Richard Eberhart

1904–2005
Richard Eberhart
One of the most prominent American poets of the twentieth century, Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Eberhart emerged out of the 1930s as a modern stylist with romantic sensibilities. Sometimes labeled a nature poet, he often writes about death, most notably in his famous poem "The Groundhog," but his themes also include a preoccupation with such things as the tension between childhood and adulthood, innocence and experience. Praised for the honest emotions of his verses, he has been criticized for occasionally sloppy writing that contains at times too many clichéd or overwrought phrases. However, when his poetry avoids such flaws, his verses are widely admired. As Ralph J. Mills, Jr. put it in a Parnassus review of Fields of Grace, the poet's sometimes awkward phrasing and meter might be attributed to the fact that he writes in the spur of the moment: "the uniqueness of his poetry resides in [his] visionary intensity that throws caution to the winds in order to seize the given insight."

Eberhart's happy childhood was marked by tragedy by the time he was a teenager; subsequently there followed a long period where he could not find acceptance as a writer, which lasted until he reached his forties. This pattern led Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Joel Roache to speculate that the poet's blend of romanticism and preoccupation with death might very well be a result of his early experiences. Eberhart's father was vice president of the Hormel Meat Packing Company, a position that allowed his family to be comfortably well off financially. The future poet also enjoyed having a devoted mother who helped foster the boy's love of reading. But two tragedies soon turned the family's world upside down: one of his father's employees embezzled a fortune from the company, causing Hormel's stock to fall and seriously damaging the family's assets. An argument at the company later caused his father to quit, and the family never regained its fortunes fully. Eberhart would later base his verse play The Visionary Farms on this time in his life. His poem "Orchard" is also based on a real-life tragedy, the death of his mother from lung cancer when he was eighteen. "Eberhart himself has said that the death of his mother made him a poet," reported Roache.

While attending college in both America and England, Eberhart worked on his poetry, contributing verses to magazines and anthologies and attending lectures, debates, and parties featuring such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, C. P. Snow, William Butler Yeats, and G. K. Chesterton. His first book, A Bravery of Earth, published while he was still at Cambridge University, was received with some stark criticism. "There is plenty—a too great plenty—of bad writing in this one-hundred-and-twenty-page poem," wrote Harriet Monroe in Poetry. However, critics saw much promise in Eberhart. As Monroe continued, "I prefer to credit this young poet, not only with sincerity and enthusiasm . . . but also with an outreaching imagination, and an authentic talent." R. P. Blackmur, writing in Partisan Review, also saw promise in the young writer, saying that what he lacked at the time was an abiding philosophy to go with his poems: "He so far lacks a theme adequate to his ambition as he sees it, or perhaps it would be more accurate to put it that he has never so felt a theme as to require his consistent utmost in craft." Roache, on the other hand, felt that A Bravery of Earth marks the beginning of "his lifelong exploration of the parallel dichotomy between the human being's life-seeking, order-creating spirit, and the death-dealing chaos of the exterior, 'objective' world, a dichotomy that finds its only, albeit temporary, resolution in art."

After completing his second bachelor's degree at Cambridge, Eberhart spent a couple years working non-academic jobs. He was employed at a slaughterhouse in 1929, and from 1930 to 1931 he was a tutor, one of his students being the son of the King of Siam. With some money saved up, he returned to his studies, completing a master's degree at Cambridge and attending Harvard University for a time. He then became a teacher in Massachusetts, all the while working on his poetry but achieving little recognition for his efforts. The Great Depression led to a year-and-a-half of unemployment for the struggling poet, but according to Roache this proved to be "an important transitional moment in Eberhart's life. His long search for a new position, a livelihood, underscored the sharpness of his struggle throughout the 1930s to continue writing and to gain some degree of literary recognition."

