Genius, and other essays/A Belt of Asteroids
A BELT OF ASTEROIDS
NOW and then a name becomes durably known in literature through the reputation of a single fugitive poem. Our English lyrical system has, of course, its greater and lesser planets, with their groups of attendant satellites. At irregular periods, some comet flashes into view, lights up the skies for a time, and then disappears beyond the vision. Whether, after the completion of a cycle, it will again attract attention and become an accepted portion of this solar family, or whether, being of a transient though garish presence, it will lessen forever upon its hyperbolic skyway, cannot always be determined by observers. And lastly, at the risk of tearing a metaphor to tatters, I may say that there are scattered through certain intervals of the system, like those fragments between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, the asteroidal poets, each of whom we have recognized by a single and distinctive point of light.
The one effort of an amateur is accepted by the people, or gains favor with compilers who select and preserve whatever is of lasting value. The result is a wide public knowledge of these kinless poems, and of the facts which have attended their begetting; so that I shall not hunt for new matter, or reason too curiously upon my theme. Rather let me associate a few of the best-known and even hackneyed pieces of this sort, while the reader considers the philosophy of their production and success.
One is tempted to borrow a title from the British politicians, who, as everybody knows, called a member of Parliament "Single-Speech Hamilton," after his delivery of a sound and persuasive harangue upon the finances, in November, 1775. If the essence of fun be incongruity, then the nickname was not amiss, for it was certainly incongruous and odd that a member, who had dozed through silent terms, should jump up at a crisis and add unexpected strength to his party by the eloquence of a trained rhetorician and a wisdom which none dreamed he could possess. I have no doubt that, before morning, at the clubs, hundreds and fifties were offered against his ever speaking again. If so, he must have become as obnoxious to those who took the odds as were the portly old buffers who darkened coffee-house windows long beyond the dates at which the younger bucks had wagered that apoplexy would seize them; for Hamilton, having once tasted renown, did, it seems, essay more speeches, thereby putting the nicknamers and gamesters to confusion; which leads De Quincey to remark, with a chuckle over the whimsies of humanity, that the generation "had greatly esteemed the man called Single-Speech Hamilton, not at all for the speech (which, though good, very few people had read), but entirely from the supposed fact that he had exhausted himself in one speech, and had been physically incapable of making a second; so that afterward, when he did make a second, everybody was incredulous, until, the thing being demonstrated, naturally the world was disgusted, and most people dropped his acquaintance."
The world is thus jealous of its preconceived opinions, or of rivalry to an established favorite, and will always array the old against the new. It begrudges a chance hand the right to hit the bull's-eye more than once, and measures each successive shot with unkind exactness; so that only those who have the root of the matter in them, and do better and better, are at all advanced by fresh trials after one triumph. A first achievement will be merged, and thought even less of, among equal others of the kind.
That was a shrewder fellow, of our own day and country, who took warning from Hamilton's misfortunes, and delivered his single speech at the close of a long Senatorial term, knowing that the loss of an election had put him beyond the perils of anti-climax. Sitting at his desk—he had been a cripple for years—and talking off his speech in the most random manner, he was logical and humorous by turns, drove black care from the Senate Chamber, and threw a singularly grotesqueover the last night of that doleful session which preceded the opening of our civil war. Next morning he left in a blaze of glory for Kentucky, and, so far as I know, was never heard of more.
Our business, however, is not with the politicians, but with that superior race, the poets. Not that these songsters are exempted from a common law. If, once in a while, some brown domestic bird varies his wonted piping, and breaks out in passionate and melodious notes; or, when a brilliant-plumed creature, kept rather for ornament than song, seems to have borrowed the throstle's minstrelsy—if these venture again, the one must have lighter trills and quavers, and the other a purer and more assured sweetness, or it will be said of each that
—he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture.
Many a second performance has thus been stifled within the hearing of us all.
He who has discerned and made available the one fortunate moment of his life, has not lived entirely in vain. Multitudes pass through the sacred garden unawares, with their eyes fixed upon illusions far away. Yet there comes to most persons a time when they are lifted above the hard level of common life to the region of spiritual emotion and discovery. The dullest eye will catch glimpses to make one less forlorn; the ear will be suddenly unsealed, and hear the bells of heaven ring; the mouth will be touched with fire, and utter imaginative speech. Were there not something divine in each of us, a poet would find no listeners. Thus the crises of passion, joy and pain, which are inevitable for all, often raise the most plodding to a comprehension of the rapture of the poet, the devotion of the martyr, the assurance of the leader of his kind. The clear vision demands, and for the moment seems to carry with it, a new gift of expression. Men speak with tongues they never knew before; yet, when the Pentecost is over, relapse into their ordinary existence, and wonder no less than others at what it has been given them to do.
A chance lyric composed in this wise, and the sole performance which has interested the world in its author, has frequently seemed to the latter so light a thing that he has neglected to identify his name with its success. Scores of the ballads which mark the growth of our English poetry, and are now gathered and edited as a portion of its history, have given no fame to the minor poets who sang them,
Ere days that deal in ana swarmed
Their literary leeches.
