Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Review of Ballads and Other Poems” [Text-02], Graham’s Magazine, March 1842, pp. 189-190


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[page 189, column 1, continued:]

Ballads and other Poems. By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Author of “Voices of the Night,” “Hyperion,” etc: Second Edition. John Owen: Cambridge.

Il y a à parier,” says Chamfort, “que toute idée publique,  toute convention recue, est une sottise, par elle a convenue au plus grand nombre.” — One would be safe in wagering that any given public idea is erroneous, for it has been yielded to the clamor of the majority; — and this strictly philosophical, although somewhat French assertion has especial bearing upon the whole race of what are termed maxims and popular proverbs; nine-tenths of which are the quintessence of folly. One of the most deplorably false of them is the antique adage, De gustibus non est disputandum — there should be no disputing about taste. Here the idea designed to be conveyed is that any one person has as just right to consider his own taste the true, as has any one other — that taste itself, in short, is an arbitrary something, amenable to no law, and measurable by no definite rules. It must be confessed, however, that the exceedingly vague and impotent treatises which are alone extant, have much to answer for as regards confirming the general error. Not the least important service which, hereafter, mankind will owe to Phrenology, may perhaps, be recognised in an analysis of the real principles, and a digest of the resulting laws of taste. These principles, in fact, are as clearly traceable, and these laws as readily susceptible of system as are any whatever.

In the meantime, the inane adage above mentioned is in no respect more generally, more stupidly, and more pertinaciously quoted than by the admirers of what is termed the “good old Pope,” or the “good old Goldsmith school” of poetry, in reference to the bolder, more natural, and more ideal compositions of such authors as Coëtlogon and Lamartine* in France; Herder, Körner, and Uhland in Germany; Brun and Baggesen in Denmark; Bellman, Tegnér, and Nyberg in Sweden; Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and Tennyson in England; Lowell and Longfellow in America. “De gustibus non,” say these “good-old-school” fellows; and we have no doubt that their mental translation of the phrase is — “We pity your taste — we pity every body’s taste but our own.”

It is our purpose, hereafter, when occasion shall be afforded us, to controvert in an article of some length, the popular idea that the poets just mentioned owe to novelty, to trickeries of expression, — and to other meretricious effects, their appreciation by certain readers:to demonstrate (for the matter is susceptible of demonstration) that such poetry and such alone has fulfilled the legitimate office of the muse; has thoroughly satisfied an earnest and unquenchable desire existing in the heart of man. In the present number of our Magazine we have left ourselves barely room to say a few random words of welcome to these “Ballads,” by Longfellow, and to tender him, and all such as he, the homage of our most earnest love and admiration.

The volume before us (in whose outward appearance the keen “taste” of genius is evinced with nearly as much precision as in its internal soul) includes, with several brief original pieces, a translation from the Swedish of Tegnér. In attempting (what never should be attempted) a literal version of both the words and the metre of this poem, Professor Longfellow has failed to do justice either to his author or himself. He has striven to do what no man ever did well and what, from the nature of language itself, never can be well done. Unless, for example, we shall come to have an influx of spondees in our English tongue, it will always be impossible to construct an English hexameter. Our spondees, or, we should say, our spondaic words, are rare. In the Swedish they are nearly as abundant as in the Latin and Greek. We have only “compound,” “context,” “footfall,” and a few other similar ones. This is the difficulty; and that it is so will become evident upon reading “The Children of the Lord’s Supper,” where the sole readable verses are those in which we meet with the rare spondaic dissyllables. We mean to say readable as Hexameters; for many of them will read very well as mere English Dactylics with certain irregularities.

But within the narrow compass now left us we must not indulge in anything like critical comment. Our readers will be better satisfied perhaps with a few brief extracts from the original poems of the volume — which we give for their rare excellence, without pausing now to say in what particulars this excellence exists.

And, like the water’s flow

Under December’s snow

Came a dull voice of woe,

From the heart’s chamber.

 

So the loud laugh of scorn,

Out of those lips unshorn

From the deep drinking-horn

Blew the foam lightly.

 

As with his wings aslant

Sails the fierce cormorant

Seeking some rocky haunt,

With his prey laden,

So toward the open main,

Beating to sea again,

Through the wild hurricane,

Bore I the maiden.

 

Down came the storm and smote amain

The vessel in its strength;

She shuddered and paused like a frighted steed

Then leaped her cable’s length.

 

She drifted a dreary wreck,

And a whooping billow swept the crew

Like icicles from her deck.

 

He hears the parson pray and preach,

He hears his daughter’s voice,

Singing in the village choir,

And it makes his heart rejoice.

It sounds to him like her mother’s voice

Singing in Paradise!

He needs must think of her once more

How in the grave she lies;

And with his hard rough hand he wipes

A tear out of his eyes.

 

Thus at the flaming forge of life

Our fortunes must be wrought;

Thus on its sounding anvil shaped

Each burning deed and thought.

 

The rising moon has hid the stars

Her level rays like golden bars

Lie on the landscape green

With shadows brown between.

 

Love lifts the boughs whose shadows deep

Are life’s oblivion, the soul’s sleep,

And kisses the closed eyes

Of him who slumbering lies.

 

Friends my soul with joy remembers!

How like quivering flames they start,

When I fan the living embers

On the hearth-stone of my heart.

 

Hearest thou voices on the shore,

That our ears perceive no more

Deafened by the cataract’s roar?

 

And from the sky, serene and far,

A voice fell like a falling star.

Some of these passages cannot be fully appreciated apart from the context — but we address those who have read the book. Of the translations we have not spoken. It is but right to say, however, that “The Luck of Edenhall” is a far finer poem, in every respect, than any of the original pieces. Nor would we have our previous observations misunderstood. Much as we admire the genius of Mr. Longfellow, we are fully sensible of his many errors of affectation and imitation. His artistical skill is great, and his ideality high. But his conception of the aims of poesy is all wrong; and this we shall prove at some future day — to our own satisfaction, at least. His didactics are all out of place. He has written brilliant poems — by accident; that is to say when permitting his genius to get the better of his conventional habit of thinking a habit deduced from German study. We do not mean to say that a didactic moral may not be well made the under-current of a poetical thesis; but that it can never be well put so obtrusively forth, as in the majority of his compositions. There is a young American who, with ideality not richer than that of Longfellow, and with less artistical knowledge, has yet composed far truer poems, merely through the greater propriety of his themes. We allude to James Russell Lowell; and in the number of this Magazine for last month, will be found a ballad entitled “Rosaline,” affording an excellent exemplification of our meaning. This composition has unquestionably its defects, and the very defects which are never perceptible in Mr. Longfellow — but we sincerely think that no American poem equals it in the higher elements of song.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 189, column 1:]

*  We allude here chiefly to the “David” of Coëtlogon, and only to the“ Chûte d’un Ange ” of Lamartine.

  C. Julia Nyberg, author of the “Dikter von Euphrosyne.”


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Notes:

None.

 

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[S:0 - GM, 1842] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Review of Ballads and Other Poems [Text-02]