Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Frances Sargent Osgood,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XIII: Literary Criticism - part 06 (1902), pp. 175-193


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[page 175, continued:]

FRANCES SARGENT OSGOOD.

[Southern Literary Messenger, August, 1849.]

MRS. OSGOOD, for the last three or four years, has been rapidly attaining distinction; and this, evidently, with no effort at attaining it. She seems, in fact, to have no object in view beyond that of giving voice to the fancies or the feelings of the moment. “Necessity,” says the proverb, “is the mother of Invention;” and the invention of Mrs. O., at least, springs plainly from necessity — from the necessity of invention. Not to write poetry — not to act it, think it, dream it, and be it, is entirely out of her power.

It may be questioned whether with more industry, more method, more definite purpose, more ambition, Mrs. Osgood would have made a more decided impression on the public mind. She might, upon the whole, have written better poems; but the chances are that she would have failed in conveying so vivid and so just an idea of her powers as poet. The warm abandonnement of her style — that charm which now so captivates — is but a portion and a consequence of her unworldly nature — of her disregard of mere fame; but it affords us glimpses, which we could not otherwise [page 176:] have obtained, of a capacity for accomplishing what she has not accomplished, and in all probability never will. In the world of poetry, however, there is already more than enough of uncongenial ambition and pretence.

Mrs. Osgood has taken no care whatever of her literary fame. A great number of her finest compositions, both in verse and prose, have been written anonymously, and are now lying perdus about the country, in out-of-the way nooks and corners. Many a goodly reputation has been reared upon a far more unstable basis than her unclaimed and uncollected “fugitive pieces.”

Her first volume, I believe, was published, seven or eight years ago, by Edward Churton, of London, during the residence of the poetess in that city. I have now lying before me a second edition of it, dated 1842 — a beautifully printed book, dedicated to the Reverend Hobart Caunter. It contains a number of what the Bostonians call “juvenile” poems, written when Mrs. O., (then Miss Locke,) could not have been more than thirteen, and evincing unusual precocity. The leading piece is “Elfrida, a Dramatic Poem,” but in many respects well entitled to the appellation, “drama.” I allude chiefly to the passionate expression of particular portions, to delineation of character, and to occasional scenic effect: — in construction, or plot — in general conduct and plausibility, the play fails; comparatively, of course — for the hand of genius is evinced throughout.

The story is the well known one of Edgar, Elfrida, and Earl Athelwood. The king, hearing of Elfrida’s extraordinary beauty, commissions his favorite, Athelwood, to visit her and ascertain if report speaks truly [page 177:] of her charms. The earl, becoming himself enamored, represents the lady as anything but beautiful or agreeable. The king is satisfied. Athelwood soon afterward woos and weds Elfrida — giving Edgar to understand that the heiress’ wealth is the object. The true state of the case, however, is betrayed by an enemy; and the monarch resolves to visit the earl at his castle and to judge for himself. Hearing of this resolve, Athelwood, in despair, confesses to his wife his duplicity, and entreats her to render null as far as possible the effect of her charms by dressing with unusual plainness. This the wife promises to do; but, fired with ambition and resentment at the wrong done her, arrays herself in her most magnificent and becoming costume. The king is charmed, and the result is the destruction of Athelwood and the elevation of Elfrida to the throne.

These incidents are well adapted to dramatic purposes, and with more of that art which Mrs. Osgood does not possess, she might have woven them into a tragedy which the world would not willingly let die. As it is, she has merely succeeded in showing what she might, should and could have done, and yet, unhappily, did not.

The character of Elfrida is the bright point of the play. Her beauty and consciousness of it — her indignation and uncompromising ambition — are depicted with power. There is a fine blending of the poetry of passion and the passion of poetry, in the lines which follow:

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Very similar, but even more glowing, is the love-inspired eloquence of Edgar.

Earth hath no language, love, befitting thee.

For its own children it hath pliant speech;

And mortals know to call a blossom fair,

A wavelet graceful, and a jewel rich;

But thou! — oh, teach me, sweet, the angel tongue

They talked in Heaven ere thou didst leave its bowers

To bloom below!

To this Elfrida replies:

If Athelwood should hear thee!

And to this, Edgar:

Name not the felon knave to me, Elfrida!

My soul is flame whene’er I think of him.

Thou lovest him not? — oh, say thou dost not love him!

The answer of Elfrida at this point is profoundly true to nature, and would alone suffice to assure any critic of Mrs. Osgood’s dramatic talent:

When but a child I saw thee in my dreams!