Doubtless not a few of those notable anonymous pieces, which people love to attribute to some favorite author or hero, have been, could we only determine it, the single productions of amateurs. There is "The Lye," for example, which is claimed for Sir Walter Raleigh, and is quite good enough for him to have written—is better than anything established as his own—yet whose authorship is still in escrow between Raleigh, Sylvester, and others of less repute. There are some plaintive stanzas, which commence, "Defiléd is my name full sore," and profess to be the lament of Queen Anne Boleyne from her prison cell, but are undoubtedly the work of another hand. The lovers of that soldierly canticle, "How Stands the Glass Around?" indignant that so lusty and winsome a child should be a foundling, have tried to fix its paternity upon Gen. James Wolfe, because that chivalrous Englisher delighted in it, and used to troll it melodiously across the board. This catch, more widely recognized by the second stanza—
Why, soldiers, why
Should you be melancholy, boys?
Why, soldiers, why,
Whose business 'tis to die?
is indeed the perfection of a soldier's banqueting song—not only pathetic and musical, but with cadences of rhythm so adjusted that it has a pulsing accent at intervals which relate to the drum-beat and the martial tread of ranks. Any poet might be glad to have composed it. We have it, as copied from a half-sheet of music printed about the year 1710. Perhaps it was brought over from the Low Countries by Marlborough's men; yet there is the ring of Dryden's measures about it, and a poet, whose instinct upon such matters is almost unfailing, has declared to me that he would venture to ascribe it to glorious John upon this internal evidence alone. The authors of a hundred comparatively modern ballads and ditties, like "The Children in the Wood," "Comin' Thro' the Rye," "When this old Cap was New," have left their voices alone behind them; yet each voice seems to have a distinctive quality of its own. Who wrote "The White Rose," that darling little conceit of a Yorkish lover to his Lancastrian mistress? The twin stanzas have become a jewel upon the "stretched forefinger of all time." James Somerville laid violent hands upon them, early in the last century, remodelled them, and added three verses of his own, each weaker than the predecessor. It has been the fate of many pretty wanderers to be thus kidnapped and rechristened, and sometimes, fortunately, by nobler craft than Somerville's, to be changed to something truly rich and rare. As when John Milton based "Il Penseroso" upon the verses "In Praise of Melancholy," commencing—
Hence, all ye vain delights!
Here stretch our bones in a still, gloomy valley,
Nothing's so dainty sweet as lonely melancholy.
These have been claimed for Fletcher, since he inserted them in his play of "The Nice Valour," but possibly were composed by Dr. William Strode, who flourished in the first half of the seventeenth century. Dr. Strode is also thought to have written a lyric often quoted as Dryden's, "The Commendation of Music," which contains some delicate lines:
Oh, lull me, lull me, charming air,
My senses rocked with wonder sweet!
Like snow on wool thy fallings are,
Soft like a spirit are thy feet.
Campbell found the key-note of his resonant naval ode, "Ye Mariners of England," in the lines, "Ye Gentlemen of England," written by Martyn Parker so long before. Burns worked over the old North Country ballad of "Sir John Barleycorn," as well as many an ancient Scottish song; and Shakespeare— but I need not multiply examples. The rude strong choruses which have sprung up in great campaigns, or at times of revolutionary excitement, have been the offspring of single minds, though verse after verse has been mated with them by the people. Such are the burdens of the French "Malbrouck" and "Ça Ira," the Irish "Shan Van Vocht," and our own grim battle-chorus of "John Brown's Body"—yet it would be difficult to prove that they had not "growed" like Topsy, without the formality of a beginning. I take it, in brief, that many of the noteworthy anonymous poems were the handiwork of single-poem makers. Artists who have become favorably known by continuous effort are not careless of their titles to successful work, nor do the book-wrights often permit specimens of the acknowledged masters to be lost.
The composers of our most familiar random poems are of several types. First, those whose one inspiration has come from a sentiment—like the love of home, of country, of sweetheart, of wife and offspring. Such have sung because a chance emotion would have vent, and their song has found a greeting in the common heart, independently of much artistic right to consideration. Next are the natural rhymesters, with their sound and fury. If one makes verses perpetually, the odds are that he will at some time find something worth to say, or that he will hit upon a theme in which his fellows have a genuine interest; and when these chances come together, the result is a popular acceptation of what is produced, while against the rest of the author's jingles we stop our ears. Again, there are persons of high culture and beautiful thought, who have the gift of expression, but who have neglected its practice, either being sufficient unto themselves, or with their energies so diffused in other walks of life that they have only yielded in a gracious or impassioned moment to utterance of the lays for which we gratefully remember them.
A fugitive poem thus depends for its preservation upon an appeal to the universal emotions; or, through its real merits, gives pleasure to cultured minds, who insure it ultimate renown by Ruskin's process of the transfer of correct taste from the judicious to the unskilful. Here and there one combines these attractions, and thus achieves the high dual purpose of art. A lyric of the first kind often allies itself to an air so taking that we can hardly say whether the poetry or the music has made the hit. But some verses, like "God save the King," are such utter mouthing that their entire success has evidently depended on the tune. If not, old-time British loyalty was a sentiment beyond modern comprehension. Yet there are happy instances in our own language, more frequently among the Scotch and Irish dialects, of "perfect music unto noble words;" while there are other widely popular stanzas, for which musical composers have tried in vain to find a consonant melody, and thus express their very sense.
