Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Our Amateur Poets, No. I. — Flaccus,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XI: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 160-174


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞


[page 160, continued:]

OUR AMATEUR POETS, NO. I. — FLACCUS.

[Test: Graham’s Magazine, March, 1843.]

THE poet now comprehended in thecognomen Flaccus, is by no means our ancient friend Quintus Horatius, nor even his ghost, but merely a Mr. Ward, of Gotham, once a contributor to the New York “American,” and to the New York “Knickerbocker” Magazine. He is characterized by Mr. Griswold, in his “Poets and Poetry of America,” as a gentleman of elegant leisure.

What there is in “elegant leisure” so much at war with the divineafflatus, it is not very difficult, but quite unnecessary, to say. The fact has been long apparent. Never sing the Nine so well as when penniless. The mens divinior is one thing, and theotium cum dignitate quite another.

Of course Mr. Ward is not, as a poet, altogether destitute of merit. If so, the public had been spared these paragraphs. But the sum of his deserts has been footed up by a clique who are in the habit of reckoning units as tens in all cases where champagne and “elegant leisure” are concerned. We do not consider him, at all points, a Pop Emmons, but, with [page 161:] deference to the more matured opinions of the “Knickerbocker,” we may be permitted to entertain a doubt whether he is either Jupiter Tonans or Phœbus Apollo.

Justice is not, at all times, to all persons, the most desirable thing in the world, but then there is the old adage about the tumbling of the heavens, and simple justice is all that we propose in the case of Mr. Ward. We have no design to be bitter. We notice his book at all, only because it is an unusually large one of its kind, because it is here lying upon our table, and because, whether justly or unjustly, whether for good reason or for none, it has attracted some portion of the attention of the public.

The volume is entitled, somewhat affectedly, “Passaic, a Group of Poems touching that river: with Other Musings, by Flaccus,” and embodies, we believe, all the previously published effusions of its author. It commences with a very pretty “Sonnet to Passaic,” and from the second poem, “Introductory Musings on Rivers,” we are happy in being able to quote an entire page of even remarkable beauty.

Beautiful Rivers! that a down the vale

With graceful passage journey to the deep,

Let me along your grassy marge recline

At ease, and, musing, meditate the strange

Bright history of your life; yes, from your birth

Has beauty’s shadow chased your every step:

The blue sea was your mother, and the sun

Your glorious sire, clouds your voluptuous cradle,

Roofed with o’erarching rainbows; and your fall

To earth was cheered with shouts of happy birds,

With brightened faces of reviving flowers,

And meadows, while the sympathizing west

Took holiday and donn’d her richest robes.

From deep mysterious wanderings your springs [page 162:]

Break bubbling into beauty; where they lie

In infant helplessness awhile, but soon,

Gathering in tiny brooks, they gambol down

The steep sides of the mountain, laughing, shouting,

Teasing the wild flowers, and at every turn

Meeting new playmates still to swell their ranks;

Which, with the rich increase resistless grown,

Shed foam and thunder, that the echoing wood

Rings with the boisterous glee; while, o’er their heads,

Catching their spirit blithe, young rainbows sport,

The frolic children of the wanton sun.

 

Nor is your swelling prime, or green old age,

Though calm, unlovely; still, where’er ye move,

Your train is beauty; trees stand grouping by

To mark your graceful progress; giddy flowers

And vain, as beauties wont, stoop o’er the verge

To greet their faces in your flattering glass:

The thirsty herd are following at your side;

And water-birds in clustering fleets convoy

Your sea-bound tides; and jaded man, released

From worldly thraldom, here his dwelling plants —

Here pauses in your pleasant neighborhood,

Sure of repose along your tranquil shores;

And, when your end approaches, and ye blend

With the eternal ocean, ye shall fade

As placidly as when an infant dies,

And the Death-Angel shall your powers withdraw

Gently as twilight takes the parting day,

And, with a soft and gradual decline

That cheats the senses, lets it down to night.

There is nothing very original in all this; the general idea is, perhaps, the most absolutely trite in poetical literature; but the theme is not the less just on this account, while we must confess that it is admirably handled. The picture embodied in the whole of the concluding paragraph is perfect. The seven final lines convey not only a novel but a highly appropriate and beautiful image. [page 163:]

What follows, of this poem, however, is by no means worthy so fine a beginning. Instead of confining himself to the true poetical thesis, the Beauty or the Sublimity of river scenery, he descends into mere meteorology — into the uses and general philosophy of rain, &c. — matters which should be left to Mr. Espy, who knows something about them, as we are sorry to say Mr. Flaccus does not.

