The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 1/Number 1/Literary Notices

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Atlantic Monthly  (1857) 
Literary Notices


The Greyson Letters. Selections from the Correspondence of R. E. H. Greyson, Esq. Edited by Henry Rogers, Author of “The Eclipse of Faith,” &c. Boston: Gould & Lincoln. 1 vol. 12 mo.

We are assured in the American preface to this volume, that while it exhibits Henry Rogers as the peer of Butler as a reasoner, it also shows him not inferior to Lamb as a humorist. Much as we are inclined to echo the critical decisions of prefaces, we regret being unable to indorse this confident statement. In amplitude, vigor, and fertility of thought we must think the author of the “Analogy” holds some slight advantages over the author of “The Eclipse of Faith;” and we seriously doubt if the lovers of Charles Lamb will be likely to rush into mirthful ecstasies over the humor of “The Greyson Letters.” But we suppose that Henry Rogers himself would make no pretensions to the rank of a writer, or reasoner, or humorist of the first class. Far from being a great man, he occasionally slips into the prejudices of quite a little one, and he never wholly puts off the pedagogue and puts on the philosopher. Without much original force of nature, and never unmistakably stamping his own image and superscription either on his arguments or his language, he is still a well-trained theological scholar, a skilful logician, and one of that class of elegant writers who neither offend the taste nor kindle the soul. As a controversialist on themes which are now engaging popular attention, he grasps the questions he discusses at one or two removes from their centre and heart, where they pass out of the sphere of ideas and pass into the region of opinions; and in this region he is candid to the extent of his perceptions, quick to detect the weak points in the formal statements of his opponents, and, without touching the vitalities of the matter in controversy, is always hailed as victor by those who agree with him, but rarely convinces the doubters and deniers he aims to convert. “The Greyson Letters” are evidently the work of an amiable, learned, accomplished, and able man, interested in a wide variety of themes which especially attract the attention of thinkers, but in his treatment of them indicating a lack of deep and wide experience, and of that close, searching thought which pierces to the core of a subject, and broods patiently over its living elements and relations, before it assumes to take them as materials for argumentation. This broad grasp of premises, which implies a penetrating and interpretative as well as dialectic mind, is the distinguishing difference between a great reasoner and an able logician. In regard to the form of the work, we can see no reason why its essays should be thrown into the shape of letters. The epistolary spirit vanishes almost as soon as “Dear Sir” and “Dear Madam” create its expectation. The author’s mind is grave by nature and culture, and is sprightly, as it seems to us, by compulsion and laborious levity. his nature has none of the rich- ness and juiciness, none of the instinctive soul of humor, which must have vent in the ludicrous. Occasionally an adversary or adverse dogma is demolished with excellent logic, and then comes a dismal grin or chuckle at the feat, which hardly reminds us of the sly, shy smile of Addison, or the frolic intelligence which laughs in the victorious eyes of Pascal. Still, with all abatements, “The Greyson Letters” make a book well worthy of being read, contain much admirable matter and suggestive thought, and might be allowed to pass muster among good books of the second class, did they not come before us with professions that seemed to invite the tests applicable to the first.

Essays in Biography and Criticism. By Peter Bayne, M. A., Author of “The Christian Life, Social and Individual,” &c. First Series. Boston: Gould & Lincoln. 1 vol. 12 mo.

This volume contains essays on De Quincey, Tennyson and his Teachers, Mrs. Barrett Browning, Glimpses of Recent British Art, John Ruskin, Hugh Miller, The Modern Novel, and Currer Bell. Though of various degrees of merit, they all evince careful study and patient thought, and are written with considerable brilliancy and eloquence. As a critic, Mr. Bayne is generally candid, conscientious, and intelligent, with occasional remarks evincing delicacy and depth of thought; but his perceptions are not always trustworthy, and his judgments are frequently of doubtful soundness. Thus when we are told that Wordsworth owed his fame to his moral elevation rather than to his “intellectual or æsthetic capacities,” and that there is hardly an instance of the highest creative imagination in the whole range of his poetry,—when we are informed that since Shakspeare no one “has laid bare the burning heart of passion” so perfectly as Byron,—and when the question is triumphantly asked, “Where, out of Shakspeare, can we find such a series of female portraits as those” in Bulwer’s “Rienzi,”—we feel inclined, in this association of Byron and Bulwer with Shakspeare, and this oversight of Wordsworth’s claim to represent the highest original elements in the English poetry of the present century, to dispute Mr. Bayne’s right to assume the chair of interpretative criticism. But still there are so many examples in his book of fine and true perception, and so evident a sympathy with intellectual excellence and moral beauty, that we do not feel disposed to quarrel with him on account of the apparent erroneousness of some of his separate opinions. Besides, his work is written in a style which will recommend it to a class of readers who are not especially interested in the subjects of which it treats, and it cannot fail to stimulate in them a desire to know more of the great writers of the century.

White Lies. A Novel. By Charles Reade. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 1 vol. 12 mo.

