Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Ballads and Other Poems,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XI: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 68-85


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[page 68, continued:]

BALLADS AND OTHER POEMS. BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW, AUTHOR OF “VOICES OF THE NIGHT,” “HYPERION,” &C. SECOND EDITION. JOHN OWEN: CAMBRIDGE.

[Graham’s Magazine, April, 1842.]

IN our last number we had some hasty observations on these “Ballads” — observations which we now propose, in some measure, to amplify and explain.

It may be remembered that, among other points, we demurred to Mr. Longfellow’s theses [[themes]], or rather to their general character. We found fault with the too obtrusive nature of their didacticism. Some years ago we urged a similar objection to one or two of the longer pieces of Bryant; and neither time nor reflection has [page 69:] sufficed to modify, in the slightest particular, our convictions upon this topic.

We have said that Mr. Longfellow’s conception of the aims of poesy is erroneous; and that thus, laboring at a disadvantage, he does violent wrong to his own high powers; and now the question is, what are his ideas of the aims of the muse, as we gather these ideas from the general tendency of his poems? It will be at once evident that, imbued with the peculiar spirit of German song (a pure conventionality) he regards the inculcation of a moral as essential. Here we find it necessary to repeat that we have reference only to the general tendency of his compositions; for there are some magnificent exceptions, where, as if by accident, he has permitted his genius to get the better of his conventional prejudice. But didacticism is the prevalent tone of his song. His invention, his imagery, his all, is made subservient to the elucidation of some one or more points (but rarely of more than one) which he looks upon as truth. And that this mode of procedure will find stern defenders should never excite surprise, so long as the world is full to overflowing with cant and conventicles. There are men who will scramble on all fours through the muddiest sloughs of vice to pick up a single apple of virtue. There are things called men who, so long as the sun rolls, will greet with snuffling huzzas every figure that takes upon itself the semblance of truth, even although the figure, in itself only a “stuffed Paddy,” be as much out of place as a toga on the statue of Washington, or out of season as rabbits in the days of the dog-star.

Now with as deep a reverence for “the true” as ever inspired the bosom of mortal man, we would limit, in many respects, its modes of inculcation. We [page 70:] would limit to enforce them. We would not render them impotent by dissipation. The demands of truth are severe. She has no sympathy with the myrtles. All that is indispensible in song is all with which she has nothing to do. To deck her in gay robes is to render her a harlot. It is but making her a flaunting paradox to wreathe her in gems and flowers. Even in stating this our present proposition, we verify our own words — we feel the necessity, in enforcing this truth, of descending from metaphor. Let us then be simple and distinct. To convey “the true” we are required to dismiss from the attention all inessentials. We must be perspicuous, precise, terse. We need concentration rather than expansion of mind. We must be calm, unimpassioned, unexcited — in a word, we must be in that peculiar mood which, as nearly as possible, is the exact converse of the poetical. He must be blind indeed who cannot perceive the radical and chasmal difference between the truthful and the poetical modes of inculcation. He must be grossly wedded to conventionalisms who, in spite of this difference, shall still attempt to reconcile the obstinate oils and waters of Poetry and Truth.

Dividing the world of mind into its most obvious and immediately recognisable distinctions, we have the pure intellect, taste, and the moral sense. We place taste between the intellect and the moral sense, because it is just this intermediate space which, in the mind, it occupies. It is the connecting link in the triple chain.

It serves to sustain a mutual intelligence between the extremes. It appertains, in strict appreciation, to the former, but is distinguished from the latter by so faint a difference, that Aristotle has not hesitated to class some of its operations among the Virtues themselves. [page 71:] But the offices of the trio are broadly marked. Just as conscience, or the moral sense, recognises duty; just as the intellect deals with truth; so is it the part of taste alone to inform us of BEAUTY. And Poesy is the handmaiden but of Taste. Yet we would not be misunderstood. This handmaiden is not forbidden to moralise — in her own fashion. She is not forbidden to depict — but to reason and preach, of virtue. As, of this latter, conscience recognises the obligation, so intellect teaches the expediency, while taste contents herself with displaying the beauty: waging war with vice merely on the ground of its inconsistency with fitness, harmony, proportion — in a word with το καλον.

