The Poetical Writings of Elizabeth Oakes Smith. First complete edition. New York. J. S. Redfield.
This is a very pretty little volume, neatly printed, handsomely bound, embracing some two hundred pages sixteen mo., and introduced to the public, somewhat un-necessarily, in a preface by Dr. Rufus W. Griswold. In this preface we find some few memoranda of the personal authoress, with some critical opinions in regard to her poems. The memoranda are meagre. A much more interesting account of Mrs. Smith is given by Mr. John Neal, and was included by Mr. John Keese in the introduction to a former collection of her works. The critical opinions may as well be here quoted, at least in part. Dr. Griswold says —
"Seeking expression, yet shrinking from notoriety, and with a full share of that respect for a just fame and appreciation which belongs to every high-toned mind, yet oppressed by its shadow when circumstance is the impelling motive of publication, the writings of Mrs. Smith might well be supposed to betray great inequality; still in her many contributions to the magazines, it is remarkable how few of her pieces display the usual carelessness and haste of magazine articles. As an essayist especially, while graceful and lively, she is compact and vigorous; while through poems, essays, tales and criticisms, (for her industrious pen seems equally skilful and happy in each of these departments of literature,) through all her manifold writings, indeed, there runs the same beautiful vein of philosophy, viz: — that truth and goodness of themselves impart a holy light to the mind which gives it a power far above mere intellectuality; that the highest order of human intelligence springs from the moral and not the reasoning faculties. . . . . . . Mrs. Smith's most popular poem is 'The Acorn,' which, though inferior in high inspiration to 'The Sinless Child,' is by many preferred for its happy play of fancy and proper finish. Her sonnets, of which she has written many, have not yet been as much admired as the 'April Rain,' 'The Brook,' and other fugitive pieces, which we find in many popular collections."
"The Sinless Child" was originally published in the "Southern Literary Messenger," where it at once attracted much attention from the novelty of its conception and the general grace and purity of its style. Undoubtedly it is one of the most original of American poems — surpassed in this respect, we think, only by Maria del Occidente's "Bride of Seven." Of course, we speak merely of long poems. We have had in this country many brief fugitive pieces far excelling in this most important point (originality) either "The Bride of Seven" or "The Sinless Child" — far excelling, indeed, any transatlantic poems. After all, it is chiefly in works of what is absurdly termed "sustained effort" that we fall in any material respect behind our progenitors."The Sinless Child" is quite long, including more than two hundred stanzas, generally of eight lines. The metre throughout is iambic tetrameter, alternating with trimeter — in other words, lines of four iambuses alternate with lines of three. The variations from this order are rare. The design of the poem is very imperfectly made out. The conception is much better than the execution. "A simple cottage maiden, Eva, given to the world in the widowhood of one parent and the angelic existence of the other, . . . . . . is found from her birth to be as meek and gentle as are those pale flowers that look imploringly upon us . . . . . She is gifted with the power of interpreting the beautiful mysteries of our earth . . . . . For her the song of the bird is not merely the gushing forth of a nature too full of blessedness to be silent . . . . the humblest plant, the simplest insect is each alive with truth . . . She sees the world not merely with mortal eyes, but looks within to the pure internal life of which the outward is but a type," etc., etc. These passages are taken from the Argument prefixed to Part I. The general thesis of the poetess may, perhaps, be stated as the demonstration that the superior wisdom is moral rather than intellectual; but it may be doubted whether her subject was ever precisely apparent to herself. In a word, she seems to have vacillated between several conceptions — the only very definitive idea being that of extreme beauty and purity in a child. At one time we fancy her, for example, attempting to show that the condition of absolute sanctity is one through which mortality may know all things and hold converse with the angels; at another we suppose it her purpose to "create" (in critical language) an entirely novel being, a something that is neither angel nor mortal, nor yet fairy in the ordinary sense — in a word, an original ens. Besides these two prominent fancies, however, there are various others which seem continually flitting in and out of the poet's vision, so that her whole work has an indeterminate air. Of this she apparently becomes conscious towards the conclusion, and in the final stanza endeavours to remedy the difficulty by summing up her design —
"The sinless child, with mission high,
Awhile to earth was given,
To show us that our world should be
The vestibule of heaven.
Did we but in the holy light
Of truth and goodness rise,
We might communion hold with God
And spirits from the skies."
