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It has been said that a good critique on a poem may be written by one who is no poet himself. This, according to your idea and mine of poetry, I feel to be false–the less poetical the critic, the less just the critique, and the converse. On this account, and because the world's good opinion as proud of your own. Another than yourself might here observe, "Shakespeare is in possession of the world's good opinion, and yet Shakespeare is the greatest of poets. It appears then that as the world judges correctly, why should you be ashamed of their favourable judgment?" The difficulty lies in the interpretation of the word "judgment" or "opinion." The opinion is the world's, truly, but it may be called theirs as a man would call a book his, having bought it; he did not write the book, but it is his; they did not originate the opinion, but it is theirs. A fool, for example, thinks Shakespeare a great poet–yet the fool has never read Shakespeare. But the fool's neighbor, who is a step higher on the Andes of the mind, whose head (that is to say, his more exalted thought) is too far above the fool to be seen or understood, but whose feet (by which I mean his every-day actions) are sufficiently near to be discerned, and by means of which that superiority is ascertained, which but for them would never have been discovered–this neighbor asserts that Shakespeare is a great poet–the fool believes him, and it is henceforward his opinion. This neighbor's own opinion has, in like manner, been adopted from one above him, and so, ascendingly, to a few gifted individuals who kneel around the summit, beholding, face to face, the master spirit who stands upon the pinnacle....
You are aware of the great barrier in the path of an American writer. He is read, if at all, in preference to the combined and established wit of the world. I say established; for it is with literature as with law or empire–an established name is an estate in tenure, or a throne in possession. Besides, one might suppose that books, like their authors, improve by travel–their having crossed the sea is, with us, so great a distinction. Our antiquaries abandon time for distance; our very fops glance from the binding to the bottom of the title-page, where the mystic characters which spell London, Paris, or Genoa, are precisely so many letters of recommendation.
I mentioned just now a vulgar error as regards criticism. I think the notion that no poet can form a correct estimate of his own writings is another. I remarked before that in proportion to the poetical talent would be the justice of a critique upon poetry. Therefore a bad poet would, I grant, make a false critique, and his self-love would infallibly bias his little judgment in his favour; but a poet, who is indeed a poet, could not, I think, fail of making a just critique; whatever should be deducted on the score of self-love might be replaced on account of his intimate acquaintance with the subject; in short, we have more instances of false criticism than of just where one's own writings are the test, simply because we have more bad poets than good. There are, of course, many objections to what I say: Milton is a great example of the contrary, but his opinion with respect to the Paradise Regained is by no means fairly ascertained. By what trivial circumstances men are often led to assert what they do not really believe! Perhaps an inadvertent world has descended to posterity. But, in fact, the Paradise Regained is little, if at all inferior to the Paradise Lost and is only supposed so to be because men do not like epics, whatever they may say to the contrary, and reading those of Milton in their natural order, are too much wearied with the first to derive any pleasure from the second.
I dare say Milton preferred Comos to either–if so–justly....
As I am speaking of poetry, it will not be amiss to touch slightly upon the most singular heresy in its modern history–the heresy of what is called, very foolishly, the Lake School. Some years ago I might have been induced, by an occasion like the present, to attempt a formal refutation of their doctrine; at present it would be a work of supererogation. The wise must bow to the wisdom of such men as Coleridge and Southey, but being wise, have laughed at poetical theories so prosaically exemplified.
Aristotle, with singular assurance, has declared poetry the most philosophical of all writings–but it required a Wordsworth to pronounce it the most metaphysical. He seems to think that the end of poetry is, or should be, instruction; yet it is a truism that the end of our existence is happiness; if so, the end of every separate part of our existence, everything connected with our existence, should be happiness. Therefore the end of instruction should be happiness; and happiness is another name for pleasure,–therefore the end of instruction should be pleasure; yet we see the above-mentioned opinion implies precisely the reverse.
To proceed: ceteris paribus, he who pleases is of more importance to his fellow-men than he who instructs, since utility is happiness, and pleasure is the end already obtained while instruction is merely the means of obtaining.
I see no reason, then, why our metaphysical poets should plume themselves so much on the utility of their works, unless indeed they refer to instruction with eternity in view; in which case, sincere respect for their piety would not allow me to express my contempt for their judgement; contempt which it would be difficult to conceal, since their writings are professedly to be understood by the few, and it is the many who stand in need of salvation. In such case I should no doubt be tempted to think of the devil in "Melmoth," who labours indefatigably, through three octavo volumes, to accomplish the destruction of one or two souls, while any common devil would have demolished one or two thousand.
Against the subtleties which would make poetry a study–not a passion–it becomes the metaphysician to reason–but the poet to protest. Yet Wordsworth and Coleridge are men in years; the one imbued in contemplating from his childhood, the other a giant in intellect and learning. The diffidence, then, with which I venture to dispute their authority would be overwhelming did I not feel, from the bottom of my heart, that learning has little to do with the imagination–intellect with the passions–or age with poetry.
Trifles, like straws, upon the surface flow;
He who would search for pearls must dive below,
are lines which have done much mischief. As regards the greater truths, men oftener err by seeking them at the bottom than at the top; Truth lies in the huge abysses where wisdom is sought–not in the palpable palaces where she is found. The ancients were not always right in hiding the goddess in a well; witness the light which Bacon has thrown upon philosophy; witness the principles of our divine faith–that moral mechanism by which the simplicity of a child may overbalance the wisdom of a man.
We see an instance of Coleridge's liability to err, in his Biographia Literaria–professedly his literary life and opinions, but, in fact, a treatise de omni scibili et quibusdam aliis. He goes wrong by reason of his very profundity, and of his error we have a natural type in the contemplation of a star. He who regards it directly and intensely sees, it is true, the star, but it is the star without a ray–while he who surveys it less inquisitively is conscious of all for which the star is useful to us below–its brilliancy and its beauty.
As to Wordsworth, I have no faith in him. That he had in youth the feelings of a poet I believe–for there are glimpses of extreme delicacy in his writings–(and delicacy is the poet's own kingdom–his El Dorado)–but they have the appearance of a better day recollected; and glimpses, at best, are little evidence of present poetic fire–we know that a few straggling flowers spring up daily in the crevices of the glacier.
He was to blame in wearing away his youth in contemplation with the end of poetizing in his manhood. With the increase of his judgment the light which should make it apparent has faded away. His judgment consequently is too correct. This may not be understood,–but the old Goths of Germany would have understood it, who used to debate matters of importance to their State twice, once when drunk, and once when sober–sober that they might not be deficient in formality–drunk lest they should be destitute of vigour.
The long wordy discussions by which he tries to reason us into admiration of his poetry, speak very little in his favour: they are full of such assertions as this (I have opened one of his volumes at random)–"Of genius the only proof is the act of doing well what is worthy to be done, and what was never done before";–indeed? then it follows that in doing what is unworthy to be done, or what has been done before, no genius can be evinced; yet the picking of pockets is an unworthy act, pockets have been picked time immemorial and Barrington, the pickpocket, in point of genius, would have thought hard of a comparison with William Wordsworth, the poet.
Again–in estimating the merit of certain poems, whether they be Ossian's or M'Pherson's, can surely be of little consequence, yet, in order to prove their worthlessness, Mr. W. has expended many pages in the controversy. Tantaene animis? Can great minds descend to such absurdity? But worse still: that he may bear down every argument in favour of these poems, he triumphantly drags forward a passage in his abomination with which he expects the reader to sympathise. It is the beginning of the epic poem "Temora." "The blue waves of Ullin roll in light; the green hills are covered with day, trees shake their dusty heads in the breeze." And this–this gorgeous, yet simple imagery, where all is alive and panting with immortality–this, William Wordsworth, the author of "Peter Bell," has selected for his contempt. We shall see what better he, in his own person, has to offer. Imprimis:
And now she's at the pony's tail,
And now she's at the pony's head,
On that side now, and now on this;
And, almost stified with her bliss,
A few sad tears does Betty shed....
She pats the pony, where or when
She knows not... happy Betty Foy!
Oh, Johnny, never mind the doctor!
The dew was falling fast, the stars began to blink;
I heard a voice: it said–"Drink, pretty creature, drink!"
And, looking o'er the hedge, before me I espied
A snow-white mountain lamb, with a maiden at its side.
No other sheep was near,–the lamb was all alone,
And by a slender cord was–tether'd to a stone.
Now, we have no doubt this is all true; we will believe it, indeed we will, Mr. W. Is it sympathy for the sheep you wish to excite? I love a sheep from the bottom of my heart.
Wordsworth is reasonable. Even Stamboul, it is said, shall have an end, and the most unlucky blunders must come to a conclusion. Here is an extract from his preface:–
"Those who have been accustomed to the phraseology of modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to a conclusion (impossible!) will, no doubt, have to struggle with feelings of awkwardness; (ha! ha! ha!) they will look round for poetry (ha! ha! ha! ha!), and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts have been permitted to assume that title." Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!
Yet, let not Mr. W. despair; he has given immortality to a wagon, and the bee Sophocles has transmitted to eternity a sore toe, and dignified a tragedy with a chorus of turkeys.
Of Coleridge, I cannot speak but with reverence. His towering intellect! his gigantic power! He is one more evidence of the fact "que la plupart des sectes ont raison dans une bonne partie de ce qu'elles avancent, mais non pas en ce qu'elles nient." He has imprisoned his own conceptions by the barrier he has erected against those of others. It is lamentable to think that such a mind should be buried in metaphysics, and, like the Nyctanthes, waste its perfume upon the night alone. In reading that man's poetry, I tremble like one who stands upon a volcano, conscious from the very darkness bursting from the crater, of the fire and the light that are weltering below.
What is Poetry?–Poetry! that Proteus–like idea, with as many appellations as the nine–titled Corcyra! Give me, I demanded of a scholar some time ago, give me a definition of poetry. "Tres-volontiers"; and he proceeded to his library, brought me a Dr. Johnson, and overwhelmed me with a definition. Shade of the immortal Shakespeare! I imagine to myself the scowl of your spiritual eye upon the profanity of the scurrilous Ursa Major. Think of poetry, dear of all that is airy and fairy-like, and then of all that is hideous and unwieldy, think of his huge bulk, the Elephant! and then–and then think of the Tempest–the Midsummer Night's Dream–Prospero–Oberon–and Titania!
A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object, an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry–music, without the idea, is simply music; the idea, without the music, is prose, from its very definitiveness.
What was meant by the invective against him who had no music in his soul?
doubt, perceive, for the metaphysical poets as poets, the most sovereign contempt. That they have followers proves nothing–
No Indian prince has to his palace
More followers than a thief to the gallows.
ALNWICK CASTLE, AND OTHER POEMS
BEFORE entering upon the detailed notice which we propose of the volumes before us, we wish to speak a few words in regard to the present state of American criticism.
It must be visible to all who meddle with literary matters, that of late years a thorough revolution has been effected in the censorship of our press. That this revolution is infinitely for the worse we believe. There was a time, it is true, when we cringed to foreign opinion–let us even say when we paid most servile deference to British critical dicta. That an American book could, by any possibility, be worthy perusal, was an idea by no means extensively prevalent in the land; and if we were induced to read at all the productions of our native writers, it was only after repeated assurances from England that such productions were not altogether contemptible. But there was, at all events, a shadow of excuse, and a slight basis of reason for a subserviency so grotesque. Even now, perhaps, it would not be far wrong to assert that such basis of reason may still exist. Let us grant that in many of the abstract sciences–that even in Theology, in Medicine, in Law, in Oratory, in the Mechanical Arts, we have no competitors whatever, still nothing but the most egregious national vanity would assign us a place, in the matter of Polite Literature, upon a level with the elder and riper climes of Europe, the earliest steps of whose children are among the groves of magnificently endowed Academies, and whose innumerable men of leisure, and of consequent learning, drink daily from those august fountains of inspiration which burst around them everywhere from out the tombs of their immortal dead, and from out their hoary and trophied monuments of chivalry and song. In paying then, as a nation, a respectful and not undue deference to a supremacy rarely questioned but by prejudice or ignorance, we should, of course, be doing nothing more than acting in a rational manner. The excess of our subserviency was blamable–but, as we have before said, this very excess might have found a shadow of excuse in the strict justice, if properly regulated, of the principle from which it issued. Not so, however, with our present follies. We are becoming boisterous and arrogant in the pride of a too speedily assumed literary freedom. We throw off, with the most presumptuous and unmeaning hauteur, all deference whatever to foreign opinion–we forget, in the puerile inflation of vanity, that the world is the true theatre of the biblical histrio–we get up a hue and cry about the necessity of encouraging native writers of merit–we blindly fancy that we can accomplish this by indiscriminate puffing of good, bad, and indifferent, without taking the trouble to consider that what we choose to denominate encouragement is thus, by its general application, rendered precisely the reverse. In a word, so far from being ashamed of the many disgraceful literary failures to which our own inordinate vanities and misapplied patriotism have lately given birth, and so far from deeply lamenting that these daily puerilities are of home manufacture, we adhere pertinaciously to our original blindly conceived idea, and thus often find ourselves involved in the gross paradox of liking a stupid book the better, because, sure enough, its stupidity is American.*
* This charge of indiscriminant puffing will, of course, only apply to the general character of our criticism–there are some noble exceptions. We wish also especially to discriminate between those notices of new works which are intended merely to call public attention to them, and deliberate criticism on the works themselves.
Deeply lamenting this unjustifiable state of public feeling, it has been our constant endeavor, since assuming the Editorial duties of this Journal, to stem, with what little abilities we possess, a current so disastrously undermining the health and prosperity of our literature.
We have seen our efforts applauded by men whose applauses we value. From all quarters we have received abundant private as well as public testimonials in favor of our Critical Notices, and, until very lately, have heard from no respectable source one word impugning their integrity or candor. In looking over, however, a number of the New York Commercial Advertiser, we meet with the following paragraph.
"'The last number of the Southern Literary Messenger is very readable and respectable. The contributions to the Messenger are much better than the original matter. The critical department of this work–much as it would seem to boast itself of impartiality and discernment,–is in our opinion decidedly quacky. There is in it a great assumption of acumen, which is completely unsustained. Many a work has been slashingly condemned therein, of which the critic himself could not write a page, were he to die for it. This affectation of eccentric sternness in criticism, without the power to back one's suit withal, so far from deserving praise, as some suppose, merits the strongest reprehension. Philadelphia Gazette.'
"We are entirely of opinion with the Philadelphia Gazette in relation to the Southern Literary Messenger, and take this occasion to express our total dissent from the numerous and lavish encomiums we have seen bestowed upon its critical notices. Some few of them have been judicious, fair and candid; bestowing praise and censure with judgement and impartiality; but by far the greater number of those we have read, have been flippant, unjust, untenable and uncritical. The duty of the critic is to act as judge, not as enemy, of the writer whom he reviews; a distinction of which the Zoilus of the Messenger seems not to be aware. It is possible to review a book sincerely, without bestowing opprobrious epithets upon the writer, to condemn with courtesy, if not with kindness. The critic of the Messenger has been eulogized for his scorching and scarifying abilities, and he thinks it incumbent upon him to keep up his reputation in that line, by sneers, sarcasm and downright abuse; by straining his vision with microscopic intensity in search of faults, and shutting his eyes, with all his might to beauties. Moreover, we have detected him, more than once, in blunders quite as gross as those on which it was his pleasure to descant."*
* In addition to these things we observe, in the New York Mirror, what follows: "Those who have read the Notices of American books in a certain Southern Monthly, which is striving to gain notoriety by the loudness of its abuse, may find amusement in the sketch on another page, entitled "The Successful Novel." The Southern Literary Messenger knows by experience what it is to write a successless novel." We have, in this case, only to deny, flatly, the assertion of the Mirror. The Editor of the Messenger never in his life wrote or published, or attempted to publish, a novel either successful or successless.
In the paragraph from the Philadelphia Gazette, (which is edited by Mr. Willis Gaylord Clark, one of the editors of the Knickerbocker) we find nothing at which we have any desire to take exception. Mr. C. has a right to think us quacky if he pleases, and we do not remember having assumed for a moment that we could write a single line of the works we have reviewed. But there is something equivocal, to say the least, in the remarks of Col. Stone. He acknowledges that "some of our notices have been judicious, fair, and candid bestowing praise and censure with judgment and impartiality." This being the case, how can he reconcile his total dissent from the public verdict in our favor, with the dictates of justice? We are accused too of bestowing "opprobrious epithets" upon writers whom we review and in the paragraphs so accusing us are called nothing less than "flippant, unjust and uncritical."
But there is another point of which we disapprove. While in our reviews we have at all times been particularly careful not to deal in generalities, and have never, if we remember aright, advanced in any single instance an unsupported assertion, our accuser has forgotten to give us any better evidence of our flippancy, injustice, personality, and gross blundering, than the solitary dictum of Col. Stone. We call upon the Colonel for assistance in this dilemma. We wish to be shown our blunders that we may correct them–to be made aware of our flippancy that we may avoid it hereafter–and above all to have our personalities pointed out that we may proceed forthwith with a repentant spirit, to make the amende honorable. In default of this aid from the Editor of the Commercial we shall take it for granted that we are neither blunderers, flippant, personal, nor unjust.
Who will deny that in regard to individual poems no definitive opinions can exist, so long as to Poetry in the abstract we attach no definitive idea? Yet it is a common thing to hear our critics, day after day, pronounce, with a positive air, laudatory or condemnatory sentences, en masse, upon material works of whose merits or demerits they have, in the first place, virtually confessed an utter ignorance, in confessing it ignorance of all determinate principles by which to regulate a decision. Poetry has never been defined to the satisfaction of all parties. Perhaps, in the present condition of language it never will be. Words cannot hem it in. Its intangible and purely spiritual nature refuses to be bound down within the widest horizon of mere sounds. But it is not, therefore, misunderstood–at least, not by all men is it misunderstood. Very far from it, if indeed, there be any one circle of thought distinctly and palpably marked out from amid the jarring and tumultuous chaos of human intelligence, it is that evergreen and radiant Paradise which the true poet knows, and knows alone, as the limited realm of his authority–as the circumscribed Eden of his dreams. But a definition is a thing of words–a conception of ideas. And thus while we readily believe that Poesy, the term, it will be troublesome, if not impossible to define–still, with its image vividly existing in the world, we apprehend no difficulty in so describing Poesy, the Sentiment, as to imbue even the most obtuse intellect with a comprehension of it sufficiently distinct for all the purposes of practical analysis.
To look upwards from any existence, material or immaterial to its design, is, perhaps, the most direct, and the most unerring method of attaining a just notion of the nature of the existence itself. Nor is the principle at fault when we turn our eyes from Nature even to Natures God. We find certain faculties, implanted within us, and arrive at a more plausible conception of the character and attributes of those faculties, by considering, with what finite judgment we possess, the intention of the Deity in so implanting them within us, than by any actual investigation of their powers, or any speculative deductions from their visible and material effects. Thus, for example, we discover in all men a disposition to look with reverence upon superiority, whether real or supposititious. In some, this disposition is to be recognized with difficulty, and, in very peculiar cases, we are occasionally even led to doubt its existence altogether, until circumstances beyond the common routine bring it accidentally into development. In others again it forms a prominent and distinctive feature of character, and is rendered palpably evident in its excesses. But in all human beings it is, in a greater or less degree, finally perceptible. It has been, therefore, justly considered a primitive sentiment. Phrenologists call it Veneration. It is, indeed, the instinct given to man by God as security for his own worship. And although, preserving its nature, it becomes perverted from its principal purpose, and although swerving from that purpose, it serves to modify the relations of human society–the relations of father and child, of master and slave, of the ruler and the ruled–its primitive essence is nevertheless the same, and by a reference to primal causes, may at any moment be determined.
Very nearly akin to this feeling, and liable to the same analysis, is the Faculty of Ideality–which is the sentiment of Poesy. This sentiment is the sense of the beautiful, of the sublime, and of the mystical.* Thence spring immediately admiration of the fair flowers, the fairer forests, the bright valleys and rivers and mountains of the Earth–and love of the gleaming stars and other burning glories of Heaven–and, mingled up inextricably with this love and this admiration of Heaven and of Earth, the unconquerable desire–to know. Poesy is the sentiment of Intellectual Happiness here, and the Hope of a higher Intellectual Happiness hereafter.*(2)
* We separate the sublime and the mystical–for, despite of high authorities, we are firmly convinced that the latter may exist, in the most vivid degree, without giving rise to the sense of the former.
- (2) The consciousness of this truth was by no mortal more fully than by Shelley, although he has only once especially alluded to it. In his Hymn to intellectual Beauty we find these lines.
While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead:
I called on poisonous names with which our youth is fed:
I was not heard: I saw them not.
When musing deeply on the lot
Of life at that sweet time when birds are wooing
All vital things that wake to bring
News of buds and blossoming,
Sudden thy shadow fell on me–
I shrieked and clasped my hands in ecstasy!
I vow'd that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?
