Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Review of Wakondah” [Text-02], Graham’s Magazine, February 1842, 20:???-???


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Wakondah; The Master of Life. A Poem. George L. Curry and Co.: New York.

“Wakondah” is the composition of Mr. Cornelius Mathews, one of the editors of the Monthly Magazine, “Arcturus.” In the December number of the journal, the poem was originally set forth by its author, very much “ avec l’air d’un homme qui sauve sa patrie .” To be sure, it was not what is usually termed the leading article of the month. It did not occupy that post of honor which, hitherto, has been so modestly filled by “Puffer Hopkins.” But it took precedence of some exceedingly beautiful stanzas by Professor Longfellow, and stood second only to a very serious account of a supper which, however well it might have suited the taste of an Ariel, would scarcely have feasted the Anakim, or satisfied the appetite of a Grandgousier. The supper was, or might have been, a good thing. The poem which succeeded it is not; nor can we imagine what has induced Messrs. Curry & Co. to be at the trouble of its republication. We are vexed with these gentlemen for having thrust this affair the second time before us. They have placed us in a predicament we dislike. In the pages of “Arcturus” the poem did not come necessarily under the eye of the Magazine critic. There is a tacitly-understood courtesy about these matters — a courtesy upon which we need not comment. The contributed papers in any one journal of the class of “Arcturus” are not considered as debateable by any one other. General propositions, under the editorial head, are rightly made the subject of discussion; but in speaking of “Wakondah,” for example, in the pages of our own Magazine, we should have felt as if making an occasion. Now, upon our first perusal of the poem in question, we were both astonished and grieved that we could say, honestly, very little in its praise: — astonished, for by some means, not just now altogether intelligible to ourselves, we had become imbued with the idea of high poetical talent in Mr. Mathews: grieved, because, under the circumstances of his position as editor of one of the very best journals in the country, we had been sincerely anxious to think well of his abilities. Moreover, we felt that to speak ill of them, under any circumstances whatever, would be to subject ourselves to the charge of envy or jealousy, on the part of those who do not personally know us. We, therefore, rejoiced that “Wakondah” was not a topic we were called upon to discuss. But the poem is republished, and placed upon our table, and these very “circumstances of position,” which restrained us in the first place, render it a positive duty that we speak distinctly in the second.

And very distinctly shall we speak. In fact this effusion is a dilemma whose horns goad us into frankness and candor “c’est un malheur,” to use the words of Victor Hugo, “d’òu on ne pourrait se tirer par des periphrases, par des quemadmodums et des verumenimveros.” If we mention it at all, we are forced to employ the language of that region where, as Addison has it, “they sell the best fish and speak the plainest English.” “Wakondah,” then, from beginning to end, is trash. With the trivial exceptions which we shall designate, it has no merit whatever; while its faults, more numerous than the leaves of Valombrosa, are of that rampant class which, if any schoolboy could be found so uninformed as to commit them, any schoolboy should be remorselessly flogged for committing.

The story, or as the epics have it, the argument, although brief, is by no means particularly easy of comprehension. The design seems to be based upon a passage in Mr. Irving’s “Astoria.” He tells us that the Indians who inhabit the Chippewyan range of mountains, call it the “Crest of the World,” and “think that Wakondah, or the Master of Life, as they designate the Supreme Being, has his residence among these aerial heights.” Upon this hint Mr. Mathews has proceeded. He introduces us to Wakondah standing in person upon a mountain-top. He describes his appearance, and thinks that a Chinook would be frightened to behold it. He causes the “Master of Life” to make a speech, which is addressed, generally, to things at large, and particularly to the neighboring Woods, Cataracts, Rivers, Pinnacles, Steeps, and Lakes — not to mention an Earthquake. But all these (and we think, judiciously) turn a deaf ear to the oration, which, to be plain, is scarcely equal to a second-rate Piankitank stump speech. In fact, it is a bare-faced attempt at animal magnetism, and the mountains, &c., do no more than show its potency in resigning themselves to sleep, as they do.

Then shone Wakondah’s dreadful eyes

— then he becomes very indignant, and accordingly launches forth into speech the second — with which the delinquents are afflicted, with occasional brief interruptions from the poet, in proper person, until the conclusion of the poem.

The subject of the two orations we shall be permitted to sum up compendiously in the one term “rigmarole.” But we do not mean to say that our compendium is not an improvement, and a very considerable one, upon the speeches themselves, — which, taken altogether, are the queerest, and the most rhetorical, not to say the most miscellaneous orations we ever remember to have listened to outside of an Arkansas House of Delegates.

In saying this we mean what we say. We intend no joke. Were it possible, we would quote the whole poem in support of our opinion. But as this is not possible, and, moreover, as we presume Mr. Mathews has not been so negligent as to omit securing his valuable property by a copyright, we must be contented with a few extracts here and there at random, with a few comments equally so. But we have already hinted that there were really one or two words to be said of this effusion in the way of commendation, and these one or two words might as well be said now as hereafter.

