The terms “sentimentalism” and “sensibility” play a central role in contemporary scholarly discourse on literature and intellectual theory in the long nineteenth century. Often used interchangeably, these words identify developments in popular culture and philosophy in which emotions and feelings, as opposed to reason and logic, were seen as the routes to moral and social improvement. In visual, literary, and musical artworks of the era, the emphasis on feeling was frequently connected to a male archetype of the sentimental protagonist, a “dying poet,” marked by several common elements: great creativity, high levels of sensitivity, physical and emotional fragility, significant moments of disappointment, and early (and often self-inflicted) death. The subject of the dead or dying young man assumed critical significance during the 1860s, when so many soldiers were lost during the Civil War.
For his immensely popular work The Dying Poet (1864), composer-pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk likely drew inspiration from two French poems of the same title that employed both the dying poet trope and complex imagery of reminiscence. Although The Dying Poet was one of Gottschalk's most popular and lucrative pieces, it was composed during a time of relative discontent and melancholy. In the mid-1860s, he was traveling across the Civil War-torn United States on a gruelingly unrelenting schedule. Gottschalk's composition The Dying Poet can be viewed as a poignant paradox—a simultaneous example of his great sensitivity to the desires of his audience and a tantalizingly autobiographical glimpse of the profound loneliness he felt while performing for them.