With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in vision'd bowers
Of studious zeal or love's delight
Outwatch'd with me the envious night:
They know that never joy illum'd my brow,
Unlink'd with hope that thou wouldst free,
This world from its dark slavery,
That thou, O awful Loveliness,
Wouldst give whate'er these words cannot express.
Imagination is its soul.* With the passions of mankind–although it may modify them greatly–although it may exalt, or inflame, or purify, or control them–it would require little ingenuity to prove that it has no inevitable, and indeed no necessary co-existence. We have hitherto spoken of poetry in the abstract: we come now to speak of it in its everyday acceptation–that is to say, of the practical result arising from the sentiment we have considered.
* Imagination is, possibly in man, a lesser degree of the creative power in God. What the Deity imagines, is, but was not before. What man imagines, is, but was also. The mind of man cannot imagine what is not. This latter point may be demonstrated.–See Les Premiers Traits de L'Erudition Universelle, par M. Le Baron de Biefield, 1767.
And now it appears evident, that since Poetry, in this new sense, is the practical result, expressed in language, of this Poetic Sentiment in certain individuals, the only proper method of testing the merits of a poem is by measuring its capabilities of exciting the Poetic Sentiments in others. And to this end we have many aids–in observation, in experience, in ethical analysis, and in the dictates of common sense. Hence the Poeta nascitur, which is indisputably true if we consider the Poetic Sentiment, becomes the merest of absurdities when we regard it in reference to the practical result. We do not hesitate to say that a man highly endowed with the powers of Causality–that is to say, a man of metaphysical acumen–will, even with a very deficient share of Ideality, compose a finer poem (if we test it, as we should, by its measure of exciting the Poetic Sentiment) than one who, without such metaphysical acumen, shall be gifted, in the most extraordinary degree, with the faculty of Ideality. For a poem is not the Poetic faculty, but the means of exciting it in mankind. Now these means the metaphysician may discover by analysis of their effects in other cases than his own, without even conceiving the nature of these effects–thus arriving at a result which the unaided Ideality of his competitor would be utterly unable, except by accident, to attain. It is more than possible that the man who, of all writers, living or dead, has been most successful in writing the purest of all poems–that is to say, poems which excite more purely, most exclusively, and most powerfully the imaginative faculties in men–owed his extraordinary and almost magical preeminence rather to metaphysical than poetical powers. We allude to the author of Christabel, of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and of Love–to Coleridge–whose head, if we mistake not its character, gave no great phrenological tokens of Ideality, while the organs of Causality and Comparison were most singularly developed.
Perhaps at this particular moment there are no American poems held in so high estimation by our countrymen, as the poems of Drake, and of Halleck. The exertions of Mr. George Dearborn have no doubt a far greater share in creating this feeling than the lovers of literature for its own sake and spiritual uses would be willing to admit. We have indeed seldom seen more beautiful volumes than the volumes now before us. But an adventitious interest of a loftier nature–the interest of the living in the memory of the beloved dead–attaches itself to the few literary remains of Drake. The poems which are now given to us with his name are nineteen in number; and whether all, or whether even the best of his writings, it is our present purpose to speak of these alone, since upon this edition his poetical reputation to all time will most probably depend.
It is only lately that we have read The Culprit Fay. This is a poem of six hundred and forty irregular lines, generally iambic, and divided into thirty-six stanzas, of unequal length. The scene of the narrative, as we ascertain from the single line,
The moon looks down on old Cronest,
is principally in the vicinity of West Point on the Hudson. The plot is as follows. An Ouphe, one of the race of Fairies, has "broken his vestal vow,"
He has loved an earthly maid
And left for her his woodland shade;
He has lain upon her lip of dew,
And sunned him in her eye of blue,
Fann'd her cheek with his wing of air,
Play'd with the ringlets of her hair,
And, nestling on her snowy breast,
Forgot the lily-kings behest–
in short, he has broken Fairy-law in becoming enamored of a mortal. The result of this misdemeanor we could not express so well as the poet, and will therefore make use of the language put into the mouth of the Fairy-King who reprimands the criminal.
Fairy! Fairy! list and mark,
Thou hast broke thine elfin chain,
Thy flame-wood lamp is quench'd and dark
And thy wings are dyed with a deadly stain.
The Ouphe being in this predicament, it has become necessary that his case and crime should be investigated by a jury of his fellows, and to this end the "shadowy tribes of air" are summoned by the "sentry elve" who has been awakened by the "wood-tick"–are summoned we say to the "elfin-court" at midnight to hear the doom of the Culprit Fay.
"Had a stain been found on the earthly fair," whose blandishments so bewildered the little Ouphe, his punishment would have been severe indeed. In such case he would have been (as we learn from the Fairy judge's exposition of the criminal code,)
Tied to the hornet's shardy wings;
Tossed on the pricks of nettles' stings;
Or seven long ages doomed to dwell
With the lazy worm in the walnut shell;
Or every night to writhe and bleed
Beneath the tread of the centipede,
Or bound in a cobweb dungeon dim
His jailer a spider huge and grim,
Amid the carrion bodies to lie
Of the worm and the bug and the murdered fly–
Fortunately, however, for the Culprit, his mistress is proved to be of "sinless mind" and under such redeeming circumstances the sentence is, mildly, as follows–
Thou shalt seek the beach of sand
Where the water bounds the elfin land,
Thou shalt watch the oozy brine
Till the sturgeon leaps in the bright moonshine,
Then dart the glistening arch below,
And catch a drop from his silver bow.
If the spray-bead be won
The stain of thy wing is washed away,
But another errand must be done
Ere thy crime be lost for aye;
Thy flame-wood lamp is quenched and dark,
Thou must re-illume its spark.
Mount thy steed and spur him high
To the heaven's blue canopy,
And when thou seest a shooting star
Follow it fast and follow it far
The last faint spark of its burning train
Shall light the elfin lamp again.
Upon this sin, and upon this sentence, depends the web of the narrative, which is now occupied with the elfin difficulties overcome by the Ouphe in washing away the stain of his wing, and re-illuming his flame-wood lamp. His soiled pinion having lost its power, he is under the necessity of wending his way on foot from the Elfin court upon Cronest to the river beach at its base. His path is encumbered at every step with "bog and briar," with "brook and mire," with "beds of tangled fern," with "groves of night-shade," and with the minor evils of ant and snake. Happily, however, a spotted toad coming in sight, our adventurer jumps upon her back, and "bridling her mouth with a silk-weed twist" bounds merrily along
Till the mountain's magic verge is past
And the beach of sand is reached at last.
Alighting now from his "courser-toad" the Ouphe folds his wings around his bosom, springs on a rock, breathes a prayer, throws his arms above his head,
Then tosses a tiny curve in air
And plunges in the waters blue.
Here, however, a host of difficulties await him by far too multitudinous to enumerate. We will content ourselves with simply stating the names of his most respectable assailants. These are the "spirits of the wave" dressed in "snail-plate armor" and aided by the "mailed shrimp," the "prickly prong," the "blood-red leech," the "stony star-fish," the "jellied quarl," the "soldier-crab," and the "lancing squab." But the hopes of our hero are high, and his limbs are strong, so
He spreads his arms like the swallow's wing,
And throws his feet with a frog-like fling.
All however, is to no purpose.
On his thigh the leech has fixed his hold,
The quarl's long arms are round him roll'd,
The prickly prong has pierced his skin,
And the squab has thrown his javelin,
The gritty star has rubb'd him raw,
And the crab has struck with his giant claw;
He bawls with rage, and he shrieks with pain
He strikes around but his blows are vain–
He turns him round and flies amain
With hurry and dash to the beach again.
Arrived safely on land our Fairy friend now gathers the dew from the "sorrel-leaf and henbane-bud" and bathing therewith his wounds, finally ties them up with cobweb. Thus recruited, he
–treads the fatal shore
As fresh and vigorous as before.
At length espying a "purple-muscle shell" upon the beach, he determines to use it as a boat and thus evade the animosity of the water spirits whose powers extend not above the wave. Making a "sculler's notch" in the stern, and providing himself with an oar of the bootle-blade, the Ouphe a second time ventures upon the deep. His perils are now diminished, but still great. The imps of the river heave the billows up before the prow of the boat, dash the surges against her side, and strike against her keel. The quarl uprears "his island-back" in her path, and the scallop, floating in the rear of the vessel, spatters it all over with water. Our adventurer, however, bails it out with the colen bell (which he has luckily provided for the purpose of catching the drop from the silver bow of the sturgeon,) and keeping his little bark warily trimmed, holds on his course undiscomfited.
The object of his first adventure is at length discovered in a "brownbacked sturgeon," who
Like the heaven-shot javelin
Springs above the waters blue,
And, instant as the star-fall light
Plunges him in the deep again,
But leaves an arch of silver bright,
The rainbow of the moony main.
From this rainbow our Ouphe succeeds in catching, by means of his colen bell cup, a "droplet of the sparkling dew." One half of his task is accordingly done–
His wings are pure, for the gem is won.
On his return to land, the ripples divide before him, while the water-spirits, so rancorous before, are obsequiously attentive to his comfort. Having tarried a moment on the beach to breathe a prayer, he "spreads his wings of gilded blue" and takes his way to the elfin court–there resting until the cricket, at two in the morning, rouses him up for the second portion of his penance.
His equipments are now an "acorn-helmet," a "thistle-down plume," a corslet of the "wild-bee's" skin, a cloak of the "wings of butterflies," a shield of the "shell of the lady-bug," for lance "the sting of a wasp," for sword a "blade of grass," for horse "a fire-fly," and for spurs a couple of "cockle seed." Thus accoutred,
Away like a glance of thought he flies
To skim the heavens and follow far
The fiery trail of the rocket-star.
In the Heavens he has new dangers to encounter. The "shapes of air" have begun their work–a "drizzly mist" is cast around him–"storm, darkness, sleet and shade" assail him–"shadowy hands" twitch at his bridle-rein–"flame-shot tongues" play around him–"fiendish eyes" glare upon him–and
Yells of rage and shrieks of fear
Come screaming on his startled ear.
Still our adventurer is nothing daunted.
He thrusts before, and he strikes behind,
Till he pierces the cloudy bodies through
And gashes the shadowy limbs of mind.
and the Elfin makes no stop, until he reaches the "bank of the milky way." He there checks his courser, and watches "for the glimpse of the planet shoot." While thus engaged, however, an unexpected adventure befalls him. He is approached by a company of the "sylphs of Heaven attired in sunset's crimson pall." They dance around him, and "skip before him on the plain." One receiving his "wasp-sting lance," and another taking his bridle-rein,
With warblings wild they lead him on,
To where, through clouds of amber seen,
Studded with stars resplendent shone
The palace of the sylphid queen.
A glowing description of the queen's beauty follows: and as the form of an earthly Fay had never been seen before in the bowers of light, she is represented as falling desperately in love at first sight with our adventurous Ouphe. He returns the compliment in some measure, of course; but, although "his heart bent fitfully," the "earthly form imprinted there" was a security against a too vivid impression. He declines, consequently, the invitation of the queen to remain with her and amuse himself by "lying within the fleecy drift," "hanging upon the rainbow's rim," having his "brow adorned with all the jewels of the sky," "sitting within the Pleiad ring," "resting upon Orion's belt" "riding upon the lightning's gleam," "dancing upon the orbed moon," and "swimming within the milky way."
Lady, he cries, I have sworn to-night
On the word of a fairy knight
To do my sentence task aright
The queen, therefore, contents herself with bidding the Fay an affectionate farewell–having first directed him carefully to that particular portion of the sky where a star is about to fall. He reaches this point in safety, and in despite of the "fiends of the cloud," who "bellow very loud," succeeds finally in catching a "glimmering spark" with which he returns triumphantly to Fairy-land. The poem closes with an Io Paean chaunted by the elves in honor of these glorious adventures.
It is more than probable that from ten readers of the Culprit Fay, nine would immediately pronounce it a poem betokening the most extraordinary powers of imagination, and of these nine, perhaps five or six, poets themselves, and fully impressed with the truth of what we have already assumed, that Ideality is indeed the soul of the Poetic Sentiment, would feel embarrassed between a half-consciousness that they ought to admire the production, and a wonder that they do not. This embarrassment would then arise from an indistinct conception of the results in which Ideality is rendered manifest. Of these results some few are seen in the Culprit Fay, but the greater part of it is utterly destitute of any evidence of imagination whatever. The general character of the poem will, we think, be sufficiently understood by any one who may have taken the trouble to read our foregoing compendium of the narrative. It will be there seen that what is so frequently termed the imaginative power of this story, lies especially–we should have rather said is thought to lie–in the passages we have quoted, or in others of a precisely similar nature. These passages embody, principally, mere specifications of qualities, of habiliments, of punishments, of occupations, of circumstances, &c., which the poet has believed in unison with the size, firstly, and secondly with the nature of his Fairies. To all which may be added specifications of other animal existences (such as the toad, the beetle, the lance-fly, the fire-fly and the like) supposed also to be in accordance. An example will best illustrate our meaning upon this point-
He put his acorn helmet on;
It was plumed of the silk of the thistle down:
The corslet plate that guarded his breast
Was once the wild bee's golden vest;
His cloak of a thousand mingled dyes,
Was formed of the wings of butterflies;
His shield was the shell of a lady-bug queen,
Studs of gold on a ground of green;*
And the quivering lance which he brandished bright
Was the sting of a wasp he had slain in fight.
Chestnut color, or more slack,
Gold upon a ground of black.
We shall now be understood. Were any of the admirers of the Culprit Fay asked their opinion of these lines, they would most probably speak in high terms of the imagination they display. Yet let the most stolid and the most confessedly unpoetical of these admirers only try the experiment, and he will find, possibly to his extreme surprise, that he himself will have no difficulty whatever in substituting for the equipments of the Fairy, as assigned by the poet, other equipments equally comfortable, no doubt, and equally in unison with the preconceived size, character, and other qualities of the equipped. Why we could accoutre him as well ourselves–let us see.
His blue-bell helmet, we have heard
Was plumed with the down of the hummingbird,
The corslet on his bosom bold
Was once the locust's coat of gold,
His cloak, of a thousand mingled hues,
Was the velvet violet, wet with dews,
His target was, the crescent shell
Of the small sea Sidrophel,
And a glittering beam from a maiden's eye
Was the lance which he proudly wav'd on high.
The truth is, that the only requisite for writing verses of this nature, ad libitum is a tolerable acquaintance with the qualities of the objects to be detailed, and a very moderate endowment of the faculty of Comparison–which is the chief constituent of Fancy or the powers of combination. A thousand such lines may be composed without exercising in the least degree the Poetic Sentiment, which is Ideality, Imagination, or the creative ability. And, as we have before said, the greater portion of the Culprit Fay is occupied with these, or similiar things, and upon such, depends very nearly, if not altogether, its reputation. We select another example–
But oh! how fair the shape that lay
Beneath a rainbow bending bright,
She seem'd to the entranced Fay
The loveliest of the forms of light,
Her mantle was the purple rolled
At twilight in the west afar;
T'was tied with threads of dawning gold,
And button'd with a sparkling star.
Her face was like the lily roon
That veils the vestal planet's hue,
Her eyes, two beamlets from the moon
Set floating in the welkin blue.
Her hair is like the sunny beam,
And the diamond gems which round it gleam
Are the pure drops of dewy even,
That neer have left their native heaven.
Here again the faculty of Comparison is alone exercised, and no mind possessing the faculty in any ordinary degree would find a difficulty in substituting for the materials employed by the poet other materials equally as good. But viewed as mere efforts of the Fancy and without reference to Ideality, the lines just quoted are much worse than those which were taken earlier. A congruity was observable in the accoutrements of the Ouphe, and we had no trouble in forming a distinct conception of his appearance when so accoutred. But the most vivid powers of Comparison can attach no definitive idea to even "the loveliest form of light," when habited in a mantle of "rolled purple tied with threads of dawn and buttoned with a star," and sitting at the same time under a rainbow with "beamlet" eyes and a visage of "lily roon."
But if these things evince no Ideality in their author, do they not excite it in others?–if so, we must conclude, that without being himself imbued with the Poetic Sentiment, he has still succeeded in writing a fine poem–a supposition as we have before endeavored to show, not altogether paradoxical. Most assuredly we think not. In the case of a great majority of readers the only sentiment aroused by compositions of this order is a species of vague wonder at the writer's ingenuity, and it is this indeterminate sense of wonder which passes but too frequently current for the proper influence of the Poetic power. For our own part we plead guilty to a predominant sense of the ludicrous while occupied in the perusal of the poem before us–a sense whose promptings we sincerely and honestly endeavored to quell, perhaps not altogether successfully, while penning our compend of the narrative. That a feeling of this nature is utterly at war with the Poetic Sentiment will not be disputed by those who comprehend the character of the sentiment itself. This character is finely shadowed out in that popular although vague idea so prevalent throughout all time, that a species of melancholy is inseparably connected with the higher manifestations of the beautiful. But with the numerous and seriously–adduced incongruities of the Culprit Fay, we find it generally impossible to connect other ideas than those of the ridiculous. We are bidden, in the first place, and in a tone of sentiment and language adapted to the loftiest breathings of the Muse, to imagine a race of Fairies in the vicinity of West Point. We are told, with a grave air, of their camp, of their king, and especially of their sentry, who is a wood-tick. We are informed that an Ouphe of about an inch in height has committed a deadly sin in falling in love with a mortal maiden, who may, very possibly, be six feet in her stockings. The consequence to the Ouphe is–what? Why, that he has "dyed his wings," "broken his elfin chain," and "quenched his flame-wood lamp." And he is therefore sentenced to what? To catch a spark from the tail of a falling star, and a drop of water from the belly of a sturgeon. What are his equipments for the first adventure? An acorn-helmet, a thistle-down plume, a butterfly cloak, a lady-bug shield, cockle-seed spurs, and a fire-fly horse. How does he ride to the second? On the back of a bullfrog. What are his opponents in the one? "Drizzle-mists," "sulphur and smoke," "shadowy hands and flame-shot tongues." What in the other? "Mailed shrimps," "prickly prongs," "blood-red leeches," "jellied quarls," "stony star fishes," "lancing squabs" and "soldier crabs." Is that all? No–Although only an inch high he is in imminent danger of seduction from a "sylphid queen," dressed in a mantle of "rolled purple," "tied with threads of dawning gold," "buttoned with a sparkling star," and sitting under a rainbow with "beamlet eyes" and a countenance of "lily roon." In our account of all this matter we have had reference to the book–and to the book alone. It will be difficult to prove us guilty in any degree of distortion or exaggeration. Yet such are the puerilities we daily find ourselves called upon to admire, as among the loftiest efforts of the human mind, and which not to assign a rank with the proud trophies of the matured and vigorous genius of England, is to prove ourselves at once a fool; a maligner, and no patriot.*
* A review of Drake's poems, emanating from one of our proudest Universities, does not scruple to make use of the following language in relation to the Culprit Fay. "It is, to say the least, an elegant production, the purest specimen of Ideality we have ever met with, sustaining in each incident a most bewitching interest. Its very title is enough," &c. &c. We quote these expressions as a fair specimen of the general unphilosophical and adulatory tenor of our criticism.
As an instance of what may be termed the sublimely ridiculous we quote the following lines–
With sweeping tail and quivering fin,
Through the wave the sturgeon flew,
And like the heaven-shot javelin,
He sprung above the waters blue.
Instant as the star-fall light,
He plunged into the deep again,
But left an arch of silver bright
The rainbow of the moony main.
It was a strange and lovely sight
To see the puny goblin there,
He seemed an angel form of light
With azure wing and sunny hair,
Throned on a cloud of purple fair
Circled with blue and edged with white
And sitting at the fall of even
Beneath the bow of summer heaven.
The [lines of the last verse], if considered without their context, have a certain air of dignity, elegance, and chastity of thought. If however we apply the context, we are immediately overwhelmed with the grotesque. It is impossible to read without laughing, such expressions as "It was a strange and lovely sight"–"He seemed an angel form of light"–"And sitting at the fall of even, beneath the bow of summer heaven" to a Fairy–a goblin–an Ouphe–half an inch high, dressed in an acorn helmet and butterfly-cloak, and sitting on the water in a muscleshell, with a "brown-backed sturgeon" turning somersets over his head.
In a world where evil is a mere consequence of good, and good a mere consequence of evil–in short where all of which we have any conception is good or bad only by comparison–we have never yet been fully able to appreciate the validity of that decision which would debar the critic from enforcing upon his readers the merits or demerits of a work with another. It seems to us that an adage has had more to do with this popular feeling than any just reason founded upon common sense. Thinking thus, we shall have no scruple in illustrating our opinion in regard to what is not Ideality or the Poetic Power, by an example of what is.*
* As examples of entire poems of the purest ideality, we would cite the Prometheus Vinctus of Aeschylus, the Inferno of Dante, Cervantes' Destruction of Numantia, the Comus of Milton, Pope's Rape of the Lock, Burns' Tam O'Shanter, the Auncient Mariner, the Christabel, and the Kubla Khan of Coleridge, and most especially the Sensitive Plant of Shelley, and the Nightingale of Keats. We have seen American poems evincing the faculty in the highest degree.
