Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “The Literati of New York City - Part III,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XV: Literati and Autography (1902), pp. 49-72


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[page 49, continued:]

[[THE LITERATI OF NEW YORK CITY.]]

III.

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

FITZ-GREENE HALLECK.

THE name of HALLECK is at least as well established in the poetical world as that of any American. Our principal poets are, perhaps, most frequently named in this order — Bryant, Halleck, Dana, Sprague, Longfellow, Willis, and so on — Halleck coming second in the series, but holding, in fact, a rank in the public opinion quite equal to that of Bryant. The accuracy of the arrangement as above made may, indeed, be [page 50:] questioned. For my own part, I should have it thus — Longfellow, Bryant, Halleck, Willis, Sprague, Dana; and, estimating rather the poetic capacity than the poems actually accomplished, there are three or four comparatively unknown writers whom I would place in the series between Bryant and Halleck, while there are about a dozen whom I should assign a position between Willis and Sprague. Two dozen at least might find room between Sprague and Dana — this latter, I fear, owing a very large portion of his reputation to his quondam editorial connection with “The North American Review.” One or two poets now in my minds [[mind’s]] eye I should have no hesitation in posting above even Mr. Longfellow — still not intending this as very extravagant praise.

It is noticeable, however, that, in the arrangement which I attribute to the popular understanding, the order observed is nearly, if not exactly, that of the ages — the poetic ages — of the individual poets. Those rank first who were first known. The priority has established the strength of impression. Nor is this result to be accounted for by mere reference to the old saw — that first impressions are the strongest. Gratitude, surprise, and a species of hyper-patriotic triumph have been blended, and finally confounded with admiration or appreciation in regard to the pioneers of American literature, among whom there is not one whose productions have not been grossly overrated by his countrymen. Hitherto we have been in no mood to view with calmness and discuss with discrimination the real claims of the few who were first in convincing the mother country that her sons were not all brainless, as at one period she half affected and wholly wished to believe. Is there any one so [page 51:] blind as not to see that Mr. Cooper, for example, owes much, and Mr. Paulding nearly all, of his reputation as a novelist to his early occupation of the field? Is there any one so dull as not to know that fictions which neither of these gentlemen could have written are written daily by native authors, without attracting much more of commendation than can be included in a newspaper paragraph? And, again, is there any one so prejudiced as not to acknowledge that all this happens because there is no longer either reason or wit in the query, “Who reads an American book?”

I mean to say, of course, that Mr. Halleck, in the apparent public estimate, maintains a somewhat better position than that to which, on absolute grounds, he is entitled. There is something, too, in the bonhommie of certain of his compositions — something altogether distinct from poetic merit — which has aided to establish him; and much, also, must be admitted on the score of his personal popularity, which is deservedly great. With all these allowances, however, there will still be found a large amount of poetical fame to which he is fairly entitled.

He has written very little, although he began at an early age — when quite a boy, indeed. His “juvenile” works, however, have been kept very judiciously from the public eye. Attention was first called to him by his satires, signed “Croaker” and “Croaker & Co.,” published in “The New York Evening Post,” in 1819. Of these the pieces with the signature “Croaker & Co. “ were the joint work of Halleck and his friend Drake. The political and personal features of these jeux d’esprit gave them a consequence and a notoriety to which they are entitled on no other account. They are not without a species [page 52:] of drollery, but are loosely and no doubt carelessly written.

Neither was “Fanny,” which closely followed the “Croakers,” constructed with any great deliberation. “It was printed,” say the ordinary memoirs, “within three weeks from its commencement;” but the truth is, that a couple of days would have been an ample allowance of time for any such composition. If we except a certain gentlemanly ease and insouciance, with some fancy of illustration, there is really very little about this poem to be admired. There has been no positive avowal of its authorship, although there can be no doubt of its having been written by Halleck. He, I presume, does not esteem it very highly. It is a mere extravaganza, in close imitation of “Don Juan” — a vehicle for squibs at cotemporary persons and things.

