Introduction to Jack London's Unpublished Poetry
This installment of Jack London's previously unpublished work deals with his poetry. London had little commercial success with his poetry but it represented a deep-rooted passion with him. Between March 1897 and August 1899 London wrote at least 48 poems that I have identified; only two of these were published during that time period (another 13 were published later after London was otherwise successful). London apparently did not take this rejection of "his first love" lightly. In a 1906 letter to author J. Torrey Connor, London writes "Long years ago, before I sold my first thing to a magazine, I dabbled a little in poetry; and then, resolutely, I cut poetry out. From that day to this, I have not attempted a line of it despite a sneaking belief that I could develop into a pretty good poet. If an editor should appear before me right now, and offer to exchange his birthright for a mess of my poetry, I would tell him nothing doing." The fact that London wrote poetry so diligently for two and one–half years and then stopped so suddenly and "resolutely" suggests a traumatic event or, at least, a profound discouragement because we know that London's love of poetry did not cease. London frequently read poetry, his and others, at social gatherings throughout his life.
Again, in John Barleycorn, his autobiographical novel, London tells us (beginning on page 220 of the first edition) that in early 1897, after dropping out of the University of California, he "decided to embark on his career. I had four preferences: first, music; second, poetry; third, the writing of philosophic, economic and political essays; and, fourth, and last, and least, fiction writing. I resolutely cut out music as impossible, (I have identified the lyrics to 4 songs that London wrote) settled down in my bedroom, and tackled my second, third and fourth choices simultaneously. . . I wrote humorous verse, verse of all sorts from triolets and sonnets to blank verse tragedy and elephantine epics in Spenserian stanzas. On occasion I composed steadily, day after day, for fifteen hours a day. At times I forgot to eat, or refused to tear myself away from my passionate outpouring in order to eat." This statement suggests that London's total poetic output exceeded the 48 that I have identified.
In a January 8, 1905 interview in the Oakland Enquirer entitled "Jack London's 'Call of Wild' Draws Him to Poetry and Song", he talks about his passion for poetry and song and how his use of language and descriptions in his masterpiece, The Call of the Wild, are influenced by this passion. He goes on to say that he hopes that the success of this book will enable him to devote more time to poetry and song writing. His proclivity for poetry and song is also evident in his 1906 parallel novel, White Fang, in which there is even more lyricism.
London would seem to have "sublimated" his love for poetry as opposed to abandoning it. And this is the real significance of London's poetry. As a separate entity his poetry is entirely forgettable; however, its underlying creative spirit had a profound effect on his ability to write lyrical prose when needed. Knowing London's poetry is essential to understanding his development as a writer.
Of London's documented 36 unpublished poems, I have collected 26 of them, which will now be published on this website. "The Republican Battle–Hymn" and "The Republican Rallying Song" — in conjunction with the essay "The Principles of the Republican Party" were submitted in a writing contest in October 1898. The contest, sponsored by the Oakland Fifth Ward Republican Club, solicited essays, songs and poems. Since "The Republican Rallying Song" is technically a song (sung to the tune of "Marching through Georgia"), London submitted an entry in each writing category. As mentioned in the earlier installment, London won a $10.00 second prize for his essay. He also won a $10.00 prize for one of these two poems — which one is not documented.
Copyright © 2005 by Dan Wichlan