Genius, and other essays/Mr. Bryant's Thirty Poems

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Genius, and other essays by Edmund Clarence Stedman
Mr. Bryant's "Thirty Poems"

VIII

MR. BRYANT'S "THIRTY POEMS"[1]

THE pathetic outburst of Cato Major—"It is a hard thing, Romans, to render an account before the men of a period different from that in which one has lived!"—is a complaint which Mr. Bryant will never be constrained to imitate. His period is our own. While most of his noonday contemporaries have passed into neglect under the test of time, his poetry holds its assured position in the affections and judgment of the tasteful. It has a perennial charm. It is conceived in the abiding spirit of true art, subject in structure to the genius of our language, and is therefore not flat, stale, and unprofitable, when the fashion of the day, on which charlatans depend, has faded with the day itself.

His metres, and the sequences of his words, are those of Collins and Goldsmith and Cowper, and of all other English poets who have refused to depart from the natural order of English verse. To this order successive generations return with ever fresh delight, when wearied of the syllabub inventions whipped up in obedience to a craving for something original or new. And as the metre, so the thought of Mr. Bryant. It is that which was old with the ancients, and is young in these later times—the pure philosophy of nature's lessons, the reflex of her visible forms.

Nor has Mr. Bryant's muse been restricted in her seldom flights to the petty limits of local scenery and fact. As befits a poet of this metropolis, his perception is catholic and has a broad horizon. Aloof from cliques, their influences have not confirmed him in his faults, nor led him to insensibly exaggerate the merits of his own vicinage and associates. The injurious effects of the converse situation painfully impress those who observe the self-constituted Mecca of our New England school. There, fine minds and noble characters have been dwarfed and warped by mutual flattery and cohesion. As they grow older, their crotchets are more crotchety, their poetry is less original, their philosophy more awry. But when Mr. Bryant writes of patriotism, he does not confine the splendor of its displays to Lexington and Concord, nor to the valor of a single tribe. His "Conqueror" is one who overcometh the world. His religion smacks of no university creed; and his sympathies are unnarrowed by either his political or æsthetic faith. Independent of any year or place, his verses should commend themselves, so long as the grass grows, and the water runs, and the winds breathe through the forests of the land in which he writes. If his affections have any local limit, it is one no less than his native country. For he is peculiarly an American poet.

In one sense, however, Mr. Bryant has a restricted range. There is little of human action in his productions; they are meditative, not dramatic, and invite us to observe the physical beauty of nature, rather than the clash of mind with mind, the currents of heart and heart. Herein they differ widely from the tendency of the age. But for lack of passion we are compensated by a surcharge of philosophic thought, the serene wisdom of a healthful soul discovering something far more deeply interfused in "all that we behold from this green earth."

These Thirty Poems, by their very tranquillity, will at first repel those who have been stall-fed on the seething excitement of the latest modes, and flattered to the top of their bent with the jingling variety of its cadences.

But give them another study, and their simplicity will have a most seductive charm. How easy it seems to write such natural lines! You would say that thoughts so familiar, verses so unadorned, must be commonplace. But learn to recognize the master-touch. We see bardlings who writhe before the oracle, striving how not to express themselves. Are their ideals profounder, or only more involved? The answer is plain. Clear thought makes clear language. Who sees brightly paints distinctive forms. When one declares he cannot utter his conception, he has not fully conceived. The faculty of human expression is divinely infinite. Mr. Bryant rarely goes beyond his sight and knowledge, and we say that the secret of his simplicity is his self-restraint. This is at once the safeguard of his poetry, of his prose, and of his almost blameless life.

We confess to feeling little of the critic's irreverence in reviewing this Nestor of our poets. Though long past the age at which his leading compeer now shows symptoms of declension, he returns to his first love, and has added to his metrical works a collection equal to about one-half their previous amount. Among the Thirty Poems are a few that have appeared elsewhere, but we read the greater portion for the first time. There are two entirely new and sustained pieces, each longer than any of his earlier works. We have also the Fifth Book of Homer's Odyssey, done into English blank-verse. The reader will perceive that this volume is the most important contribution which American poetry has for some years received.