Success briefly reared its head in 1934, when Eberhart's poem "The Groundhog" was first published in the Listener and was roundly praised by literary critics. The poem concerns the thoughts of the narrator as he views the dead body of a groundhog in four different stages of decay over time. The first time he sees the body it is filled with surging swarms of maggots that denote a force of life even as they feed off death; the decomposition of the groundhog continues for three more visits until every last trace of it has disappeared. The final lines of the poem express both a sense of tragic loss and acceptance. "Even in this vision of death," explained Peter L. Thorslev, Jr. in Poets in Progress: Critical Prefaces to Thirteen Modern American Poets, "a kind of fierce mystic joy is possible, an impassioned acceptance of the impersonal, of death and decay. This attitude is more than mere resignation: it is the affirmation which comes to the heart of tragedy." Scrutiny critic W. H. Mellers noted that "The Groundhog," which was first collected in Eberhart's Sound and Idea, is a perfect example of the kind of writing that makes the poet's voice distinctive. A sense of nervous anguish, according to Mellers, "seems to me to be the impetus behind all of Mr. Eberhart's best verse." Mellers continued, "In a rather patent fashion one can see this in 'The Groundhog' where some characteristic reflections on death and decay are woven into more complex and far-reaching emotions; more subtly it is manifested in the comparatively balanced movement—a tranquility as it were poised over the most agile and alert conflict of feelings."

"The themes of ['The Groundhog']," commented Roache, "life and death, man and nature, mortality and immortality, mind and body, concreteness and transcendence, recur throughout Eberhart's career, and they draw upon the central dilemma of his work," which is the struggle between "the innocence of childhood" and "the adult world of experience, limitation, and delusion." The "intensity of childhood," as a contributor to Contemporary Poets described it, is particularly well highlighted in Eberhart's poem "If I Could Only Live at the Pitch That Is Near Madness." Although the experiences of childhood seems more vivid to the poet, "the grown man accepts and indeed delights in the obligations of adulthood," explained the Contemporary Poets writer, who continued: "Age brings with it . . . the awareness of human cruelty, and many of Eberhart's poems treat the varieties of human suffering that grow out of social, political, and family strife."

The instability in Eberhart's life was eased considerably by his marriage to Helen Butcher in 1941 and a teaching job at the Cambridge School. During World War II, the poet joined the U.S. Navy and was an aerial gunnery instructor at several bases throughout the United States. Although up until this point his poems had successfully avoided addressing current events in favor of broader themes, the enormity of the war could not be entirely avoided, and he wrote about it in such verses as "The Fury of Aerial Bombardment" and "An Airman Considers His Power."

After the war Eberhart joined his wife's family's company, the Butcher Polish Company, in Boston, eventually becoming vice president. The late 1940s and early 1950s were also a time of great prolificness for the poet, who swerved into some experimentation when he joined the Poets' Theatre in Cambridge and began writing verse dramas. More poetry than drama, these plays typically involve spectators of a scene who comment on what is happening, or are dialogues between two or three characters. One of these works, The Visionary Farms, involves an embezzler whose theft of corporate funds ruins his company's manager and the manager's family in a plot reflecting Eberhart's own childhood experiences. The verse plays, however, were only an aside that occupied the poet's time during the 1950s before he abandoned them to return to his regular poetic works.

After leaving his company job in 1952, Eberhart embarked on a long academic career and finally began to find satisfaction on a professional level. He taught at a number of universities before joining the faculty at Dartmouth College in 1956, where he remained for the rest of his active career, becoming professor emeritus in 1971. As a professor, Eberhart found a sense of security and recognition that obviously pleased him. One can see this reflected in his later poems, which, as Roache pointed out, express a characteristic "serenity of tone." The highlights of his poetic career came with the 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning Selected Poems, 1930-1965 and the 1977 National Book Award-winning Collected Poems, 1930-1976, along with many other honors and prizes. Even though his more recent poems have a "serenity" and a "greater clarity and firmer mastery of [the] medium" in them than did earlier verses, Eberhart's preoccupations have remained the same, according to Roache, and are apparent in such collections as Fields of Grace and Ways of Light. "His vision has always been rooted in the ancient confrontation between innocence and experience, between the drive for order and the awareness of reality, a confrontation that seems unresolvable in the actual world," wrote Roache.

