Albert Pike excelled in a number of careers. As a jurist he compiled the Arkansas Code single handedly. As a soldier he commanded his militia well enough to have his regiment attatched to veteran regular troops in the Mexican War. He published a newspaper, the Advocate, in Little Rock, and was the head of the local Whig party. He never held office or a major military command, but he took part in every important event in Arkansas history from the time he set foot in Fort Smith in 1832.
Although he was the usually most literate, erudite and intelligent man in any group, and although he achieved a high degree of success in many other fields, the one success that eluded him was the one he wanted the most.
He wanted to be a great poet. He had wanted that since he was a teenager. He and his buddies put together a bohemian self-publishing literary society in Massachussets and copied the introspective, overwrought styles of the Romantics. Somehow, though, his efforts always fell short. He was smart enough and well-read enough to see that for all his polish and practice his verse lacked That Thing. Or as we say in Arkansas, "Thet Thang." Inspiration. The poet's muse. The thing Salieri lacked, Pike lacked; and he recognized early on that he'd never move from triple-A to the bigs.
Even so, he was far and away the best writer on the Arkansas Frontier, with its population a few tens-of-thousands; and he became one of the familiar voices of the west, regularly publishing quaint tales of rough-hewn pioneer rustics in eastern journals. Now and then he'd get a poem published in the Boston Pearl or the American Monthly Magazine.
What national reputation he enjoyed came from the publicaton of a series of four long classical poems called "Hymns to the Gods" in Blackwood's Edinborough Magazine in 1839. At the point he was getting the recognition and encouragement he had always craved, he sort of ran out of gas as a poet. He had a large family, a plantation, cattle, slaves, political connections, he was recorder for the legislature, publisher of a newspaper, national advocate of a southern route for the transcontinental railroad. At the time he was also trying to save one of the federally chartered Arkansas banks. Poetry? You outcha dam miiiiiiiiiiind? When you've got five kids and a failing banking system you back-burner that fairy dust.
My own opinion of Pike's poetry is that he didn't come into his own until he put aside the self-conscious introspection of the Romantics and pursued poetry as a hobby. Here's an excerpted verse fom one of his sentimental later poems ("An Invitation") written in 1845.
...Come out and sit with me, dear wife, beneath these branching trees,
And let our little children come, and clamber on our knees.
It is a sweet, soft, pleasant morn, the loveliest in May
And their little hearts are beating fast, longing to be at play....
Simple. Elegant. Mature and sentimental. Compare that to the political invective of Canticle XXVII of "Los Tiempos," (Even the title sounds pretentious.) written eleven years earlier when Pike was twenty-three, oozing with hormones and bulging with significance.
State rights, state sovereignty, 'tis now four years
Was Georgia's motto -- and her clamorous cry,
For war and self defence, was in our ears,
Her point is gained -- fulfilled the robbery,
Visions of justice give her now no fears --
Now ask her creed. She preaches piously
Union and patience to the nullifier --
They who are fouled can well point out the mire.
It reads like Nostradamus if you're not familiar with the minutes of the recent Whig party convention. Using approximate rhymes at the end of a stanza as in "nullifier" and "mire" only emphasizes the force-fit. And would you like a little drang with your sturm, Mr. P? This early stuff sounds like a kid trying to impress with bluster and bombast. He was much better after he relaxed and started using plain old words to take the reader from here to there.
ACCUSATIONS OF PLAGIARISM
There is a faction of anti-Pike fanatics out there that publish negative stuff about Pike, claiming that he was everything from a plagiarist to a satan worshipper.
Pike was no plagiarist. He was also Episcopalian.
The misinformation goes that Pike was called a "great plagiarist" by a famous New York literary muckeymuck and that Pike did not deny the charge when confronted.
In 1954, Assistant Professor of English Alexander E. Jones of the University of Arkansas (complete reference below) looked into the matter and found that the accusation was vague, Pike's comments on the subject were vague, and the accuser is not identified. Further, after an exhaustive comparison of the poems of Pike with those of contemporaries Burns, Scott, Wadsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron and Shelley, there was nothing in Pike that was definitively plagiarized from any of his romantic contemporaries. Here are the two closest cases of borrowing found by Jones:
COLERIDGE (THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER): the wind in the sails "did sigh like a sedge."
PIKE (THE DEAD CHASE): "The wind above it sighs away;/ Like the sighing of a thin sedge."
The main character in Pike's poem, like the Ancient Mariner, had committed a spiritual crime and was suffering a supernaturally imposed pennance. The poem is also written in stanzas similar to those used by Coleridge.
Plainly Pike was imitating Coleridge in that case, writing a poem in the style of Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but does the degree of imitation rise to the level of plagiarism? The two poems have a similar premise, two or three similar descriptive details and a similar verse structure. But how many 1940's detective movies have similar characters? Is Phil Marlowe plagiarized from Peter Gunn? Are The Avengers plagiarizing The Man From UNCLE? Is Matt Helm plagiarizing James Bond? When the musical group They Might Be Giants sings "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness...," are they plagiarizing "Howl?" Are the Simpsons plagiarizing EVERYBODY?
And don't forget, Pike was barely twenty when he wrote The Dead Chase. A kid that age hasn't developed his own voice yet. Everything he writes is going to be an imitation of a model or a format or a style. You want to try your hand at writing a mystical poem, so you read a few examples of poems people say are legitimately mystical. The thing you write is going to fall into that range of poetic forms, images and subject matter. Do you learn to paint by being original or do you learn to paint by imitating the style of the masters? This is the kind of thing a fledgling poet writes to demonstrate his grasp of a style.