Our poet, indeed, seems to have been much impressed by “Don Juan,” and attempts to engraft its farcicalities even upon the grace and delicacy of “Alnwick Castle; “ as, for example, in —

“Men in the coal and cattle line,

From Teviot’s bard and hero land,

From royal Berwick’s beach of sand,

From Wooler, Morpeth, Hexham, and

Newcastle upon Tyne.”

These things may lay claim to oddity, but no more. They are totally out of keeping with the tone of the sweet poem into which they are thus clumsily introduced, and serve no other purpose than to deprive it of all unity of effect. If a poet must be farcical, let him be just that; he can be nothing better at the same moment. To be drolly sentimental, or even sentimentally [page 54:] droll, is intolerable to men and gods and columns.

“Alnwick Castle” is distinguished, in general, by that air of quiet grace, both in thought and expression, which is the prevailing feature of the muse of Halleck. Its second stanza is a good specimen of this manner. The commencement of the fourth belongs to a very high order of poetry.

“Wild roses by the Abbey towers

Are gay in their young bud and bloom —

They were born of a race of funeral flowers

That garlanded, in long-gone hours,

A Templar’s knightly tomb.”

This is gloriously imaginative, and the effect is singularly increased by the sudden transition from iambuses to anapæsts. The passage is, I think, the noblest to be found in Halleck, and I would be at a loss to discover its parallel in all American poetry.

“Marco Bozzaris” has much lyrical, without any great amount of ideal beauty. Force is its prevailing feature — force resulting rather from well-ordered metre, vigorous rhythm, and a judicious disposal of the circumstances of the poem, than from any of the truer lyric material. I should do my conscience great wrong were I to speak of “Marco Bozzaris” as it is the fashion to speak of it, at least in print. Even as a lyric or ode it is surpassed by many American and a multitude of foreign compositions of a similar character.

“Burns” has numerous passages exemplifying its author’s felicity of expression; as, for instance —

“Such graves as his are pilgrim shrines —

Shrines to no code or creed confined —

The Delphian vales, the Palestines,

The Meccas of the mind.” [page 54:]

And, again —

“There have been loftier themes than his,

And longer scrolls and louder lyres,

And lays lit up with Poesy’s

Purer and holier fires.”

But to the sentiment involved in this last quatrain I feel disposed to yield an assent more thorough than might be expected. Burns, indeed, was the puppet of circumstance. As a poet, no person on the face of the earth has been more extravagantly, more absurdly overrated.

“The Poet’s Daughter” is one of the most characteristic works of Halleck, abounding in his most distinctive traits, grace, expression, repose, insouciance. The vulgarity of

“I’m busy in the cotton trade

And sugar line,”

has, I rejoice to see, been omitted in the late editions. The eleventh stanza is certainly not English as it stands, and, besides, is quite unintelligible. What is the meaning of this —

“But her who asks, though first among

The good, the beautiful, the young,

The birthright of a spell more strong

Than these have brought her.”

The “Lines on the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake” is, as a whole, one of the best poems of its author. Its simplicity and delicacy of sentiment will recommend it to all readers. It is, however, carelessly written, and the first quatrain,

“Green be the turf above thee,

Friend of my better days —

None knew thee but to love thee,

Nor named thee but to praise,” [page 55:]

although beautiful, bears too close a resemblance to the still more beautiful lines of Wordsworth —

“She dwelt among the untrodden ways

Beside the spring of Dove,

A maid whom there were none to praise

And very few to love.”

In versification Mr. Halleck is much as usual, although in this regard Mr. Bryant has paid him numerous compliments. “Marco Bozzaris” has certainly some vigor of rhythm, but its author, in short, writes carelessly, loosely, and, as a matter of course, seldom effectively, so far as the outworks of literature are concerned.

Of late days he has nearly given up the muses, and we recognize his existence as a poet chiefly by occasional translations from the Spanish or German.