Eberhart's romantic spirit has been compared to that of such giants as William Blake and Walt Whitman. Nation critic Hayden Carruth labeled him "a misplaced eighteenth-century sentimentalist," yet characterized the poet's style as thoroughly modern. "However much of his poems share common themes with other Romantic poets," said Thorslev, "Eberhart's style and idiom are nevertheless always his own. His lines are short, his rhymes oblique or infrequent, and his rhythms intentionally irregular, but within these limits he shows a quite extraordinary range." One of the few poets to arise from the 1930s and remain relevant decades later, Eberhart retains appeal to contemporary readers due to his "oddly affecting naiveté," as Jay Parini described it in a Times Literary Supplement review of Ways of Light. "He is unabashedly vatic, believing in 'inspiration' as innocently as any poet ever has." Kenneth Rexroth, writing in the Saturday Review, argued that the poet's resilience is due to three things: "Innocence. Wisdom. A pure heart." While others of his generation wrote on narrow topics that addressed the concerns of the day, Eberhart stuck to the big questions about life, making him, in the opinion of Rexroth and many others, "the most profound poet of his time."

Eberhart once told Contemporary Authors: "Consciousness is still a vast reservoir of spirit which we only partially perceive. If we could see or feel beyond the human condition is it possible to think that we could feel or think the unthinkable? The Greeks had aspiration to ideas of immortality. We twentieth-century Americans live closer to materialism than to idealism so we are more nearly measurers, like Aristotle, than dreamers of immortal types, like Plato. I am on Plato's side rather than on Aristotle's. However, our highest imaginations are ungraspable and we are constantly thrown back into the here and now, into materialistic reality. I think that poetry is allied to religion and to music. It helps us to live because it expresses our limitations, our mortality, while exciting us to a beyond which may or not be there, therefore death poems can be written in fullness of spirit, inviting contemplation of ultimate mysteries. Death poems are as good as life poems because they are also life poems, written in flesh and blood. Poetry embraces the moment as it flies."

Eberhart has been the subject of two films, one directed by Samuel Mandelbaum for Tri-Prix in 1972 and the other directed by Irving Broughton for the University of Washington in 1974.

Career

Poet. Worked in a slaughterhouse, 1929; private tutor in Florida, and then for the son of King Prajadhipok of Siam (now Thailand), 1930-31; St. Mark's School, Southboro, MA, master in English, 1933-41; Cambridge School, Kendal Green, MA, English teacher, 1941-42; Butcher Polish Co., Boston, MA, assistant manager to vice president, 1946-52, then honorary vice president and member of board of directors; University of Washington, Seattle, poet-in-residence, 1952-53; University of Connecticut, Storrs, professor of English, 1953-54; Wheaton College, Norton, MA, professor of English and poet-in-residence, 1954-55; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, Christian Gauss Lecturer and resident fellow, 1955-56; Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, professor of English and poet-in-residence, 1956-68, Class of 1925 professor, 1968-71, professor emeritus, 1971—2005. Elliston Lecturer, University of Cincinnati, 1961. Visiting professor, University of Washington, Seattle, 1952-53, 1967, 1972, Wheaton College, 1954-55, and University of Florida, 1974-80; adjunct professor, Columbia University, spring, 1975; regents professor, University of California, Davis, fall, 1975. Phi Beta Kappa poet at Tufts University, 1941, Brown University, 1957, Swarthmore College, 1963, Trinity College, 1963, College of William and Mary, 1963, University of New Hampshire, 1964, and Harvard University, 1967. Yaddo Corp., member, beginning 1955, director, 1964. Founder and president, The Poets' Theatre, Inc., 1950. Member of advisory committee on the arts, John F. Kennedy Memorial Theatre, beginning 1959. Library of Congress, Washington, DC, consultant in poetry, 1959-61, honorary consultant in American letters, 1963-69.

