The Literati of New York/No. V/Frances S. Osgood
Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood, for the last two or three years, has been rapidly attaining distinction — and this, evidently, with no effort at attaining it. She seems, in fact, to have no object in view beyond that of giving voice to the feelings or to the fancies of the moment. "Necessity," says the proverb, "is the mother of Invention ; " and the invention of Mrs. O., at least, springs plainly from necessity — from the necessity of invention. Not to write poetry — not to think it, dream it, act it, and be it, is entirely out of her power.
It may be questioned whether, with more method, more industry, more definite purpose, more ambition, Mrs. Osgood would have made a more decided impression on the public mind. She might, upon the whole, have written better poems, but the chances are that she would have failed in conveying so vivid and so just an idea of her powers as poet. The warm abandonnement of her style — that charm which now so captivates — is but a portion and a consequence of her unworldly nature, of her disregard of mere fame; but it affords us glimpses (which we could not otherwise have obtained) of a capacity for accomplishing what she has not accomplished and in all probability never will. But in the world of poetry there is already more than enough of this uncongenial ambition and presence.
Mrs. Osgood has taken no care whatever of her literary fame. A great number of her finest compositions, both in verse and prose, have been written anonymously, and are now lying perdus about the country in out-of-the-way nooks and corners. Many a goodly reputation has been reared upon a far more unstable basis than her unclaimed and uncollected "fugitive pieces."
Her first volume, I believe, was published six or seven years ago, by Edward Churton, of London, during the poet's residence in that city. I have now lying before me a second edition of it, dated 1842 — a most beautifully printed book, dedicated to the Reverend Hobart Caunter. It contains a number of what the Bostonians call "juvenile" poems, written when Mrs. O. (then Miss Locke) could not have been more than thirteen, and evincing a very unusual precocity. The leading piece is "Elfrida, a Dramatic Poem," but in many respects well entitled to the appellation "Drama." I allude chiefly to the passionate expression of particular portions, to delineation of character, and to occasional scenic effect; in construction, (that is to say, plot,) in general conduct and plausibility, the play fails — comparatively, of course, for the hand of genius is evinced throughout.
The story is the well-known one of Edgar, Elfrida and Earl Athelwood. The king, hearing of Elfrida's extraordinary beauty, commissions his favorite, Athelwood, to visit her and ascertain if report speaks truly of her charms. The earl, becoming himself enamored, represents the lady as anything but beautiful and agreeable, and the king is satisfied. Athelwood soon afterwards woos and weds Elfrida, giving her wealth as his reason to Edgar. The true state of the case, however, is betrayed by an enemy, and the monarch resolves to visit the earl at his castle and so judge for himself. Hearing of this resolve, Athelwood, in despair, confesses his duplicity to his wife, and entreats her to render null as far as possible the effect of her charms by dressing with unusual plainness. This the wife promises to do, but, fired with ambition and resentment at the wrong done her, arrays herself in her most magnificent and becoming costume. The king is captivated, and the result (a somewhat immoral one, although in keeping with the ordinary idea of poetical justice) is the destruction of Athelwood and the elevation of Elfrida to the throne.
These incidents are especially well adapted to dramatic purposes, and with more of that art which Mrs. Osgood does not possess, she might have woven them into a tragedy which the world would not have willingly let die. As it is, she has merely succeeded in showing what she might, should, and could have done, but unhappily did not. The character of Elfrida is the bright point of the play. Her beauty and consciousness of it, her indignation and uncompromising ambition, are depicted with power.
The English collection of which I speak was entitled "A Wreath of Wild Flowers from New England." It met with a really cordial reception in Great Britain — was favorably noticed by the "Literary Gazette," "Times," "Monthly Chronicle," "Atlas," and especially by the "Court Journal," the "Court and Ladies' Magazine," "La Belle Assemblée," and other similar works circulating very extensively among the aristocracy. Mr. Osgood's merits as an artist had already introduced page 127 his wife into distinguished society, (she was petted in especial by Mrs. Norton and Rogers,) but her beautiful volume had at once an evidently favorable effect upon his fortunes. His pictures were all placed in a more advantageous light by her poetical and conversational grace.