If you want to accuse Pike of plagiarism, this poem is your best bet. If Coleridge got Pike into a modern court over this matter it could go either way. Pike certainly did take the premise and mimic the form. However, if you allow that it's fair for one author to appropriate the same premise as another author and write on that subject independently, and that verse forms (like the sonnet or blank verse) are not copyrightable, then the only similarities are a couple of images (the red glowing sun and the whispering sage) in a poem many many pages long.
Consider this in the face of the rhetoric used by the anti-Pike faction. Are you going to hang the label of Great Plagiarist like an albatross around the neck of a poet with a string as thin as this?
Okay, I promised you two examples of possible plagiarism. Here's the second best as found by Jones.
SHELLEY (ODE TO THE WEST WIND): "I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!"
PIKE (MUSINGS): "Alas for my unsandalled feet! They bleed,/ Pierced by the thorns which strew the paths of life."
If you can get a judgement against Pike for this one, you're a genius lawyer, and that's the second closest similarity in the hundreds of poems Pike wrote. This looks to me like Pike was deliberately recalling a famous image to compare his mundane troubles to the great angst of Shelley. Suppose he had said that he "suffered the thumbtacks and spitballs of outrageous fortune." You know immediately it's a deliberately cheapened version of the most famous speech ever written in English. Shelley is impaled on the thorns of life. Pike gets them stuck in his bare feet.
Pike wrote a poem "Ode to the Mocking-Bird" which reflects the title of Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale," but this strikes me not as a copy so much as an answer, as a tennis volley returned. "Liked your nightingale. What do you think of our mockingbird?"
The accusation of plagiarism was mentioned in Alsopp's biography of Pike in 1928, but the accuser was identified only as a New York literary figure, not by name. And the unnamed accuser gave no specific examples. Therefore, we can't be sure what the accuser thought Pike had stolen.
Pike's own comment: "...if there be in [my poems] imitation of any writer, I trust that it extends only to style; and I know that I have not wilfully committed plagiarism. It is possible that the imitation may extend farther that I suppose...." That's a vague defense, but with nobody brave enough to stand and spell out the accusation that's the best he could do.
These days people choose merely to hint their accusations. I was reading a work once and I recognized a passage from another work. I took it to my boss and pointed out the similarities and asked her where research ended and plagiarism began, and should I confront the author with my findings and questions? She said no. The way to handle the situation was to say that I liked the piece and that it reminded me of the earlier work. Let the author take the hint and respond if he wishes. Then a few years later I was watching a Nick Nolte movie called "Weeds" in which his character had written a play blatantly copied from another play by Sartre. A sophisticated theatre patron remarked, "I liked it. It reminded me of Sartre."
That was verbatim how my boss had told me to accuse people of plagiarism.
Psychologists call this technique "pussive aggressive." You insult somebody and pretend like it's a compliment. I immediately thought back to a poem I had written in my college days. One of these pussive aggressives had said that he liked my poem, that it reminded him of such-and-such. I had been accused of plagiarism and had not even known it! For a long time afterward, classmates and proffessors would ask me, "Are you sure you never read that poem?" And I would truthfully say I had never read that poem.
Well, first thing I did when I figured out what had happened (fifteen years later) was go to the library and read that poem. It was set in a junkyard, and my poem was set in a junkyard, and that's where the similarity ended. That goomer had snuck in a stealth accusation and had gotten away with it because I thought I was being praised!
How do they legitimize this pussive aggressive condemnation? The Bible. Yep, believe it or not it's written right into the Bible that under some circumstances, if somebody says a vow and you don't object, then it sticks. Check the book of Numbers chapter 30 verse 3. They just sneak their vows in at you disguised as praise and you are condemned by your silence. It's baloney, but people use this schoolyard stuff as their justification.
Shakespeare points this out in the first scene of "Romeo and Juliet" when a character ironically named Samson plots to bite his thumb at members of a rival faction, saying that it's a disgrace to them if they don't respond. They do respond and he quickly backs down, bravely saying that he was biting his thumb in no particular direction.
For a modern example of stealth insult, check out "Wayne's World." A douchebagsayswhat?
So that's how anti-Pike propagandists paste Pike with a false condemnation. They just repeat the anonymous accusation. They report the rumor, and if nobody responds they assume the condemnation is proper.
Pussive aggressives. Dang!
There is one blatant, unambiguous instance of plagiarism in Pike's literary career. In 1892 a poet named William Cowan got a poem published in Blackwood's Magazine, the same one that had published Pike's "Hymns to the Gods" in 1839. Cowan's poem contained three entire verses lifted verbatim from a poem titled "Every Year" written by Pike some twenty years earlier. So there is a plagiarist in this story and his name is Cowan. Pike's estate sued and won.
RTJ -- 2/12/2009
Click here to read corrections to bizarre misinformation that circulates about Albert Pike.
Alsopp, Fred W; Albert Pike: A Biography; Little Rock, AR;1928.
Brown, Walter Lee; A Life of Albert Pike; University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, AR;1997.
Jones, Alexander E; The "Plagiarism" of Albert Pike; Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 13 pp270-277, Autumn 1954.
Plagiarisms Charges in "Every Year"; Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 12. pp1-7. Summer, 1954.