Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of The Poetry of Rufus Dawes,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XI: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 131-147


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[page 131, continued:]

THE POETRY OF RUFUS DAWES — A RETROSPECTIVE CRITICISM.

[Graham’s Magazine, October, 1842.]

“As a poet,” says Mr. Griswold, in his late “Poets and Poetry of America,” “the standing of Mr. Dawes is as yet unsettled; there being a wide difference of opinion respecting his writings.” The width of this difference is apparent; and, while to many it is matter for wonder, to those who have the interest of our Literature at heart, it is, more properly, a source of mortification and regret. That the author in question has long enjoyed what we term “a high poetical reputation,” cannot be denied; and in no manner is this point more strikingly evinced than in the choice of his works, some two years since, by one of our most enterprising publishers, as the initial volume of a series, the avowed object of which was the setting forth, in the best array of paper, type and pictorial embellishment, the élite of the American poets. As a writer of occasional stanzas he has been long before the public; always eliciting, from a great variety of sources, unqualified commendation. With the exception of a solitary remark, adventured by ourselves in [page 132:] “A Chapter on Autography,” there has been no written dissent from the universal opinion in his favor — the universal apparent opinion. Mr. Griswold’s observation must be understood, we presume, as referring to the conversational opinion upon this topic; or it is not impossible that he holds in view the difference between the criticism of the newspaper paragraphs and the private comment of the educated and intelligent. Be this as it may, the rapidly growing “reputation” of our poet was much enhanced by the publication of his first compositions “of length,” and attained its climax, we believe, upon the public recitation, by himself, of a tragic drama, in five acts, entitled “Athenia of Damascus,” to a large assembly of admiring and applauding friends, gathered together for the occasion in one of the halls of the University of New York.

This popular decision, so frequent and so public, in regard to the poetical ability of Mr. Dawes, might be received as evidence of his actual merit (and by thousands it is so received) were it not too scandalously at variance with a species of criticism which will not be resisted — with the perfectly simple precepts of the very commonest common sense. The peculiarity of Mr. Griswold’s observation has induced us to make inquiry into the true character of the volume to which we have before alluded, and which embraces, we believe, the chief portion of the published verse-compositions of its author.(1) This inquiry has but resulted in the confirmation of our previous opinion; and we now hesitate not to say, that no man in America has [page 133:] been more shamefully over-estimated than the one who forms the subject of this article. We say shamefully; for, though a better day is now dawning upon our literary interests, and a laudation so indiscriminate will never be sanctioned again — the laudation in this instance, as it stands upon record, must be regarded as a laughable although bitter satire upon the general zeal, accuracy and independence of that critical spirit which, but a few years ago, pervaded and degraded the land.

In what we shall say we have no intention of being profound. Here is a case in which anything like analysis would be utterly thrown away. Our purpose (which is truth) will be more fully answered by an unvarnished exposition of fact. It appears to us, indeed, that in excessive generalization lies one of the leading errors of a criticism employed upon a poetical literature so immature as our own. We rhapsodize rather than discriminate; delighting more in the dictation or discussion of a principle, than in its particular and methodical application. The wildest and most erratic effusion of the Muse, not utterly worthless, will be found more or less indebted to method for whatever of value it embodies; and we shall discover, conversely, that, in any analysis of even this wildest effusion, we labor without method only to labor without end. There is little reason for that vagueness of comment which, of late, we so pertinaciously affect, and which has been brought into fashion, no doubt, through the proverbial facility and security of merely general remark. In regard to the leading principles of true poesy, these, we think, stand not at all in need of the elucidation hourly wasted upon them. Founded in the unerring instincts of our nature, they are enduring and immutable. In a rigid scrutiny of any number [page 134:] of directly conflicting opinions upon a poetical topic, we will not fail to perceive that principles identical in every important point have been, in each opinion, either asserted, or intimated, or unwittingly allowed an influence. The differences of decision arose simply from those of application; and from such variety in the applied, rather than in the conceived idea, sprang, undoubtedly, the absurd distinctions of the “schools.”

Geraldine” is the title of the first and longest poem in the volume before us. It embraces some three hundred and fifty stanzas — the whole being a most servile imitation of the “Don Juan” of Lord Byron. The outrageous absurdity of the systematic digression in the British original, was so managed as to form not a little portion of its infinite interest and humor; and the fine discrimination of the writer pointed out to him a limit beyond which he never ventured with this tantalizing species of drollery. “Geraldine” may be regarded, however, as a simple embodiment of the whole soul of digression. It is a mere mass of irrelevancy, amid the mad farrago of which we detect with difficulty even the faintest vestige of a narrative, and where the continuous lapse from impertinence to impertinence is seldom justified by any shadow of appositeness or even of the commonest relation.

