Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Critical Notices,” Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. III, no. 1, January 1837, 3:41-49


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[page 41:]

Editorial.

——

CRITICAL NOTICES.

——

BRYANT.

Poems by William Cullen Bryant. Fourth Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Mr. Bryant’s poetical reputation, both at home and abroad, is greater, we presume, than that of any other American. British critics have frequently awarded him high praise, and here, the public press have been unanimous in approbation. We can call to mind no dissenting voice. Yet the nature, and, most especially the manner, of the expressed opinions in this case, should be considered as somewhat equivocal, and but too frequently must have borne to the mind of the poet doubts and dissatisfaction. The edition now before us may be supposed to embrace all such of his poems as he deems not unworthy his name. These (amounting to about one hundred) have been “carefully revised.” With the exception of some few, about which nothing could well be said, we will speak briefly of them one by one, but in such order as we may find convenient.

The Ages, a didactic piece of thirty-five Spenserian stanzas, is the first and longest in the volume. It was originally printed in 1821, With about half a dozen others now included in this collection. The design of the author in this poem is “from a survey of the past ages of the world, and of the successive advances of mankind in knowledge and virtue, to justify and confirm the hopes of the philanthropist for the future destinies of the human race.” It is, indeed, an essay on the perfectability of man, wherein, among other better arguments some in the very teeth of analogy, are deduced from the eternal cycle of physical nature, to sustain a hope of progression in happiness. But it is only as a poem that we wish to examine The Ages. Its commencement is impressive. The four initial lines arrest the attention at once by a quiet dignity of manner, an air of placid contemplation, and a versification combining the extremes of melody and force —

When to the common rest that crowns our days,

Called in the noon of life, the good man goes,

Or full of years, and ripe in wisdom, lays

His silver temples in their last repose —

The five concluding lines of the stanza, however, are not equally effective —

When, o’er the buds of youth, the death-wind blows,

And brights the fairest; when our bitterest tears

Stream, as the eyes of those that love us close,

We think on what they were, with many fears

Lest goodness die with them, and leave the coming years.

The defects, here, are all of a metrical and of course minor nature, but are still defects. The line

When o’er the buds of youth the death-wind blows,

is impeded in its flow by the final th in youth, and especially in death where w follows. The word tears cannot readily be pronounced after the final st in bitterest; and its own final consonants, rs, in like manner render an effort necessary in the utterance of stream which commences the next line. In the verse [column 2:]

We think on what they were, with many fears

the word many is, from its nature, too rapidly pronounced for the fulfilment of the time necessary to give weight to the foot of two syllables. All words of two syllables do not necessarily constitute a foot (we speak now of the Pentameter here employed) even although the syllables be entirely distinct, as in many, very, often, and the like. Such as, without effort, cannot employ in their pronunciation the time demanded by each of the preceding and succeeding feet of the verse, and occasionally of a preceding verse, will never fail to offend. It is the perception of this fact which so frequently forces the versifier of delicate ear to employ feet exceeding what are unjustly called legitimate dimensions. For example. We have the following lines —

Lo! to the smiling Arno’s classic side,

The emulous nations of the West repair!

These verses are exceedingly forcible, yet, upon scanning the latter we find a syllable too many. We shall be told possibly that there should be an elision of the e in the at the commencement. But no — this was not intended. Both the and emulous demand a perfect accentuation. The verse commencing Lo!

Lo! to the smiling Arno’s classic side,

has, it will be observed, a Trochee in its first foot. As is usually the case, the whole line partakes, in consequence, of a stately and emphatic enunciation, and to equalize the time in the verse succeeding, something more is necessary than the succession of Iambuses which constitute the ordinary English Pentameter. The equalization is therefore judiciously effected by the introduction of an additional syllable. But in the lines

Stream, as the eyes of those that love us close,

We think on what they were with many fears,

lines to which the preceding observations will equally apply, this additional syllable is wanting. Did the rhyme admit of the alteration, everything necessary could be accomplished by writing

We think on what they were with many a fear,

Lest goodness die with them and leave the coming year.

These remarks may be considered hypercritical — yet it is undeniable that upon a rigid attention to minutiae such as we have pointed out, any great degree of metrical success must altogether depend. We are more disposed, too, to dwell upon the particular point mentioned above, since, with regard to it, the American Monthly, in a late critique upon the poems of Mr. Willis, has evidently done that gentleman injustice. The reviewer has fallen into what we conceive the error of citing, by themselves, (that is to say insulated from the context) such verses as

The night-wind with a desolate moan swept by.

With difficult energy and when the rod.

Fell through, and with the tremulous hand of age.

With supernatural whiteness loosely fell.

for the purpose of animadversion. “The license” he says “of turning such words as ‘passionate’ and ‘desolate’ into two syllables could only have been taken by a pupil of the Fantastic School.” We are quite sure that Mr. Willis had no purpose of turning them into words of two syllables — nor even, as may be supposed upon a careless examination, of pronouncing them in the [page 42:] same time which would be required for two ordinary, syllables. The excesses of measure are here employed (perhaps without any definite design on the part of the writer, who may have been guided solely by ear) with reference to the proper equalization, of balancing, if we may so term it, of time, throughout an entire sentence. This, we confess, is a novel idea, but, we think, perfectly tenable. Any musician will understand us. Efforts for the relief of monotone will necessarily produce fluctuations in the time of any metre, which fluctuations, if not subsequently counterbalanced, affect the ear like unresolved discords in music. The deviations then of which we have been speaking, from the strict rules of prosodial art, are but improvements upon the rigor of those rules, and are a merit, not a fault. It is the nicety of this species of equalization more than any other metrical merit which elevates Pope as a versifier above the mere couplet-maker of his day, and, on the other hand, it is the extension of the principle to sentences of greater length which elevates Milton above Pope. Knowing this, it was, of course, with some surprise that we found the American Monthly (for whose opinions we still have the highest respect,) citing Pope in opposition to Mr. Willis upon the very point to which we allude. A few examples will be sufficient to show that Pope not only made free use of the license referred to, but that he used it for the reasons, and under the circumstances which we have suggested.

