Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Margaret Miller and Lucretia Maria Davidson” (Text-B), The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe­ (1850), 3:219-228


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­ [page 219, continued:]

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MARGARET MILLER AND LUCRETIA MARIA DAVIDSON.

THE name of LUCRETIA DAVIDSON is familiar to all readers of poetry. Dying at the early age of seventeen, she has been rendered famous not less, and certainly not more, by her own precocious genius than by three memorable biographies — one by President Morse, of the American Society of Arts, another by Miss Sedgwick, and a third by Robert Southey. Mr. Irving had formed an acquaintance with some of her relatives, and thus, while in Europe, took great interest in all that was said or written ­[page 220:] of his young countrywoman. Upon his return to America, he called upon Mrs. Davidson, and then, in 1833, first saw the subject of the memoir now before us,* — a fairy-like child of eleven. Three years afterwards he met with her again, and then found her in delicate health. Three years having again elapsed, the MSS. which form the basis of the present volume, were placed in his hands by Mrs. Davidson, as all that remained of her daughter.

Few books have interested us more profoundly. Yet the interest does not appertain solely to Margaret. “In fact the narrative,” says Mr. Irving, “will be found almost as illustrative of the character of the mother as of the child; they were singularly identified in taste, feeling, and pursuits; tenderly entwined together by maternal and filial affection, they reflected as inexpressibly touching grace and interest upon each other by this holy relationship, and affecting groups in modern literature, to sunder them.” In these words the biographer conveys no more than a just idea of the exquisite loveliness of the picture here presented to view.

The MSS. handed Mr. Irving, have been suffered, in a great measure, to tell their own thrilling tale. There has been no injudicious attempt at mere authorship. The compiler has confined himself to chronological arrangement of his memoranda, and to such simple and natural comments as serve to bind rather than to illustrate where no illustration was needed. These memoranda consist of relations by Mrs. Davidson of the infantine peculiarities of her daughter, and of her habits and general thoughts in more matured life, intermingled with letters from the young poetess to intimate friends. There is also a letter from the bereaved mother to Miss Sedgwick, detailing the last moments of the child — a letter so full of all potent nature, so full of minute beauty, and truth and pathos, that to read it without tears would be to prove one’s self less than human.

The “Poetical Remains” of this young creature, who perished (of consumption) in her sixteenth year, occupy about two hundred pages of a somewhat closely printed octavo. The longest poem ­[page 221:] is called “Lenore,” and consists of some two thousand lines, varying in metre from the ordinary octo-syllabic, to the four-footed, or twelve-syllabled iambic. The story, which is a romantic love-tale, not ill-conceived in its incidents, is told with a skill which might put more practised bards to the blush, and with ocasional [[occasional]] bursts of the truest poetic fire. But although as indicative of her future power, it is the most important, as it is the longest of her productions, yet, as a whole, it is not equal to some of her shorter compositions. It was written not long before her death, at the age of fifteen, and (as we glean from the biography) after patient reflection, with much care, and with a high resolve to do something for fame. As the work of so mere a child, it is unquestionably wonderful. Its length, viewed in connexion with its keeping, its unity, its adaptation, and completeness, will impress the metaphysician most forcibly, when surveying the capacities of its author. Powers are here brought into play which are the last to be matured. For fancy we might have looked, and for the lower evidences of skill in a perfect versification and the like, but hardly for what we see in Lenore.

Yet remarkable as this production is, from the pen of a girl of fifteen, it is by no means so incomprehensible as are some of the shorter pieces. We have known instances — rarely, to be sure — but still we have known instances when finer poems in every respect than Lenore have been written by children of as immature age — but we look around us in vain for anything composed at eight years, which can bear comparison with the lines subjoined

TO MAMMA.

Farewell, dear mother, for a while

I must resign thy plaintive smile;

May angels watch thy couch of wo,

And joys unceasing round thee flow.

 

May the almighty Father spread

His sheltering wings above thy head.

It is not long that we must part,

Then cheer thy downcast drooping heart.

 

Remember, oh! remember me,

Unceasing is my love for thee!

When death shall sever earthly ties,

When thy loved form all senseless lies. ­[page 222:]

 

Oh! That my form with thine could flee,

And roam through wide eternity;

Could tread with thee the courts of heaven,

And count the brilliant stars of even.