The second and chief poem in the volume, is entitled “The Great Descender.” We emphasize the “poem” merely by way of suggesting that the “Great Descender” is any thing else. We never could understand what pleasure men of talent can take in concocting elaborate doggerel of this order. Least of all can we comprehend why, having perpetrated the atrocity, they should place it at the door of the Muse. We are at a loss to know by what right, human or divine, twattle of this character is intruded into a collection of what professes to be Poetry. We put it to Mr. Ward, in all earnestness, if the “Great Descender,” which is a history of Sam Patch, has a single attribute, beyond that of mere versification, in common with what even Sam Patch himself would have had the hardihood to denominate a poem.

Let us call this thing a rhymed jeu d’esprit, a burlesque, or what not? — and, even so called, and judged by its new name, we must still regard it as a failure. Even in the loosest compositions we demand a certain degree of keeping. But in the “Great Descender” none is apparent. The tone is unsteady fluctuating between the grave and the gay — and never being precisely either. Thus there is a failure in both. The intention being never rightly taken, we are, of course, never exactly in condition either to weep or to laugh. [page 164:]

We do not pretend to be the Oracles of Dodona, but it does really appear to us that Mr. Flaccus intended the whole matter, in the first instance, as a solemnly serious thing; and that, having composed it in a grave vein, he became apprehensive of its exciting derision, and so interwove sundry touches of the burlesque, behind whose equivocal aspect he might shelter himself at need. In no other supposition can we reconcile thespotty appearance of the whole with a belief in the sanity of the author. It is difficult, also, in any other view of the case, to appreciate the air of positive gravity with which he descants upon the advantages toScience which have accrued from a man’s making a frog of himself. Mr. Ward is frequently pleased to denominate Mr. Patch “a martyr of science,” and appears very doggedly in earnest in all passages such as the following:

Through the glad Heavens, which tempests now conceal,

Deep thunder-guns in quick succession peal,

As if salutes were firing from the sky,

To hail the triumph and the victory.

Shout! trump of Fame, till thy brass lungs burst out!

Shout! mortal tongues! deep-throated thunders, shout!

For lo! electric genius, downward hurled,

Has startled Science and illumed the world!

That Mr. Patch was a genius we do not doubt; so is Mr. Ward; but the science displayed in jumping down the Falls, is a point above us. There might have been some science in jumpingup.

“The Worth of Beauty: or a Lover’s Journal,” is the title of the poem next in place and importance. Of this composition Mr. W. thus speaks in a Note: “The individual to whom the present poem relates, and who had suffered severely all the pains and penalties [page 165:] which arise from the want of those personal charms so much admired by him in others, gave the author, many years since, some fragments of a journal kept in his early days, in which he had bared his heart and set down all his thoughts and feelings. This prose journal has here been transplanted into the richer soil of verse.”

The narrative of the friend of Mr. Flaccus must, originally, have been a very good thing. By “originally,” we mean before it had the misfortune to be “transplanted into the richer soil of verse” — which has by no means agreed with its constitution. But, even through the dense fog of our author’s rhythm, we can get an occasional glimpse of its merit. It must have been the work of a heart on fire with passion, and the utter abandon of the details, reminds us even of Jean Jacques. But alas for this “richer soil!” Can we venture to present our readers with a specimen?

Now roses blush, and violets’ eyes,

And seas reflect the glance of skies;

And now that frolic pencil streaks

With quaintest tints the tulips’ cheeks;

Now jewels bloom in secret worth

Like blossoms of the inner earth;

Now painted birds are pouring round

The beauty and the wealth of sound;

Now sea-shells glance with quivering ray

Too rare to seize, too fleet to stay,

And hues out dazzling all the rest

Are dashed profusely on the west,

While rainbows seem to palettes changed,

Whereon the motley tints are ranged.

But soft the moon that pencil tipped

As though, in liquid radiance dipped,

A likeness of the sun it drew,

But flattered him with pearlier hue; [page 166:]

Which haply spilling runs astray,

And blots with light the milky way;

While stars besprinkle all the air

Like spatterings of that pencil there.

All this by way of exalting the subject. The moon is made a painter and the rainbow a palette. And the moon has a pencil (that pencil!) which she dips, by way of a brush, in the liquid radiance, (the colors on a palette are not liquid,) and then draws (not paints) a likeness of the sun; but, in the at tempt, plasters him too “pearly,” puts it on too thick; the consequence of which is that some of the paint is spilt, and “runs astray” and besmears the milky way, and “spatters” the rest of the sky with stars! We can only say that a very singular picture was spoilt in the making.

The versification of the “Worth of Beauty” proceeds much after this fashion: we select a fair example of the whole from page 43.

Yes! pangs have cut my soul with grief

So keen that gushes were relief,

And racks have rung my spirit-frame

To which the strain of joints were tame

And battle strife itself were nought

Beside the inner fight I’ve fought. etc., etc.