To afford the reader any proper conception of the story, is of course a matter of difficulty; we must content ourselves with a mere outline of the general conduct. This we shall endeavor to give without indulgence in those feelings of risibility stirred up in us by the primitive perusal. We shall rigorously avoid every species of exaggeration, and confine ourselves, with perfect honesty, to the conveyance of a distinct image. [page 135:]

“Geraldine,” then, opens with some four or five stanzas descriptive of a sylvan scene in America. We could, perhaps, render Mr. Dawes’ poetical reputation no greater service than by the quotation of these simple verses in full.

I know a spot where poets fain would dwell,

To gather flowers and food for after thought,

As bees draw honey from the rose’s cell,

To hive among the treasures they have wrought;

And there a cottage from a sylvan screen

Sent up a curling smoke amongst the green.

 

Around that hermit home of quietude

The elm trees whispered with the summer air,

And nothing ever ventured to intrude

But happy birds that caroled wildly there,

Or honey-laden harvesters that flew

Humming away to drink the morning dew.

 

Around the door the honey-suckle climbed

And Multa-flora spread her countless roses,

And never poet sang nor minstrel rhymed

Romantic scene where happiness reposes,

Sweeter to sense than that enchanting dell

Where home-sick memory fondly loves to dwell.

 

Beneath a mountain’s brow the cottage stood,

Hard by a shelving lake whose pebbled bed

Was skirted by the drapery of a wood

That hung its festoon foliage over head,

Where wild deer came at eve unharmed, to drink,

While moonlight threw their shadows from the brink.

 

The green earth heaved her giant waves around,

Where, through the mountain vista, one vast height

Towered heavenward without peer, his forehead bound

With gorgeous clouds, at times of changeful light,

While, far below, the lake in bridal rest

Slept with his glorious picture on her breast. [page 136:]

Here is an air of quietude in good keeping with the theme; the “giant waves” in the last stanza redeem it from much exception otherwise; and perhaps we need say nothing at all of the suspicious-looking compound “multa-flora.” Had Mr. Dawes always written even nearly so well, we should have been spared to-day the painful task imposed upon us by a stern sense of our critical duty. These passages are followed immediately by an address or invocation to “Peerless America,” including apostrophes to Allston and Claude Lorraine.

We now learn the name of the tenant of the cottage, which is Wilton, and ascertain that he has an only daughter. A single stanza quoted at this juncture will aid the reader’s conception of the queer tone of philosophical rhapsody with which the poem teems, and some specimen of which is invariably made to follow each little modicum of incident.

How like the heart is to an instrument

A touch can wake to gladness or to wo!

How like the circumambient element

The spirit with its undulating flow!

The heart — the soul — Oh, Mother Nature, why

This universal bond of sympathy.

After two pages much in this manner, we are told that Geraldine is the name of the maiden, and are informed, with comparatively little circumlocution, of her character. She is beautiful, and kind-hearted, and somewhat romantic, and “some thought her reason touched” — for which we have little disposition to blame them. There is now much about Kant and Fichte; about Schelling, Hegel and Cousin; (which latter is made to rhyme with gang;) about Milton, Byron, Homer, Spinoza, David Hume and Mirabeau; [page 137:] and a good deal, too, about the scribendi cacoëthes, in which an evident misunderstanding of the quantity of cacoëthes brings, again, into very disagreeable suspicion the writer’s cognizance of the Latin tongue. At this point we may refer, also, to such absurdities as

Truth with her thousand-folded robe of error

Close shut in her sarcophagi of terror —

And

Where candelabri silver the white halls.

Now, no one is presupposed to be cognizant of any language beyond his own; to be ignorant of Latin is no crime; to pretend a knowledge is beneath contempt; and the pretender will attempt in vain to utter or to write two consecutive phrases of a foreign idiom, without betraying his deficiency to those who are conversant.

At page 39, there is some prospect of a progress in the story. Here we are introduced to a Mr. Acus and his fair daughter, Miss Alice.

Acus had been a dashing Bond-street tailor

Some few short years before, who took his measures

So carefully he always cut the jailor

And filled his coffers with exhaustless treasures;

Then with his wife, a son, and three fair daughters,

He sunk the goose and straightway crossed the waters.