The woman’s soul here shrinks from the direct avowal of want of love for her husband, and flies to poetry and appeals to fate, by way of excusing that infidelity which is at once her glory and her shame.

In general, the “situations” of “Elfrida” are improbable or ultra-romantic, and its incidents unconsequential, seldom furthering the business of the play. The dénouement is feeble, and its moral of very equivocal tendency indeed — but I have already shown that it is the especial office neither of poetry nor of [page 179:] the drama, to inculcate truth, unless incidentally. Mrs. Osgood, however, although she has unquestionably failed in writing a good play, has, even in failing, given indication of dramatic power. The great tragic element, passion, breathes in every line of her composition, and had she but the art, or the patience, to model or control it, she might be eminently successful as a playwright. I am justified in these opinions not only by “Elfrida,” but by “Woman’s Trust, a Dramatic Sketch,” included, also, in the English edition.

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Here the stranger details some incidents of the first wooing of Madelon by Rupert, and concludes with,

Lady, my task is o’er — dost doubt me still?

 

Mad.    Doubt thee, my Rupert! ah, I know thee now.

Fling by that hateful mask! — let me unclasp it!

No! thou wouldst not betray thy Madelon.

The “Miscellaneous Poems” of the volume — many of them written in childhood — are, of course, various in character and merit. “The Dying Rosebud’s Lament,” although by no means one of the best, will very well serve to show the earlier and most characteristic manner of the poetess:

Ah, me! — ah wo is me

That I should perish now,

With the dear sunlight just let in

Upon my balmy brow. [page 180:]

 

My leaves, instinct with glowing life,

Were quivering to unclose:

My happy heart with love was rife —

I was almost a rose.

 

Nerved by a hope, warm, rich, intense,

Already I had risen

Above my cage’s curving fence —

My green and graceful prison,

 

My pouting lips, by Zephyr pressed,

Were just prepared to part

And whisper to the wooing wind

The rapture of my heart.

Etc., etc., etc.

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The poetical reader will agree with me that few things have ever been written (by any poet, at any age,) more delicately fanciful than the passages italicised — and yet they are the work of a girl not more than fourteen years of age. The clearness and force of expression, and the nice appositeness of the overt and insinuated meaning, are, when we consider the youth of the writer, even more remarkable than the fancy.

I cannot speak of Mrs. Osgood’s poems without a strong propensity to ring the changes upon the indefinite word “grace” and its derivatives. About every thing she writes we perceive this indescribable charm — of which, perhaps, the elements are a vivid fancy and a quick sense of the proportionate. Grace, however, may be most satisfactorily defined as “a term applied, in despair, to that class of the impressions of Beauty which admit of no analysis.” It is in this irresoluble effect that Mrs. Osgood excels any poetess of [page 181:] her country — and it is to this easily appreciable effect that her popularity is owing. Nor is she more graceful herself than a lover of the graceful, under whatever guise it is presented to her consideration. The sentiment renders itself manifest, in innumerable instances, as well throughout her prose as her poetry. Whatever be her theme, she at once extorts from it its whole essentiality of grace. Fanny Ellsler has been often lauded; true poets have sung her praises; but we look in vain for anything written about her, which so distinctly and vividly paints her to the eye as the half dozen quatrains which follow. They are to be found in the English volume:

She comes? — the spirit of the dance!

And but for those large, eloquent eyes,

Where Passion speaks in every glance,

She’d seem a wanderer from the skies.

Etc., etc., etc.

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This is, indeed, poetry — and of the most unquestionable kind — poetry truthful in the proper sense-that is to say, breathing of Nature. There is here nothing forced or artificial — no hardly sustained enthusiasm. The poetess speaks because she feels, and what she feels; but then what she feels is felt only by the truly poetical. The thought in the last line of the quatrain will not be so fully appreciated by the reader as it should be; for latterly it has been imitated, plagiarized, repeated ad infinitum: — but the other passages italicized have still left them all their original effect. The idea in the two last lines is exquisitely näive and natural; that in the two last lines of the second quatrain, beautiful beyond measure; that [page 182:] of the whole fifth quatrain, magnificent — unsurpassed in the entire compass of American poetry. It is instinct with the noblest poetical requisite — imagination. Of the same trait I find, to my surprise, one of the best exemplifications among the “Juvenile Rhymes.”

For Fancy is a fairy that can hear,

Ever, the melody of Nature’s voice

And see all lovely visions that she will.

Etc., etc., etc.

