In 1819, Guilford, Connecticut’s Fitz-Greene Halleck, writing anonymously as The Croakers, aimed his sharp wit at New York Society swells — and far from being insulted, they loved the attention.
Halleck was a banker by trade, but his true vocation was poet. He teamed with writing partner Joseph Rodman Drake to skewer everything from the ennui that society swells were unable to shake off to their fascination with theater and their inability to pay their restaurant tabs on time.
In the The Love of Notoriety, the two ridiculed a false nobleman who had come to New York and, upon discovery, tried twice to shoot himself but was so inept that he missed. In the same poem, they landed a shot at the mayor, a noted fop.
In their livery jackets of blue, green and gold,
Their bright-varnish’d hats, and the laces that bind ’em,
The one’s an Adonis — who since the sad day
That he shot at himself, has been counted no more;
The other’s a name it were treason to say,
A very great man — with two lamps at his door.
In the poem To an Elderly Coquette, the pair jestingly marked the downfall of a one-time society belle on her way to spinsterhood.
Ah ! Chloe no more at each party and ball,
You shine the gay queen of the hour ;
The lip, that alluringly smiled upon all,
Finds none to acknowledge its power :
No longer the hearts of the dandies you break,
No poet adores you in numbers ;
No billets-doux sweeten, nor serenades break,
The peaceful repose of your slumbers.
Drake and Halleck were clever. In an age where self-promotion was frowned upon, the two worked on each other’s behalf, each proclaiming the other one of the finest poets of the age. And they adopted the name Croakers — which they adopted from a popular play — to titillate readers into guessing who they could be.
The two ran afoul of established writers, such as Edgar Allen Poe, who took aim at Drake’s work in one review, calling his poetry, “sublimely ridiculous.” Reading Halleck’s work, Poe wrote, was, “little less than torture.”
The pair eventually revealed themselves to the Saturday Evening Post’s editor and capitalized on the fame The Croakers earned them. They counted Charles Dickens and Abraham Lincoln among their admirers.
But success was to be short-lived for Drake. He died of tuberculosis in 1820 at the age of 25.
Halleck would receive an annuity from his employer, John Jacob Astor, and left the banking trade to return to his home in Guilford, which he shared with his sister. But his poems, such as Fanny and Alnwick Castle, had gained him a lasting reputation.
Hallack grew cantankerous in his later years and his writing slowed, but never stopped. He published his final poetry collection in 1867, Young America, and died the same year at age 77.