new poems' are still full of promise; but by now, in his thirties, he should have backed them up with performance."

Upon the publication of The Persimmon Tree in 1956, critics apparently sensed a difference in Viereck's tone. The book was lauded by L. B. Drake, who noted in the Atlantic, "Gone is that vague unease, that preoccupation with nightmare and fugue that haunted his earlier work," while Poetry's Hayden Carruth found "the new poems offer a gentler flow, an easier tone of voice." Walsh wrote that "underneath the technical fireworks and plain vitality was a quieter, more tranquil Viereck, the lyricist gravely recording the eternal flow of life and experience."

A decade later, Viereck's publication of New and Selected Poems 1932-1967 prompted Andrew Glaze to write: "It is hard to imagine a poet more out of style at this moment than Peter Viereck," and yet, "he goes on in his baroque way, turning out complicated, interesting and old-fashioned pieces in the midst of triumphant, new alien styles.... He has always been unpredictable and difficult. He has never made points with moderation and safety.... No one has created more wonderful poems out of near-doggerel rhythms and unlikely rhymes, as though from the pure pleasure of barely skirting disaster.... Even when his poems fail, they are rarely as dull as the poetry we have had to grow accustomed to."

In addition, Ernest Kroll noted that "it isn't easy ... to mistake a poem by Peter Viereck. Impulse in the saddle, with unbounded energy raring to take on any subject, is the outstanding impression one gets from his work.... He frequently takes his reader for a wild ride from which he alone, the poet, returns.... There is fortunately, however, another Viereck, the memorable one, who can and does rein his mount in tightly after the wilder rides." According to Shenandoah's Lisel Mueller, Viereck "believes that poetry must communicate and that it must celebrate the emotional life, the life of meaning rather than gesture.... He writes for the intelligent common reader, in the traditional forms he is intent on preserving. He writes with wit, spirit, conviction and a great understanding of history and modern western culture."

Willing to take chances and stretch his form to the limit, Viereck followed through on the dramatic intermingling of play and poem he presented in his 1961 work The Tree Witch: A Poem and A Play (First of All a Poem). The ambitious and intriguing collection of twenty years' work, Archer in the Marrow: The Applewood Cycles of 1967-1987 is highly complex, structured in eighteen lyrical cycles. Los Angeles Times Book Review's George Butterick summarized Archer in the Marrow as "a philosophical epic starring the classic Christ-Dionysus-Osiris configuration, representing the tragicomic spirit of the human imagination." Although he found value and excitement in Archer in the Marrow's lyrical lines, Butterick ultimately concluded that Viereck's poetry falls short. "Viereck's poetry can be praised for its vitality, satiric intent, rhythmic variety within its chosen confines, and occasional boldness of rhyme—but never consistently." Although willing to acknowledge Viereck's inconsistency, Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist McElveen contended that "in spite of these lapses in language and in spite of his persistent desire to make his ideas about morality and society clear and persuasive, Viereck has already established himself as a poet with a unique talent for merging the separate disciplines of poetry and social philosophy in a language that is at once lyrical and humane, witty and risk-taking."

Career

Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, instructor in German literature, tutor in history and literature departments, 1946-47; Smith College, Northampton, MA, assistant professor of history, 1947-48, visiting lecturer in Russian history, 1948-49; Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, associate professor, 1948-55, professor of modern European and Russian history, 1955-65, Mount Holyoke Alumnae Foundation Chair of Interpretive Studies, 1965-79, William R. Kenan Chair of History, Mount Holyoke College, beginning 1979. Whittal Lecturer in Poetry, Library of Congress, 1954, 1963; Fulbright professor in American poetry and civilization, University of Florence, 1955; Elliston Chair, poetry lecturer, University of Cincinnati, 1956; visiting lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, 1957, 1964, and City College of the City University of New York, 1964; director of poetry workshop, New York Writers Conference, 1965-67. Speaker at numerous universities. Participated in cultural exchange mission to Russia for U.S. State Department, 1961; visiting research scholar in Russia for Twentieth Century Fund, 1962-63.