The book opens with "The Planting of the Apple-Tree," now everywhere reprinted from magazine columns. This exquisite lyric affords an illustration of the limit to which Mr. Bryant, as a melodist, is subjected. With a purpose evidently to give spirited abruptness to the refrain, the last verse of each stanza is a foot shorter than its correspondent. This has a certain effect, but jars harshly on the even cadence of the author's style; and a more facile artist would have found a better way to achieve the desired result. When Mr. Bryant ventures beyond the established metres, it is with uncouthness and an air of doubt. He is in unknown waters, and would gladly touch firm land; but then, as we have said, he seldom ventures. The poem in question is followed by the beautiful "Snow Shower"; a little further on we have "Robert of Lincoln," full of bird music and delicate humor; and, toward the middle of the volume, the finely imaginative "Song of the Sower" teems with the richness of a fruitful theme. These four poems, though cast in moulds of the author's own devising, are, with the slight exception hitherto noted, in forms as well suited to the author's genius, because as evenly and nobly balanced, as those of his well-remembered "June" and "The Conqueror's Grave."

On page 79 we find the only inelegant expression of the book:

Springs eagerly, and faintly sinks, to where
  The mother waters lie.

If there are any pieces which could have been omitted from this collection, they are, "An Invitation to the Country," the "Song for New Year's Eve," "The Wind and Stream," "These Prairies Glow with Flowers," and "The Mother's Hymn." It seems to us that many feebler singers might have printed these. Nor do the two poems evoked by the present war at all compare with that ringing clarion blast, "The Song of Marion's Men," which has stirred the pulses of every school-boy in the land, and to which no bugle but that of Motherwell could ever make response.

There are two simple and affluent forms of English verse in whose mastery Mr. Bryant is without an American rival. The first is the iambic quatrain, of which a familiar stanza, "Truth crushed to Earth," in "The Battle-Field," may be cited as a specimen. Perhaps the most finished poem of this volume is the "Day-Dream." The poet sits by Posilippo's steep, gazing at the bay, and recalling the olden time when its sea-nymphs were visible to the clear, believing eye. Witness such stanzas as these:

I sat and watched the eternal flow
 Of those smooth billows toward the shore,
While quivering lines of light below
 Ran with them on the ocean floor.

The Nereids rise before his view:

Then moved their coral lips: a strain,
 Low, sweet, and sorrowful, I heard,
As if the murmurs of the main
 Were shaped to syllable and word.

* * * *

"Earth rears her flowers for us no more;
 A half-remembered dream are we.
Unseen we haunt the sunny shore,
 And swim, unmarked, the glassy sea.

* * * *

"Yet sometimes, as in elder days,
 We come before the painter's eye,
Or fix the sculptor's eager gaze,
 With no profaner witness nigh.

"And then the hearts of men grow warm
 With praise and wonder, asking where
The artist saw the perfect form
 He copied forth in lines so fair?"

The second of the forms above-named is that blank verse of which Mr. Bryant's handling is always recognized. Setting aside the abuse of this noble English metre, exemplified in Young, Thompson, and a host of didactic writers, it is found in four distinct and luminous types. First, the Miltonic, in which Latin words and sonorous pauses and inversions predominate. This no one has satisfactorily written since the inventor whose name it bears. Second, the pure Heroic, modelled somewhat after the Greek, and largely indebted to Saxon words for its antique and epic vigor. Tennyson is a living master, and his "Morte d' Arthur" and "Idyls of the King" are leading examples, of this form. Third, the Shakespearean-Dramatic; and, lastly, the Reflective, of which Wordsworth had such high control. In the latter form, adapted to the poet's serenest and profoundest moods, Mr. Bryant has not been excelled. His imprint stamps every line which he has thus written. The "Thanatopsis" and "Forest Hymn" are embalmed in literature. Nor has his hand lost its cunning. In his new volume, "A Rain Dream," "The Night Journey of a River," and "The Constellations," are poems which none but Bryant could have written, and in his loftiest method. They are compact of high imaginings. Take, from the first, an impersonation of

 —the wind of night:
A lonely wanderer between earth and cloud,
In the black shadow and the chilly mist,
Along the streaming mountain side, and through

The dripping woods, and o'er the plashy fields,
Roaming and sorrowing still, like one who makes
The journey of life alone, and nowhere meets
A welcome or a friend, and still goes on In darkness.