Among poems which are endeared to the people by their themes is that strictly American production, "The Bucket" of Samuel Woodworth. Without great poetical merit, it calls up simple idyllic memories to every one who has been a country boy, whether he has gained in manhood the prizes of life, or is still a trouble-tossed wanderer. To most Americans, home has been a place to start from, and only loved when left forever. Yet through the sentiment of home and a pleasant sensuous reminiscence of boyhood, "The Bucket" has found its way to numberless hearts. And Woodworth, when writing it, was lifted, for perhaps the only time in his life, to the genuine emotion of the poet, yearning after the sunny meadows, the fons splendidior vitro, and the moss-covered bucket of his rustic days. He was indeed a tempest-beaten fellow; a printer, born in Scituate, Mass., and a hard-worked, generally unfortunate hack and journalist, from 1816 down to his death in 1842. Except his one famous song, I can find nothing worth a day's remembrance in his collected poems, of which a volume was published in 1818, and again in 1827. Yet he wrote other pieces in the same metre and with as much care and purpose. His patriotic songs during the war of 1812 had a wide reading, as things went then. All are of the copy-book order; his was a tame, didactic mind; he never wrote but one poem, and that of itself preserves his name. "The Bucket" belongs to the lower or basic strata of the Parnassus mountain—the emotional (yet here it occurs to me that these crop out again near the apex, as in some lofty dramatic outburst, like
Grief fills the room up of my absent child!)
and this household poem, without the factitious aid of a popular air, holds a place by its own music and the associations which it conveys.
Indeed, I am not sure that the present article was not suggested by a visit made one day to the rooms where a painter has translated into his own form of expression this and another of our simplest primary lyrics. Multitudes are now buying the pretty chromolithographs of Jerome Thompson's paintings of "The Old Oaken Bucket," and "Home, Sweet Home"; nor do I hesitate to say that few more grateful and attractive pictures, within the means of the average country-dweller, can hang upon his walls, than these truthful representations of the birth-place of Samuel Woodworth, and the "Sweet Home" of John Howard Payne.
The last-named ditty, though still more obviously depending upon a sentiment, has a world of help from the air to which it was composed. Looking at the stirring life and many writings of its author, it seems strange that such ordinary stanzas should be the production by which he is known, and here mentioned as his single poem. Payne was a New Yorker, born in 1792, and, by an odd coincidence, his first essays were contributed to a juvenile paper called The Fly, published by Samuel Woodworth at the Boston office, where the latter learned his trade. The former was only seventeen years old when he made a famous sensation at the Park, as Young Norval, following it up with the enactment of all sorts of parts at many American theatres, and soon playing as second to George Frederick Cooke. He had taken to the stage for the support of a widowed mother, breaking off a collegiate course at Union. In 1813 he went to England and came out at Drury Lane; then turned author again, and made his first literary success in the tragedy of "Brutus," which he wrote for Edmund Kean, and which still holds "the stage." He also wrote "Virginius" and "Therese," and I don't know what, but the facts about "Home, Sweet Home" may bear telling again. For years Payne was an available playwright and craftsman in the London dramatic world. When Charles Kemble became manager of Covent Garden, he purchased a batch of our author's manuscripts for the gross sum of £230; and a play was fished out from the mess, changed by Payne into an opera, and produced as "Clari, the Maid of Milan." Miss Tree, the elder sister of Mrs. Charles Kean, was in the first cast, and sang "Home, Sweet Home," one of the "gems" of this piece. It made an astounding hit, was speedily the popular favorite, and even at this day we may say that the air and words are the surest key, on the reappearance of a pet diva, to unlock the hearts of her welcomers. Those who were present will not forget the return of Kellogg to our Academy on the 19th of last October, and the tenderness and grace with which she sang them; nor the encores of the audience, and the flowers which dropped around her till she seemed like a melodious bird in Eden. "Sweet Home" was only reckoned at £30 to its author, but was a fortune to those who purchased it. In 1832, 100,000 copies had been sold by the original publisher, and the profits within two years after its issue were two thousand guineas. For all this, it is nothing but a homely, unpoetical statement of the most characteristic sentiment of the Teutonic race. The music had gained no former triumph; but wedded to the idea of home, and sounded in Anglo-Saxon ears, it became irresistible, and will hold its own for generations. "'Midst pleasures and palaces" is as bad as bad can be, but match it with the assertion "There's no place like Home!" and we all accept the one for the sake of the other.
Nor is it strange that in America—where homes are so transitory and people are like the brooks which go on forever—this sentiment should take hold as firmly as in the Motherland. It is because our home-tenure here is so precarious that we cling to its idealization. Conversely, we have little of that itch to possess land—to own so many roods of earth to the centre—which our adopted citizens display. The Yankee undervalues the attainable, and is so used to see land at low rates about him that he can scarcely understand the eagerness with which a Frenchman or German receives his title-deeds to some barren hillside in Pennsylvania or a quarter section along the overland route.
Payne was too much of an actor to be a poet. His youthful features, judging from the likeness taken in his seventeenth year, were of a singularly mobile and expressive type. Not long ago, some of his MSS., and a portrait of him in later manhood, were offered for sale in this city, as a part of a virtuoso's collection. The face there given would readily have obtained a place in Eugene Benson's gallery of those which are beautiful and suggestive. He was, also, too much of a playwright and author to become a great actor; and too much a man of affairs to stick to any profession continuously. As last he made a long retirement, as Consul at Tunis, and might have produced an epic if he had known how. Before this, his employments were as diverse as those of Shakespeare; but the gap between the capacities of two such beings is wide as the arch from pole to pole, though they stand on a common axis of chosen work.