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The little poem called “The Music Box” has been as widely circulated as any of Mrs. Osgood’s compositions — but I will be pardoned for quoting it in farther exemplification of her ruling feature — grace:

Your heart is a music-box, dearest,

With exquisite tunes at command

Of melody sweetest and clearest

If tried by a delicate hand;

But its workmanship, love, is so fine,

At a single rude touch it would break;

Then oh, be the magic key mine

Its fairy-like whispers to wake!

And there’s one little tune it can play

That I fancy all others above —

You learned it of Cupid one day —

It begins with and ends with “I love — ” I love”

The melody and harmony of this jeu d’esprit are perfect, and there is in it a rich tint of that epigrammatism for which the poetess is noted. Some of the intentional epigrams interspersed through the works are [page 183:] peculiarly happy. Here is one which, while replete with the rarest “spirit of point,” is yet something more than pointed.

TO AN ATHEIST POET.

Lovest thou the music of the sea?

Callest thou the sunshine bright?

His voice is more than melody —

His smile is more than light.

Here, again, is something very similar:

Fanny shuts her smiling eyes,

Then, because she cannot see,

Thoughtless simpleton! she cries

 

“Ah! you can’t see me.”

Fanny’s like the sinner vain

Who, with spirit shut and dim,

Thinks, because he sees not Heaven,

Heaven beholds not him.

Is it not a little surprising, however, that a writer capable of so much precision and finish as the author of these epigrams must be, should have failed to see how much of force is lost in the inversion of “the sinner vain?” Why not have written “Fanny’s like the silly sinner?” — or, if “silly” be thought too jocose, “the blinded sinner?” The rhythm, at the same time, would thus be much improved by bringing the lines,

Fanny’s like the silly sinner,

Thinks because he sees not Heaven,

into exact equality. [page 184:]

In mingled epigram and espieglerie Mrs. Osgood is even more especially at home. I have seldom seen anything in this way more happily done than the song entitled “If He Can.”

Let me see him once more

For a moment or two;

Let him tell me himself

Of his purpose, dear, do!

Let him gaze in these eyes

While he lays out his plan

To escape me an then

He may go — if he can.

 

Let me see him once more!

Let me give him one smile!

Let me breathe but one word

Of endearment the while!

I ask but that moment-

My life on the man!

Does he think to forget me?

He may — if he can.

“The Unexpected Declaration” is, perhaps, even a finer specimen of the same manner. It is one of that class of compositions which Mrs. Osgood has made almost exclusively her own. Had I seen it without her name, I should have had no hesitation in ascribing it to her; for there is no other person — in America certainly — who does anything of a similar kind with anything like a similar piquancy:

“Azure-eyed Eloise! beauty is thine;

Passion kneels to thee and calls thee divine;

Minstrels awaken the lute with thy name; [page 185:]

Poets have gladdened the world with thy fame;

Painters half holy thy loved image keep;

Beautiful Eloise, why do you weep?”

 

Still bows the lady her light tresses low,

Fast the warm tears from her veiled eyes flow.

 

“Sunny-haired Eloise, wealth is thine own;

Rich is thy silken robe; bright is thy zone;

Proudly the jewel illumines thy way;

Clear rubies rival thy ruddy lips’ play;

Diamonds like star-drops thy silken l)raids deck

Pearls waste their snow or, thy lovelier neck;

Luxury softens thy pillow for sleep;

Angels watch over it;-why do you weep?”

 

Still bows the lady her light tresses low;

Faster the tears from her veiled eyes flow.

 

“Gifted and worshipped one! genius and grace

Play in each motion and beam in thy face.

When from thy rosy lip rises the song

Hearts that adore thee the echo prolong.

Ne’er in the festival shone an eye brighter —

Ne’er in the mazy dance fell a foot lighter —

One only spirit thou’st failed to bring down —

Exquisite Eloise! why do you frown?”

 

Swift o’er her forehead a dark shadow stole,

Sent from the tempest of pride in her soul.

 

“Touched by thy sweetness, in love with thy grace,

Charmed with the magic of mind in thy fae,

Bewitched by thy beauty, e’en his haughty strength —

The strength of the stoic is conquered at length,

Lo! at thy feet see him kneeling the while —

Eloise! Eloise! why do you smile? [page 186:]

 

The hand was withdrawn from her happy blue eyes;

She gazed on her lover in laughing surprise,

While the dimple and blush, stealing soft to her cheek,

Told the tale that her tongue was too timid to speak.