As the "Wreath of Wild Flowers" has had comparatively little circulation in this country, I may be pardoned for making one or two other extracts. "The Dying Rosebud's Lament," although by no means one of the best poems included, will very well serve to show the earlier and more characteristic manner of the poetess.
"Ah me ! — ah, woe is me !
That I should perish now,
With the dear sunlight just let in
Upon my balmy brow !
"My leaves, instinct with glowing life,
Were quivering to unclose ;
My happy heart with love was rife —
I was almost a rose.
"Nerved by a hope, warm, rich, intense,
Already I had risen
Above my cage's curving fence —
My green and graceful prison.
"My pouting lips, by Zephyr pressed,
Were just prepared to part
And whisper to the wooing wind
The rapture of my heart.
"In new-born fancies reveling,
My mossy cell half riven,
Each thrilling leaflet seemed a wing
To bear me into Heaven.
"How oft, while yet an infant flower,
My crimson cheek I've laid
Against the green bars of my bower,
Impatient of the shade!
"And pressing up and peeping through
Its small but precious vistas,
Sighed for the lovely light and dew
That blessed my elder sisters.
"I saw the sweet breeze rippling o'er
Their leaves that loved the play,
Though the light thief stole all their store
Of dew-drop gems away.
"I thought how happy I should be
Such diamond wreaths to wear,
And frolic with a rose's glee
With sunbeam, bird and air.
"Ah me ! — ah, woe is me, that I,
Ere yet my leaves unclose,
With all my wealth of sweets, must die
Before I am a rose ! "
Every true poet must here appreciate the exceeding delicacy of expression, the richness of fancy, the nice appositeness of the overt and insinuated meaning. The passages I have italicized have seldom, in their peculiar and very graceful way, been equaled — never surpassed.
I cannot speak of the poems of Mrs. Osgood without a strong propensity to ring the changes upon the indefinite word "grace" and its derivatives. It seems, indeed, the one key-phrase unlocking the cryptograph of her power — of the effect she produces. And yet the effect is scarcely more a secret than the key. Grace, perhaps, may be most satisfactorily defined as a term applied, in despair, to that class of the impressions of beauty which admit neither of analysis nor of comprehension. It is this irresoluble charm — in grace — that Mrs. Osgood excels any poetess of her country — or, indeed, of any country under the sun. Nor is she more graceful herself than appreciative of the graceful, under whatever guise it is presented to her consideration. The sentiment, the perception, and the keenest enjoyment of grace, render themselves manifest in innumerable instances, as well throughout her prose as her poetry. A fine example is to be found in "A Letter to an Absent Friend, on seeing Celeste for the first time in the Wept-of-Wish-ton-Wish," included in the "Wild Flowers from New England." Celeste has been often described — the effect of her dancing, I mean — but assuredly never has she been brought so fully to the eye of the mind as in the verses which follow: —
"She comes — the spirit of the dance !
And but for those large, eloquent eyes,
Where passion speaks in every glance,
She'd seem a wanderer from the skies.
"So light that, gazing breathless there,
Lest the celestial dream should go,
You'd think the music in the air
Waved the fair vision to and fro !
"Or that the melody's sweet flow
Within the radiant creature played,
And those soft wreathing arms of snow
And white sylph feet the music made.
"Now gliding slow with dreamy grace,
Her eyes beneath their lashes lost,
Now motionless, with lifted face,
And small hands on her bosom crossed.
"And now with flashing eyes she springs —
Her whole bright figure raised in air,
As if her soul had spread its wings
And poised her one will instant there!
"She spoke not — but, so richly fraught
With language are her glance and smile,
That when the curtain fell, I thought
She had been talking all the while."