Oh thou! whatever title please thine ear,

Dean, Drapier, Bickerstaff, or Gulliver!

Whether thou choose Cervantes’ serious air,

Or laugh and shake in Rabelais easy chair.

Any person will here readily perceive that the third line

Whether thou choose Cervantes’ serious air,

differs in time from the usual course of the rhythm, and requires some counterbalance in the line which succeeds. It is indeed precisely such a verse as that of Mr. Bryant’s upon which we have commented,

Stream, as the eyes of those that love us close,

and commences in the same manner with a Trochee. But again, from Pope we have —

Hence hymning Tyburn’s elegiac lines

Hence Journals, Medleys, Mercuries, Magazines.

——

Else all my prose and verse were much the same,

This prose on stilts, that poetry fallen lame.

——

And thrice he lifted high the birth-day brand

And thrice he dropped it from his quivering hand.

——

Here stood her opium, here she nursed her owls,

And here she planned the imperial seat of fools.

——

Here to her chosen all her works she shows;

Prose swell’d to verse, verse loitering into prose.

——

Rome in her Capitol saw Querno sit

Throned on seven hills, the Antichrist of wit.

——

And his this drum whose hoarse heroic bass

Drowns the loud clarion of the braying ass.

——

But such a bulk as no twelve bards could raise

Twelve starveling bards of these degenerate days.

——

These are all taken at random from the first book of the Dunciad. In the last example it will be seen that [column 2:] the two additional syllables are employed with a view of equalizing the time with that of the verse,

But such a bulk as no twelve bards could raise —

a verse which will be perceived to labor in its progress — and which Pope, in accordance with his favorite theory of making sound accord with sense, evidently intended so to labor. It is useless to say that the words should be written with elision-starv’ling and degen’rate. Their pronunciation is not thereby materially affected — and, besides, granting it to be so, it may be as well to make the elision also in the case of Mr. Willis. But Pope had no such intention, nor, we presume, had Mr. W. It is somewhat singular, we may remark, en passant, that the American Monthly, in a subsequent portion of the critique alluded to, quotes from Pope as a line of “sonorous grandeur” and one beyond the ability of our American poet, the well known

Luke’s iron crown and Damien’s bed of steel.

Now this is indeed a line of “sonorous grandeur” — but it is rendered so principally if not altogether by that very excess of metre (in the word Damien) which the reviewer has condemned in Mr. Willis. The lines which we quote below from Mr. Bryant’s poem of The Ages will suffice to show that the author we are now reviewing fully appreciates the force of such occasional excess, and that he has only neglected it through oversight in the verse which suggested these observations.

Peace to the just man’s memory —

let it grow Greener with years, and blossom through the flight

Of ages — let the mimic canvass show

His calm benevolent features.

——

Does prodigal Autumn to our age deny

The plenty that once swelled beneath his sober eye?

——

Look on this beautiful world and read the truth

In her fair page.

——

Will then the merciful One who stamped our race

With his own image, and who gave them sway

O’er Earth and the glad dwellers on her face,

Now that our flourishing nations far away

Are spread, where’er the moist earth drinks the day,

Forget the ancient care that taught and nursed

His latest offspring?

——

He who has tamed the elements shall not live

The slave of his own passions.

——

——————— when liberty awoke

New-born, amid those beautiful vales.

——

Oh Greece, thy flourishing cities were a spoil

Unto each other.

——

And thou didst drive from thy unnatural breast

Thy just and brave.

——

Yet her degenerate children sold the crown.

——

Instead of the pure heart and innocent hands —

——

Among thy gallant sons that guard thee well

Thou laugh’st at enemies. Who shall then declare —

&c.

——

Far like the comet’s way thro’ infinite space.

——

The full region leads

New colonies forth.

—— [page 43:]

Full many a horrible worship that, of old,

Held o’er the shuddering realms unquestioned sway.

——

All these instances, and some others, occur in a poem of but thirty-five stanzas — yet in only a very few cases is the license improperly used. Before quitting this subject it may be as well to cite a striking example from Wordsworth —

There was a youth whom I had loved so long,

That when I loved him not I cannot say.

Mid the green mountains many and many a song

We two had sung like gladsome birds in May.

Another specimen, and one still more to the purpose may be given from Milton whose accurate ear (although he cannot justly be called the best of versifiers) included and balanced without difficulty the rhythm of the longest passages.

But say, if our Deliverer up to heaven

Must re-ascend, what will betide the few

His faithful, left among the unfaithful herd,

The enemies of truth? who then shall guide

His people, who defend? Will they not deal

More with his followers than with him they dealt?

Be sure they will, said the Angel.