His residence is in the immediate vicinity of Wilton. The daughter, Miss Alice, who is said to be quite a belle, is enamored of one Waldron, a foreigner, a lion, and a gentleman of questionable reputation. His character (which for our life and soul we cannot comprehend) is given within the space of some forty or fifty stanzas, made to include, at the same time, an [page 138:] essay on motives, deduced from the text “whatever is must be,” and illuminated by a long note at the end of the poem, wherein the systime (quere système?) de la Nature is sturdily attacked. Let us speak the truth: this note (and the whole of them, for there are many,) may be regarded as a glorious specimen of the concentrated essence of rigmarole, and, to say nothing of their utter absurdity per se, are so ludicrously uncalled for, and grotesquely out of place, that we found it impossible to refrain, during their perusal, from a most unbecoming and uproarious guffaw. We will be pardoned for giving a specimen — selecting it for its brevity.

Reason, he deemed, could measure every thing

And reason told him that there was a law

Of mental action which must ever fling

A death-bolt at all faith, and this he saw

Was Transference. (14)

Turning to Note 14, we read thus —

“If any one has a curiosity to look into this subject, (does Mr. Dawes really think any one so great a fool?) and wishes to see how far the force of reasoning and analysis may carry him, independently of revelation, I would suggest (thank you, sir,) such inquiries as the following:

“Whether the first Philosophy, considered in relation to Physics, was first in time?

“How far our moral perceptions have been influenced by natural phenomena?

“How far our metaphysical notions of cause and effect are attributable to the transference of notions connected with logical language?”

And all this in a poem about Acus, a tailor!

Waldron prefers, unhappily, Geraldine to Alice, [page 139:] and Geraldine returns his love, exciting thus the deep indignation of the neglected fair one,

whom love and jealousy bear up

To mingle poison in her rival’s cup.

Miss A. has among her adorers one of the genus loafer, whose appellation, not improperly, is Bore. B. is acquainted with a milliner — the milliner of the disconsolate lady.

She made this milliner her friend, who swore

To work her full revenge through Mr. Bore.

And now says the poet —

I leave your sympathetic fancies,

To fill the outline of this pencil sketch.

This filling has been, with us at least, a matter of no little difficulty. We believe, however, that the affair is intended to run thus: — Waldron is enticed to some vile sins by Bore, and the knowledge of these, on the part of Alice, places the former gentleman in her power.

We are now introduced to a féte champétre at the residence of Acus, who, by the way, has a son, Clifford, a suitor to Geraldine with the approbation of her father — that good old gentleman, for whom our sympathies were excited in the beginning of things, being influenced by the consideration that this scion of the house of the tailor will inherit a plum. The worst of the whole is, however, that the romantic Geraldine, who should have known better, and who loves Waldron, loves also the young knight of the shears. The consequence is a rencontre of the rival suitors at the féte champétre; Waldron knocking his antagonist on the head, and throwing him into the lake. The murderer, [page 140:] as well as we can make out the narrative, now joins a piratical band, among whom he alternately cuts throats and sings songs of his own composition. In the mean time the deserted Geraldine mourns alone, till, upon a certain day,

A shape stood by her like a thing of air —

She started — Waldron’s haggard face was there.

· · · · · · · · · ·  

He laid her gently down, of sense bereft,

And sunk his picture on her bosom’s snow,

And close beside these lines in blood he left:

“Farewell forever, Geraldine, I go

Another woman’s victim — dare I tell?

’T is Alice! — curse us, Geraldine! — farewell!”

There is no possibility of denying the fact: this is a droll piece of business. The lover brings forth a miniature, (Mr. Dawes has a passion for miniatures,) sinks it in the bosom of the lady, cuts his finger, and writes with the blood an epistle, (where is not specified, but we presume he indites it upon the bosom as it is “close beside” the picture,) in which epistle he announces that he is “another woman’s victim,” giving us to understand that he himself is a woman after all, and concluding with the delicious bit of Billingsgate

dare I tell?

’Tis Alice! — curse us, Geraldine! — farewell!

We suppose, however, that “curse us” is a misprint; for why should Geraldine curse both herself and her lover? — it should have been “curse it!” no doubt. The whole passage, perhaps, would have read better thus —

oh, my eye!

’Tis Alice! — d—n it, Geraldine! — good bye! [page 141:]

The remainder of the narrative may be briefly summed up. Waldron returns to his professional engagements with the pirates, while Geraldine, attended by her father, goes to sea for the benefit of her health. The consequence is inevitable. The vessels of the separated lovers meet and engage in the most diabolical of conflicts. Both are blown all to pieces. In a boat from one vessel, Waldron escapes — in a boat from the other, the lady Geraldine. Now, as a second natural consequence, the parties meet again — Destiny is every thing in such cases. Well, the parties meet again. The lady Geraldine has “that miniature” about her neck, and the circumstance proves too much for the excited state of mind of Mr. Waldron. He just seizes her ladyship, therefore, by the small of the waist and incontinently leaps with her into the sea.