The point of all this, however, might have been sharpened, and the polish increased in lustre, by the application of the emory of brevity. From what the lover says much might well have been omitted; and I should have preferred leaving out altogether the autorial comments; for the story is fully told without them. The “‘Why do you weep?” “Why do you frown?” and “Why do you smile?” supply all the imagination requires; to supply more than it requires, oppresses and offends it. Nothing more deeply grieves it — or more vexes the true taste in general, than hyperism of any kind. In Germany, Wohlgeborn is a loftier title than Edelgeborn; and in Greece, the thrice-victorious at the Olympic games could claim a statue of the size of life, while he who had conquered but once was entitled only to a colossal one.

The English collection of which I speak was entitled “A Wreath of Wild Flowers from New England.” It met with a really cordial reception in Great Britain — was favorably noticed by the “Literary Gazette,” “Times,” “Atlas,” “Monthly Chronicle;” and especially by the “Court Journal,” “The Court and Ladies’ Magazine,” “La Belle Assemblée,” and other similar works. “We have long been familiar,” says the high authority of the “Literary Gazette,” “with the name of our fair author. . . . . Our expectations have been fulfilled, and we have here a delightful gathering of the sweetest of wild flowers, all looking as fresh and beautiful as if they had grown in the [page 187:] richest of English pasture in place of having been ‘nursed by the cataract.’ True the wreath might have been improved with a little more care — a trifling attention or two paid to the formation of it. A stalk here and there that obtrudes itself between the bells of the flowers, might have become so interwoven as to have been concealed, and the whole have looked as if it had grown in that perfect and beautiful form. Though, after all, we are perhaps too chary; for in Nature every leaf is not ironed out to a form, nor propped up with a wiry precision, but blown and ruffled by the refreshing breezes, and looking as careless and easy and unaffected as a child that bounds along with its silken locks tossed to and fro just as the wind uplifts them. Page after page of this volume have we perused with a feeling of pleasure and admiration.” The “Court Journal” more emphatically says: — ” Her wreath is one of violets, sweet-scented, pure and modest; so lovely that the hand that wove it should not neglect additionally to enrich it by turning her love and kindness to things of larger beauty. Some of the smaller lyrics in the volume are perfectly beautiful — beautiful in their chaste and exquisite simplicity and the perfect elegance of their composition.” In fact, there was that about “The Wreaths of Wild Flowers” — that inexpressible grace of thought and manner — which never fails to find ready echo in the hearts of the aristocracy and refinement of Great Britain; — and it was here especially that Mrs. Osgood found welcome. Her husband’s merits as an artist had already introduced her into distinguished society, (she was petted, in especial, by Mrs. Norton and Rogers,) but the publication of her poems had at once an evidently favorable effect upon his fortunes. His [page 188:] pictures were placed in a most advantageous light by her poetical and conversational ability.

Messrs. Clarke and Austin, of New York, have lately issued another, but still a very incomplete collection of “Poems by Frances S. Osgood.” In general, it includes by no means the best of her works. “The Daughter of Herodias” — one of her longest compositions, and a very noble poem, putting me in mind of the best efforts of Mrs. Hemans — is omitted: — it is included, however, in the last edition of Doctor Griswold’s “Poets and Poetry of America.” In Messrs. C. and A.’s collection there occur, too, very many of those half sentimental, half allegorical compositions of which, at one period, the authoress seemed to be particularly fond — for the reason, perhaps, that they afforded her good opportunity for the exercise of her ingenuity and epigrammatic talent: — no poet, however, can admit them to be poetry at all. Still, the volume contains some pieces which enable us to take a new view of the powers of the writer. A few additional years, with their inevitable sorrow, appear to have stirred the depths of her heart. We see less of frivolity-less of vivacity — more of tenderness — earnestness — even passion — and far more of the true imagination as distinguished from its subordinate, fancy. The one prevalent trait, grace, alone distinctly remains. “The Spirit of Poetry,” “To Sybil,” “The Birth of the Callitriche,” and “The Child and its Angel-Playmate” would do honor to any of our poets. “She Loves Him Yet,” nevertheless, will serve, better than either of these poems, to show the alteration of manner referred to: [page 189:]

She loves him yet!

I know by the blush that rises

Beneath the curls

That shadow her soul-lit cheek.

She loves him yet!

Through all Love’s sweet disguises,

In timid girls,

A blush will be sure to speak.

 

But deeper signs

Than the radiant blush of beauty,

The maiden finds.

Whenever his name is heard

Her young heart thrills,

Forgetting herself — her duty —

Her dark eye fills,

And her pulse with hope is stirred.

