Authors: Frederick Goddard Tuckerman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Author Works


Poems, 1860, 1863

The Sonnets of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, 1931 (Witter Bynner, editor)

The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, 1965 (N. Scott Momaday, editor)


Frederick Goddard Tuckerman was born to one of Boston’s wealthiest merchant families. Tuckerman’s father made a fortune in dry goods and real estate; his mother, Sophia May Tuckerman, came from a fervently abolitionist family. Frederick, their third son, was named for a cousin whose accidental drowning in Lake Zurich had been memorialized by William Wordsworth. During Tuckerman’s childhood his family joined the Episcopalian church, which remained a lifelong influence upon him.{$I[AN]9810001661}{$I[A]Tuckerman, Frederick Goddard}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Tuckerman, Frederick Goddard}{$I[tim]1821;Tuckerman, Frederick Goddard}

Tuckerman was educated at Bishop Hopkins’s school in Burlington, Vermont, and at Boston Latin. He entered Harvard University in 1837, immediately after Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “American Scholar” address, and his Greek tutor was the mystic Calvinist poet Jones Very. Tuckerman spent only one year at college before an eye ailment forced him to withdraw; after one year of recuperation he entered Harvard’s Law School, received his LL.B. in 1842, and after passing the bar examination began work in a law office. However, Tuckerman much preferred his studies in literature, botany, and astronomy to the practice of law, and he spent much time on long walking tours through western Massachusetts and the White Mountains of New Hampshire with his brother Edward, a botanist.

On June 17, 1847, Tuckerman married Hannah Jones and settled in Greenfield, in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. With the death of his father he had inherited enough to allow him to abandon law. Tuckerman was fascinated with Greenfield’s rich colonial history. He devoted himself to literary and scientific studies and wrote short, reflective lyric poems, mostly meditations on love and nature as well as longer narratives. In such works as “The Question” he adapted old forms and conventions to new American themes.

Frederick and Hannah (whom he called “Anna”) had a son, Edward, in 1850, who was followed by their daughter, Anna, in 1853. In 1851 Tuckerman accompanied his mother on a three-month trip to England. He and Anna made the grand European tour in 1854 to 1855; the zenith of this trip was a three-day visit with Alfred, Lord Tennyson, at Farringford.

On May 7, 1857, Anna gave birth to a son, Frederick; five days later she died of puerperal fever. Tuckerman began writing sonnets inspired by his struggles with her death and his attempts to make sense of his loss. Poems, privately printed in 1860, contains his early lyrics and narratives, as well as two masterful, irregular sonnet sequences, which provide a complex and powerful testament to the nineteenth century battle between Romanticism and more conventional religious experience. Tuckerman wrote of his attraction to Transcendentalism: He longed to “follow those that go before the throng,/ Reasoning from stone to star, and easily/ Exampling this existence.” However, like Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, he also realized the dangers of Emersonian idealism. Tuckerman’s irregular elegiac sonnets portray an imperfect and incomplete natural world that must be jettisoned, not embraced:

No more thy meaning seek, thine anguish plead,

But leaving straining thought and stammering word,

Across the barren azure pass to God:

Shooting the void in silence like a bird,

A bird that shuts his wings for better speed.

Hawthorne and Emerson warned Tuckerman that his work would not be successful commercially. Critics, resistant to experimental prosody, rebuked Tuckerman for not knowing how to write a “correct” sonnet. Although an English edition of Poems was published in 1863 and followed by two American reprints, the work made little impression on his contemporaries. Tuckerman gradually withdrew from society, and his children were raised by his brother Edward. The Civil War brought the death of his close friend Colonel George D. Wells, but even more painful was the sudden death of his son Edward at Harvard University in 1871. Although Tuckerman continued to write in these later years, he did not pursue publication. Three shorter sonnet cycles and a long ode titled “The Cricket” were among his papers at his death in 1873.

In 1909 Walter Prichard Eaton came across a copy of Poems; impressed by the book, he brought Tuckerman to the attention of the literary world. Witter Bynner discovered the three unpublished sonnet cycles and edited The Sonnets of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman in 1931. N. Scott Momaday edited The Complete Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman in 1965. Since then Tuckerman’s work has been frequently anthologized, providing an instructive outsider’s commentary on Transcendentalism.

BibliographyDonoghue, Denis. Connoisseurs of Chaos: Ideas of Order in Modern American Poetry. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. This wide-ranging study devotes a chapter to recurrent oppositional themes in Tuckerman’s poetry: public and private, human and natural, physical and metaphysical, and truth and ambiguity. Also offers brief comparisons of Tuckerman to other modern poets such as Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, William Empson, Wallace Stevens, and Walt Whitman.England, Eugene. Beyond Romanticism: Tuckerman’s Life and Poetry. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. A combined biography and critical study, and the best source for information about Tuckerman. Written by the foremost expert on the poet, the book examines how Tuckerman was molded by, and yet reacted against, Romanticism. Includes extensive readings of individual poems, an index, and an exhaustive bibliography.England, Eugene. “Tuckerman and Tennyson: ‘Two Friends . . . on Either Side of the Atlantic.’” New England Quarterly 57 (June, 1984): 225-239. Essay explores how Tuckerman’s poetry was strongly influenced by his friendship with Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The first half examines letters between the two men; the second half demonstrates how, through his close study of the English poet, Tuckerman moved beyond him as a model and established his own unique poetic identity.Golden, Samuel. Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. New York: Twayne, 1966. Provides basic information about Tuckerman’s life and several readings of his poems. Some of Golden’s biographical reconstructions, however, are based too fully on Tuckerman’s sonnets and not fully enough on other kinds of historical materials.Hudgins, Andrew. “‘A Monument of Labor Lost’: The Sonnets of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman.” Chicago Review 37, no. 1 (Winter, 1990): 64-79. A critical study of Tuckerman’s sonnets.Seed, David. “Alone with God and Nature: The Poetry of Jones Very and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman.” In Nineteenth Century American Poetry, edited by A. Robert Lee. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1985. A comparative study of the poetry of Tuckerman and Jones Very.
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