Bibliography

POETRY
  • A Bravery of Earth, J. Cape (London, England), 1930, Cape & Smith (New York, NY), 1931.
  • Reading the Spirit, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1936, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1937.
  • Song and Idea, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1940, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1942.
  • A World-View, Tufts College Press (Medford, MA), 1941.
  • Poems, New and Selected, New Directions (Norfolk, CT), 1944.
  • Burr Oaks, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1947.
  • Brotherhood of Men, Banyan Press (Pawlet, VT), 1949.
  • An Herb Basket, Cummington Press (Cummington, MA), 1950.
  • Selected Poems, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1951.
  • Undercliff: Poems, 1946-1953, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1953, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1954.
  • Great Praises, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1957.
  • The Oak: A Poem, Pine Tree Press (Hanover, NH), 1957.
  • Collected Poems, 1930-1960, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1960.
  • The Quarry: New Poems, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1964.
  • The Vastness and Indifference of the World, Ferguson Press (Cambridge, MA), 1965.
  • Fishing for Snakes, privately printed, 1965.
  • Selected Poems, 1930-1965, New Directions (New York, NY), 1965.
  • Thirty-one Sonnets, Eakins (New York, NY), 1967.
  • Shifts of Being: Poems, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1968.
  • The Achievement of Richard Eberhart: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems, edited by Bernard F. Engle, Scott, Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1968.
  • Three Poems, Pym Randall (Cambridge, MA), 1968.
  • Fields of Grace, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1972.
  • The Groundhog Revisiting, Pomegranate Press (Cambridge, MA), 1972.
  • Two Poems, Aralia Press (Westchester, PA), 1975.
  • Collected Poems, 1930-1976, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1976.
  • Poems to Poets, Penmaen Press (Lincoln, MA), 1976.
  • Hour, Gnats, Putah Creek Press (Davis, CA), 1977.
  • Survivors, BOA Editions (Northport, NY), 1979.
  • Ways of Light: Poems, 1972-1980, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1980.
  • New Hampshire: Nine Poems, Pym Randall (Rosedale, MA), 1980.
  • Four Poems, Palaemon (Winston-Salem, MA), 1980.
  • Florida Poems, Konglomerati (Gulfport, FL), 1981.
  • The Long Reach: New and Uncollected Poems, 1948-1984, New Directions (New York, NY), 1984.
  • Snowy Owl, Palaemon (Winston-Salem, MA), 1984.
  • Throwing Yourself Away, Stone House (New York, NY), 1984.
  • Spite Fence, Mountain State (Charleston, WV), 1984.
  • Collected Poems, 1930-1986, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1988.
  • Maine Poems, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1989.
  • New and Selected Poems, 1930-1990, Blue Moon (New York, NY), 1990.
Poetry represented in anthologies, including Moment of Poetry, Johns Hopkins Press (Baltimore, MD), 1962. Contributor of poetry and reviews to journals in United States and other countries.

PLAYS
  • The Apparition (also see below), first produced in Cambridge, MA, 1951.
  • The Visionary Farms (also see below), first produced in Cambridge, MA, 1952.
  • Triptych (also see below), first produced in Chicago, IL, 1955.
  • Devils and Angels (first produced by Poets' Theatre, 1956; also see below), Poets' Theatre (Cambridge, MA), 1956.
  • The Mad Musician, and Devils and Angels (also see below), first produced in Cambridge, MA, 1962.
  • Collected Verse Plays (contains The Apparition, The Visionary Farms, Triptych, The Mad Musician, and Devils and Angels), University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1962.
  • (Adapter) Lope de Vega, The Bride from Mantua, first produced in Hanover, New Hampshire, 1964.
  • Chocorua (limited edition), Nadja (New York, NY), 1981.
OTHER
  • (Editor, with others) Free Gunner's Handbook, revised edition, 1944.
  • (Editor, with Selden Rodman) War and the Poet: An Anthology of Poetry Expressing Man's Attitude to War from Ancient Times to the Present, Devin-Adair, 1945, reprinted, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1974.
  • Poetry As a Creative Principle, Wheaton College (Norton, MA), 1952.
  • 1962-71 (Editor and contributor) Dartmouth Poems, twelve volumes, Dartmouth Publications (Hanover, NH).
  • (Editor) To Eberhart from Ginsberg: A Letter about "Howl," 1956, Penmaen Press (Lincoln, MA), 1976.
  • Of Poetry and Poets (criticism), University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1979.
Also author of Dream Journey of the Head and Heart, 1962. Contributor to The Arts Anthology: Dartmouth Verse 1925, Mosher Press (Portland, ME), 1925; Cambridge Poetry, 1929, Hogarth Press (London, England), 1929; New Signatures, edited by Michael Roberts, Hogarth Press (London, England), 1932; War and the Poet, edited by Eberhart and Selden Rodman, Devin-Adair (New York, NY), 1945; and After This Exile, edited by Manuel A. Viray, Phoenix House (London, England), 1965

