Mark Twain identified as a poet, a bad poet. “When the great poet laureate, Lord Tennyson, died,” Twain wrote, “I found that his position was open and I tried to get it…but I did not get it…It is a very difficult task making the second line rhyme with the first.”
All joking aside, Twain really did frequently and enthusiastically experiment with verse. He read and recited poetry with friends and family. He composed short poems, both serious and silly, to be included in letters and telegrams. He wrote and fastidiously revised poems in his journals and notebooks, even though many of them never made their way to publication. And he sometimes used poetry, both his own compositions and lines written by others, to punctuate his speeches.
Twain’s relationship to poetry reveals a lot about how poetry circulated in the nineteenth-century United States. In what follows, we provide and contextualize two of Twain’s poems, “Genius” and “These Annual Bills,” which we think can be productively scaffolded into teaching units build around one of the most popular poems in the Common Core, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”
In the following video, Jocelyn offers a brief introduction to each of these works, as well as the “journey motif,” a conventional approach to teaching Frost’s poem and other popular K-12 texts.
Mark Twain composed “Genius” on December 21st of 1866 while aboard a steamship America. The ship had disembarked from San Francisco with the objective of sailing South to Nicaragua. From there, Twain planned to cross the Isthmus and catch another steamship, the San Francisco, to his final destination, New York City. The entire journey took just under a month. When he drafted “Genius,” the America had been at sea for a week, and it was increasingly clear it was to be an ill-fated voyage.
There was an outbreak of cholera onboard which killed nearly 5% of the passengers and made hundreds ill, including Twain, who recounted the sorry state of affairs, including the death of a young child on Christmas Eve, in dispatches published in the newspaper Alta California.
But the trip was not without levity, provided foremost by striking up a friendship with the America‘s captain, Ned Wakeman, who would be the inspiration for several characters in Twain’s later works.
“Genius” is thus a poem composed during a fraught and frightening transcontinental journey. It is a poem about self-awareness (or lack thereof) and about the mortal consequence of stubbornness, arrogance, and intolerance. The “journey motif” in this poem reflects the danger of stasis, but also the potential for transformation.
Twain famously wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” His poem, “Genius,” inverts that thesis, suggesting that the refusal to face life’s journeys may doom one to prejudice, bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and misanthropy.
As the poem is clearly self-reflexive, inviting us to judge the poet writing it according to the vision of poetic temperament he offers, one cannot help but read it as one of Twain’s many moments of self-doubt. Trapped aboard America, facing a deadly epidemic, he questions whether the arts – journalism, humor, lecturing, etc. – to which he has dedicated the last several years of his life will not leave him a similarly destitute and forgettable “genius.”
Thanks to our friends at the Mark Twain Project, especially Robert Hirst, below you can see the manuscript of “Genius,” as it appears in Twain’s notebook from the voyage.
The conceit of “Genius” is that poets are often vain and deluded, excusing their own failures and self-destructive behavior because their supposed genius is inaccessible to bulk of mankind. Twain ironizes the poetic temperament by authoring a self-consciously “bad” poem. It lacks any rhyme scheme. The metrical choices are awkward and inconsistent. The images are graceless. The language is full of cliches and colloquialisms. The structure is inconsistent. He confuses singular and plural, mangles verb tenses, and renders the grammar elsewhere and otherwise clunky.
But, counterintuitively, producing this intentionally bad poem requires extensive revision. We have transcribed the first and final drafts below. Using these transcripts and Twain’s manuscript, students can track what changes Twain makes during the revision process. Why does he make them? How do these choices contribute to the argument of the poem in its finished form?
Genius (First Draft)
Genius is exceedingly rare, &, like gold & precious stones, is chiefly prized because of its rarity.
Genius consists of a peculiar mental organization which enables man to dash off weird, wild, incomprehensible poems with astonishing facility, then prompts him to go & get booming drunk & lie in the gutter.
Genius elevates its possessor to ineffable spheres far above the vulgar earth, & fills his soul with a regal contempt for the gross & sordid things of earth.
It is probably on account of this that people who have genius do not pay their board, as a general thing.
Genius is very peculiar.
If you see a young man who hath distraught look, & affects eccentricity in dress, you may set him down for a genius.
If he sights about the degeneracy of the world which courts vulgar opulence & neglects brains, his undoubtedly a genius.
If he is too proud to accept of assistance, & spurns it with a lordly air at the very same time that he knows he can’t make a living himself to save his life, he is most certainly a genius.
If he throws away every opportunity in life & crush the affection & the patience of his friends & then complains in sickly rhymes of his hard lot, & finally persists in spite of the advice of persons who have got sense but not any genius, persists in going up some infamous back alley & dying in rags & dirt, he is beyond all question a genius.
But above all things, as I said before, to deftly throw the incoherent ravings of insanity into verse & then rush off & get booming drunk, is the surest sign of genius.
Genius (Revised Draft)
Genius is exceedingly rare.
Geniuses are people who dash off weird, wild, incomprehensible poems with astonishing facility, & then go & get booming drunk & sleep in the gutter.
Genius elevates a man to ineffable spheres far above the vulgar world, & fills his soul with a regal contempt for the gross & sordid things of earth.
It is probably on account of this that people who have genius do not pay their board, as a general thing.
Geniuses are very singular.
If you see a young man who hath frowsy hair & a distraught look, and affects eccentricity in dress, you may set him down for a genius. If he sighs about the degeneracy of the world which courts vulgar opulence & neglects brains, he is undoubtedly a genius.
