The Poetry of Helen Pinkerton

When Helen Pinkerton died on December 28, 2017, she left behind a body of verse that, though modestly compact, has great grace and intelligence. However, while her poetry has never lacked for serious admirers, it has not received recognition commensurate with its excellence. In the following pages, I want to explain why she deserves new readers. She was wonderfully unusual—formidably thoughtful and direct, both in person and on the page. She also had a fascinating life, and to the extent that her life illuminates her poems, I hope to tell her story, blending, so to speak, biography with literary appreciation.

Pinkerton was born in 1927 in Butte, Montana, the home of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company and possibly the roughest and most corrupt town in the country at the time. (Dashiell Hammett portrays it as Personville in Red Harvest.) Butte High School, which Pinkerton attended for two years, was two blocks south of Butte’s notorious red-light district, and in an email she wrote me in 2009, she remembers having to take care to avoid the area when walking to school or uptown. Her mother, a native of Butte, had lost her parents as a child and lived in an orphanage before being taken in by a foster family. Her father came from a family of homesteaders in Jackson, Montana. After serving in the American Expeditionary Force in France in World War I, he had settled in Butte to work in the mines. He died in 1938 in an accident in the Anselmo Mine in Butte Hill—“the richest hill on earth” during the copper boom.

Given Pinkerton’s hardscrabble background, few would have predicted that she would become a remarkable writer. But from an early age, she loved literature. As she comments in an interview with James Matthew Wilson that appeared in 2011 in Think Journal, “I cannot remember a time when I did not want to read as much as possible. Since my family did not have many books, my main sources were school books, gifts from relatives, and books borrowed from neighbors until I was old enough to check them out of the Butte Public Library, which I did as often and as many as possible.”

In 1942, Pinkerton’s mother moved with Pinkerton and her younger sister from Butte to Mount Vernon, Washington, where one of her mother’s foster sisters lived and where opportunities for respectable employment for women were better than they were in Butte. (Pinkerton had two older brothers, both of whom went off to the War in the Pacific after the attack on Pearl Harbor.) While Pinkerton was completing her secondary school education at Mount Vernon High, her writing impressed a teacher of Civics and Journalism named Raymond Cowell. He had gotten a degree in Journalism from Stanford University and urged her to do the same. Acting on his advice, she moved with her mother and sister to Palo Alto in 1944 (during, in fact, the week of D-Day), and after she and her mother got jobs in a local cannery, she took an entrance exam for Stanford and was admitted. She later modestly said she thought she got in because all the young men were in the Armed Forces and the university needed students.

At Stanford, Pinkerton initially pursued her interest in journalism, doing a column for the student newspaper as well as reporting on campus lectures for the Palo Alto Times. But on the recommendation of a colleague at the student newspaper, she enrolled in a course in the English Department taught by the poet and critic Yvor Winters. He opened up for her a rich world of literature and ideas, and a devotion to poetry soon replaced her ambition to become a journalist. Winters also guided her to other excellent teachers in the humanities, including two refugees from Hitler’s Germany. One was Friedrich Strothmann, a medievalist in the German Department who interested her in Thomas Aquinas. The other was the classicist Hermann Frankel, with whom she read Homer and Greek philosophy. Another important professor for her was Margery Bailey, who had earlier been one of John Steinbeck’s favorite teachers during his time at the university. Professor Bailey taught eighteenth-century literature and communicated to Pinkerton an abiding love of Samuel Johnson’s prose.

Winters would later say of Pinkerton, “No poet in English writes with more authority,” and that authority manifested itself early. As a nineteen-year-old undergraduate, she wrote “Subjectivity,” a poem that communicates the eerie and absolute reality of consciousness and the solipsism that inevitably threatens it:

I measure years by days and days by hours
But in the elastic hour of calculation
I leave immeasurable the instrument.
In my delineations watches bend,
The slow distortion of amorphousness,
And now the bullet’s flight may be the moth’s
When simultaneously I ride with both.
No frozen age, no night perpetual,
On Georgian steppes and canyons of the west
When a dead moon reflects a dying sun,
Turning to the unheard refrains of time,
Is longer, darker, than the eyelid’s rest,
The veil of flesh before oblivion.

