"COME MUSE migrate from Greece and Ionia," sang Whitman; and many an American poet since has repeated his hopeful invitation to the epic muse. So far, she has played hard to get. We have had great novels which have interpreted distinctively American experience and history, but not poems. Hiawatha and John Brown's Body, though appealing, can't be taken seriously by adults; Song of Myself has no action; The Waste Land and The Cantos are international. The Bridge, though American, is more esoteric than Eliot or Pound; Paterson, though not esoteric, is often flat or incoherent. In short, no long poem has yet established itself as at once American, a sustained poetic success, and attractive to a wide audience.
Brotherly Love seems to me to qualify on all three grounds. Hoffman invokes Clio, muse of history, rather than Calliope; aside from modesty, I suppose his reason is that he wants to emphasize that his poem is more seriously and scrupulously historical than any preceding epic. His Clio presides over Indian history as well as white, and she inspires the poet to interrupt both histories through faithful presentation of the documents as well as imaginative reconstruction. His hero, William Penn, is epic in that he is an exceptional and admirable man whose deeds are important in his country's history. Since 1981 is the 300th anniversary of the legendary occasion celebrated in Benjamin West's famous painting -- "William Penn's Treaty with the Indians 1681" -- and later in Edward Hicks' A Peaceable Kingdon," this is a singularly appropriate time for such a poem to appear. Its subject has both wide appeal and obvious relevance to contemporary problems: it poses the central question of American national identity in terms that are at once faithful to history and perennially recurrent.
Like most modern long poems, Hoffman's is broken up into short segments composed in a variety of different meters or in prose. (That is not "imitative form," or making form chaotic to represent chaos, but a device to gain intensity and reflect multiple perspectives) Specifically, its 61 numbered sections are divided into three larger groupings (we may follow epic tradition and call them "books") entitled "Treating with Indians," "An Opening of Joy," and "The Structure of Reality." The first is about the 1681 treaty and its historical context, especially the Indian; the second about Penn's inner life and the religion that came to dominate it; and the third about the subsequent history of the persons and places involved. (Since Book II chronologically precedes Book I, we note that Hoffman is following epic tradition in beginning in medias res.) Notes at the end of the poem give the historical sources for each section; these are not pedantry or padding, but part of the poem's authentic historicity.
By selecting and shaping on the page passages from letters and other primary documents, Hoffman makes their significance appear, without comment, as the sculptor reveals the form that was already there in the wood or stone. At least half the poem must consist of quotation from contemporary documents. Yet the selections are so artfully made, shaped, and arranged that they become, in context, genuine poetry. To perceive the poetry in historical documents and reveal it without losing the historical immediacy that only such documents can give is a technique not invented but carried to new heights by Hoffman. His use of it is much more extensive, complex, and subtle than that of such pioneers as Pound. The best example is the Indians' account of their own history followed by Penn's description of them and then by a later traveler's encounter with their last doomed remnants (No. 6-7, 12-20 and 26, 57).
The techniques of allusion, in which an older poem is evoked as parallel and contrast to a new one, and of pastiche, in which a new poem is written in a consistently "period" style, are similar in effect to the one just described. It is not too much to say that Hoffman's use of these techniques is the most brilliant since Eliot's.
To see how these techniques work and what extraordinary and varied effects are produced by the juxtaposition of contrasting styles, tones and attitudes, let us look briefly at the second book, which is the shortest and most intense of the three. The first poem (or section) describes the statue of Penn on modern Philadelphia's City Hall. This is the same image that dominates the first poem of the whole volume -- "over Wanamaker's lights/Billy Penn extends indulgent arms" -- and the last -- "his head in the clouds, his mood/benign, though slum-blocks sprawl." It is an obvious but effective device for bringing together the present city and its founder, as the poet meditates on what Penn was like and how he could "Dream into being this wrangling 'City/Of Brotherly Love." This modern poem is followed by a marvelous pastiche in 17th-century couplets celebrating Admiral Penn's victory and loyally hoping that his rebellious son will soon come to his senses. Next comes a poem modern in form but 17th-century in spirit, imagining what it must have been like for Penn but not presuming to speak for him in first person, as a bad historical novelist or poet would do: "It is not easy, being son/To the hero of the English nation./ One thing is sure: You'll never go to sea." Not only the conflict with his father but the underlying conflict in his own mind between his attraction to the "Glory/Of the World" and his yearning for purity in withdrawal from the world are vividly evoked: "You are torn/Between your father and the Son."