Nor do we regard any portion of it (so far as rhythm is concerned) as at all comparable to some of the better ditties of William Slater. Here, for example, from his Psalms, published in 1642:

The righteous shall his sorrow scan

And laugh at him, and say “behold

What hath become of this here man

That on his riches was so bold.”

And here, again, are lines from the edition of the [page 167:] same Psalms, by Archbishop Parker, which we most decidedly prefer:

Who sticketh to God in stable trust

As Sion’s mount he stands full just,

Which moveth no whit nor yet can reel,

But standeth forever as stiff as steel.

“The Martyr” and the “Retreat of Seventy-Six” are merely Revolutionary incidents “done into verse,” and spoilt in the doing. “The Retreat” begins with the remarkable line,

Tramp! tramp! tramp! tramp!

which is elsewhere introduced into the poem. We look in vain, here, for any thing worth even qualified commendation.

“The Diary” is a record of events occurring to the author during a voyage from New York to Havre. Of these events a fit of sea-sickness is the chief. Mr. Ward, we believe, is the first of the genus irritabile who has ventured to treat so delicate a subject with that grave dignity which is its due:

Rejoice! rejoice! already on my sight

Bright shores, gray towers, and coming wonders reel;

My brain grows giddy — is it with delight?

A swimming faintness, such as one might feel

When stabbed and dying, gathers on my sense —

It weighs me down — and now — help! — horror! —

But the “horror,” and indeed all that ensues, we must leave to the fancy of the poetical.

Some pieces entitled “Humorous” next succeed, and one or two of them (for example, “The Graham System” and “The Bachelor’s Lament”) are not so very contemptible in their way, but the way itself is beneath even contempt. [page 168:]

“To an Infant in Heaven” embodies some striking thoughts, and, although feeble as a whole, and terminating lamely, may be cited as the best composition in the volume. We quote two or three of the opening stanzas:

Thou bright and star-like spirit!

That in my visions wild

I see ‘mid heaven’s seraphic host —

Oh! canst thou be my child?

 

My grief is quenched in wonder,

And pride arrests my sighs;

A branch from this unworthy stock

Now blossoms in the skies.

 

Our hopes of thee were lofty,

But have we cause to grieve?

Oh, could our fondest, proudest wish

A nobler fate conceive?

 

The little weeper tearless!

The sinner snatched from sin!

The babe to more than manhood grown,

Ere childhood did begin!

 

And I, thy earthly teacher,

Would blush thy powers to see:

Thou art to me a parent now

And I a child to thee!

There are several other pieces in the book — but it is needless to speak of them in detail. Among them we note one or two political effusions, and one or two which are (satirically?) termed satirical. All are worthless.

Mr. Ward’s imagery, at detached points, has occasional vigor and appropriateness; we may go so far as to say that, at times, it is strikingly beautiful — by [page 169:] accident of course. Let us cite a few instances. At page 53 we read —

O! happy day! — earth, sky is fair,

And fragrance floats along the air;

For all the bloomy orchards glow

As with a fall of rosy snow.

At page 91 —

With gems, a present from the showers!

How flashed the overloaded flowers

At page 92 —

No! there is danger; all the night

I saw her like a starry light

More lovely in my visions lone

Than in my day-dreams truth she shone.

’T is naught when on the sun we gaze

If only dazzled by his rays,

But when our eyes his form retain

Some wound to vision must remain.

And again, at page 234, speaking of a slight shock of an earthquake, the earth is said to tremble

As if some wing of passing angel, bound

From sphere to sphere, had brushed the golden chain

That hangs our planet to the throne of God.

This latter passage, however, is, perhaps, not altogether original with Mr. Ward. In a poem now lying before us, entitled “Al Aaraaf,” the composition of a gentleman of Philadelphia, we find what follows:

A dome by linkéd light from heaven let down

Sat gently on these columns as a crown;

A window of one circular diamond there

Looked out above into the purple air, [page 170:]

And rays from God shot down that meteor chain

And hallow’d all the beauty twice again,

Save when, between th’ Empyrean and that ring,

Some eager spirit flapped his dusky wing.

But if Mr. Ward’s imagery is, indeed, at rare intervals, good, it must be granted, on the other hand, that, in general, it is atrociously inappropriate, or low. For example:

Thou gaping chasm! whose wide devouring throat

Swallows a river, while the gulping note

Of monstrous deglutition gurgles loud, etc.  Page 24.

Bright Beauty! child of starry birth,

The grace, the gem, the flower of earth,

The damask livery of Heaven!  Page 44.

Here the mind wavers between gems, and stars, and taffety — between footmen and flowers. Again, at page 46 —

All thornless flowers of wit, all chaste

And delicate essays of taste,

All playful fancies, wingéd wiles,

That from their pinions scatter smiles,

All prompt resource in stress or pain,

Leap ready-armed from woman’s brain.