The pieces to which we have alluded, as the longest in the book, "Sella" and "The Little Children of the Snow," as well as the translation from Homer, are also in blank verse. The first two, in their pure, artistic interest, present a marked contrast to that rhythmical essay, "The Ages," which is the first in date and extent, and the least in value, of Mr. Bryant's former productions.

"Sella" occupies thirty-two delicious pages. It is a story of

 —the days of old.
The days when there were goodly marvels yet,

of a maiden living near a streamlet whose current had a mystic charm to woo her. She haunted some lake or river from morn till night, loving the waters, and yearning for a knowledge of the great sea. One day a marvellous pair of slippers, inscribed with her name, are found upon the streamlet's brink. When she puts them on she can fearlessly plunge beneath the current, and follow its windings to the ocean, in whose recesses she meets, and learns to love, the blissful creatures of the deep. She returns to her cottage-home; but as time rolls on her absences are frequent and longer. At last her brothers resolve to stop such practices, espy the hiding-place of the slippers, steal them, and return them to the eager brook. The gods give not their favors twice, and Sella was for ever banished from her dearer life, but became a benefactress of the upper world. When she died,

A hundred cities mourned her, and her death
 Saddened the pastoral valleys.

"The Little People of the Snow" is a sweet eclogue, wherein Uncle John tells a fairy tale to Alice: a story of a little mountain maid who was tempted by the snow-elves to roam beyond limits set by her parents, and who saw the myriad wonders of the crystal world, but at last perished, chilled to death with the very hospitality of her colder-blooded companions. Since Eva's burial,

 —never more
The little people of the snow were seen
By human eyes, * * * *
For a decree went forth to cut them off,
For ever, from communion with mankind.

The verse of these two poems is light and graceful, melodiously adapted to their themes, and greatly modified from Mr. Bryant's reflective style. They are imaginative throughout, but especially attractive for the rare fancy which sparkles in every line. The author's heart seems budding with a greenness which it somewhat lacked in the springtime of his life, and thus, by natural piety, could we also wish our days "bound each to each."

A few comments on his version of the Fifth Odyssey. A new Homeric translation is always of novel interest. No rendering has been thoroughly successful. Chapman's version, though "loud and bold," is too often careless and obscure. Pope's flowing couplets are anything but a translation. Cowper's unrhymed efforts are preferable, but the bard of Olney lost all his simplicity, and became turgid and involved, laden with those stronger measures than his own. Critics vary with regard to the merits of Sotheby, Newman, Mumford, and the rest. There is room and a welcome for a truly meritorious version of the Homeric poems.

We do not think that a complete translation, after the manner of Mr. Bryant, would supply this want. In a note, justly censuring the stiff inversions of Cowper, he says: "Homer, of course, wrote in idiomatic Greek, and, in order to produce either a true copy of the original, or an agreeable poem, should have been translated into idiomatic English." True, but Homer's idioms are those of the Epic (early Ionic) dialect—as far apart, in construction and word-formation, from the Attic, or the polished later Ionic, as the text of Chaucer is from that of Pope. The poems of Homer, however, unlike those of our early English bards, are in a measured and exactly finished, though antique verse; their faultless art filling every appreciative reader with delight, and rendering them patent to all time. Now Mr. Bryant has succeeded, first, in presenting a literal version of the Greek, and, second, in forcing his verse translation to assume the modern English synthesis. We have compared a few passages with the original, and are struck with their fidelity. Few words are added or omitted, and the sense is generally correct. But the very success of the translator's second intention has the effect of commonplace. Take the opening of the book:

Aurora, rising from her couch beside
The famed Tithonus, brought the light of day
To men and to immortals. Then the gods
Came to their seats in council. With them came
High thundering Jupiter, amongst them all
The mightiest. Pallas, mindful of the past,
Spoke of Ulysses and his many woes,
Grieved that he still was with the island nymph.

