We are willing to take any position to serve our friends, and if, by chance, we play the antagonist to shew another's "skill of fence" in his behalf, we trust not to be believed less his friend, after the joust is over. The criticisms on the "Waif" which lately appeared in this paper, were written in our office by an able though very critical hand, and we give the following reply to them from as able a friend of Longfellow's in Boston. We add also the reply to the "reply," and declare the field open. We judge the poet by ourself when we presume that he prefers rubbing to rust -- sure of being more brightened than fretted.
Your papers of January 13th and 14th contain communications on the subject of Mr. Longfellow's "Waif," in which are one or two matters deserving notice at the hands of his friends. With the literary strictures upon the poem I have nothing to do, as that is a part of the public's privilege, and every man who prints a poem must submit himself to the ordeal of criticism. It may be observed, however, in passing, that the writer does not seem to be aware of the distinction between rhythm and metre, and from not heeding that distinction, has tried the poem in question by a false standard. But he is wholly mistaken in his assertion, that the editor is responsible for the anonymous pieces, or any of them, as their author. Not one of them was written by him. But my principal concern, however, is with the sting in the tail of the second communication, in which Mr. Longfellow is charged with omitting, from discreditable motives, any extracts from American poets, though he continuously imitates some of them. This is no light accusation; and is one against which his friends feel bound to enter their most emphatic protest. Were Mr. Longfellow wholly unknown to me, my reply to such a charge would be, that the editor of such a compilation had a perfect right to select or reject, as he saw fit, and from no better reason than Corporal Nym's, that such was his humor; and that any accusation, founded upon the absence of any piece or class of pieces, was ungenerous and uncalled for. But from long and intimate knowledge of Mr. Longfellow, I pronounce the charge wholly untrue. He is remarkable, among his friends, for his warm and generous commendation of the poetical efforts of his contemporaries. He is the least fastidious and the most genial of critics. He is even too tolerant of mediocrity. If it be asked, why has he not given public demonstration of this kindness of spirit towards his poetical brethren, the answer is obvious. He is a poet himself, and addresses the public in that capacity, and not as a critic. He is not called upon to distribute praise or blame among those who are running the same race with himself, and there would be an obvious impropriety in his so doing. The charge of habitually imitating other American poets touches Mr. Longfellow in his public character as a poet, and not his personal character as a man, and therefore requires no especial reply from his friends.
My 'literary strictures' on the poem consisted, generally, in the assertion, that it is the best of a collection of poems, one of which, at least, 'should have been received with acclamation.'
I defy Prof. Longfellow and his friend conjointly, to say a rational word in defence of the 'identical illustration' to which, as gently as possible, I objected.
I deny that I misconceive either rhythm or metre -- call for the proofs -- and assert that Prof. Longfellow knows very little about either. If the proofs are called for here I will give them.
Mem: it is by no means impossible, however, that on these points, I may err. I may know nothing about rhythm -- for I remember (with regret) that it was precisely the rhythm of Mr. Longfellow in the proem, which elicited my unqualified applause.
I did not dispute Mr. L.'s ' right' to construct his book as he thought proper. I reserve to myself the right of thinking what I choose of the construction.
I mentioned my idea that the anonymous contributions were perhaps, in general, Mr. Longfellow's, because I thought so, and because every body thought so. If they are not -- what then? Does the friend, however, mean to persist in the assertion, that not one of them is Mr. L.'s?
As 'the charge of habitually imitating other American poets requires no especial reply' -- it shall surely rest undisturbed by any reply of mine.
It seems to me that the whole state of the case may be parralleled thus:
A accosts B, with -- "My dear friend, in common with all mankind, and the angels, I regard you as a demi-god. Your equal is not to be found in the country which is proud to claim you as a son. You are glorious -- you are great -- you are delightful; the fact is, you are transcendentally so, and therefore I lack words to express my sense of your perfection, -- but, permit me! there is a very -- a very little speck of dust on the extreme end of your nose -- oblige yourself and your friends by brushing it away." "Sir," replies B, "what you have asserted is wholly untrue." [The greater part of it was.] "I consider you a malignant critic, and wish to have nothing further to do with you -- for, know that there are spots upon the sun, but my proboscis is a thing without spot!"
[The introductory sentences are presumably by N. P. Willis. "H" is George S. Hillard.]
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[S:0 - EM, 1845]