To picture Letchworth Park without photographs may seem like quite the challenge in modern times. But many of its now-famous viewpoints, along with their beauty and inspiring emotions, were described through poetry that shaped the practices of later photographers. In 1859—when he first started purchasing land near Portage—William Letchworth was invited to join a Buffalo literary club called “The Nameless,” whose membership included journalists, publishers, historians, and poets. The next year he began a tradition of inviting them to Glen Iris to celebrate the Fourth of July, and by 1876 so many poems had been written about the estate’s natural beauty that they were compiled as Voices of the Glen. Letchworth was assembling an updated edition when he died in 1910.
In their poems, visitors to Glen Iris celebrate nature in ways that reveal the influence of Romanticism, but expressed in ways not necessarily familiar to modern readers. A viewpoint presupposes a viewer, who in lyric poetry is not so narrowly limited by the sense of sight—all of the body experiences nature. Voices of the Glen describes a “soft wind, passing over” and the “wild roses’ fresh perfume”; a work by Emily Howland Leeming is entitled “The River’s Voice” (2, 86). There is moreover a close relation between these sensory perceptions, profound emotions, and indelible memories:
Still in our ears the music of thy riverSings on, with melody that shall not cease;Thy memory in our hearts shall dwell foreverLike a deep dream of peace. (95)
Voices of the Glen describes a variety of different locations within the present-day state park, but focuses primarily on the Letchworth’s estate and surrounding area. Spectacular waterfalls and rock formations inspire poems, but so does a “tree-encircled lawn above a dell” (49). In her poem “Arbutus,” Mrs. C. H. Gildersleeve develops a complex allegory involving unfulfilled love and “these blooms from a far-off wild” (34). Other writers, like William H. C. Hosmer, looked out upon well-known viewpoints but instead heard “Voices From the Past” (as one of his poems is titled). Hosmer’s “Mona-Sha-Sha” draws upon Seneca legend for the dramatic narrative about a distraught young wife who kills herself and infant son by paddling over the Middle Falls in a canoe. Hosmer intones “Go, tourist, where the Genesee / In falling shakes the land,” but readers unable to make that journey still could envision the scene themselves through his poem and several illustrations appearing in the book.
Voices of the Glen probably comes across as over the top to present-day readers. It contains a lot of exclamation points and poetic words like “sylvan” or “thou”. If its writers seem to be trying too hard, perhaps this is because they know Glen Iris is a place where they’re supposed to have transcendent experiences. Some of these expectations still persist at Letchworth Park, like voices from the past: of others who have visited or lived here, who had the ability to put into words what remarkable beauty they were witnessing. Unlike today’s more standardized viewpoints, however, poetry returns us to a radically individual and subjective experience:
Forever, wondrous river, sing thy song;Each one who hears shall find a different rhyme;To one thy voice shall tell of sorrow, wrong;And to another, love and summer time.
—Voices of the Glen. Collected [?] by Henry Raymond Howland / American Scenic and Historical Preservation. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1911. Web version available at Internet Archive.