However intolerably absurd this skeleton of the story may appear, a thorough perusal will convince the reader that the entire fabric is even more so. It is impossible to convey, in any such digest as we have given, a full idea of the niaiseries with which the narrative abounds. An utter want of keeping is especially manifest throughout. In the most solemnly serious passages we have, for example, incidents of the world of 1839, jumbled up with the distorted mythology of the Greeks. Our conclusion of the drama, as we just gave it, was perhaps ludicrous enough; but how much more preposterous does it appear in the grave language of the poet himself!

And round her neck the miniature was hung

Of him who gazed with Hell’s unmingled wo;

He saw her, kissed her cheek, and wildly flung

His arms around her with a mad’ning throw —

Then plunged within the cold unfathomed deep

While sirens sang their victim to his sleep! [page 142:]

Only think of a group of sirens singing to sleep a modern “miniatured” flirt, kicking about in the water with a New York dandy in tight pantaloons!

But not even these stupidities would suffice to justify a total condemnation of the poetry of Mr. Dawes. We have known follies very similar committed by men of real ability, and have been induced to disregard them in earnest admiration of the brilliancy of the minor beauty of style. Simplicity, perspicuity and vigor, or a well-disciplined ornateness of language, have done wonders for the reputation of many a writer really deficient in the higher and more essential qualities of the Muse. But upon these minor points of manner our poet has not even the shadow of a shadow to sustain him. His works, in this respect, may be regarded as a theatrical world of mere verbiage, somewhat speciously bedizzened with a tinselly meaning well adapted to the eyes of the rabble. There is not a page of anything that he has written which will bear, for an instant, the scrutiny of a critical eye. Exceedingly fond of the glitter of metaphor, he has not the capacity to manage it, and, in the awkward attempt, jumbles together the most incongruous of ornament. Let us take any passage of “Geraldine” by way of exemplification.

— Thy rivers swell the sea —

In one eternal diapason pour

Thy cataracts the hymn of liberty,

Teaching the clouds to thunder.

Here we have cataracts teaching clouds to thunder — and how? By means of a hymn.

Why should chromatic discord charm the ear

And smiles and tears stream o’er with troubled joy?

Tears may stream over, but not smiles. [page 143:]

Then comes the breathing time of young Romance,

The June of life, when summer’s earliest ray

Warms the red arteries, that bound and dance

With soft voluptuous impulses at play,

While the full heart sends forth as from a hive

A thousand winged messengers alive.

Let us reduce this to a simple statement, and we have — what? The earliest ray of summer warming red arteries, which are bounding and dancing, and playing with a parcel of urchins, called voluptuous impulses, while the bee-hive of a heart attached to these dancing arteries is at the same time sending forth a swarm of its innocent little inhabitants.

The eyes were like the sapphire of deep air,

The garb that distance robes elysium in,

But oh, so much of heaven lingered there

The wayward heart forgot its blissful sin

And worshiped all Religion well forbids

Beneath the silken fringes of their lids.

That distance is not the cause of the sapphire of the sky, is not to our present purpose. We wish merely to call attention to the verbiage of the stanza. It is impossible to put the latter portion of it into anything like intelligible prose. So much of heaven lingered in the lady’s eyes that the wayward heart forgot its blissful sin, and worshiped everything which religion forbids, beneath the silken fringes of the lady’s eyelids. This we cannot be compelled to understand, and shall therefore say nothing further about it.

She loved to lend Imagination wing

And link her heart with Juliet’s in a dream,

And feel the music of a sister string

That thrilled the current of her vital stream.

How delightful a picture we have here! A lady is lending one of her wings to the spirit, or genius, [page 144:] called Imagination, who, of course, has lost one of his own. While thus employed with one hand, with the other she is chaining her heart to the heart of the fair Juliet. At the same time she is feeling the music of a sister string, and this string is thrilling the current of the lady’s vital stream. If this is downright nonsense we cannot be held responsible for its perpetration; it is but the downright nonsense of Mr. Dawes.

Again —

Without the Palinurus of self-science

Byron embarked upon the stormy sea,

To adverse breezes hurling his defiance

And dashing up the rainbows on his lee,

And chasing those he made in wildest mirth,

Or sending back their images to earth.

