Text: Edgar Allan Poe [ed. J. A. Harrison], “Review of Voices of the Night,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. X: Literary Criticism - part 03 (1902), pp. 71-80


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[page 71:]

VOICES OF THE NIGHT.(1) BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW. JOHN OWEN, CAMBRIDGE.

[Text: Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, February, 1840.]

THE little book which Professor Longfellow has entitled “The Voices of the Night,” includes not only some poems thus styled, but others composed during the collegiate life of the writer, as well as about twenty brief translations. Of the latter we shall say nothing. So very much of all that is essential to the lyre — so many of its more spiritual attributes and properties — lie beyond the scope of translation — so trivial, comparatively, are those mere graces which lie within it that the critic will be pardoned for declining to admit versions, of however high merit as such, into his estimate of the poetical character of his author. Neither should any author, of mature age, desire to have this poetical character estimated by the productions of his mind at immaturity. We shall, therefore, confine our observations to the “Voices of the Night.” [page 72:]

In looking over a file of newspapers, not long ago, our attention was arrested by the opening lines of a few stanzas, headed “Hymn to the Night.” We read them again and again, and although some blemishes were readily discoverable, we bore them away in memory, with the firm belief that a poet of high genius had at length arisen amongst us, and with the resolve so to express our opinion at the first opportunity which should offer. The perusal of the entire volume now presented to the public by the writer of this “Hymn to the Night,” has not, indeed, greatly modified our impressions in regard to that particular poem — not greatly, even, in regard to the genius of the poet — but very greatly in respect to his capacity for the ultimate achievement of any well-founded monument — any enduring reputation. Our general conclusion is one similar to that which “Hyperion” induced, and which we stated, of late, in a concise notice of that book. The author has, in one or two points, ability; and, in these one or two points, that ability regards the very loftiest qualities of the poetical soul. His imagination, for example, is vivid — and in saying this, how much do we say! But he appears to us singularly deficient in all those important faculties which give artistical power, and without which never was immortality effected. He has no combining or binding force. He has absolutely nothing of unity. His brief pieces (to whose brevity he has been led by an instinct of the deficiencies we now note) abound in high thoughts either positively insulated, or showing these same deficiencies by the recherché spirit of their connexion. And thus his productions are scintillations from the brightest poetical truth, rather than this brightest truth in itself. By truth, here, we mean that perfection which is the result [page 73:] only of the strictest proportion and adaptation in all the poetical requisites — these requisites being considered as each existing in the highest degree of beauty and strength.

It is by no means our design to speak of the volume before us in detail. There would be no object in such critical supererogation. The spirit of Professor Longfellow is as well deter-mined from the shortest of these “Voices of the Night,” (which are altogether his best pieces) as from all that he has written combined. We look upon the “Beleaguered City” as his finest poem. There is a certainty of purpose about it which we do not discover elsewhere; and in it, the writer’s idiosyncratic excellences, which are those of expression, chiefly, and of a fitful (unsteady) imagination, are the most strikingly displayed. The “Hymn to the Night,” however, will be the greatest favorite with the public, from the fact that these idiosyncratic beauties are there more evident and more glowing.

I heard the trailing garments of the Night

Sweep through her marble halls!

I saw her sable skirts all fringed with light

From the celestial walls!

 

I felt her presence, by its spell of might,

Stoop o’er me from above;

The calm, majestic presence of the Night,

As of the one I love.

 

I heard the sounds of sorrow and delight,

The manifold soft chimes

That fill the haunted chambers of the Night

Like some old poet’s rhymes.

 

From the cool cisterns of the midnight air

My spirit drank repose;

The fountain of perpetual peace flows there —

From those deep cisterns flows. [page 74:]

 

O holy Night! from thee I learn to bear

What man has borne before!

Thou layest thy finger on the lips of care,

And they complain no more.

 

Peace! Peace! Orestes-like I breathe this prayer!

Descend with broad-winged flight,

The welcome, the thrice-prayed for, the most fair,

The best-beloved Night.