As for Payne's one song, it would seem that any stanzas, thus widely known and endeared, have a more than ordinary claim for admission to a collection which aims to present the noteworthy accepted poetry of the English language. So that, while glad to repeat the general approval of Mr. Dana's volume, and to acknowledge that it contains, on the whole, the most conscientious, scholarly, and catholic presentation which has yet been made—I am surprised that the critical editor has not, in the case of "Home, Sweet Home," so far overstepped his limit of the "truly beautiful and admirable" as to admit it. Of course it goes to the rear on the score of poetical defects; but on what ground are introduced the more objectionable stanzas of "God Save the King"? As the national British anthem? But "Home, Sweet Home" is the people's and children's song of all English-speaking countries, and its very title is a plea for a humble corner in any Household Book of Poetry.
Mention of "God Save the King" suggests national hymns, and we notice that the leading patriotic songs of France, England, and the United States, are the single works of their authors, unless we allow George Saville Carey's claim that his father wrote the British national anthem, and give credit to Queen Hortense for the words as well as the pretty music of "Partant pour la Syrie." For Hortense, with all her faults, was a sweet musician and verse-maker, and executed other agreeable works; yet in her best-known song most exactly expressed the courtly, chivalrous vivacity of a people who fight and make love pari passu, and gaily interblend their patriotism, gallantry, and love of fame. Both the poem and the music have that "quality" which, refined by culture, so wins us in the minor art of France. Despite their "temporary and trivial" nature they have other claims to the affection of her people than the accident of the Second Empire. After all, they are not quite the thing, and the French Minister of War is advertising for a worthy national hymn. He will scarcely obtain it from a leading poet. Mr. Grant White has told us how national hymns are written and not written, and it is a fact that nearly all which have not grown among the people, have resulted from the glow of patriotism in the hearts of citizen-laymen, with whom love of country was a compelling inspiration.
The "Marseillaise" is a preëminent example of a single lyrical outburst from the soul of an unprofessional poet. It is the real battle-hymn of an oppressed France, and in her struggles for liberty will never be supplanted by any manufactured successor. After a long suppression, it was again made the national song when Louis Philippe gained the throne by the revolution of 1830; but when the Citizen-King forgot his citizenship, he, too, was compelled to flee before its chorus. It is the most historical and dramatic of lyrics. The one flight which Rouget-de-Lisle took was that of an eagle, soaring to the empyrean, and disdaining a lower reach. When a soldier invades the province of the poet, composes such a song at a single heat, and, like the bards of old, summons from his harp the music that shall match them, it is not safe to deny anything to the inspiration of mere amateurs. The man's whole life was crowded into that night at Strasbourg, and with it all the frenzy and devotion of a bleeding land.
Both our American national poems are the compositions of lawyers, who are known for little else which they wrote, outside the judicial reports. Neither seems to have had any sacred fury in his nature that was not evoked by patriotism. That which Judge Joseph Hopkinson gave out in "Hail, Columbia," was of a sufficiently humdrum kind. He had the music of the "President's March" as a copy before him, and his verses are little better or worse than the air. The Judge was born in 1770, and was a spruce young lawyer in the summer of 1798, when war with France seemed imminent, and Congress was holding an excited session at Philadelphia. He wrote his ode at a sitting, for the benefit of an actor, who had vainly exhausted the poets of the theatrical company, in an effort to adopt words to the stilted march then most in favor. Hopkinson was appealed to on Saturday, wrote the song on Sunday, heard it from a stage-box on the next evening; and it made a great sensation. The citizens joined in the chorus night after night, and the jurist-author found himself renowned for life by a rude homily upon Columbia in prose chopped to the metre. He was afterward a member of Congress, then a Judge of the United States District Court, and died within the memory of most of us at the good old age of seventy-two.Francis Scott Key swept the chords more tunefully in his "Star-Spangled Banner," which has merits that would give it a leasehold, independently of the spirited music to which it was composed. Its obvious rhymes and adjectives—"haughty host," "dread silence," "foul footsteps' pollution," etc., are little suited to the naturalism of our later day, but the burden,
'Tis the star-spangled banner; O long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
was that which a popular refrain should be, the strong common sentiment of a nation; and Key, for once in his life, expressed the feeling of a true poet. He died shortly after Hopkinson, whose junior he was by seven years. He wrote some religious pieces, and a few other songs, none of which have outlived their period; though one, "On the Return of Decatur," had a brief reputation. It is in the Adams-and-Liberty metre of the "Star-Spangled Banner," and exemplifies the sing-song rhythm into which men like Woodworth and Key are apt to fall, and which often commends itself to the popular taste. It is the bacon-and-greens, so to speak, of the feast of song, and not much relished by cultivated palates.
That most original and resonant lyric, the "Carmen Bellicosum" of Guy Humphrey McMaster, is far removed from these, except by the common theme of defence of country. Here is a noble chant indeed! Trumbull, in his pictures, effected no more than this writer has given us with a single dash of the pen—an interpretation of the very spirit of '76. The "Carmen Bellicosum"—every one will recall its opening verse,
In their ragged regimentals
Stood the old Continentals,
occupies a unique position among English lyrics. There is nothing like it in our language; 'tis the ringing, characteristic utterance of an original man. There is a perfect wedding of sense to sound, and of both to the spirit of the theme. To include a picture often ruins a song; but here we have the knot of patriots clustered upon a battle-hillside, the powder cracking amain, the old-fashioned colonel galloping with drawn sword, and as
Rounder, rounder, rounder, roars the old six-pounder,
it seems a heavier piece of ordnance, and charged with weightier issues, than the whole park of artillery in a modern armament.