The idea of “thornless flowers,” etc. leaping “ready-armed “ could have entered few brains except those of Mr. Ward.

Of the most ineffable bad taste we have instances without number. For example — page 183 —

And, straining, fastens on her lips a kiss

That seemed to suck the life-blood from her heart!

And here, very gravely, at page 25, —

Again he’s rous’d, first cramming in his cheek

The weed, though vile, that props the nerves when weak. [page 171:]

Here again, at page 33,

Full well he knew where food does not refresh

The shrivel’d soul sinks inward with the flesh —

That he’s best armed for danger’s rash career

Who’s crammed so full there is no room for fear.

But we doubt if the whole world of literature, poetical or prosaic, can afford a picture more utterly disgusting than the following, which we quote from page 177:

But most of all good eating cheers the brain,

Where other joys are rarely met — at sea —

Unless, indeed, we lose as soon as gain —

Ay, there|’s the rub so baffling oft to me.

Boiled, roast, and baked — what precious choice of dishes

My generous throat has shared among the fishes!

 

’T is sweet to leave, in each forsaken spot,

Our foot-prints there — if only in the sand;

’T is sweet to feel we are not all forgot,

That some will weep our flight from every land;

And sweet the knowledge, when the seas I cross,

My briny messmates! ye will mourn my loss.

This passage alone should damn the book — aye, damn a dozen such.

Of what may be termed the niaiseries — the sillinesses — of the volume, there is no end. Under this head we might quote two thirds of the work. For example:

Now lightning, with convulsive spasm

Splits heaven in many a fearful chasm. . . .

 

It takes the high trees by the hair

And, as with besoms, sweeps the air.

 

Now breaks the gloom and through the chinks

The moon, in search of opening, winks

All seriously urged, at different points of page 66. [page 172:] Again, on the very next page —

Bees buzzed and wrens that throng’d the rushes

Poured round incessant twittering gushes.

And here, at page 129 —

And now he leads her to the slippery brink

Where ponderous tides headlong plunge down the horrid chink.

And here, page 109 —

And, like a ravenous vulture, peck

The smoothness of that cheek and neck.

And here, page 111 —

While through the skin worms wriggling broke.

And here, page 170 —

And ride the skittish backs of untamed waves.

And here, page 214 —

Now clasps its mate in holy prayer

Or twangs a harp of gold.

Mr. Ward, also, is constantly talking about “thunder-guns,” “thunder-trumpets,” and “thunder-shrieks.” He has a bad habit, too, of styling an eye “a weeper,” as for example, at page 208 —

Oh, curl in smiles that mouth again

And wipe that weeper dry.

Somewhere else he calls two tears “two sparklers” — very much in the style of Mr. Richard Swiveller, who was fond of denominating Madeira “the rosy.” “In the nick,” meaning in the height, or fulness, is likewise a pet expression of the author of “The Great Descender.” Speaking of American forests, at page 286, for instance, he says, “let the doubter [page 173:] walk through them in the nick of their glory.” A phrase which may be considered as in the very nick of good taste.

We cannot pause to comment upon Mr. Ward’s most extraordinary system of versification. Is it his own? He has quite an original way of conglomerating consonants, and seems to have been experimenting whether it were not possible to do altogether without vowels. Sometimes he strings together quite a chain of impossibilities. The line, for example, at page 51,

Or, only such as sea-shells flash,

puts us much in mind of the schoolboy stumbling-block, beginning, “The cat ran up the ladder with a lump of raw liver in her mouth,” and we defy Sam Patch himself to pronounce it twice in succession without tumbling into a blunder.

But we are fairly wearied with this absurd theme. Who calls Mr. Ward a poet? He is a second-rate, or a third-rate, or perhaps a ninety-ninth-rate poetaster. He is a gentleman of “elegant leisure,” and gentlemen of elegant leisure are, for the most part, neither men, women, nor Harriet Martineaus. Similar opinions, we believe, were expressed by somebody else — was it Mr. Benjamin? — no very long while ago. But neither Mr. Ward nor “The Knickerbocker” would be convinced. The latter, by way of defence, went into a treatise upon Sam Patch, and Mr. Ward, “in the nick of his glory,” wrote another poem against criticism in general, in which he called Mr. Benjamin “a wasp” and “an owl,” and endeavored to prove him an ass. An owl is a wise bird — especially in spectacles — still, we do not look upon Mr. Benjamin as an owl. If all are owls who disbelieve in this [page 174:] book (which we now throw to the pigs) then the world at large cuts a pretty figure, indeed, and should be burnt up in April, as Mr. Miller desires — for it is only one immense aviary of owls.

 


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞


Notes:

None.


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

[S:0 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Our Amateur Poets, No. I. -- Flaccus)