The other metrical faults in The Ages are few. Mr. Bryant is not always successful in his Alexandrines. Too great care cannot be taken, we think, in so regulating this species of verse as to admit of the necessary pause at the end of the third foot — or at least as not to render a pause necessary elsewhere. We object, therefore, to such lines as

A palm like his, and catch from him the hallowed flame.

The truth of heaven, and kneel to Gods that heard them not.

That which concludes Stanza X, although correctly cadenced in the above respect, requires an accent on the monosyllable the, which is too unimportant to sustain it. The defect is rendered the more perceptible by the introduction of a Trochee in the first foot.

The sick untended then

Languished in the damp shade, and died afar from men.

We are not sure that such lines as

A boundless sea of blood and the wild air.

The smile of heaven, till a new age expands.

are in any case justifiable, and they can be easily avoided. As in the Alexandrine mentioned above, the course of the rhythm demands an accent on monosyllables too unimportant to sustain it. For this prevalent heresy in metre we are mainly indebted to Byron, who introduced it freely, with the view of imparting an abrupt energy to his verse. There are, however, many better ways of relieving a monotone.

Stanza VI is, throughout, an exquisite specimen of versification, besides embracing many beauties both of thought and expression.

Look on this beautiful world and read the truth

In her fair page; see every season brings

New change, to her, of everlasting youth;

Still the green soil with joyous living things

Swarms; the wide air is full of joyous wings;

And myriads, still, are happy in the sleep

Of ocean’s azure gulfs, and where he flings

The restless surge. Eternal love doth keep

In his complacent arms the earth, the air, the deep.

The cadences, here, at the words page, swarms, and surge respectively, cannot be surpassed. We shall find, upon examination, comparatively few consonants [column 2:] in the stanza, and by their arrangement no impediment is offered to the flow of the verse. Liquids and the most melodious vowels abound. World, eternal, season, wide, change, full, air, everlasting, wings, flings, complacent, surge, gulfs, myriads, azure, ocean, sail, and joyous, are among the softest and most sonorous sounds in the language, and the partial line after the pause at surge, together with the stately march of the Alexandrine which succeeds, is one of the finest imaginable of finales —

Eternal love doth keep

In his complacent arms, the earth, the air, the deep.

The higher beauties of the poem are not, we think, of the highest. It has unity, completeness, — a beginning, middle and end. The tone, too, of calm, hopeful, and elevated reflection, is well sustained throughout. There is an occasional quaint grace of expression, as in

Nurse of full streams, and lifter up of proud

Sky-mingling mountains that o’erlook the cloud —

or of antithetical and rhythmical force combined, as in

The shock that hurled

To dust in many fragments dashed and strown

The throne whose roots were in another world

And whose far-stretching shadow awed our own.

But we look in vain for something more worthy commendation. At the same time the piece is especially free from errors. Once only we meet with an unjust metonymy, where a sheet of water is said to

Cradle, in his soft embrace, a gay

Young group of grassy islands.

We find little originality of thought, and less imagination. But in a poem essentially didactic, of course we cannot hope for the loftiest breathings of the Muse.

——

To the Past is a poem of fourteen quatrains — three feet and four alternately. In the second quatrain, the lines

And glorious ages gone

Lie deep within the shadow of thy womb.

are, to us, disagreeable. Such things are common, but at best, repulsive. In the present case there is not even the merit of illustration. The womb, in any just imagery, should be spoken of with a view to things future; here it is employed, in the sense of the tomb, and with a view to things past. In Stanza XI the idea is even worse. The allegorical meaning throughout the poem, although generally well sustained, is not always so. In the quatrain

Thine for a space are they —

Yet shalt thou yield thy treasures up at last;

Thy gates shall yet give way

Thy bolts shall fall, inexorable Past!

it seems that The Past, as an allegorical personification, is confounded with Death.

——

The Old Man’s Funeral is of seven stanzas, each of six lines — four Pentameters and Alexandrine rhyming. At the funeral of an old man who has lived out his full quota of years, another, as aged, reproves the company for weeping. The poem is nearly perfect in its way — the thoughts striking and natural — the versification singularly sweet. The third stanza embodies a fine idea, beautifully expressed. [page 44:]

Ye sigh not when the sun, his course fulfilled,

His glorious course rejoicing earth and sky,

In the soft evening when the winds are stilled,

Sinks where his islands of refreshment lie,

And leaves the smile of his departure spread

O’er the warm-colored heaven, and ruddy mountain head.

The technical word chronic should have been avoided in the fifth line of Stanza VI —

No chronic tortures racked his aged limb.

——

The Rivulet has about ninety octo-syllabic verses. They contrast the changing and perishable nature of our human frame, with the greater durability of the Rivulet. The chief merit is simplicity. We should imagine the poem to be one of the earliest pieces of Mr. Bryant, and to have undergone much correction. In the first paragraph are, however, some awkward constructions. In the verses, for example

This little rill that from the springs

Of yonder grove its current brings,

Plays on the slope awhile, and then

Goes prattling into groves again.

the reader is apt to suppose that rill is the nominative to plays, whereas it is the nominative only to drew in the subsequent lines,

Oft to its warbling waters drew

My little feet when life was new.

The proper verb is, of course, immediately seen upon reading these latter lines — but the ambiguity has occurred.