After receiving her B.A. from Stanford, she married fellow student W. Wesley Trimpi, with whom she would have two daughters. From 1952 to 1957, she and her husband did graduate work in English at Harvard. They then returned to Stanford. (Doctorate in hand, he had been offered a teaching position there; occupied with raising their daughters, she did not complete her Ph.D. until 1966.) Having written her thesis on Herman Melville, she eventually published a book on him, Melville’s Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s. This appeared in 1987 under her married name, Helen P. Trimpi. Meticulously detailed, the book demonstrates that Melville’s The Confidence-Man, which many readers have found opaque and baffling, is a satire about American politics in the years after the Mexican-American War, when the acquisition of new territory in the Southwest and West had caused the long-smoldering controversies over slavery and secession to burst into flame. One indication of the high esteem in which scholars in the field hold Pinkerton’s book is Stephen Matterson’s Penguin Classics edition of The Confidence-Man, the introduction and notes of which draw upon (and generously acknowledge) her insights. Her work on Melville and antebellum politics led her, in her later years, to study the Civil War, and in 2010 she published Crimson Confederates, a historical register of 357 Harvard alumni who fought for the South during the conflict. Though this book is primarily a compilation—an alphabetized series of biographical entries on the men in question—Pinkerton introduces it with a fascinating survey of Harvard’s struggles, from 1865 to the present, over whether or how to acknowledge its Confederate alumni.

But Pinkerton’s greatest work is her poetry. It exemplifies T. S. Eliot’s thesis that fine poems are often a blend of tradition and individual talent. Her “Elegy at Beaverhead County, Montana,” which appears below, draws on the long tradition of elegiac poetry in English. Its metrical-stanzaic form and its pastoral meditation recall Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Churchyard.” At the same time, Pinkerton’s poem is deeply in the American grain. Its twenty lines touch on critical issues in our country and culture—including the struggle between those who cultivate the earth and those who would exploit it for wealth. (Pinkerton uses as an epigraph for the poem “Oro y plata”—“Gold and silver”—the motto that Montana adopted in 1865, when it became an official United States Territory. She once noted that Native American observers had been shocked when settlers from the East started extracting minerals from the planet without putting anything back in.) Pinkerton also portrays—with a daughter’s cautious watchfulness—her strong and disappointed father, a man who had little formal schooling but who loved music and played the violin. In the email I referenced earlier, she recalled, “The first good music I ever heard was his playing Beethoven’s violin concerto in our living room, all by himself. This, a man with less than a high-school education.”

My father fished here summers, scaled and cleaned
His catch by the gray weathered fence that dips
Into the river. Thin as a pine, he leaned
Again to rinse the knife in chilling rips.

The river is Missouri’s western source,
So clear and shallow even stones and sand
Under that sun seem golden in its course.
Men came for gold and, failing, took the land.

Sons of unsettled men sometimes remained
To change the land through labor and design.
He left, rejecting when he might have gained,
But only found another ore to mine.

His quiet lapsed to taciturnity,
Slow anger to hard answers in a glance;
Music alone and its brief gaiety,
His father’s gift, remained from circumstance.

For that rich butte in whose deep shaft he died,
Where I first saw, as silver as its earth,
Another stream flow west from the Divide,
Gave to him nothing of its final worth.

In addition to its appealing human qualities and its thoughtful use of literary tradition, this poem illustrates virtues of Pinkerton’s style. For one thing, she manages, with quiet dexterity, the iambic pentameter line, simultaneously maintaining and modulating it. Similarly expert is the way she knits the poem’s different elements together. Against the transient loveliness of the gold and silver rivers, she balances the inert, hard minerals that stimulate our unnatural grasping and greed. And she dexterously correlates the geography of Continental Divide with the temperamental division between father and daughter. (As a girl, Pinkerton played along the old Northern Pacific railroad tracks that follow the Divide just east of Butte.)

More specifically, the two rivers to which Pinkerton alludes indicate that her life has an orientation different from her father’s. The first river she speaks of is the Big Hole River, whose waters flow east to the Missouri and down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. This river is in Jackson in Beaverhead County, where her father’s family hailed from, and the river’s eastward flow suggests his Scottish descent and his family’s having come from the east. The second river is Silver Bow Creek. This is in Butte and empties into the Columbia River and thence into the Pacific Ocean. And in referring to Silver Bow Creek, Pinkerton hints (“Where first I saw”) that her life will follow the direction of this stream and take her westward to the Pacific.

Lastly, Pinkerton captures the pathos of her father’s fate in the contrast between the image of him in first stanza and the image of him in the final one. Initially, he appears as a creature of the natural world. He stands upon the earth like a pine tree under open sky, fishing and drawing sustenance from living waters. At the poem’s conclusion, he is a miner who perishes in a dark shaft far beneath the earth’s surface—the Anselmo Mine was 4,301 feet deep—and wins nothing of “its final worth.”