An important condition of man’s immortal nature is thus, plainly, the sense of the Beautiful. This it is which ministers to his delight in the manifold forms and colors and sounds and sentiments amid which he exists. And, just as the eyes of Amaryllis are repeated in the mirror, or the living lily in the lake, so is the mere record of these forms and colors and sounds and sentiments — so is their mere oral or written repetition a duplicate source of delight. But this repetition is not Poesy. He who shall merely sing with whatever rapture, in however harmonious strains, or with however vivid a truth of imitation, of the sights and sounds which greet him in common with all mankind — he, we say, has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a longing unsatisfied, which he has been impotent to fulfil. There is still a thirst unquenchable, which to allay he has shown us no crystal springs. This burning thirst belongs to the immortal essence of man’s nature. It is equally a consequence and an indication of his perennial life. It is the desire of the [page 72:] moth for the star. It is not the mere appreciation of the beauty before us. It is a wild effort to reach the beauty above. It is a forethought of the loveliness to come. It is a passion to be satiated by no sublunary sights, or sounds, or sentiments, and the soul thus athirst strives to allay its fever in futile efforts at creation. Inspired with a prescient ecstasy of the beauty beyond the grave, it struggles by multiform novelty of combination among the things and thoughts of Time, to anticipate some portion of that loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain solely to Eternity. And the result of such effort, on the part of souls fittingly constituted, is alone what mankind have agreed to denominate Poetry.

We say this with little fear of contradiction. Yet the spirit of our assertion must be more heeded than the letter. Mankind have seemed to define Poesy in a thousand, and in a thousand conflicting definitions. But the war is one only of words. Induction is as well applicable to this subject as to the most palpable and utilitarian; and by its sober processes we find that, in respect to compositions which have been really received as poems, the imaginative, or, more popularly, the creative portions alone have ensured them to be so received. Yet these works, on account of these portions, having once been so received and so named, it has happened, naturally and inevitably, that other portions totally unpoetic have not only come to be regarded by the popular voice as poetic, but have been made to serve as false standards of perfection, in the adjustment of other poetical claims. Whatever has been found in whatever has been received as a poem, has been blindly regarded as ex statu; poetic. And this is a species of gross error which scarcely could [page 73:] have made its way into any less intangible topic. In fact that license which appertains to the Muse herself, it has been thought decorous, if not sagacious to indulge, in all examination of her character.

Poesy is thus seen to be a response — unsatisfactory it is true — but still in some measure a response, to a natural and irrepressible demand. Man being what he is, the time could never have been in which Poesy was not. Its first element is the thirst for supernal BEAUTY — a beauty which is not afforded the soul by any existing collocation of earth’s forms — a beauty which, perhaps, no possible combination of these forms would fully produce. Its second element is the attempt to satisfy this thirst by novel combinations, [[among those forms of beauty which already exist — or by novel combinations]] of those combinations which our predecessors, toiling in chase of the same phantom, have already set in order. We thus clearly deduce the novelty, the originality, the invention, the imagination, or lastly the creation of BEAUTY, (for the terms as here employed are synonymous) as the essence of all Poesy. Nor is this idea so much at variance with ordinary opinion as, at first sight, it may appear. A multitude of antique dogmas on this topic will be found, when divested of extrinsic speculation, to be easily resoluble into the definition now proposed. We do nothing more than present tangibly the vague clouds of the world’s idea. We recognise the idea itself floating, unsettled, indefinite, in every attempt which has yet been made to circumscribe the conception of “Poesy” in words. A striking instance of this is observable in the fact that no definition exists, in which either “the beautiful,” or some one of those qualities which we have above designated synonymously with “creation,” has not been pointed out as the chief attribute of the Muse. [page 74:] “Invention,” however, or “imagination,” is by far more commonly insisted upon. The word τοιησις itself (creation) speaks volumes upon this point. Neither will it be amiss here to mention Count Bielfeld’s definition of poetry as “L’art d’exprimer les pensées par la fiction.” With this definition (of which the philosophy is profound to a certain extent) the German terms Dichtkunst, the art of fiction, and Dichten, to feign, which are used for “poetry” and “to make verses,” are in full and remarkable accordance. It is, nevertheless, in the combination of the two omni-prevalent ideas that the novelty and, we believe, the force of our own proposition is to be found.

