Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Our Contributors, No. VIII. —Fitz-Greene Halleck” [Text-02], Graham’s Magazine, September 1843, pp. 160-163


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[page 160, full width:]

OUR CONTRIBUTORS. — NO. VIII.

FITZ-GREENE HALLECK.

WITH A PORTRAIT.

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BY EDGAR A. POE.

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[column 1:]

No name in the American poetical world is more firmly established than that of Fitz-Greene Halleck, and yet few of our poets — none, indeed, of eminence — have accomplished less, if we regard the quantity without the quality of his compositions. That he has written so little becomes thus proof positive that he has written that little well.

Personally, no man has a more extensive or more attached circle of acquaintances, yet very scanty, indeed, are the materials for anything like a personal biography of the poet. He was born at Guilford, in Connecticut, in August, 1795, and is now, consequently, in his forty-eighth year. In very early youth he was distinguished for poetic talent, and wrote many brief pieces of unusual merit. These, however, have very judiciously been kept from the public eye.

When eighteen, he removed from Guilford to New York, where he has since constantly resided, and where, we believe, he first attracted attention to his poetical powers by the publication of several pointed satires, over the signatures “Croaker,” and “Croaker & Co.” These appeared in the “New York Evening Post,” in the year 1819, and occasioned much excitement and speculation. Their authorship was, at the time, attributed to various literary personages about town; but the real author, or rather the real authors, were, for a long period, unsuspected. It is now nearly certain that the pieces signed “Croaker” were the compositions of Mr. Halleck only, while those to which “Croaker & Co.” was appended were the work of his friend, Doctor Joseph Rodman Drake. That any one article was the joint composition of these gentlemen is improbable. The series was, no doubt, commenced by Mr. Halleck, as “Croaker.” Afterward Doctor Drake furnished a squib in the same vein, and, being thus Mr. Halleck’s coadjutor, signed himself “ Croaker & Co.” Possibly all the pieces signed “Croaker & Co.” were written entirely by Drake, with suggestions and modifications by the subject of our memoir. The political and personal features of these satires gave them, perhaps, a consequence and a notoriety which, however excellent, they might not otherwise have obtained.

About the close of the year 1819, Mr. Halleck published “Fanny,” his longest and most celebrated poem, and one which has passed through numerous editions, without any positive avowal of its authorship. It is said to have been written and printed within three weeks from its commencement. [column 2:]

In 1827, was issued a small volume, containing “Alnwick Castle,” “Marco Bozzaris,” and some other brief effusions, previously contributed to the miscellanies of the day.

In 1836, there appeared an edition of all our poet’s serious pieces then written, including not only “Alnwick Castle” and “Marco Bozzaris,” but “ Burns,” “Red Jacket,” “The Field of the Grounded Arms,” “Wyoming,” “ Lines on the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake,” “ Lines on the Death of William Howard Allen,” “Magdalen,” “Love,” “Domestic Happiness,” “Woman,” “Connecticut,” “A Poet’s Daughter,” &c., &c. The most complete collection of his works, however, was published in the beginning of the year 1842.