The conduct of the narrative is scarcely more determinate — if, indeed, "The Sinless Child" can be said to include a narrative at all. The poem is occupied in its first part with a description of the child, her saintly character, her lone wanderings, the lessons she deduces from all animal and vegetable things, and her communings with the angels. We have then discussions with her mother, who is made to introduce episodical tales, one of "Old Richard," another called "The Defrauded Heart," (a tale of a miser,) and another entitled "The Stepmother." Towards the end of the poem a lover, Alfred Linne, is brought upon the scene. He has been reckless and sinful, but is reclaimed by the heavenly nature of Eva. He finds her sleeping in a forest. At this point occur some of the finest and most characteristic passages of the poem.
"Unwonted thought, unwonted calm
Upon his spirit fell;
For he unwittingly had sought
Young Eva's hallowed dell,
And breathed that atmosphere of love,
Around her path that grew;
That evil from her steps repelled
The good unto her drew."
Mem. — The last quatrain of this stanza would have been more readily comprehended if punctuated and written thus —
"And breathed that atmosphere of love
Around her path that grew —
That evil from her steps repelled —
That good unto her drew."
We may as well observe here, too, that although neatly printed, the volume abounds in typographical errors that very frequently mar the sense — as at page 66, for example, where come (near the bottom) is improperly used for came, and scorching (second line from the top) is substituted for searching. We proceed with Alfred's discovery of Eva in the wood.
"Now Eva opes her child-like eyes
And lifts her tranquil head;
And Albert, like a guilty thing,
Had from her presence fled.
But Eva marked his troubled brow,
His sad and thoughtful eyes,
As if they sought yet shrank to hold
Their converse with the skies."
Communion with the skies — would have been far better. It seems strange to us that any one should have overlooked the word.
"And all her kindly nature stirred,
She prayed him to remain;
Well conscious that the pure have power,
To balm much human pain.
There mingled too, as in a dream,
About brave Albert Linne,
A real and ideal form,
Her soul had formed within."
We give the punctuation here as we find it; — it is incorrect throughout, interfering materially with a proper understanding of the passage. There should be a comma after "And" in the first line, a comma in place of the semicolon at the end of the second line, no point at the end of the third line, a comma after "mingled," and none after "form." These seeming minutiæ are of real importance; but we refer to them, in the case of "The Sinless Child," because here the aggregate of this species of minor error is unusually remarkable. Of course it is the proof-reader or editor, and not Mrs. Smith, who is to blame.
"Her trusting hand fair Eva laid
In that of Albert Linne,And for one trembling moment turned
Her gentle thoughts within.
Deep tenderness was in the glance
That rested on his face,
As if her woman-heart had found
Its own abiding-place.
"And evermore to him it seemed
Her voice more liquid grew —
'Dear youth, thy soul and mine are one;
One source their being drew!
And they must mingle everymore —
Thy thoughts of love and me"
Will, as a light, thy footsteps guide
To life and mystery.'
There was a sadness in her tone,
But love unfathomed deep;
As from the centre of the soul
Where the divine may sleep;
Prophetic was the tone and look,
And Albert's noble heart
Sank with a strange foreboding dread
Lest Eva should depart.
"And when she bent her timid eyes
As she beside him knelt,
The pressure of her sinless lips
Upon his brow he felt,
And all of earth and all of sin
Fled from her sainted side;
She, the pure virgin of the soul,
Ordained young Albert's bride."
It would, perhaps, have been out of keeping with the more obvious plan of the poem to make Eva really the bride of Albert. She does not wed him, but dies tranquilly in bed, soon after the spiritual union in the forest, "Eva," says the Argument of Part VII, "hath fulfilled her destiny. Material things can no farther minister to the growth of her spirit. That waking of the soul to its own deep mysteries — its oneness with another — has been accomplished. A human soul is perfected." At this point the poem may be said to have its conclusion.
In looking back at its general plan, we cannot fail to see traces of high poetic capacity. The first point to be commended is the reach or aim of the poetess. She is evidently discontented with the bald routine of common-place themes, and originality has been with her a principal object. In all cases of fictitious composition it should be the first object — by which we do not mean to say that it can ever be considered as the most important. But, ceteris paribus, every class of fiction is the better for originality; every writer is false to his own interest if he fails to avail himself, at the outset, of the effect which is certainly and invariably derivable from the great element, novelty.
