Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
This dissertation focuses on the interaction between poetic form and popular religious practice in the nineteenth century United States. Specifically, I aim to see how American poets appropriated religious tropes—and especially religious conversion—in their poetry with specific designs on their audience. My introduction analyzes the phenomenon of religious conversion up through the nineteenth century with help from psychologists and historians of religion, including William James and Sydney Ahlstrom. In the introduction, I also explore how revivalist conversion helped inform the poetics of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Chapter one focuses on Emerson’s poetry, particularly as it enacts Emerson’s poetic principles, in which the poet fills the role of the revivalist preacher. In chapter two, I study Jones Very’s poetry as an extension of this project—namely, the appropriation of sermonic strategies employed by the poet to elicit conversion from his readers (a strategy that, in spite of conventional views of Very’s later poetry, Very employed throughout his poetic career). Chapter three brings Jones Very into conversation with other contemporary poets—Elizabeth Fries Ellet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Greenleaf Whittier—as they engaged visual art through ekphrastic poetry. These poems illustrate how popular art in the nineteenth-century U.S. sat at the intersection of aesthetic experience and religious practice and how the lines demarcating these two categories were becoming increasingly blurred. Chapter four observes how the poetry in religious and freethought periodicals reacted to this identity crisis of a New England negotiating its rationalist ideals with its Puritan inheritance. This chapter also includes an appended collection of previously uncollected newspaper poetry. My dissertation contributes to the research field of American literature by offering an in-depth analysis of the interaction between nineteenth-century poetry and popular revivalist preaching, an interaction that is essential to understanding antebellum American poetry. More broadly, as throngs of Americans responded to preaching by finding themselves converted, they also settled into a new personal identity in the midst of a rapidly transforming society. This dissertation explores what role poetry had in that conversive process.