DEAR WILLIS; -- Fair play is a jewel, and I hope you will let us have it. I have been much amused, by some of the efforts of your critical friend to convict Longfellow of imitation, and Aldrich and others of plagiarism. What is plagiarism? And what constitutes a good ground for the charge? Did no two men ever think alike, without stealing one from the other? or, thinking alike, did no two men ever use the same, or similar words, to convey the thoughts, and that, without any communication with each other? To deny it would be absurd. It is a thing of every-day occurrence.
Some year ago, a letter was written from some part of New England, describing one of these scenes, not very common during what is called “the January thaw,” when the snow mingled with rain, and freezing as it falls, forms a perfect covering of ice upon every object. The storm clears away suddenly, and the moon comes up. The letter proceeds -- “every tree and shrub, as far as the eye can reach, of pure transparent glass -- a perfect garden of moving, waving, breathing chrystals. * * * Every tree is a diamond chandelier, with a whole constellation of stars clustering to every socket,” &c. This letter was laid away, where such things usually are, in a private drawer, and did not see the light for many years. But the very next autumn brought out, among the splendid annuals got up in the country, a beautiful poem from Whittier, describing the same, or rather a similar scene, in which this line
“The trees, like chrystal chandeliers,”
was put in italics by every reviewer in the land, for the exceeding beauty of the imagery. Now the letter was written, probably, about the same time with the poem, though the poem was not published till nearly a year after. -- The writers were not, and never have been, acquainted with each other, and neither could possibly have seen the work of the other, before writing. Now, was there any plagiarism here? Yet there are plenty of “identities.” The author of the letter, when urged, some years after, to have it published, consented very reluctantly, through fear that he should be charged with theft; and, very probably, the charge has been made, though I have never seen it.
May not this often occur? What is more natural? Images are not created, but suggested. And why not the same images, when the circumstances are precisely the same, to different minds? Perhaps your critic will reply, that the case is different after one of the compositions is published. How so? Does he, or you, or anybody read everything that is published? I am a great admirer, and a general reader, of poetry. But, by what accident I do not know, I had never seen the beautiful lines of Hood, till your critical friend brought them to my notice in the Mirror. It is certainly possible that Aldrich had not seen them several years ago – and more than probable that Hood had not seen Aldrich’s. Yet your friend affects great sympathy for both, in view of their bitter compunctions of conscience, for their literary piracies.
But, after all, wherein does the real resemblance between these two compositions consist? Mr. ---- I had almost named him, finds nearly a dozen points of resemblance. -- But, when he includes rhythm, metre and stanza among the dozen, he only shows a bitter resolution to make out a case, and not a disposition to do impartial justice. Surely the critic himself, who is one of our finest poets, does not mean to deny that these mere externals are the common property of all bards. He does not feel it necessary to strike out a new stanza, or to invent new feet and measures, whenever he would clothe his “breathing thoughts in words that burn.
Again, it is not improbable that, within the period of time since these two writers, Hood and Aldrich, came on to the stage, ten thousand females have died, and died tranquilly and died just at day-break, and that after passing a tranquil night, and, so dying, were supposed by their friends to have passed at once to a better world, a morning in heaven. The poets are both describing an actual, and not an imaginary occurrence. And here -- including those before-mentioned, which are common property -- are nine of the critic’s identities, which go to make up the evidence of plagiarism. The last six, it requires no stretch of the imagination to suppose, they might each have seen and noticed separately. The most of them, one other poet at least, has noticed many years ago, in a beautiful poem on these words of the angel to the wrestling Jacob – “Let me go, for the day breaketh.” Wonder if Hood ever saw that?
The few remaining “identities” are, to my mind, sufficiently disposed of by what I have already said. I confess I was not able, until the appearance of the critic’s second paper, in which he brought them out specifically, “marked, numbered, and labelled,” to perceive the resemblance on which the grave charge of literary piracy, and moral dishonesty of the meanest kind was based. In view of all the glaring improbabilities of such a case, a critic should be very slow to make such a charge. I say glaring improbabilities, for it seems to me that no circumstantial evidence could be sufficient to secure a verdict of theft in such a case. Look at it. A man who aspires to fame, who seeks the esteem and praise of the world, and lives upon his reputation, as his vital element, attempts to win his object -- how? By stealing, in open day, the finest passages, the most beautiful thoughts (no others are worth stealing) and the rarest images of another, and claiming them as his own; and that too, when he knows that every competitor for fame, and every critical tribunal in the world, as well as the real owner, will be ready to identify the borrowed plumes in a moment, and cry him down as a thief. A madman, an idiot, if he were capable of such an achievement, might do it, but no other. A rogue may steal what he can conceal in his pocket, or his chest -- but one must he utterly non compos, to steal a splendid shawl, or a magnificent plume, which had been admired by thousands for its singular beauty, for the purpose of sporting it in Broadway. In nine hundred and ninety-nine cases of a thousand, such charges are absurd, and indicate ratehr the carping littleness of the critic, than the delinquency of his victim.
Pray, did you ever thing the worse of Dana, because your friend, John Neal, charged him with pirating upon Paul Allen, and Bryant too; in his poem of “THE DYING RAVEN”? or of yourself, because the same friend thought he had detected you in the very act of staling from Pinckney, and Miss Francis, now Mrs. Child? Surely not. Every body knows that John Neal wishes to be supposed to have read every thing that ever was written, and never to have forgotten any thing. He delights, therefore, in showing up such resemblances.