The song will last with the memory of revolutionary days. I know little of its author, save that he is also a lawyer and a judge, presiding over the Steuben County Court in this, his native State. He is now about forty years of age, and must have been quite young when his "Carmen" appeared in the old Knickerbocker Magazine. If a stripling attorney will enter the minstrel lists, sound such a potent blast, then withdraw himself to the happy life of a country-gentleman, nor be heard again through all these years, he also must, for the present, be numbered in our catalogue of the single-poem poets.
McMaster is a Scotch or North-Irish patronymic, and the Scotch have ever been in the custom of producing fugitive lyrics of a true poetical quality. These ditties relate more frequently to the strongest of all emotions—that of love between man and woman—than to the love of home or fatherland. Two of the sweetest will at once recur to the reader. "Auld Robin Gray" was composed by Anne Lyndsay, afterward Lady Barnard, as long ago as 1772, at Balcarras in Fife. Her father was the Earl of that ilk. She was an elegant, spirited girl, not yet out of her teens, when an old air, set to a loose old song, "The Bridegroom grat when the sun gaed doun," gave her a motive for her work. The lassie had learned the tune, in such mischievous ways as our liberal maids doubtless know of in these prudish times, and thought the pensive measure deserved more fitting words. She chose for her text the world-wide plaint that "Crabbed Age and Youth cannot live together"—a theme as ancient in English as Chaucer's "January and May"—took the name of Gray from an old herd in the vicinage, and wrote as sweet and pathetic a ballad as exists in any tongue. The first stanza,
When the sheep are in the fauld and the kye at hame.
is now, I believe, the only one sung to the antique tune. From the second, "Young Jamie lov'd me weel," to the close, the music, written thirty years since by the Rev. W. Lewes, is still most in use. Lady Anne's ballad was not given to the public till 1776, and, as it at once became famous, a prolonged dispute arose concerning its authorship. Modesty prevented the authoress from claiming her laurels. How could a debonair young maiden own herself familiar with the wanton ditty, "The Bridegroom grat"? Not till she had been many years the wedded wife of Sir Andrew Barnard, and the shadows of death were close at hand, did she write her letter to Sir Walter, avowing the authorship, and narrating at length what I have briefly told. She composed a few other verses, but nothing to compare with the ballad for which we remember her name.
There is pretty good warrant for saying that the soldiers' darling, "Annie Laurie," was the work of Mr. Douglas, of Fingland, who courted Anne, a fair daughter of Sir Robert Laurie, the first baronet of Maxwelton. This was near the commencement of the last century. The song, as it now exists, is generally classed as anonymous in our anthologies; but has been so refined and annealed through various crucibles that the current version is quite different from the two stanzas which Douglas wrote, and certainly more artistic. His are thus given in the Ballad Book, which contains the earliest printed copy:
Maxwelton banks are bonnie
Where early fa's the dew;
Where I and Annie Laurie
Made up the promise true;
Made up the promise true,
And never forget will I,
And for bonnie Annie Laurie
I'd lay me doun and die.
She's backit like a peacock,
She's breistit like a swan,
She's jimp about the middle,
Her waist you weel micht span;
Her waist you weel micht span;
And she has a rolling eye,
And for bonnie Annie Laurie
I'd lay me doun and die.
The heroine's rolling eye cast its glances away from poor Douglas, and she married a Mr. Ferguson, of Craigdarrock, who found some better mode of winning a maiden's heart than singing under her window-panes. After all, the pleasure is as great in loving as in being loved; and, to put the matter allegorically, Apollo, indignant at the slight inflicted by Venus upon his servant, gave him, unawares, a seat in his temple, and ordained that, for centuries, lovers should sing the song of him who sang in vain.
What manlier love-poetry was ever written than the verses, "To his Mistress," of James Grahame, Marquis of Montrose, wherein he vowed
I'll make thee famous by my pen,
And glorious by my sword!
The poem itself fulfilled half the pledge. More than two hundred years have gone by, and still no lines are more often quoted than this quatrain from the same lyric:
He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
Who dares not put it to the touch
To gain or lose it all.
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage,
from Dick Lovelace's stanzas "To Althæa, from Prison"; though the handsome cavalier left many another ditty to distinguish him from our birds of a single flight. The lines here mentioned are the second example we have reached of the music, real or imagined, of imprisoned songsters; and to them I might add the Latin verses, "In Dura Catena," attributed to the Queen of Scots—certainly the one poem written by the Fayre Gospeller, Anne Askewe, who was burned at the stake by command of brutal and dying Harry, in 1546. After her last examination upon the rack, she was inspired to utter, in a Newgate cell, the heroic defiance:
Like as the arméd knight
Appointed to the field,
With this world will I fight,
And faith shall be my shield.
