The Coming of the Mammoth -- the Funeral of Time, and other Poems, by Henry B. Hirst. Boston: Philips & Sampson.
Mr. Hirst is a young lawyer of Philadelphia -- admitted to practice, we believe, about two years ago, and already deriving a very respectable income from his profession. Some years since, his name was frequently seen in the content-tables of our Magazines, but latterly the duties of his profession seem to have withdrawn him from literary pursuits. He has, nevertheless, done quite right in collecting his fugitive poems, and giving them to the public in a convenient and durable form. The day has happily gone by when a practitioner at the bar has anything to fear from its being understood that he is capable of inditing a good sonnet.
We have no hesitation in saying that Mr. Hirst has not only given indication of poetical genius, but that he has composed some very commendable poems. His imagination is vigorous, bold, and at the same time delicate. His sense of the true provinces of poetical art is remarkably keen and discriminating, and his versification is superior to that of any American poet. We perhaps should qualify this latter remark by observing that his knowledge of the principles of the metrical art is more profound and more accurate than that of any American poet -- but that his knowledge too frequently leads him into the pedantry of hyperism. He is apt to overdo a good thing. He insists upon rhythmical and metrical effects until they cease to have any effect at all -- or until they give to his compositions an air of mere oddity. -- His other defects are, chiefly, a want of constructive ability, occasional extravagance of expression, and a far more than occasional imitativeness. This last sin, is, in poetry, never to be forgiven, and we are sorry to say that Mr. Hirst is inordinately given to it. There is not a single poem in the beautifully printed volume before us which does not remind us, instantly, of some other composition. If we except some rhythmical effects (for which the author deserves great praise) there is nothing in the book which is fairly entitled to be called original, either in its conception, execution, or manner, as a whole. Of detached thoughts, nevertheless, there are many very striking ones which are quite new, for any evidence that we have to the contrary.
As very usually happens in a case of this kind, the leading and longest poem of the collection is the least worthy of notice. It is called "The Coming of the Mammoth," and, to say nothing of its being a mere paraphrase, in all its most striking points, of Mr. Mathews' "Behemoth," is feebly and incoherently narrated -- narrated, indeed, very much as a schoolboy would narrate it. In fact, we understand that it is one of the earliest compositions of the author, who began to write at a very immature age.
The story runs simply thus. The aborigines are suddenly startled from the quiet of ages, by the apparition of "myriad forms" of the mammoths. These creatures carry death and desolation every where -- destroying vegetation, and animal life wherever they pass. The extravagance with which their nature is delineated, may be instanced by one stanza:
We saw them hunt the buffalo,
And crush them with their tusks of steel;
The mountains rocking to and fro
Like trees that in the tempest reel,When passed their herds; and lake and river
A draught of theirs made dry forever.
The aborigines themselves fall a prey and are reduced to a small band,
when they bethink them of supplicating the aid of Moneddo (Manitou) who
forthwith attacks the ravagers with lightning, and destroys them all but
Bolt rushed on bolt till, one by one,
Howling in agony, they died,
Save him, the fiercest! And alone
He stood -- almost a God in pride --
Then with a loud defying yell
Leapt, like a shaft, o'er hill and dell.
He flies at great speed; the lightnings and the Indians still pursuing.
He reaches the Mississippi -- leaps it at one bound (possibly at a point
not very far from the source) and is at last brought up by the Rocky Mountains
-- but only for a few moments -- he ascends the highest peak -- throws
rocks and trees "in the face of God" and fairly defies him, until at length
the "mightiest spirits" are summoned to put an end to the contest:
They heard: with one tremendous crash
Down on the Mammoth's forehead came
A surging sea of withering flame.
Earth trembled to its core; and weak
But unsubdued the Mammoth leapt
Furiously from that lofty peak
To where the dark blue ocean swept.
Down! down! The startled waters sever;
Then roll above him -- and forever!
Our readers will agree with us that from the summit of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, is a tolerably long leap even for a Mammoth -- although he had had some previous practice in jumping the Mississippi.We are not extravagant in saying (are we?) that the "Coming of the Mammoth" which might as well have been called the "Coming and the Going of the Mammoth" is the most preposterous of all the preposterous poems ever deliberately printed by a gentleman arrived at the years of discretion. Nor has it one individual point of redeeming merit. Had Mr. Hirst written only this we should have thrown his book to the pigs without comment.