So far, we have spoken of Poesy as of an abstraction alone. As such, it is obvious that it may be applicable in various moods. The sentiment may develop itself in Sculpture, in Painting, in Music, or otherwise. But our present business is with its development in words — that development to which, in practical acceptation, the world has agreed to limit the term. And at this point there is one consideration which induces us to pause. We cannot make up our minds to admit (as some have admitted) the inessentiality of rhythm. On the contrary, the universality of its use in the earliest poetical efforts of [[all]] mankind would be sufficient to assure us, not merely of its congeniality with the Muse, or of its adaptation to her purposes, but of its elementary and indispensible importance. But here we must, perforce, content ourselves with mere suggestion; for this topic is of a character which would lead us too far. We have already spoken of Music as one of the moods of poetical development. It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains that end upon which we have commented — the creation [page 75:] of supernal beauty. It may be, indeed, that this august aim is here even partially or imperfectly attained, in fact. The elements of that beauty which is felt in sound, may be the mutual or common heritage of Earth and Heaven. In the soul’s struggles at combinations it is thus not impossible that a harp may strike notes not unfamiliar to the angels. And in this view the wonder may well be less that all attempts at defining the character or sentiment of the deeper musical impressions, has been found absolutely futile. Contenting ourselves, therefore, with the firm conviction, that music (in its modifications of rhythm and rhyme) is of so vast a moment in Poesy, as never to be neglected by him who is truly poetical — is of so mighty a force in furthering the great aim intended that he is mad who rejects its assistance — content with this idea we shall not pause to maintain its absolute essentiality, for the mere sake of rounding a definition. We will but add, at this point, that the highest possible development of the Poetical Sentiment is to be found in the union of song with music, in its popular sense. The old Bards and Minnesingers possessed, in the fullest perfection, the finest and truest elements of Poesy; and Thomas Moore, singing his own ballads, is but putting the final touch to their completion as poems.

To recapitulate, then, we would define in brief the Poetry of words as the Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Beyond the limits of Beauty its province does not extend. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience it has only collateral relations. It has no dependence, unless incidentally, upon either Duty or Truth. That our definition will necessarily exclude much of what, through a supine toleration, has been hitherto ranked as poetical, is a matter which [page 76:] affords us not even momentary concern. We address but the thoughtful, and heed only their approval — with our own. If our suggestions are truthful, then “after many days” shall they be understood as truth, even though found in contradiction of all that has been hitherto so understood. If false shall we not be the first to bid them die?

We would reject, of course, all such matters as “Armstrong on Health,” a revolting production; Pope’s “Essay on Man,” which may well be content with the title of an “Essay in Rhyme,” “Hudibras,” and other merely humorous pieces. We do not gainsay the peculiar merits of either of these latter compositions — but deny them the position held. In a notice, month before last, of Brainard’s Poems, we took occasion to show that the common use of a certain instrument, (rhythm) had tended, more than aught else, to confound humorous verse with poetry. The observation is now recalled to corroborate what we have just said in respect to the vast effect or force of melody in itself — an effect which could elevate into even momentary confusion with the highest efforts of mind, compositions such as are the greater number of satires or burlesques.

Of the poets who have appeared most fully instinct with the principles now developed, we may mention Keats as the most remarkable. He is the sole British poet who has never erred in his themes. Beauty is always his aim.