———

The Prairies. This is a poem, in blank Pentameter, of about one hundred and twenty-five lines, and possesses features which do not appear in any of the pieces above mentioned. Its descriptive beauty is of a high order. The peculiar points of interest in the Prairie are vividly shown forth, and as a local painting, the work is, altogether, excellent. Here are moreover, evidences of fine imagination. For example —

The great heavens

Seem to stoop down upon the scene in love —

A nearer vault and of a tenderer blue

Than that which bends above the eastern hills.

——

Till twilight blushed, and lovers walked and wooed

In a forgotten language, and old tunes

From instruments of unremembered form

Gave the soft winds a voice.

——

——— The bee

Within the hollow oak. I listen long

To his domestic hum and think I hear

The sound of the advancing multitude

Which soon shall fill these deserts.

——

Breezes of the south!

Who toss the golden and the flame-like flowers,

And pass the prairie-hawk that poised on high,

Flaps his broad wing yet moves not!

There is an objectionable ellipsis in the expression “I behold them from the first,” meaning “first time;” and either a grammatical or typographical error of moment in the fine sentence commencing

Fitting floor

For this magnificent temple of the sky —

With flowers whose glory and whose multitude

Rival the constellations! [column 2:]

Earth, a poem of similar length and construction to The Prairies, embodies a noble conception. The poet represents himself as lying on the earth in a “midnight black with clouds,” and giving ideal voices to the varied sounds of the coming tempest. The following passages remind us of some of the more beautiful portions of Young.

On the breast of Earth

I lie and listen to her mighty voice;

A voice of many tones-sent up from streams

That wander through the gloom, from woods unseen

Swayed by the sweeping of the tides of air,

From rocky chasm where darkness dwells all day,

And hollows of the great invisible hills,

And sands that edge the ocean stretching far

Into the night — a melancholy sound!

——

Ha! how the murmur deepens! I perceive

And tremble at its dreadful import. Earth

Uplifts a general cry for guilt and wrong

And Heaven is listening. The forgotten graves

Of the heart broken utter forth their plaint.

The dust of her who loved and was betrayed,

And him who died neglected in his age,

The sepulchres of those who for mankind

Labored, and earned the recompense of scorn,

Ashes of martyrs for the truth, and bones

Of those who in the strife for liberty

Were beaten down, their corses given to dogs,

Their names to infamy, all find a voice!

In this poem and elsewhere occasionally throughout the volume, we meet with a species of grammatical construction, which, although it is to be found in writing of high merit, is a mere affectation, and, of course, objectionable. We mean the abrupt employment of a direct pronoun in place of the customary relative. For example —

Or haply dost thou grieve for those that die —

For living things that trod awhile thy face,

The love of thee and heaven, and how they sleep,

Mixed with the shapeless dust on which thy herds

Trample and graze?

The note of interrogation here, renders the affectation more perceptible.

——

The poem To the Apenines resembles, in meter, that entitled The Old Man’s Funeral, except that the former has a Pentameter in place of the Alexandrine. This piece is chiefly remarkable for the force, metrical and moral, of its concluding stanza.

In you the heart that sighs for Freedom seeks

Her image; there the winds no barrier know,

Clouds come and rest and leave your fairy peaks;

While even the immaterial Mind, below,

And Thought, her winged offspring, chained by power,

Pine silently for the redeeming hour.

——

The Knight’s Epitaph consists of about fifty lines of blank Pentameter. This poem is well conceived and executed. Entering the Church of St. Catherine at Pisa, the poet is arrested by the image of an armed knight graven upon the lid of a sepulchre. The epitaph consists of an imaginative portraiture of the knight, in which he is made the impersonation of the ancient Italian chivalry.

——

Seventy-six has seven stanzas of a common, but musical versification, of which these lines will afford an excellent specimen. [page 45:]

That death-stain on the vernal sword,

Hallowed to freedom all the shore —

In fragments fell the yoke abhorred —

The footsteps of a foreign lord

Profaned the soil no more.

——

The Living Lost has four stanzas of somewhat peculiar construction, but admirably adapted to the tone of contemplative melancholy which pervades the poem. We can call to mind few things more singularly impressive than the eight concluding verses. They combine ease with severity, and have antithetical force without effort or flippancy. The final thought has also a high ideal beauty.

But ye who for the living lost

That agony in secret bear,

Who shall with soothing words accost

The strength of your despair?

Grief for your sake is scorn for them

Whom ye lament, and all condemn,

And o’er the world of spirit lies

A gloom from which ye turn your eyes.

The first stanza commences with one of those affectations which we noticed in the poem “Earth.” Matron, the children of whose love, Each to his grave in youth have passed, And now the mould is heaped above The dearest and the last.

——

The Strange Lady is of the fourteen syllable metre, answering to two lines, one of eight syllables, the other six. This rhythm is unmanageable, and requires great care in the rejection of harsh consonants. Little, however, has been taken, apparently, in the construction of the verses

As if they loved to breast the breeze that sweeps the cool clear sky.

And thou shoudst chase the nobler game, and I bring down the bird.

Or that strange dame so gay and fair were some mysterious foe,

which are not to be pronounced without labor. The story is old — of a young gentleman who going out to hunt, is inveigled into the woods and destroyed by a fiend in the guise of a fair lady. The ballad character is nevertheless well preserved, and this, we presume, is nearly every thing intended.

——

The Hunter’s Vision is skilfully and sweetly told. It is a tale of a young hunter who, overcome with toil, dozes on the brink of a precipice. In this state between waking and sleeping, he fancies a spirit-land in the fogs of the valley beneath him, and sees approaching him the deceased lady of his love. Arising to meet her, he falls, with the effort, from the crag, and perishes. The state of reverie is admirably pictured in the following stanzas. The poem consists of nine such.