We have already given the description of the Sylphid Queen in the Culprit Fay. In the Queen Mab of Shelley a Fairy is thus introduced–
Those who had looked upon the sight
Passing all human glory,
Saw not the yellow moon,
Saw not the mortal scene,
Heard not the night wind's rush,
Heard not an earthly sound,
Saw but the fairy pageant,
Heard but the heavenly strains
That filled the lonely dwelling–
and thus described– The Fairy's frame was slight, yon fibrous cloud
That catches but the faintest tinge of even,
And which the straining eye can hardly seize
When melting into eastern twilight's shadow,
Were scarce so thin, so slight; but the fair star
That gems the glittering coronet of morn,
Sheds not a light so mild, so powerful,
As that which, bursting from the Fairy's form,
Spread a purpureal halo round the scene,
Yet with an undulating motion,
Swayed to her outline gracefully.
In these exquisite lines the Faculty of mere Comparison is but little exercised–that of Ideality in a wonderful degree. It is probable that in a similar case the poet we are now reviewing would have formed the face of the Fairy of the "fibrous cloud," her arms of the "pale tinge of even," her eyes of the "fair stars," and her body of the "twilight shadow." Having so done, his admirers would have congratulated him upon his imagination, not, taking the trouble to think that they themselves could at any moment imagine a Fairy of materials equally as good, and conveying an equally distinct idea. Their mistake would be precisely analogous to that of many a schoolboy who admires the imagination displayed in Jack the Giant-Killer, and is finally rejoiced at; discovering his own imagination to surpass that of the author, since the monsters destroyed by Jack are only about forty feet in height, and he himself has no trouble in imagining some of one hundred and forty. It will, be seen that the Fairy of Shelley is not a mere compound of incongruous natural objects, inartificially put together, and unaccompanied by any moral sentiment–but a being, in the illustration of whose nature some physical elements are used collaterally as adjuncts, while the main conception springs immediately or thus apparently springs, from the brain of the poet, enveloped in the moral sentiments of grace, of color, of motion–of the beautiful, of the mystical, of the august–in short of the ideal.*
* Among things, which not only in our opinion, but in the opinion of far wiser and better men, are to be ranked with the mere prettinesses of the Muse, are the positive similes so abundant in the writing of antiquity, and so much insisted upon by the critics of the reign of Queen Anne.
It is by no means our intention to deny that in the Culprit Fay are passages of a different order from those to which we have objected–passages evincing a degree of imagination not to be discovered in the plot, conception, or general execution of the poem. The opening stanza will afford us a tolerable example.
Tis the middle watch of a summer's night–
The earth is dark but the heavens are bright
Naught is seen in the vault on high
But the moon, and the stars, and the cloudless sky,
And the flood which rolls its milky hue
A river of light on the welkin blue.
The moon looks down on old Cronest,
She mellows the shades of his shaggy breast,
And seems his huge gray form to throw
In a silver cone on the wave below,
His sides are broken by spots of shade,
By the walnut bow and the cedar made,
And through their clustering branches dark
Glimmers and dies the fire-fly's spark–
Like starry twinkles that momently break
Through the rifts of the gathering tempest rack.
There is Ideality in these lines–but except in the case of the [second and the fourteenth lines]–it is Ideality not of a high order. We have, it is true, a collection of natural objects, each individually of great beauty, and, if actually seen as in nature, capable of exciting in any mind, through the means of the Poetic Sentiment more or less inherent in all, a certain sense of the beautiful. But to view such natural objects as they exist, and to behold them through the medium of words, are different things. Let us pursue the idea that such a collection as we have here will produce, of necessity, the Poetic Sentiment, and we may as well make up our minds to believe that a catalogue of such expressions as moon, sky, trees, rivers, mountains, &c., shall be capable of exciting it,–it is merely an extension of the principle. But in the line "the earth is dark, but the heavens are bright" besides the simple mention of the "dark earth" "and the bright heaven," we have, directly, the moral sentiment of the brightness of the sky compensating for the darkness of the earth–and thus, indirectly, of the happiness of a future state compensating for the miseries of the present. All this is effected by the simple introduction of the word but between the "dark earth" and the "bright heaven"–this introduction, however, was prompted by the Poetic Sentiment, and by the Poetic Sentiment alone. The case is analogous in the expression "glimmers and dies," where the imagination is exalted by the moral sentiment of beauty heightened in dissolution.
In one or two shorter passages of the Culprit Fay the poet will recognize the purely ideal, and be able at a glance to distinguish it from that baser alloy upon which we have descanted. We give them without farther comment.
The winds are whist, and the owl is still,
The bat in the shelvy rock is hid
And naught is heard on the lonely hill
But the cricket's chirp and the answer shrill
Of the gauze-winged katydid;
And the plaint of the wailing whippoorwill
Who mourns unseen, and ceaseless sings
Ever a note of wail and wo–
Up to the vaulted firmament
His path the fire-fly courser bent,
And at every gallop on the wind
He flung a glittering spark behind.
He blessed the force of the charmed line
And he banned the water-goblins' spite,
For he saw around in the sweet moonshine,
Their little wee faces above the brine,
Grinning and laughing with all their might
At the piteous hap of the Fairy wight.
The poem "To a Friend" consists of fourteen Spenserian stanzas. They are fine spirited verses, and probably were not supposed by their author to be more. Stanza the fourth, although beginning nobly, concludes with that very common exemplification of the bathos, the illustrating natural objects of beauty or grandeur by references to the tinsel of artificiality.
Oh! for a seat on Appalachia's brow,
That I might scan the glorious prospects round,
Wild waving woods, and rolling floods below,
Smooth level glades and fields with grain embrowned,
High heaving hills, with tufted forests crowned,
Rearing their tall tops to the heaven's blue dome,
And emerald isles, like banners green un-wound,
Floating along the take, while round them roam
Bright helms of billowy blue, and plumes of dancing foam.
In the Extracts from Leon are passages not often surpassed in vigor of passionate thought and expression–and which induce us to believe not only that their author would have succeeded better in prose romance than in poetry, but that his attention would have naturally fAllan into the former direction, had the Destroyer only spared him a little longer.
This poem contains also lines of far greater poetic power than any to be found in the Culprit Fay. For example–
The stars have lit in heaven their lamps of gold,
The viewless dew falls lightly on the world;
The gentle air that softly sweeps the leaves
A strain of faint unearthly music weaves:
As when the harp of heaven remotely plays,
Or sygnets wail–or song of sorrowing fays
That float amid the moonshine glimmerings pale,
On wings of woven air in some enchanted vale.*
* The expression "woven air," much insisted upon by the friends of Drake, seems to be accredited to him as original. It is to be found in many English writers–and can be traced back to Apuleius, who calls fine drapery ventum textilem.
Niagara is objectionable in many respects, and in none more so than in its frequent inversions of language, and the artificial character of its versification. The invocation,
Roar, raging torrent! and thou, mighty river,
Pour thy white foam on the valley below!
Frown ye dark mountains, &c.
is ludicrous–and nothing more. In general, all such invocations have an air of the burlesque. In the present instance we may fancy the majestic Niagara replying, "Most assuredly I will roar, whether, worm! thou tellest me or not."
The American Flag commences with a collection of those bald conceits, which we have already shown to have no dependence whatever upon the Poetic Power–springing altogether from Comparison.
When Freedom from her mountain height
Unfurled her standard to the air,
She tore the azure robe of night
And set the stars of glory there.
She mingled with its gorgeous dyes
The milky baldric of the skies,
And striped its pure celestrial white
With streakings of the morning light;
Then from his mansion in the sun
She called her eagle bearer down
And gave into his mighty hand
The symbol of her chosen land.
Let us reduce all this to plain English, and we have–what? Why, a flag, consisting of the "azure robe of night," "set with stars of glory," interspersed with "streaks of morning light," relieved with a few pieces of "milky way," and the whole carried by an "eagle bearer," that is to say, an eagle ensign, who bears aloft this "symbol of our chosen land" in his "mighty hand," by which we are to understand his claw. In the second stanza, "the thunder-drum of Heaven" is bathetic and grotesque in the highest degree–a commingling of the most sublime music of Heaven with the most utterly contemptible and common-place of Earth. The two concluding verses are in a better spirit, and might almost be supposed to be from a different hand. The images contained in the lines
When Death careering on the gale
Sweeps darkly round the bellied sail,
And frighted waves rush wildly back,
Before the broadsides reeling rack,
are of the highest order of Ideality. The deficiencies of the whole poem may be best estimated by reading it in connection with "Scots wha hae," with the "Mariners of England," or with "Hohenlinden." It is indebted for its high and most undeserved reputation to our patriotism–not to our judgment.
The remaining poems in Mr. Dearborn's edition of Drake, are three Songs; Lines in an Album; Lines to a Lady; Lines on leaving New Rochelle; Hope; A Fragment; To–; To Eva; To a Lady; To Sarah; and Bronx. These are all poems of little compass, and with the exception of Bronx and a portion of the Fragment, they have no character distinctive from the mass of our current poetical literature. Bronx, however, is in our opinion, not only the best of the writings of Drake, but altogether a lofty and beautiful poem, upon which his admirers would do better to found a hope of the writer's ultimate reputation than upon the niaiseries of the Culprit Fay. In the Fragment is to be found the finest individual passage in the volume before us, and we quote it as a proper finale to our review.
Yes! thou art lovelier now than ever,
How sweet't would be when all the air
In moonlight swims, along thy river
To couch upon the grass, and hear
Niagra's everlasting voice
Far in the deep blue west away,
That dreamy and poetic noise
We mark not in the glare of day,
Oh! how unlike its torrent-cry,
When o'er the brink the tide is driven,
As if the vast and sheeted sky
In thunder fell from Heaven.
Halleck's poetical powers appear to us essentially inferior, upon the whole, to those of his friend Drake. He has written nothing at all comparable to Bronx. By the hackneyed phrase, sportive elegance, we might possibly designate at once the general character of his writings and the very loftiest praise to which he is justly entitled.
Alnwick Castle is an irregular poem of one hundred and twenty-eight lines–was written, as we are informed, in October 1822–and is descriptive of a seat of the Duke of Northumberland, in Northumberlandshire, England. The effect of the first stanza is materially impaired by a defect in its grammatical arrangement. The fine lines,
Home of the Percy's high-born race,
Home of their beautiful and brave,
Alike their birth and burial place,
Their cradle and their grave!
are of the nature of an invocation, and thus require a continuation of the address to the "Home, &c." We are consequently disappointed when the stanza proceeds with–
Still sternly o'er the castle gate
Their house's Lion stands in state
As in his proud departed hours;
And warriors frown in stone on high,
And feudal banners "flout the sky"
Above his princely towers.
The objects of allusion here vary, in an awkward manner, from the castle to the lion, and from the Lion to the towers. By writing the verses thus the difficulty would be remedied.
Still sternly o'er the castle gate
Thy house's Lion stands in state,
As in his proud departed hours;
And warriors frown in stone on high,
And feudal banners "flout the sky"
Above thy princely towers.
The second stanza, without evincing in any measure the loftier powers of a poet, has that quiet air of grace, both in thought and expression, which seems to be the prevailing feature of the Muse of Halleck.
A gentle hill its side inclines,
Lovely in England's fadeless green,
To meet the quiet stream which winds
Through this romantic scene
As silently and sweetly still,
As when, at evening, on that hill,
While summer's wind blew soft and low,
Seated by gallant Hotspur's side
His Katherine was a happy bride
A thousand years ago.
There are one or two brief passages in the poem evincing a degree of rich imagination not elsewhere perceptible throughout the book. For example–
Gaze on the Abbey's ruined pile:
Does not the succoring Ivy keeping,
Her watch around it seem to smile
As o'er a lov'd one sleeping?
One solitary turret gray
Still tells in melancholy glory
The legend of the Cheviot day.
The commencement of the fourth stanza is of the highest order of Poetry, and partakes, in a happy manner, of that quaintness of expression so effective an adjunct to Ideality, when employed by the Shelleys, the Coleridges and the Tennysons, but so frequently debased, and rendered ridiculous, by the herd of brainless imitators.
Wild roses by the abbey towers
Are gay in their young bud and bloom:
They were born of a race of funeral flowers,
That garlanded in long-gone hours,
A Templar's knightly tomb.
The tone employed in the concluding portions of Alnwick Castle, is, we sincerely think, reprehensible, and unworthy of Halleck. No true poet can unite in any manner the low burlesque with the ideal, and not be conscious of incongruity and of a profanation. Such verses as
Men in the coal and cattle line
From Tevoit's bard and hero land,
From royal Berwick's beach of sand,
From Wooler, Morpeth, Hexham, and
Newcastle upon Tyne.
may lay claim to oddity–but no more. These things are the defects and not the beauties of Don Juan. They are totally out of keeping with the graceful and delicate manner of the initial portions of Alnwick Castle, and serve no better purpose than to deprive the entire poem of all unity of effect. If a poet must be farcical, let him be just that, and nothing else. To be drolly sentimental is bad enough, as we have just seen in certain passages of the Culprit Fay, but to be sentimentally droll is a thing intolerable to men, and Gods, and columns.
Marco Bozzaris appears to have much lyrical without any high order of ideal beauty. Force is its prevailing character–a force, however, consisting more in a well ordered and sonorous arrangement of this metre, and a judicious disposal of what may be called the circumstances of the poem, than in the true material of lyric vigor. We are introduced, first, to the Turk who dreams, at midnight, in his guarded tent,
of the hour
When Greece her knee in suppliance bent,
Should tremble at his power–
He is represented as revelling in the visions of ambition.
In dreams through camp and court he bore
The trophies of a conqueror;
In dreams his song of triumph heard;
Then wore his monarch's signet ring;
Then pressed that monarch's throne–a king;
As wild his thoughts and gay of wing
As Eden's garden bird.
In direct contrast to this we have Bozzaris watchful in the forest, and ranging his band of Suliotes on the ground, and amid the memories of Plataea. An hour elapses, and the Turk awakes from his visions of false glory–to die. But Bozzaris dies–to awake. He dies in the flush of victory to awake, in death, to an ultimate certainty of Freedom. Then follows an invocation to death. His terrors under ordinary circumstances are contrasted with the glories of the dissolution of Bozzaris, in which the approach of the Destroyer is
welcome as the cry
That told the Indian isles were nigh
To the world-seeking Genoese,
When the land-wind from woods of palm,
And orange groves and fields of balm,
Blew o'er the Haytian seas.
The poem closes with the poetical apotheosis of Marco Bozzaris as
One of the few, the immortal names
That are not born to die.
It will be seen that these arrangements of the subject are skillfully contrived–perhaps they are a little too evident, and we are enabled too readily by the perusal of one passage, to anticipate the succeeding. The rhythm is highly artificial. The stanzas are well adapted for vigorous expression–the fifth will afford a just specimen of the versification of the whole poem.
Come to the bridal Chamber, Death!
Come to the mother's when she feels
For the first time her first born's breath;
Come when the blessed seals
That close the pestilence are broke,
And crowded cities wail its stroke,
Come in consumption's ghastly form,
The earthquake shock, the ocean storm;
Come when the heart beats high and warm,
With banquet song and dance, and wine;
And thou art terrible–the tear,
The groan, the knell, the pall, the bier,
And all we know, or dream, or fear
Of agony, are thine.
Granting, however, to Marco Bozzaris, the minor excellences we have pointed out we should be doing our conscience great wrong in calling it, upon the whole, any more than a very ordinary matter. It is surpassed, even as a lyric, by a multitude of foreign and by many American compositions of a similar character. To Ideality it has few pretensions, and the finest portion of the poem is probably to be found in the verses we have quoted elsewhere–
Thy grasp is welcome as the hand
Of brother in a foreign land,
Thy summons welcome as the cry
That told the Indian isles were nigh
To the world-seeking Genoese,
When the land-wind from woods of palm
And orange groves, and fields of balm
Blew o'er the Haytian seas.
The verses entitled Burns consist of thirty-eight quatrains–the three first lines of each quatrain being of four feet, the fourth of three. This poem has many of the traits of Alnwick Castle, and bears also a strong resemblance to some of the writings of Wordsworth. Its chief merits, and indeed the chief merit, so we think, of all the poems of Halleck is the merit of expression. In the brief extracts from Burns which follow, our readers will recognize the peculiar character of which we speak.
Wild Rose of Alloway! my thanks:
Thou mind'st me of that autumn noon
When first we met upon "the banks
And braes o'bonny Doon"–
Like thine, beneath the thorn-tree's bough,
My sunny hour was glad and brief–
We've crossed the winter sea, and thou
Art withered-flower and leaf,
There have been loftier themes than his,
And longer scrolls and louder lyres
And lays lit up with Poesy's
Purer and holier fires.
And when he breathes his master-lay
Of Alloways witch-haunted wall
All passions in our frames of clay
Come thronging at his call.
Such graves as his are pilgrim-shrines,
Shrines to no code or creed confined–
The Delphian vales, the Palastines,
The Meccas of the mind.
They linger by the Doon's low trees,
And pastoral Nith, and wooded Ayr,
And round thy Sepulchres, Dumfries!
The Poet's tomb is there.
Wyoming is composed of nine Spenserian stanzas. With some unusual excellences, it has some of the worst faults of Halleck. The lines which follow are of great beauty.
I then but dreamed: thou art before me now,
In life–a vision of the brain no more,
I've stood upon the wooded mountain's brow,
That beetles high thy love! valley o'er;
And now, where winds thy river's greenest shore,
Within a bower of sycamores am laid;
And winds as soft and sweet as ever bore
The fragrance of wild flowers through sun and shade
Are singing in the trees, whose low boughs press my head.
The poem, however, is disfigured with the mere burlesque of some portions of Alnwick Castle–with such things as
he would look particularly droll
In his Iberian boot and Spanish plume;
A girl of sweet sixteen
Love-darting eyes and tresses like the morn
Without a shoe or stocking–hoeing corn,
mingled up in a pitiable manner with images of real beauty.
The Field of the Grounded Arms contains twenty-four quatrains, without rhyme, and, we think, of a disagreeable versification. In this poem are to be observed some of the finest passages of Halleck. For example–
Strangers! your eyes are on that valley fixed
Intently, as we gaze on vacancy,
When the mind's wings o'erspread
The spirit world of dreams.
O'er sleepless seas of grass whose waves are flowers.
Red-jacket has much power of expression with little evidence of poetical ability. Its humor is very fine, and does not interfere, in any great degree, with the general tone of the poem.
A Sketch should have been omitted from the edition as altogether unworthy of its author.
The remaining pieces in the volume are Twilight, Psalm cxxxvii; To...; Love; Domestic Happiness; Magdalen, From the Italian; Woman; Connecticut; Music; On the Death of Lieut. William Howard Allan; A Poet's Daughter; and On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake. Of the majority of these we deem it unnecessary to say more than that they partake, in a more or less degree, of the general character observable in the poems of Halleck. The Poet's Daughter appears to us a particularly happy specimen of that general character, and we doubt whether it be not the favorite of its author. We are glad to see the vulgarity of
I'm busy in the cotton trade
And sugar line,
omitted in the present edition. The eleventh stanza is certainly not English as it stands–and besides it is altogether unintelligible. What is the meaning of this?
But her who asks, though first among
The good, the beautiful, the young
The birthright of a spell more strong
Than these have brought her.
The Lines on the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake, we prefer to any of the writings of Halleck. It has that rare merit in composition of this kind–the union of tender sentiment and simplicity. This poem consists merely of six quatrains, and we quote them in full.
Green be the turf above thee,
Friend of my better days!
None knew thee but to love thee,
Nor named thee but to praise.
Tears fell when thou wert dying
From eyes unused to weep,
And long, where thou art lying,
Will tears the cold turf steep.
When hearts whose truth was proven,
Like thine are laid in earth,
There should a wreath be woven
To tell the world their worth.
And I, who woke each morrow
To clasp thy hand in mine,
Who shared thy joy and sorrow,
Whose weal and woe were thine–
It should be mine to braid it
Around thy faded brow,
But I've in vain essayed it,
And feel I cannot now.
While memory bids me weep thee,
Nor thoughts nor words are free,
The grief is fixed too deeply,
That mourns a man like thee.
If we are to judge from the subject of these verses, they are a work of some care and reflection. Yet they abound in faults. In the line,
Tears fell when thou wert dying;
wert is not English.
Will tears the cold turf steep,
is an exceedingly rough verse. The metonymy involved in
There should a wreath be woven
To tell the world their worth,
is unjust. The quatrain beginning,
And I who woke each morrow,
is ungrammatical in its construction when viewed in connection with the quatrain which immediately follows. "Weep thee" and "deeply" are inaccurate rhymes–and the whole of the first quatrain,
Green be the turf, &c.
although beautiful, bears too close a resemblance to the still more beautiful lines of William Wordsworth,
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.