We have thus shown our ground of objection to the general themes of Professor Longfellow. In common with all who claim the sacred title of poet, he should limit his endeavors to the creation of novel moods of beauty, in form, in color, in sound, in sentiment; for [page 77:] over all this wide range has the poetry of words dominion. To what the world terms prose may be safely and properly left all else. The artist who doubts of his thesis, may always resolve his doubt by the single question — “might not this matter be as well or better handled in prose?” If it may, then is it no subject for the Muse. In the general acceptation of the term Beauty we are content to rest; being careful only to suggest that, in our peculiar views, it must be understood as inclusive of the sublime.

Of the pieces which constitute the present volume, there are not more than one or two thoroughly fulfilling the idea above proposed; although the volume as a whole is by no means so chargeable with didacticism as Mr. Longfellow’s previous book. We would mention as poems nearly true, “The Village Blacksmith;” “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and especially “The Skeleton in Armor.” In the first-mentioned we have the beauty of simple-mindedness as a genuine thesis; and this thesis is inimitably handled until the concluding stanza, where the spirit of legitimate poesy is aggrieved in the pointed antithetical deduction of a moral from what has gone before. In “The Wreck of the Hesperus” we have the beauty of child-like confidence and innocence, with that of the father’s stern courage and affection. But, with slight exception, those particulars of the storm here detailed are not poetic subjects. Their thrilling horror belongs to prose, in which it could be far more effectively discussed, as Professor Longfellow may assure himself at any moment by experiment. There are points of a tempest which afford the loftiest and truest poetical themes — points in which pure beauty is found, or, better still, beauty heightened into the sublime, [page 78:] by terror. But when we read, among other similar things, that

“The salt sea was frozen on her breast,

The salt tears in her eyes,”

we feel, if not positive disgust, at least a chilling sense of the inappropriate. In the “Skeleton in Armor” we find a pure and perfect thesis artistically treated. We find the beauty of bold courage and self-confidence, of love and maiden devotion, of reckless adventure, and finally of life-contemning grief. Combined with all this we have numerous points of beauty apparently insulated, but all aiding the main effect or impression. The heart is stirred, and the mind does not lament its mal-instruction. The metre is simple, sonorous, well-balanced and fully adapted to the subject. Upon the whole, there are few truer poems than this. It has but one defect — an important one. The prose remarks prefacing the narrative are really necessary. But every work of art should contain within itself all that is requisite for its own comprehension. And this remark is especially true of the ballad. In poems of magnitude the mind of the reader is not, at all times, enabled to include, in one comprehensive survey, the proportions and proper adjustment of the whole. He is pleased, if at all, with particular passages; and the sum of his pleasure is compounded of the sums of the pleasurable sentiments inspired by these individual passages in the progress of perusal. But, in pieces of less extent, the pleasure is unique, in the proper acceptation of this term — the understanding is employed, without difficulty, in the contemplation of the picture as a whole; and thus its effect will depend, in great measure, upon the perfection of its [page 79:] finish, upon the nice adaptation of its constituent parts, and especially, upon what is rightly termed by Schlegel the unity or totality of interest. But the practice of prefixing explanatory passages is utterly at variance with such unity. By the prefix, we are either put in possession of the subject of the poem; or some hint, historic fact, or suggestion, is thereby afforded, not included in the body of the piece, which, without the hint, is incomprehensible. In the latter case, while perusing the poem, the reader must revert, in mind at least, to the prefix, for the necessary explanation. In the former, the poem being a mere paraphrase of the prefix, the interest is divided between the prefix and the paraphrase. In either instance the totality of effect is destroyed.

Of the other original poems in the volume before us, there is none in which the aim of instruction, or truth, has not been too obviously substituted for the legitimate aim, beauty. In our last number, we took occasion to say that a didactic moral might be happily made the under-current of a political [[poetical]] theme, and, in “Burton’s Magazine,” some two years since, we treated this point at length, in a review of Moore’s “Alciphron;”(1) but the moral thus conveyed is invariably an ill effect when obtruding beyond the upper current of the thesis itself. Perhaps the worst specimen of this obtrusion is given us by our poet in “Blind Bartimeus” and the “Goblet of Life,” where, it will be observed that the sole interest of the upper current of meaning depends upon its relation or reference to the under. What we read upon the surface would be vox et præterea nihil in default of the moral beneath. The Greek finales of “Blind Bartimeus” [page 80:] are an affectation altogether inexcusable. What the small, second-hand, Gibbon-ish pedantry of Byron introduced, is unworthy the imitation of Longfellow.