All dim in haze the mountains lay

With dimmer vales between;

And rivers glimmered on their way

By forests faintly seen;

While ever rose a murmuring sound

From brooks below and bees around.

He listened till he seemed to hear

A strain so soft and low

That whether in the mind or ear

The listener scarce might know.

With such a tone, so sweet and mild

The watching mother lulls her child.

——

Catterskill Falls is a narrative somewhat similar. Here the hero is also a hunter — but of delicate frame. He is overcome with the cold at the foot of the falls, sleeps, and is near perishing- but being found by some woodmen, is taken care of, and recovers. As in the Hunters Vision, the dream of the youth is the main subject of the poem. He fancies a goblin palace in the icy network of the cascade, and peoples it in his vision with ghosts. His entry into this palace is, with rich imagination on the part of the poet, made to correspond with the time of the transition from the state of reverie to that of nearly total insensibility.

They eye him not as they pass along,

But his hair stands up with dread,

When he feels that he moves with that phantom throng

Till those icy turrets are over his head,

And the torrent’s roar as they enter seems

Like a drowsy murmur heard in dreams.

The glittering threshold is scarcely passed

When there gathers and wraps him round

A thick white twilight sullen and vast

In which there is neither form nor sound;

The phantoms, the glory, vanish all

Within the dying voice of the waterfall.

There are nineteen similar stanzas. The metre is formed of Iambuses and Anapests.

——

The Hunter of the Prairies (fifty-six octosyllabic verses with alternate rhymes) is a vivid picture of the life of a hunter in the desert. The poet, however, is here greatly indebted to his subject.

——

The Damsel of Peru is in the fourteen syllable metre, and has a most spirited, imaginative and musical commencement —

Where olive leaves were twinkling in every wind that blew,

There sat beneath the pleasant shade a damsel of Peru.

This is also a ballad, and a very fine one-full of action, chivalry, energy and rhythm. Some passages have even a loftier merit-that of a glowing ideality. For example —

For the noon is coming on, and the sunbeams fiercely beat,

And the silent hills and forest-tops seem reeling in the heat.

——

The Song of Pitcairn’s Island is a sweet, quiet and simple poem, of a versification differing from that of any preceding piece. We subjoin a specimen. The Tahetian maiden addresses her lover.

Come talk of Europe’s maids with me

Whose necks and cheeks they tell

Outshine the beauty of the sea,

White foam and crimson shell.

I’ll shape like theirs my simple dress

And bind like them each jetty tress,

A sight to please thee well,

And for my dusky brow will braid

A bonnet like an English maid.

There are seven similar stanzas.

——

Rispah is a scriptural theme from 2 Samuel, and we like it less than any poem yet mentioned. The subject, we think, derives no additional interest from its poetical [page 46:] dress. The metre resembling, except in the matter of rhyme, that of “Catterskill Falls,” and consisting of mingled Iambuses and Anapaests, is the most positively disagreeable of any which our language admits, and, having a frisky or fidgetty rhythm, is singularly ill-adapted to the lamentations of the bereaved mother. We cannot conceive how the fine ear of Mr. Bryant could admit such verses as,

And Rispah once the loveliest of all

That bloomed and smiled in the court of Saul, &c.

——

The Indian Girl’s Lament and the [[sic]] Arctic Lover have nearly all the peculiarities of the “Song of Pitcairn’s Island.”

——

The Massacre at Scio is only remarkable for inaccuracy of expression in the two concluding lines —

Till the last link of slavery’s chain

Is shivered to be worn no more.

What shall be worn no more? The chain — but the link is implied.

——

Monument Mountain is a poem of about a hundred and forty blank Pentameters and relates the tale of an Indian maiden who loved her cousin. Such a love being deemed incestuous by the morality of her tribe, she threw herself from a precipice and perished. There is little peculiar in the story or its narration. We quote a rough verse —

The mighty columns with which earth props heaven.

The use of the epithet old preceded by some other adjective, is found so frequently in this poem and elsewhere in the writings of Mr. Bryant, as to excite a smile upon each recurrence of the expression.

In all that proud old world beyond the deep —

There is a tale about these gray old rocks —

The wide old woods resounded with her song —

——— and the gray old men that passed —

And from the gray old trunks that high in heaven.

We dislike too the antique use of the word affect in such sentences as

 

———— they deemed

Like worshippers of the elder time that God

Doth walk in the high places and affect

The earth-o’erlooking mountains.

Milton, it is true, uses it — we remember it especially in Comus —

‘Tis most true

That musing meditation most affects

The pensive secrecy of desert cell —

but then Milton would not use it were he writing Comus to-day.

——

In the Summer Wind, our author has several successful attempts at making “the sound an echo to the sense.” For example —

For me, I lie

Languidly in the shade, where the thick turf

Yet virgin from the kisses of the sun

Retains some freshness.

——

All is silent, save the faint

And interrupted murmur of the bee

Settling on the sick flowers, and then again

Instantly on the wing. [column 2:]

All the green herbs

Are stirring in his breath; a thousand flowers

By the road side, and the borders of the brook

Nod gaily to each other.

——

Autumn Woods.