Nor are these stanzas, written at ten, in any degree less remarkable —

MY NATIVE LAKE.

Thy verdant banks, thy lucid stream,

Lit by the sun’s resplendent beam,

Reflect each bending tree so light

Upon thy bounding bosom bright.

Could I but see thee once again,

My own, my beautiful Champlain!

 

The little isles that deck thy breast,

And calmly on thy bosom rest,

How often, in my childish glee,

I’ve sported round them, bright and free!

Could I but see thee once again,

My own, my beautiful Champlain!

 

How oft I’ve watch’d the fresh’ning shower

Bending the summer tree and flower,

And felt my little heart beat high

As the bright rainbow graced the sky.

Could I but see thee once again,

My own, my beautiful Champlain!

 

And shall I never see thee more,

My native lake, my much-loved shore,

And must I bid a long adieu,

My dear, my infant home, to you?

Shall I not see thee once again,

My own, my beautiful Champlain?

In the way of criticism upon these extraordinary compositions, Mr. Irving has attempted little, and, in general, he seems more affected by the loveliness and the purity of the child than even by the genius she has evinced — however highly he may have estimated this latter. In respect, however, to a poem entitled “My Sister Lucretia,” — he thus speaks — “We have said that the example of her sister Lucretia was incessantly before her, and no better proof can be given of it than in the following lines, which breathe the heavenly aspirations of her pure young spirit, in strains to us quite unearthly. We may have read poetry more artificially perfect in its structure, but never any more truly divine in its inspiration.” The nature of inspiration is disputable ­[page 223:] — and we will not pretend to assert that Mr. Irving is in the wrong. His words, however, in their hyperbole, do wrong to his subject, and would be hyperbole still, if applied to the most exalted poets of all time.

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The analogies of Nature are universal; and just as the most rapidly growing herbage is the most speedy in its decay — just as the ephemera struggles to perfection in a day only to perish in that day’s decline — so the mind is early matured only to be early in its decadence; and when we behold in the eye of infancy the soul of the adult, it is but indulging in a day dream to hope for any farther proportionate development. Should the prodigy survive to ripe age, a mental imbecility, not far removed from idiocy itself, is too frequently the result. From this rule the exceptions are rare indeed; but it should be observed that, when the exception does occur, the intellect is of a Titan cast even to the days of its extreme senility, and acquires renown not in one, but in all the wide fields of fancy and of reason.

Lucretia Maria Davidson,* the elder of the two sweet sisters who have acquired so much of fame prematurely, had not, like Margaret, an object of poetical emulation in her own family. In her genius, be it what it may, there is more of self-dependence — less of the imitative. Her mother’s generous romance of soul may have stimulated, but did not instruct. Thus, although she has actually given less evidence of power (in our opinion) than Margaret — less written proof — still its indication must be considered at [[a]] higher value. Both perished at sixteen. Margaret, we think, has left the better poems — certainly, the more precocious — while Lucretia evinces more unequivocally the soul of the poet. We have quoted in full some stanzas composed by the former at eight years of age. The latter’s earliest effusions are dated at fourteen. Yet the first compositions of the two seem to us of nearly equal merit.

The most elaborate production of Margaret is “Lenore.” It ­[page 224:] was written not long before her death, at the age of fifteen, after patient reflection, with much care, and with all that high resolve to do something for fame with which the reputation of her sister had inspired her. Under such circumstances, and with the early poetical education which she could not have failed to receive, we confess that, granting her a trifle more than average talent, it would have been rather a matter for surprise had she produced a worse, than had she produced a better poem than “Lenore.” Its length, viewed in connexion with its keeping, its unity, its adaptation, and its completeness (and all these are points having reference to artistical knowledge and perseverance) will impress the critic more favorably than its fancy, or any other indication of poetic power. In all the more important qualities we have seen far — very far finer poems than “Lenore” written at a much earlier age than fifteen.