As we might infer from “Elegy at Beaverhead County, Montana,” Pinkerton often conceived of her poems in terms of their “genres” or “types,” such as elegy, verse epistle, satire, epithalamion, love poem, idyll, and epigram. She absorbed this approach partly by literary osmosis from her early reading. “When I wrote the earlier poems,” she tells Wilson in his interview with her, “I did not think deliberately of the form, though I was conscious of some of the obvious types (love, death, monologue, etc.) even without consciously naming them.” Also critical in developing her outlook was the inspiration she received from her friend Elroy Bundy, who was a Classics scholar at Berkeley and whose Studia Pindarica I and II (1962) transformed Pindar studies by demonstrating the encomiastic intentions and conventions of the poet’s great odes. Speaking with Wilson, Pinkerton says of Bundy’s work: “I appreciated the success of his analysis and the importance of understanding, always, first and foremost, the form of a given poem, both in reading and in writing them.”

Pinkerton keenly appreciated the visual arts, and one poetic genre that particularly engaged her was the ekphrastic poem, the poem on a work of art. She wrote approximately thirty of these, mainly during the 1980s. The poems feature a stanza of nine lines of iambic pentameter. Most of the poems consist of a single stanza, though several have two or three stanzas and one has five. Rhyme appears intermittently and irregularly. Sometimes, that is, none of the lines rhyme; sometimes, two or three do; sometimes, six or seven do; in one case, all the lines rhyme. A good example of Pinkerton’s ekphrastic verse is “On an Early Cycladic Harpist (2500 B.C.) in the Archeological Museum in Athens”:

A geometric form, seated, erect,
Face lifted, as if hearing each plucked note.
His broken arms yearn toward the absent strings.
Romantic notion! There was no longing there
For being’s absence. In the tale he sings—
A hero’s wrath examined, a woman’s heart—
Words that compose the listener’s soul reflect
Right order in his own. You were, and are,
Small harpist, art’s embodiment of art.

Pinkerton’s poems on works of art reflect her interest not only in poetic genres but also in rhetoric. While a graduate student in the 1950s, she was much impressed by Louis L. Martz’s study of late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century devotional verse, The Poetry of Meditation. In it Martz explains the ways in which such poets as Robert Southwell, John Donne, and George Herbert adapted to their poetry the practice of religious meditation that the Jesuits developed during the Counter-Reformation. (The seminal texts in this development were the Spiritual Exercises—composed 1522-24 and published 1548—of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order.) Specifically, the practice involved three steps: (1) imagining or describing a scene or event (“seeing the spot”), (2) analyzing the scene or event to determine its meaning, and (3) “turning to address” someone—God or a person or persons—so as to engage them in “colloquy” and to express the lesson learned from the meditation.

We can see how this tripartite structure works by examining Pinkerton’s poem about the statue of the harpist. In the first three lines, she describes the work of art. She “sees the spot,” implying that a contemporary viewer like herself might regard the statue as an image of loss and yearning. (The specificity of the poem’s title is a preliminary to the exercise. As the original writers on meditation insisted, one must at the outset bring to memory, as vividly as one can, the scene or topic of one’s meditation.)In the next four and a half lines—from line 4 to the middle of line 8—Pinkerton performs the second stage of her meditation. She analyzes the statue to determine its significance. She notes that though our romantic, existential age may read deprivation and absence into the broken object, it embodied for its maker something very different—the faith that being is the fundamental condition of reality. This analytic portion of the meditation also suggests that artists can communicate their spiritual composure to their audience. Then, in the final line and a half of the poem, Pinkerton apostrophizes the statue, entering into a colloquy with it and expressing the insights to which her meditation has led her: the excellent artist not only practices art but also embodies it, and compelling art transcends the moment in which it occurs and conveys its meaning throughout time.

Pinkerton also wrote epigrams. Her interest in this genre may reflect the influence of her friend J. V. Cunningham, arguably the leading epigrammatic poet of the twentieth century. Her interest may reflect, too, her early training in journalism and her having enjoyed, as a student, debate. One of her undergraduate classmates at Stanford was William Rehnquist, and they used to walk the campus for hours arguing with each other. At the time, she was a “wild-eyed liberal,” as she tells Judee Humburg in a 2016 interview for the Stanford Oral History Collections, while Rehnquist was already the staunch conservative whom Ronald Reagan would one day appoint to the Supreme Court. Being well-suited to public and satirical comment, the epigram enabled Pinkerton to speak about topical matters not only in discussion with friends but also in her verse.

Pinkerton’s political epigrams include “Diagnosis of the Body Politic, 1973,” which she wrote during Richard Nixon’s presidency and at the height of the Watergate scandal:

Is it the heart? A pace too tense?
Cancerous graft? A head gone sick?
Not so. It’s only impotence:
The ailing member is our Dick.