As a versifier Halleck is by no means equal to his friend, all of whose poems evince an ear finely attuned to the delicacies of melody. We seldom meet with more inharmonious lines than those, generally, of the author of Alnwick Castle. At every step such verses occur as,
And the monk's hymn and minstrel's song–
True as the steel of their tried blades–
For him the joy of her young years–
Where the Bard-peasant first drew breath–
And withered my life's leaf like thine–
in which the proper course of the rhythm would demand an accent upon syllables too unimportant to sustain it. Not infrequently, too, we meet with lines such as this,
Like torn branch from death's leafless tree,
in which the multiplicity of consonants renders the pronunciation of the words at all, a matter of no inconsiderable difficulty.
But we must bring our notice to a close. It will be seen that while we are willing to admire in many respects the poems before us, we feel obliged to dissent materially from that public opinion (perhaps not fairly ascertained) which would assign them a very brilliant rank in the empire of Poesy. That we have among us poets of the loftiest order we believe–but we do not believe that these poets are Drake and Halleck.
MR. BRYANT'S poetical reputation, both at home and abroad, is greater, we presume, than that of any other American. British critics have frequently awarded him high praise, and here, the public press have been unanimous in approbation. We can call to mind no dissenting voice. Yet the nature, and, most especially the manner, of the expressed opinions in this case, should be considered as somewhat equivocal, and but too frequently must have borne to the mind of the poet doubts and dissatisfaction. The edition now before us may be supposed to embrace all such of his poems as he deems not unworthy his name. These (amounting to about one hundred) have been "carefully revised." With the exception of some few, about which nothing could well be said, we will speak briefly of them one by one, but in such order as we may find convenient.
The Ages, a didactic piece of thirty-five Spenserian stanzas, is the first and longest in the volume. It was originally printed in 1821, With about half a dozen others now included in this collection. The design of the author in this poem is "from a survey of the past ages of the world, and of the successive advances of mankind in knowledge and virtue, to justify and confirm the hopes of the philanthropist for the future destinies of the human race." It is, indeed, an essay on the perfectability of man, wherein, among other better arguments some in the very teeth of analogy, are deduced from the eternal cycle of physical nature, to sustain a hope of progression in happiness. But it is only as a poem that we wish to examine The Ages. Its commencement is impressive. The four initial lines arrest the attention at once by a quiet dignity of manner, an air of placid contemplation, and a versification combining the extremes of melody and force–
When to the common rest that crowns our days,
Called in the noon of life, the good man goes,
Or full of years, and ripe in wisdom, lays
His silver temples in their last repose–
The five concluding lines of the stanza, however, are not equally effective–
When, o'er the buds of youth, the death-wind blows,
And brights the fairest; when our bitterest tears
Stream, as the eyes of those that love us close,
We think on what they were, with many fears
Lest goodness die with them, and leave the coming years.
The defects, here, are all of a metrical and of course minor nature, but are still defects. The line
When o'er the buds of youth the death-wind blows,
is impeded in its flow by the final th in youth, and especially in death where w follows. The word tears cannot readily be pronounced after the final st in bitterest; and its own final consonants, rs, in like manner render an effort necessary in the utterance of stream which commences the next line. In the verse
We think on what they were, with many fears
the word many is, from its nature, too rapidly pronounced for the fulfilment of the time necessary to give weight to the foot of two syllables. All words of two syllables do not necessarily constitute a foot (we speak now of the Pentameter here employed) even although the syllables be entirely distinct, as in many, very, often, and the like. Such as, without effort, cannot employ in their pronunciation the time demanded by each of the preceding and succeeding feet of the verse, and occasionally of a preceding verse, will never fail to offend. It is the perception of this fact which so frequently forces the versifier of delicate ear to employ feet exceeding what are unjustly called legitimate dimensions. For example. We have the following lines–
Lo! to the smiling Arno's classic side,
The emulous nations of the West repair!
These verses are exceedingly forcible, yet, upon scanning the latter we find a syllable too many. We shall be told possibly that there should be an elision of the e in the at the commencement. But no–this was not intended. Both the and emulous demand a perfect accentuation. The verse commencing Lo!
Lo! to the smiling Arno's classic side,
has, it will be observed, a Trochee in its first foot. As is usually the case, the whole line partakes, in consequence, of a stately and emphatic enunciation, and to equalize the time in the verse succeeding, something more is necessary than the succession of Iambuses which constitute the ordinary English Pentameter. The equalization is therefore judiciously effected by the introduction of an additional syllable. But in the lines
Stream, as the eyes of those that love us close,
We think on what they were with many fears,
lines to which the preceding observations will equally apply, this additional syllable is wanting. Did the rhyme admit of the alteration, everything necessary could be accomplished by writing
We think on what they were with many a fear,
Lest goodness die with them and leave the coming year.
These remarks may be considered hypercritical–yet it is undeniable that upon a rigid attention to minutiae such as we have pointed out, any great degree of metrical success must altogether depend. We are more disposed, too, to dwell upon the particular point mentioned above, since, with regard to it, the American Monthly, in a late critique upon the poems of Mr. Willis, has evidently done that gentleman injustice. The reviewer has fAllan into what we conceive the error of citing, by themselves, (that is to say insulated from the context) such verses as
The night-wind with a desolate moan swept by.
With difficult energy and when the rod.
Fell through, and with the tremulous hand of age.
With supernatural whiteness loosely fell.
for the purpose of animadversion. "The license" he says "of turning such words as 'passionate' and 'desolate' into two syllables could only have been taken by a pupil of the Fantastic School." We are quite sure that Mr. Willis had no purpose of turning them into words of two syllables–nor even, as may be supposed upon a careless examination, of pronouncing them in the same time which would be required for two ordinary, syllables. The excesses of measure are here employed (perhaps without any definite design on the part of the writer, who may have been guided solely by ear) with reference to the proper equalization, of balancing, if we may so term it, of time, throughout an entire sentence. This, we confess, is a novel idea, but, we think, perfectly tenable. Any musician will understand us. Efforts for the relief of monotone will necessarily produce fluctuations in the time of any metre, which fluctuations, if not subsequently counterbalanced, affect the ear like unresolved discords in music. The deviations then of which we have been speaking, from the strict rules of prosodial art, are but improvements upon the rigor of those rules, and are a merit, not a fault. It is the nicety of this species of equalization more than any other metrical merit which elevates Pope as a versifier above the mere couplet-maker of his day, and, on the other hand, it is the extension of the principle to sentences of greater length which elevates Milton above Pope. Knowing this, it was, of course, with some surprise that we found the American Monthly (for whose opinions we still have the highest respect,) citing Pope in opposition to Mr. Willis upon the very point to which we allude. A few examples will be sufficient to show that Pope not only made free use of the license referred to, but that he used it for the reasons, and under the circumstances which we have suggested.
Oh thou! whatever title please thine ear,
Dean, Drapier, Bickerstaff, or Gulliver!
Whether thou choose Cervantes' serious air,
Or laugh and shake in Rabelais easy chair.
Any person will here readily perceive that the third line
Whether thou choose Cervantes' serious air,
differs in time from the usual course of the rhythm, and requires some counterbalance in the line which succeeds. It is indeed precisely such a verse as that of Mr. Bryant's upon which we have commented,
Stream, as the eyes of those that love us close,
and commences in the same manner with a Trochee. But again, from Pope we have–
Hence hymning Tyburn's elegiac lines
Hence Journals, Medleys, Mercuries, Magazines.
Else all my prose and verse were much the same,
This prose on stilts, that poetry fAllan lame.
And thrice he lifted high the birth-day brand
And thrice he dropped it from his quivering hand.
Here stood her opium, here she nursed her owls,
And here she planned the imperial seat of fools.
Here to her chosen all her works she shows;
Prose swell'd to verse, verse loitering into prose.
Rome in her Capitol saw Querno sit
Throned on seven hills, the Antichrist of wit.
And his this drum whose hoarse heroic bass
Drowns the loud clarion of the braying ass.
But such a bulk as no twelve bards could raise
Twelve starveling bards of these degenerate days.
These are all taken at random from the first book of the Dunciad. In the last example it will be seen that the two additional syllables are employed with a view of equalizing the time with that of the verse,
But such a bulk as no twelve bards could raise,
a verse which will be perceived to labor in its progress–and which Pope, in accordance with his favorite theory of making sound accord with sense, evidently intended so to labor. It is useless to say that the words should be written with elision-starv'ling and degen'rate. Their pronunciation is not thereby materially affected–and, besides, granting it to be so, it may be as well to make the elision also in the case of Mr. Willis. But Pope had no such intention, nor, we presume, had Mr. W. It is somewhat singular, we may remark, en passant, that the American Monthly, in a subsequent portion of the critique alluded to, quotes from Pope as a line of "sonorous grandeur" and one beyond the ability of our American poet, the well known
Luke's iron crown and Damien's bed of steel.
Now this is indeed a line of "sonorous grandeur"–but it is rendered so principally if not altogether by that very excess of metre (in the word Damien) which the reviewer has condemned in Mr. Willis. The lines which we quote below from Mr. Bryant's poem of The Ages will suffice to show that the author we are now reviewing fully appreciates the force of such occasional excess, and that he has only neglected it through oversight in the verse which suggested these observations.
Peace to the just man's memory–let it grow
Greener with years, and blossom through the flight
Of ages–let the mimic canvass show
His calm benevolent features.
Does prodigal Autumn to our age deny
The plenty that once swelled beneath his sober eye?
Look on this beautiful world and read the truth
In her fair page.
Will then the merciful One who stamped our race
With his own image, and who gave them sway
O'er Earth and the glad dwellers on her face,
Now that our flourishing nations far away
Are spread, where'er the moist earth drinks the day,
Forget the ancient care that taught and nursed
His latest offspring?
He who has tamed the elements shall not live
The slave of his own passions.
When liberty awoke
New-born, amid those beautiful vales.
Oh Greece, thy flourishing cities were a spoil
Unto each other.
And thou didst drive from thy unnatural breast
Thy just and brave.
Yet her degenerate children sold the crown.
Instead of the pure heart and innocent hands–
Among thy gallant sons that guard thee well
Thou laugh'st at enemies. Who shall then declare–
Far like the comet's way thro' infinite space.
The full region leads
New colonies forth.
Full many a horrible worship that, of old,
Held o'er the shuddering realms unquestioned sway.
All these instances, and some others, occur in a poem of but thirty-five stanzas–yet in only a very few cases is the license improperly used. Before quitting this subject it may be as well to cite a striking example from Wordsworth–
There was a youth whom I had loved so long,
That when I loved him not I cannot say.
Mid the green mountains many and many a song
We two had sung like gladsome birds in May.
Another specimen, and one still more to the purpose may be given from Milton whose accurate ear (although he cannot justly be called the best of versifiers) included and balanced without difficulty the rhythm of the longest passages.
But say, if our Deliverer up to heaven
Must re-ascend, what will betide the few
His faithful, left among the unfaithful herd,
The enemies of truth? who then shall guide
His people, who defend? Will they not deal
More with his fo than with him they dealt?
Be sure they will, said the Angel.
The other metrical faults in The Ages are few. Mr. Bryant is not always successful in his Alexandrines. Too great care cannot be taken, we think, in so regulating this species of verse as to admit of the necessary pause at the end of the third foot–or at least as not to render a pause necessary elsewhere. We object, therefore, to such lines as
A palm like his, and catch from him the hallowed flame.
The truth of heaven, and kneel to Gods that heard them not.
That which concludes Stanza X, although correctly cadenced in the above respect, requires an accent on the monosyllable the, which is too unimportant to sustain it. The defect is rendered the more perceptible by the introduction of a Trochee in the first foot.
The sick untended then
Languished in the damp shade, and died afar from men.
We are not sure that such lines as
A boundless sea of blood and the wild air.
The smile of heaven, till a new age expands.
are in any case justifiable, and they can be easily avoided. As in the Alexandrine mentioned above, the course of the rhythm demands an accent on monosyllables too unimportant to sustain it. For this prevalent heresy in metre we are mainly indebted to Byron, who introduced it freely, with the view of imparting an abrupt energy to his verse. There are, however, many better ways of relieving a monotone.
Stanza VI is, throughout, an exquisite specimen of versification, besides embracing many beauties both of thought and expression.
Look on this beautiful world and read the truth
In her fair page; see every season brings
New change, to her, of everlasting youth;
Still the green soil with joyous living things
Swarms; the wide air is full of joyous wings;
And myriads, still, are happy in the sleep
Of ocean's azure gulfs, and where he flings
The restless surge. Eternal love doth keep
In his complacent arms the earth, the air, the deep.
The cadences, here, at the words page, swarms, and surge respectively, cannot be surpassed. We shall find, upon examination, comparatively few consonants in the stanza, and by their arrangement no impediment is offered to the flow of the verse. Liquids and the most melodious vowels abound. World, eternal, season, wide, change, full, air, everlasting, wings, flings, complacent, surge, gulfs, myriads, azure, ocean, sail, and joyous, are among the softest and most sonorous sounds in the language, and the partial line after the pause at surge, together with the stately march of the Alexandrine which succeeds, is one of the finest imaginable of finales–
Eternal love doth keep
In his complacent arms, the earth, the air, the deep.
The higher beauties of the poem are not, we think, of the highest. It has unity, completeness,–a beginning, middle and end. The tone, too, of calm, hopeful, and elevated reflection, is well sustained throughout. There is an occasional quaint grace of expression, as in
Nurse of full streams, and lifter up of proud
Sky-mingling mountains that o'erlook the cloud–
or of antithetical and rhythmical force combined, as in
The shock that burled
To dust in many fragments dashed and strewn
The throne whose roots were in another world
And whose far-stretching shadow awed our own.
But we look in vain for something more worthy commendation. At the same time the piece is especially free from errors. Once only we meet with an unjust metonymy, where a sheet of water is said to
Cradle, in his soft embrace, a gay
Young group of grassy islands.
We find little originality of thought, and less imagination. But in a poem essentially didactic, of course we cannot hope for the loftiest breathings of the Muse.
To the Past is a poem of fourteen quatrains–three feet and four alternately. In the second quatrain, the lines
And glorious ages gone
Lie deep within the shadow of thy womb.
are, to us, disagreeable. Such things are common, but at best, repulsive. In the present case there is not even the merit of illustration. The womb, in any just imagery, should be spoken of with a view to things future; here it is employed, in the sense of the tomb, and with a view to things past. In Stanza XI the idea is even worse. The allegorical meaning throughout the poem, although generally well sustained, is not always so. In the quatrain
Thine for a space are they
Yet shalt thou yield thy treasures up at last;
Thy gates shall yet give way
Thy bolts shall fall inexorable Past!
it seems that The Past, as an allegorical personification, is confounded with Death.
The Old Man's Funeral is of seven stanzas, each of six lines–four Pentameters and Alexandrine rhyming. At the funeral of an old man who has lived out his full quota of years, another, as aged, reproves the company for weeping. The poem is nearly perfect in its way–the thoughts striking and natural–the versification singularly sweet. The third stanza embodies a fine idea, beautifully expressed.
Ye sigh not when the sun, his course fulfilled,
His glorious course rejoicing earth and sky,
In the soft evening when the winds are stilled,
Sings where his islands of refreshment lie,
And leaves the smile of his departure spread
O'er the warm-colored heaven, and ruddy mountain head.
The technical word chronic should have been avoided in the fifth line of Stanza VI-
No chronic tortures racked his aged limb.
The Rivulet has about ninety octo-syllabic verses. They contrast the changing and perishable nature of our human frame, with the greater durability of the Rivulet. The chief merit is simplicity. We should imagine the poem to be one of the earliest pieces of Mr. Bryant, and to have undergone much correction. In the first paragraph are, however, some awkward constructions. In the verses, for example
This little rill that from the springs
Of yonder grove its current brings,
Plays on the slope awhile, and then
Goes prattling into groves again.
the reader is apt to suppose that rill is the nominative to plays, whereas it is the nominative only to drew in the subsequent lines,
Oft to its warbling waters drew
My little feet when life was new.
The proper verb is, of course, immediately seen upon reading these latter lines–but the ambiguity has occurred.
The Praries. This is a poem, in blank Pentameter, of about one hundred and twenty-five lines, and possesses features which do not appear in any of the pieces above mentioned. Its descriptive beauty is of a high order. The peculiar points of interest in the Prairie are vividly shown forth, and as a local painting, the work is, altogether, excellent. Here are moreover, evidences of fine imagination. For example–
The great heavens
Seem to stoop down upon the scene in love–
A nearer vault and of a tenderer blue
Than that which bends above the eastern hills.
Till twilight blushed, and lovers walked and wooed
In a forgotten language, and old tunes
From instruments of unremembered form
Gave the soft winds a voice.
Within the hollow oak. I listen long
To his domestic hum and think I hear
The sound of the advancing multitude
Which soon shall fill these deserts.
Breezes of the south!
Who toss the golden and the flame-like flowers,
And pass the prairie-hawk that poised on high,
Flaps his broad wing yet moves not!
There is an objectionable ellipsis in the expression "I behold them from the first," meaning "first time;" and either a grammatical or typographical error of moment in the fine sentence commencing
For this magnificent temple of the sky–
With flowers whose glory and whose multitude
Rival the constellations!
Earth, a poem of similar length and construction to The Prairies, embodies a noble conception. The poet represents himself as lying on the earth in a "midnight black with clouds," and giving ideal voices to the varied sounds of the coming tempest. The following passages remind us of some of the more beautiful portions of Young.
On the breast of Earth
I lie and listen to her mighty voice;
A voice of many tones-sent up from streams
That wander through the gloom, from woods unseen
Swayed by the sweeping of the tides of air,
From rocky chasm where darkness dwells all day,
And hollows of the great invisible hills,
And sands that edge the ocean stretching far
Into the night–a melancholy sound!
Ha! how the murmur deepens! I perceive
And tremble at its dreadful import. Earth
Uplifts a general cry for guilt and wrong
And Heaven is listening. The forgotten graves
Of the heart broken utter forth their plaint.
The dust of her who loved and was betrayed,
And him who died neglected in his age,
The sepulchres of those who for mankind
Labored, and earned the recompense of scorn,
Ashes of martyrs for the truth, and bones
Of those who in the strife for liberty
Were beaten down, their corses given to dogs,
Their names to infamy, all find a voice!
In this poem and elsewhere occasionally throughout the volume, we meet with a species of grammatical construction, which, although it is to be found in writing of high merit, is a mere affectation, and, of course, objectionable. We mean the abrupt employment of a direct pronoun in place of the customary relative. For example–
Or haply dost thou grieve for those that die–
For living things that trod awhile thy face,
The love of thee and heaven, and how they sleep,
Mixed with the shapeless dust on which thy herds
Trample and graze?
The note of interrogation here, renders the affectation more perceptible.
The poem To the Apennines resembles, in meter, that entitled The Old Man's Funeral, except that the former has a Pentameter in place of the Alexandrine. This piece is chiefly remarkable for the force, metrical and moral, of its concluding stanza.
In you the heart that sighs for Freedom seeks
Her image; there the winds no barrier know,
Clouds come and rest and leave your fairy peaks;
While even the immaterial Mind, below,
And Thought, her winged offspring, chained by power,
Pine silently for the redeeming hour.
The Knight's Epitaph consists of about fifty lines of blank Pentameter. This poem is well conceived and executed. Entering the Church of St. Catherine at Pisa, the poet is arrested by the image of an armed knight graven upon the lid of a sepulchre. The epitaph consists of an imaginative portraiture of the knight, in which he is made the impersonation of the ancient Italian chivalry.
Seventy-six has seven stanzas of a common, but musical versification, of which these lines will afford an excellent specimen.
That death-stain on the vernal sword,
Hallowed to freedom all the shore–
In fragments fell the yoke abhorred–
The footsteps of a foreign lord
Profaned the soil no more.
The Living Lost has four stanzas of somewhat peculiar construction, but admirably adapted to the tone of contemplative melancholy which pervades the poem. We can call to mind few things more singularly impressive than the eight concluding verses. They combine ease with severity, and have antithetical force without effort or flippancy. The final thought has also a high ideal beauty.
But ye who for the living lost
That agony in secret bear
Who shall with soothing words accost
The strength of your despair?
Grief for your sake is scorn for them
Whom ye lament, and all condemn,
And o'er the world of spirit lies
A gloom from which ye turn your eyes.
The first stanza commences with one of those affectations which we noticed in the poem "Earth."
Matron, the children of whose love,
Each to his grave in youth have passed,
And now the mould is heaped above
The dearest and the last.
The Strange Lady is of the fourteen syllable metre, answering to two lines, one of eight syllables, the other six. This rhythm is unmanageable, and requires great care in the rejection of harsh consonants. Little, however, has been taken, apparently, in the construction of the verses
As if they loved to breast the breeze that sweeps the cool
And thou shoudst chase the nobler game, and I bring
down the bird.
Or that strange dame so gay and fair were some mysterious foe, which are not to be pronounced without labor. The story is old–of a young gentleman who going out to hunt, is inveigled into the woods and destroyed by a fiend in the guise of a fair lady. The ballad character is nevertheless well preserved, and this, we presume, is nearly every thing intended.