This is a poem of much sweetness and simplicity of expression, and including one or two fine thoughts, viz:

the sweet South-west at play

Flies, rustling where the painted leaves are strewn

Along the winding way.

——

But ‘neath yon crimson tree

Lover to listening maid might breathe his flame,

Nor mark within its roseate canopy

Her flush of maiden shame.

——

The mountains that unfold

In their wide sweep the colored landscape round,

Seem groups of giant kings in purple and gold

That guard the enchanted ground.

All this is beautiful — the sentences italicized especially so. Happily to endow inanimate nature with sentience and a capability of moral action is one of the severest tests of the poet. Even the most unmusical ear will not fail to appreciate the rare beauty and strength of the extra syllable in the line

Seem groups of giant kings in purple and gold.

——

The Distinterred Warrior has a passage we do not clearly understand.

Speaking of the Indian our author says —

For he was fresher from the hand

That formed of earth the human face,

And to the elements did stand

In nearer kindred than our race.

There are ten similar quatrains in the poem.

——

The Greek Boy consists of four spirited stanzas, nearly resembling, in metre, The Living Lost. The two concluding lines are highly ideal.

A shoot of that old vine that made

The nations silent in its shade.

——

When the Firmament Quivers with Daylight’s Young Beam, belongs to a species of poetry which we cannot be brought to admire. Some natural phenomenon is observed, and the poet taxes his ingenuity to find a parallel in the moral world. In general, we may assume, that the more successful he is in sustaining a parallel, the farther he departs from the true province of the Muse. The title, here, is a specimen of the metre. This is a kind which we have before designated as exceedingly difficult to manage.

——

To a Musquito, is droll, and has at least the merit of making, at the same time, no efforts at being sentimental. We are not inclined, however, to rank as poems, either this production or the article on New England Coal.

——

The Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus has ninety Pentameters. One of them

Kind influence. Lo! their orbs burn more bright, can only be read, metrically, by drawing out influence into three marked syllables, shortening the long monosyllable, Lo! and lengthening the short one, their. [page 47:]

June is sweet and soft in its rhythm, and inexpressibly pathetic. There is an illy subdued sorrow and intense awe coming up, per force as it were to the surface of the poet’s gay sayings about his grave, which we find thrilling us to the soul.

And what if cheerful shouts, at noon,

Come, from the village sent,

Or songs of maids, beneath the moon

With fairy laughter blent?

And what if, in the evening light,

Betrothed lovers walk in sight

Of my low monument?

I would the lovely scene around

Might know no sadder sight nor sound.

I know, I know I should not see

The season’s glorious show,

Nor would its brightness shine for me

Nor its wild music flow;

But if, around my place of sleep,

The friends I love should come to weep,

They might not haste to go

Soft airs, and song, and light, and bloom

Should keep them lingering by my tomb.

——

Innocent Child and Snow-White Flower, is remarkable only for the deficiency of a foot in one of its verses.

White as those leaves just blown apart

Are the folds of thy own young heart.

and for the graceful repetition in its concluding quatrain —

Throw it aside in thy weary hour,

Throw to the ground the fair white flower,

Yet as thy tender years depart

Keep that white and innocent heart.

——

Of the seven original sonnets in the volume before us, it is somewhat difficult to speak. The sonnet demands, in a great degree, point, strength, unity, compression, and a species of completeness. Generally, Mr. Bryant has evinced more of the first and the last, than of the three mediate qualities. William Tell is feeble. No forcible line ever ended with liberty, and the best of the rhymes — thee, he, free, and the like, are destitute of the necessary vigor. But for this rhythmical defect the thought in the concluding couplet —

The bitter cup they mingled strengthened thee

For the great work to set thy country free —

would have well ended the sonnet. Midsummer is objectionable for the variety of its objects of allusion. Its final lines embrace a fine thought —

As if the day of fire had dawned and sent

Its deadly breath into the firmament —

but the vigor of the whole is impaired by the necessity of placing an unwonted accent on the last syllable of firmament. October has little to recommend it, but the slight epigrammatism of its conclusion —

And when my last sand twinkled in the glass,

Pass silently from men — as thou dost pass.

The Sonnet To Cole, is feeble in its final lines, and is worthy of praise only in the verses —

Paths, homes, graves, ruins, from the lowest glen

To where life shrinks from the fierce Alpine air.

Mutation, a didactic sonnet, has few either of faults or beauties. November is far better. The lines

And the blue Gentian flower that, in the breeze,

Nods lonely, of her beauteous race the last, [column 2:]

are very happy. A single thought pervades and gives unity to the piece. We are glad, too, to see an Alexandrine in the close. In the whole metrical construction of his sonnets, however, Mr. Bryant has very wisely declined confining himself to the laws of the Italian poem, or even to the dicta of Capel Lofft. The Alexandrine is beyond comparison the most effective finale, and we are astonished that the common Pentameter should ever be employed. The best sonnet of the seven is, we think, that To-. With the exception of a harshness in the last line but one it is perfect. The finale is inimitable.

Ay, thou art for the grave; thy glances shine Too brightly to shine long; another Spring Shall deck her for men’s eyes, but not for thine Sealed in a sleep which knows no wakening. The fields for thee have no medicinal leaf, And the vexed ore no mineral of power; And they who love thee wait in anxious grief Till the slow plague shall bring the fatal hour. Glide softly to thy rest, then; Death should come Gently to one of gentle mould like thee, As light winds wandering through groves of bloom Detach the delicate blossom from the tree. Close thy sweet eyes, calmly, and without pain, And we will trust in God to see thee yet again.