We can well believe the statement of one who saw the girl led to execution, that "she had an angel's countenance and a smiling face." Poor Anne's verses have been preserved rather for her story's sake and for their religious ardor, than for poetical excellence; and it is noticeable that hymns, and fugitive lyrics animated with religious hope or aspiration, have a fairer chance, other things being equal, of obtaining a continued hearing than ahnost any class—those appealing to the "master passion" alone excepted. Reflective poems, tinged with that melancholy which comes to one chastened by the experiences of life, are also widely in favor.
"I would not live Alway" has everywhere made the name of our venerable citizen, Dr. Muhlenberg, a household word. He wrote it many years since, with no thought that it would ever be used for the devotions of the church, but has long seen it in the hymnology of most Protestant denominations, and encountered many pseudo-claimants to its authorship. Among these I knew an old printer, of Litchfield, Connecticut, who imagined he had composed it, and periodically filled a column in the village newspaper with evidence to further his claim. But Dr. Muhlenberg's title cannot be shaken. Another poem, upon a kindred theme, though with the element of hope omitted, was popular with the sad Calvinists of the last generation, but had almost faded out, when an accidental connection with the name of President Lincoln gave it a new lease of life, which may continue with the memory of the great Liberator. He was so fond of repeating the monody,
O why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
that by some persons he was credited with its composition, until the press recognized the work of William Knox, who died a. d. 1825, at Edinburgh, in his thirty-seventh year. These lines are expressive of a brooding Scotch melancholy, pitched in a minor religious key, and in certain moods not ineffective as a quaint and forceful meditation upon an ever-pressing theme. Their whole motive is condensed in the terse old formula, "All flesh is grass"; but a Sicilian poet, the pagan Moschus, found even this an insufficient image of the hopelessness of mortality. Let me give a naked translation (from the wonderful Epitaph of Bion), of the most sorrowful passage ever constructed outside of Hebrew writ:
Even the mallows—alas! alas!—when once in the garden
They, or the pale-green parsley and crisp-growing anise, have perished,
Afterward they will live and flourish again at their season;
We, the great and brave, or the wise—when death has benumbed us—
Deaf in the hollow ground a silent, infinite slumber
Sleep; forever we lie in the trance that knoweth no waking.
The drear and homely verses of Mr. Lincoln's favorite poem have already gained the suffrage of those gentlemen whose favor is such an omen of longevity—the makers of school-books. I find it in the latest Reader, along with such selections as Lincoln's "Address at Gettysburg," Read's "Sheridan's Ride," Bayard Taylor's "Scott and the Veteran," Whittier's "Barbara Freitchie," and other new-born pieces, which are to the rising generation what the "Speech of Patrick Henry," "Marco Bozzaris," or "Stand! the Ground's Your Own, My Braves!" were to ourselves, a few—it seems a very few—summers and winters ago.
Sexagenarians can remember the notoriety given Herbert Knowles—an English youth who died at Canterbury in his twentieth year—by Robert Southey, who set him forth in the London Quarterly as a second Kirke White. Knowles was a precocious religious poet, and his surviving verses are "Lines Written in the Churchyard of Richmond," to the text, Matt, xvii., 4:
Methinks it is good to be here!
If thou wilt, let us build, but to whom?
These will appear in many future compilations; and so will the thoughtful numbers of our own countrywoman, Harriet Winslow:
Why thus longing, thus forever sighing
For the far-off, unattained and dim?
But a more impassioned and elevated single poem is that fervent composition imagined to have been written by "Milton on his Blindness"—the work of a Quaker lady, Elizabeth Lloyd, of Philadelphia. These truly "noble numbers" deserve the attention which they gained upon their first appearance, at which time paragraphists went so far as to call them Milton's own, and credit them to an Oxford edition of his poems. They are not Miltonic in the least, but exhibit a rapturous inspiration, and of themselves have insured their writer a long regard.
Occasionally straightforward rhymes, with a moral, like "The Three Warnings" of Mrs. Hester Lynch Piozzi—Johnson's Mrs. Thrale—have held their own, either for their shrewd wisdom, or for the associations connected with their author.
But which of all the asteroids that have passed before our vision—whether tinged with a domestic, patriotic, amorous, or sombre light—will be longer or more lovingly regarded than the children's own poem and dearest—"'Twas the Night before Christmas"? written for them so daintily by a sage college professor, Clement C. Moore, to wit, long time a resident of this old Dutch city, and deceased (peace to his ashes!) hardly more than four or five years ago. "A Visit from St. Nicholas" is dear to the little ones for its exquisite fancies and the annual legend, and to us all for our beautiful memories of childhood and home. It is linked with the natal festival of Christendom, is entirely true to its purpose, and finished as deftly as if the author had been a professional poet. Few of those who were his contemporaries, and who know every word of this sparkling fantasia, have been familiar with the details of his quiet and industrious life. He was born in 1779, and grew up a studious philologist, as his Hebrew and English lexicon, issued in 1809, still attests. Twelve years afterward he was made Professor of Biblical Learning in the New York Episcopal Theological Seminary, and more lately took the chair of Oriental and Greek Literature. Despite all this, and rich besides, he wrote poetry, and a volume of his rhymes appeared in 1844. They were of an ephemeral nature, except the poem which I would have gone far to hear him repeat in his old, old age, and for which my younger readers must always remember his venerable name.
