Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Amelia Welby,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XI: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 275-281


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[page 275, continued:]

AMELIA WELBY.

[Text: Democractic Review, December, 1844.]

MRS. AMELIA WELBY has all the imagination of Maria del Occidente, with more refined taste; and all the passion of Mrs. Norton, with a nicer ear, and (what is surprising) equal art. Very few American poets are at all comparable with her in the true poetic qualities. As for our poetesses (an absurd but necessary word), none of them approach her.

With some modifications, this little poem would do honor to any one living or dead.

The moon within our casement beams,

Our blue-eyed babe bath dropped to sleep,

And I have left it to its dreams

Amid the shadows deep,

To muse beside the silver tide

Whose waves are rippling at thy side. [page 276:]

 

It is a still and lovely spot

Where they have laid thee down to rest;

The white-rose and forget-me-not

Bloom sweetly on thy breast,

And birds and streams with liquid lull

Have made the stillness beautiful.

 

And softly thro’ the forest bars

Light lovely shapes, on glossy plumes,

Float ever in, like winged stars,

Amid the purpling glooms:

Their sweet songs, borne from tree to tree,

Thrill the light leaves with melody.

 

Alas! the very path I trace,

In happier hours thy footsteps made;

This spot was once thy resting-place;

Within the silent shade

Thy white hand trained the fragrant bough

That drops its blossoms o’er me now.

 

’Twas here at eve we used to rove;

’Twas here I breathed my whispered vows,

And sealed them on thy lips, my love,

Beneath the apple-boughs.

Our hearts had melted into one,

But Death undid what Love had done.

 

Alas! too deep a weight of thought

Had fill’d thy heart in youth’s sweet hour;

It seem ‘d with love and bliss o’erfraught;

As fleeting passion-flower

Unfolding ‘neath a southern skits,

To blossom soon and soon to die.

 

Yet in these calm and blooming bowers,

I seem to see thee still,

Thy breath seems floating o’er the flowers,

Thy whisper on the hill;

The clear faint star-light and the sea

Are whispering to my heart of thee.

 

No more thy smiles my heart rejoice —

Yet still I start to meet shine eye, [page 277:]

And call upon the low sweet voice

That gives me no reply —

And list within my silent door

For the light feet that come no more.

In a critical mood I would speak of these stanzas thus: The subject has nothing of originality: — A widower muses by the grave of his wife. Here then is a great demerit; for originality of theme, if not absolutely first sought, should be sought among the first. Nothing is more clear than this proposition — although denied by the chlorine critics (the grassgreen). The desire of the new is an element of the soul. The most exquisite pleasures grow dull in repetition. A strain of music enchants. Heard a second time it pleases. Heard a tenth, it does not displease. We hear it a twentieth, and ask ourselves why we admired. At the fiftieth it endures ennui — at the hundredth disgust.

Mrs. Welby’s theme is, therefore, radically faulty so far as originality is concerned; — but of common themes, it is one of the very best among the class passionate. True passion is prosaic — homely. Any strong mental emotion stimulates all the mental faculties; thus grief the imagination: — but in proportion as the effect is strengthened, the cause surceases. The excited fancy triumphs — the grief is subdued — chastened — is no longer grief. In this mood we are poetic, and it is clear that a poem now written will be poetic in the exact ratio of its dispassion. A passionate poem is a contradiction in terms. When I say, then, that Mrs. Welby’s stanzas are good among the class passionate (using the term commonly and falsely applied), I mean that her tone is properly subdued, and is not so much the tone of passion, as of a gentle [page 278:] and melancholy regret, interwoven with a pleasant sense of the natural loveliness surrounding the lost in the tomb, and a memory of her human beauty while alive. — Elegiac poems should either assume this character, or dwell purely on the beauty (moral or physical) of the departed — or, better still, utter the notes of triumph. I have endeavored to carry out this latter idea in some verses which I have called “Lenore.”

Those who object to the proposition — that poetry and passion are discordant — would, thus, cite Mrs. Welby’s poem as an instance of a passionate one. It is precisely similar to the hundred others which have been cited for like purpose. But it is not passionate; and for this reason (with others having regard to her fine genius) it is poetical. The critics upon this topic display an amusing ignoratio elenchi.