Messrs. Clark & Austin, of New York, have lately issued another, but still a very imperfect, collection of "Poems, by Frances S. Osgood." In general, it embraces by no means the best of her works, although some of her best ("The Spirit of Poetry," for example), are included. "The Daughter of Herodias," one of her longest compositions, a very noble poem — quite as good as anything written by Mrs. Hemans — is omitted. The page 128 volume contains a number of the least meritorious pieces in the "Wreath of Wild Flowers from New England," and also more than enough of a class of allegorical or emblematical verses — a kind of writing which, through an odd perversity, the fair authoress at one time much affected, but which no poet can admit to be poetry at all. These jeux d'esprit (for what else shall we call them ?) afforded her, however, a fine opportunity for the display of ingenuity and an epigrammatism in which she especially excels.
Of this latter quality, in its better phase — that is to say, existing apart from the allegory — I must be permitted to give two exquisite specimens: —
"Oh, fragile and fair as the delicate chalices
Wrought with so rare and so subtle a skill,
Bright relics that tell of the pomp of those palaces
Venice, the sea-goddess, glories in still !
"Whose exquisite texture, transparent and tender,
A pure blush alone from the ruby wine takes,
Yet, ah, if some false hand, profaning its splendor,
Dares but to taint it with poison, it breaks.
"So when Love poured through thy pure heart his lightning,
On thy pale cheek the soft rose-hues awoke —
So when wild Passion, that timid heart frightening,
Poisoned the treasure, it trembled and broke ! "
"Oh, they never can know that heart of thine,
Who dare accuse thee of flirtation;
They might as well say that the stars, which shine
In the light of their joy o'er creation,
Are flirting with every wild wave in which lies
One beam of the glory that kindles the skies.
"Smile on, then, undimmed in your beauty and grace !
Too well e'er to doubt, love, we know you;
And shed from your heaven the light of your face,
Where the waves chase each other below you —
For none can e'er deem it your shame or your sin
That each wave holds your star-image smiling within."
"Lenore," independently of its mere epigrammatism, well exemplifies the poet's usual turn of thought, her exactitude and facility at illustration. The versification (except in the first quatrain, which puts me in mind of Moore), is defective. The first two lines of the third are even rough. The rhythm is dactylic, but the dactyls are all false — e. g.:
"So when Love | poured through thy | pure heart his | lightning,
On thy pale | cheek the soft | rose-hues a | woke."
Here the necessarily long syllables, love, through, heart, pale, soft, and hues, should be short, and the rhythm halts because they are not so. "To Sarah" is the better poem in every respect; — the compliment in the two last lines is exquisitely pointed. Both these pieces appeared originally [column 2:] in "The Broadway Journal" (which has been honored by many of Mrs. Osgood's very finest compositions;) the last, "To Sarah," is not included in the volume lately published by Messrs. Clark & Austin.
What is really new in this volume shows a marked change in the themes, in the manner, in the whole character of the poetess. We see less of vivacity, less of fancy; more of tenderness, earnestness, even passion, and of the true imagination as distinguished from its subordinate fancy: the one prevalent and predominating trait, grace, alone distinctly remains. In illustration of these points I feel tempted to copy some seven or eight of the later poems, but the deep interest of my subject has already led me too far, and I am by no means writing a review. I must refer, however, to two brief songs as best exemplifying what I have said. They were quoted, about five months ago, in a notice of the works of the poetess — a notice by myself, published in this magazine; — the one commences, "She loves him yet," the other, "Yes, lower to the level." These pieces serve also to show the marked improvement of the writer in versification. The first-named is not only rhythmically perfect, but evinces much originality in its structure; the last, although in rhythm not so novel, is more forcible, better balanced, and more thoroughly sustained — in these respects I have seldom seen anything so good. In terse energy of expression this poem is unsurpassed.