We cannot better preface what we have to say, critically, of Mr. Halleck, than by quoting what has been said of him by his friend, William Cullen Bryant. To a poet what is more valuable — by a poet what is more valued -than the opinion of a poet? “Sometimes,” says Mr. Bryant, “in the midst of a strain of harmonious diction, and soft and tender imagery, he surprises by an irresistible stroke of ridicule, as if he took pleasure in showing the reader that the poetical vision he had raised was but a cheat. Sometimes, with that aerial facility which is his peculiar endowment, he accumulates graceful and agreeable images in a strain of irony so fine that, did not the subject compel the reader to receive it as irony, he would take it for a beautiful passage of serious poetry — so beautiful that he is tempted to regret that he is not in earnest, and that phrases so exquisitely. chosen, and poetic coloring so brilliant, should be employed to embellish subjects to which they do not properly belong. At other times he produces the effect of wit by dexterous allusion to cotemporaneous events, introduced as illustrations to the main subject, with all the unconscious gracefulness of the most animated and familiar conversation. He delights in ludicrous contrasts, produced by bringing the nobleness of the ideal world into comparison with the homeliness of the actual; the beauty and grace of nature with the awkwardness of art. He venerates the past, and laughs at the present. He looks at them through a medium which lends to the former the charm of romance, and exaggerates the deformity of the latter. His poetry, whether serious or sprightly, is remarkable for the melody of the numbers. It is not the melody of monotonous and strictly regular measurement. His verse is constructed to please an [page 161:] ear naturally fine, and accustomed to a range of metrical modulation. It is as different from that painfully balanced versification, that uniform succession of iambics, closing the sense with the couplet, which some writers practice, and some critics praise, as the note of the thrush is unlike that of the cuckoo. He is familiar with those general rules and principles which are the basis of metrical harmony; and his own unerring taste has taught him the exceptions which a proper variety demands. He understands that the rivulet is made musical by obstructions in its channel. In no poet can be found passages which flow with more sweet and liquid smoothness; but he knows very well that to make this smoothness perceived, and to prevent it from degenerating into monotony, occasional roughness must be interposed.”

Every reader of taste must agree with this criticism in its general conclusions. The passage about the rivulet being “ made musical by the obstructions in its channel” is, perhaps, somewhat more poetical than clear in its application. The fact is, that a general and total misapprehension prevails upon the subject of rhythm, its uses and its capabilities — a misapprehension which affects the best poets and critics in the land — and to which, of course, we can no more than allude within the limits of this article. Mr. Bryant speaks of “ that uniform succession of iambics,” &c., as if the iambic were the sole metre in the world; and the idea that “ occasional roughness must be interposed to make smoothness perceptible,” is based upon the assumption that the relative conceptions of smoothness and roughness are not, at all times, existing, through memory, or experience, in the mind of the adult. Mr. B. would be quite as philosophical in asserting that, to appreciate a lump of ice in one hand, it is necessary to hold red-hot horse-shoe in the other. The “occasional roughness” of which the critic speaks, is at no time a merit, but, in all instances, a defect. For the relief of monotone, discords are very properly and necessarily introduced; but these discords affect only the time — the harmony — of the rhythm, and never interfere, except erroneously, with its smoothness or melody. The best discord is the smoothest. Another vulgar error is involved in the notion that roughness gives strength. Invariably it weakens. What is pronounced with difficulty is feebly pronounced. Where is the roughness, and where is the weakness, of the Homeric hexameters? What more liquidly smooth — what more impetuously strong!

“Fanny” is, perhaps, better known, and more generally appreciated than any of Mr. Halleck’s poems. It embraces a hundred and seventy-five of the “Don Juan” stanzas, and, in manner, throughout, is a close, although, we must admit, a well executed imitation of Lord Byron’s eccentric production. The plot, if plot it can be called that plot is none, is a mere vehicle for odd digressions and squibs of cotemporary persons and things. Fanny, the heroine, is the pretty and amiable daughter of a parvenu, whose rise and fall form the thesis of the story. This story, when we consider the end in view, which is mere extravaganza, has but one original defect; and [column 2:] this lies in the forced introduction of one or two serious songs, put into the mouth of the parvenu, in defiance of every thing like keeping — a point which can never be disregarded even in the grossest of burlesques. This, we say, is the only original defect. There are numerous other defects, however, which are adopted from Byron; and among these we must designate, notwithstanding the opinion just quoted from Mr. Bryant, a loose and uncouth versification as the principal. As Mr. Bryant, however, is very high authority, we may as well support our position by a few examples.

—— for there first we met

The editor of the New York Gazette.

The whole of “Fanny” is iambic verse, and the line last quoted is thus scanned:

The ed | itor | of the | New York | Gazette.