The poem thus commences —

The moon ascends the vaulted sky to-night;

With a slow motion full of pomp ascends,

But, mightier than the Moon that o’er it bends,

A form is dwelling on the mountain height

That boldly intercepts the struggling light

With darkness nobler than the planet’s fire, —

A gloom and dreadful grandeur that aspire

To match the cheerful Heaven’s far-shining might.

If we were to shut our eyes to the repetition of “might,” (which, in its various inflections, is a pet word with our author, and lugged in upon all occasions) and to the obvious imitation of Longfellow’s Hymn to the Night in the second line of this stanza, we should be justified in calling it good. The “darkness nobler than the planet’s fire” is certainly good. The general conception of the colossal figure on the mountain summit, relieved against the full moon, would be unquestionably grand were it not for the bullish phraseology by which the conception is rendered, in a great measure, abortive. The moon is described as “ascending,” and its “motion” is referred to, while we have the standing figure continuously intercepting its light. That the orb would soon pass from behind the figure, is a physical fact which the purpose of the poet required to be left out of sight, and which scarcely any other language than that which he has actually employed would have succeeded in forcing upon the reader’s attention. With all these defects, however, the passage, especially as an opening passage, is one of high merit. Looking carefully for something else to be commended we find at length the lines —

Lo! where our foe up through these vales ascends,

Fresh from the embraces of the swelling sea,

A glorious, white and shining Deity.

Upon our strength his deep blue eye he bends,

With threatenings full of thought and steadfast ends;

While desolation from his nostril breathes

His glittering rage he scornfully unsheathes

And to the startled air its splendor lends.

This again, however, is worth only qualified commendation. The first six lines preserve the personification (that of a ship) sufficiently well; but, in the seventh and eighth, the author suffers the image to slide into that of a warrior un-sheathing his sword. Still there is force in these concluding verses, and we begin to fancy that this is saying a very great deal for the author of “Puffer Hopkins.”

The best stanza in the poem (there are thirty-four in all) is the thirty-third.

No cloud was on the moon, yet on His brow

deepening shadow fell, and on his knees

That shook like tempest-stricken mountain trees

His heavy head descended sad and low

Like a high city smitten by the blow

Which secret earthquakes strike and topling falls

With all its arches, towers, and cathedrals

In swift and unconjectured overthrow.

This is, positively, not bad. The first line italicized is bold and vigorous, both in thought and expression; and the four last (although by no means original) convey a striking picture. But then the whole idea, in its general want of keeping, is preposterous. What is more absurd than the conception of a man’s head descending to his knees, as here described — the thing could not be done by an Indian juggler or a man of gum-caoutchouc — and what is more inappropriate than the resemblance attempted to be drawn between a single head descending, and the innumerable pinnacles of a falling city? It is difficult to understand, en passant, why Mr. Mathews has thought proper to give “cathedrals” a quantity which does not belong to it, or to write “unconjectured” when the rhythm might have been fulfilled by “unexpected” and when “unexpected” would have fully conveyed the meaning which “unconjectured” does not.

By dint of farther microscopic survey, we are enabled to point out one, and alas, only one more good line in the poem.

Green dells that into silence stretch away

contains a richly poetical thought, melodiously embodied. We only refrain, however, from declaring, flatly, that the line is not the property of Mr. Mathews, because we have not at hand the volume from which we believe it to be stolen.

We quote the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth stanzas in full. They will serve to convey some faint idea of the general poem. The Italics are our own.

vi.

The spirit lowers and speaks: “Tremble ye wild Woods!

Ye Cataracts! your organ-voices sound!

Deep Crags, in earth by massy tenures bound,

Oh, Earthquake, level flat! The peace that broods

Above this world, and steadfastly eludes

Your power, howl Winds and break; the peace that mocks

Dismay ‘mid silent streams and voiceless rocks —

Through wildernesses, cliffs, and solitudes.

vii.

“Night-shadowed Rivers — lift your dusky hands

And clap them harshly with a sullen roar!

Ye thousand Pinnacles and Steeps deplore

The glory that departs; above you stands,

Ye Lakes with azure waves and snowy strands,

A Power that utters forth his loud behest

Till mountain, lake and river shall attest,

The puissance of a Master’s large commands.”

viii.

His brandished arms; his stature scarce could brook

So spake the Spirit with a wide-cast look

Of bounteous power and cheerful majesty;

As if he caught a sight of either sea

And all the subject realm between: then shook

His brandished arms; his stature scarce could brook

Its confine; swelling wide,  it seemed to grow

 As grows a cedar on a mountain’s brow

By the mad air in ruffling breezes took!

ix.