An epigram on a more broadly cultural issue is “Literary Theorist.” Here Pinkerton’s topic involves intellectual life, specifically the academic fashions that bedeviled the study of literature in the final quarter of the twentieth century:

Abusing its otherness, its soul and wit,
He rapes the text, claiming its benefit—
And that, inscrutable, it asked for it.

The nature poem was another type of poem that Pinkerton enjoyed, and a fine example of her work in this genre is “Nature Note: The California Poison Oak.” This poem follows a pattern of exposition we often see in nature poetry. The poet first describes something in the natural world and then finds a meaning in it. William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” is a famous instance of this technique. Pinkerton’s poem has “form” not only of a generic kind but also in the sense of being in a fixed verse form. The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, and its structure suits the poem’s expository pattern. The octave carries the description; the sestet discovers the meaning. Though the sonnet is Petrarchan in its divisions and in its flow and feeling, Pinkerton employs a sequence of rhymes we do not customarily encounter in Petrarchan sonnets, and the rhymes themselves are unusual. The rhyme scheme runs abcdabcd efggfe, and all the rhymes are consonantal slant rhymes:

Dry summers flaw the leaf to a rose flame,
Where, as a vine, it seems to flicker higher
Than live-oaks it consumes, or where it leaps
As a free-standing shrub or tree—ablaze
In wild-oat hayfields. Yet, with winter come,
The stems shrink back and almost disappear
In sinuous tangles, while a few white drupes
That look like snowberries hang to trick the eyes.

Nothing will warn but old experience
The ignorant damp hand that comes to dig
In winter rain the dormant trillium:
Seeking to bring a wild spring beauty home
It finds, as parasitic as a drug,
Pain stinging flesh that brushed the stems but once.

Pinkerton poems are remarkable not only in their forms and style but also for their thoughtfulness. Philosophically speaking, she appears to be a dualist. She regards existence as an ongoing negotiation between mutually essential but seemingly opposed elements. Her poems strive to balance and connect the transient and the timeless, matter and spirit, reason and faith, our particular lives and Being itself. Some of her warmest poems, such as “On Dieric Bouts’s Virgin and Child (1460) in the California Palace of the Legion of Honor,” capture moments when the contradictions are accepted and lovingly embraced. In contrast, other poems, such as “The Return,” acknowledge the difficulty of maintaining a just equilibrium and are haunted by the temptation to give up the struggle and settle for comforting but false simplifications. These take, basically, two forms. The first involves rejecting our messy, imperfect humanity and fleeing into Gnostic intellectual purity. The second entails repudiating the transcendent because we cannot–or can only rarely—experience it directly. (As Wallace Stevens puts it in “Sunday Morning,” “What is divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and in dreams?”) Succumbing to the first temptation leads to the denial of ordinary experience and the physical world. Succumbing to the second reduces reality to merely human and material terms. It almost goes without saying that Pinkerton’s sense of duality—her desire to reconcile qualities or experiences that are apparently opposed—helps account for her allegiance to language, conversation, and colloquy.

As the foregoing remarks indicate, Pinkerton’s poetry treats such perennially absorbing matters as family, social life, the arts, nature, philosophy, and politics. However, two subjects particularly preoccupy her: the American Civil War and religious faith. For the remainder of this essay, I should like to discuss her poems on these subjects, taking up the poems about the Civil War first.

Though Pinkerton’s fascination with the Civil War derived partly from her love of Melville and her desire to understand his responses to the conflict, two personal factors contributed as well to her interest. One was her family’s history of military service. Not only did her father serve in World War I and her two brothers in the Second World War, but also her great grandfather Josias Pinkerton soldiered in the Union Army in the Civil War from 1862 until the end of the conflict. He was a private in the Western Theater with the 25th Regiment of the Iowa Volunteer Infantry, which fought under Ulysses S. Grant in the Vicksburg Campaign and with William Tecumseh Sherman in the Georgia and Carolinas Campaigns.

The second personal factor involved an experience Pinkerton had when she visited Harvard’s Memorial Hall not long after she arrived at the university to do graduate work. As many readers know, the walls of the Hall’s vestibule or transept have plaques consecrated to 136 men from Harvard who died for the Union during the Civil War. Seeing the plaques deeply affected Pinkerton. Most of the fallen soldiers had been young, as she was at the time, and they had had, as she did, hopes for a full, rich life. In her preface to Crimson Confederates, she recalls her feelings on the occasion: “As a graduate student in English at Harvard in 1953 I explored Memorial Hall and lingered in the entrance hall, reading the Latin inscriptions high above and the names on the white marble tablets below of the Harvard students who died for the Union from 1861 to 1866. Their names and the names of the battles, many of which I did not recognize at that time, moved me intensely.”