Further Reading

BOOKS
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 3, 1975, Volume 11, 1979, Volume 19, 1981, Volume 56, 1989.
  • Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 48: American Poets, 1880-1940, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986, pp. 148-159.
  • Dillard, R. H. W., George Garrett, and John Rees Moore, editors, The Sounder Few, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1971.
  • Donoghue, Denis, The Third Voice, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1964, pp. 194-195, 223-235.
  • Engle, Bernard F., Richard Eberhart, Twayne (New York, NY), 1972.
  • Mills, Ralph J., Jr., Contemporary American Poetry, Random House (New York, NY), 1965, pp. 9-31.
  • Mills, Ralph J., Jr., Richard Eberhart, University of Minnesota Press, 1966.
  • Modern American Literature, Volume 1, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
  • Nemerov, Howard, editor, Poets on Poetry, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1966.
  • Poets in Progress (series), Northwestern University Press, 1962, pp. 73-91, 1967.
  • Reference Guide to American Literature, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.
  • Roache, Joel, Richard Eberhart: The Progress of an American Poet, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1971.
PERIODICALS
  • Book Week, August 2, 1964.
  • Christian Science Monitor, December 22, 1960; July 23, 1968; December 3, 1996, p. 13.
  • Commonweal, December 30, 1960; May 14, 1971.
  • Forum, spring, 1969.
  • Furioso, summer, 1941, John Crowe Ransom, "Lyrics Important, Sometimes Rude," pp. 68-70.
  • Hollins Critic, October, 1964, pp. 1-12.
  • Nation, January 21, 1961, Hayden Carruth, "The Errors of Excellence," pp. 63-64; August 10, 1964.
  • New Republic, July 9, 1930, Edith H. Walton, review of A Bravery of Earth, p. 214; April 2, 1945, p. 452; November 20, 1976.
  • New Statesman, October 15, 1960; September 25, 1964.
  • New York Herald Tribune, December 4, 1960.
  • New York Herald Tribune Books, February 27, 1938, Muriel Rukeyser, "Straight through to Life," p. 17.
  • New York Times Book Review, November 22, 1953; January 8, 1961; September 6, 1964; January 12, 1969; January 1, 1978; July 8, 1979.
  • Northwestern University Tri-Quarterly, winter, 1960.
  • Paris Review, autumn, 1953, pp. 113-119.
  • Parnassus, spring/summer, 1973, Ralph J. Mills, Jr., review of Fields of Grace, pp. 215-216.
  • Partisan Review, February, 1938, R. P. Blackmur, review of Reading the Spirit, pp. 52-56.
  • Poetry, September, 1930, Harriet Monroe, "Brave Youth," pp. 343-346; December, 1942; May, 1945, David Daiches, "Towards the Proper Spirit," pp. 92-95; January, 1949, Arthur Mizener, "The Earnest Victorian," pp. 226-228; November, 1954, Reuel Denney, "The Idiomatic Kingdom," pp. 102-105; November, 1954, Byron Vazakas, "Eberhart: A Negative Report," pp. 106-108; October, 1957; February, 1970.
  • Publishers Weekly, April 29, 1968; February 12, 1979.
  • Saturday Review, December, 1957, Kenneth Rexroth, "Finest of the Last," pp. 15-16; February 11, 1961; December 6, 1962; March 6, 1971.
  • Scrutiny, December, 1940, W. H. Mellers, "Cats in Air-Pumps (or Poets in 1940)," pp. 298-300.
  • Sewanee Review, spring, 1952, Howard Nemerov, "The Careful Poets and the Reckless Ones," pp. 318-329.
  • Shenandoah, summer, 1964, pp. 62-69.
  • South Atlantic Review, November, 1985, Cleanth Brooks, "A Tribute to Richard Eberhart," pp. 21-33.
  • Southern Review, October, 1977.
  • Spectator, September 30, 1960.
  • Times Literary Supplement, October 29, 1964; September 26, 1980, Jay Parini, review of Ways of Light, p. 1060.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1965.
  • Western Review, summer, 1954, James Hall, "Richard Eberhart: The Sociable Naturalist," pp. 315-321.
  • Yale Review, March, 1961.
ONLINE
  • Academy of American Poets Web site, http://www.poets.org/ (April 17, 2002).

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LIFE SPAN 1904–2005

Richard Eberhart

Biography

One of the most prominent American poets of the twentieth century, Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Eberhart emerged out of the 1930s as a modern stylist with romantic sensibilities. Sometimes labeled a nature poet, he often writes about death, most notably in his famous poem "The Groundhog," but his themes also include a preoccupation with such things as the tension between childhood and adulthood, innocence and experience. . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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