The execution of "The Sinless Child" is, as we have already said, inferior to its conception — that is, to its conception as it floated, rather than steadily existed, in the brain of the authoress. She enables us to see that she has very narrowly missed one of those happy "creations" which now and then immortalize the poet. With a good deal more of deliberate thought before putting pen to paper, with a good deal more of the constructive ability, and with more rigorous discipline in the minor merits of style, and of what is termed in the school-prospectuses, composition, Mrs. Smith would have made of "The Sinless Child" one of the best, if not the very best of American poems. While speaking of the execution, or, more properly, the conduct of the work, we may as well mention, first, the obviousness with which the stories introduced by Eva's mother are interpolated, or episodical; it is permitted every reader to see that they have no natural connection with the true theme; and, indeed, there can be no doubt that they were written long before the main narrative was projected. In the second place, we must allude to the artificiality of the Arguments, or introductory prose passages, prefacing each Part of the poem. Mrs. Smith had no sounder reason for employing them than Milton and the rest of the epicists have employed them before. If it be said that they are necessary for the proper comprehension of a poem, we reply that this is saying nothing for them, but merely much against the poem which demands them as a necessity. Every work of art should contain within itself all that is required for its own comprehension. An "argument" is but another form of the "This is an ox" subjoined to the portrait of an animal with horns. But in making these objections to the management of "The Sinless Child," we must not be understood as insisting upon them as at all material, in view of the lofty merit of originality — a merit which pervades and invigorates the whole work, and which, in our opinion, at least, is far, very far more than sufficient to compensate for every inartisticality of construction. A work of art may be admirably constructed, and yet be null as regards every essentiality of that truest art which is but the happiest development of nature; but no work of art can embody within itself a proper originality without giving the plainest manifestations of the creative spirit, or, in more common parlance, of genius in its author. The originality of "The Sinless Child" would cover a multitude of greater defects than Mrs. Smith ever committed, and must forever entitle it to the admiration and respect of every competent critic.
As regards detached passages, we think that the episode of "The Stepmother" may be fairly cited as the best in the poem.
"You speak of Hobert's second wife, a lofty dame and bold;
I like not her forbidding air, and forehead high and cold.
The orphans have no cause for grief: she dare not give it now,
Though nothing but a ghostly fear her heart of pride could bow.
"One night the boy his mother called; they heard him"
'Sweet Mother, kiss poor Eddy's cheek and wipe his tears away.'
Red grew the lady's brow with rage, and yet she feels a strife
Of anger and of terror, too, at thought of that dead wife.
"Wild roars the wind; the lights burn blue; the watchdog howls with
Loud neighs the steed from out the stall. What form is gliding near?
No latch is raised, no step is heard, but a phantom fills the space —
A sheeted spectre from the dead, with cold and leaden face.
"What boots it that no other eye beheld the shade appear?
The guilty lady's guilty soul beheld it plain and clear.
It slowly glides within the room and sadly looks around,
And, stooping, kissed her daughter's cheek with lips that gave no sound.
"Then softly on the step-dame's arm she laid a death-cold hand,
Yet it hath scorched within the flesh like to a burning brand;
And gliding on with noiseless foot, o'er winding stair and"
She nears the chamber where is heard her infant's trembling call.
"She smoothed the pillow where he lay, she warmly tucked the bed,
She wiped his tears and stroked the curls that clustered round his head.
The child, caressed, unknowing fear, hath nestled him to rest;
The mother folds her wings beside — the mother from the blest!"
The metre of this episode has been altered from its original form, and, we think, improved by the alteration. Formerly, in place of four lines of seven iambuses, the stanza consisted of eight lines — a line of four iambuses alternating with one of three — a more ordinary and artificial, therefore a less desirable arrangement. In the three last quatrains there is an awkward vacillation between the present and perfect tenses, as in the words "beheld," "glides," "kissed," "laid," "hath scorched," "smoothed," "wiped," "hath nestled," "folds." These petty objections, of course, will by no means interfere with the reader's appreciation of the episode, with his admiration of its pathos, its delicacy and its grace — we had almost forgotten to say of its pure and high imagination.
We proceed to cull from "The Sinless Child," a few brief but happy passages at random.
"Gentle she was and full of love,
With voice exceeding sweet,
And eyes of dove-like tenderness
Where joy and sadness meet."
" — — — with calm and tranquil eye
That turned instinctively to seek
The blueness of the sky."
"Bright missals from angelic throngs
In every bye-way left —
How were the earth of glory shorn
Were it of flowers bereft!"
"And wheresoe'er the weary heart
Turns in its dim despair,
The meek-eyed blossom upward looks,
Inviting it to prayer."
"The very winds were hushed to peace
Within the quiet dell,
Or murmured through the rustling bough
Like breathings of a shell."
