WHEN the first catalog of the Harris Collection of American Poetry at Brown University was published in 1886 it prompted Walt Whitman to some "abstract reflections" on the "nearly five thousand big and little American poems" that had been tabulated:
I should like [he wrote] to put on record my devout acknowledgement, not only of the great masterpieces of the past, but of the benefit of all poets, past and present, and of all poetic utterance--in its entirety the dominant moral factor of humanity's progress. . . . All poetry has (to the point of view comprehensive enough) more features of resemblance than difference, and becomes essentially, like the planetary globe itself, compact and orbic and whole. . . . That there should be a good deal of waste land and many sterile spots is doubtless an inherent necessity of the case--perhaps that the greater part of the rondure should be waste (at least until brought out, discovered.) Nature seems to sow countless seeds--makes incessant crude attempts--thankful to get now and then, even at rare and long intervals, something approximately good.
The nineteen hundred men and women who added over twenty- four hundred titles to this catalog between 1890 and 1899 contributed plenty of "sterile spots"--and often achieved an expression more than "approximately good"--but the real justification for a review of their work lies in Walt Whitman's reflection. Although modern American poetry has held the foreground in a narrowing critical trend during the past twenty-five years, readers have not lost sight of the great body of poetic expression that must someday be related to the historic and aesthetic development of America's literature in a definitive study of native poetry. The more than one hundred thousand volumes of the Harris Collection of American poems and plays afford as full a story of our poetic heritage as any literary historian might wish; yet the quantity of material prohibits any singlehanded critical attack. To stake out the paths for the critic who will one day write the comprehensive history of this poetry and in the meantime to bring to the interested reader the worthwhile poetry that has not found its way into anthologies, a group at Brown University