REVIEW OF NEW BOOKS.
[[Review of Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop and Master Humphrey's Clock]]
"Writings of Charles Sprague." Now first collected. Charles S. Francis, New York.
In the "publisher's preface " to this volume (which is a handsome octave) we are told that it has been printed partly with a view of anticipating a similar design from another quarter, — "one which was not likely to be accomplished in a manner satisfactory to the friends of the author, " — and also that Mr. S. has done "nothing to promote" the present publication, which he has "only not forbidden." About the whole of this prolegomena there is much of unnecessary rigmarole, not to say of superfluous humbug. If the facts are as stated, and Mr. Francis has really made himself so busy as to force the gentleman into press, will I nill I, we can only say that he has been guilty of a singular piece of impertinence. But if Mr. Sprague, on the other hand, was privy and a party [page 252:] to the issuing of the book (as we believe he was, and as the preface intimates he was not), it may then be remarked that since the poet of the " Shakspeare Ode" is not ashamed of his efforts, and has no reason to be ashamed of them, it is but a weak affectation to counterfeit a modesty which he does not feel, and to sneak forth into the light of the public eye, wrapped up in that flimsiest of all veils, the veil of a "publisher's preface."
The volume embraces, we believe, all the best compositions of Mr. Sprague - certainly all the best of his poems. These latter have had a wide circulation, and are well known. Some of the pieces have attained a reputation, — in some measure deserved, — for example, "The Shakspeare Ode," "The Winged Worshippers, " the "Lines on the Death of M. S. C.," and "I See Thee Still." Others have acquired a notoriety which is anything but desirable fame. We speak of the Prize Odes for Festivals and Opening Nights of new theatres — a species of literature almost beneath contempt, and whose sine qua non of success is pedantic commonplace. Who believes that a really good poem would even be glanced at a second time by any one of a committee appointed to decide upon such things as "Opening Addresses?"
The "Shakspeare Ode " of Mr. Sprague is, after all, scarcely an exception to our general rule in this case. We may, perhaps, modify matters so as to admit that while all prize articles are bad ex officio, the "Shakspeare Ode " is the best of them. It carries the essential error to the height of its perfection - that is precisely what we mean. Farther than this no man should go. We allow that public opinion is here against us, and the poem in question is generally considered as a "brilliant production." Public opinion, however, is a certain intangible something of which we have no opinion at all. By this we mean what is called public opinion; for the true, unbiassed judgment of the majority is a different thing, but can never be accurately ascertained. If it could, it would nearly always be found in accordance with critical decision. We must keep in mind the distinction when we read the words of Chamfort, "Il y a a parier," says he, "que toute idee publique, toute convention recue, est une sottise; car elle a convenue au plus grand nombre."
In fact, all that a just criticism can say in favor of this Ode is that its versification is of the highest order of excellence (it includes finer lines and even finer entire paragraphs than are to be found elsewhere), and that its imagery is scrupulously accurate and well sustained: — its imagery such as it is. What, indeed, can be more outrageously absurd than an obstinate persistence, at each epoch, in the mawkish allegory of ancient theology - a thing which, in its origin and under the best circumstances, never had, never could have had, from its very nature, the slightest effect or force beyond that of an inane assent to its ingenuity. We say nothing of the imitation of Collins' "Ode to the Passions " — this is too obvious to need a word of comment.
"Curiosity," the longest poem in the volume, is entitled just to that amount of praise which we have awarded to the "Shakspeare Ode," while its defects (of a similar character with those upon which we have commented) are scarcely so glaring. Its versification is superb — nothing could be better. Its thoughts are tersely put forth. The style is pungently epigrammatic. Upon the whole, it is fully as good a poem as Pope could have written, upon the same subject, in his finest hour of inspiration. We must bear in mind one important distinction, however. With Pope the ideas and the management of the piece would have been original; with Mr. Sprague they are Pope's. We will end our comments upon "Curiosity " with the general remark that didactic subjects are utterly beyond, or rather beneath, the province of true poesy.
The "Lines on the Death of M. S. C." are distinguished by all the minor beauties for which Mr. S. is so remarkable, while they abound in merit of a better, although still not of the highest, order. They are pathetic and simple, but evince little ideality.
"The Winged Worshippers " is, beyond question, a beautiful little poem, and relieves us from a distressing doubt we had begun to entertain - a doubt whether we should not, after all, be forced to look upon Mr. Sprague as merely a well-educated poetaster, of what is (satirically ?) called classical taste, of accurate ear, and of sound negative judgment.
"The Sovereignty of Mind." A Poem delivered before the Philomathaean Society of Pennsylvania College, February 16, 1841. By John N. McJilton. Joseph N. Lewis, Baltimore.
Mr. McJilton is a gentleman for whose talents we have much respect — far more than for his performances. Indeed, while there is indication of genius in almost every thing he writes, he has yet written very little worth reading. We remember a short poem from his pen, first published in the "Casket" and entitled "Serenade," which was truly beautiful — but beyond this we can call to mind none of his compositions which, as a whole, are even tolerable. There are always fine imaginative passages: — but their merit is scarcely discernible through the clouds of verbiage, false imagery, bad grammar, and worse versification in which they are enveloped.
We are grieved to see Mr. McJilton occupied in "delivering" poems to order before Philomathoean societies. It is a business in which no man of talent should be employed — in which no man of genius could hope to succeed. As for The "Sovereignty of Mind" it is a hackneyed manner. It has some glowing paragraphs — but abounds in all the worst faults of the author. We do not feel justified in speaking of it at greater length.
Notices of "Charles O'Malley, vol. 1;" "The Dowager;" "Combe's tour through the U. States;" "Ranke's History of the Popes;" "Earle's visit to thirteen Insane Asylums;" "The Quadroone," and other works, have been crowded out.
[The attribution of the two reviews given here is highly probable, although not absolutely certain. Both were considered to be the work of Poe by Heartman and Canny (1943) and by T. O. Mabbott. Mabbott's notes at the University of Iowa list the review of Sprague as "sure" and of McJilton as "Accepted." William D. Hull credited both review to Poe. For the Sprague review, Hull notes the repetition of ideas about imitation of Collins's "Ode to the Passions" here and in "An Appendix of Autographs" from January 1842. For the review of McJilton, Hull refers to Poe's letter to J. E. Snodgrass of July 12, 1841, where Poe comments that "W. G. Clarke reproves me in his Gazette for speaking too favorably of McJilton." Hull then notes that this is one of only two reviews of McJilton, and by timing and tone is the more likely. Hull further notes that Poe also makes similar statements about McJilton in the December 1841 installment of "Autography."]
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