No poem ever opened with a beauty more august. The five first stanzas are nearly perfect — by which we mean that they are nearly free from fault, while embodying a supreme excellence. Had we seen nothing from the pen of the poet but these five verses, we should have formed the most exaggerated conception of his powers. Had he written always thus, we should have been tempted to speak of him not only as our finest poet, but as one of the noblest poets of all time. Yet even these five stanzas have their defects — defects inherent in the mind of the writer, and thence ineradicable — absolutely so. An intellect which apprehends, with full sensitiveness, the peculiar loveliness of the spirit of the unique — of unity — will find, in perusal here, that his fancy, in the poet’s guidance, wavers disagreeably between two ideas which would have been merged by the skilful artist in one. We mean the two ideas of the absolute and of the personified Night. Even in the first stanza this difficulty occurs — enfeebling all. The words —

I heard the trailing garments of the Night

Sweep through her marble halls —

convey us to a palace tenanted by the sable-draperied, by the corporate Night. But the lines

I saw her sable-skirts all fringed with light

From the celestial walls — [page 75:]

refer us, by the single epithet celestial, to the natural and absolute quality or condition, to the incorporate darkness. Had the poet merely written “azure” or “heavenly” in place of marble, this conflict of thought would not have occurred, and the passage would have derived that force, from unity, which it does not at present possess. The personification, which is its main beauty, would have remained, at the same time, inviolate. A similar good effect could be produced by changing celestial for some word inducing the mind to receive the Night in her personified character — changing it for any term applicable to an earthly habitation.

Precisely the same fault is found in the second stanza, where the “from above” lifts the thought to the absolute night — the subsequent lines bringing it down immediately to the prosopopeia. The third stanza is in good keeping — the fourth slightly in fault as before. The fifth is correct. The sixth is again in error — and has, moreover, the great defect of not being readily intelligible. It is not every reader who will here understand the poet as invoking Peace to descend through, or by means of,

The welcome, the thrice-prayed for, the most fair,

The best-beloved Night.

The words used are, of course, strictly grammatical; and, as the lines stand, no preposition could have been employed

Peace is invoked to descend the Night — as we say descend the stair, or ladder — but, then, the entire form of the stanza should have been altered, so as to obviate even the possibility of a misapprehension. Upon our first perusal we understood the passage as containing a double invocation — to Peace and to Night. [page 76:] But in regard to this single and brief poem, as a whole, (or rather when we consider it not as a whole, and view it through its parts) its richly ideal beauties would more than redeem a thousand inadvertences such as we point out; and we point them out at all merely as some instance of the complexion of the prevalent deficiencies of the writer.

The gross affectations which disfigure “Hyperion” in many passages, are not at all observable in this Hymn, (whose majestic simplicity is not the least of its high merits) but are wofully abundant in most of the other pieces. What can be more preposterous than such inversion as this, in the mouth of a poet of the nineteenth century? —

Spake full well, in language quaint and olden,

One who dwelleth by the castled Rhine

When he called &c.

The titles of Professor Longfellow’s books, moreover, answer no good purpose in the world. Such things as “Outre Mér,” “Hyperion,” “Psalms of Life” and “Voices of the Night,” only lessen the perpetrator in the opinion of all reasonable men; and there was no necessity, whatever, for any “Prelude” by way of commencement to the volume now reviewed.

But we have to adduce against the poet a charge of much more serious character. One of his latest and most popular pieces runs thus —

MIDNIGHT MASS FOR THE DYING YEAR.

Yes, the year is growing old,

And his eye is pale and bleared!

Death, with frosty hand and cold,

Plucks the old man by the beard,

Sorely, — sorely! [page 77:]

 

The leaves are falling, falling,

Solemnly and slow;

Caw! caw! the rooks are calling,

It is a sound of woe,

A sound of woe!

 

Through woods and mountain-passes

The winds, like anthems, roll;

They are chanting solemn masses,

Singing; Pray for this poor soul,

Pray, — pray!

 

And the hooded clouds, like friars,

Tell their beads in drops of rain,

And patter their doleful prayers;

But their prayers are all in vain,

All in vain!

 

There he stands in the foul weather,

The foolish, fond Old Year,

Crowned with wild flowers and with heather,

Like weak, despised Lear,

A king, — a king!