"The Funeral of Time" is a forcible allegory, very indistinctly made out, but well versified in some respects, and filled with majestic images -- although disfigured, too often, by something even more mad than Nat Leeism.
"Isabelle" is the finest ballad ever written in this country, and but for its obvious and no doubt intentional imitations, might be called one of the best ever written anywhere. It is indeed exceedingly difficult to understand how the author of such trash as "The Mammoth" could be at the same time author of anything so widely different as "Isabelle." Its sim-plicity is exquisite -- its conduct could not be improved -- and its versification (within the narrow limits designed) is full of original force. We quote (unconnectedly) a few of the best quatrains:
A lustrous maid was Isabelle,
And quiet as a brooding bird;
She never thought of passion's spell --
Of love she never heard;
But in her lonely chamber sat,
Sighing the weary hours away
From morn till flitting of the bat
Around the turrets gray.
And trembling with a strange unrest --
A yearning for -- she knew not what;
She only knew her heaving breast
Was heavy with its lot.
At last she passed to womanhood,
And sat her down on Beauty's throne,
A statue with a beating heart
Beneath a breast of stone.
Her lustrous eyes grew large with love;
Her cheeks with passion flushed and bright;
Her lips, whereon no bee might rove
Undrunken with delight,
She felt she had not lived in vain;
She saw the Eden of her dreams
Close round her, and she stood again
Beside its silver streams.
The servants followed her with their eyes,
And prayed the virgin that her hours
Might ever pass under azure skies
And over parterres of flowers.
"Geraldine" is a far better poem than "Isabelle" and is unquestionably
the best in the volume. It is, however, in manner a palpable imitation
of Tennyson. In justice to Mr. Hirst we quote it in full:
The martins twitter round the eaves,
The swift adown the chimney glides,
The bees are humming 'mid the leaves
Along the garden side;
The robin whistles in the wood,
The linnet on the vane,
And down the alder-margined lane
The throstle sings, and by the flood
The plover pipes again.
But ah -- alas! alas! no more
Their merry melodies delight;
No more along the river's shore
I watch the swallow's flight:
And bees may hum and birds may sing,
And silver streamlets shine,
But on the rocks I sit and pine
Unheeding all; for thought will cling
To naught but Geraldine.
Oh, Geraldine! my life, my love!
I only wander where we met
In emerald days, when blue above
The skies were o'er us set --
Along the glen and o'er the vale
And by the willow tree
I wander where at even with thee
I sang the song and told the tale
Of olden chivalry.
I stand beneath the sombre pines
That darken all thy father's hall,
Begirt with noisome ivy vines
That shroud me like a pall.
Aye there! -- where ruin frowns around!
Until the cock doth crow
I watch thy window-panes below,
Upon the sodden blackened ground
Where nothing good will grow.
I've watched thy lattice as before
To see the glimmer dimly pass,
(When thou wouldst open thy chamber door)
Of lamp-light on the glass;
But none from out thy lattice peeps,
And all within is gloom,
And silent as a vacant tomb,
Save when a bat affrighted cheeps
In some deserted room.
Why comest thou not? Night after night,
For many a long and weary year,
'Neath many and many a May-moon's light,
I've waited for thee here.
Aye blackest night and wildest storm
When frowning in the sky
Have looked on me with lightning eye,
And charnel figures round my form
Have gleamed and hurried by.
Why comest thou not? or wilt thou soon?
The crimson sun doth wax and wane
Day after day; the yellow moon
Gildeth thy casement pane
Night after night; the stars are pale
Expecting thee; the breeze
Rustling among the dreary trees
Sighs for thee with a woful wail
Who art beyond the seas.
They tell me thou wilt never come --
Alas! that thou art cold and dead,
And slumbering in the green sea-foam
Upon some coral bed: --
That shriekingly thy ship went down
Beneath the wailing wave,
And none were near to hear or save --
And then they weep to see me frown --
To hear me groan and rave.
