In 1854, the prestigious Boston house of Ticknor, Reed, and Fields published a first solo collection of poems by the Ohioan Phoebe Cary, then thirty years old. In the collection's title, Poems and Parodies, Cary points toward the dialogic nature of this project, whose first section is composed of 131 pages of seemingly sincere sentimental poems and whose second section is composed of 65 pages of parodies of many of the most acclaimed poets, both British and American, of the nineteenth century. All but one of the poets she parodies is male – Felicia Hemans is the sole exception – and some, including John Greenleaf Whittier, were her friends or acquaintances. From a twenty-first century standpoint, the volume is full of extraordinary contradictions. Why publish elegies, hymns, and parodies in the same volume? Why parody poets such as Whittier who were friends and admirers? And why parody some of the most influential editors and writers in the Northeast? How can we make sense of the varied rhetorical purposes of Poems and Parodies?
Because this collection marks its rhetorical contradictions so explicitly, Poems and Parodies might serve as a keystone text, one that enables us to better understand the relationship between sentiment and satire across a whole range of nineteenth-century poets’ works, including, for example, the poles of sympathy and irony in Emily Dickinson and Sarah Piatt. Because Dickinson is freed from the pressures of print publication, she is also liberated from the obligation to maintain tonal or ideological consistency in her poems; she can thus experiment with contrasting positions, writing in a naïve, childlike voice in one piece and compressing complex axioms from the philosophy of language in another, expressing the desire to comfort the grieving in one poem and mocking the narrowness of conventional feminine roles in another. Piatt achieves tonal duality through her innovative use of dialogic structures, a rhetorical device in which mothers often address children, their words hovering on a knife-edge between irony and sincerity, a strategy that allows different readers to interpret the same poem in radically different ways. As Paula Bennett has noted, however, Piatt typically placed her most subversive pieces in the ephemeral medium of periodicals, building her published collections around more conventional poems. Piatt's caution thus emphasizes Cary's boldness.