 

She loves him yet!

The flower the false one gave her

When last he came

Is still with her wild tears wet.

She’ll ne’er forget

However his faith may waver.

Through grief and shame,

Believe it, she loves him yet!

 

His favorite songs

She will sing; — she heeds no other.

With all her wrongs

Her life on his love is set.

Ah, doubt no more!

She never can wed another.

Till life be o’er

She loves — she will love him yet! [page 190:]

The following stanzas are in a somewhat similar tone, but are more noticeable for their terse energy of expression:

Yes! lower to the level

Of those who laud thee now!

Go, join the joyous revel

And pledge the heartless vow!

Go, dim the soul-horn beauty

That lights that lofty brow!

Fill, fill the bowl! — let burning wine

Drown in thy soul Love’s dream divine!

 

Yet, when the laugh is lightest —

When wildest flies the jest —

When gleams the goblet brightest,

   And proudest heaves thy breast,

And thou art madly pledging

Each gay and jovial guest —

A ghost shall glide amid the flowers —

The shade of Love’s departed hours.

 

And thou shalt shrink in sadness

From all the splendor there,

And curse the revel’s gladness,

And hate the banquet’s glare,

And pine ‘mid passion’s madness,

For true love’s purer air,

And feel thou’dst give their wildest glee

For one unsullied sigh from me.

 

Yet deem not this my prayer, love!

Ah, no! if I could keep

Thy altered heart from care, love,

And charm its grief to sleep, [page 191:]

Mine only should despair, love,

I — I alone would weep —

I — I alone would mourn the flowers

That bloom in Love’s deserted bowers.

In not presenting to the public at one view all that she has written in verse, Mrs. Osgood has incurred the risk of losing that credit to which she is entitled on the score of versatility — of variety in invention and expression. There is scarcely a form of poetical composition in which she has not made experiment; and there is none in which she has not very happily succeeded. Her defects are chiefly negative and by no means numerous. Her versification is sometimes exceedingly good, but more frequently feeble through the use of harsh consonants, and such words as “thou’dst” for “thou wouldst,” with other unnecessary contractions, inversions, and obsolete expressions. Her imagery is often mixed; — indeed it is rarely otherwise. The epigrammatism of her conclusions gives to her poems, as wholes, the air of being more skilfully constructed than they really are. On the other hand, we look in vain throughout her works for an offence against the finer taste, or against decorum — for a low thought or a platitude. A happy refinement — an instinct of the pure and delicate — is one of her most noticeable excellences. She may be properly commended, too, for originality of poetic invention, whether in the conception of a theme or in the manner of treating it. Consequences of this trait, are her point and piquancy. Fancy and näiveté appear in all she writes. Regarding the loftier merits, I am forced to speak of her in more measured terms. She has occasional passages of true imagination — but [page 192:] scarcely the glowing, vigorous, and sustained ideality of Mrs. Maria Brooks — or even, in general, the less ethereal elevation of Mrs. Welby. In that indescribable something, however, which, for want of a more definite term, we are accustomed to call “grace” — that charm so magical, because at once so shadowy and so potent — that Will o’ the Wisp which, in its supreme development, may be said to involve nearly all that is valuable in poetry — she has, unquestionably, no rival among her country-women.

Of pure prose — of prose proper — she has, perhaps, never written a line in her life. Her usual Magazine papers are a class by themselves. She begins with a resolute effort at being sedate — that is to say, sufficiently prosaic and matter-of-fact for the purpose of a legend or an essay; but, after a few sentences, we behold uprising the leaven of the Muse; then, with a flourish and some vain attempts at repression, a scrap of verse renders itself manifest; then comes a little poem outright; then another and another and another, with impertinent patches of prose in between — until at length the mask is thrown fairly off and far away, and the whole article — sings.

Upon the whole, I have spoken of Mrs. Osgood so much in detail, less on account of what she has actually done than on account of what I perceive in her the ability to do.

In character, she is ardent and sensitive; a worshipper of beauty; universally admired, respected, and beloved. In person, she is about the medium height and slender; complexion usually pale; hair black and glossy; eyes a clear, luminous grey, large, and with great capacity for expression. In no respect can she be called “beautiful;” but the question “is it possible [page 193:] she is not so?” is very frequently asked, and by none more frequently than by those who most intimately know her.

 

Note. — Some passages of the above article have appeared in some of our Magazines — in “Marginalia,” etc. [POES NOTE.]

 


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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 Frances Sargent Osgood)