Now and then, poets are properly valued or their genius recognized only long after their deaths. Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson are just the two most famous instances. Alas, their rough contemporary, John Townsend Trowbridge (1827-1916), isn’t likely to join them in the pantheon of the truly great. As poet and critic William Logan emphasizes, Trowbridge was simply a “literary odd-job man” who turned his hand “to whatever a hand can be turned to,” producing “gouts of poems, a string of plays, and at least forty novels.”
But sometimes, not often, but sometimes, the merely competent writer will inexplicably produce a masterpiece. Daniel Keyes, an otherwise undistinguished science-fiction author, will live forever because of one brilliant, heartbreaking short story: “Flowers for Algernon.” John William Burgon is immortal for a single line from his poem “Petra”: “A rose-red city half as old as time.” And now Trowbridge, the forgotten American hack, will be read again because of this rediscovered “novelette in verse,” one of the wittiest and most winning narrative poems since its great precursors, Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” and Byron’s “Don Juan.” “Guy Vernon” really is what its champion William Logan claims: a forgotten — if minor — masterpiece.