Of the translations we scarcely think it necessary to speak at all. We regret that our poet will persist in busying himself about such matters. His time might be better employed in original conception. Most of these versions are marked with the error upon which we have commented. This error is in fact, essentially Germanic. “The Luck of Edenhall,” however, is a truly beautiful poem; and we say this with all that deference which the opinion of the “Democratic Review” demands. This composition appears to us one of the very finest. It has all the free, hearty, obvious movement of the true ballad-legend. The greatest force of language is combined in it with the richest imagination, acting in its most legitimate province. Upon the whole, we prefer it even to the “Sword-Song” of Körner. The pointed moral with which it terminates is so exceedingly natural — so perfectly fluent from the incidents — that we have hardly heart to pronounce it in ill taste. We may observe of this ballad, in conclusion, that its subject is more physical than is usual in Germany. Its images are rich rather in physical than in moral beauty. And this tendency, in Song, is the true one. It is chiefly, if we are not mistaken — it is chiefly amid forms of physical loveliness (we use the word forms in its widest sense as embracing modifications of sound and color) that the soul seeks the realization of its dreams of BEAUTY. It is to her demand in this sense especially, that the poet, who is wise, will most frequently and most earnestly respond.

“The Children of the Lord’s Supper” is, beyond [page 81:] doubt, a true and most beautiful poem in great part, while, in some particulars, it is too metaphysical to have any pretension to the name. In our last number, we objected, briefly, to its metre — the ordinary Latin or Greek Hexameter — dactyls and spondees at random, with a spondee in conclusion. We maintain that the Hexameter can never be introduced into our language, from the nature of that language itself. This rhythm demands, for English ears, a preponderance of natural spondees. Our tongue has few. Not only does the Latin and Greek, with the Swedish, and some others, abound in them; but the Greek and Roman ear had become reconciled (why or how is unknown) to the reception of artificial spondees — that is to say, spondaic words formed partly of one word and partly of another, or from an excised part of one word. In short the ancients were content to read as they scanned, or nearly so. It may be safely prophesied that we shall never do this; and thus we shall never admit English Hexameters. The attempt to introduce them, after the repeated failures of Sir Philip Sidney, and others, is, perhaps, somewhat discreditable to the scholarship of Professor Longfellow. The “Democratic Review,” in saying that he has triumphed over difficulties in this rhythm, has been deceived, it is evident, by the facility with which some of these verses may be read. In glancing over the poem, we do not observe a single verse which can be read, to English ears, as a Greek Hexameter. There are many, however, which can be well read as mere English dactylic verses; such, for example, as the well-known lines of Byron, commencing

Know ye the | land where the | cypress and | myrtle. [page 82:]

These lines (although full of irregularities) are, in their perfection, formed of three dactyls and a cæsura — just as if we should cut short the initial verse of the Bucolics thus —

Tityre | tu patu | lae recu | bans —

The “myrtle,” at the close of Byron’s line, is a double rhyme, and must be understood as one syllable.

Now a great number of Professor Longfellow’s Hexameters are merely these dactylic lines, continued for two feet. For example —

whispered the | race of the | flowers and | merry on | balancing | branches.

In this example, also, “branches,” which is a double ending, must be regarded as the cæsura, or one syllable, of which alone it has the force.

As we have already alluded, in one or two regards, to a notice of these poems which appeared in the “Democratic Review,” we may as well here proceed with some few further comments upon the article in question — with whose general tenor we are happy to agree.

The Review speaks of “Maidenhood” as a poem, “not to be understood but at the expense of more time and trouble than a song can justly claim.” We are scarcely less surprised at this opinion from Mr. Langtree than we were at the condemnation of “The Luck of Edenhall.”

