Fitz-Green Halleck


November 19, 1867: Death of Fitz-Greene Halleck

This is not one of the City’s better sculptures; but then Halleck (1790-1867) wasn’t one of the City’s better poets. What exactly is the problem with this piece? First of all, it's not distinctive as a portrait: the pen, paper and the upward gaze identify the man as a writer, but he could be any writer, American, European, or Latin American. In fact, you could switch the names on this and the neighboring Burns or Scott statues, and few would be the wiser. The proportions of Halleck's figure, his pose, and the shapes and texture of his face and clothing aren't particularly appealing, so the sculpture doesn't work as a purely esthetic experience, either.

The Dictionary of American Biography notes that even Halleck seemed not to have a high opinion of his own work: “His modest estimate of his poetry as a whole doubtless explains why he wrote little and stopped soon; like Gray, he seems to have known that he had not much to say. He was over-rated by his contemporaries because American poetry was poor and American criticism lax in the early nineteenth century; but his best work gives him a secure niche among minor American poets.”

So why do we have a sculpture of him? Probably because he was one of the first American poets to be widely recognized and acclaimed. He was certainly the first poet to have a sculpture erected in New York. At the unveiling of his portrait in 1877 a crowd of 10,000 gathered, including President Rutherford B. Hayes and his entire cabinet. The event caused such damage to Central Park (then still relatively new) that authorities forbade such activities in the future.

Halleck’s 1825 poem “Marco Bozzaris,” about a hero of the Greek war of independence killed at the moment of victory, was recited by countless schoolboys and translated to French and modern Greek. Personally I find more appealing his tribute to Joseph Rodman Drake, with whom he had collaborated on a series of satirical poems in 1819:

“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 wert 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 thine, 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 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.