Thou dead! -- no, no! -- it cannot be!
For if thou wast, thy ghost had kept
The solemn trist thou madest with me
When all save passion slept --
Thy ghost had come and greeted me
And bade me be at rest;
And long ere this upon my breast
The clod had lain; and I with thee
Were roaming 'mid the blest.
"The Unseen River" is musical, but has the defect of being imperfectly
made out. Few persons will understand that by the river always heard
but never seen, until the traveller is overtaken by death, it is the poet's
intention to typify Happiness. We quote a fine stanza of which the whole
is very poetic (in the best sense) and of which the concluding line is
a specimen of exquisite versification.
From the valley -- from a river
Which, like many a silver quiver,
Through the landscape stole in light: --
From the bushes, shrubs and blossoms --
Flowers unfolding fragrant bosoms --
Curled the shadows out of sight,
Fading like a ghost in air; and ever the river rippled bright.
"The Burial of Eros" is a very effective allegorical poem -- but all allegories are contemptible: -- at least the only two which are not contemptible (The Pilgrim's Progress and The Fairy Queen) are admired in despite of themselves (as allegories) and in the direct ratio of the possibility of keeping the allegorical meaning out of sight.
"The Sea of the Mind" is another allegory, or (what is less objectionable)
an allegorical enigma. It is miserably indefinite. Its only merit lies
in detached thoughts, and in its admirable management of the trochaic rhythm.
The metre is heptameter catalectic -- consisting of seven (trochaic) feet
and a final c;aesura, equivalent. The trochees are finely varied, now and
then, with dactyls; only the most forcible consonants are employed; the
richest vowel sounds abound; and all the effects of alliteration, with
other rhythmical effects less common, are skilfully introduced. -- For
Silvery the ocean singeth over sands of pearly glow;
Under its surface shapes are gliding -- gliding fast or sailing slow --
Shapes of strange supernal beauty, floating through a fairy wave --
Fairer, purer, lovelier, brighter than the streams that Iram lave.
"The Birth of a Poet" is somewhat like an imitation from John Neal's poem of the same title; the commencement, especially, is stolen.
Mr. Hirst's conception throughout is fantastical -- not to say absurd. The poem, however, is redeemed by one remarkably well-managed quatrain:
Music like what the poet hears
When, wrapt in harmony, he wings
His soul away through argent spheres,
And back their melody brings.
The concluding anap;aest here beautifully and most appropriately varies the iambic rhythm -- making the sound "echo the sense."
"Everard Grey" is a superb specimen of dactylic trimeter, catalectic on one syllable -- three dactyls and one equivalent c;aesura. E. g. --
Time it has passed; and the lady is pale --
Pale as the lily that lolls on the gale:
Weary and worn she hath waited for years
Keeping her grief evergreen with her tears: --
Years will she tarry -- for cold is the clay
Fettering the form of her Everard Grey.
"The Fringilla Melodia" is truly beautiful throughout, possessing a natural force and grace (without effort) which would do honor to the most noted poet in the land. We quote the first quatrain:
Happy song-sparrow that on woodland side
Or by the meadow sits, and ceaseless sings
His mellow roundelay in russet pride,
Owning no care between his wings.
The "sits" here is not ungrammatical; the sparrow is not invoked. The construction is nevertheless a little equivocal.
"The Coming of Autumn" is spirited -- but is a little too much in the Old King Cole way.
"The Autumn Wind" has a noble beginning, and as noble an end -- but as a whole is unimpressive.
"Eleanore" has no merit at all except the effect of the constantly recurring refrain, "- Eleanore!" and this is taken from Tennyson's "Oriana."
"Mary" has some fine passages -- e. g.
He watched each motion of her rustling dress,
Each lustrous movement of her liquid eyes --
Envied the air its undisturbed caress
Of her whose presence was his Paradise.
"To an Old Oak;" "To E---- with a Withered Rose;" and "The Death-Song of the Nightingale" have nothing in them remarkable -- "Eulalie Vere" nothing beyond the barroques lines,
Cheeks where the loveliest of lustres reposes On valleys of lilies and mountains of roses.