Between 1980 and 2014, Pinkerton published nine poems related to the Civil War—an epigram, three ekphrastic poems, and five extended dramatic monologues. Some of the poems allude to or treat conditions or events that go back to early colonial history. Other poems concern conditions during the Reconstruction and beyond. Of the dramatic monologues, Unionists speak two. One of them is Herman Melville. The other is Lemuel Shaw. Shaw served as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court from 1830 to 1860 and issued several important decisions regarding fugitive slaves, and he was also Melville’s father-in-law and close friend. (He obtained for Melville the copy of Owen Chase’s book on the sinking of The Essex that Melville used in writing Moby-Dick.) The three other monologues are spoken by Confederates: Richard Taylor, who was the son of former President Zackary Taylor and who, as a general in the Southern armies, led for a time the formidable if rag-tag Tiger Brigade from Louisiana; Mary Curtis Lee, Robert E. Lee’s wife and the step-granddaughter of George Washington; and Margaret Junkin Preston, the unofficial poet laureate of the Confederacy.

Given the miscellaneous character of the poems, the extended period of their collective composition, and the fact that Pinkerton never conceived of them as a coherent or consecutive group but wrote them individually as and when they came to her, they are hard to summarize. Perhaps the best we can do is to say that Pinkerton attempted to explore different viewpoints related to the conflict. Nevertheless, we can venture the generalization that Pinkerton’s Civil War poems accord, in their basic outlines, with the current standard histories of the subject. The Cause of the war, in her view, was the national evil of slavery, and the one great redeeming feature of the incredibly bloody and destructive struggle was that it freed the slaves.

Pinkerton expresses this view in one of her ekphrastic poems, “On Erastus Salisbury Field’s The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea (1863?).” The nominal subject of the painting and poem is the escape of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s power, but as is signaled by the painting’s conjectured date—the year that The Emancipation Proclamation took effect—the poem is also about the liberation of enslaved African-Americans during the Civil War. (The quoted phrase in the poem’s first line comes from John Milton’s description, in Paradise Lost, 12.197, of Moses’s parting of The Red Sea and of the way the shining waters stood aside to let the Israelites pass.)

Reflected in rose gleams on “crystal walls”
And in Egyptian stars falling behind,
God’s angel in the flame goads on the herd—
Cattle, sheep, camels, men—a holy stampede—
Mystically led by Moses, Miriam, Aaron.
Invincible vision of the bond-slave’s hope!
When love and justice fail, mark your success:
Offering sword-drawn for your lash-drawn blood,
Armies enter with you the Wilderness.

In describing American slavery a failure of “love,” Pinkerton makes the point that the enslavement of African-Americans involved not only chattel labor but also racism: whites enslaved blacks. As can be seen in other poems of hers, including her epigram about the literary theorist, Pinkerton believed that people should respond generously and respectfully to others and Otherness, whereas American slavery expressed, as she puts in the dramatic monologue spoken by Shaw, “The Europeans’ fear of Africans / . . . a moral cancer / Breeding on fear and greed, inherited, / Erected to a systematic code— / Mind’s effort to enthrone a mindless fear.” In calling American slavery a failure of “justice,” Pinkerton refers not only to the wrong of one person’s owning another but also to decisions of the nation’s courts, such as the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1857 in the Dred Scott Case, that denied African-Americans their freedom and rights as citizens.

Pinkerton’s poem on Field’s painting is characteristic, in another way, of her Civil War verse. The poem reflects the great esteem she had for Abraham Lincoln and Melville and the influence that their understanding of the conflict had on her own. When, in the poem’s final line, Pinkerton writes, “Armies enter with you the Wilderness,” the capital “W” makes us think not only of the deserts in which the Children of Israel wandered for forty years but also of Spotsylvania County, Virginia, where the pivotal Battle of the Wilderness was fought in May of 1864 between Grant’s Army of the Potomac and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia; and the line echoes the title of Melville’s poem on that battle, “The Armies of the Wilderness,” in his 1866 collection of poems on the Civil War, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War.

As regards Lincoln, in the next-to-last line of Pinkerton’s poem, “Offering sword-drawn for your lash-drawn blood,” alludes to a famous and remarkable passage in his second inaugural address: “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether’.” In reading the last two lines of the poem, we remember as well that Lincoln proclaimed Emancipation as the military Commander-in-Chief of the United States and with the justification that the Union needed black soldiers to defend itself. (Tens of thousands of African-Americans responded to the Proclamation by joining the Union Army, and black troops in fact served in the Wilderness Campaign in General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps.)

