Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “The Literati of New-York: S. Anna Lewis,” from the United States Democratic Review, August 1848, pp. 158-160


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[page 158:]

THE LITERATI OF NEW-YORK.

———

S. ANNA LEWIS

THE poetical reputation of Mrs. Lewis has been rapidly acquired, but is not the less thoroughly deserved. Within a few years past she has published much and written more; but although what she has accomplished suffices to give her a very decided preeminence, there can be no doubt in the minds of those who know her best, that her most important triumphs lie in the Future — for with taste, scholarship, a strong bias towards Letters, and that pardonable ambition which always accompanies true genius, she is still very young, and has many years of active exertion in prospect.

Previous to 1840 Mrs. Lewis had published only a few spirited prose stories in Southwick’s “Family Magazine,” with some fugitive poems in different papers arid periodicals; but the first Poem from her pen which especially attracted public attention, was her “ Ruins of Palenque,” founded on a passage in Stephens’s “Travels in Central America.” This was originally published in “The New-World,” and was widely copied and circulated, at the time of its issue.

In 1844, the Appletons published, at New-York, her “Records of the Heart,” a large edition of which was soon exhausted.

The poems included in the “Records” are chiefly compositions of length, as sell as of high merit. The four opening pieces are “Florence,” “Zenel,” (pronounced Thanail,). “Melpomene,” and “Laone.” These all bear the peculiar impress of their author’s mind, and are passionate, glowing, and classical in word and spirit. It would give us great pleasure to quote a passage or two from each of these poems — but we cannot, without exceeding our limits: — nor indeed could any mere extract convey an idea of the chief merit which distinguishes these works — the merit of a well-arranged and well-balanced whole. Among the minor poems of “The Records” are several of exquisite pathos, subservient to a very forcible yet very refined and delicate fancy — or more properly imagination. We must be permitted to exemplify our meaning by the citation of “The Forsaken” — a poem, which, in its peculiar way, is not excelled, if equalled, by any composition, of similar length, which has ever been written by an American There is about it a dreamy — a voluptuous melancholy — a” simple, passionate and Sensuous” expression of sorrow which is perfectly irresistible:

THE FORSAKEN.

It hath been said for all who die

There is a tear;

Some pining, bleeding heart to sigh

O’er every bier

But in that hour of pain and dread

Who will draw near

Around my humble couch, and shed

One farewell tear?

 

Who watch life’s last departing ray

In deep despair,

And soothe my spirit on its way

With holy prayer?

What mourner round my bier will come

“In weeds of wo,”

And follow me to my long home —

Solemn and slow? [page 159:]

 

When lying on my clayey bed,.

In icy sleep,

Who there by pure affection led

Will cone and weep —

By the pale moon implant the rose

Upon my breast,

And bid it cheer my dark repose,

My lowly rest?

 

Could I but know when I am sleeping

Low in the ground,

One faithful heart would there be keeping

Watch all night round,

As if some gem lay shrined beneath

That sod’s cold gloom,

’Twould mitigate the pangs of Death,

And light the tomb.

 

Yes, in that hour if I could feel

Prom halls of glee

And Beauty’s presence ONE would steal

In secrecy,

And come and sit and weep by me

In night’s deep noon —

Oh! I would ask of Memory

No other boon.

 

But ah! a lonelier fate is mine —

A deeper wo:

From all I love in Youth’s sweet time

I soon must go —

Draw round me my cold robes of white

In a dark spot

To sleep through Death’s long, dreamless night,

Lone and forgot.

The great charm of this truly beautiful poem is the exquisite and unaffected naturalness of its thought. it is on this account that the sternest heart will he moved by it, even to tears.

In 1846, she published in the Democratic Review “The Broken Heart,” a poem in three Cantos; and since this period she has given to the world a number of minor and less elaborate compositions, principally in the American and Democratic Reviews.