The Hunter's Vision is skilfully and sweetly told. It is a tale of a young hunter who, overcome with toil, dozes on the brink of a precipice. In this state between waking and sleeping, he fancies a spirit-land in the fogs of the valley beneath him, and sees approaching him the deceased lady of his love. Arising to meet her, he falls, with the effort, from the crag, and perishes. The state of reverie is admirably pictured in the following stanzas. The poem consists of nine such.
All dim in haze the mountains lay
With dimmer vales between;
And rivers glimmered on their way
By forests faintly seen;
While ever rose a murmuring sound
From brooks below and bees around.
He listened till he seemed to hear
A strain so soft and low
That whether in the mind or ear
The listener scarce might know.
With such a tone, so sweet and mild
The watching mother lulls her child.
Catterskill Falls is a narrative somewhat similar. Here the hero is also a hunter–but of delicate frame. He is overcome with the cold at the foot of the falls, sleeps, and is near perishing–but being found by some woodmen, is taken care of, and recovers. As in the Hunters Vision, the dream of the youth is the main subject of the poem. He fancies a goblin palace in the icy network of the cascade, and peoples it in his vision with ghosts. His entry into this palace is, with rich imagination on the part of the poet, made to correspond with the time of the transition from the state of reverie to that of nearly total insensibility.
They eye him not as they pass along,
But his hair stands up with dread,
When he feels that he moves with that phantom throng
Till those icy turrets are over his head,
And the torrent's roar as they enter seems
Like a drowsy murmur heard in dreams.
The glittering threshold is scarcely passed
When there gathers and wraps him round
A thick white twilight sullen and vast
In which there is neither form nor sound;
The phantoms, the glory, vanish all
Within the dying voice of the waterfall.
There are nineteen similar stanzas. The metre is formed of Iambuses and Anapests.
The Hunter of the Prairies (fifty-six octosyllabic verses with alternate rhymes) is a vivid picture of the life of a hunter in the desert. The poet, however, is here greatly indebted to his subject.
The Damsel of Peru is in the fourteen syllable metre, and has a most spirited, imaginative and musical commencement
Where olive leaves were twinkling in every wind that blew,
There sat beneath the pleasant shade a damsel of Peru.
This is also a ballad, and a very fine one–full of action, chivalry, energy and rhythm. Some passages have even a loftier merit-that of a glowing ideality. For example–
For the noon is coming on, and the sunbeams fiercely beat,
And the silent hills and forest-tops seem reeling in the heat.
The Song of Pitcairn's Island is a sweet, quiet and simple poem, of a versification differing from that of any preceding piece. We subjoin a specimen. The Tahetian maiden addresses her lover.
Come talk of Europe's maids with me
Whose necks and cheeks they tell
Outshine the beauty of the sea,
White foam and crimson shell.
I'll shape like theirs my simple dress
And bind like them each jetty tress,
A sight to please thee well
And for my dusky brow will braid
A bonnet like an English maid.
There are seven similar stanzas.
Rispah is a scriptural theme from 2 Samuel, and we like it less than any poem yet mentioned. The subject, we think, derives no additional interest from its poetical dress. The metre resembling, except in the matter of rhyme, that of "Catterskill Falls," and consisting of mingled Iambuses and Anapaests, is the most positively disagreeable of any which our language admits, and, having a frisky or fidgetty rhythm, is singularly ill-adapted to the lamentations of the bereaved mother. We cannot conceive how the fine ear of Mr. Bryant could admit such verses as,
And Rispah once the loveliest of all
That bloomed and smiled in the court of Saul, &c.
The Indian Girl's Lament and The Arctic Lover have nearly all the peculiarities of the "Song of Pitcairn's Island."
The Massacre at Scio is only remarkable for inaccuracy of expression in the two concluding lines–
Till the last link of slavery's chain
Is shivered to be worn no more.
What shall be worn no more? The chain–but the link is implied.
Monument Mountain is a poem of about a hundred and forty blank Pentameters and relates the tale of an Indian maiden who loved her cousin. Such a love being deemed incestuous by the morality of her tribe, she threw herself from a precipice and perished. There is little peculiar in the story or its narration. We quote a rough verse–
The mighty columns with which earth props heaven.
The use of the epithet old preceded by some other adjective, is found so frequently in this poem and elsewhere in the writings of Mr. Bryant, as to excite a smile upon each recurrence of the expression.
In all that proud old world beyond the deep–
There is a tale about these gray old rocks–
The wide old woods resounded with her song–
And the gray old men that passed–
And from the gray old trunks that high in heaven.
We dislike too the antique use of the word affect in such sentences as
Like worshippers of the elder time that
God Doth walk in the high places and affect
The earth–o'erlooking mountains.
Milton, it is true, uses it–we remember it especially in Comus–
'T is most true
That musing meditation most affects
The pensive secrecy of desert cell–
but then Milton would not use it were he writing Comus today.
In the Summer Wind, our author has several successful attempts at making "the sound an echo to the sense." For example–
For me, I lie
Languidly in the shade, where the thick turf
Yet virgin from the kisses of the sun
Retains some freshness.
All is silent, save the faint
And interrupted murmur of the bee
Settling on the sick flowers, and then again
Instantly on the wing.
All the green herbs
Are stirring in his breath; a thousand flowers
By the road side, and the borders of the brook
Nod, gaily to each other.
Autumn Woods. This is a poem of much sweetness and simplicity of expression, and including one or two fine thoughts, viz:
the sweet South-west at play
Flies, rustling where the painted leaves are strown
Along the winding way.
But 'neath yon crimson tree
Lover to listening maid might breathe his flame,
Nor mark within its roseate canopy
Her flush of maiden shame.
The mountains that unfold
In their wide sweep the colored landscape round,
Seem groups of giant kings in purple and gold
That guard the enchanted ground.
All this is beautiful–Happily to endow inanimate nature with sentience and a capability of moral action is one of the severest tests of the poet. Even the most unmusical ear will not fail to appreciate the rare beauty and strength of the extra syllable in the line
Seem groups of giant kings in purple and gold.
The Distinterred Warrior has a passage we do not clearly understand. Speaking of the Indian our author says–
For he was fresher from the hand
That formed of earth the human face,
And to the elements did stand
In nearer kindred than our race.
There are ten similar quatrains in the poem.
The Greek Boy consists of four spirited stanzas, nearly resembling, in metre, The Living Lost. The two concluding lines are highly ideal.
A shoot of that old vine that made
The nations silent in its shade.
When the Firmament Quivers with Daylight's Young Beam, belongs to a species of poetry which we cannot be brought to admire. Some natural phenomenon is observed, and the poet taxes his ingenuity to find a parallel in the moral world. In general, we may assume, that the more successful he is in sustaining a parallel, the farther he departs from the true province of the Muse. The title, here, is a specimen of the metre. This is a kind which we have before designated as exceedingly difficult to manage.
To a Musquito, is droll, and has at least the merit of making, at the same time, no efforts at being sentimental. We are not inclined, however, to rank as poems, either this production or the article on New England Coal.
The Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus has ninety Pentameters. One of them
Kind influence. Lo! their orbs burn more bright,
can only be read, metrically, by drawing out influence into three marked syllables, shortening the long monosyllable, Lo! and lengthening the short one, their.
June is sweet and soft in its rhythm, and inexpressibly pathetic. There is an illy subdued sorrow and intense awe coming up, per force as it were to the surface of the poet's gay sayings about his grave, which we find thrilling us to the soul.
And what if cheerful shouts, at noon,
Come, from the village sent,
Or songs of maids, beneath the moon
With fairy laughter blent?
And what if, in the evening light,
Betrothed lovers walk in sight
Of my low monument?
I would the lovely scene around
Might know no sadder sight nor sound.
I know, I know I should not see
The season's glorious show,
Nor would its brightness shine for me
Nor its wild music flow,
But if, around my place of sleep,
The friends I love should come to weep,
They might not haste to go
Soft airs, and song, and light, and bloom
Should keep them lingering by my tomb.
Innocent Child and Snow-White Flower, is remarkable only for the deficiency of a foot in one of its verses.
White as those leaves just blown apart
Are the folds of thy own young heart.
and for the graceful repetition in its concluding quatrain
Throw it aside in thy weary hour,
Throw to the ground the fair white flower,
Yet as thy tender years depart
Keep that white and innocent heart.
Of the seven original sonnets in the volume before us, it is somewhat difficult to speak. The sonnet demands, in a great degree, point, strength, unity, compression, and a species of completeness. Generally, Mr. Bryant has evinced more of the first and the last, than of the three mediate qualities. William Tell is feeble. No forcible line ever ended with liberty, and the best of the rhymes–thee, he, free, and the like, are destitute of the necessary vigor. But for this rhythmical defect the thought in the concluding couplet–
The bitter cup they mingled strengthened thee
For the great work to set thy country free
would have well ended the sonnet. Midsummer is objectionable for the variety of its objects of allusion. Its final lines embrace a fine thought–
As if the day of fire had dawned and sent
Its deadly breath into the firmament–
but the vigor of the whole is impaired by the necessity of placing an unwonted accent on the last syllable of firmament. October has little to recommend it, but the slight epigrammatism of its conclusion–
And when my last sand twinkled in the glass,
Pass silently from men–as thou dost pass.
The Sonnet To Cole, is feeble in its final lines, and is worthy of praise only in the verses–
Paths, homes, graves, ruins, from the lowest glen
To where life shrinks from the fierce Alpine air.
Mutation, a didactic sonnet, has few either of faults or beauties. November is far better. The lines
And the blue Gentian flower that, in the breeze,
Nods lonely, of her beauteous race the last,
are very happy. A single thought pervades and gives unity to the piece. We are glad, too, to see an Alexandrine in the close. In the whole metrical construction of his sonnets, however, Mr. Bryant has very wisely declined confining himself to the laws of the Italian poem, or even to the dicta of Capel Lofft. The Alexandrine is beyond comparison the most effective finale, and we are astonished that the common Pentameter should ever be employed. The best sonnet of the seven is, we think, that To–. With the exception of a harshness in the last line but one it is perfect. The finale is inimitable.
Ay, thou art for the grave; thy glances shine
Too brightly to shine long; another Spring
Shall deck her for men's eyes, but not for thine
Sealed in a sleep which knows no wakening.
The fields for thee have no medicinal leaf,
And the vexed ore no mineral of power;
And they who love thee wait in anxious grief
Till the slow plague shall bring the fatal hour.
Glide softly to thy rest, then; Death should come
Gently to one of gentle mould like thee,
As light winds wandering through groves of bloom
Detach the delicate blossom from the tree.
Close thy sweet eyes, calmly, and without pain,
And we will trust in God to see thee yet again.
To a Cloud, has another instance of the affectation to which we alluded in our notice of Earth, and The Living Lost.
Whose sons at length have heard the call that comes
From the old battle fields and tombs,
And risen, and drawn the sword, and on the foe
Have dealt the swift and desperate blow,
And the Othman power is cloven, and the stroke
Has touched its chains, and they are broke.
Of the Translations in the volume it is not our intention to speak in detail. Mary Magdelen, from the Spanish of Bartoleme Leonardo De Argensola, is the finest specimen of versification in the book. Alexis, from the Spanish of Iglesias, is delightful in its exceeding delicacy, and general beauty. We cannot refrain from quoting it entire.
Alexis calls me cruel–
The rifted crags that hold
The gathered ice of winter,
He says, are not more cold.
When even the very blossoms
Around the fountain's brim,
And forest walks, can witness
The love I bear to him.
I would that I could utter
My feelings without shame
And tell him how I love him
Nor wrong my virgin fame.
Alas! to seize the moment
When heart inclines to heart,
And press a suit with passion
Is not a woman's part.
If man come not to gather
The roses where they stand,
They fade among their foliage,
They cannot seek his hand.
The Waterfowl is very beautiful, but still not entitled to the admiration which it has occasionally elicited. There is a fidelity and force in the picture of the fowl as brought before the eve of the mind, and a fine sense of effect in throwing its figure on the background of the "crimson sky," amid "falling dew," "while glow the heavens with the last steps of day." But the merits which possibly have had most weight in the public estimation of the poem, are the melody and strength of its versification, (which is indeed excellent) and more particularly its completeness. Its rounded and didactic termination has done wonders:
on my heart,
Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou hast given
And shall not soon depart.
He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight
In the long way that I must tread alone
Will lead my steps aright.
There are, however, points of more sterling merit. We fully recognize the poet in
Thou art gone–the abyss of heaven
Hath swallowed up thy form.
There is a power whose care
Teaches thy way along that pathless coast–
The desert, and illimitable air–
Lone, wandering, but not lost.
The Forest Hymn consists of about a hundred and twenty blank Pentameters of whose great rhythmical beauty it is scarcely possible to speak too highly. With the exception of the line
The solitude. Thou art in the soft winds,
no fault, in this respect, can be found, while excellencies are frequent of a rare order, and evincing the greatest delicacy of ear. We might, perhaps, suggest, that the two concluding verses, beautiful as they stand, would be slightly improved by transferring to the last the metrical excess of the one immediately preceding. For the appreciation of this, it is necessary to quote six or seven lines in succession
Oh, from these sterner aspects of thy face
Spare me and mine, nor let us need the warmth
Of the mad unchained elements, to teach
Who rules them. Be it ours to meditate
In these calm shades thy milder majesty,
And to the beautiful order of thy works
Learn to conform the order of our lives.
There is an excess of one syllable in the [sixth line]. If we discard this syllable here, and adopt it in the final line, the close will acquire strength, we think, in acquiring a fuller volume.
Be it ours to meditate
In these calm shades thy milder majesty,
And to the perfect order of thy works
Conform, if we can, the order of our lives.
Directness, boldness, and simplicity of expression, are main features in the poem.
Oh God! when thou
Dost scare the world with tempests, set on fire
The heavens with falling thunderbolts, or fill
With all the waters of the firmament
The swift dark whirlwind that uproots the woods,
And drowns the villages.
Here an ordinary writer would have preferred the word fright to scare, and omitted the definite article before woods and villages.
To the Evening Wind has been justly admired. It is the best specimen of that completeness which we have before spoken of as a characteristic feature in the poems of Mr. Bryant. It has a beginning, middle, and end, each depending upon the other, and each beautiful. Here are three lines breathing all the spirit of Shelley.
Pleasant shall be thy way, where meekly bows
The shutting flower, and darkling waters pass,
And 'twixt the o'ershadowing branches and the grass.
The conclusion is admirable–
Go–but the circle of eternal change,
Which is the life of Nature, shall restore,
With sounds and scents from all thy mighty range,
Thee to thy birth-place of the deep once more;
Sweet odors in the sea air, sweet and strange,
Shall tell the home-sick mariner of the shore,
And, listening to thy murmur, he shall deem
He hears the rustling leaf and running stream.
Thanatopsis is somewhat more than half the length of The Forest Hymn, and of a character precisely similar. It is, however, the finer poem. Like The Waterfowl, it owes much to the point, force, and general beauty of its didactic conclusion. In the commencement, the lines
To him who, in the love of nature, holds
Communion with her visible forms, &c.
belong to a class of vague phrases, which, since the days of Byron, have obtained too universal a currency. The verse
Go forth under the open sky and list–
is sadly out of place amid the forcible and even Miltonic rhythm of such lines as–
Take the wings
Of morning, and the Barcan desert pierce,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon
But these are trivial faults indeed and the poem embodies a great degree of the most elevated beauty. Two of its passages, passages of the purest ideality, would alone render it worthy of the general commendation it has received.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan that moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon; but sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dream.
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun–the vales
Stretching in pensive quietude between–
The venerable woods–rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green–and, pured round all,
Old Ocean's gray and melancholy waste–
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man.
Oh, fairest of the Rural Maids! is a gem, of which we cannot sufficiently express our admiration. We quote in full.
Oh, fairest of the rural maids!
Thy birth was in the forest shades;
Green boughs and glimpses of the sky
Were all that met thine infant eye.
Thy sports, thy wanderings when a child
Were ever in the sylvan wild;
And all the beauty of the place
Is in thy heart and on thy face.
The twilight of the trees and rocks
Is in the light shade of thy locks,
Thy step is as the wind that weaves
Its playful way among the leaves.
Thine eyes are springs, in whose serene
And silent waters Heaven is seen;
Their lashes are the herbs that look
On their young figures in the brook.
The forest depths by foot impressed
Are not more sinless than thy breast;
The holy peace that fills the air
Of those calm solitudes, is there.
A rich simplicity is a main feature in this poem–simplicity of design and execution. This is strikingly perceptible in the opening and concluding lines, and in expression throughout. But there is a far higher and more strictly ideal beauty, which it is less easy to analyze. The original conception is of the very loftiest order of true Poesy. A maiden is born in the forest–
Green boughs and glimpses of the sky
Are all which meet her infant eye–
She is not merely modelled in character by the associations of her childhood–this were the thought of an ordinary poet–an idea that we meet with every day in rhyme–but she imbibes, in her physical as well as moral being, the traits, the very features of the delicious scenery around her–its loveliness becomes a portion of her own–
The twilight of the trees and rocks
Is in the light shade of her locks,
And all the beauty of the place
Is in her heart and on her face.
It would have been a highly poetical idea to imagine the tints in the locks of the maiden deducing a resemblance to the "twilight of the trees and rocks," from the constancy of her associations–but the spirit of Ideality is immeasurably more apparent when the "twilight" is represented as becoming identified with the shadows of her hair.
The twilight of the trees and rocks
Is in the light shade of her locks,
And all the beauty of the place
Is in her heart and on her face.
Feeling thus, we did not, in copying the poem, [comment on] the lines, although beautiful,
Thy step is as the wind that weaves
Its playful way among the leaves,
nor those which immediately follow. The two concluding verses however, are again of the most elevated species of poetical merit.
The forest depths by foot impressed
Are not more sinless than thy breast–
The holy peace that fills the air
Of those calm solitudes, is there.
The image contained in the lines
Thine eyes are springs in whose serene
And silent waters Heaven is seen–
is one which, we think, for appropriateness, completeness, and every perfect beauty of which imagery is susceptible, has never been surpassed–but imagery is susceptible of no beauty like that we have designated in the sentences above. The latter idea, moreover, is not original with our poet.
In all the rhapsodies of Mr. Bryant, which have reference to the beauty or the majesty of nature, is a most audible and thrilling tone of love and exultation. As far as he appreciates her loveliness or her augustness, no appreciation can be more ardent, more full of heart, more replete with the glowing soul of adoration. Nor, either in the moral or physical universe coming within the periphery of his vision, does he at any time fail to perceive and designate, at once, the legitimate items of the beautiful. Therefore, could we consider (as some have considered) the mere enjoyment of the beautiful when perceived, or even this enjoyment when combined with the readiest and truest perception and discrimination in regard to beauty presented, as a sufficient test of the poetical sentiment we could have no hesitation in according to Mr. Bryant the very highest poetical rank. But something more, we have elsewhere presumed to say, is demanded. Just above, we spoke of "objects in the moral or physical universe coming within the periphery of his vision." We now mean to say, that the relative extent of these peripheries of poetical vision must ever be a primary consideration in our classification of poets. Judging Mr. B. in this manner, and by a general estimate of the volume before us, we should, of course, pause long before assigning him a place with the spiritual Shelleys, or Coleridges, or Wordsworths, or with Keats, or even Tennyson, or Wilson, or with some other burning lights of our own day, to be valued in a day to come. Yet if his poems, as a whole, will not warrant us in assigning him this grade, one such poem as the last upon which we have commented, is enough to assure us that he may attain it.
The writings of our author, as we find them here, are characterized by an air of calm and elevated contemplation more than by any other individual feature. In their mere didactics, however, they err essentially and primitively, inasmuch as such things are the province rather of Minerva than of the Camenae. Of imagination, we discover much–but more of its rich and certain evidences, than of its ripened fruit. In all the minor merits Mr. Bryant is pre-eminent. His ars celare artem is most efficient. Of his "completeness," unity, and finish of style we have already spoken. As a versifier, we know of no writer, living or dead, who can be said greatly to surpass him. A Frenchman would assuredly call him "un poete des plus correctes."
Between Cowper and Young, perhaps, (with both of whom he has many points of analogy,) would be the post assigned him by an examination at once general and superficial. Even in this view, however, he has a juster appreciation of the beautiful than the one, of the sublime than the other–a finer taste than Cowper–an equally vigorous, and far more delicate imagination than Young. In regard to his proper rank among American poets there should be no question whatever. Few–at least few who are fairly before the public, have more than very shallow claims to a rivalry with the author of Thanatopsis.
[Graham's Magazine, January, 1842]
IN Commencing, with the New Year, a New Volume, we shall be permitted to say a very few words by way of exordium to our usual chapter of Reviews, or, as we should prefer calling them, of Critical Notices. Yet we speak not for the sake of the exordium, but because we have really something to say, and know not when or where better to say it.
That the public attention, in America, has, of late days, been more than usually directed to the matter of literary criticism, is plainly apparent. Our periodicals are beginning to acknowledge the importance of the science (shall we so term it?) and to disdain the flippant opinion which so long has been made its substitute.