Here either “the” is tortured into a long syllable or the line limps. The natural reading, or colloquial emphasis, in verse, must always tally with the rhythmical. The genre of a passage, as its most important element, must be preserved at all hazards, and if the question occur, whether to sacrifice the sense to the rhythm or the rhythm to the sense, we make the latter sacrifice, of course. But then the question should never occur, and, as regards well constructed verse, never will.

In the seventeenth stanza the same error is seen.

And politics and country; the pure glow.

Again, twice in the same line, at stanza thirty-five:

Did borrow of him and sometimes forget.

Again, very obtrusively, at stanza the eightieth:

His place an hour after the next election.

Again, very ridiculously, twice in the same verse, at stanza the ninety-second:

In a steamboat of the Vice President’s;

and in innumerable other instances throughout the poem.

Sometimes the lines are deficient in half a foot, when no emphasis, however forced, can supply, the deficiency. Thus, at stanza sixty-nine:

I bear this fair city of the heart.

By adding the half foot the line becomes, perfect, thus:

I bear this fairy city of the heart.

The same error is observable at stanza thirty-two, where

All from Mr. Gelston, the collector,

should read

Yes, all from Mr. Gelston, the collector.

These specimens are from the body of the poem, which, as we have already said, is iambic, the most simple and usual of English metres. One of the songs introduced, however, is meant for dactylic, a more difficult rhythm, and here Mr. Halleck signally and totally fails. For example:

Another hour and the death word is given,

Another hour, and his lightnings are here;

Speed! speed thee, my bark; ere the breeze of even

Is lost in the tempest our home will be near.

To uncultivated ears this may seem endurable, but to [page 162:] a practiced versifier it is little less than torture. To scan it is impossible, for every foot is an error. We may convey some idea of its deficiency, however, by contrasting it with a passage of the true dactylic rhythm:

Lady, he sang, when the trumpet shall sound,

Far from thy favor thy knight must be found.

Long in the distance, in camp and in field,

His falchion his fortune, his valor his shield,

Everard Grey shall bestir him to make

A name and a fame that are fair for thy sake.

 

Years they have past and the maiden is pale,

Pale as the lily that lolls on the gale;

Weary and worn she hath waited for years,

Keeping her grief ever green with her tears.

Years will she tarry, for cold is the clay

Fettering the form of her Everard Grey.

We give the scansion of the last of these stanzas:

Years they have | past and the | maiden is | pale, |

Pale as the | lily that | lolls on the | gale, |

Weary and | worn she hath | tarried for | years, |

Keeping her | grief ever | green with her | tears; |

Years will she | tarry, for | cold is the | clay |

Fettering the | form of her | Everard | Grey.

Each verse consists of a mere succession of dactyls, terminating with a single long syllable, or caesura, upon which the pause is equivalent to the time occupied by each of the preceding dactyls. In order to relieve the monotone of this regular succession, an additional short syllable is introduced into the dactyl which commences the last line. “Fettering the” is used instead of “Clothing the,” or any similar legitimate dactyl; and the effect is a discord; but this discord is only of time, and not of melody. Nothing can be smoother. And nothing can be more sonorous or stronger than the whole stanza; but this strength arises — surely not from roughness, according to Mr. Bryant’s idea — but from the facility with which it is uttered. This facility, again, arises from the rigorous employment only of truly short syllables where the rhythm requires short, and of truly long where it requires long. In other words, a perfect coincidence is preserved between the scansion and the natural reading flow.

In thus pointing out, however, the rhythmical defects of “Fanny” — defects observable in all the poems of Halleck — we wish to be understood as speaking with reference to Mr. Bryant’s eulogium, and thus rather positively than comparatively. Judged by the laws of verse, which are the incontrovertible laws of melody and harmony, needing only to be clearly put to be admitted — judged by these laws, he is very far indeed from deserving the commendation which his too partial friend and admirer bestows; but, examined only with reference to other American versifiers, he merits all that has been said, and even more.