Even as Pinkerton’s basic analysis of the Civil War accords with the prevailing historical orthodoxy, her views are nuanced in thoughtful and surprising ways. Like Melville, she condemns slavery and secession, while at the same time being sympathetic to the suffering of the South as well as to that of the North. For her, as for him, slavery was a national as well as a regional sin. Melville argues in his prose “Supplement” to Battle-Pieces that the southern partisans were “a people who, though, indeed, they sought to perpetuate the curse of slavery, and even extend it, were not the authors of it, but (less fortunate, not less righteous than we) were the fated inheritors.” And Pinkerton, in her dramatic monologue spoken by Melville, has him refer to “Early New England’s profit in slave traffic.” For that matter, the Northern economy benefited from slavery right up to the Civil War, to the extent that the textile and banking industries were intricately involved with cotton production in the South. This situation lies behind Thoreau’s complaint, in his 1849 essay on civil disobedience, about “a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here [in Massachusetts], who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico.” Moreover, her monologue spoken by Shaw is, among other things, a portrait of a judge who repeatedly had to balance the private claims of his anti-slavery conscience with his public duty to uphold a Constitution that had authorized slavery (though the Framers were too embarrassed to use the word) in its clauses on Enumeration, Importation, and Fugitives Held to Service or Labor. Indeed, the Shaw and Melville monologues by Pinkerton suggest that our republic at its inception planted the seeds of its ultimate tragic division. The noble principles of the Declaration of Independence inevitably clashed with the troubled and troubling pragmatism of the Constitution.

Further, Pinkerton’s monologues spoken by Shaw and Melville (not to mention her book on The Confidence-Man) depict or examine an antebellum political environment in which extremists and opportunists of both sides demonized each other and made a peaceful resolution of issues impossible. Pinkerton has Melville say, “You know that long before our war were decades / Loud with reciprocal denunciation,” echoing a comment Melville himself makes in his “Supplement” to Battle-Pieces: “Those unfraternal denunciations, continued through years, and which at last inflamed to deeds that ended in bloodshed, were reciprocal.” Like Melville and like Robert Penn Warren, who was an early champion of Melville’s poetry and analysis of the Civil War, Pinkerton is skeptical of fanaticism in any form. And she has a particular sympathy with those who, like Shaw and Lincoln, felt compelled to try, prior to the war, to find accommodation with the South, not because they minimized the evil of slavery but because they feared that a civil war might, among other calamities, irreversibly expand and institutionalize the subjugation of African-Americans. Today, we take for granted the Union victory in the war and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. But before the conflict and during its early stages, this was only one of three possible outcomes. The other two were (1) that the South would prevail and extend slavery to the North and West, and (2) that the war would end in a military stalemate and that there would be established, on the southern border of the United States, a Confederacy committed not only to maintaining slavery within its territories but also to enlarging it by means of colonial conquest in the Caribbean and in South and Central America.

Here, a few words are in order about Pinkerton’s Crimson Confederates. Between 1992 and 1996, a debate at Harvard occurred over a proposal to place a memorial, in the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, to the 64 Harvard alumni who died fighting for the Confederacy. As a Harvard alumna, Pinkerton followed the debate through newspaper accounts and campus publications she received in the mail. Proposals to commemorate Harvard’s Confederate dead had been floated on and off ever since 1865. Peter J. Gomes, Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School and Minister of Memorial Church, had raised this latest version of the proposal. A distinguished theologian, author, and advocate for LBGT community, Professor Gomes was African-American, and in an op-ed piece in the Harvard Crimson on January 17, 1996, he explained that he had advanced the proposal in a “spirit of reconciliation not with a wicked cause, but with young lives who once shared the ideals of the University but who died at one another’s hands in the most morally devastating of human conflicts, a civil war.” However, various student and alumni groups opposed the proposal, and it was eventually withdrawn.

Though Pinkerton understood why people objected to memorializing Harvard’s Confederates, she was disappointed when the proposal was dropped. Again like Melville, she believed that the cause of the Union was right and that of the Confederacy was wrong; but she also believed, as did Melville, that many who sided with the South had been genuinely perplexed by divided loyalties and had acted in accordance with conscience as they understood it. As Melville says in his “Supplement” to Battle-Pieces, “It was in subserviency to the slave-interest that Secession was plotted; but it was under the plea, plausibly urged, that certain inestimable rights guaranteed by the Constitution were directly menaced that the people of the South were cajoled into revolution”; and he adds that it would be dishonorable “to abandon to shame the memory of brave men who with signal disinterestedness warred in her [the South’s] behalf, though from motives, as we believe, so deplorably astray.”