"The mystery of life;
Its many hopes, its many fears,
Its sorrow and its strife —
A spirit to behold in all
To guide, admonish, cheer —
Forever, in all time and place,
To feel an angel near."
"I may not scorn the spirit's rights,
For I have seen it rise,
All written o'er with thought, thought, thought,
As with a thousand eyes!"
"And there are things that blight the soul
As with a mildew blight,
And in the temple of the Lord
Put out the blessed light."
It is in the point of passages such as these, in their vigour, terseness and novelty, combined with exquisite delicacy, that the more obvious merit of the poem consists. A thousand such quotable paragraphs are interspersed through the work, and of themselves would be sufficient to insure its popularity. But we repeat that a far loftier excellence lies perdu amid the minor deficiencies of "The Sinless Child."
The other poems of the volume are, as entire compositions, nearer perfection, but, in general, have less of the true poetical element. "The Acorn" is perfect as regards its construction — although, to be sure, the design is so simple that it could scarcely be marred in its execution. The idea is the old one of detailing the progress of a plant from its germ to its maturity, with the uses and general vicissitudes to which it is subjected. In this case of the acorn the vicissitudes are well imagined, and the execution is more skilfully managed — is more definite, vigorous and pronounced, than in the longer poem. The chief of the minor objections is to the rhythm, which is imperfect, vacillating awkwardly between iambuses and anapæsts, after such fashion that it is impossible to decide whether the rhythm in itself — that is, whether the general intention is anapæstical or iambic. Anapæsts introduced, for the relief of monotone, into an iambic rhythm, are not only admissible but commendable, if not absolutely demanded; but in this case they prevail to such an extent as to overpower the iambic intention, thus rendering the whole versification difficult of comprehension. We give, by way of example, a stanza with the scanning divisions and quantities —
"They came | with gifts | that should life | bestow; |
The dew | and the li | ving air — |
The bane | that should work | its dead | ly wo, |
The lit | tle men | had there; |
In the gray | moss cup | was the mil | dew brought, |
The worm | in a rose- | leaf rolled
And ma | ny things | with destuc | tion fraught |
That its doom | were quick | ly told." |
Here iambuses and anapæsts are so nearly balanced that the ear hesitates to receive the rhythm as either anapæstic or iambic — that is, it hesitates to receive it as anything at all. A rhythm should always be distinctly marked by its first foot — that is to say, if the design is iambic, we should commence with an unmistakeable iambus, and proceed with this foot until the ear gets fairly accustomed to it before we attempt variation; for which, indeed, there is no necessity unless for the relief of monotone. When the rhythm is in this manner thoroughly recognized, we may sparingly vary with anapæsts (or, if the rhythm be trochaic, with dactyls). Spondees, still more sparingly, as absolute discords, may be also introduced either in an iambic or trochaic rhythm. In common with a very large majority of American, and, indeed, of European poets, Mrs. Smith seems to be totally unacquainted with the principles of versification — by which, of course, we mean its rationale. Of technical rules on the subject there are rather more than enough in our prosodies, and from these abundant rules are deduced the abundant blunders of our poets. There is not a prosody in existence which is worth the paper on which it is printed.
Of the miscellaneous poems included in the volume before us, we greatly prefer "The Summons Answered." It has more of power, more of genuine imagination than anything written by its author. It is a story of three "bacchanals," who, on their way from the scene of their revelry, are arrested by the beckoning of a white hand from the partially unclosing door of a tomb. One of the party obeys the summons. It is the tomb of his wife. We quote the two concluding stanzas.
"This restless life with its little fears,
Its hopes that fade so soon,
With its yearning tenderness and tears,
And the burning agony that sears —
The sun gone down at noon —
The spirit crushed to its prison wall,
Mindless of all beside —
This young Richard saw, and felt it all —
Well might the dead abide!
"The crimson light in the east is high,
The hoar-frost coldly gleams,
And Richard chilled to the heart well-nigh,
Hath raised his wildered and bloodshot eye
From that long night of dreams.
He shudders to think of the reckless band
And the fearful oath he swore —
But most he thinks of the clay-cold hand
That opened the old tomb door."
With the quotation of these really noble passages — noble, because full of the truest poetic energy — we take leave of the fair authoress. She is entitled, beyond doubt, to all, and per-haps to much more than the commendation she has received. Her faults are among the peccadilloes, and her merits among the sterling excellencies of the muse.
[S:0 - GLB, 1845]