Personally, he is a man to be admired, respected, but more especially beloved. His address has all the captivating bonhommie which is the leading feature of his poetry, and, indeed, of his whole moral nature. With his friends he is all ardor, enthusiasm and cordiality, but to the world at large he is reserved, shunning society, into which he is seduced only with difficulty and upon rare occasions. The love of solitude seems to have become with him a passion.

He is a good modern linguist, and an excellent belles lettres scholar; in general, has read a great deal, although very discursively. He is what the world calls ultra in most of his opinions, more particularly about literature and politics, and is fond of broaching and supporting paradoxes. He converses fluently, with animation and zeal; is choice and accurate in his language, exceedingly quick at repartee and apt at anecdote. His manners are courteous, with dignity [page 56:] and a little tincture of Gallicism. His age is about fifty. In height he is probably five feet seven. He has been stout, but may now be called well-proportioned. His forehead is a noble one, broad, massive and intellectual, a little bald about the temples; eyes dark and brilliant, but not large; nose Grecian; chin prominent; mouth finely chiselled and full of expression, although the lips are thin; — his smile is peculiarly sweet.

In “Graham’s Magazine” for September, 1843, there appeared an engraving of Mr. Halleck from a painting by Inman. The likeness conveys a good general idea of the man, but is far too stout and youthful-looking for his appearance at present.

His usual pursuits have been commercial, but he is now the principal superintendent of the business of Mr. John Jacob Astor. He is unmarried.

——

ANN S. STEPHENS.

MRS. STEPHENS has made no collection of her works, but has written much for the magazines, and well. Her compositions have been brief tales with occasional poems. She made her first “sensation” in obtaining a premium of four hundred dollars, offered for “the best prose story” by some one of our journals, her “Mary Derwent” proving the successful article. The amount of the prize, however — a much larger one than it has been the custom to offer — had more to do with the éclât of the success than had the positive merit of the tale, although this is very considerable. [page 57:] She has subsequently written several better things — “Malina Gray,” for example, “Alice Copley,” and “The Two Dukes.” These are on serious subjects. In comic ones she has comparatively failed. She is fond of the bold, striking, trenchant — in a word, of the melo-dramatic; has a quick appreciation of the picturesque, and is not unskillful in delineations of character. She seizes adroitly on salient incidents and presents them with vividness to the eye, but in their combinations or adaptations she is by no means so thoroughly at home — that is to say, her plots are not so good as are their individual items. Her style is what the critics usually term “powerful,” but lacks real power through its verboseness and floridity. It is, in fact, generally turgid — even bombastic — involved, needlessly parenthetical, and superabundant in epithets, although these latter are frequently well chosen. Her sentences are, also, for the most part too long; we forget their commencements ere we get at their terminations. Her faults, nevertheless, both in matter and manner, belong to the effervescence of high talent, if not exactly of genius.

Of Mrs. Stephens’ poetry I have seen so very little that I feel myself scarcely in condition to speak of it.

She began her literary life, I believe, by editing “The Portland Magazine,” and has since been announced as editress of “The Ladies’ Companion,” a monthly journal published some years ago in New York, and also, at a later period, of “Graham’s Magazine,” and subsequently, again, of “Peterson’s National Magazine.” These announcements were announcements and no more; the lady had nothing to do with the editorial control of either of the three last-named works. [page 58:]

The portrait of Mrs. Stephens which appeared in “Graham’s Magazine” for November, 1844, cannot fairly be considered a likeness at all. She is tall and slightly inclined to embonpoint — an English figure. Her forehead is somewhat low, but broad; the features generally massive, but full of life and intellectuality. The eyes are blue and brilliant; the hair blonde and very luxuriant.

——

EVERT A. DUYCKINCK.