Most important, Pinkerton was moved by the thought of the soldiers who had died or been maimed in the conflict—the terrible ordeals that young men on both sides had endured. She was moved, too, by the stories of union and confederate veterans who had reconciled after the war, and she felt it was one of the great tragedies of American history that the country itself largely failed to reconcile after the conflict. The ongoing divisions thwarted (and still thwart, for that matter) the hope for our Union implied by the Declaration of Independence—the hope that we will one day achieve a just and inclusive multi-racial community with equality under law for all women and men. Pinkerton believed that both sides could agree, if nothing else, to grieve mutually for their fallen youth. As Melville argues in the dramatic monologue Pinkerton devotes to him, the North should honor the courage that their former foes from the South had shown defending their homes and families, just as the South should revere the sacrifices made by men of the North—including the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiment of African-Americans led by Robert Gould Shaw—to uphold the Union and to end slavery. Writing to his English admirer William Clark Russell (hence the reference to Westminster Abbey), Melville says of the Confederate dead:

……………………………………….. How, I ask now,
Without their dead acknowledged in our temples
(As you honor your rebels in your Abbey)
Can we become one people?

And he adds:

Not less, the Massachusetts men young Shaw
Led to a sandy grave below Fort Wagner
Have not received their Southern tears. All should,
Tempered in one indifferent fire, be honored,
For the same innocence and valor moved them.

It was the debate about possibly memorializing the Confederate dead that piqued Pinkerton’s curiosity and led her, around 1993, to start looking into who the university’s confederate alumni were. Initially, she thought her research might produce an interesting essay. But over the months and years, the project grew into a collection, as has been mentioned, of 357 biographical entries, some as short as a paragraph, others running to 10 double-columned pages or longer. Pinkerton always described the book as a hobby—“I wrote this book for fun,” she tells Humburg during the Stanford Oral History interview—but when she published it, she spoke seriously in her introduction of her having based the work on the “idea of reconciliation” advocated by Professor Gomes and others, including Union heroes from Harvard like Frank Bartlett and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

A concern with reconciliation or reciprocity also appears in Pinkerton’s poems on religion. The most obvious barrier to faith (and for her faith seems to entail not exclusively a belief in God, but a broader acknowledgment of Otherness) is egotism. The self, as she notes in “Error Pursued II” is “faithless to its end.” Indeed, the self is, to the extent it is seduced by vanity or pride, the antithesis of faith. Yet faith is a two-way street, and one of the arresting aspects of Pinkerton’s devotional verse is that it pleads with the divine for responsive engagement. For instance, in the first of her two “Holy Sonnets,” we find not only an analysis of the distractions and forgetfulness that can remove us from faith or ethical life but also a moving plea to God to “be with me casual and concomitant.” In the same way that Pinkerton urges that answering support is required to maintain human relationships, so she argues that the bond between the human and the divine is strained when faith can intuit no concurring presence.

Pinkerton focuses this argument in “For an End,” one of her relatively early devotional poems. Like some of the Renaissance devotional poems she admired, this one can almost be read as concerning human as well as divine love.

Had I not loved,
I had not believed,
And not believing,
Had been deceived.

Had I not loved,
I had not known
Either your being
Or my own.

Had I not loved,
I had not known
That you could love
Both mind and bone.

Had you not loved,
When your decree
Seemed total loss,
You had lost me.

Pinkerton was Catholic. She came to her faith by her mother, whose maiden name was Kennedy and who was evidently Irish Catholic. However, Pinkerton does not appear to have been especially drawn to religion as a girl or a teenager. When she arrived at Stanford, she attended a few meetings of the Newman Club on campus, but dropped away from lack of interest. The turning point came when she began seriously studying, more or less simultaneously, English poetry and Aquinas; and, paradoxically, it was the poetry that most contributed to her gradual conversion. Her fascination with the language and moral concepts of the English poetic tradition led her into Catholic theology more deeply than she otherwise would have gone. In her interview with Wilson, she puts it this way: “Because I had had learned . . . that the language—especially that of Chaucer, Sidney, Greville, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, Vaughn, etc.—was an outgrowth of the Medieval Scholastic writers, I continued to investigate the moral and theological writings behind the literature.” And she adds, by way of clarification: “At Winters’ suggestion, I began my lifelong reading of the works Étienne Gilson [Aquinas’s great twentieth-century interpreter]. I did not go from theology to poetry but from the language I learned in the poetry to a deeper understanding of it in Christian philosophy and theology.”

