Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of The Songs of Our Land and Other Poems,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XIII: Literary Criticism - part 06 (1902), pp. 98-105


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[page 98:]

THE SONGS OF OUR LAND, AND OTHER POEMS. BY MARY E. HEWITT. BOSTON: WM. D. TICKNOR & CO.

[Text: Godey’s Lady’s Book, February, 1846.]

A DUODECIMO of 155 pages, distinguished by a very refined taste in the “getting up.” Since the issue, in book form, of Mr. Longfellow’s “Spanish Student,” we have seen no American book so exquisitely arranged throughout: the breadth of the page is, in especial, a very commendable point. If any objection could be urged, it is that, for a page of the size employed, the long primer type is a trifle too large. Even here, however, we may be mistaken: the elegance of the whole volume in itself amounts to the poetical.

It includes fifty brief compositions, the first and one of the longest of which gives title to the collection. We by no means think it, however, the best piece. Its fifth stanza is, perhaps, the only quotable passage:

“Our fathers bore from Albion’s isle

No stories of her sounding lyres —

They left the old baronial pile,

They left the harp of ringing wires.

Ours are the legends still rehearsed,

Ours are the songs that gladsome burst

By all your cot and palace fires

Each tree that in our soft wind stirs

Waves o’er our ancient sepulchres,

The sleeping ashes of our sires.” [page 99:]

Forgotten Heroes” is a poem of much beauty, and replete with a classical spirit. No little skill is evinced in the versification of the following quatrains: —

“Morning in storied Greece! and song,

Like a startling trumpet’s clang,

From the olive-gatherers on the heights,

Through the wavy branches rang.

 

“And the peasant mother at her door,

To the babe that climbed her knee,

Sang aloud the land’s heroic songs —

Sang of Thermopylæ.

 

“Sang of Mycale, of Marathon,

Of proud Plataea’s day,

Till the wakened hills, from peak to peak,

Echoed the glorious lay.

 

“Oh, godlike name! oh, godlike deed!

Song borne afar on every breeze —

Ye are sounds to thrill like a battle shout.

Leonidas! Miltiades!”

We italicize what we consider the effective points of the rhythm. In the line,

“Sang of Thermopylæ,”

a trochee and two iambuses are employed, in very happy variation of the three preceding lines, which are formed each of an anapaest, followed by three iambuses. The effect of the variation is to convey the idea of lyric or martial song. The first line of the next quatrain even more forcibly carries out this idea. Here the verse begins with an anapaest, (although a faulty one [page 100:] — “sang” being long,) and is continued in three iambuses. The variation in the last quatrain consists in an additional foot in the alternating lines — a full volume being thus given to the close.

TheWife’s Prayer,” is an earnest appeal to the sense of domestic happiness against the contemptible folly of ambition. Would to Heaven that such prayers were never urged in vain!

From the “Lines written in the North of the White Mountains” we quote the first stanza: —

“Dread mountain gorge, that hast thy way,

In gloom, the sterile hills among;

Where coldly falls the cheering ray

To light thy paths with rocks o’erhung —

Here, ‘mid your wild and dark defile,

O’erawed and wonder-whelmed I stand,

And ask, is this the fearful vale

That opens on the shadowy land?

Mrs. Hewitt has evidently very warm partialities for the sea and all that concerns it. Many of the best pieces in the volume before us turn upon sea adventures, or have reference to the maritime life. “God Bless the Mariner” is, perhaps, one of the most meritorious of these compositions. It is naive and picturesque.

“God’s blessing on the mariner!

A venturous life leads he —

What reck the landsmen of their toil

Who dwell upon the sea?

 

“The landsman sits within his home,

His fireside bright and warm,

Nor asks how fares the mariner

All night amid the storm. [page 101:]

 

“God bless the hardy mariner!

A homely garb wears he,

And he goeth with a rolling gait,

Like a ship upon the sea.

 

“He hath piped the loud ‘Ay, ay, sir!’

O’er the voices of the main,

Till his deep tones have the hoarseness

Of the rising hurricane.

 

His seamed and honest visage

The sun and wind have tanned,

And hard as iron gauntlet

Is his broad and sinewy hand.

 

“But, oh! a spirit looketh

From out his clear blue eye,

With a truthful, childlike earnestness,

Like an angel from the sky.

 

“A venturous life the sailor leads

Between the sky and sea —

But when the hour of dread is past,

A merrier who than he?

 

“He knows that by the rudder bands

Stands one well skilled to save;

For a strong hand is the steersman’s

That directs him o’er the wave.”

