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The Wit and Verse of the American Byron: Fitz-Greene Halleck

Fitz-Greene Halleck, a 19th-century American poet, is best known for his witty and satirical verse. His connection to Greenwich Village is an intriguing aspect of his life, highlighting the cultural vibrancy of the area during his time. However, while he was once known widely as the American Byron in his lifetime, today he is a nearly forgotten figure.

Statue of Fitz-Green Halleck on Central Park’s Literary Walk

Born in Guilford, Connecticut, on July 8, 1790, Fitz-Greene Halleck moved to New York City in 1811. He quickly became involved in the city’s literary scene. Eventually, he settled on Greenwich Street when Greenwich Village was known for its artistic and Bohemian atmosphere, and was a hub for writers, artists, and intellectuals in the 19th century. Halleck lived and socialized in this vibrant community, forming connections with other notable figures and joined the circle known as the Knickerbocker Group, led by William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper, and Washington Irving.

Photograph of Fitz-Green Halleck

By 1832 Halleck was working as a clerk and later as an aide to John Jacob Astor, one of the wealthiest men in America. Astor eventually appointed Halleck a trustee of the Astor Library as well.

The Village’s eclectic mix of people and ideas provided a fertile ground for Halleck’s creativity, allowing him to develop his distinctive voice and fostering a spirit of innovation and collaboration. Among Halleck’s significant contributions to American poetry are his satirical pieces and his patriotic verses.

“Fanny,” a satirical poem critiquing New York society, and “Marco Bozzaris,” celebrating a Greek war hero, are among his most acclaimed works. Halleck’s poetry was widely read and admired during his lifetime, influencing subsequent generations of American poets and earning him the moniker the American Byron.

In his longest poem “Fanny” the verses reflect the lyrical and romantic style popular in the first half of the nineteenth century.

“…Money is power, ’tis said—I never tried;
I’m but a poet—and bank-notes to me

Are curiosities, as closely eyed,
Whene’er I get them, as a stone would be,
Toss’d from the moon on Doctor Mitchill’s table,
Or classic brickbat from the tower of Babel…

…To-day the forest-leaves are green,
They’ll wither on the morrow,

And the maiden’s laugh be changed ere long
To the widow’s wail of sorrow.
Come with the winter snows, and ask,
Where are the forest birds?
The answer is a silent one,

More eloquent than words…”

19th-century engraving of Halleck’s hero in his famous poem “Marco Bozzaris”

Halleck’s most famous poem, “Marco Bozzaris,” reflected his engagement with contemporary issues, such as the Greek fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire, and his ability to capture the public’s imagination.

“…They conquered—but Bozzaris fell,
Bleeding at every vein.
His few surviving comrades saw
His smile when rang their proud hurrah,
And the red field was won;
Then saw in death his eyelids close
Calmly, as to a night’s repose,
Like flowers at set of sun…”

By 1849 Halleck had moved in with his sister back in Guilford, where he remained until he died in 1867. Never married, over the last several decades biographers have speculated on Halleck’s sexuality. It is thought that he may have been in love with his sometime writing partner and friend Joseph Rodman Drake. When Drake married in 1816 Halleck wrote:

“I officiated as groomsman, though much against my will. His wife was good-natured, and loves him to distraction. He is perhaps the handsomest man in New York, — a face like an angel, a form like an Apollo; and, as I well knew that his person was the true index of his mind, I felt myself during the ceremony as committing a crime in aiding and assisting such a sacrifice.”

Cigar box depicting Joseph Rodman Drake

On May 15, 1877, in a ceremony attended by President Rutherford B. Hayes and a crowd of over 10,000 spectators, a statue of Fritz-Greene Halleck by the sculptor James Wilson Alexander MacDonald was unveiled. Today it remains the only statue of an American poet in Central Park’s Literary Walk.

Illustration from “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper” of the 1877 unveiling of Fitz-Greene Halleck’s statue in Central Park

To learn more about what Greenwich Village looked like in Halleck’s time, take a look at our Guide to Greek Revival Architecture. Read more about fellow literary icons that called the Village home throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

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