“Maidenhood” is faulty, it appears to us, only on the score of its theme, which is somewhat didactic. Its meaning seems simplicity itself. A maiden on the verge of womanhood, hesitating to enjoy life (for which she has a strong appetite) through a false [page 83:] idea of duty, is bidden to fear nothing, having purity of heart as her lion of Una.

What Mr. Langtree styles “an unfortunate peculiarity” in Mr. Longfellow, resulting from “adherence to a false system” has really been always regarded by us as one of his idiosyncratic merits. “In each poem,” says the critic, “he has but one idea which, in the progress of his song is gradually unfolded, and at last reaches its full development in the concluding lines; this singleness of thought might lead a harsh critic to suspect intellectual barrenness.” It leads us, individually, only to a full sense of the artistical power and knowledge of the poet. We confess that now, for the first time, we hear unity of conception objected to as a defect. But Mr. Langtree seems to have fallen into the singular error of supposing the poet to have absolutely but one idea in each of his ballads. Yet how “one idea” can be “gradually unfolded” without other ideas, is, to us, a mystery of mysteries. Mr. Longfellow, very properly, has but one leading idea which forms the basis of his poem; but to the aid and development of this one there are innumerable others, of which the rare excellence is, that all are in keeping, that none could be well omitted, that each tends to the one general effect. It is unnecessary to say another word upon this topic.

In speaking of “Excelsior,” Mr. Langtree (are we wrong in attributing the notice to his very forcible pen?) seems to labor under some similar misconception. “It carries along with it,” says he, “a false moral which greatly diminishes its merit in our eyes. The great merit of a picture, whether made with the pencil or pen, is its truth; and this merit does not belong to Mr. Longfellow’s sketch. Men of genius [page 84:] may and probably do, meet with greater difficulties in their struggles with the world than their fellow-men who are less highly gifted; but their power of overcoming obstacles is proportionably greater, and the result of their laborious suffering is not death but immortality.”

That the chief merit of a picture is its truth, is an assertion deplorably erroneous. Even in Painting which is, more essentially than Poetry, a mimetic art, the proposition cannot be sustained. Truth is not even the aim. Indeed it is curious to observe how very slight a degree of truth is sufficient to satisfy the mind, which acquiesces in the absence of numerous essentials in the thing depicted. An outline frequently stirs the spirit more pleasantly than the most elaborate picture. We need only refer to the compositions of Flaxman and of Retzch. Here all details are omitted — nothing can be farther from truth. Without even color the most thrilling effects are produced. In statues we are rather pleased than disgusted with the want of the eyeball. The hair of the Venus de Medicis was gilded. Truth indeed! The grapes of Zeuxis as well as the curtain of Parrhasius were received as indisputable evidence of the truthful ability of these artists — but they were not even classed among their pictures. If truth is the highest aim of either Painting or Poesy, then Jan Steen was a greater artist than Angelo, and Crabbe is a more noble poet than Milton.

But we have not quoted the observation of Mr. Langtree to deny its philosophy; our design was simply to show that he has misunderstood the poet. “Excelsior” has not even a remote tendency to the interpretation assigned it by the critic. It depicts the [page 85:] earnest upward impulse of the soul — an impulse not to be subdued even in Death. Despising danger, resisting pleasure, the youth, bearing the banner inscribed “Excelsior!” (higher still!) struggles through all difficulties to an Alpine summit. Warned to be content with the elevation attained, his cry is still “Excelsior!” And, even in falling dead on the highest pinnacle, his cry is stillExcelsior!” There is yet an immortal height to be surmounted — an ascent in Eternity. The poet holds in view the idea of never-ending progress. That he is misunderstood is rather the misfortune of Mr. Langtree than the fault of Mr. Longfellow. There is an old adage about the difficulty of one’s furnishing an auditor both with matter to be comprehended and brains for its comprehension.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 79:]

1.  See Vol. XII. — ED.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Ballads and Other Poems)