To a Cloud, has another instance of the affectation to which we alluded in our notice of Earth, and The Living Lost.

Whose sons at length have heard the call that comes

From the old battle fields and tombs,

And risen, and drawn the sword, and on the foe

Have dealt the swift and desperate blow,

And the Othman power is cloven, and the stroke

Has touched its chains, and they are broke.

——

Of the Translations in the volume it is not our intention to speak in detail. Mary Magdelen, from the Spanish of Bartoleme Leonardo De Argensola, is the finest specimen of versification in the book. Alexis, from the Spanish of Iglesias, is delightful in its exceeding delicacy, and general beauty. We cannot refrain from quoting it entire.

Alexis calls me cruel —

The rifted crags that hold

The gathered ice of winter,

He says, are not more cold.

When even the very blossoms

Around the fountain’s brim,

And forest walks, can witness

The love I bear to him.

I would that I could utter

My feelings without shame

And tell him how I love him

Nor wrong my virgin fame.

Alas! to seize the moment

When heart inclines to heart,

And press a suit with passion

Is not a woman’s part.

If man come not to gather

The roses where they stand,

They fade among their foliage,

They cannot seek his hand.

——

The Waterfowl is very beautiful, but still not entitled to the admiration which it has occasionally elicited. There is a fidelity and force in the picture of the fowl as brought before the eve of the mind, and a fine sense of effect in throwing its figure on [page 48:] the background of the “crimson sky,” amid “falling dew,” “while glow the heavens with the last steps of day.” But the merits which possibly have had most weight in the public estimation of the poem, are the melody and strength of its versification, (which is indeed excellent) and more particularly its completeness. Its rounded and didactic termination has done wonders: on my heart, Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou hast given And shall not soon depart. He, who, from zone to zone, Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight In the long way that I must tread alone Will lead my steps aright. There are, however, points of more sterling merit. We fully recognize the poet in Thou art gone — the abyss of heaven Hath swallowed up thy form. There is a power whose care Teaches thy way along that pathless coast — The desert, and illimitable air — Lone, wandering, but not lost. The Forest Hymn consists of about a hundred and twenty blank Pentameters of whose great rhythmical beauty it is scarcely possible to speak too highly. With the exception of the line The solitude. Thou art in the soft winds, no fault, in this respect, can be found, while excellencies are frequent of a rare order, and evincing the greatest delicacy of ear. We might, perhaps, suggest, that the two concluding verses, beautiful as they stand, would be slightly improved by transferring to the last the metrical excess of the one immediately preceding. For the appreciation of this, it is necessary to quote six or seven lines in succession

Oh, from these sterner aspects of thy face

Spare me and mine, nor let us need the wrath

Of the mad unchained elements, to teach

Who rules them. Be it ours to meditate

In these calm shades thy milder majesty,

And to the beautiful order of thy works

Learn to conform the order of our lives.

There is an excess of one syllable in the lines italicized. If we discard this syllable here, and adopt it in the final line, the close will acquire strength, we think, in acquiring a fuller volume.

Be it ours to meditate

In these calm shades thy milder majesty,

And to the perfect order of thy works

Conform, if we can, the order of our lives.

Directness, boldness, and simplicity of expression, are main features in the poem.

Oh God! when thou

Dost scare the world with tempests, set on fire

The heavens with falling thunderbolts, or fill

With all the waters of the firmament

The swift dark whirlwind that uproots the woods,

And drowns the villages.

Here an ordinary writer would have preferred the word fright to scare, and omitted the definite article before woods and villages.

——

To the Evening Wind has been justly admired. It is the best specimen of that completeness which we have before spoken of as a characteristic feature in the poems [column 2:] of Mr. Bryant. It has a beginning, middle, and end, each depending upon the other, and each beautiful. Here are three lines breathing all the spirit of Shelley.

Pleasant shall be thy way, where meekly bows

The shutting flower, and darkling waters pass,

And ‘twixt the o’ershadowing branches and the grass.

The conclusion is admirable —

Go — but the circle of eternal change,

Which is the life of Nature, shall restore,

With sounds and scents from all thy mighty range,

Thee to thy birth-place of the deep once more;

Sweet odors in the sea air, sweet and strange,

Shall tell the home-sick mariner of the shore,

And, listening to thy murmur, he shall deem

He hears the rustling leaf and running stream.

——

Thanatopsis is somewhat more than half the length of The Forest Hymn, and of a character precisely similar. It is, however, the finer poem. Like The Waterfowl, it owes much to the point, force, and general beauty of its didactic conclusion. In the commencement, the lines

To him who, in the love of nature, holds

Communion with her visible forms, &c;.

belong to a class of vague phrases, which, since the days of Byron, have obtained too universal a currency. The verse

Go forth under the open sky and list —

is sadly out of place amid the forcible and even Miltonic rhythm of such lines as —

Take the wings Of morning, and the Barcan desert pierce, Or lose thyself in the continuous woods Where rolls the Oregon But these are trivial faults indeed and the poem embodies a great degree of the most elevated beauty. Two of its passages, passages of the purest ideality, would alone render it worthy of the general commendation it has received.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan that moves

To that mysterious realm where each shall take

His chamber in the silent halls of death,

Thou go not, like the quarry slave at night,

Scourged to his dungeon; but sustained and soothed

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dream.

