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LOWELL'S CONVERSATIONS. -- The poetic genius of [[James]] Russell Lowell has been clearly manifested in his previous works; and now these "Conversations on some of the Old Poets" are not less striking evidence of his fine taste and critical power. Were it not doing him injustice to take his book to pieces, talking at it and about it in fragments, we should derive great pleasure from jotting down here, in place of our own dry commentaries, at least one glowing passage from each of these exquisitely printed pages -- appending, in brief, our own differences and coincidences of opinion -- twenty of the latter for one of the former.
We have few men among us of any kind, who think or write at once so earnestly, so purely, and so originally as Lowell; and certainly we have no man among us who can do all this, in prose, as well as he, and at the same time compose a "Legend of Brittany." his reputation, still increasing, and still giving signs of future increase, is one of which he has a right to be proud.
The mingled modesty and point of the preface to the "Conversations," will not fail to arrest attention. For example: -- "Wishing, as I did, to preserve as far as possible unaltered, whatever had given pleasure to others in the articles as already written, I experienced many difficulties. It is impossible to weld cast iron, and I had not time to melt it and re-cast it. I am not bold enough to esteem these essays of any great price. Standing as yet only in the outer porch of life, I cannot be expected to report of those higher mysteries which lie unrevealed in the body of the temple. Yet, as a child, when he has found but a mere pebble, which differs from ordinary only so much as by a stripe of quartz or a stain of iron, calls his companions to behold his treasure, which to them also affords matter of delight and wonder; so I can not but hope that my little findings may be pleasant and haply instructive to some few." we read this with pleasure in any case; but we are not in condition fully to appreciate the force of its delicacy and modest (if force may be coupled at all with either term) until we proceed some dozen pages into the book, and there perceive how richly and vigorously a man may talk of others, who has so negative an opinion of himself.
When was ever a happier tribute paid to Genius than this? --
"In him" [the man of genius] "the spirit often overbalances the body, and sets its idea far beyond the actual. Unable to reach that, he seems to do less than many a one of less power; for the performance of anything lower than what he has marked out for himself, carries with it a feeling almost of degradation, that dispirits him. His wings may be too weak to bear him to that infinite height; but if he fail he is an angel still, and falls not so low as the proudest pitch of talent -- His failures are successful compared with the successes of others. . . . His utmost imperfection has some touch of the perfect in it."
The reader will meet passages such as this -- passages even more thoughtful and forcible -- at every turning of the leaf. At all times he will find fancy, a refined sense of the beautiful, and great delicacy of expression. Now and then he will be forced to differ with a random opinion -- or, at least, he will be startled into its examination. Something, for instance, might be objected to this:
"Here is a man who is a scholar and an artist -- who knows precisely how every effect has been produced by every great writer, and who is resolved to re-produce them. But the heart passes by his pitfalls, and traps, and carefully-planned springs, to be taken captive by some simple fellow who expected the event as little as did his prisoner."
Perhaps we err in giving these words as the author's own -- they are in the mouth of one of his interlocutors -- but, whoever claims them, we can term them poetical, and no more. The error is exactly that common one of separating practice from the theory which includes it. In all cases, if the practice fail, it is because the theory is imperfect. If Mr. Lowell's heart is not caught in the pitfall or trap, then the pitfall is ill-concealed, and the trap is not properly baited and set. One who has some artistical ability may know how to do a thing, and even show how to do it, and yet fail in doing it, after all; but the artist and the man of some artistic ability must not be confounded. He only is the former, who can and does carry his most intricate precepts into successful application. To say that a critic could not have written the work which he criticises, is to put forth a flat contradiction in terms.
[This item is certainly by Poe, who quotes the last two paragraphs in his "Marginalia" from Godey's Lady's Book, August 1845. This item was first attributed to Poe by Killis Campbell.]
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[S:0 - EM, 1845]