Alone “ is the title of some quatrains of a tone differing materially from that of the other poems. It has more of an earnest melancholy. The motto, “Seul, cherchant dans l’espace un point qui me reponde,” prefaces it. The idea is a remarkably happy one. We shall be pardoned for copying the whole poem: — [page 102:]

“There lies a deep and sealed well

Within yon leafy forest hid,

Whose pent and lonely waters swell

Its confines chill and drear amid.

 

“It hears the birds on every spray

Trill forth melodious notes of love;

It feels the warm sun’s seldom ray

Glance on the stone its waves above;

 

“And quick the gladdened waters rush

Tumultuous upward to the brink;

A seal is on their joyous gush,

And back, repressed, they coldly shrink.

 

“Thus in their caverned space, apart,

Closed from the eye of day they dwell —

So, prisoned deep within my heart,

The tides of quick affection swell.

 

“Each kindly glance, each kindly tone,

To joy its swift pulsations sway;

But none may lift the veiling stone

And give the franchised current way.

 

“Smite THOU the rock, whose eye alone

The hidden spring within may see,

And bid the flood, resistless one,

Flow forth, rejoicing unto Thee.”

The merit of this piece, however, is greatly obscured, first, by its frequent inversions, and secondly, by its rhythmical defects. The lines,

“Its confines chill and drear amid”

and

“Glance on the stone its wave above,” [page 103:]

might easily have been written, with directness,

“Amid its chill and drear,” &c.,

and

“Glance on the stone above its wave.”

The putting the adjective after the noun is an inexcusable Gallicism, but the putting the preposition after the noun is not only not a Gallicism, but is alien to all languages, and in opposition to all the principles of language. Such things serve no other purpose than to betray the versifier’s poverty of resource. Inversions are ranked among the poetic licenses; but the true poet will avail himself of no license whatever that does not aid his intended effect. When an inversion occurs, we say at once, “here the poet had not sufficient skill to make out his line without distorting the language.” Nothing so much tends to render verse feeble, ineffective. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred where a line is spoken of as unusually forcible, it will be found that the force is attributable to the directness of its expression. Nearly all the passages which have become household through frequent quotation, owe their popularity either to this directness, or, in general, to the scorn of poetic license. In short, as regards verbal construction, the more prosaic a poetical style is, the better. No modern poet is more remarkable for this species of prosaicism than Moore, and to this his unusual point and force are mainly attributable. It will be observed that he is the most quotable of poets.

The rhythmical defects referred to lie not so much in deficiencies or superfluities of feet or syllables, or in discords, as in the excessive use of difficult consonants. Such a line as [page 104:]

“And back, repressed, they coldly shrink,

is scarcely pronounceable; and this merely on account of the union of such letters as n d b, c k r, d t h, and l d l followed immediately by s h r.

“It feels the warm sun’s seldom ray,’

is quite as bad, if not worse. In repeating it rapidly once or twice we find as much embarrassment as in the schoolboy stumbling-block about “the cat that ran up the ladder with a lump of raw liver in his mouth.” While on this topic, we must express our pleasure at seeing that Mrs. Hewitt eschews the folly of elision in such words as burned, distressed — past participles and perfect tenses — which, in all cases, should be written in full, and not burn’d, distress’d, etc. In one instance she contracts traitorous into trait’rous, but this is an error.

A Tale of Luzon,” “Osceola Signing the Treaty,” and a sonnet entitled “Cameo II,” are, we think, the three finest poems of the volume. The first has some touches of delicate fancy, and is better versified than anything in the collection. The second is forcible, and its conclusions epigrammatic. The third is that rara avis, a well-constructed sonnet. We quote it by way of finale.

“HERCULES AND OMPHALE.

“Reclined enervate on the couch of ease,

No more he pants for deeds of high emprize —

For pleasure holds in soft voluptuous ties

Enthralled, great Jove-descended Hercules.

The hand that bound the Erymanthean boar,

Hesperia’s dragon slew, with bold intent —

That from his quivering side in triumph rent [page 105:]

The skin the Cleonzean lion wore,

Holds forth the goblet — while the Lydian queen,

Robed like a nymph, her brow enwreathed with vine,

Lifts high the amphora brimmed with rosy wine,

And pours the draught the crowned cup within.

And thus the soul, abased to sensual sway,

Its worth forsakes — its might foregoes for aye.”

Mrs. Hewitt has, upon the whole, given indication rather than immediate evidence of poetic power. If not discouraged, she will undoubtedly achieve, hereafter, a very desirable triumph.

 


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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 The Songs of Our Land and Other Poems)