The excellences of “ Fanny “ are well described in Mr. Bryant’s general comments upon the works of our poet — in the comments we have quoted above. No one can fail to perceive and appreciate the brilliant wit, the bonhommie, the fanciful illustration, the naivete, the gentlemanly ease and insouciance which have rendered this charming little jeu d’esprit so deservedly popular.

“Alnwick Castle,” written in 1822, is an irregular [column 2:] iambic poem, of one hundred and twenty-eight lines, and describes a seat of the Duke of Northumberland, in Northumberland, England.

It is sadly disfigured by efforts at the farcical, introduced among passages of real beauty. No true poet can unite, in any manner, the low burlesque and the ideal, without a consciousness of profanation. Such verses as

Men in the coal and cattle line

From Teviot’s bard and hero land,

From royal Berwick’s beach of sand,

From Wooler, Morpeth, Hexham and

Newcastle upon Tyne,

are odd, and nothing more. They are totally out of keeping with the graceful and delicate manner of the initial portions of “ Alnwick Castle,” and serve no better purpose than to deprive it of all unity of effect.

The second stanza of this poem has that easy grace, both of thought and expression, which is the leading feature of the Muse of Halleck.

A lovely hill its side inclines,

Lovely in England’s fadeless green,

To meet the quiet stream which winds

Through this romantic scene,

As silently and sweetly still,

As when, at evening, on that hill,

While summer winds blew soft and low,

Seated by gallant Hotspur’s side,

His Katharine was a happy bride

A thousand years ago.

We might quote many other passages of remarkable excellence, and indicating an ideality of far loftier character than that which is usually ascribed to our poet. For example:

One solitary turret grey

Still tells in melancholy glory

The legend of the Cheviot day.

——

Gaze on the Abbey’s ruined pile:

Does not the succoring Ivy, keeping

Her watch around it, seem to smile

As o’er a loved one sleeping?

The commencement of the fourth stanza is especially beautiful:

Wild roses by the Abbey towers

Are gay in their young bud and bloom;

They were born of a race of funeral flowers

That garlanded in long gone hours,

A Templar’s knightly tomb.

In the line italicized two discords of excess are introduced with the happiest effect, and admirably serve to heighten the quaint fancy of the thought — a thought which, standing alone, would suffice to convince any true poet of the high genius of the author.

“Wyoming” consists of nine Spenserian stanzas — some of which are worthy of all commendation. For example:

I then but dreamed: thou art before me now,

In life, a vision of the brain no more,

I’ve stood upon the wooded mountain’s brow

That beetles high thy lovely valley o’er,

And now, where winds thy river’s greenest shore

Within a bower of sycamores am laid;

And winds as soft and sweet as ever bore

The fragrance of wild flowers through sun and shade,

Are singing in the trees whose low boughs press my head.

This poem, however, is also disfigured with some of the merest burlesque — with such absurdities, for instance, as

—— a girl of sweet sixteen,

Love-darting eyes and tresses like the morn,

Without a shoe or stocking, hoeing corn. [page 163:]

The “Lines on the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake” are deservedly popular. We quote them in full.

Green be the turf above thee,

Friend of my better days!

None knew thee but to love thee,

Nor named thee but to praise.

 

Tears fell when thou wert dying,

From eyes unused to weep,

And long, where thou art lying,

Will tears the cold turf steep.

 

When hearts, whose truth was proven,

Like thine are laid in earth,

There should a wreath be woven

To tell the world their worth.

 

And I, who woke each morrow

To clasp thy hand in mine,

Who shared thy joy and sorrow,

Whose weal and wo were thine-

 

It should be mine to braid it

Around thy faded brow,

But I’ve in vain essayed it,

And feel I cannot now.

 

While memory bids me weep thee,

Nor thoughts nor words are free;

The grief is fixed too deeply,

That mourns a man like thee.