“Amir Khan,” the longest and chief composition of Lucretia, has been long known to the reading public. Partly through Professor Morse, yet no doubt partly through their own merits, the poems found their way to Southey, who, after his peculiar fashion, and not unmindful of his previous furores in the case of Kirke White, Chatterton, and others of precocious ability, or at least celebrity, thought proper to review them in the Quarterly. This was at a period when we humbled ourselves, with a subserviency which would have been disgusting had it not been ludicrous, before the crudest critical dicta of Great Britain. It pleased the laureate, after some squibbling in the way of demurrer, to speak of the book in question as follows: — “In these poems there is enough of originality, enough of aspiration, enough of conscious energy, enough of growing power to warrant any expectations, however sanguine, which the patrons and the friends and parents of the deceased could have formed.” Meaning nothing, or rather meaning anything, as we choose to interpret it, this sentence was still sufficient (and in fact the half of it would have been more than sufficient) to establish upon an immoveable basis the reputation of Miss Davidson in America. Thenceforward any examination of her true claims to distinction was considered little less than a declaration of heresy. Nor does the awe of the laureate’s ipse dixit seem even yet to have entirely subsided ­[page 225:] “The genius of Lucretia Davidson,” says Miss Sedgwick, “has had the meed of far more authoritative praise than ours; the following tribute is from the London Quarterly Review.” What this lady — for whom and for whose opinion we still have the highest respect — can mean by calling the praise of Southey “more authoritative” than her own, is a point we shall not pause to determine. Her praise is at least honest, or we hope so. Its “authority” is in exact proportion with each one’s estimate of her judgement. But it would not do to say all this of the author of “Thalaba.” It would not do to say it in the hearing of men who are sane, and who, being sane, have perused the leading articles in the “London Quarterly Review” during the ten or fifteen years prior to that period when Robert Southey, having concocted “The Doctor,” took definite leave of his wits. In fact, for anything that we have yet seen or heard to the contrary, the opinion of the laureate, in respect to the poem of “Amir Khan,” is a matter still only known to Robert Southey. But were it known to all the world, as Miss Sedgwick supposes with so charmingly innocent an air; we mean to say were it really an honest opinion, — this “authoritative praise,” — still it would be worth, in the eyes of every sensible person, only just so much as it demonstrates, or makes a show of demonstrating. Happily the day has gone by, and we trust forever, when men are content to swear blindly by the words of a master, poet-laureate though he be. But what Southey says of the poem is at best an opinion and no more. What Miss Sedgwick says of it is very much in the same predicament. “Amir Khan,” she writes, “has long been before the public, but we think it has suffered from a general and very natural distrust of precocious genius. The versification is graceful, the story beautifully developed, and the orientalism well sustained. We think it would not have done discredit to our most popular poets in the meridian of their fame; as the production of a girl of fifteen it seems prodigious.” The cant of a kind heart when betraying into error a naturally sound judgement, is perhaps the only species of cant in the world not altogether contemptible.

We yield to no one in warmth of admiration for the personal character of these sweet sisters, as that character is depicted by the mother, by Miss Sedgwick, and by Mr. Irving. But it costs ­[page 226:] us no effort to distinguish that which, in our heart, is love of their worth, from that which, in our intellect, is appreciation of their poetic ability. With the former, as critic, we have nothing to do. The distinction is one too obvious for comment; and its observation would have spared us much twaddle on the part of the commentators upon “Amir Khan.”

We will endeavor to convey, as concisely as possible, some idea of this poem as it exists, not in the fancy of the enthusiastic, but in fact. It includes four hundred and forty lines. The metre is chiefly octo-syllabic. At one point it is varied by a casual introduction of an anapæst in the first and second foot; at another (in a song) by seven stanzas of four lines each, rhyming alternately; the metre anapæstic of four feet alternating with three. The versification is always good, so far as the meagre written rules of our English prosody extend; that is to say, there is seldom a syllable too much or too little; but long and short syllables are placed at random, and a crowd of consonants sometimes renders a line unpronounceable. For example:

He loved, — and oh, he loved so well

That sorrow scarce dared break the spell.

At times, again, the rhythm lapses, in the most inartistical manner, and evidently without design, from one species to another altogether incongruous; as, for example, in the sixth line of these eight, where the tripping anapaestic stumbles into the demure iambic, recovering itself, even more awkwardly, in the conclusion:

Bright Star of the Morning! This bosom is cold —

I was forced from my native shade,

And I wrapped me around with my mantle’s fold,

A sad, mournful Circassian maid!