MR. DUYCKINCK is one of the most influential of the New York littérateurs, and has done a great deal for the interests of American letters. Not the least important service rendered by him was the projection and editorship of Wiley and Putnam’s “Library of Choice Reading,” a series which brought to public notice many valuable foreign works which had been suffering under neglect in this country, and at the same time afforded unwonted encouragement to native authors by publishing their books, in good style and in good company, without trouble or risk to the authors themselves, and in the very teeth of the disadvantages arising from the want of an international copyright law. At one period it seemed that this happy scheme was to be overwhelmed by the competition of rival publishers — taken, in fact, quite out of the hands of those who, by “right of discovery,” were entitled at least to its first fruits. A great variety of “Libraries” in imitation were set on foot, but whatever may have been the temporary success of any of these latter, the [page 59:] original one had already too well established itself in the public favor to be overthrown, and thus has not been prevented from proving of great benefit to our literature at large.

Mr. Duyckinck has slyly acquired much fame and numerous admirers under the nom de plume of “Felix Merry.” The various essays thus signed have attracted attention everywhere from the judicious. The style is remarkable for its very unusual blending of purity and ease with a seemingly inconsistent originality, force and independence.

“Felix Merry,” in connection with Mr. Cornelius Mathews, was one of the editors and originators of “Arcturus,” decidedly the very best magazine in many respects ever published in the United States. A large number of its most interesting papers were the work of Mr. D. The magazine was, upon the whole, a little too good to enjoy extensive popularity — although I am here using an equivocal phrase, for a better journal might have been far more acceptable to the public. I must be understood, then, as employing the epithet “good” in the sense of the literary quietists. The general taste of “Arcturus” was, I think, excessively tasteful; but this character applies rather more to its external or mechanical appearance than to its essential qualities. Unhappily, magazines and other similar publications are in the beginning judged chiefly by externals. People saw “Arcturus” looking very much like other works which had failed through notorious dullness, although admitted as arbitri elegantiarum in all points of what is termed taste or decorum; and they, the people, had no patience to examine any farther. Cæsar’s wife was required not only to be virtuous but to seem so, and in letters it is demanded [page 60:] not only that we be not stupid but that we do not array ourselves in the habiliments of stupidity.

It cannot be said of “Arcturus” exactly that it wanted force. It was deficient in power of impression, and this deficiency is to be attributed mainly to the exceeding brevity of its articles — a brevity that degenerated into mere paragraphism, precluding dissertation or argument, and thus all permanent effect. The magazine, in fact, had some of the worst or most inconvenient features without any of the compensating advantages of a weekly literary newspaper. The mannerism to which I refer seemed to have its source in undue admiration and consequent imitation of “The Spectator.”

In addition to his more obvious literary engagements, Mr. Duyckinck writes a great deal, editorially and otherwise, for “The Democratic Review,” “The Morning News,” and other periodicals.

In character he is remarkable, distinguished for the bonhommie of his manner, his simplicity, and single-mindedness, his active beneficence, his hatred of wrong done even to any enemy, and especially for an almost Quixotic fidelity to his friends. He seems in perpetual good humor with all things, and I have no doubt that in his secret heart he is an optimist.

In person he is equally simple as in character — the one is a pendant of the other. He is about five feet eight inches high, somewhat slender. The forehead, phrenologically, is a good one; eyes and hair light; the whole expression of the face that of serenity and benevolence, contributing to give an idea of youthfulness. He is probably thirty, but does not seem to be twenty-five. His dress, also, is in full keeping with his character, scrupulously neat but plain, and [page 61:] conveying an instantaneous conviction of the gentleman. He is a descendant of one of the oldest and best Dutch families in the state. Married.

——

MARY GOVE.

MRS. MARY GOVE, under the pseudonym of “Mary Orme,” has written many excellent papers for the magazines. Her subjects are usually tinctured with the mysticism of the transcendentalists, but are truly imaginative. Her style is quite remarkable for its luminousness and precision — two qualities very rare with her sex. An article entitled “The Gift of Prophecy,” published originally in “The Broadway Journal,” is a fine specimen of her manner.