Time was when we imported our critical decisions from the mother country. For many years we enacted a perfect farce of subserviency to the dicta of Great Britain. At last a revulsion of feeling, with self-disgust, necessarily ensued. Urged by these, we plunged into the opposite extreme. In throwing totally off that "authority," whose voice had so long been so sacred, we even surpassed, and by much, our original folly. But the watchword now was, "a national literature!"–as, if any true literature could be "national"–as if the world at large were not the only proper stage for the literary histrio. We became, suddenly, the merest and maddest partizans in letters. Our papers spoke of "tariffs" and "protection." Our Magazines had habitual passages about that "truly native novelist, Mr. Cooper," or that "staunch American genius, Mr. Paulding." Unmindful of the spirit of the axioms that "a prophet has no honor in his own land" and that "a hero is never a hero to his valet-de-chambre"–axioms founded in reason and in truth–our reviews urged the propriety–our booksellers the necessity, of strictly "American" themes. A foreign subject, at this epoch, was a weight more than enough to drag down into the very depths of critical damnation the finest writer owning nativity in the States; while, on the reverse, we found ourselves daily in the paradoxical dilemma of liking, or pretending to like, a stupid book the better because (sure enough) its stupidity was of our own growth, and discussed our own affairs.
It is, in fact, but very lately that this anomalous state of feeling has shown any signs of subsidence. Still it is subsiding. Our views of literature in general having expanded, we begin to demand the use–to inquire into the offices and provinces of criticism–to regard it more as an art based immovably in nature, less as a mere system of fluctuating and conventional dogmas. And, with the prevalence of these ideas, has arrived a distaste even to the home-dictation of the bookseller-coteries. If our editors are not as yet all independent of the will of a publisher, a majority of them scruple, at least, to confess a subservience, and enter into no positive combinations against the minority who despise and discard it. And this is a very great improvement of exceedingly late date.
Escaping these quicksands, our criticism is nevertheless in some danger–some very little danger–of falling into the pit of a most detestable species of cant–the cant of generality. This tendency has been given it, in the first instance, by the onward and tumultuous spirit of the age. With the increase of the thinking-material comes the desire, if not the necessity, of abandoning particulars for masses. Yet in our individual case, as a nation, we seem merely to have adopted this bias from the British Quarterly Reviews, upon which our own Quarterlies have been slavishly and pertinaciously modelled. In the foreign journal, the review or criticism properly so termed, has gradually yet steadily degenerated into what we see it at present–that is to say, into anything but criticism. Originally a "review" was not so called as lucus a non lucendo. Its name conveyed a just idea of its design. It reviewed, or surveyed the book whose title formed its text, and, giving an analysis of its contents, passed judgment upon its merits or defects. But, through the system of anonymous contribution, this natural process lost ground from day to day. The name of a writer being known only to a few, it became to him an object not so much to write well, as to write fluently, at so many guineas per sheet. The analysis of a book is a matter of time and of mental exertion. For many classes of composition there is required a deliberate perusal, with notes, and subsequent generalization. An easy substitute for this labor was found in a digest or compendium of the work noticed, with copious extracts–or a still easier, in random comments upon such passages as accidentally met the eye of the critic, with the passages themselves copied at full length. The mode of reviewing most in favor, however, because carrying with it the greatest semblance of care, was that of diffuse essay upon the subject matter of the publication, the reviewer(?) using the facts alone which the publication supplied, and using them as material for some theory, the sole concern, bearing, and intention of which, was mere difference of opinion with the author. These came at length to be understood and habitually practised as the customary or conventional fashions of review; and although the nobler order of intellects did not fall into the full heresy of these fashions–we may still assert that even Macaulay's nearest approach to criticism in its legitimate sense, is to be found in his article upon Ranke's "History of the Popes"–an article in which the whole strength of the reviewer is put forth to account for a single fact–the progress of Romanism–which the book under discussion has established.
Now, while we do not mean to deny that a good essay is a good thing, we yet assert that these papers on general topics have nothing whatever to do with that criticism which their evil example has nevertheless infected in se. Because these dogmatizing pamphlets, which were once "Reviews," have lapsed from their original faith, it does not follow that the faith itself is extinct–that "there shall be no more cakes and ale"–that criticism, in its old acceptation, does not exist. But we complain of a growing inclination on the part of our lighter journals to believe, on such grounds, that such is the fact–that because the British Quarterlies, through supineness, and our own, through a degrading imitation, have come to merge all varieties of vague generalization in the one title of "Review," it therefore results that criticism, being everything in the universe, is, consequently, nothing whatever in fact. For to this end, and to none other conceivable, is the tendency of such propositions, for example, as we find in a late number of that very clever monthly magazine, Arcturus.
"But now" (the emphasis on the now is our own)–"but now," says Mr. Mathews, in the preface to the first volume of his journal, "criticism has a wider scope and a universal interest. It dismisses errors of grammer, and hands over an imperfect rhyme or a false quantity to the proofreader; it looks now to the heart of the subject and the author's design. It is a test of opinion. Its acuteness is not pedantic, but philosophical; it unravels the web of the author's mystery to interpret his meaning to others; it detects his sophistry, because sophistry is injurious to the heart and life; it promulgates his beauties with liberal, generous praise, because this is his true duty as the servant of truth. Good criticism may be well asked for, since it is the type of the literature of the day. It gives method to the universal inquisitiveness on every topic relating to life or action. A criticism, now, includes every form of literature, except perhaps the imaginative and the strictly dramatic. It is an essay, a sermon, an oration, a chapter in history, a philosophical speculation, a prose-poem, an art-novel, a dialogue, it admits of humor, pathos, the personal feelings of autobiography, the broadest views of statesmanship. As the ballad and the epic were the productions of the days of Homer, the review is the native characteristic growth of the nineteenth century."
We respect the talents of Mr. Mathews, but must dissent from nearly all that he here says. The species of "review" which he designates as the "characteristic growth of the nineteenth century" is only the growth of the last twenty or thirty years in Great Britain. The French Reviews, for example, which are not anonymous, are very different things, and preserve the unique spirit of true criticism. And what need we say of the Germans?–what of Winckelmann, of Novalis, of Schelling, of Goethe, of Augustus William, and of Frederick Schlegel?–that their magnificent critiques raisonnees differ from those of Kames, of Johnson, and of Blair, in principle not at all, (for the principles of these artists will not fail until Nature herself expires,) but solely in their more careful elaboration, their greater thoroughness, their more profound analysis and application of the principles themselves. That a criticism "now" should be different in spirit, as Mr. Mathews supposes, from a criticism at any previous period, is to insinuate a charge of variability in laws that cannot vary–the laws of man's heart and intellect–for these are the sole basis, upon which the true critical art is established. And this art "now" no more than in the days of the "Dunciad," can, without neglect of its duty, "dismiss errors of grammar," or "hand over an imperfect rhyme or a false quantity to the proof-reader." What is meant by a "test of opinion" in the connection here given the words by Mr. M., we do not comprehend as clearly as we could desire. By this phrase we are as completely enveloped in doubt as was Mirabeau in the castle of If. To our imperfect appreciation it seems to form a portion of that general vagueness which is the tone of the whole philosophy at this point:–but all that which our journalist describes a criticism to be, is all that which we sturdily maintain it is not. Criticism is not, we think, an essay, nor a sermon, nor an oration, nor a chapter in history, nor a philosophical speculation, nor a prose-poem, nor an art-novel, nor a dialogue. In fact, it can be nothing in the world but–a criticism. But if it were all that Arcturus imagines, it is not very clear why it might not be equally "imaginative, or "dramatic"–a romance or a melodrama, or both. That it would be a farce cannot be doubted.
It is against this frantic spirit of generalization that we protest. We have a word, "criticism," whose import is sufficiently distinct, through long usage, at least, and we have an art of high importance and clearly ascertained limit, which this word is quite well enough understood to represent. Of that conglomerate science to which Mr. Mathews so eloquently alludes, and of which we are instructed that it is anything and everything at once–of this science we know nothing, and really wish to know less; but we object to our contemporary's appropriation in its behalf, of a term to which we, in common with a large majority of mankind, have been accustomed to attach a certain and very definitive idea. Is there no word but "criticism" which may be made to serve the purposes of "Arcturus"? Has it any objection to Orphicism, or Dialism, or Emersonism, or any other pregnant compound indicative of confusion worse confounded?
Still, we must not pretend a total misapprehension of the idea of Mr. Mathews, and we should be sorry that he misunderstood us. It may be granted that we differ only in terms–although the difference will yet be found not unimportant in effect. Following the highest authority, we would wish, in a word, to limit literary criticism to comment upon Art. A book is written–and it is only as the book that we subject it to review. With the opinions of the work, considered otherwise than in their relation to the work itself, the critic has really nothing to do. It is his part simply to decide upon the mode in which these opinions are brought to bear. Criticism is thus no "test of opinion." For this test, the work, divested of its pretensions as an art-product, is turned over for discussion to the world at large–and first, to that class which it especially addresses–if a history, to the historian–if a metaphysical treatise, to the moralist. In this, the only true and intelligible sense, it will be seen that criticism, the test or analysis of Art, (not of opinion,) is only properly employed upon productions which have their basis in art itself, and although the journalist (whose duties and objects are multiform) may turn aside, at pleasure, from the mode or vehicle of opinion to discussion of the opinion conveyed–it is still clear that he is "critical" only in so much as he deviates from his true province not at all.
And of the critic himself what shall we say?–for as yet we have spoken only the proem to the true epopea. What can we better say of him than, with Bulwer, that "he must have courage to blame boldly, magnanimity to eschew envy, genius to appreciate, learning to compare, an eye for beauty, an ear for music, and a heart for feeling." Let us add, a talent for analysis and a solemn indifference to abuse.
THE AMERICAN DRAMA
A BIOGRAPHIST of Berryer calls him "l'homme qui, dans ses description, demande le plus grande quantite possible d' antithese,"–but that ever-recurring topic, the decline of the drama, seems to have consumed of late more of the material in question than would have sufficed for a dozen prime ministers–even admitting them to be French. Every trick of thought and every harlequinade of phrase have been put in operation for the purpose "de nier ce qui est, et d'expliquer ce qui n'est pas."
Ce qui n'est pas:–for the drama has not declined. The facts and the philosophy of the case seem to be these. The great opponent to Progress is Conservatism. In other words–the great adversary of Invention is Imitation: the propositions are in spirit identical. Just as an art is imitative, is it stationary. The most imitative arts are the most prone to repose and the converse. Upon the utilitarian–upon the business arts, where Necessity impels, Invention, Necessity's well-understood offspring, is ever in attendance. And the less we see of the mother the less we behold of the child. No one complains of the decline of the art of Engineering. Here the Reason, which never retrogrades or reposes, is called into play. But let us glance at Sculpture. We are not worse here, than the ancients, let pedantry say what it may (the Venus of Canova is worth, at any time, two of that of Cleomenes), but it is equally certain that we have made, in general, no advances; and Sculpture, properly considered, is perhaps the most imitative of all arts which have a right to the title of Art at all. Looking next at Painting, we find that we have to boast of progress only in the ratio of the inferior imitativeness of Painting, when compared with Sculpture. As far indeed as we have any means of judging, our improvement has been exceedingly little, and did we know anything of ancient Art in this department, we might be astonished at discovering that we had advanced even far less than we suppose. As regards Architecture, whatever progress we have made has been precisely in those particulars which have no reference to imitation:–that is to say, we have improved the utilitarian and not the ornamental provinces of the art. Where Reason predominated, we advanced; where mere Feeling or Taste was the guide, we remained as we were.
Coming to the Drama, we shall see that in its mechanisms we have made progress, while in its spirituality we have done little or nothing for centuries certainly–and, perhaps, little or nothing for thousands of years. And this is because what we term the spirituality of the drama is precisely its imitative portion–is exactly that portion which distinguishes it as one of the principal of the imitative arts.
Sculptors, painters, dramatists, are, from the very nature of their material–their spiritual material–imitators–conservatists–prone to repose in old Feeling and in antique Taste. For this reason–and for this reason only–the arts of Sculpture, Painting, and the Drama have not advanced–or have advanced feebly, and inversely in the ratio of their imitativeness.
But it by no means follows that either has declined. All seem to have declined, because they have remained stationary while the multitudinous other arts (of reason) have flitted so rapidly by them. In the same manner the traveller by railroad can imagine that the trees by the wayside are retrograding. The trees in this case are absolutely stationary but the Drama has not been altogether so, although its progress has been so slight as not to interfere with the general effect–that of seeming retrogradation or decline.
This seeming retrogradation, however, is to all practical intents an absolute one. Whether the Drama has declined, or whether it has merely remained stationary, is a point of no importance, so far as concerns the public encouragement of the Drama. It is unsupported, in either case, because it does not deserve support.
But if this stagnation, or deterioration, grows out of the very idiosyncracy of the drama itself, as one of the principal of the imitative arts, how is it possible that a remedy shall be applied–since it is clearly impossible to alter the nature of the art, and yet leave it the art which it now is?
We have already spoken of the improvements effected in Architecture, in all its utilitarian departments, and in the Drama, at all the points of its mechanism. "Wherever Reason predominates, we advance; where mere Feeling or Taste is the guide, we remain as we are." We wish now to suggest that, by the engrafting of Reason upon Feeling and Taste, we shall be able, and thus alone shall be able, to force the modern drama into the production of any profitable fruit.
At present, what is it we do? We are content if, with Feeling and Taste, a dramatist does as other dramatists have done. The most successful of the more immediately modern playwrights has been Sheridan Knowles, and to play Sheridan Knowles seems to be the highest ambition of our writers for the stage. Now the author of "The Hunchback" possesses what we are weak enough to term the true "dramatic feeling," and this true dramatic feeling he has manifested in the most preposterous series of imitations of the Elizabethan drama by which ever mankind were insulted and begulled. Not only did he adhere to the old plots, the old characters, the old stage conventionalities throughout; but he went even so far as to persist in the obsolete phraseologies of the Elizabethan period–and, just in proportion to his obstinacy and absurdity at all points, did we pretend to like him the better, and pretend to consider him a great dramatist.
Pretend–for every particle of it was pretence. Never was enthusiasm more utterly false than that which so many "respectable audiences" endeavoured to get up for these plays–endeavoured to get up, first, because there was a general desire to see the drama revive, and secondly, because we had been all along entertaining the fancy that "the decline of the drama" meant little, if anything, else than its deviation from the Elizabethan routine–and that, consequently, the return to the Elizabethan routine was, and of necessity must be, the revival of the drama.
But if the principles we have been at some trouble in explaining are true–and most profoundly do we feel them to be so–if the spirit of imitation is, in fact, the real source, of the drama's stagnation–and if it is so because of the tendency in in all imitation to render Reason subservient to Feeling and to Taste it is clear that only by deliberate counteracting of the spirit, and of the tendency of the spirit, we can hope to succeed in the drama's revival.
The first thing necessary is to burn or bury the "old models," and to forget, as quickly as possible, that ever a play has been penned. The second thing is to consider de novo what are the capabilities of the drama–not merely what hitherto have been its conventional purposes. The third and last point has reference to the composition of a play (showing to the fullest extent these capabilities) conceived and constructed with Feeling and with Taste, but with Feeling and Taste guided and controlled in every particular by the details of Reason–of Common Sense–in a word, of a Natural Art.
It is obvious, in the meantime, that towards the good end in view much may be effected by discriminative criticism on what has already been done. The field, thus stated, is, of course, practically illimitable–and to Americans the American drama is the special point of interest. We propose, therefore, in a series of papers, to take a somewhat deliberate survey of some few of the most noticeable American plays. We shall do this without reference either to the date of the composition or its adaptation for the closet or the stage. We shall speak with absolute frankness both of merits and defects–our principal object being understood not as that of mere commentary on the individual play–but on the drama in general, and on the American drama in especial, of which each individual play is a constituent part. We will commence at once with
TORTESA, THE USURER
This is the third dramatic attempt of Mr. Willis, and may be regarded as particularly successful, since it has received, both on the stage and in the closet, no stinted measure of commendation. This success, as well as the high reputation of the author, will justify us in a more extended notice of the play than might, under other circumstances, be desirable.
The story runs thus:–Tortesa, a usurer of Florence, and whose character is a mingled web of good and evil feelings, gets into his possession the palace and lands of a certain Count Falcone. The usurer would wed the daughter (Isabella) of Valcone, not through love, but in his own words,
"To please a devil that inhabits him–"
in fact, to mortify the pride of the nobility, and avenge himself of their scorn. He therefore bargains with Falcone [a narrow-souled villain] for the hand of Isabella. The deed of the Falcone property is restored to the Count upon an agreement that the lady shall marry the usurer–this contract being invalid should Falcone change his mind in regard to the marriage, or should the maiden demur–but valid should the wedding be prevented through any fault of Tortesa, or through any accident not springing from the will of the father or child. The first Scene makes us aware of this bargain, and introduces us to Zippa, a glover's daughter, who resolves, with a view of befriending Isabella, to feign a love for Tortesa [which, in fact she partially feels], hoping thus to break off the match.
The second Scene makes us acquainted with a young painter (Angelo), poor, but of high talents and ambition, and with his servant (Tomaso), an old bottle-loving rascal, entertaining no very exalted opinion of his master's abilities. Tomaso does some injury to a picture, and Angelo is about to run him through the body when he is interrupted by a sudden visit from the Duke of Florence, attended by Falcone. The Duke is enraged at the murderous attempt, but admires the paintings in the studio. Finding that the rage of the great man will prevent his patronage if he knows the aggressor as the artist, Angelo passes off Tomaso as himself (Angelo), making an exchange of names. This is a point of some importance, as it introduces the true Angelo to a job which he has long coveted–the painting of the portrait of Isabella, of whose beauty he had become enamoured through report. The Duke wishes the portrait painted. Falcone, however, on account of a promise to Tortesa, would have objected to admit to his daughter's presence the handsome Angelo, but in regard to Tomaso has no scruple. Supposing Tomaso to be Angelo and the artist, the Count writes a note to Isabella, requiring her "to admit the painter Angelo." The real Angelo is thus admitted. He and the lady love at first sight (much in the manner of Romeo and Juliet), each ignorant of the other's attachment.
The third Scene of the second Act is occupied with a conversation between Falcone and Tortesa, during which a letter arrives from the Duke, who, having heard of the intended sacrifice of Isabella, offers to redeem the Count's lands and palace, and desires him to preserve his daughter for a certain Count Julian. But Isabella,–who, before seeing Angelo, had been willing to sacrifice herself for her father's sake, and who, since seeing him, had entertained hopes of escaping the hateful match through means of a plot entered into by herself and Zippa-Isabella, we say, is now in despair. To gain time, she at once feigns a love for the usurer, and indignantly rejects the proposal of the Duke. The hour for the wedding draws near. The lady has prepared a sleeping potion, whose effects resemble those of death. (Romeo and Juliet.) She swallows it–knowing that her supposed corpse would lie at night, pursuant to an old custom, in the sanctuary of the cathedral; and believing that Angelo–whose love for herself she has elicited, by a stratagem, from his own lips–will watch by the body, in the strength of his devotion. Her ultimate design (we may suppose, for it is not told) is to confess all to her lover on her revival, and throw herself upon his protection–their marriage being concealed, and herself regarded as dead by the world. Zippa, who really loves Angelo–(her love for Tortesa, it must be understood, is a very equivocal feeling, for the fact cannot be denied that Mr. Willis makes her love both at the same time)–Zippa, who really loves Angelo–who has discovered his passion for Isabella–and who, as well as that lady, believes that the painter will watch the corpse in the cathedral,–determines, through jealousy, to prevent his so doing, and with this view informs Tortesa that she has learned it to be Angelo's design to steal the body for purposes,–in short, as a model to be used in his studio. The usurer, in consequence, sets a guard at the doors of the cathedral. This guard does, in fact, prevent the lover from watching the corpse, but, it appears, does not prevent the lady, on her revival and disappointment in not seeing the one she sought, from passing unperceived from the church. Weakened by her long sleep, she wanders aimlessly through the streets, and at length finds herself, when just sinking with exhaustion, at the door of her father. She has no resource but to knock. The Count, who here, we must say, acts very much as Thimble of old–the knight, we mean, of the "scolding wife"–maintains that she is dead, and shuts the door in her face. In other words, he supposes it to be the ghost of his daughter who speaks; and so the lady is left to perish on the steps. Meantime Angelo is absent from home, attempting to get access to the cathedral; and his servant Tomaso takes the opportunity of absenting himself also, and of indulging his bibulous propensities while perambulating the town. He finds Isabella as we left her, and through motives which we will leave Mr. Willis to explain, conducts her unresistingly to Angelo's residence, and–deposits her in Angelo's bed. The artist now returns–Tomaso is kicked out of doors–and we are not told, but left to presume, that a fun explanation and perfect understanding are brought about between the lady and her lover.