Bibliography

HISTORY
  • Metapolitics: From the Romantics to Hitler, Scribner (New York City), 1941; revised edition published as Metapolitics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind, Capricorn Books (Toms River, NJ), 1961, 2nd revised edition, 1965, updated, new edition by Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge), 1982.
  • Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt against Revolt, 1815-1949, Scribner, 1949, 2nd edition published as Conservatism Revisited and the New Conservatism: What Went Wrong?, 1962, 3rd edition, 1972.
  • Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals: Babbitt, Jr. Versus the Rediscovery of Values, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1953.
  • The Unadjusted Man: A New Hero for Americans: Reflections on the Distinction between Conforming and Conserving, Beacon Press, 1956.
  • Conservatism: From John Adams to Churchill, Van Nostrand (New York City), 1956, revised edition, 1962.
  • Inner Liberty: The Stubborn Grit in the Machine, Pendle Hill (Wallingford, PA), 1957.
  • Conservatism from Burke and John Adams till 1982: A History and an Anthology, Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
POETRY
  • Terror and Decorum: Poems 1940-1948, Scribner, 1948.
  • Strike through the Mask: New Lyrical Poems, Scribner, 1950.
  • The First Morning: New Poems, Scribner, 1952.
  • Dream and Responsibility: The Tension between Poetry and Society, University Press of Washington, DC, 1953.
  • The Persimmon Tree (poems), Scribner, 1956.
  • The Tree Witch: A Poem and a Play (First of All a Poem) (produced at Harvard University's Loeb Theater) Scribner, 1961.
  • New and Selected Poems, 1932-1967, Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis, IN), 1967.
  • Archer in the Marrow: The Applewood Cycles of 1967-1987 (epic poem), Norton (New York City), 1987.
  • Tide and Continuities: Last and First Poems, 1995-1938, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville), 1995.
OTHER
  • Also author of Opcomp: A Modern Medieval Miracle Play, 1993.
  • Contributor to various publications, including Mid-Century American Poets, Twayne, 1950; Arts in Renewal, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951; The New American Right, Criterion, 1955; Education in a Free Society, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958; The Radical Right, Doubleday, 1963; Soviet Policy Making, edited by P. H. Juviler and H. W. Morton, Burns & McEachern, 1967; Outside Looking In, edited by D. B. James, Harper, 1972; A Question of Quality, edited by Louis Filler, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976. Contributor of monographs, essays, reviews, and poems to popular magazines and professional journals. Author of essay on "Conservatism" in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition.

Further Reading

BOOKS
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 4, Gale, 1975.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale, 1980.
  • Engle, Paul, and Joseph Langland, editors, Poet's Choice, Dial Press, 1962.
  • Henault, Marie, Peter Viereck, Poet and Historian, Twayne, 1966.
  • Nemerov, Howard, Poetry and Fiction, Rutgers University Press, 1963.
PERIODICALS
  • Atlantic, June, 1957.
  • Books, October 5, 1941.
  • Canadian Forum, April, 1949.
  • Catholic World, July, 1953.
  • Christian Science Monitor, November 7, 1941; December 24, 1953; October 11, 1956; May 27, 1987.
  • Commonweal, August 5, 1949; October 24, 1952.
  • Hudson Review, winter, 1988.
  • Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 1961.
  • Library Journal, April 1, 1961; February 15, 1987.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 14, 1987.
  • Michigan Quarterly Review, summer, 1969.
  • Nation, October 11, 1941; November 13, 1948.
  • National Review, February 5, 1988.
  • New Leader, April 8, 1969; August 10, 1987.
  • New Republic, August 8, 1949; April 24, 1950; March 16, 1953.
  • New Yorker, January 31, 1953; March 21, 1953; March 24, 1962.
  • New York Herald Tribune Book Review, March 26, 1950; March 22, 1953.
  • New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, November 21, 1948; October 9, 1949.
  • New York Times, November 21, 1948; March 12, 1950; March 15, 1953; October 28, 1956.
  • New York Times Book Review, August 6, 1967.
  • Poetry, February, 1949; February, 1957.
  • Saturday Review, February 28, 1953; July 22, 1961; October 14, 1967.
  • Saturday Review of Literature, October 4, 1941; October 9, 1948.
  • Shenandoah, spring, 1968.

Discover this poet’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Categorization

LIFE SPAN 1916–2006

Biography

Heralded by critics for his "comic sense" and "lyrical element," Peter Viereck received numerous awards for his works of poetry and historical nonfiction. Endorsing a philosophy which seeks to join humankind with what he described as the rhythmic heritage of the universe, Viereck sought to synthesize extremes in much of his poetry. In a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay, Idris McElveen explained: "The lyrical element is . . .

Report a problem with this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.