Several of Pinkerton’s devotional poems—“Good Friday,” for example—treat points of doctrine in ways that may be difficult for the uninitiated to grasp. For the most part, however, we do not need any special knowledge of Catholicism to enjoy her religious verse. If we had to list her beliefs, some of the following would be in the inventory. God is the ground of being. Creation and consciousness are good. We humans are not self-sufficient, but we are significant. Reason and faith are twin blessings. We cherish reason because it makes humanity and civilized life possible, but we must never imagine that reality consists merely of that which is intelligible to reason and sense perception. Only faith enables us to engage what lies beyond our understanding. And concerning what lies beyond our understanding, we should not reject it or feel alienated from it but should regard it in spirit of curiosity and conciliation.

Pinkerton’s early devotional work sometimes appears to draw a division between the human and the divine. For instance, in “Visible and Invisible,” a lovely poem from her student days, she construes the divine as light, which, invisible and eternal, illuminates the visible and transitory natural world. To make her point in the final stanza of the poem, she draws on Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and his foundational proposition about the constancy of the speed of light. She juxtaposes light, with its constant or stable velocity, and animate life, whose beauties are subject to time and decay. (Like “Nature Note,” “Visible and Invisible” features slant rhymes exclusively, and, in this poem, all the rhymes have a feminine ending.)

Its [Light’s] truth resides in constant speed descending.
The momentary beauty is attendant.
A flicker of the animate responding
Shifts in the mind with time and fades, inconstant.

Later, in her life however, Pinkerton suggests that if the divine illuminates the natural world, the natural world in return discloses the divine. This, at any rate, seems to be the gist of the stanza below from “Celebration,” a poem from the mid-1970s that Pinkerton wrote to Elroy and Barbara Bundy on the birth their son. The poem describes a lovely spring morning and compares it to the wheel of divinity that Dante comprehends (and that comprehends him) at the end of the Paradiso. The last line of the stanza contains a translated Latin phrase, Lumen de lumine, from the Nicene Creed. In the context of the Nicene Creed, the phrase signifies that the Son of God is Light that came from the Light that is His Father. Pinkerton introduces the phrase not only in a philosophical spirit but also in the spirit of welcoming the birth of the son of her friends.

In this loved scene being and essence shine;
It is and is itself, like Dante’s wheel,
While whole and part, each sub-atomic spark,
Dependent for existence, undivine,
Disclose the self-existent, first and real.
Light springs from light and not from primal dark.

Near the end of her life, Pinkerton wrote a final poem, calling it simply “Dialogue: A Poem.” It describes an exchange she has as an old and dying woman with her great granddaughter. When the child attempts to converse with her, Pinkerton reflects that God represents the eternal transcendent listener with whom we all may try to connect. Others may turn a deaf ear to us or may simply not hear what we say. But God has the “huge attention,” in the words of Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Mind-Reader,” which is always obliged to listen and which we may always address. In her poem, Pinkerton thinks as well of her own life in language and of our mediations with each other in time and across time. This was her reality, and though she has passed from it now, it endures in her poems:

A monologue assumes a listener.
When Juliette looks up and smiles as if
To speak to me, a dialogue begins,
Although she is too young to say much yet.

Likewise, when young, we sometimes talk to God,
Not naming Him at all, and yet as someone,
There, listening to our monologue.
The listener may be silent as a stone.

If no one else, it always can be God,
Who, being outside time, and in it, too,
Cannot avoid attending to our words.
If patient, we can wait for some reply.

There was, I think, a reply to my first words,
For, ever since, my days, suffused with words,
Became a back and forth of questions, answers—
Of talk, purporting to examine all

That passed, that made up my experience—
The constant presence of reality.
The dialogue confirms duality,
For it assumes our presence, here and now,

And also that of the other, taking us
Out of a crippling solipsism—not quite
Into Platonic wisdom, but at least
Able to read his dialogues with care.


Note: There exist two relatively comprehensive collections of Pinkerton’s poetry: Taken in Faith, published in 2002 by Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, and A Journey of the Mind: Collected Poems of Helen Pinkerton 1945-2016, published in 2016 by Wiseblood Books. The former (for which I wrote an afterword) is handsomely and readably produced and includes several pages of notes by Pinkerton herself on her Civil War monologues. However, the latter volume, though omitting Pinkerton’s notes, contains a handful of late poems that the earlier collection lacks.

Timothy Steele

Timothy Steele

Timothy Steele’s books of poems include Uncertainties and Rest, Sapphics Against Anger and Other Poems, The Color Wheel, and Toward the Winter Solstice. He has also published two books about the history and practice of versification (Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter and All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing) and has edited The Poems of J. V. Cunningham.
Timothy Steele

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Author: Timothy Steele

Timothy Steele’s books of poems include Uncertainties and Rest, Sapphics Against Anger and Other Poems, The Color Wheel, and Toward the Winter Solstice. He has also published two books about the history and practice of versification (Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter and All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing) and has edited The Poems of J. V. Cunningham.