This exordium verges on the prosaic. Homer says the same thing, and in about the same space; but the stately choice and order of his language lift it to the dignity of epic verse. Another instance: the line,

Ulysses, the sagacious, answered her,

is a meagre substitute for the resonant and courtly

Τήν δ᾽ἀπαμειβόμενος προσέφη πολύμητις ᾽Οδυσσέυς.

Mr. Bryant's version loses the essential quality of rest, which makes the antique song carry us ever forward without palling to the ear. The genius of the Homeric ballad, like that of a skilfully managed fantasia, is to return incessantly to the "theme," and, after the longest and loftiest flights, by a recurrence to the refrain, to prepare the listener for another rapture. In the monotonous interludes, which always introduce the same personage in the same language, there is a just scorn of varying light mechanic matters when a noble subject is in hand.

The Olympian hierarchy will not forgive Mr. Bryant for converting their high-sounding names into Latin equivalents. In fact, that characteristic of his style which most unfits it for translation of the Greek is its Latinism. It was impossible for the Romans to catch and reproduce the Hellenic spirit. We have no sympathy with the cant which deprecates the use of those Latin words by which our language is most enriched; but it is a fact that the Greek is best expressed by authors who rely chiefly on the Saxon, and that there is a singular harmony between the effects of the Greek and Saxon verse. To conclude: Homer will never receive an adequate translation; but the method which indicates itself as the nearest means thereto, is that of the aforesaid pure-Heroic blank-verse. The latter is full of Saxon strength, adapting itself to the sonorous refrain, and constructed in that epic order of words which is as natural to one century as to another. Probably the "Morte d' Arthur" of Tennyson, and Matthew Arnold's "Balder Dead," are the best specimens of this method in our language.

With Spanish poetry Mr. Bryant is entirely successful. His verse renders the grave Roman feeling of the Castilian muse to our outer and inner senses. Every reader will be repaid by a study of that Latinesque production, "The Ruins of Italica"; and "The Lost Bird" (by Carolina Colorado de Perry) is suggestive and melodious as the Spanish lyric itself.

Throughout the volume are evidences of a serene and joyous prime, which age cannot wither, nor the rust of years corrode. "The Life that Is," "A Sick Bed," "The New and the Old," "The Cloud on the Way," are all recognitions of the season to which the singer and his life-companions have arrived; but they breathe compliance with the sweet law of Nature's successions, and are radiant with faith that looks beyond the vail. His philosophy, like his poetic art, resembles a tranquil river still widening toward the close.

And now, in a brief and merely suggestive review, how little fault we have been able to find with these Thirty Poems! Their excellences have grown upon us; for their author incases himself in proof, and is open to few charges, save that of being " faultily faultless." They have the effect of Kensett's pictures—cool, rich, dark, satisfying, a welcome relief from the feverish midday glare, the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. With all this, such a burden of rhymes now loads the press, that it is doubtful whether, if Mr. Bryant were for the first time craving the public suffrage, he would assume a central position in the hemicycle of our poets. For the unusual, not the noblest, is in vogue. It was much for him to have commenced in that fallow-period of American literature, when any writer was noticeable; and fortunate that his sure excellence thus reached the foreground, where all pause to catch the deep sound of his chanting. To you, who have yet your laurels to win, and would fain win them purely, what heart-searching years of inappreciation and neglect! Your task is harder than his. But approach the altar with his reverent step; be simple, conscientious, impassioned, assured of the goal. Thus you, he says, may also

 Frame a lay
 That haply may endure from age to age,
And they who read shall say:
 What witchery hangs upon this poet's page!
What art is his, the written spells to find
That sway from mood to mood the willing mind!

  1. The Round Table, January 16, 1864.