Dismissing originality and tone, I pass to the general handling, than which nothing could be more pure, more natural, or more judicious. The perfect keeping of the various points is admirable — and the result is entire unity of impression, or effect. The time, a moonlight night; the locality of the grave; the passing thither from the cottage, and the conclusion of the theme with the return to “the silent door;” the babe left, meanwhile, “to its dreams;” the “white rose and forget-me-not” upon the breast of the entombed; the “birds and streams, with liquid lull, that make the stillness beautiful;” the birds whose songs “thrill the light leaves with melody;” — all these are appropriate and lovely conceptions: — only quite unoriginal; — and (be it observed), the higher order of genius should, and will, combine the original with that which is natural — not in the vulgar sense, (ordinary) — but in the artistic sense, which has reference [page 279:] to the general intention of Nature. — We have this combination well effected in the lines:

And softly through the forest bars

Light lovely shapes, on glossy plumes,

Float ever in, like winged stars,

Amid the purpling glooms —

which are, unquestionably, the finest in the poem.

The reflections suggested by the scene — commencing:

Alas! the very path I trace,

are, also, something more than merely natural, and are richly ideal; especially the cause assigned for the early death; and “the fragrant bough”

That drops its blossoms o’er me now.

The two concluding stanzas are remarkable examples of common fancies rejuvenated, and etherealized by grace of expression, and melody of rhythm.

The “light lovely shapes” in the third stanza (however beautiful in themselves), are defective, when viewed in reference to the “birds” of the stanza preceding. The topic “birds” is dismissed in the one paragraph, to be resumed in the other.

“Drops,” in the last line of the fourth stanza, is improperly used in an active sense. To drop is a neuter verb. An apple drops; we let the apple fall.

The repetition (“seemed,” “seem,” “seems,”) in the sixth and seventh stanzas, is ungraceful; so also that of”heart,” in the last line of the seventh, and the first of the eighth. The words “breathed” and “ whispered,” in the second line of the fifth stanza, have a force too nearly identical. “Neath,”just below, is an awkward contraction. All contractions are awkward. It is no paradox, that the more prosaic the [page 280:] construction of verse, the better. Inversions should be dismissed. The most forcible lines are the most direct. Mrs. Welby owes three-fourths of her power (so far as style is concerned), to her freedom from these vulgar, and particularly English errors — elision and inversion. O’er is, however, too often used by her in place of over, and ‘twas for it was. We see instances here. The only inversions, strictly speaking, are

The moon within our casement beams,

and — ”Amid the shadows deep.”

The versification throughout, is unusually good. Nothing can excel

And birds and streams with liquid lull

Have made the stillness beautiful;

or —

And sealed them on thy lips, my love,

Beneath the apple-boughs;

or the whole of the concluding stanza, if we leave out of view the unpleasant repetition of “And,” at the commencement of the third and fifth lines. “Thy white hand trained (see stanza the fourth) involves four consonants, that unite with difficulty — ndtr — and the harshness is rendered more apparent, by the employment of the spondee, “hand trained,” in place of an iambus. “Melody,” is a feeble termination of the third stanza’s last line. The syllable dy is not full enough to sustain the rhyme. All these endings, liberty, property, happily, and the like, however justified by authority, are grossly objectionable. Upon the whole, there are some poets in America (Bryant and Sprague, for example), who equal Mrs. Welby in the negative merits of that limited versification which [page 281:] they chiefly affect — the iambic pentameter — but none equal her in the richer and positive merits of rhythmical variety, conception — invention. They, in the old routine, rarely err. She often surprises, and always delights, by novel, rich and accurate combination of the ancient musical expressions.

 


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Notes:

The notice of Amelia Welby is taken from an installment of “Marginalia.” It was not printed by Poe as a separate review. That installment of “Marginalia” is included by Harrison in the collection in volume XVI, which again prints this notice of Mrs. Welby.


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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 Amelia Welby)