And I then vow’d that rapture should never move

This changeless check, this rayless eye,

And I then vowed to feel neither bliss nor love,

But I vowed I would meet thee and die.

Occasionally the versification rises into melody and even strength; as here —

‘Twas at the hour when Peris love

To gaze upon the Heaven above

Whose portals bright with many a gem

Are closed — forever closed on them.

Upon the whole, however, it is feeble, vacillating, and ineffective; ­[page 227:] given token of having been “touched up” by the hand of a friend, from a much worse, into its present condition. Such rhymes as floor and shower — ceased and breast — shade and spread — brow and wo — clear and far — clear and air — morning and dawning — forth and earth — step and deep — Khan and hand — are constantly occurring; and although, certainly, we should not, as a general rule, expect better things from a girl of sixteen, we still look in vain, and with something very much akin to a smile, for aught even approaching that “marvellous ease and grace of versification “ about which Miss Sedgwick; in the benevolence of her heart, discourses.

Nor does the story, to our dispassionate apprehension, appear “beautifully developed.” It runs thus: — Amir Khan, Subahdar of Cachemere, weds a Circassian slave who, cold as a statue and as obstinately silent, refuses to return his love. The Subahdar applied to a magician, who give him

a pensive flower

Gathered at midnight’s magic hour;

the effect of whose perfume renders him apparently lifeless while still in possession of all his senses. Amreeta, the slave, supposing her lover dead, gives way to clamorous grief, and reveals the secret love which she has long borne her lord, but refused to divulge because a slave. Amir Khan hereupon revives, and all trouble is at an end.

Of course, no one at all read in Eastern fable will be willing to give Miss Davidson credit for originality in the conception of this little story; and if she have claim to merit at all, as regards it, that claim must be founded upon the manner of narration. But it will be at once evident that the most naked outline alone can be given in the compass of four hundred and forty lines. The tale is, in sober fact, told very much as any young person might be expected to tell it. The strength of the narrator is wholly laid out upon a description of moonlight (in the usual style) with which the poem commences — upon a second description of moonlight (in precisely the same manner) with which a second division commences — and in a third description of the hall in which the entranced Subahdar reposes. This is all — absolutely all; or at the least the rest has the nakedness of mere catalogue. We recognise, ­[page 228:] throughout, the poetic sentiment, but little — very little — of poetic power. We see occasional gleams of imagination: for example —

And every crystal cloud of Heaven

Bowed as it passed the queen of even. . . . . .

 

Amreeta was cold as the marble floor

That glistens beneath the nightly shower. . . . . .

 

At that calm hour when Peris love

To gaze upon the Heaven above,

Whose portals bright with many a gem

Are closed — forever close on them. . . . . .

 

The Subahdar with noiseless step

Rushed like the night-breeze o’er the deep.

We look in vain for another instance worth quoting. But were the fancy seen in these examples observable either in the general conduct or in the incidents of the narrative, we should not feel obliged to disagree so unequivocally with that opinion which pronounces this clever little production “one which would not have done discredit to our most popular poets in the meridian of their fame!

“As the work of a girl of sixteen,” most assuredly we do not think it “prodigious.” In regard to it we may repeat what we said of “Lenore,” — that we have seen finer poems in every respect, written by children of more immature age. It is a creditable composition; nothing beyond this. And, in so saying, we shall startle none but the brainless, and the adopters of ready-made ideas. We are convinced that we express the unuttered sentiment of every educated individual who has read the poem. Nor, having given the plain facts of the case, do we feel called upon to proffer any apology for our flat refusal to play ditto either to Miss Sedgwick, to Mr. Irving, or to Mr. Southey.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 220:]

­ *  Biography and Poetical Remains of the late Margaret Miller Davidson. By Washington Irving. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 223:]

­ *  Poetical Remains of the late Maria Davidson, Collected and Arranged by her Mother; with a Biography by Miss Sedgwick. Lea & Blanchard: Philadelphia.


Notes:

The titles of the books in the two footnotes should be italicized, but neither is italicized in the original printing, and thus this error has not been corrected here.


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[S:1 - Works, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Margaret Miller and Lucretia Maria Davidson (Text-B)