Mrs. Gove, however, has acquired less notoriety by her literary compositions than by her lectures on physiology to classes of females. These lectures are said to have been instructive and useful; they certainly elicited much attention. Mrs. G. has also given public discourses on Mesmerism, I believe, and other similar themes — matters which put to the severest test the credulity or, more properly, the faith of mankind. She is, I think, a Mesmerist, a Swedenborgian, a phrenologist, a homœopathist, and a disciple of Priessnitz — what more I am not prepared to say.

She is rather below the medium height, somewhat thin, with dark hair and keen, intelligent black eyes. She converses well and with enthusiasm. In many respects a very interesting woman. [page 62:]

——

JAMES ALDRICH.

MR. ALDRICH has written much for the magazines, etc., and at one time assisted Mr. Park Benjamin in the conduct of “The New World.” He also originated, I believe, and edited a not very long-lived or successful weekly paper, called “The Literary Gazette,” an imitation in its external appearance of the London journal of the same name. I am not aware that he has made any collection of his writings. His poems abound in the true poetic spirit, but they are frequently chargeable with plagiarism, or something much like it. True, I have seen but three of Mr. Aldrich’s compositions in verse — the three (or perhaps there are four of them) included by Doctor Griswold in his “Poets and Poetry of America.” Of these three, (or four,) however, there are two which I cannot help regarding as palpable plagiarisms. Of one of them, in especial, “A Death-Bed,” it is impossible to say a plausible word in defence. Both in matter and manner it is nearly identical with a little piece entitled “The Death-Bed,” by Thomas Hood.

The charge of plagiarism, nevertheless, is a purely literary one; and a plagiarism even distinctly proved by no means necessarily involves any moral delinquency. This proposition applies very especially to what appear to be poetical thefts. The poetic sentiment presupposes a keen appreciation of the beautiful with a longing for its assimilation into the poetic identity. What the poet intensely admires becomes, thus, in very fact, although only partially, a portion of his own soul. Within this soul it has a secondary origination; and the poet, thus possessed by another’s thought, [page 63:] cannot be said to take of it possession. But in either view he thoroughly feels it as his own; and the tendency to this feeling is counteracted only by the sensible presence of the true, palpable origin of the thought in the volume whence he has derived it — an origin which, in the long lapse of years, it is impossible not to forget, should the thought itself, as it often is, be forgotten. But the frailest association will regenerate it; it springs up with all the vigor of a new birth; its absolute originality is not with the poet a matter even of suspicion; and when he has written it and printed it, and on its account is charged with plagiarism, there will be no one more entirely astounded than himself. Now, from what I have said, it appears that the liability to accidents of this character is in the direct ratio of the poetic sentiment, of the susceptibility to the poetic impression; and, in fact, all literary history demonstrates that, for the most frequent and palpable plagiarisms we must search the works of the most eminent poets.

Since penning the above I have found five quatrains by Mr. Aldrich, with the heading “Molly Gray.” These verses are in the fullest exemplification of what I have just said of their author, evincing at once, in the most remarkable manner, both his merit as an imaginative poet and his unconquerable proneness to imitation. I quote the two concluding quatrains.

“Pretty, fairy Molly Gray!

What may thy fit emblems be?

Stream or star or bird or flower —

They are all too poor for thee.

 

“No type to match thy beauty

My wandering fancy brings —

Not fairer than its chrysalis

Thy soul with its golden wings![page 64:]

Here the “Pretty, fairy Molly Gray!” will put every reader in mind of Tennyson’s “Airy, fairy Lillian!” by which Mr. Aldrich’s whole poem has been clearly suggested; but the thought in the finale is, as far as I know anything about it, original, and is not more happy than happily expressed.

Mr. Aldrich is about thirty-six years of age. In regard to his person there is nothing to be especially noted.