And now -- for the matter of Longfellow’s imitation -- In what do they consist? The critic is not very specific in this charge. Of what kind are they? Are they imitations of thought? Why not call them plagiarisms then, and show them up? Or are they only verbal imitations of style? Perhaps this is one of them, in his poem on the “Sea Weed.”
---- “drifting, drifting, drifting
On the shifting
Currents of the restless main.”
resembling, in form and collocation only, a line in a beautiful and
very powerful poem of
-- “flowing, flowing, flowing
Like a river.”
Is this what the critic means? Is it such imitations as this that he alludes to? If not, I am at fault, either in my reading of Longfellow, or in my general familiarity with the American Poets. If this be the kind of imitation referred to, permit me to say, the charge is too paltry for any man, who valued his reputation either as a gentleman or a scholar, to make. Who, for example would wish to be guilty of the littleness of detracting from the uncommon merit of that remarkable poem of this same Mr. Poe’s, recently published in the Mirror, from the American Review, entitled “THE RAVEN,” by charging him with the paltriness of imitation? And yet, some snarling critic, who might envy the reputation he had not the genius to secure for himself, might refer to the frequent, very forcible, but rather quaint repetition, in the last two lines of many of the stanzas, as a palpable imitation of the manner of Coleridge, in several stanzas of the Ancient Mariner. Let me put them together.
Mr. Poe says --
“Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore --
Let my head be still a moment and this mystery explore.”
And again --
“It shall clasp a sainted maiden, whom the angels name Lenore –
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angles name Lenore.”
Mr. Coleridge says, (running two lines into one):
“For all averred I had killed the bird, that made the breeze to blow
‘Ah! Wretch!’ said they ‘the bird today, that made the breeze to blow.”
And again –
“They all averred I had killed the bird, that brought the fog and
‘Twas right,’ said they, ‘such birds to slay, that bring the fog and mist.’ ”
I have before me an anonymous poem, which I first saw some five years ago, entitled “The Bird of the Dream.” I should like to transcribe the whole -- but it is too long. The author was awakened from sleep by the song of a beautiful bird, sitting on the sill of his window -- the sweet notes had mingled with his dreams, and brought to his remembrance, the sweeter voice of his lost “CLARE.” He says --
“And thou wert in my dream – a spirit thou didst seem –
The spirit of a friend long since departed;
Oh! She was fair and bright, but she left me one dark night –
She left me all alone, and broken-hearted
* * * * * *
My Dream went on, and thou went on, and thou went on a-warbling too,
Mingling the harmonies of each and heaven;
To away -- away -- away -- beyond the realms of day --
My angle CLARE to my embrace was given.
* * * * * *
Sweet bird from realms of light, oh! come again to-night,
Come to my window -- perch upon my chair --
Come give me back again that deep impassioned strain,
That tells me thou hast seen and love my CLARE.”
Now I shall not charge Mr. Poe with plagiarism -- for, as I have said, such charges are perfectly absurd. Then to one, he never saw this before. But let us look at the “identities” that may be made out between this and “THE RAVEN.” First, in each case, the poet is a broken-hearted lover. Second, that lover longs for some hereafter communion with the departed. Third, there is a bird. Fourth, the bird is at the poet’s window. Fifth, the bird being at the poet’s window, makes a noise. Sixth, making a noise, it attracts the attention of the poet; who, Seventh, was half asleep, dozing, dreaming. Eighth, the poet invites the bird to come in. Ninth, a confabulation ensues. Tenth, the bird is supposed to be a visitor from the land of spirits. Eleventh, allusion is made to the departed. Twelfth, imitation is given the bird knew something of the departed. Thirteenth, that he knew her worth and loveliness. Fourteenth, the bird seems willing to linger with the poet. Fifteenth, there is a repetition, in the second and fourth lines, of a part, and that the emphatic part, of the first and third. Here is a round bakers-dozen (and one to spare) of identities, to offset the dozen found between Aldrich and Hood, and that too, without a word of rythm, meter, or stanza, which should never form a part of such a comparison. Morever, this same poem contains an example of that kind of repetition, which I have supposed the critic meant to charge upon Longfellow, as one of his imitations –
“Away -- away -- away,” &c.
I might pursue it further. But I will not. Such criticisms only make the author of them contemptible, without soiling a plume in the cap of his victim. I have selected this poem of Mr. Poe’s, for illustrating my remarks, because it is recent, and must be familiar to all the lovers of true poetry hereabouts. It is remarkable for its power, beauty, and originality, (out upon the automation owl that has presumed bo croak out a miserable parody -- I commend him to the tender mercies of Haynes Bayley,)* and shows more forcibly than any other which I can think of, the absurdity and shallowness of this kind of criticism.
One word more, -- though acquainted with Mr. Longfellow, I have never seen Mr. Aldrich, nor do I even know in what part of the country he resides; and I have no acquaintance with Mr. Poe. I have written what I have written from no personal motives, but simply because, from my earliest reading of reviews and critical notices, I have been disgusted with this wholesale mangling of victims, without rhyme or reason. I scarcely remember an instance where the resemblances detected were not exceedingly far-fetched and shadowy, and only perceptible to ta mind predisposed to suspicion, and accustomed to splitting hairs.
P. S. The foregoing admirable article by chance went to press, (with the other side of the paper,) without an introduction we had written for it. Among other things, we meant to have thanked and complimented the author -- but no matter.
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