The Poetry of Orsamus Charles Dake
By Stephen Behrendt, GEORGE HOLMES DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR
Orsamus Charles Dake (1832-1875) published two collections of poetry: Nebraska Legends and Poems (1871) and Midland Poems (1873). Discounting the poems from the former reprinted in the latter, this still amounts to some 350 pages, a significant poetic output from a busy family man, clergyman, and, in his last four years, founding Professor of English Literature and Rhetoric at the University of Nebraska. Nebraska Legends, the first book of poetry published in Nebraska, is an early statement of the optimism and determination that characterized the westward expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century. Like the railroad magnates, land speculators, and agricultural innovators whose efforts Nebraska’s physical, economic, and cultural landscape, Dake saw in the Nebraska territory undeniable potential for human growth and development. This optimism he articulated repeatedly in poems that celebrated the land itself, a land that Dake troped as a New World Eden, styling Nebraska, for instance, in female terms as at once a fertile virgin and a latent bountiful mother whom Dake apostrophizes as “the Virgin Mother of the West” (“Nebraska – 1866”).
For Dake, Nebraska as both physical place and cultural entity figures as a sort of beau ideal of the potential for the nation implicit in the expansionist concept of Manifest Destiny. In another poem, “The Praise of New Lands” (Nebraska Legends), Dake itemizes the many benefits, real and virtual, which Nebraska – and by association the New West generally – offer to immigrant settlers who are invited to come, to settle, to prosper amid the new day of freedom and self-determination. In poems of this sort, Dake explicitly invokes and describes the crushing oppression of the European industrial proletariat by the political, economic, religious and institutional establishment, contrasting their dehumanizing circumstances with the freedom, empowerment, and self-actualization that the Great Plains promise. The images of poverty, misery, and human failure associated in such poems with the Old World give way to the prospect of wealth, happiness, and human achievement that characterize the poet’s rosy vision of the New World.
What lends strength to the agenda proposed in poems of this sort is the surprising, richly detailed imagery of the land, its flora and fauna, and its inhabitants – not the least of which are the Native peoples, whom Dake treats with a sensitivity, dignity and respect that is absent from much of mid-nineteenth-century writing about Native peoples. Poems about Nebraska per se, and about its topography, inhabitants, and general milieu, constitute a relative minority of the total body of Dake’s poetry, but they are characterized by an authenticity of experience and of perspective that make them especially memorable. This is true also of poems like “The Weeping Water” and “The Raw Hide,” which draw upon both legend and history in their treatment of the Omaha, Otoe, and Pawnee peoples, and which neither denigrate nor sentimentalize or infantilize their subjects.
In terms of style, Dake’s poems are very much of a piece with mid-century verse in English, and they reflect both his classically trained “ear” (and intellect) and his wide reading in the poetry and prose of British and American authors. Indeed, one of Dake’s poems ( “A Literary Ramble,” from Midland Poems) surveys this eclectic map of reading. One of Dake’s unpublished essays in the Nebraska State Historical Society’s archives considers the moral and intellectual contributions to national culture of prominent literary figures including William Wordsworth, whose work Dake admired. Dake’s more studiously ambitious poems – which tend to be proportionally longer – favor classical forms, syntax and inkhorn diction, along with frequent allusions to classical figures and tales. Other poems are straightforwardly religious in both intent and tone, a reminder that Dake was, after all, an ordained minister. Still other poems are narratives, often crafted as moral tales examining the consequences of (especially) unfortunate moral and ethical choices (e. g. the three “Nineteenth Century Pictures” that begin Midland Poems).
There are, too, “occasional” poems on a variety of subjects, as well as others on recognizably “personal” subjects – Dake’s own family and his personal experiences and observations. Perhaps not surprisingly, these are among Dake’s most effective poems: they bear that sense of authenticity that marks the eminently personal, the emotionally sincere. Such a poem is “Graping” (found in both collections), a retrospective which traces the poet’s life and times, including the tragic deaths of three of his children, and which concludes with the poet contemplating the prospect of death and dissolution – a distant prospect that never came about for him, for he died at 43 of an apparent cerebral hemorrhage.
Reading through Dake’s poems, a reader will inevitably be impressed by the poet’s versatility with line and stazaic forms, and with the overall flexibility of his poetic voice and his freedom with design. He works with surprising ease alike in lyric forms and blank verse, and he incorporates natural speech into his poems with considerable success, the occasionally overly formal rhetoric notwithstanding. It is fair to say that much of Dake’s poetry is not remarkable, especially in terms of diction and rhetoric. And yet it is equally fair to say that there is much that sticks with a reader – the occasional striking, memorable image, the imaginatively well-wrought tale (like “The Raw Hide”), the daring flights of poetic form. It is unclear exactly when Dake began to write poetry; neither his manuscripts nor his surviving correspondence and journals fixes a definitive starting point. In the preface to “A Literary Ramble” he says that the poem was partially drafted in 1865-66, so that offers some framework. But he was dead ten years later, at 43, and between those dates came two substantial collections prepared by a busy pastor-cum-professor. It seems reasonable to speculate, as we do with all artists who die “before their time,” that Dake’s future as a poet might have brightened as he became more practiced and as his personal and professional circumstances provided him with more time to devote to honing his craft. Like his brief life, then, Dake’s poetry is perhaps best regarded as a fragment – but nevertheless as a “first” for Nebraska.
Dake, Orsamus Charles. Nebraska Legends and Poems. New York: Pott and Amery, 1871.
Dake, Orsamus Charles. Midland Poems. Lincoln: State Journal Co., 1873
Howard, George Elliott. “Early Faculty and Equipment.” The University of Nebraska, 1869-1919. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1919. Pp. 24-29.
[Sheldon, Addison E.]. “Beginnings of Nebraska Literature, 1854-1871.” Nebraska History and Record of Pioneer Days 6.2 (April-June 1923): 41 – 72.
Nebraska State Historical Society. Collection Number RG0830. “Orsamus Charles Dake, 1832 – 1875”. Nebraska State Historical Society.