The tenderness and simplicity of these stanzas are worthy of all praise; but they are not without blemish.

Will tears the cold turf steep,

is excessively rough.

To tell the world their worth,

involves a false metaphor, when referred to “wreath.” “To show the world” would be better. “Weep thee “ and “deeply “ form an imperfect rhyme; and the whole of the first quatrain,

Green be the turf, etc.,

although beautiful, bears too close a resemblance to the still more beautiful lines of Wordsworth:

She dwelt among the untrodden ways

Beside the springs of Dove,

A maid whom there were none to praise,

And very few to love.

The verses entitled “Burns” have many of the traits of “Alnwick Castle,” and are remarkable, as are all Mr. Halleck’s compositions, for a peculiar grace and terseness of expression. For example:

And when he breathes his master-lay

Of Alloway’s witch-haunted wall

All passions in our frames of clay

Come thronging at his call.

——

There have been loftier themes than his,

And longer scrolls and louder lyres,

And lays lit up with Poesy’s

Purer and holier fires.

——

They linger by the Doon’s low trees,

And pastoral Nith and wooded Ayr,

And round thy sepulchres, Dumfries!

The poet’s tomb is there.

——

Such graves as his are pilgrim shrines,

Shrines to no code or creed confined -

The Delphian vafes, the Palestines,

The Meccas of the mind.

“Marco Bozzaris,” however, is by far the best of the poems of Halleck. It is not very highly ideal, [column 2:] but is skillfully constructed, abounds in the true lyrical spirit, and, with slight exception, is admirably versified. The exceptions will be found in such verses as

True as the steel of their tried blades,

and

For him the joy of her young years,

where the rhythm requires the lengthening of naturally short syllables; or in such as these:

For the first her first-born’s breath

and

Like torn branch from Death’s leafless tree,

where the crowd of harsh consonants renders the verse nearly unpronounceable. We quote from this truly beautiful poem a passage which, for vigor both of thought and expression, has seldom been equaled and never excelled:

Come to the bridal chamber, Death!

Come to the mother’s when she feels

For the first time her first-born’s breath;

Come when the blessed seals

That close the Pestilence are broke,

And crowded cities wail its stroke;

Come in Consumption’s ghastly form,

The earthquake shock, the ocean storm,

Come when the heart beats high and warm

With banquet, song, and dance, and wine,

And thou art terrible; the tear,

The groan, the knell, the pall, the bier,

And all we know, or dream, or fear

Of agony are thine.

 

But to the hero, when his sword

Has won the battle for the free,

Thy voice sounds like a prophet’s word,

And in its hollow tones are heard

The thanks of millions yet to be.

Come, when his task of fame is wrought —

Come with her laurel-leaf blood-bought —

Come in her crowning hour, and then

Thy sunken eye’s unearthly light

To him is welcome as the sight

Of sky and stars to prisoned men:

Thy grasp is welcome as the hand

Of brother in a foreign land;

Thy summons welcome as the cry

That told the Indian isles were nigh

To the world-seeking Genoese,

When the land wind from woods of palm,

And orange groves and fields of balm,

Blew o’er the Haytien seas.

The lines italicized we look upon as, in every respect, the finest by Halleck. They would do credit to any writer living or dead.

Our poet is unmarried. His usual pursuits have been commercial; but, for many years, he has been the principal superintendent of John Jacob Astor’s monetary and general business affairs.

Of late days, consequently, he has nearly abandoned the Muses, much to the regret of his friends, and to the neglect of his reputation. He is now in the maturity of his powers, and might redeem America from an imputation to which she has been too frequently subjected — the imputation of inability to produce a great poem. A few brief translations, at rare intervals, and chiefly from vapid German or Spanish originals, are now all that remind us of “Marco Bozzaris,” or that, as a poet, its author still lives.

 


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Notes:

None.

 

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[S:0 - GM, 1843] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Our Contributors, No. VIII. — Fitz-Greene Halleck [Text-02]