——

THOMAS DUNN ENGLISH.(1)

I have seen one or two brief poems of considerable merit with the signature of THOMAS DUNN ENGLISH appended. For example —

“AZTHENE.

“A sound melodious shook the breeze

When thy beloved name was heard:

Such was the music in the word

Its dainty rhythm the pulses stirred.

But passed forever joys like these.

There is no joy, no light, no day;

But black despair and night alway,

And thickening gloom:

And this, Azthene, is my doom.

 

“Was it for this, for weary years,

I strove among the sons of men,

And by the magic of my pen —

Just sorcery — walked the lion’s den

Of slander void of tears and fears —

And all for thee? For thee! — alas,

As is the image on a glass

So baseless seems,

Azthene, all my earthly dreams.” [page 65:]

I must confess, however, that I do not appreciate the “dainty rhythm” of such a word as “Azthene,” and, perhaps, there is a little taint of egotism in the passage about “the magic” of Mr. English’s pen. Let us be charitable, however, and set all this down under the head of “pure imagination” or invention — one of the first of poetical requisites. The inexcusable sin of Mr. E. is imitation — if this be not too mild a term. Barry Cornwall and others of the bizarre school are his especial favorites. He has taken, too, most unwarrantable liberties, in the way of downright plagiarism, from a Philadelphian poet whose high merits have not been properly appreciated — Mr. Henry B. Hirst.

I place Mr. English, however, on my list of New York literati, not on account of his poetry, (which I presume he is not weak enough to estimate very highly,) but on the score of his having edited for several months, “with the aid of numerous collaborators,” a monthly magazine called “The Aristidean.” This work, although professedly a “monthly,” was issued at irregular intervals, and was unfortunate, I fear, in not attaining at any period a very extensive circulation.

I learn that Mr. E. is not without talent; but the fate of “The Aristidean” should indicate to him the necessity of applying himself to study. No spectacle can be more pitiable than that of a man without the commonest school education busying himself in attempts to instruct mankind on topics of polite literature. The absurdity in such cases does not lie merely in the ignorance displayed by the would-be instructor, but in the transparency of the shifts by which he endeavours to keep this ignorance concealed. The editor of “The Aristidean,” for example, was not [page 66:] laughed at so much on account of writing “lay” for “lie,” etc. etc., and coupling nouns in the plural with verbs in the singular — as where he writes, above,

“—— so baseless seems,

Azthene, all my earthly dreams —”

he was not, I say, laughed at so much for his excusable deficiencies in English grammar (although an editor should certainly be able to write his own name) as that, in the hope of disguising such deficiency, he was perpetually lamenting the “typographical blunders” that “in the most unaccountable manner[[”]] would creep into his work. Nobody was so stupid as to suppose for a moment that there existed in New York a single proof-reader — or even a single printer’s devil — who would have permitted such errors to escape. By the excuses offered, therefore, the errors were only the more obviously nailed to the counter as Mr. English’s own.

I make these remarks in no spirit of unkindness. Mr. E. is yet young — certainly not more than thirty-five — and might, with his talents, readily improve himself at points where he is most defective. No one of any generosity would think the worse of him for getting private instruction.

I do not personally know Mr. English. He is, I believe, from Philadelphia, where he was formerly a doctor of medicine, and subsequently took up the profession of law; more latterly he joined the Tyler party and devoted his attention to politics. About his personal appearance there is nothing very observable. I cannot say whether he is married or not. [page 67:]

——

HENRY CARY.