We find them, next morning, in the studio, where stands, leaning against an easel the portrait (a full length) of Isabella, with curtains adjusted before it. The stage-directions, moreover, inform us that "the black wall of the room is such as to form a natural ground for the picture." While Angelo is occupied in retouching it, he is interrupted by the arrival of Tortesa with a guard, and is accused of having stolen the corpse from the sanctuary–the lady, meanwhile, having stepped behind the curtain. The usurer insists upon seeing the painting, with a view of ascertaining whether any new touches had been put upon it, which would argue an examination, post mortem, of those charms of neck and bosom which the living Isabella would not have unveiled. Resistance in vain–the curtain is torn down; but, to the surprise of Angelo, the lady herself is discovered, "with her hands crossed on her breast, and her eyes fixed on the ground, standing motionless in the frame which had contained the picture." The tableau we are to believe, deceives Tortesa, who steps back to contemplate what he supposes to be the portrait of his betrothed. In the meantime, the guards, having searched the house, find the veil which had been thrown over the imagined corpse in the sanctuary, and upon this evidence the artist is carried before the Duke. Here he is accused, not only of sacrilege, but of the murder of Isabella, and is about to be condemned to death, when his mistress comes forward in person; thus resigning herself to the usurer to save the life of her lover. But the noble nature of Tortesa now breaks forth; and, smitten with admiration of the lady's conduct, as well as convinced that her love for himself was feigned, he resigns her to Angelo–although now feeling and acknowledging for the first time that a fervent love has, in his own bosom, assumed the place of the misanthropic ambition which, hitherto, had alone actuated him in seeking her hand. Moreover, he endows Isabella with the lands of her father Falcone. The lovers are thus made happy. The usurer weds Zippa; and the curtain drops upon the promise of the Duke to honour the double nuptials with his presence.
This story, as we have given it, hangs better together (Mr. Willis will pardon our modesty), and is altogether more easily comprehended, than in the words of the play itself. We have really put the best face upon the matter, and presented the whole in the simplest and clearest light in our power. We mean to say that "Tortesa" (partaking largely, in this respect, of the drama of Cervantes and Calderon) is over-clouded–rendered misty–by a world of unnecessary and impertinent intrigue. This folly was adopted by the Spanish comedy, and is imitated by us, with the idea of imparting "action," "business," "vivacity." But vivacity, however desirable, can be attained in many other ways, and is dearly purchased, indeed, when the price is intelligibility.
The truth is that cant has never attained a more owl–like dignity than in the discussion of dramatic principle. A modern stage critic is nothing, if not a lofty contemner of all things simple and direct. He delights in mystery–revels in mystification–has transcendental notions concerning P. S. and O. P, and talks about "stage business and stage effect" as if he were discussing the differential calculus. For much of all this we are indebted to the somewhat overprofound criticisms of Augustus William Schlegel.
But the dicta of common sense are of universal application, and, touching this matter of intrigue, if, from its superabundance, we are compelled, even in the quiet and critical perusal of a play, to pause frequently and reflect long–to re-read passages over and over again, for the purpose of gathering their bearing upon the whole–of maintaining in our mind a general connection–what but fatigue can result from the exertion? How, then, when we come to the representation?–when these passages–trifling, perhaps, in themselves, but important when considered in relation to the plot–are hurried and blurred over in the stuttering enunciation of some miserable rantipole, or omitted altogether through the constitutional lapse of memory so peculiar to those lights of the age and stage, bedight (from being of no conceivable use) supernumeraries? For it must be borne in mind that these bits of intrigue (we use the term in the sense of the German critics) appertain generally, indeed altogether, to the after thoughts of the drama–to the underplots–are met with consequently, in the mouth of the lackeys and chambermaids–and are thus consigned to the tender mercies of the stellae minores. Of course we get but an imperfect idea of what is going on before our eyes. Action after action ensues whose mystery we can not unlock without the little key which these barbarians have thrown away and lost. Our weariness increases in proportion to the number of these embarrassments, and if the play escape damnation at all it escapes in spite of that intrigue to which, in nine cases out of ten, the author attributes his success, and which he will persist in valuing exactly in proportion to the misapplied labour it has cost him.
But dramas of this kind are said, in our customary parlance, to "abound in plot." We have never yet met any one, however, who could tell us what precise ideas he connected with the phrase. A mere succession of incidents, even the most spirited, will no more constitute a plot than a multiplication of zeros, even the most infinite, will result in the production of a unit. This all will admit–but few trouble themselves to think further. The common notion seems be in favour of mere complexity; but a plot, properly understood, is perfect only inasmuch as we shall find ourselves unable to detach from it or disarrange any single incident involved, without destruction to the mass.
This we say is the point of perfection–a point never yet attained, but not on that account unattainable. Practically, we may consider a plot as of high excellence, when no one of its component parts shall be susceptible of removal without detriment to the whole. Here, indeed, is a vast lowering of the demand–and with less than this no writer of refined taste should content himself.
As this subject is not only in itself of great importance, but will have at all points a bearing upon what we shall say hereafter, in the examination of various plays, we shall be pardoned for quoting from the "Democratic Review" some passages (of our own which enter more particularly into the rationale of the subject:–
"All the Bridgewater treatises have failed in noticing the great idiosyncrasy in the Divine system of adaptation:–that idiosyncrasy which stamps the adaptation as divine, in distinction from that which is the work of merely human constructiveness. I speak of the complete mutuality of adaptation. For example:–in human constructions, a particular cause has a particular effect–a particular purpose brings about a particular object; but we see no reciprocity. The effect does not react upon the cause–the object does not change relations with the purpose. In Divine constructions, the object is either object or purpose as we choose to regard it, while the purpose is either purpose or object; so that we can never (abstractly–without concretion–without reference to facts of the moment) decide which is which.
"For secondary example:–In polar climates, the human frame, to maintain its animal heat, requires, for combustion in the capillary system, an abundant supply of highly azotized food, such as train oil. Again:–in polar climates nearly the sole food afforded man is the oil of abundant seals and whales. Now whether is oil at hand because imperatively demanded? or whether is it the only thing demanded because the only thing fo be obtained? It is impossible to say:–there is an absolute reciprocity of adaptation for which we seek in vain among the works of man.
"The Bridgewater tractists may have avoided this point, on account of its apparent tendency to overthrow the idea of cause in general–consequently of a First Cause–of God. But it is more probable that they have failed to perceive what no one preceding them has, to my knowledge, perceived.
"The pleasure which we derive from any exertion of human ingenuity, is in the direct ratio of the approach to this species of reciprocity between cause and effect. In the construction of plot, for example, in fictitious literature, we should aim at so arranging the points, or incidents, that we cannot distinctly see, in respect to any one of them, whether that one depends from any one other or upholds it. In this sense, of course, perfection of plot is unattainable in fact–because Man is the constructor. The plots of God are perfect. The Universe is a plot of God."
The pleasure derived from the contemplation of the unity resulting from plot is far more intense than is ordinarily supposed, and, as in Nature we meet with no such combination of incident, appertains to a very lofty region of the ideal. In speaking thus we have not said that plot is more than an adjunct to the drama–more than a perfectly distinct and separable source of pleasure. It is not an essential. In its intense artificiality it may even be conceived injurious in a certain degree (unless constructed with consummate skill) to that real lifelikeness which is the soul of the drama of character. Good dramas have been written with very little plot–capital dramas might be written with none at all. Some plays of high merit, having plot, abound in irrelevant incident–in incident, we mean, which could be displaced or removed altogether without effect upon the plot itself, and yet are by no means objectionable as dramas; and for this reason–that the incidents are evidently irrelevant–obviously episodical. Of their disgressive nature the spectator is so immediately aware that he views them, as they arise, in the simple light of interlude, and does not fatigue his attention by attempting to establish for them a connection, or more than an illustrative connection, with the great interests of the subject. Such are the plays of Shakespeare. But all this is very different from that irrelevancy of intrigue which disfigures and very usually damns the work of the unskilful artist. With him the great error lies in inconsequence. Underplot is piled upon underplot (the very word is a paradox), and all to no purpose–to no end. The interposed incidents have no ultimate effect upon the main ones. They may hang upon the mass–they may even coalesce with it, or, as in some intricate cases, they may be so intimately blended as to be lost amid the chaos which they have been instrumental in bringing about–but still they have no portion in the plot, which exists, if at all, independently of their influence. Yet the attempt is made by the author to establish and demonstrate a dependence–an identity, and it is the obviousness of this attempt which is the cause of weariness in the spectator, who, of course, cannot at once see that his attention is chAllanged to no purpose–that intrigues so obtrusively forced upon it are to be found, in the end, without effect upon the leading interests of the day.
"Tortesa" will afford us plentiful examples of this irrelevancy of intrigue–of this misconception of the nature and of the capacities of plot. We have said that our digest of the story is more easy of comprehension than the detail of Mr. Willis. If so, it is because we have forborne to give such portions as had no influence upon the whole. These served but to embarrass the narrative and fatigue the attention. How much was irrelevant is shown by the brevity of the space in which we have recorded, somewhat at length, all the influential incidents of a drama of five acts. There is scarcely a scene in which is not to be found the germ of an underplot–a germ, however, which seldom proceeds beyond the condition of a bud, or, if so fortunate as to swell into a flower, arrives, in no single instance, at the dignity of fruit. Zippa, a lady altogether without character (dramatic), is the most pertinacious of all conceivable concoctors of plans never to be matured–of vast designs that terminate in nothing–of cul-de-sac machinations. She plots in one page and counter-plots in the next. She schemes her way from P. S. to O. P., and intrigues perseveringly from the footlights to the slips. A very singular instance of the inconsequence of her manoeuvres is found towards the conclusion of the play. The whole of the second scene (occupying five pages), in the fifth act, is obviously introduced for the purpose of giving her information, through Tomaso's means, of Angelo's arrest for the murder of Isabella. Upon learning his danger she rushes from the stage, to be present at the trial, exclaiming that her evidence can save his life. We, the audience, of course applaud, and now look with interest to her movements in the scene of the judgment-hall. She, Zippa, we think, is somebody after all; she will be the means of Angelo's salvation; she will thus be the chief unraveller of the plot. All eyes are bent, therefore, upon Zippa–but alas! upon the point at issue, Zippa does not so much as open her mouth. It is scarcely too much to say that not a single action of this impertinent little busybody has any real influence upon the play;–yet she appears upon every occasion–appearing only to perplex.
Similar things abound; we should not have space even to allude to them all. The whole conclusion of the play is supererogatory. The immensity of pure fuss with which it is overloaded forces us to the reflection that all of it might have been avoided by one word of explanation to the Duke an amiable man who admires the talents of Angelo, and who, to prevent Isabella's marrying against her will, had previously offered to free Falcone of his bonds to the usurer. That he would free him now, and thus set all matters straight, the spectator cannot doubt for an instant, and he can conceive no better reason why explanations are not made than that Mr. Willis does not think proper they should be. In fact, the whole drama is exceedingly ill motivirt.
We have already mentioned an inadvertence, in the fourth Act, where Isabella is made to escape from the sanctuary through the midst of guards who prevented the ingress of Angelo. Another occurs where Falcone's conscience is made to reprove him, upon the appearance of his daughter's supposed ghost, for having occasioned her death by forcing her to marry against her will. The author had forgotten that Falcone submitted to the wedding, after the Dukes interposition, only upon Isabella's assurance that she really loved the usurer. In the third Scene, too, of the first Act, the imagination of the spectator is no doubt a little taxed when he finds Angelo, in the first moment of his introduction to the palace of Isabella, commencing her portrait by laying on colour after colour, before he has made any attempt at an outline. In the last Act, moreover, Tortesa gives to Isabella a deed
"Of the Falcone palaces and lands,
And all the money forfeit by Falcone."
This is a terrible blunder, and the more important as upon this act of the usurer depends the development of his newborn sentiments of honour and virtue–depends, in fact, the most salient point of the play. Tortesa, we say, gives to Isabella the lands forfeited by Falcone; but Tortesa was surely not very generous in giving what, clearly, was not his own to give. Falcone had not forfeited the deed, which had been restored to him by the usurer, and which was then in his (Falcone's) possession. Here Tortesa:–
He put it in the bond,
That if, by any humour of my own,
Or accident that came not from himself,
Or from his daughter's will, the match were marred,
His tenure stood intact."
Now Falcone is still resolute for the match; but this new generous "humour" of Tortesa induces him (Tortesa) to decline it. Falcone's tenure is then intact; he retains the deed, the usurer is giving away property not his own.
As a drama of character, "Tortesa" is by no means open to so many objections as when we view it in the light of its plot; but it is still faulty. The merits are so exceedingly negative, that it is difficult to say anything about them. The Duke is nobody, Falcone, nothing; Zippa, less than nothing. Angelo may be regarded simply as the medium through which Mr. Willis conveys to the reader his own glowing feelings–his own refined and delicate fancy–(delicate, yet bold)–his own rich voluptuousness of sentiment–a voluptuousness which would offend in almost any other language than that in which it is so skilfully apparelled. Isabella is–the heroine of the Hunchback. The revolution in the character of Tortesa–or rather the final triumph of his innate virtue–is a dramatic point far older than the hills. It may be observed, too, that although the representation of no human character should be quarrelled with for its inconsistency, we yet require that the inconsistencies be not absolute antagonisms to the extent of neutralization: they may be permitted to be oils and waters, but they must not be alkalis and acids. When, in the course of the denouement, the usurer bursts forth into an eloquence virtue–inspired, we cannot sympathize very heartily in his fine speeches, since they proceed from the mouth of the self-same egotist who, urged by a disgusting vanity, uttered so many sotticisms (about his fine legs, etc.) in the earlier passages of the play. Tomaso is, upon the whole, the best personage. We recognize some originality in his conception, and conception was seldom more admirably carried out.
One or two observations at random. In the third Scene of the fifth Act, Tomaso, the buffoon, is made to assume paternal authority over Isabella (as usual, without sufficient purpose), by virtue of a law which Tortesa thus expounds:–
"My gracious liege, there is a law in Florence
That if a father, for no guilt or shame,
Disown and shut his door upon his daughter,
She is the child of him who succours her,
Who by the shelter of a single night,
Becomes endowed with the authority
Lost by the other."
No one, of course, can be made to believe that any such stupid law as this ever existed either in Florence or Timbuctoo; but, on the ground que le vrai n'est pas toujours le vraisemblable, we say that even its real existence would be no justification of Mr. Willis. It has an air of the far-fetched–of the desperate–which a fine taste will avoid as a pestilence. Very much of the same nature is the attempt of Tortesa to extort a second bond from Falcone. The evidence which convicts Angelo of murder is ridiculously frail. The idea of Isabella's assuming the place of the portrait, and so deceiving the usurer, is not only glaringly improbable, but seems adopted from the "Winter's Tale." But in this latter-play, the deception is at least possible, for the human figure but imitates a statue. What, however, are we to make of Mr. W.'s stage direction about the back wall's being "so arranged as to form a natural ground for the picture"? Of course, the very slightest movement of Tortesa (and he makes many) would have annihilated the illusion by disarranging the perspective, and in no manner could this latter have been arranged at all for more than one particular point of view–in other words, for more than one particular person in the whole audience. The "asides," moreover, are unjustifiably frequent. The prevalence of this folly (of speaking aside) detracts as much from the acting merit of our drama generally as any other inartisticality. It utterly destroys verisimilitude. People are not in the habit of soliloquising aloud–at least, not to any positive extent; and why should an author have to be told, what the slightest reflection would teach him, that an audience, by dint of no imagination, can or will conceive that what is sonorous in their own ears at the distance of fifty feet cannot be heard by an actor at the distance of one or two?
Having spoken thus of "Tortesa" in terms of nearly unmitigated censure–our readers may be surprised to hear us say that we think highly of the drama as a whole–and have little hesitation in ranking it before most of the dramas of Sheridan Knowles. Its leading faults are those of the modern drama generally–they are not peculiar to itself–while its great merits are. If in support of our opinion we do not cite points of commendation, it is because those form the mass of the work. And were we to speak of fine passages, we should speak of the entire play. Nor by "fine passages" do we mean passages of merely fine language, embodying fine sentiment, but such as are replete with truthfulness, and teem with the loftiest qualities of the dramatic art. Points–capital points abound; and these have far more to do with the general excellence of a play than a too speculative criticism has been willing to admit. Upon the whole, we are proud of "Tortesa"–and her again, for the fiftieth time at least, record our warm admiration of the abilities of Mr. Willis.
We proceed now to Mr. Longfellow's
The reputation of its author as a poet, and as a graceful writer of prose, is, of course, long and deservedly established–but as a dramatist he was unknown before the publication of this play. Upon its original appearance, in Graham's Magazine, the general opinion was greatly in favour–if not exactly of "The Spanish Student"–at all events of the writer of "Outre-Mer." But this general opinion is the most equivocal thing in the world. It is never self-formed. It has very seldom indeed an original development. In regard to the work of an already famous or infamous author it decides, to be sure, with a laudable promptitude; making up all the mind that it has, by reference to the reception of the author's immediately previous publication–making up thus the ghost of a mind pro tem.–a species of critical shadow that fully answers, nevertheless, all the purposes of a substance itself until the substance itself shall be forthcoming. But beyond this point the general opinion can only be considered that of the public, as a man may call a book his, having bought it. When a new writer arises, the shop of the true, thoughtful or critical opinion is not simultaneously thrown away–is not immediately set up. Some weeks elapse; and, during this interval, the public, at a loss where to procure an opinion of the debutante, have necessarily no opinion of him at all for the nonce.
The popular voice, then, which ran so much in favour of "The Spanish Student," upon its original issue, should be looked upon as merely the ghost pro tem.–as based upon critical decisions respecting the previous works of the author–as having reference in no manner to "The Spanish Student" itself–and thus as utterly meaningless and valueless per se.
The few, by which we mean those who think, in contradistinction from the many who think they think–the few who think at first hand, and thus twice before speaking at all–these received the play with a commendation somewhat less pronounced–somewhat more guardedly qualified–than Professor Longfellow might have desired, or may have been taught to expect. Still the composition was approved upon the whole. The few words of censure were very far indeed from amounting to condemnation. The chief defect insisted upon was the feebleness of the denouement, and, generally, of the concluding scenes, as compared with the opening passages. We are not sure, however, that anything like detailed criticism has been attempted in the case–nor do we propose now to attempt it. Nevertheless, the work has interest, not only within itself, but as the first dramatic effort of an author who has remarkably succeeded in almost every other department of light literature than that of the drama. It may be as well, therefore, to speak of it, if not analytically, at least somewhat in detail; and we cannot, perhaps, more suitably commence than by a quotation, without comment of some of the finer passages:
"And, though she is a virgin outwardly,
Within she is a sinner, like those panels
Of doors and altar-pieces the old monks
Painted in convents, with the Virgin Mary
On the outside, and on the inside Venus."
That woman, in her deepest degradation,
Holds something sacred, something undefiled,
Some pledge and keepsake of her higher nature,
And, like the diamond in the dark, retains
Some quenchless gleam of the celestial light."
"And we shall sit together unmolested,
And words of true love pass from tongue to tongue
As singing birds from one bough to another."
"Our feelings and our thoughts
Tend ever on and rest not in the Present,
As drops of rain fall into some dark well,
And from below comes a scarce audible sound,
So fall our thoughts into the dark
Hereafter, And their mysterious echo reaches us."
"Her tender limbs are still, and, on her breast,
The cross she prayed to, ere she fell asleep,
Rises or falls with the soft tide of dreams,
Like a light barge safe moored."
"Hark! how the large and ponderous mace of Time
Knocks at the golden portals of the day!"
"The lady Violante bathed in tears
Of love and anger, like the maid of Colchis,
Whom thou, another faithless Argonaut,
Having won that golden fleece, a woman's love,
Desertest for this Glauce."
"I read, or sit in reverie and watch
The changing colour of the waves that break
Upon the idle sea-shore of the mind."
"I will forget her. All dear recollections
Pressed in my heart, like flowers within a book,
Shall be tom out and scattered to the winds."
"Oh yes! I see it now–
Yet rather with my heart than with mine eyes,
So faint it is. And all my thoughts sail thither,
Freighted with prayers and hopes, and forward urged,
Against all stress of accident, as, in
The Eastern Tale, against the wind and tide
Great ships were drawn to the Magnetic Mountains."
"But there are brighter dreams than those of Fame,
Which are the dreams of Love! Out of the heart
Rises the bright ideal of these dreams,
As from some woodland fount a spirit rises
And sinks again into its silent deeps,
Ere the enamoured knight can touch her robe!
'Tis this ideal that the soul of Man,
Like the enamoured knight beside the fountain,
Waits for upon the margin of Life's stream;
Waits to behold her rise from the dark waters,
Clad in a mortal shape! Alas, how many
Must wait in vain! The stream flows evermore,
But from its silent deeps no spirit rises!
Yet I, born under a propitious star,
Have found the bright ideal of my dreams."
"Yes; by the Darro's side
My childhood passed. I can remember still
The river, and the mountains capped with snow;
The villages where, yet a little child,
I told the traveller's fortune in the street;
The smugglers horse; the brigand and the shepherd;
The march across the moor; the halt at noon;
The red fire of the evening camp, that lighted
The forest where we slept; and, farther back,
As in a dream, or in some former life,
Gardens and palace walls."