This stanza we have more than once seen quoted as a fine specimen of the poetical powers of our author. His lordship, no doubt, is herein made to cut a very remarkable figure. Let us imagine him, for one moment, embarked upon a stormy sea, hurling his defiance (literally throwing his gauntlet or glove) to the adverse breezes, dashing up rainbows on his lee, laughing at them, and chasing them at the same time, and, in conclusion, “sending back their images to earth.” But we have already wearied the reader with this abominable rigmarole. We shall be pardoned (after the many specimens thus given at random) for not carrying out the design we originally intended: that of commenting upon two or three successive pages of “Geraldine” with a view of showing (in a spirit apparently more fair than that of particular selection) the entireness with which the whole poem is pervaded by unintelligibility. To every thinking mind, however, this would seem a [page 145:] work of supererogation. In such matters, by such understandings, the brick of the skolastikos will be received implicitly as a sample of the house. The writer capable, to any extent, of such absurdity as we have pointed out, cannot, by any possibility, produce a long article worth reading. We say this in the very teeth of the magnificent assembly which listened to the recital of Mr. Dawes, in the great hall of the University of New York. We shall leave “Athenia of Damascus,” without comment, to the decision of those who may find time and temper for its perusal, and conclude our extracts by a quotation, from among the minor poems, of the following very respectable

ANACREONTIC

Fill again the mantling bowl

Nor fear to meet the morning breaking!

None but slaves should bend the soul

Beneath the chains of mortal making:

Fill your beakers to the brim,

Bacchus soon shall lull your sorrow;

Let delight

But crown the night,

And care may bring her clouds to-morrow.

 

Mark this cup of rosy wine

With virgin pureness deeply blushing;

Beauty pressed it from the vine

While Love stood by to charm its gushing;

He who dares to drain it now

Shall drink such bliss as seldom gladdens;

The Moslem’s dream

Would joyless seem

To him whose brain its rapture maddens.

 

Pleasure sparkles on the brim —

Lethe lies far deeper in it —

Both, enticing, wait for him

Whose heart is warm enough to win it; [page 146:]

Hearts like ours, if e’er they chill,

Soon with love again must lighten.

Skies may wear

A darksome air

Where sunshine most is known to brighten.

 

Then fill, fill high the mantling bowl!

Nor fear to meet the morning breaking;

Care shall never cloud the soul

While Beauty’s beaming eyes are waking.

Fill your beakers to the brim,

Bacchus soon shall lull your sorrow;

Let delight

But crown the night,

And care may bring her clouds to-morrow.

Whatever shall be, hereafter, the position of Mr. Dawes in the poetical world, he will be indebted for it altogether to his shorter compositions, some of which have the merit of tenderness; others of melody and force. What seems to be the popular opinion in respect to his more voluminous effusions, has been brought about, in some measure, by a certain general tact, nearly amounting to taste, and more nearly the converse of talent. This tact has been especially displayed in the choice of not inelegant titles and other externals; in a peculiar imitative speciousness of manner, pervading the surface of his writings; and, (here we have the anomaly of a positive benefit deduced from a radical defect,) in an absolute deficiency in basis, in stamen, in matter, or pungency, which, if even slightly evinced, might have invited the reader to an intimate and understanding perusal, whose result would have been disgust. His poems have not been condemned, only because they have never been read. The glitter upon the surface has sufficed, with the newspaper critic, to justify his hyperboles of praise. [page 147:] Very few persons, we feel assured, have had sufficient nerve to wade through the entire volume now in question, except, as in our own case, with the single object of criticism in view. Mr. Dawes has, also, been aided to a poetical reputation by the amiability of his character as a man. How efficient such causes have before been in producing such effects, is a point but too thoroughly understood.

We have already spoken of the numerous friends of the poet; and we shall not here insist upon the fact, that we bear him no personal ill-will. With those who know us, such a declaration would appear supererogatory; and by those who know us not, it would, doubtless, be received with incredulity. What we have said, however, is not in opposition to Mr. Dawes, nor even so much in opposition to the poems of Mr. Dawes, as in defence of the many true souls which, in Mr. Dawes’ apotheosis, are aggrieved. The laudation of the unworthy is to the worthy the most bitter of all wrong. But it is unbecoming in him who merely demonstrates a truth, to offer reason or apology for the demonstration.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 132:]

1.  “Geraldine,” “Athenia of Damascus,” and Miscellaneous Poems. By Rufus Dawes. Published by Samuel Colman, New York.


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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 The Poetry of Rufus Dawes)