"To the American Sky-Lark" is professedly an imitation of Bryant's "Waterfowl:" we need, therefore, say nothing about it
"Ellena" has some glowing thoughts. For example,
at her word
The hushed air shook, with human passion stirred.
a maniac tune
Rang in mine ears, like songs sung in a swoon.
"The Coming of Night" is excellent throughout -- if we except the grammatical error in the ante-penultimate line.
Oh Blessed Night that comes to rich and poor.
Here are two admirable quatrains:
Forest and field are still
Nature seems wrapt in slumber; wholly dumb,
Save when the frog's deep bass or beetle's hum,
Or wailing whippoorwill,
Disturb her weary ear,
Or the far falling of the rippling rill
That sings, while leaping down the silent hill,
Her dreamless sleep to cheer.
"Violet" is merely an absurd imitation of Barry Cornwall's most absurd Tom-Foolery.
"A Gift" is well versified, but common-place.
"The Owl" opens with two finely imaginative stanzas:
When twilight fades and evening falls
Alike on tree and tower,
And silence, like a pensive maid,
Walks round each slumbering bower;
When fragrant flowerets fold their leaves,
And all is still in sleep,
The horned owl on moonlit wing
Flies from the donjon keep.
And he calls aloud "too-whit! too-whoo!"
And the nightingale is still,
And the pattering step of the hurrying hare
Is hushed upon the hill;
And he crouches low in the dewy grass
As the lord of the night goes by,
Not with a loudly whirring wing
But like a lady's sigh.
Every critic -- at least every poetical critic -- will admit that the images in these two stanzas are such as only a true poet could conceive. At the same time they are embodied with much art.
"A Song" and "Mutius Sc;aevola" have no particular merit. "The Forsaken"
ends with nerve:
Well, go thy way! and never wake
The feeblest memory of me,
To wring thy worthless heart! I break
Thy chains and set thee free.
Thou to thy mirth! I to my gloom!
Health to the coldest of the twain!
And mine -- not thine -- the iron doom
Of having loved in vain.
"The Lament of Adam" is chiefly remarkable for the effect of its versification
-- not altogether original, to be sure, but rare, and very forcible when
well-managed. The rhythm is dactylic, the lines terminating with equivalent
c;aesuras. The metre is generally tetrameter, catalectic on one syllable
(the c;aesura forming the catalexis) -- but the lines increase towards
the closing of the stanzas, and in one instance are hexameter catalectic.
We give the last stanza:
Life hath its pleasures -- but perishing they as the flowers:
Sin hath its sorrows; and, sighing we turned from those bowers:
Bright were the angels behind with their falchions of heavenly flame:
Dark was the desolate desert before us, but darker the depth of our shame.
Here the alliteration is too obvious -- quite overdone, and is an instance of the hyperism to which we alluded in the beginning of our notice.
"The Statue-Love" is not very good.
"May" is a remarkably fine poem, with an exquisite close:
----the passionate bard
Wanders away through sylvan lonelinesses,
Alive with love -- his heart a silver river
On which the swan of song floats gracefully for ever.
"Dramatic Fragments" are worth nothing. "The Song of the Scald Biorne" is, to our astonishment, badly versified. How comes Mr. Hirst in an anap;aestic rhythm, or in any rhythm, with such a verse as --
My iron hand on her arm when before her I knelt?
"Summer" is quite feeble.
Twenty well-constructed sonnets conclude the volume. Among these, "Bethlehem"
and "Dead Man's Island" may be cited as particularly good: but by way of
finale to our review we quote "Astarte" as the best.
Thy lustre, heavenly star! shines ever on me.
I, trembling like Endymion over-bent
By dazzling Dian, when with wonderment
He saw her crescent light the Latmian lea:
And like a Naiad's sailing on the sea,
Floats thy fair form before me: the azure air
Is all ambrosial with thy hyacinth hair:
While round thy lips the moth in airy glee
Hovers, and hums in dim and dizzy dreams,
Drunken with odorous breath: thy argent eyes
(Twin planets swimming through love's lustrous skies)
Are mirrored in my heart's serenest streams --
Such eyes saw Shakespeare, flashing, bold and bright,
When Queenly Egypt rode the Nile at night.
[S:0 - BJ, 1845]