The early chapters of this novel lack the brisk movement, the sparkling compactness, the stinging surprises of Mr. Reade’s usual style, but he kindles and condenses as he proceeds. As a whole, the work compares favorably with his most brilliant compositions. He is a Writer difficult to criticize, because his defects are pleasing defects. Dogmatism is commonly offensive, and Mr. Reade’s dogmatism is of the most uncompromising, not to say insulting character; yet it is exhibited in connection with insight so sure and vivid, that we pardon the positiveness of the assertion for the truth of what is asserted. Then he has a way of forcing Nature, much against her wish, to be epigrammatic,—of producing startling effects by artifices almost theatrical; and though his devices are obvious, they are more than forgiven for the genuine power and real naturalness behind the rhetorical masquerade. Other men’s freaks and eccentricities lead to the distortion of truth and the confusion of relations, but Mr. Reade has freaks of wisdom and eccentricities of practical sagacity. Occasionally he has a stroke of observation that comes like a flash of lightning, blasting and shattering in an instant a prejudice or hypocrisy which was strong enough to resist all the arguments of reason and all the appeals of humanity. “White Lies” is full of examples of his power, and of the peculiarities of his power. Blunt and bold and arrogant as his earnestness often appears, it is capable of the most winning gentleness, the most delicate grace, and the most searching pathos. The delineation of the female characters in this novel is especially admirable. Josephine and Laure are exquisite creations, and the Baroness and Jacintha, though different, are almost as perfect, considered as examples of characterization. In the invention and management of incidents, the author exhibits a sure knowledge of the means and contrivances by which expectation is stimulated, and the interest of the story kept from flagging. We hope to read many more novels from the same pen as delightful as “White Lies.”

Brazil and the Brazilians. Portrayed in Historical and Descriptive Sketches. By Rev. D. P. Kidder, D. D., and Rev. J. C. Fletcher. Illustrated by one hundred and fifty Engravings. Philadelphia: Childs & Peterson. 1 vol. 8 vo.

Brazil is a country but little known to the majority of readers, and the little that is known is so fragmentary that it is as likely to convey a false idea as an incomplete one. The writers of this volume combine two qualifications for the work of dissipating this ignorance. They have a direct personal knowledge of Brazil, gained during a long residence in the country, and they have carefully studied every valuable book on its history and resources. The manners, customs, laws, government, productions, literature, art, and religion of the people have all been carefully observed under circumstances favorable for accurate investigation. The result is a valuable, interesting, and attractive volume, well worthy of being extensively read. The elegance of its mechanical execution, and the profusion of engravings illustrating the text, will add to its popularity, if not to its value.

The Poetical Works of Leigh Hunt. Now first entirely collected. Revised by himself, and edited, with an Introduction, by S. Adams Lee. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 2 vols. 18 mo.

Leigh Hunt has outlived all the enmities and enemies provoked either by his merits or his demerits, and is especially interesting as the sole survivor of the illustrious company of poets with whom the mind instinctively associates him. Some burnt out; some died out; some dried up; but he remains the same cosey, chirping, fine-natured, and self-pleased singer, who won the love of Shelley and Keats, and roused the wrath of Gifford and Wilson. We are glad to welcome his collected poems in their appropriate attire of “blue and gold,” and trust they will have a wide circulation in the United States, as the genial poet is himself to be a participant in the profits of the publication. We wish that a word of ours could be influential in assisting this veteran of letters to reap from the publication something more substantial than fame, yet in some degree the expression of it,—something which shall give him assurance that his volumes are on thousands of parlor tables, because the proofs of it are palpable in the increased comforts afforded to his old age. And certainly the poet deserves a wide circle of readers. Though he does not succeed in the delineation of the great and grand passions of our nature, he is very successful in the sphere of its humane and tender sentiments; and though open to criticism for the jaunty audacity with which he coins dainty sweetnesses of expression rejected by all dictionaries, and for an occasional pertness in asserting opinions of doubtful truth, he is so lovable a creature that we pardon his literary foibles as we would pardon the personal foibles of a charming companion and friend. He has a genuine love for all cheerful and cheering things, and power enough to infuse his cheer into other minds. Disliking all internal and external foes to human comfort, he is equally the enemy of evil, and of the morbid discontent which springs from the bitter contemplation of evil. His nature is essentially sprightly and sensuous, with here a bit of Suckling and there a bit of Fletcher, carrying us back to an elder period of British poetry by the careless grace and freedom of his movement, and proving his connection with the present by the openness of his mind to all liberal thought and philanthropic feeling. Good-humor and benevolence are so dominant in his nature, that they prevent him from having any deep perceptions of evil and calamity. He is personally affronted when he sees the thunder-cloud push away the sunshine from life; and God, to him, is not only absolute Good, but absolute Good Nature.

It would be easy to quote passages from these volumes illustrative of his acute observation, his largeness of sympathy, his delicacy and daintiness of touch, his sweetness, humor, pathos, and fancy. As a specimen of the playful and beautiful ingenuity of his mind, we extract a portion of his little poem on “Love-Letters made of Flowers.”

"An exquisite invention this,
Worthy of Love’s most honeyed kiss,
This art of writing billets-doux
In buds and odors and bright hues!
In saying all one feels and thinks
In clever daffodils and pinks;
In puns of tulips; and in phrases,
Charming for their truth, of daisies;
Uttering, as well as silence may,
The sweetest words the sweetest way.
How fit, too, for the lady’s bosom!
The place where billets-doux repose ’em.

"What delight, in some sweet spot
Combining love with garden plot,
At once to cultivate one’s flowers
And one’s epistolary powers!
Growing one’s own choice words and fancies
In orange tubs and beds of pansies;
One’s sighs and passionate declarations
In odorous rhetoric of carnations;
Seeing how far one’s stocks will reach;
Taking due care one’s flowers of speech
To guard from blight as well as bathos,
And watering every day one’s pathos!

From the exquisite little poem entitled “Songs of the Flowers” we should like to cut a few stanzas; but our limits forbid.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.