“The Broken Heart,” a Tale of Hispaniola, is especially characteristic of its author — fervid, yet ornate and gracefully controlled. It is a poem of intense and even Byronic passion. We quote a passage of singular beauty:

Alas! what awe have sepulchres

To hearts that have been dead for years?

Dead unto all external things —

Dead onto Hope’s sweet offerings,

While with its lofty pinions furled

The Spirit floats in neither world.

She gains at length the holy fane,

Where Death and solemn Silence reign —

Hurries along the shadowy aisles

Up to the altar where blest tapers

Burn dimly and the Virgin smiles

Midst rising clouds of incense vapors —

There kneels by the Confession Chair

Where waits the Friar with fervent prayer

To soothe the children of Despair.

Her hands are clasped — her eyes upraised —

Meek — beautiful — though coldly glazed —

And her pale cheeks are paling faster.

From under her simple hat of straw

Over her neck her tresses flow

Like threads of jet o’er alabaster. [page 160:]

She has now in the press the “Child of the Sea and Other Poems;” and upon the poem which gives the title to this volume, her poetical reputation will, perhaps, ultimately depend — at least in great measure. “The child of the Sea” is emphatically a romantic poem. Avoiding equally the vulgarity of the mere matter-of-fact worldling, and the dreamy, yet hard and cold abstractions of the Transcendentalists and Progress-Mongers, Mrs. Lewis has, in this fine work, given the world an earnest, and perhaps but an earnest of her powers. Its ruling trait is enthusiastic abandon — much in the manner of “Maria del Occidente.” She seems to have aimed at reproducing her conceptions in all the freshness and unpinned vigor with which they arose in her mind — that is to say, as regards the thoughts themselves — for the language in which they are embodied is skilfully and artistically perfected. The versification is, indeed, quite elaborately managed. But the poem will be published early in the fall. and will then speak, forcibly, for itself.

We take the liberty, however, of making two or three short extracts, merely by way of illustrating our remarks:

“But he escaped, despite their frantic cries,

And efforts to regain the lovely prize.

What happened thence — or to what shores they flew —

Upon what seas they sailed, I never knew —

I only know, that of this Union wild,

I was the Pledge — an Ill-Starred, Ocean-Child!”

Again —

“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 Oceans teachings — Etna’s lava tears —

Ruins and Wrecks — and nameless Sepulchres.”

And again —

“Sleep chains the earth the hright stars glide on high

Filling with one effulgent smile the sky;

And all is hushed, so still, so silent there,

That one might hear an angel wing the air.

And where is Zamen? are his slumbers sweet,

Calm, renovating, in this fair retreat?

Have Beauty’s smile, and tranquilizing light,

Mute, moaning Melancholy, put to flight

And changed his bosom from a murky hell,

To at abode where Love and Peace may dwell?

Ah, no! it only shows the Ruin there,

Like sunshine falling on a sepulchre!

There is a resurrection of the Heart,

When from its vivifying ashes start

Its consecrated Dead — Hope, Love, Joy, Dole,

Grief-laden, circumambiate the soul —

An hour when Time’s din veil aside is cast,

And we relieve the silent-solemn Past.”

Probably no American poetess has a more thoroughly educated mind or is more conversant with standard English and American Literature. The classical acquirements have made her favorably known its circles where commendation, on such points, is with difficulty extorted; and her translation of the storm-scene from the First Book of the AEneid has been critically pronounced the best yet made of that passage into English verse.

In person, she is about the medium height of woman, or perhaps rather above it — of a dignified and reserved demeanour — a finely formed figure — chesnut hair, curling naturally, and large, dark hazle eyes. The beautiful portrait, by Elliot, lately exhibited, is by no means too flattering a likeness.

 


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Notes:

Although it carries the title “The Literati of New York,” the present article was published two years later, and in a different magazine from the earlier series.

 

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[S:0 - USDR, 1848] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Cricitism - The Literati of New York: S. Anna Lewis (Text-02)