Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Estelle Anna Lewis” (Text-B), The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe­ (1850), 3:242-249


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞


­ [page 242:]

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

ESTELLE ANNA LEWIS.

The maiden name of MRS. LEWIS was Robinson. She is a native of Baltimore. Her family is one of the best in America. Her father was a distinguished Cuban of English and Spanish parentage, wealthy, influential, and of highly cultivated mind: — from him, perhaps, Mrs. Lewis has inherited the melancholy temperament which so obviously predominates in her writings. Between the death of her father and her present comfortable circumstances, she has undergone many romantic and striking vicissitudes of fortune, which, of course, have not failed to enlarge her knowledge of human nature, and to develop the poetical germ which became manifest in her earliest infancy.

Mrs. Lewis is, perhaps, the best educated, if not the most accomplished of American authoresses — using the word “accomplished” in the ordinary acceptation of that term. She is not only cultivated as respects the usual ornamental acquirements of her sex, but excels as a modern linguist, and very especially as a classical scholar; while her scientific acquisitions are of no common order. Her occasional translations from the more difficult portions of Virgil have been pronounced, by our first Professors, the best of the kind yet accomplished — a commendation which only a thorough classicist can appreciate in its full extent. Her rudimental education was received, in part, at Mrs. Willard’s celebrated Academy at Troy; but she is an incessant and very ambitious student, and, in this sense, the more important part of her education may be said to have been self-attained.

In character, Mrs. Lewis is everything which can be thought desirable in woman — generous, sensitive, impulsive; enthusiastic in her admiration of Beauty and Virtue, but ardent in her scorn of wrong. The predominant trait of her disposition, as before hinted, is a certain romantic sensibility, bordering upon melancholy, or even gloom. In person, she is distinguished by the grace and dignity of her form, and the nobility of her manner. She has auburn hair, naturally curling, and expressive eyes of ­[page 243:] dark hazel. Her portrait, by Elliot, which has attracted much attention, is most assuredly no flattering likeness, although admirable as a work of art, and conveying a forcible idea of its accomplished original, so far as regards the tout ensemble.

At an early age Miss Robinson was allied in marriage to Mr. S. D. Lewis, attorney and counsellor at law; and soon afterwards they took up their residence in Brooklyn, where they have ever since continued to reside — Mr. Lewis absorbed in the labors of his profession, as she in the pleasurable occupations connected with Literature and Art.

Her earliest efforts were made in “The Family Magazine,” edited by the well-known Solomon Southwick, of Albany. Subsequently she wrote much for various periodicals — in chief part for “The Democratic Review;” but her first appearance before the public in volume-form, was in the “Records of the Heart,” issued by the Appletons in 1844. The leading poems in this, are “Florence,” “Zenel,” “Melpomene,” “Laone,” “The Last Hour of Sappho,” and “The Bride of Guayaquil” — all long and finished compositions. “Florence” is, perhaps, the best of the series, upon the whole — although all breathe the true poetical spirit. It is a tale of passion and wild romance, vivid, forcible, and artistical. But a faint idea, of course, can be given of such a poem by an extract; but we cannot refrain from quoting two brief passages as characteristic of the general manner and tone:

Morn is abroad; the sun is up;

The dew fills high each lily’s cup;

Ten thousand flowerets springing there

Diffuse their incense through the air,

And smiling hail the morning beam:

The fawns plunge panting in the stream,

Or through the vale with light foot spring:

Insect and bird are on the wing,

And all is bright, as when in May

Young Nature holds a holiday.

Again:

The waves are smooth, the wind is calm;

Onward the golden stream is gliding

Amid the myrtle and the palm

And ilices its margin hiding.

Now sweeps it o’er the jutting shoals

In murmurs, like despairing souls, ­[page 244:]

Now deeply, softly, flows along,

Like ancient minstrel’s warbling song;

Then slowly, darkly, thoughtfully,

Loses itself in the mighty sea.

Among the minor poems in this collection is “The Forsaken,” so widely known and so universally admired. The popular as well as the critical voice, ranks it as the most beautiful ballad of its kind ever written.

We have read this little Poem more than twenty times, and always with increasing admiration. It is inexpressively beautiful. No one of real feeling can peruse it without a strong inclination to tears. Its irresistible charm is its absolute truth — the unaffected naturalness of its thought. The sentiment which forms the basis of the composition, is, perhaps, at once the most universal and the most passionate of sentiments. No human being exists, over the age of fifteen, who has not, in his heart of hearts, a ready echo for all there so pathetically expressed. The essential poetry of the ideas would only be impaired by “foreign ornament.” This is a case in which we should  be repelled by the mere conventionalities of the Muse. We demand, for such thoughts, the most rigorous simplicity at all points. It will be observed that, strictly speaking, there is not an attempt at “imagery” in the whole poem. All is direct, terse, penetrating. In a word, nothing could be better done. The versification, while in full keeping with the general character of simplicity, has, in certain passages, a vigorous, trenchant euphony which would confer honor on the most accomplished masters of the art. We refer, especially to the lines:

And follow me to my long home

Solemn and slow.