The woods are deaf and will not be aroused —

The mountains are asleep, they hear him not,

Nor from deep-founded silence can be wrought,

Tho’ herded bison on their steeps have browsed;

Beneath their banks in darksome stillness housed

The rivers loiter like a calm-bound sea;

In anchored nuptials to dumb apathy

Cliff, wilderness and solitude are spoused.

Let us endeavor to translate this gibberish, by way of ascertaining its import, if possible. Or, rather, let us state the stanzas, in substance. The spirit lowers, that is to say grows angry, and speaks. He calls upon the Wild Woods to tremble, and upon the Cataracts to sound their voices which have the tone of an organ. He addresses, then, an Earthquake, or perhaps Earthquake in general, and requests it to level flat all the Deep Crags which are bound by massy tenures in earth — a request, by the way, which any sensible Earthquake must have regarded as tautological, since it is difficult to level anything otherwise than flat: — Mr. Mathews, however, is no doubt the best judge of flatness in the abstract, and may have peculiar ideas respecting it. But to proceed with the Spirit. Turning to the Winds, he enjoins them to howl and break the peace that broods above this world and steadfastly eludes their power — the same peace that mocks a Dismay ‘mid streams, rocks, et cetera. He now speaks to the night-shadowed Rivers, and commands them to lift their dusky hands, and clap them harshly with a sullen roar — and as roaring with one’s hands is not the easiest matter in the world, we can only conclude that the Rivers here reluctantly disobeyed the injunction. Nothing daunted, however, the Spirit, addressing a thousand Pinnacles and Steeps, desires them to deplore the glory that departs, or is departing — and we can almost fancy that we see the Pinnacles deploring it upon the spot. The Lakes — at least such of them as possess azure waves and snowy strands — then come in for their share of the oration. They are called upon to observe — to take notice — that above them stands no ordinary character — no Piankitank stump orator, or anything of that sort — but a Power; — a power, in short, to use the exact words of Mr. Mathews, “that utters forth his loud behest, till mountain, lake and river shall attest the puissance of a Master’s large commands.” Utters forth is no doubt somewhat supererogatory, since “to utter” is of itself to emit, or send forth; but as “the Power” appears to be somewhat excited he should be forgiven such mere errors of speech. We cannot, however, pass over his boast about uttering forth his loud behest till mountain, lake and rivers shall obey him — for the fact is that his threat is vox et preterea nihil, like the countryman’s nightingale in Catullus; the issue showing that the mountains, lakes and rivers — all very sensible creatures — go fast asleep upon the spot, and pay no attention to his rigmarole whatever. Upon the “large commands” it is not our intention to dwell. The phrase is a singularly mercantile one to be in the mouth of “a Power.” It is not impossible, however, that Mr. Mathews himself is

— busy in the cotton trade

And sugar line.

But to resume. We were originally told that the Spirit “lowered” and spoke, and in truth his entire speech is a scold at Creation; yet stanza the eighth is so forgetful as to say that he spoke “with a wide-cast look of bounteous power and cheerful majesty.” Be this point as it may, he now shakes his brandished arms, and, swelling out, seems to grow —

By the mad air in ruffling breezes took

As grows a cedar on a mountain’s top

By the mad air in ruffling breezes took

— or as swells a turkey-gobler; whose image the poet unquestionably had in his mind’s eye when he penned the words about the ruffled cedar. As for took instead of taken — why not say tuk at once? We have heard of chaps vot vas tuk up for sheep-stealing, and we know of one or two that ought to be tuk up for murder of the Queen’s English.

We shall never get on. Stanza the ninth assures us that the woods are deaf and will not be aroused, that the mountains are asleep and so forth — all which Mr. Mathews might have anticipated. But the rest he could not have foreseen. He could not have foreknown that “the rivers, housed beneath their banks in darksome stillness,” would “loiter like a calm-bound sea,” and still less could he have been aware, unless informed of the fact, that “cliff, wilderness and solitude would be spoused in anchored nuptials to dumb apathy!” Good Heavens — no! nobody could have anticipated that! Now, Mr. Mathews, we put it to you as to a man of veracity — what does it all mean?

As when in times to startle and revere.

This line, of course, is an accident on the part of our author. At the time of writing it he could not have remembered

To haunt, to startle, and waylay.

Here is another accident of imitation; for seriously, we do not mean to assert that it is anything more —

And while through darkling woods they swiftly fare

I urged the dark red hunter in his quest

Of pard or panther with a gloomy zest;

And while through darkling woods they swiftly fare

Two seeming creatures of the oak-shadowed air,

I sped the game and fired the follower’s breast.

The line italicized we have seen quoted by some of our daily critics as beautiful; and so, barring the “oak-shadowed air,” it is. In the meantime Campbell, in “Gertrude of Wyoming,” has the words

— the hunter and the deer a shade.

