Obviously, this volume is a collection of some few of the prettiest shells that have been thrown ashore by the poetic ocean; but, looking behind this idea, we see that Mr. Longfellow's real design has been to make a book of his "waifs," and his own late compositions, conjointly; since these late compositions are not enough in number to make a book of themselves: -- an ingenious thought, too, with which no one can possibly quarrel. There are fifty brief poems in all, exclusive of the Proem which is professedly by the compiler; and, of these fifty, the seventeen attributed to Anonymous (a person who writes more and better than any man living,) we take to be the work of him who composed Outre-Mer.
Of a book put together purposely at random, we also at random shall be forced to speak -- unless we go violently out of our way to get up principles of generalization for which no one would be at the trouble of thanking us.
Let us mention -- let us pronounce reverently, yet lovingly -- some half dozen of the great names which embellish the compilation: -- Shelley, Herrick, Marvel, Browning, Hood, and Horace Smith: -- there are others, too, nearly, if not equally, eminent. Of course, then, we mean a compliment worth at least a bow with the hand upon the heart, when we say that the Proem is the worthiest composition in the volume. It is a singular -- a remarkable poem, and in no particular more remarkable than in this -- that its particular excellence arises from what is, generically, a gross demerit. There is no error, as a general rule, more certainly fatal to a poem than defective rhythm; -- but in this case the cautious, skillfully planned and dexterously executed slip-shod-iness is so thoroughly in unison with the nonchalant air of the thoughts -- which, again, are so capitally applicable to the thing done -- (a mere introduction of other people's fancies) -- that the effect of the looseness of metre becomes palpable, and we see at once that here is a case in which to be correct would have been to be inartistic.
How willingly would we quote all the lines were it possible with our limited space -- but here are three of the quatrains:
I see the light of the villageNow, if any man fancy that these lines are scansible, we say no. They are referable to no true principles of rhythm. The general idea is that of a succession of dactyls; yet, not only is this idea confounded with an idea of anap;aests, but this succession is improperly interrupted at all points -- improperly, because by unequivalent feet. The partial prosaicism thus brought about, however, without any interference with the mere melody, becomes a beauty, solely through the nicety of its adaptation to the whole tone of the poem, and of this tone again to the matter in hand. In his keen sense of this adaptation (which conveys the notion of what is vaguely termed "ease") the reader so far loses sight of the rhythmical imperfection, that he can only be convinced of its existence by treating, in the same metre, a subject of different tone.
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o'er me
That my soul cannot resist;
A feeling of sadness and longing
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.
* * *
And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.
The poetic beauty of the passages italicised will enchant all who read. We forbear to comment on them in full, for no other reason than that we should never have done. The first quatrain of this poem, nevertheless, embodies a fault of illustration which Mr. Longfellow often commits; -- let us quote the verses:
The day is done, and the darknessThe single feather is imperfectly illustrative of the omniprevalent darkness -- but our more especial objection is to the likening of the falling of one feather to the falling of another. -- Night is personified as a bird, and darkness (the feather of this bird) falls from it -- how? -- as another feather falls from another bird. Why, it does this of course. The illustration is identical -- that is to say, null. It has no more force than an identical proposition in Logic.
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.
We have a few words more to say of "The Waif," but we may as well say them to-morrow -- a single paragraph, however, in the meantime, about a point which is scarcely worth mentioning, after all.
How does it happen -- not, we trust, through affectation -- that the name of each author in this volume is carefully omitted from its proper place, at the head of his poem, to be as carefully deposited in the index? -- so that the inquisitive reader, (and all readers of fine compositions are profoundly inquisitive about their paternity,) is forced to spend twice or thrice as much time in turning the leaves backward and forward, as in perusing what is so beautifully printed upon them. We ask this question, not by any means in the way of a sneer -- a thing which went out of date with Childe Harold -- but simply and positively because we have a liking for good enigmas, and take this to be one of the best of its species, on the ground that the soundest nut is always the most difficult to crack. For ourselves, we have given it up in despair.
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[S:0 - EM, 1845]