And the quatrain:

Could I but know when I am sleeping

Low in the ground,

One faithful heart would there be keeping

Watch all night round.

The initial trochee here, in each instance, substituted for the iambus, produces, so naturally as to seem accidental, a very effective echo of sound to sense. The thought included in the line “And light the tomb,” should be dwelt upon to be appreciated in its full extent of beauty; and the verses which I have italicized in ­[page 245:] the last stanza, are poetry — poetry in the purest sense of that much misused word. They have power — indisputable power; making us thrill with a sense of their weird magnificence as we read them.

After the publication of the “Records,” Mrs. Lewis contributed more continuously to the periodicals of the day — her writings appearing chiefly in the “American Review,” and the “Democratic Review,” and “Graham’s Magazine.” In the autumn of 1848, Mr. G. P. Putnam published, in exquisite style, her “Child of the Sea, and Other Poems” — a volume which at once placed its fair authoress in the first rank of American authors. The composition which gives title to this collection is a tale of sea-adventure — of crime, passion, love and revenge — resembling, in all the nobler poetic elements, the “Corsair” of Lord Byron — from which, however, it widely differs in plot, conduct, manner, and expression. The opening lines not only give a general summary of the design, but serve well to exemplify the ruling merits of the composition: —

Where blooms the myrtle and the olive flings

Its aromatic breath upon the air;

Where the sad bird of Night forever sings

Meet anthems for the children of Despair,

Who, silently, with wild dishevelled hair,

Stray through those valleys of perpetual bloom;

Where hideous War and Murder from their lair

Stalk forth in awful and terrific gloom

Rapine and Vice disport on Glory’s gilded tomb:

 

My fancy pensive pictures youthful Love,

Ill-starred yet trustful, truthful and sublime

As ever angels chronicled above: —

The sorrowings of Beauty in her prime;

Virtue’s reward; the punishment of Crime;

The dark, inscrutable decrees of Fate;

Despair untold before in prose or rhyme;

The wrong, the agony, the sleepless hate

That mad the soul and make the bosom desolate.

One of the most distinguishing merits of the “Child of the Sea,” is the admirable conduct of its narrative — in which every incident has its proper position — where nothing is inconsequent or incoherent — and where, above all, the rich and vivid interest is never, for a single moment, permitted to flag. How few, even of the most accomplished and skilful of poets, are successful in ­[page 246:] the management of a story, when that story has to be told in verse. The difficulty is easily analyzed. In all mere narrations there are particulars of the dullest prose, which are inevitable and indispensable, but which serve no other purpose than to bind together the true interest of the incidents — in a word, explanatory passages, which are yet to be “so done into verse “ as not to let down the imagination from its pride of place. Absolutely to poetize these explanatory passages is beyond the reach of art, for prose, and that of the flattest kind, is their essentiality; but the skill of the artist should be sufficient to gloss them over so as to seem poetry amid the poetry by which they are surrounded. For this end a very consummate art is demanded. Here the tricks of phraseology — quaintnesses — and rhythmical effects, come opportunely into play. Of the species of skill required, Moore, in his “Alciphron,” has given us, upon the whole, the happiest exemplification; but Mrs. Lewis has very admirably succeeded in her “Child of the Sea.” I am strongly tempted, by way of showing what I mean, to give here a digest of her narrative, with comments — but this would be doing the author injustice, in anticipating the interest of her work.

The poem, although widely differing in subject from any of Mrs. Lewis’ prior compositions, and far superior to any of them in general vigor, artistic skill, and assured certainty of purpose, is nevertheless easily recognisable as the production of the same mind which originated “Florence” and “The Forsaken.” We perceive, throughout, the same passion, the same enthusiasm, and the same seemingly reckless abandon of thought and manner which I have already mentioned as characterizing the writer. I should have spoken also, of a fastidious yet most sensitive and almost voluptuous sense of Beauty. These are the general traits of “The Child of the Sea;” but undoubtedly the chief value of the poem, to ordinary readers, will be found to lie in the aggregation of its imaginative passages — its quotable points. I give a few of these at random: — the description of sunset upon the Bay of Gibraltar will compare favorably with anything of a similar character ever written:

Fresh blows the breeze on Tarick’s burnished bay;

The silent sea-mews bend them through the spray: ­[page 247:]

The Beauty-freighted barges bound afar

To the soft music of the gay guitar.