Campbell stole the idea from our own Freneau, who has the line

The hunter and the deer a shade.

Between the two, Mr. Mathews’ claim to originality, at this point, will, very possibly, fall to the ground.

It appears to us that the author of “Wakondah” is either very innocent or very original about matters of versification. His stanza is an ordinary one. If we are not mistaken, it is that employed by Campbell in his “Gertrude of Wyoming” — a favorite poem of our author’s. At all events it is composed of pentameters whose rhymes alternate by a simple and fixed rule. But our poet’s deviations from this rule are so many and so unusually picturesque, that we scarcely know what to think of them. Sometimes he introduces an Alexandrine at the close of a stanza; and here we have no right to quarrel with him. It is not usual in this metre; but still he may do it if he pleases. To put an Alexandrine in the middle, or at the beginning, of one of these stanzas is droll, to say no more. See stanza third, which commences with the verse

Upon his brow a garland of the woods he wears,

and stanza twenty-eight, where the last line but one is

And rivers singing all aloud tho’ still unseen.

Stanza the seventh begins thus

The Spirit lowers and speaks — tremble ye Wild Woods!

Here it must be observed that “wild woods” is not meant for a double rhyme. If scanned on the fingers (and we presume Mr. Mathews is in the practice of scanning thus) the line is a legitimate Alexandrine. Nevertheless, it cannot be read. It is like nothing under the sun; except, perhaps, Sir Philip Sidney’s attempt at English Hexameter in his “Arcadia.” Some one or two of his verses we remember. For example —

So to the | woods Love | runs as | well as | rides to the | palace;

Neither he | bears reve | rence to a | prince nor | pity to a | beggar,

But like a | point in the | midst of a | circle is | still of a | nearness.

With the aid of an additional spondee or dactyl Mr. Mathews’ very odd verse might be scanned in the same manner, and would, in fact, be a legitimate Hexameter —

The Spirit lowers | and speaks | tremble ye | wild woods.

Sometimes our poet takes even a higher flight and drops a foot, or a half-foot, or, for the matter of that, a foot and a half. Here, for example, is a very singular verse to be introduced in a pentameter rhythm —

Then shone Wakondah’s dreadful eyes.

Here another —

Yon full-orbed fire shall cease to shine.

Here, again, are lines in which the rhythm demands an accent on impossible syllables.

But ah winged with what agonies and pangs.

Swiftly before me nor care I how vast.

I see visions denied to mortal eyes.

Uplifted longerin heaven’s western glow.

But these are trifles. Mr. Mathews is young and we take it for granted that he will improve. In the meantime what does he mean by spelling lose, loose, and its (the possessive pronoun) it’s — re-iterated instances of which fashions are to be found passim in “Wakondah”? What does he mean by writing dare, the present, for dared the perfect? — see stanza the twelfth. And, as we are now in the catachetical vein, we may as well conclude our dissertation at once with a few other similar queries.

What do you mean, then, Mr. Mathews, by

A sudden silence like a tempest fell?

What do you mean by “a quivered stream;” “a shapeless gloom;” a “habitable wish;” “natural blood;” “oak-shadowed air;” “customary peers” and “thunderous noises?”

What do you mean by

A sorrow mightier than the midnight skies?

What do you mean by

A bulk that swallows up the sea-blue sky?

Are you not aware that calling the sky as blue as the sea, is like saying of the snow that it is as white as a sheet of paper?

What do you mean, in short, by

Its feathers darker than a thousand fears?

Is not this something like “blacker than a dozen and a half of chimney-sweeps and a stack of black cats,” and are not the whole of these illustrative observations of yours somewhat upon the plan of that of the witness who described a certain article stolen as being of the size and shape of a bit of chalk? What do you mean by them we say?

And here notwithstanding our earnest wish to satisfy the author of Wakondah, it is indispensable that we bring our notice of the poem to a close. We feel grieved that our observations have been so much at random: — but at random, after all, is it alone possible to convey either the letter or the spirit of that, which, a mere jumble of incongruous nonsense, has neither beginning, middle, nor end. We should be delighted to proceed — but how? to applaud — but what? Surely not this trumpery declamation, this maudlin sentiment, this metaphor run-mad, this twaddling verbiage, this halting and doggrel rhythm, this unintelligible rant and cant! “Slid, if these be your passados and montantes, we’ll have none of them.” Mr. Mathews, you have clearly mistaken your vocation, and your effusion as little deserves the title of poem, (oh sacred name!) as did the rocks of the royal forest of Fontainebleau that of “mes déserts” bestowed upon them by Francis the First. In bidding you adieu we commend to your careful consideration the remark of M. Timon “ que le Ministre de l’Instruction Publique doit lui-même savoir parler Francais.

 


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Notes:

None.

 

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