DOCTOR GRISWOLD introduces MR. CARY to the appendix of “The Poet and Poetry,” as Mr. Henry Carey, and gives him credit for an Anacreontic song of much merit entitled, or commencing, “Old Wine to Drink.” This was not written by Mr. C. He has composed little verse, if any, but, under the nom de plume of “John Waters,” has acquired some note by a series of prose essays in “The New York American” and “The Knickerbocker.” These essays have merit, unquestionably, but some person, in an article furnished “The Broadway Journal,” before my assumption of its editorship, has gone to the extreme of toadyism in their praise. This critic (possibly Mr. Briggs) thinks that John Waters “is in some sort a Sam Rogers” — “resembles Lamb in fastidiousness of taste” — “has a finer artistic taste than the author of the “Sketch Book’ “ — that his “sentences are the most perfect in the language — too perfect to be peculiar” — that “it would be a vain task to hunt through them all for a superfluous conjunction,” and that “we need them (the works of John Waters!) as models of style in these days of rhodomontades and Macaulayisms!”

The truth seems to be that Mr. Cary is a vivacious, fanciful, entertaining essayist — a fifth or sixth rate one — with a style that, as times go — in view of such stylists as Mr. Briggs, for example — may be termed respectable, and no more. What the critic of the B. J. wishes us to understand by a style that is “too perfect,” “the most perfect,” etc., it is scarcely worth while to inquire, since it is generally supposed that “perfect” admits of no degrees of comparison; [page 68:] but if Mr. Briggs (or whoever it is) finds it “a vain task to hunt” through all Mr. John Waters’ works “for a superfluous conjunction,” there are few schoolboys who would not prove more successful hunters than Mr. Briggs.

“It was well filled,” says the essayist, on the very page containing these encomiums, “and yet the number of performers,” etc. “We paid our visit to the incomparable ruins of the castle, and then proceeded to retrace our steps, and, examining our wheels at every post-house, reached,” etc. “After consultation with a mechanic at Heidelberg, and finding that,” etc. The last sentence should read, “Finding, after consultation,” etc. — the “and” would thus be avoided. Those in the two sentences first quoted are obviously pleonastic. Mr. Cary, in fact, abounds very especially in superfluities — (as here, for example, “He seated himself at a piano that was near the front of the stage”) — and, to speak the truth, is continually guilty of all kinds of grammatical improprieties. I repeat that, in this respect, he is decent, and no more.

Mr. Cary is what Doctor Griswold calls a “gentleman of elegant leisure.” He is wealthy and much addicted to letters and virtû. For a long time he was President of the Phœnix Bank of New York, and the principal part of his life has been devoted to business. There is nothing remarkable about his personal appearance. [page 69:]

——

CHRISTOPHER PEASE CRANCH.

THE REVEREND C. P. CRANCH is one of the least intolerable of the school of Boston transcendentalists — and, in fact, I believe that he has at last “come out from among them,” abandoned their doctrines (whatever they are) and given up their company in disgust. He was at one time one of the most noted, and undoubtedly one of the least absurd contributors to “The Dial,” but has reformed his habits of thought and speech, domiciliated himself in New York, and set up the easel of an artist in one of the Gothic chambers of the University.

About two years ago a volume of “Poems by Christopher Pease Cranch” was published by Carey & Hart. It was most unmercifully treated by the critics, and much injustice, in my opinion, was done to the poet. He seems to me to possess unusual vivacity of fancy and dexterity of expression, while his versification is remarkable for its accuracy, vigor, and even for its originality of effect. I might say, perhaps, rather more than all this, and maintain that he has imagination if he would only condescend to employ it, which he will not, or would not until lately — the word-compounders and quibble concoctors of Frogpondium [[Boston]] having inoculated him with preference for Imagination’s half sister, the Cinderella, Fancy. Mr. Cranch has seldom contented himself with harmonious combinations of thought. There must always be, to afford him perfect satisfaction, a certain amount of the odd, of the whimsical, of the affected, of the bizarre. He is as full of absurd conceits as Cowley or Donne, with this difference, that the conceits of these [page 70:] latter are Euphuisms beyond redemption — flat, irremediable, self-contented nonsensicalities, and in so much are good of their kind; but the conceits of Mr. Cranch are, for the most part, conceits intentionally manufactured, for conceit’s sake, out of the material for properly imaginative, harmonious, proportionate, or poetical ideas. We see every moment that he has been at uncommon pains to make a fool of himself.