I quote further:

        —— the oblivious world of sleep —

That rayless realm where Fancy never beams —

That Nothingness beyond the Land of Dreams. . . . . .

 

Folded his arms across his sable vest,

As if to keep the heart within his breast.

————— he lingers by the streams,

Pondering on incommunicable themes. . . . . .

 

Nor notes the fawn that tamely by him glides

The violets lifting tip their azure eyes

Like timid virgins whom Love’s steps surprise. . . . . .

 

And all is hushed — so still — so silent there

That one might hear an angel wing the air. . . . . .

 

Adown the groves and dewy vales afar

Tinkles the serenader’s soft guitar. . . . . .

 

—— her tender cares,

Her solemn sigh, her silent streaming tears,

Her more than woman’s soft solicitude

To soothe his spirit in its frantic mood. . . . . .

 

Now by the crags — then by each pendant bough

Steadies his steps adown the mountain’s brow. . . . . .

 

Sinks on his crimson couch, so long unsought,

And floats along the phantom stream of thought. . . . . .

 

Ah, no! for there are times when the sick soul

Lies calm amid the storms that round it roll,

Indifferent to Fate or to what haven

By the terrific tempest it is driven. . . . . .

 

The Dahlias, leaning from the golden vase,

Peer pensively upon her pallid face,

While the sweet songster o’er the oaken door

Looks through his grate and warbles “weep no more!”. . . . .

 

—— lovely in her misery,

As jewel sparkling up through the dark sea. . . . . .

 

Where hung the fiery moon and stars of blood,

And phantom ships roiled on the rolling flood. . . . . .

 

My mind by grief was ripened ere its time,

And knowledge came spontaneous as a chime

That flows into the soul, unbid, unsought;

On Earth and Air and Heaven I fed my thought —

On Ocean’s teachings — Ætna’s lava tears —

Ruins and wrecks and nameless sepulchres. . . . . .

 

Each morning brought to them untasted bliss.

No pangs — no sorrows came with varying years —

No cold distrust — no faithlessness — no tears —. . . . . ­[page 248:]

But hand in hand as Eve and Adam trod

Eden, they walked beneath the smile of God.

It will be understood, of course, that we quote these brief passages by no means as the best, or even as particularly excelling the rest of the poem, on an averaged estimate of merit, but simply with a view of exemplifying some of the author’s more obvious traits — those, especially, of vigorous rhythm, and forcible expression. In no case can the loftier qualities of a truly great poem be conveyed through the citation of its component portions, in detail, even when long extracts are given — how much less, then, by such mere points as we have selected.

“The Broken Heart” (included with “The Child of the Sea”) is even more characteristic of Mrs. Lewis than that very remarkable poem. It is more enthusiastic, more glowing, more passionate, and perhaps more abundant in that peculiar spirit of abandon which has rendered Mrs. Maria Brooks’ “Zophiel” so great a favorite with the critics. “The Child of the Sea” is, of course, by far the more elaborate and more artistic composition, and excels “The Broken Heart” in most of those high qualities which immortalize a work of art. Its narrative, also, is more ably conducted and more replete with incident — but to the delicate fancy or the bold imagination of a poet, there is an inexpressible charm in the latter.

The minor poems embraced in the volume published by Mr. Putnam, evince a very decided advance in skill made by their author since the issue of the “Records of the Heart. “ A nobler poem than the “La Vega” could not be easily pointed out. Its fierce energy of expression will arrest attention very especially — but its general glow and vigor have rarely been equalled.

Among the author’s less elaborate compositions, however, “The Angel’s Visit,” written since the publication of her “Child of the Sea,” is, perhaps, upon the whole, the best — although “The Forsaken” and “La Vega” are scarcely, if at all, inferior.

In summing up the autorial merits of Mrs. Lewis, all critical opinion must agree in assigning her a high, if not the very highest rank among the poetesses of her land. Her artistic ability is unusual; her command of language great; her acquirements numerous and thorough; her range of incident wide; her ­[page 249:] invention, generally, vigorous; her fancy exuberant; and her imagination — that primary and most indispensable of all poetic requisites — richer, perhaps, than any of her female contemporaries. But as yet — her friends sincerely believe — she has given merely an earnest of her powers.


Notes:

None.


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

[S:1 - Works, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Estelle Anna Lewis (Text-B)