If he is too proud to accept of assistance, & spurns it with a lordly air at the same time that he knows he can’t make a living himself to save his life, he is most certainly a genius.
If he hangs on & sticks to poetry notwithstanding sawing wood comes handier to him, he is a true genius.
If he throws away every opportunity in life & wears out the affection & the patience of his friends & then complains in sickly rhymes of his hard lot, & finally, in spite of the sound advice of persons who have got sense but not any genius, persists in going up some back alley & dying in rags & dirt, he is beyond all question a genius.
But above all things, as I said before, to deftly throw the incoherent ravings of insanity into verse & then rush off & get booming drunk, is the surest of all the different signs of genius.
Our next example of Twain’s poetry is “Those Annual Bills,” drafted sometime shortly after New Years Day, 1875. The destitution which the author of “Genius” was so worried about was, by this time, a distant memory. Less than four months before the composition of “Those Annual Bills,” the Clemens family had moved into their lavish Hartford mansion, built largely with the proceeds of Twain’s astounding literary success from 1869 to 1873.
In the conventional terms of the motif, this would seem to be the end of the journey. Twain had realized his dreams of wealth and fame, as well as marriage and family. He had come home, literally, but only to realize that at the end of one journey, a new journey begins.
To sustain the lifestyle to which he had so long aspired, he had to continue to produce income. And, shortly after this poem was written, Twain would be forced back out “on the road” for that purpose.
“Those Annual Bills” is a parody poem. It borrows much of its formal apparatus from Thomas Moore’s “Those Evening Bells,” first published in 1818 and commonly anthologized in 19th-century American poetry collections and songbooks. Below we offer both the manuscript of Twain’s verse, courtesy of the New York Public Library, and the text of Moore’s original and Twain’s adaptation.
As with “Genius,” the narrator of “Those Annual Bills” is a self-conscious poet who questions whether his art can sustain him as a profession in the face of financial insecurity. And, just as in “Genius,” despite the numerous comic elements in the poem, it is also a reckoning with mortality, as the narrator imagines future generations of poets scraping and scrimping just as he has, long after he is gone.
In both “Genius” and “Those Annual Bills” there is a flicker of, if not regret, at least uncertainty. The poet wonders aloud: Were the choices I made that set me down this path the best choices?
Those Annual Bills (1875)
Those annual bills! those annual bills!
How many a host their discord trills
Of “truck” consumed, enjoyed, forgot
Since I was skinned, scalped, & flayed by last year’s “lot.”
These joyous hours are past away
Those onions blithe, O where are they?
Once loved, lost, mourned – now
Your ghosts return in annual bills
And so will be when I am broke,
Yearly duns will still go round
While other bards, with frantic quills
Shall damn and damn these annual bills!
Those Evening Bells (1818)
Those evening bells! those evening bells!
How many a tale their music tells,
Of youth, and home, and that sweet time,
When last I heard their soothing chime.
Those joyous hours are passed away;
And many a heart, that then was gay,
Within the tomb now darkly dwells,
And hears no more those evening bells.
And so ’twill be when I am gone;
That tuneful peal will still ring on,
While other bards shall walk those dells,
And sing your praise, sweet evening bells.
Teachers will naturally see the potential for fruitful comparisons between the two Twain poems, as well as between “Those Annual Bills” and “Those Evening Bells.” All of the above are relatively short, simple, and accessible poems by comparison with Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” but through them one can develop the vocabulary and techniques for interpreting Frost.
Both of Twain’s poems are motivated, at least in part, by reflecting upon past decisions and potentially missed opportunities.
But it is not just the thematic elements which anticipate Frost. In both poems, Twain is self-consciously experimenting with poetic conventions in an effort to produce poetry which is, if not “bad,” at least humorous, because it does not produce the consistent rhymes and rhythms which most 19th-century readers would expect. “Genius” would not sound like poetry to them.
The break from traditional verse forms is something which is often attributed to modernist poets, like Frost. The kind of experiments Twain is undertaking in the name of humor become experiments in the name of innovation for Frost and his peers. One can prepare students to understand modernist form by looking at how Twain parodies and burlesques the conventional forms of his time.
It may surprise many to find that in the essay which prefaces the first publication of “The Road Not Taken,” critic Edward Garnett asks, “Is Mr. Frost a humorist?”
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“The Road Not Taken,” first published alongside a critical profile of Robert Frost by Edward Garnett called “A New American Poet” in the August 1915 issue of Atlantic Monthly.
Jocelyn Chadwick is former faculty from the Harvard Graduate School of Education as well as a past president of the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE). Dr. Chadwick also serves as a consultant for school districts around the country and assists English departments with curricula to reflect diversity and cross-curricular content. She is a consultant for NBC News Learn, the Folger Shakespeare Library, PBS’s American Masters and The Great American Read, and Pearson. Her many publications include The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (U. Mississippi, 1998), Common Core: Paradigmatic Shift (Cambridge Scholars, 2015), and Teaching Literature on the Context of Literacy Construction (Heinemann, 2015). Dr. Chadwick has also recently written about Gen-Z students for MarkTwainStudies.org (here and here), the Today Show Parenting Team, and Education Week.
Matt Seybold is Associate Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College and scholar-in-residence at the Center For Mark Twain Studies. He is co-editor of The Routledge Companion To Literature & Economics (2018) and a 2019 special issue of American Literary History. His writing can be found in Aeon magazine, Los Angeles Review of Books, and across this site.