My extracts are already extended to a greater length than I had designed or than comports with the plan of these papers, yet I cannot forbear making another. Its music, simplicity and genuine earnestness, will find their way to the hearts of all who read it.
"A MOTHER'S PRAYER IN ILLNESS.
"Yes, take them first, my Father; let my doves
Fold their white wings in Heaven, safe on Thy breast,
Ere I am called away ! I dare not leave
Their young hearts here — their innocent, thoughtless hearts !
Ah, how the shadowy train of future ills
Comes sweeping down life's vista as I gaze !
My May, my careless, ardent-tempered May,
My frank and frolic child, in whose blue eyes
Wild joy and passionate woe alternate rise;
Whose cheek the morning in her soul illumes;
Whose little loving heart a word, a glance,
Can sway to grief or glee; who leaves her play,
And puts up her sweet mouth and dimpled arms
Each moment for a kiss, and softly asks
With her clear, flute-like voice, ' Do you love me ?'
Ah, let me stay — ah, let me still be by,
To answer her and meet her warm caress !
For, I away, how oft in this rough world
That earnest question will be asked in vain !
How oft that eager, passionate, petted heart,
Will shrink abashed and chilled, to learn at length
The hateful withering lesson of distrust !
Ah, let her nestle still upon this breast,
In which each shade that dims her darling face
Is felt and answered, as the lake reflects
The clouds that cross yon smiling heaven. And thou, page 129
My modest Ellen — tender, thoughtful, true,
Thy soul attuned to all sweet harmonies —
My pure, proud, noble Ellen, with thy gifts
Of genius, grace and loveliness, half hidden
'Neath the soft veil of innate modesty,
How will the world's wild discord reach thy heart
To startle and appal ! Thy generous scorn
Of all things base and mean; thy quick, keen taste,
Dainty and delicate; thy instinctive fear
Of those unworthy of a soul so pure;
Thy rare, unchildlike dignity of mien —
All, they will all bring pain to thee, my child.
And, oh ! if even their grace and goodness meet
Cold looks and careless greetings, how will all
The latent evil yet undisciplined
In their young, timid souls, forgiveness find —
Forgiveness and forbearance, and soft chidings,
Which I, their mother, learned of Love to give ?
Ah, let me stay — albeit my heart is weary,
Weary and worn, tired of its own sad beat
That finds no echo in this busy world
Which cannot pause to answer — tired alike
Of joy and sorrow, of the day and night.
Ah, take them first, my Father, and then me !
And for their sakes — for their sweet sakes, my Father,
Let me find rest beside them, at thy feet !"
Mrs. Osgood has done far more in prose than in poetry, but then her prose is merely poetry in disguise. Of pure prose, of prose proper, she has, perhaps, never written a line in her life. Her usual magazine articles are a class by themselves. She begins with a desperate effort at being sedate — that is to say, sufficiently prosaic and matter-of-fact for the purpose of a legend or an essay, but in a few sentences we behold uprising the leaven of the unrighteousness of the muse; then, after some flourishes and futile attempts at repression, a scrap of verse renders itself manifest; then another and another; — then comes a poem outright, and then another and another and another, with little odd batches of prose in between, until at length the mask is thrown fairly off and far away, and the whole article — sings.
I shall say nothing farther, then, of Mrs. Osgood's prose.
Her character is daguerreotyped in her works — reading the one we know the other. She is ardent, sensitive, impulsive ; the very soul of truth and honor; a worshipper of the beautiful, with a heart so radically artless as to seem abundant in art — universally respected, admired and beloved. In person she is about the medium height, slender even to fragility, graceful whether in action or repose ; complexion usually pale; hair very black and glossy; eyes of a clear, luminous gray, large, and with a singular capacity of expression. In no respect can she be termed beautiful, (as the world understands the epithet,) but the question, "Is it really possible that she is not so ?" is very frequently asked, and most frequently by those who most intimately know her. Her husband is still occupied with his profession. They have two children — the Ellen and May of the poem.