All these poems lead up to "Instructions to a Painter" for the portrait of the young Penn in armor. This poem employs allusion with remarkable effectiveness. In the first place, an earlier section (No. 21) has reminded the reader of the genre of "Instructions" with celebrations of the admiral's victory. In the second and more important place, this poem dares to evoke the greatest political poem in English, Marvell's "Horatian Olde" on Cromwell, employing exactly the same stanza, style, and tone. Its function, however, is not to rival its great predecessor but to use to the full Marvell's implications about the ambiguities of power, its ambivalence about action and history as against withdrawal and contemplation. Praising Penn's early martial exploits that made him seem likely to follow in his father's footsteps, Hoffman exploits all the overtones of his great original; for the point is that Penn, unlike Cromwell, did hang up his armor for good and renounce the use of force.
The next poem describes in a contrastingly prosaic style Penn's return to the Quakers after the portrait in armor. There follow two beautiful lyrics expressing the essence of Quakerism, the first on silence (with which any Quaker service begins) and the second, based on the sermon by Thomas Loe that convinced Penn, on faith in God's immediate action on the believer. In sharp contrast, the next section is a realistic prose description of the persecution of the Quakers, followed by two lyrics, the first vividly describing Penn's suffering and the second his final convincement, "This vessel of my flesh/Is the chalice of my soul." After a prosaic description of his actual joining of the Society and giving up his sword, the final and most impressive section describes in modern style Penn's misery in prison, then his vision of the Indians and Philadelphia, with his conviction of divine love and joy. He "feels the Lord opened his soul with a love that embraces all" and sees what he must do: "In the Lord's love for each person/is his revelation/Perpetual and unending,/And they shall come together in a city."
This sketchy description has been intended only to show how artfully the poem is patterned and how much each individual section gains from the whole context. What is true of each book is true also of the structure of the whole poem. Dealing with Penn alone, Book II is the most limited and intense. Book I deals with the other principal subject, the Indians, and with Penn as perceived by them; it concludes with the wonderful idyllic picture of Penn and the Indians leaping on the lawn at Pennsbury: "They leap far from a standing start/But he, Miquon, their good friend and host,/He leaps farther, to their cheers." After the close-up of Penn in Book II, Book III has the sad task of telling what went wrong after Penn left.
The poems (No. 1, 28, 61) which meditate on Penn's statue on modern Philadelphia recall Robert Lowell's great poem "for the Union Dead." But Lowell's poem ends in despair at the contrast between the hero's statue and the modern city, predatory, doomed. Hoffman, though equally aware of urban horrors, nevertheless feels that "there's a spirit in this place" to be grasped only in time, and "possibilities of grace" Like fragrance from rich compost cling to leaves where our each deed and misdeed fall. The Seed stirs, even now is quickening.
Hoffman's involvement with American history is like Lowell's, but does not issue in a final nihilism.
A closer parallel and perhaps stronger influence is the work of Robert Penn Warren, to whom the book is dedicated. It seems likely that Hoffman's dialogues between ghosts and spirits in Book III derive from Warren's dialogues of the dead, and of the dead and living, in Brother to Dragons. Warren is similarly immersedin American history and its questions of guilt and identity, has a realistic view of the wilderness and the men, white and Indian, who inhabited it, but is, like Hoffman, convinced of the possibility of heroism and even of grace.
Hoffman's poem seems to me an astonishing feat of historical and literary imagination, and at the same time a work that should appeal to a very wide audience. Among other attractive features, the three paintings -- the Treaty, the Portrait in Armor, and the Peaceable Kingdon -- each preside over one of the three books; all are reproduced and all are commented on in poems that are entertaining as well as good. Brotherly Love is not Paradise Lost, but it is perhaps the nearest equivalent now possible; and its theme is precisely paradise lost, the peaceable kingdom destroyed, though without a Satan. (Hoffman suggests, reasonably, that both weak and wicked men -- "Before there was Philadelphia/There was a Philadelphia lawyer" -- and economic and political forces were responsible.) It lacks the visionary heights of The Bridge, but its brotherly love offers a more feasible common ground. (Quakerism, with its suspicion of theology and talk, its belief in inner experience, can be congenial to poetry.)
Brotherly Love is not merely a "long poem containing history" defined as "tales of the tribe," as The Cantos; instead, it realizes fully the perspectives of both past and present and relates them coherently. It preserves and gives meaning to the American past; its hero embodies a worthy ideal; and it raises the great issues of national identity and policy. If it isn't an American epic, I don't know how one could be written now. I have not even begun, in this brief review, to describe it properly; with each rereading it grows, expands, and develops richer meanings and further resonances in the mind.