 

Then comes the summer-like day,

Bids the old man rejoice!

His joy! his last! O, the old man gray,

Loveth her ever soft voice

Gentle and low.

 

To the crimson woods he saith,

And the voice, gentle and low,

Of the soft air, like a daughter’s breath,

Pray do not mock me so!

Do not laugh at me!

 

And now the sweet day is dead;

Cold in his arms it lies,

No stain from its breath is spread

Over the glassy skies,

No mist nor stain! [page 78:]

 

Then, too, the Old Year dieth,

And the forests utter a moan,

Like the voice of one who crieth

In the wilderness alone,

Vex not his ghost!

 

Then comes, with an awful roar,

Gathering and sounding on,

The storm-wind from Labrador,

The wind Euroclydon,

The storm-wind!

 

Howl! howl! and from the forest

Sweep the red leaves away!

Would, the sins that thou abhorrest,

O soul! could thus decay,

And be swept away!

 

For there shall come a mightier blast,

There shall be a darker day;

And the stars, from heaven down-cast,

Like red leaves be swept away!

Kyrie Eleyson!

Christie Eleyson!

This piece, with many defects, has undoubtedly more beauties, and these beauties are of a high order — but in a volume of poems by Alfred Tennyson, of England, we meet with the following:

THE DEATH OF THE OLD YEAR.

Full knee-deep lies the winter snow,

And the winter winds are wearily sighing:

Toll ye the church-bell sad and slow,

And tread softly, and speak low,

For the old year lies a-dying.

Old year you must not die,

You came to us so readily,

You lived with us so steadily,

Old year you shall not die. [page 79:]

 

He lieth still: he doth not move;

He will not see the dawn of day.

He hath no other life above —

He gave me a friend, and a true, true love,

And the New Year will take ‘em away.

Old year, you must not go,

So long as you have been with us,

Such joy as you have seen with us,

Old year, you shall not go.

 

He frothed his bumpers to the brim;

A jollier year we shall not see.

But tho’ his eyes are waxing dim,

And tho’ his foes speak ill of him,

He was a friend to me.

Old year, you shall not die;

We did so laugh and cry with you,

I’ve half a mind to die with you

Old year, if you must die.

 

He was full of joke and jest,

But all his merry quips are o’er.

To see him die, across the waste,

His son and heir doth ride post haste,

But he’ll be dead before.

Every one for his own;

The night is starry and cold, my friend,

And the new year blithe and bold, my friend,

Comes up to take his own.

 

How hard he breathes! Over the snow

I heard just now the crowing cock.

The shadows flicker to and fro:

The cricket chirps: the light burns low:

’Tis nearly one o’clock.

Shake hands before you die;

Old year we’ll dearly rue for you,

What is it we can do for you?

Speak out before you die.

 

His face is growing sharp and thin —

Alack! our friend is gone. [page 80:]

Close up his eyes: tie up his chin:

Step from the corpse and let him in

That standeth there alone,

And waiteth at the door.

There’s a new foot on the floor, my friend,

And a new face at the door, my friend,

A new face at the door.

We have no idea of commenting, at any length, upon this plagiarism; which is too palpable to be mistaken; and which belongs to the most barbarous class of literary robbery; that class in which, while the words of the wronged author are avoided, his most intangible, and therefore his least defensible and least reclaimable property, is purloined. Here, with the exception of lapses, which, however, speak volumes, (such for instance as the use of the capitalized “Old Year,” the general peculiarity of the rhythm, and the absence of rhyme at the end of each stanza,) there is nothing of a visible or palpable nature by which the source of the American poem can be established. But then nearly all that is valuable in the piece of Tennyson, is the first conception of personifying the Old Year as a dying old man, with the singularly wild and fantastic manner in which that conception is carried out. Of this conception and of this manner he is robbed. Could he peruse today the “Midnight Mass” of Professor Longfellow, would he peruse it with more of indignation or of grief?

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 71:]

1.  See Vol. XI., and the “Outis Controversty,” for Poe’s views of Longfellow. — ED.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Voices of the Night)