But perhaps I am wrong in supposing that I am at all in condition to decide on the merits of Mr. C.’s poetry, which is professedly addressed to the few. “Him we will seek,” says the poet —

“Him we will seek, and none but him,

Whose inward sense hath not grown dim;

Whose soul is steeped in Nature’s tinct,

And to the Universal linked;

Who loves the beauteous Infinite

With deep and ever new delight,

And carrieth where’er he goes

The inborn sweetness of the rose,

The perfume as of Paradise —

The talisman above all price —

The optic glass that wins from far

The meaning of the utmost star —

The key that opes the golden doors

Where earth and heaven have piled their stores —

The magic ring, the enchanter’s wand —

The title-deed to Wonder-Land —

The wisdom that o’erlooketh sense,

The clairvoyance of Innocence.”

This is all very well, fanciful, pretty and neatly turned — all with the exception of the two last lines, and it is a pity they were not left out. It is laughable to see that the transcendental poets, if beguiled for a minute or two into respectable English and common [page 71:] sense, are always sure to remember their cue just as they get to the end of their song, which, by way of salvo, they then round off with a bit of doggerel about “wisdom that o’erlooketh sense” and “the clairvoyance of Innocence.” It is especially observable that, in adopting the cant of thought, the cant of phraseology is adopted at the same instant. Can Mr. Cranch, or can anybody else, inform me why it is that, in the really sensible opening passages of what I have here quoted, he employs the modern, and only in the final couplet of goosetherumfoodle makes use of the obsolete terminations of verbs in the third person singular, present tense?

One of the best of Mr. Cranch’s compositions is undoubtedly his poem on Niagara. It has some natural thoughts, and grand ones, suiting the subject; but then they are more than half-divested of their nature by the attempt at adorning them with oddity of expression. Quaintness is an admissible and important adjunct to ideality — an adjunct whose value has been long misapprehended — but in picturing the sublime it is altogether out of place. What idea of power, of grandeur, for example, can any human being connect even with Niagara, when Niagara is described in language so trippingly fantastical, so palpably adapted to a purpose, as that which follows?

“I stood upon a speck of ground;

Before me fell a stormy ocean.

I was like a captive bound;

And around

A universe of sound

Troubled the heavens with ever-quivering motion.

 

“Down, down forever — down, down forever —

Something falling, falling, falling; [page 72:]

Up, up forever — up, up, forever,

Resting never,

Boiling up forever,

Steam-clouds shot up with thunder-bursts appalling.”

It is difficult to conceive anything more ludicrously out of keeping than the thoughts of these stanzas and the petit-maître, fidgety, hop-skip-and-jump air of the words and the Liliputian parts of the versification.

A somewhat similar metre is adopted by Mr. C. in his “Lines on Hearing Triumphant Music,” but as the subject is essentially different, so the effect is by no means so displeasing. I copy one of the stanzas as the noblest individual passage which I can find among all the poems of its author.

“That glorious strain!

Oh, from my brain

I see the shadows flitting like scared ghosts.

A 1ight — a light

Shines in to-night

Round the good angels trooping to their posts,

And the black cloud is rent in twain

Before the ascending strain.”

Mr. Cranch is well educated, and quite accomplished. Like Mr. Osborn, he is musician, painter and poet, being in each capacity very respectably successful.

He is about thirty-three or four years of age; in height, perhaps five feet eleven; athletic; front face not unhandsome — the forehead evincing intellect, and the smile pleasant; but the profile is marred by the turning up of the nose, and, altogether is hard and disagreeable. His eyes and hair are dark brown — the latter worn short, slightly inclined to curl. Thick whiskers meeting under the chin, and much out of keeping with the shirt-collar à la Byron. Dresses with marked plainness. He is married.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 64:]

1.  See Vol. XVII. for English’s reply. [[See Appendix for Griswold text.]]


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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) (The Literati of New York City - Part III)