Let us not overlook a lyric, of which many have, probably, already thought—the Rev. Charles Wolfe's "Burial of Sir John Moore." No fugitive piece has had a wider or more potential circulation than this school-boy favorite; yet who, besides the men of letters, have troubled themselves concerning its author, or known of other graceful verses by his hand? A few have read the song which he made to the Irish air, "Grammachree." It is said that he sang the music over until it affected him to tears, and impelled him to write his equally pathetic lament, in such stanzas as the following:
If I had thought thou couldst have died
I might not weep for thee;
But I forgot when by thy side,
That thou couldst mortal be.
It never through my mind had past
The time would e'er be o'er,
And I on thee should look my last,
And thou shouldst smile no more!
But we must here cease our observation of poets who come strictly within the prescribed limits of the telescopic field. I have barely space enough for reference to a few of those whose reputation has been won by life-long devotion to their art, yet of whose respective productions some one piece has, in each instance, gained the world's ear, and often to the neglect of other excellent works. The poems hitherto considered are more widely known than their authors; while to name a poet of the class to which I now allude, is to start in the mind the key-measure of his representative poem. Examples of this effect are always numerous, and especially in present remembrance of the poets who wrote long ago—Time so winnows out and sets apart the general choice, whether it be such coarse healthful grain as that from which jovial Bishop Still brewed his "Good Ale"—
Back and side go bare, go bare;
Both foot and hand go cold;
But belly, God send thee good ale enough,
Whether it be new or old!
or the golden barley on which singing birds like Thomas Lodge and Sir Henry Wotton had fed, ere they warbled such dainty lyrics as "Love in my bosom like a Bee," and "You meaner beauties of the night." These two, and many another canticle of their period, you can find in R. H. Stoddard's most choice selection of English Melodies and Madrigals. Are James Shirley and Edmund Waller popularly remembered by single lyrics? Nearly so, for in the one case the two stanzas of Shirley's "Victorious Men of Earth," with the alteration of a couplet, would be in the stately measures of that grandest and most solemn of our minor poesies, "Death's Final Conquest,"
The glories of our birth and state
Are shadows, not substantial things.
while the feeling and theme of the two lyrics are alike, and, though each is perfect in itself, they read like portions of a divided poem. And Waller's name is still popularly connected with "Go, Lovely Rose," and "On a Girdle," out of the whole mass of his songs, epistles, epitaphs, and panegyrics, though Professor Lowell, in his delightful citation of Dryden, and perhaps animated by that scorn of Waller's truckling which every true and noble poet must feel, says that the latter has lived mainly on the credit of a single couplet in the lines closing his "Divine Poesy."The late English period, however, is all that I can glance at. To mention John Logan is to revive the "Ode to the Cuckoo," yet 'tis by no means certain that Logan did not refine this standard poem from the crude metal left by his friend Michael Bruce. His song on a wild old theme, touched by so many melodists, "The dowie dens of Yarrow," deserves as long a reputation; though of all the Yarrow ballads, that by William Hamilton, "Busk ye, busk ye, my bonnie, bonnie bride!" is the nonpareil. Every one has been affected by the simplicity, music, and exquisite pathos of Caroline Oliphant, the Baroness Nairn's "Land o' the Leal":
I'm wearin' awa', John,
Like snow-wreaths in thaw, John;
I'm wearin' awa'
To the land o' the leal.
The author died in 1845, at the ripe age of eighty years, and throughout her life wrote poetry, some of it humorous, which was quite the fashion in Scotland. "The Laird o' Cockpen" had a wide reading, and is excellent of its kind. There was Susanna Blamire, the "Muse of Cumberland," who made sweet use of the border dialect in her ballads and songs. "The Siller Crown" is always associated with her name:
And ye sail walk in silk attire,
And siller hae to spare,
Gin ye'll consent to be his bride
Nor think o' Donald mair.
There, also, is Sheridan's granddaughter, Lady Dufferin, who has composed very many lyrics, but is known by her most beautiful ballad, "The Irish Emigrant's Lament," sometimes wrongly credited to her sister, Mrs. Norton. The words of "I'm Sitting on the Stile, Mary!" and the genuine melody to which they are sung, have that about them which will last. Did Dennis Florence M'Carthy or John Francis Waller write "Dance light, for my heart lies under your feet, love"? I should like to know, for equal authorities ascribe it to one and the other, and it is too graceful an Irish ballad to go a-begging; 'tis almost as good as the song of Irish songs, Allingham's "Lovely Mary Donnelly." Of Thomas Noel's Rhymes and Roundelays, published in London, 1841, the poem all know is a strange and grotesque lyric, "The Pauper's Drive," with its dreary burden:
Rattle his bones over the stones!
He's only a pauper, whom nobody owns.