"This path will lead us to it,
Over the wheatfields, where the shadows sail
Across the running sea, now green, now blue,
And, like an idle mariner on the ocean,
Whistles the quail."
These extracts will be universally admired. They are graceful, well expressed, imaginative, and altogether replete with the true poetic feeling. We quote them now, at the beginning of our review, by way of justice to the poet, and because, in what follows, we are not sure that we have more than a very few words of what may be termed commendation to bestow.
"The Spanish Student" has an unfortunate beginning, in a most unpardonable, and yet to render the matter worse, in a most indispensable "Preface:–
"The subject of the following play," says Mr. L., "is taken in part from the beautiful play of Cervantes, La Gitanilla. To this source, however, I am indebted for the main incident only, the love of a Spanish student for a Gipsy girl, and the name of the heroine, Preciosa. I have not followed the story in any of its details. In Spain this subject has been twice handled dramatically, first by Juan Perez de Montalvan in La Gitanilla, and afterwards by Antonio de Solis y Rivadeneira in La Gitanilla de Madrid. The same subject has also been made use of by Thomas Middleton, an English dramatist of the seventeenth century. His play is called The Spanish Gipsy. The main plot is the same as in the Spanish pieces; but there runs through it a tragic underplot of the loves of Rodrigo and Dona Clara, which is taken from another tale of Cervantes, La Fuerza de la Sangre. The reader who is acquainted with La Gitanilla of Cervantes, and the plays of Montalvan, Solis, and Middleton, will perceive that my treatment of the subject differs entirely from theirs."
Now the autorial originality, properly considered, is threefold. There is, first, the originality of the general thesis, secondly, that of the several incidents or thoughts by which the thesis is developed, and thirdly, that of manner or tone, by which means alone an old subject, even when developed through hackneyed incidents or thoughts, may be made to produce a fully original effect–which, after all, is the end truly in view.
But originality, as it is one of the highest, is also one of the rarest of merits. In America it is especially and very remarkably rare:–this through causes sufficiently well understood. We are content perforce, therefore, as a general thing, with either of the lower branches of originality mentioned above, and would regard with high favour indeed any author who should supply the great desideratum in combining the three. Still the three should be combined; and from whom, if not from such men as Professor Longfellow–if not from those who occupy the chief niches in our Literary Temple–shall we expect the combination? But in the present instance, what has Professor Longfellow accomplished? Is he original at any one point? Is he original in respect to the first and most important of our three divisions? "The [subject] of the following play," he says himself, "is taken [in part] from the beautiful play of Cervantes, 'La Gitanilla.' To this source, however, I am indebted for [the main incident only,] the love of the Spanish student for a Gipsy girl, and the name of the heroine, Preciosa."
The [brackets] are our own, and the [bracketed words] involve an obvious contradiction. We cannot understand how "the love of the Spanish student for the Gipsy girl" can be called an "incident," or even a "main incident," at all. In fact, this love–this discordant and therefore eventful or incidental love is the true thesis of the drama of Cervantes. It is this anomalous "love," which originates the incidents by means of which itself, this "love," the thesis, is developed. Having based his play, then, upon this "love," we cannot admit his claim to originality upon our first count; nor has he any right to say that he has adopted his "subject" "in part." It is clear that he has adopted it altogether. Nor would he have been entitled to claim originality of subject, even had he based his story upon any variety of love arising between parties naturally separated by prejudices of caste–such, for example, as those which divide the Brahmin from the Pariah, the Ammonite from the African, or even the Christian from the Jew. For here in its ultimate analysis, is the real thesis of the Spaniard. But when the drama is founded, not merely upon this general thesis, but upon this general thesis in the identical application given it by Cervantes–that is to say, upon the prejudice of caste exemplified in the case of a Catholic, and this Catholic a Spaniard, and this Spaniard a student, and this student loving a Gipsy, and this Gipsy a dancing-girl, and this dancing-girl bearing the name Preciosa–we are not altogether prepared to be informed by Professor Longfellow that he is indebted for an "incident only" to the "beautiful 'Gitanilla' of Cervantes."
Whether our author is original upon our second and third points–in the true incidents of his story, or in the manner and tone of their handling–will be more distinctly seen as we proceed.
It is to be regretted that "The Spanish Student" was not subentitled "A Dramatic Poem," rather than "A Play." The former title would have more fully conveyed the intention of the poet; for, of course, we shall not do Mr. Longfellow the injustice to suppose that his design has been, in any respect, a play, in the ordinary acceptation of the term. Whatever may be its merits in a merely poetical view, "The Spanish Student" could not be endured upon the stage.
Its plot runs thus:–Preciosa, the daughter of a Spanish gentleman, is stolen, while an infant, by Gipsies, brought up as his own daughter, and as a dancing-girl, by a Gipsy leader, Cruzado; and by him betrothed to a young Gipsy, Bartolome. At Madrid, Preciosa loves and is beloved by Victorian, a student of Alcala, who resolves to marry her, notwithstanding her caste, rumours involving her purity, the dissuasions of his friends, and his betrothal to an heiress of Madrid. Preciosa is also sought by the Count of Lara, a roue. She rejects him. He forces his way into her chamber, and is there seen by Victorian, who, misinterpreting some words overheard, doubts the fidelity of his mistress, and leaves her in anger, after chAllanging the Count of Lara. In the duel, the Count receives his life at the hands of Victorian: declares his ignorance of the understanding between Victorian and Preciosa; boasts of favours received from the latter, and, to make good his words, produces a ring which she gave him, he asserts, as a pledge of her love. This ring is a duplicate of one previously given the girl by Victorian, and known to have been so given by the Count. Victorian mistakes it for his own, believes all that has been said, and abandons the field to his rival, who, immediately afterwards, while attempting to procure access to the Gipsy, is assassinated by Bartolome. Meantime, Victorian, wandering through the country, reaches Guadarrama. Here he receives a letter from Madrid, disclosing the treachery practiced by Lara, and telling that Preciosa, rejecting his addresses, had been through his instrumentality hissed from the stage, and now again roamed with the Gipsies. He goes in search of her, finds her in a wood near Guadarrama; approaches her, disguising his voice; she recognizes him, pretending she does not, and unaware that he knows her innocence; a conversation of equivoque ensues; he sees his ring upon her finger; offers to purchase it; she refuses to part with it, a full eclairissement takes place; at this juncture a servant of Victorian's arrives with "news from court," giving the first intimation of the true parentage of Preciosa. The lovers set out, forthwith, for Madrid, to see the newly discovered father. On the route, Bartolome dogs their steps; fires at Preciosa; misses her; the shot is returned; he falls; and "The Spanish Student" is concluded.
This plot, however, like that of "Tortesa," looks better in our naked digest than amidst the details which develop only to disfigure it. The reader of the play itself will be astonished, when he remembers the name of the author, at the inconsequence of the incidents–at the utter want of skill–of art–manifested in their conception and introduction. In dramatic writing, no principle is more clear than that nothing should be said or done which has not a tendency to develop the catastrophe, or the characters. But Mr. Longfellow's play abounds in events and conversations that have no ostensible purpose, and certainly answer no end. In what light, for example, since we cannot suppose this drama intended for the stage, are we to regard the second scene of the second act, where a long dialogue between an Archbishop and a Cardinal is wound up by a dance from Preciosa? The Pope thinks of abolishing public dances in Spain, and the priests in question have been delegated to examine, personally, the proprieties or improprieties of such exhibitions. With this view, Preciosa is summoned and required to give a specimen of her skill. Now this, in a mere spectacle, would do very well; for here all that is demanded is an occasion or an excuse for a dance; but what business has it in a pure drama? or in what regard does it further the end of a dramatic poem, intended only to be read? In the same manner, the whole of Scene the eighth, in the same act, is occupied with six lines of stage directions, as follows:–
The Theatre: the orchestra plays the Cachuca. Sound of castinets behind the scenes. The curtain rises and discovers Preciosa in the attitude of commencing the dance. The Cachuca. Tumult. Hisses. Cries of Brava! and Aguera! She falters and pauses. The music stops. General confusion. Preciosa faints.
But the inconsequence of which we complain will be best exemplified by an entire scene. We take Scene the Fourth, Act the First:–
"An inn on the road to Alcala. BALTASAR asleep on a bench. Enter CHISPA."
CHISPA. And here we are, half way to Alcala, between cocks and midnight. Body o' me! what an inn this is! The light out and the landlord asleep! Hola! ancient Baltasar!
BALTASAR. [waking]. Here I am.
CHISPA. Yes, there you are, like a one-eyed alcalde in a town without inhabitants. Bring a light, and let me have supper.
BALTASAR. Where is your master?
CHISPA. Do not trouble yourself about him. We have stopped a moment to breathe our horses; and if he chooses to walk up and down in the open air, looking into the sky as one who hears it rain, that does not satisfy my hunger, you know. But be quick, for I am in a hurry, and every one stretches his legs according to the length of his coverlet. What have we here?
BALTASAR. [setting a light on the table]. Stewed rabbit.
CHISPA. [eating]. Conscience of Portalegre! stewed kitten you mean!
BALTASAR. And a pitcher of Pedro Ximenes, with a roasted pear in it.
CHISPA [drinking]. Ancient Baltasar, amigo! You know how to cry wine and sell vinegar. I tell you this is nothing but Vino Tinto of La Mancha, with a tang of the swine-skin.
BALTASAR. I swear to you by Saint Simon and Judas, it is all as I say.
CHISPA. And I swear to you by Saint Peter and Saint Paul that it is no such thing. Moreover, your supper is like the hidalgo's dinner–very little meat and a great deal of tablecloth.
BALTASAR. Ha! ha! ha!
CHISPA. And more noise than nuts.
BALTASAR. Ha! ha! ha! You must have your joke, Master Chispa. But
shall I not ask Don Victorian in to take a draught of the Pedro Ximenes?
CHISPA. No; you might as well say, "Don't you want some?" to a dead man.
BALTASAR. Why does he go so often to Madrid?
CHISPA. For the same reason that he eats no supper. He is in love. Were you ever in love, Baltasar?
BALTASAR. I was never out of it, good Chispa. It has been the torment of my life.
CHISPA. What! are you on fire, too, old hay-stack? Why, we shall never be able to put you out.
VICTORIAN [without] Chispa!
CHISPA. Go to bed, Pero Grullo, for the cocks are crowing.
VICTORIAN. Ea! Chispa! Chispa!
CHISPA. Ea! Senor. Come with me, ancient Baltasar, and bring water for the horses. I will pay for the supper tomorrow. [Exeunt.]
Now here the question occurs–what is accomplished? How has the subject been forwarded? We did not need to learn that Victorian was in love–that was known before; and all that we glean is that a stupid imitation of Sancho Panza drinks in the course of two minutes (the time occupied in the perusal of the scene) a bottle of vino tinto, by way of Pedro Ximenes, and devours a stewed kitten in place of a rabbit.
In the beginning of the play this Chispa is the valet of Victorian; subsequently we find him the servant of another; and near the denouement he returns to his original master. No cause is assigned, and not even the shadow of an object is attained; the whole tergiversation being but another instance of the gross inconsequence which abounds in the play.
The authors deficiency of skill is especially evinced in the scene of the eclaircissement between Victorian and Preciosa. The former having been enlightened respecting the true character of the latter by means of a letter received at Guadarrama, from a friend at Madrid (how wofully inartistical is this!), resolves to go in search of her forthwith, and forthwith, also, discovers her in a wood close at hand. Whereupon he approaches, disguising his voice:–yes, we are required to believe that a lover may so disguise his voice from his mistress as even to render his person in full view irrecognizable! He approaches, and each knowing the other, a conversation ensues under the hypothesis that each to the other is unknown–a very unoriginal, and, of course, a very silly source of equivoque, fit only for the gum–elastic imagination of an infant. But what we especially complain of here is that our poet should have taken so many and so obvious pains to bring about this position of equivoque, when it was impossible that it could have served any other purpose than that of injuring his intended effect! Read, for example, this passage:–
VICTORIAN. I never loved a maid;
For she I loved was then a maid no more.
PRECIOSA. How know you that?
VICTORIA. A little bird in the air
Whispered the secret.
PRECIOSA. There, take back your gold!
Your hand is cold like a deceiver's hand!
There is no blessing in its charity!
Make her your wife, for you have been abused;
And you shall mend your fortunes mending hers.
VICTORIAN. How like an angel's speaks the tongue of woman,
When pleading in another's cause her own!
Now here it is clear that if we understood Preciosa to be really ignorant of Victorian's identity, the "pleading in another's cause her own" would create a favourable impression upon the reader or spectator. But the advice–"Make her your wife, etc.," takes an interested and selfish turn when we remember that she knows to whom she speaks.
Again, when Victorian says:
That is a pretty ring upon your finger,
Pray give it me!
and when she replies:
No, never from my hand
Shall that be taken,
we are inclined to think her only an artful coquette, knowing, as we do, the extent of her knowledge, on the hand we should have applauded her constancy (as the author intended) had she been represented ignorant of Victorian's presence. The effect upon the audience, in a word, would be pleasant in place of disagreeable were the case altered as we suggest, while the effect upon Victorian would remain altogether untouched.
A still more remarkable instance of deficiency in the dramatic tact is to be found in the mode of bringing about the discovery of Preciosa's parentage. In the very moment of the eclaircissement between the lovers, Chispa arrives almost as a matter of course, and settles the point in a sentence:–
Good news from the Court; Good news! Beltran Cruzado,
The Count of the Cales, is not your father,
But your true father has returned to Spain
Laden with wealth. You are no more a Gipsy.
Now here are three points:–first, the extreme baldness, platitude, and independence of the incident narrated by Chispa. The opportune return of the father (we are tempted to say the excessively opportune) stands by itself–has no relation to any other event in the play–does not appear to arise, in the way of result, from any incident or incidents that have arisen before. It has the air of a happy chance, of a God-send, of an ultra-accident, invented by the play-wright by way of compromise for his lack of invention. Nec Deus intersit, etc.–but here the God has interposed, and the knot is laughably unworthy of the God.
The second point concerns the return of the father "laden with wealth." The lover has abandoned his mistress in her poverty, and, while yet the words of his proffered reconciliation hang upon his lips, comes his own servant with the news that the mistress' father has returned "laden with wealth." Now, so far as regards the audience, who are behind the scenes and know the fidelity of the lover–so far as regards the audience, all is right; but the poet had no business to place his heroine in the sad predicament of being forced, provided she is not a fool, to suspect both the ignorance and the disinterestedness of the hero.
The third point has reference to the words–"You are now no more a Gipsy." The thesis of this drama, as we have already said, is love disregarding the prejudices of caste, and in the development of this thesis, the powers of the dramatist have been engaged, or should have been engaged, during the whole of the three acts of the play. The interest excited lies in our admiration of the sacrifice, and of the love that could make it; but this interest immediately and disagreeably subsides when we find that the sacrifice has been made to no purpose. "You are no more a Gipsy" dissolves the charm, and obliterates the whole impression which the author has been at so much labour to convey. Our romantic sense of the hero's chivalry declines into a complacent satisfaction with his fate. We drop our enthusiasm, with the enthusiast, and jovially shake by the hand the mere man of good luck. But is not the latter feeling the more comfortable of the two? Perhaps so; but "comfortable" is not exactly the word Mr. Longfellow might wish applied to the end of his drama, and then why be at the trouble of building up an effect through a hundred and eighty pages, merely to knock it down at the end of the hundred and eighty-first?
We have already given, at some length, our conceptions of the nature of plot–and of that of "The Spanish Student", it seems almost superfluous to speak at all. It has nothing of construction about it. Indeed there is scarcely a single incident which has any necessary dependence upon any one other. Not only might we take away two-thirds of the whole without ruin–but without detriment–indeed with a positive benefit to the mass. And, even as regards the mere order of arrangement, we might with a very decided chance of improvement, put the scenes in a bag, give them a shake or two by way of shuffle, and tumble them out. The whole mode of collocation–not to speak of the feebleness of the incidents in themselves–evinces, on the part of the author, an utter and radical want of the adapting or constructive power which the drama so imperatively demands.
Of the unoriginality of the thesis we have already spoken; and now, to the unoriginality of the events by which the thesis is developed, we need do little more than alude. What, indeed, could we say of such incidents as the child stolen by Gipsies–as her education as a danseuse–as her betrothal to a Gipsy–as her preference for a gentleman–as the rumours against her purity–as her persecution by a roue–as the irruption of the roue into her chamber–as the consequent misunderstanding between her and her lover–as the duel–as the defeat of the roue–as the receipt of his life from the hero–as his boasts of success with the girl–as the ruse of the duplicate ring–as the field, in consequence, abandoned by the lover–as the assassination of Lara while scaling the girl's bed-chamber–as the disconsolate peregrination of Victorian–as the equivoque scene with Preciosa–as the offering to purchase the ring and the refusal to part with it–as the "news from court," telling of the Gipsy's true parentage–what could we say of all these ridiculous things, except that we have met them, each and all, some two or three hundred times before, and that they have formed, in a great or less degree, the staple material of every Hop-O'My-Thumb tragedy since the flood? There is not an incident, from the first page of "The Spanish Student" to the last and most satisfactory, which we would not undertake to find bodily, at ten minutes' notice, in some one of the thousand and one comedies of intrigue attributed to Calderon and Lope de Vega.
But if our poet is grossly unoriginal in his subject, and in the events which evolve it, may he not be original in his handling or tone? We really grieve to say that he is not, unless, indeed, we grant him the need of originality for the peculiar manner in which he has jumbled together the quaint and stilted tone of the old English dramatists with the degagee air of Cervantes. But this is a point upon which, through want of space, we must necessarily permit the reader to judge altogether for himself. We quote, however, a passage from the second scene of the first act, by way of showing how very easy a matter it is to make a man discourse Sancho Panza:–
Chispa. Abernuncio Satanas! and a plague upon all lovers who ramble about at night, drinking the elements, instead of sleeping quietly in their beds. Every dead man to his cemetery, say I; and every friar to his monastery. Now, here's my master Victorian, yesterday a cow-keeper and to-day a gentleman; yesterday a student and to-day a lover; and I must be up later than the nightingale, for as the abbot sings so must the sacristan respond. God grant he may soon be married, for then shall all this serenading cease. Ay, marry, marry, marry! Mother, what does marry mean? It means to spin, to bear children, and to weep, my daughter! and, of a truth, there is something more in matrimony than the wedding-ring. And now, gentlemen, Pax vobiscum! as the ass said to the cabbages!
And we might add, as an ass only should say.
In fact, throughout "The Spanish Student," as well as throughout other compositions of its author, there runs a very obvious vein of imitation. We are perpetually reminded of something we have seen before–some old acquaintance in manner or matter, and even where the similarity cannot be said to amount to plagiarism, it is still injurious to the poet in the good opinion of him who reads.
Among the minor defects of the play, we may mention the frequent allusion to book incidents not generally known, and requiring each a Note by way of explanation. The drama demands that everything be so instantaneously evident that he who runs may read; and the only impression effected by these Notes to a play is, that the author is desirous of showing his reading.
We may mention, also, occasional tautologies, such as:–
Never did I behold thee so attired
And garmented in beauty as to-night!
What we need
Is the celestial fire to change the fruit
Into transparent crystal, bright and clear!
We may speak, too, of more than occasional errors of grammar. For example:–
"Did no one see thee? None, my love, but thou."
Here "but" is not a conjunction, but a preposition, and governs thee in the objective. "None but thee" would be right; meaning none except thee, saving thee. Earlier, "mayest" is somewhat incorrectly written "may'st." And we have:–
I have no other saint than thou to pray to.
Here authority and analogy are both against Mr. Longfellow. "Than" also is here a preposition governing the objective, and meaning save or except. "I have none other God than thee, etc" See Horne Tooke. The Latin "quam te" is exactly equivalent. [Later] we read:–
Like thee I am a captive, and, like thee,
I have a gentle gaoler.
Here "like thee" (although grammatical of course) does not convey the idea. Mr. L. does not mean that the speaker is like the bird itself, but that his condition resembles it. The true reading would thus be:–
As thou I am a captive, and, as thou,
I have a gentle poler.
That is to say, as thou art and as thou hast.
Upon the whole, we regret that Professor Longfellow has written this work, and feel especially vexed that he has committed himself by its republication. Only when regarded as a mere poem can it be said to have merit of any kind. For in fact it is only when we separate the poem from the drama that the passages we have commended as beautiful can be understood to have beauty. We are not too sure, indeed, that a "dramatic poem" is not a flat contradiction in terms. At all events a man of true genius (and such Mr. L. unquestionably is) has no business with these hybrid and paradoxical compositions. Let a poem be a poem only, let a play be a play and nothing more. As for "The Spanish Student," its thesis is unoriginal; its incidents are antique; its plot is no plot; its characters have no character, in short, it is a little better than a play upon words to style it "A Play" at all.