——

The hills

Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun — the vales

Stretching in pensive quietude between —

The venerable woods- rivers that move

In majesty, and the complaining brooks

That make the meadows green — and, poured round all,

Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste —

Are but the solemn decorations all

Of the great tomb of man.

Oh, fairest of the Rural Maids! is a gem, of which we cannot sufficiently express our admiration. We quote in full.

Oh, fairest of the rural maids!

Thy birth was in the forest shades;

Green boughs and glimpses of the sky

Were all that met thine infant eye.

Thy sports, thy wanderings when a child

Were ever in the sylvan wild; [page 49:]

And all the beauty of the place

Is in thy heart and on thy face.

The twilight of the trees and rocks

Is in the light shade of thy locks,

Thy step is as the wind that weaves

Its playful way among the leaves.

Thine eyes are springs, in whose serene

And silent waters Heaven is seen;

Their lashes are the herbs that look

On their young figures in the brook.

The forest depths by foot impressed

Are not more sinless than thy breast;

The holy peace that fills the air

Of those calm solitudes, is there.

A rich simplicity is a main feature in this poem — simplicity of design and execution. This is strikingly perceptible in the opening and concluding lines, and in expression throughout. But there is a far higher and more strictly ideal beauty, which it is less easy to analyze. The original conception is of the very loftiest order of true Poesy. A maiden is born in the forest —

Green boughs and glimpses of the sky

Are all which meet her infant eye —

She is not merely modelled in character by the associations of her childhood — this were the thought of an ordinary poet — an idea that we meet with every day in rhyme — but she imbibes, in her physical as well as moral being, the traits, the very features of the delicious scenery around her — its loveliness becomes a portion of her own —

The twilight of the trees and rocks

Is in the light shade of her locks,

And all the beauty of the place

Is in her heart and on her face.

It would have been a highly poetical idea to imagine the tints in the locks of the maiden deducing a resemblance to the “twilight of the trees and rocks,” from the constancy of her associations — but the spirit of Ideality is immeasurably more apparent when the “twilight” is represented as becoming identified with the shadows of her hair.

The twilight of the trees and rocks

Is in the light shade of her locks,

And all the beauty of the place

Is in her heart and on her face.

Feeling thus, we did not, in copying the poem, italicize the lines, although beautiful,

Thy step is as the wind that weaves

Its playful way among the leaves,

nor those which immediately follow. The two concluding verses however, are again of the most elevated species of poetical merit.

The forest depths by foot impressed

Are not more sinless than thy breast —

The holy peace that fills the air

Of those calm solitudes, is there.

The image contained in the lines

Thine eyes are springs in whose serene

And silent waters Heaven is seen —

is one which, we think, for appropriateness, completeness, and every perfect beauty of which imagery is susceptible, has never been surpassed — but imagery is susceptible of no beauty like that we have designated in the sentences above. The latter idea, moreover, is not original with our poet.

In all the rhapsodies of Mr. Bryant, which have reference [column 2:] to the beauty or the majesty of nature, is a most audible and thrilling tone of love and exultation. As far as he appreciates her loveliness or her augustness, no appreciation can be more ardent, more full of heart, more replete with the glowing soul of adoration. Nor, either in the moral or physical universe coming within the periphery of his vision, does he at any time fail to perceive and designate, at once, the legitimate items of the beautiful. Therefore, could we consider (as some have considered) the mere enjoyment of the beautiful when perceived, or even this enjoyment when combined with the readiest and truest perception and discrimination in regard to beauty presented, as a sufficient test of the poetical sentiment we could have no hesitation in according to Mr. Bryant the very highest poetical rank. But something more, we have elsewhere presumed to say, is demanded. Just above, we spoke of “objects in the moral or physical universe coming within the periphery of his vision.” We now mean to say, that the relative extent of these peripheries of poetical vision must ever be a primary consideration in our classification of poets. Judging Mr. B. in this manner, and by a general estimate of the volume before us, we should, of course, pause long before assigning him a place with the spiritual Shelleys, or Coleridges, or Wordsworths, or with Keats, or even Tennyson, or Wilson, or with some other burning lights of our own day, to be valued in a day to come. Yet if his poems, as a whole, will not warrant us in assigning him this grade, one such poem as the last upon which we have commented, is enough to assure us that he may attain it.

The writings of our author, as we find them here, are characterized by an air of calm and elevated contemplation more than by any other individual feature. In their mere didactics, however, they err essentially and primitively, inasmuch as such things are the province rather of Minerva than of the Camenae. Of imagination, we discover much — but more of its rich and certain evidences, than of its ripened fruit. In all the minor merits Mr. Bryant is pre-eminent. His ars celare artem is most efficient. Of his “completeness,” unity, and finish of style we have already spoken. As a versifier, we know of no writer, living or dead, who can be said greatly to surpass him. A Frenchman would assuredly call him “un poete des plus correctes.”

Between Cowper and Young, perhaps, (with both of whom he has many points of analogy,) would be the post assigned him by an examination at once general and superficial. Even in this view, however, he has a juster appreciation of the beautiful than the one, of the sublime than the other — a finer taste than Cowper — an equally vigorous, and far more delicate imagination than Young. In regard to his proper rank among American poets there should be no question whatever. Few — at least few who are fairly before the public, have more than very shallow claims to a rivalry with the author of Thanatopsis.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - SLM, 1837] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Critical Notices (January 1837)