Perhaps "Give me the Old," written by R. H. Messenger, a Bostonian, from the theme "Old Wine to Drink," etc., should have been included with the class first under review. The New Yorker, James Aldrich, made verses innumerable, but we only speak of two little stanzas, entitled "A Death Bed," so curiously like and unlike Hood's "We watched her breathing through the Night." The names of three poets—and on whom in the South have fallen their mantles?—quickly bring to mind three songs which won them most lovers; remembering the scholar, poet, and enthusiast, Richard Henry Wilde, one finds himself murmuring that soft perfection, "My Life is like the summer Rose"; next comes Edward C. Pinkney's chivalrous "Health"; "I drink this cup to one made up of loveliness alone!" and with mention of Philip Pendleton Cooke, all think of "Florence Vane," which, however, is a close study after E. A. Poe. The latter is himself constantly entitled the author of "The Raven," yet, for true poetical qualities, his "Annabel Lee," "Haunted Palace," "The City in the Sea," and that remarkable dithyrambic fantasy, "The Bells," are more valued by the selectest taste. Why does every one speak of the late General Morris as the writer of "Woodman, Spare that Tree"? Because this lyric, almost as widely known as "Sweet Home," has the simple elements of a song proper, and in this respect might not have been so good if the author had been a greater poet. I think it deserves a corner, opposite the other, in any liberal collection of our songs. Hoffman's "Sparkling and Bright" had a like trick of catching the public ear. The Rev. Ralph Hoyt, who once published a volume of quaint and original poems, is known as the author of "Old," and he has been so long silent that it is not wholly my fault if he is not reckoned with the list of contemporaries. Two fugitive lyrics, now in my mind, may belong rather to the classification first made, though why I should here select them, I can hardly tell. One is "The Voice of the Grass,"
Here I come creeping, creeping everywhere!
by Sarah Roberts, of New Hampshire. The other—who is it by?—"In Summer when the days were long." Each was composed by a true poet, and is an addition to literature in its unpretending way.
But to return for a moment to our main purpose. The fortunate single-poems, before mentioned, were either the spirited efforts of amateurs, or the sole hits achieved by the Quinces and Triplets of their day. If a person of culture has made, with easy hand, a chance success; or, if patient dullards woo our gracious Thea until they flatter her into a smile of favor, or steal upon an unguarded moment to catch certain echoes of her voice; all this is nothing in behalf of amateur art—nor are they to be placed on a level with the consecrated poets. For the latter can, with certainty, again and again, excel the random work of those who come not in by the appointed door. A large proportion of the minor art of our most approved poets is made up of pieces, each of which, if the only specimen of its author, might have received preservation as an attractive fugitive poem. We need not mention the great names of the past, but can any doubt that such would be the case with Browning's "Evelyn Hope," and "How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix"; with Tennyson's "May Queen," "Bugle Song," "Come into the Garden, Maud"; with Longfellow's "Excelsior"; Lowell's "The Courtin'," and "To a Dandelion" ; Bryant's "The Battle-Field"; wath those exquisite quatrains by Aldrich, "Ah, sad are they who know not love!" with Boker's "Dirge for Phil Kearny," Winter's beautiful lyric, "Love's Queen," Taylor's "Bedouin Song," and "Daughter of Egypt"; with Swinburne's "If love were what the rose is"; or, indeed, with scores of other imaginative and finished specimens of these and other master-hands? For I have mentioned the foregoing at merest hap-hazard, as minor productions likely, from one cause or another, to have become endeared to the people or the critical few, and each for itself to have preserved an author's name.
Hereafter, more than ever, there will be no royal road to the honors of the poet. It is necessary, in this period, that every cabinet picture or sketch should show the hand of the master, and be a gem of its kind. More is required to make good work distinctive. High technical finish is so well understood, that it is again asked of the poet, not only that he shall have the art of sweet-saying, but that he shall have something to say. Mrs. Browning sings of the great Pan, down among the river reeds, "making a poet out of a man"; but often I wish some power would make men out of plenty of the modern poets. A painter has to look through the Old World for his masterpieces, and to sit long at the feet of his elders for the secrets of color and form; but the versifier's greatest models are at hand in every village library, and the contagion which the press brings to our doors constantly leads hundreds to mistake inclination for power, or an imitative knowledge of the technique of poetry for a true inspiration. They catch the knack of making such verses as only genius could have invented fifty years ago, and which then might justly have won them laurels.
Thus no art is so easy as that of poetry; but in none is it so difficult to achieve a distinctive individuality. It is the lowest and highest of arts. In it, more than in any other, amateur work is to be discouraged, as most easily essayed, and as fostering dilettanteism and corrupt taste. There is little danger of sending away angels unawares. I was in the studio of a wise and famous painter, who has learned the secrets of the dawn, when a young aspirant came with a specimen of his work, and sought counsel as to his adoption of the painter's art as a calling for life. My friend looked at the sketch, kindly talked with the youth of a painter's struggles and self-denials, and of the tide constantly pressing the finest genius back from its goal, and so sent his listener away with few words of encouragement or hope. "Now," said I, "you know that boy's picture had merit; why did you treat him so harshly?" He answered, "If he has the right stuff in him, this will make no difference; he will paint on, though the ghost of Raphael should warn him to give way; and will succeed in his art. If he has not, I am doing him the highest benefit by keeping from him that 'crown of sorrow' which is inevitable for one who has not clearly discerned the true purpose of his life."
- The Galaxy, January, 1869.
- This, without discussion of the merits of the paintings or the good and evil effects of distributing their lithographic copies among the people. It seems to me, however, that Mr. Thompson's pictures have the feeling and suggestiveness of the songs for which they are named; and the colored prints are the most carefully finished of those yet produced in this country.
- Now Mrs. E. L. Howell.
- The blemish in this line would not be overlooked by a poet of Wolfe's quality, in these days of mosaic art.
- Reference may be appreciated by some readers of this essay to Famous Single and Fugitive Poems, edited by Rossiter Johnson, published, 1880, by Messrs. Henry Holt & Co., New York.—The Editors.