Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Review of Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, The Drama of Exile and Other Poems [Part 01] (Text-02), Broadway Journal, Vol. I, no. 1, January 4, 1845, 1:4-8


[page 4, column 2:]

THE DRAMA OF EXILE, AND OTHER POEMS. By Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Author of “The Seraphim,” and other Poems. New York: Henry G. Langley.

“A well-bred man,” says Sir James Puckle, in his “Gray Cap for a Green Head,” “will never give himself the liberty to speak ill of women.” We emphasize the “man.” Setting aside, for the present, certain rare commentators and compilers of the species G—, — creatures neither precisely men, women, nor Mary Wollstonecraft's — setting these aside as unclassifiable, we may observe that the race of critics are masculine — men. With the exception, perhaps, of Mrs. Anne Royal, we can call to mind no female who has occupied, even temporarily, the Zoilus throne. And this, the Salic law, is an evil; for the inherent chivalry of the critical man renders it not only an unpleasant task to him “to speak ill of a woman,” (and a woman and her [page 5:] book are identical,) but an almost impossible task not to laud her ad nauseam. In general, therefore, it is the unhappy lot of the authoress to be subjected, time after time, to the downright degradation of mere puffery. On her own side of the Atlantic, Miss Barrett has indeed, in one instance at least, escaped the infliction of this lamentable contumely and wrong; but if she had been really solicitous of its infliction in America, she could not have adopted a more effectual plan than that of saying a few words about “the great American people,” in an American edition of her work, published under the superintendence of an American author.* Of the innumerable “native” notices of “The Drama of Exile,” which have come under our observation, we can call to mind not one in which there is any thing more remarkable than the critic's dogged determination to find nothing barren, from Beersheba to Dan. Another in the “Democratic Review” has proceeded so far, it is true, as to venture a very delicate insinuation to the effect that the poetess “will not fail to speak her mind though it bring upon her a bad rhyme;” beyond this, nobody has proceeded: and as for the elaborate paper in the new Whig Monthly, all that any body can say or think, and all that Miss Barrett can feel respecting it is, that it is an eulogy as well written as it is an insult well intended. Now of all the friends of the fair author, we doubt whether one exists, with more profound — with more enthusiastic reverence and admiration of her genius, than the writer of these words. And it is for this very reason, beyond all others, that he intends to speak of her the truth. Our chief regret is, nevertheless, that the limits of this “Journal” will preclude the possibility of our speaking this truth so fully, and so much in detail, as we could wish. By far the most valuable criticism that we, or that any one could give, of the volumes now lying before us, would be the quotation of three fourths of their contents. But we have this advantage — that the work has been long published, and almost universally read — and thus, in some measure, we may proceed, concisely, as if the text of our context, were an understood thing.

In her preface to this, the “American edition” of her late poems, Miss Barrett, speaking of the Drama of Exile, says: — “I decided on publishing it, after considerable hesitation and doubt. Its subject rather fastened on me than was chosen; and the form, approaching the model of the Greek tragedy, shaped itself under my hand rather by force of pleasure than of design. But when the compositional excitement had subsided, I felt afraid of my position. My own object was the new and strange experiment of the fallen Humanity, as it went forth from Paradise into the Wilderness, with a peculiar reference to Eve's allotted grief, which, considering that self-sacrifice belonged to her womanhood, and the consciousness of being the organ of the Fall to her offence, appeared to me imperfectly apprehended hitherto, and more expressible by a woman than by a man.” In this abstract announcement of the theme, it is difficult to understand the ground of the poet's hesitation to publish; for the theme in itself seems admirably adapted to the purposes [column 2:] of the closet dram. The poet, nevertheless very properly, conscious of failure — a failure which occurs not in the general, but in the particular conception, and which must be placed to the account of “the model of the Greek tragedies.” The Greek tragedies had and even have high merits; but we act wisely in now substituting for the external and typified human sympathy of the antique Chorus, a direct, internal, living and moving sympathy itself; and although AEschylus might have done service as “a model,” to either Euripides or Sophocles, yet were Sophocles and Euripides in London to-day, they would, perhaps, while granting a certain formless and shadowy grandeur, indulge a quiet smile at the shallowness and uncouthness of that Art, which, in the old amphitheatres, had beguiled them into applause of the OEdipus at Colonos.

It would have been better for Miss Barrett if, throwing herself independently upon her own very extraordinary resources, and forgetting that a Greek had ever lived, she had involved her Eve in a series of adventures merely natural, or if not this, of adventures preternatural within the limits of at least a conceivable relation — a relation of matter to spirit and spirit to matter, that should have left room for something like palpable action and comprehensible emotion — that should not have utterly precluded the development of that womanly character which is admitted as the principal object of the poem. As the case actually stands, it is only in a few snatches of verbal intercommunication with Adam and Lucifer, that we behold her as a woman at all. For the rest, she is a mystical something or nothing, enwrapped in a fog of rhapsody about Transfiguration, and the Seed, and the Bruising of the Heel, and other talk of a nature that no man ever pretended to understand in plain prose, and which, when solar-microscoped into poetry “upon the model of the Greek drama,” is about as convincing as the Egyptian Lectures of Mr. Silk Buckingham — about as much to any purpose under the sun as the hi presto! conjurations of Signor Blitz. What are we to make, for example, of dramatic colloquy such as this? — the words are those of a Chorus of Invisible Angels addressing Adam:

Live, work on, O Earthy!

By the Actual's tension

Speed the arrow worthy

Of a pure ascension.

From the low earth round you

Reach the heights above you;

From the stripes that wound you

Seek the loves that love you!

God's divines” burneth plain

Through the crystal diaphane

Of our loves that love you.

Now we do not mean to assert that, by excessive “tension” of the intellect, a reader accustomed to the cant of the transcendentalists (or of those who degrade an ennobling philosophy by styling themselves such) may not succeed in fitting from the passage quoted, and indeed from each of the thousand similar ones throughout the book, something that shall bear the aspect of an absolute idea — but we do mean to say first, that, in nine cases out of ten, the thought when dug out will be found very poorly to repay the labor of the digging; — for it is the nature of thought in general, as it is the nature of some ores in particular, to be richest when most superficial. And we do mean to say, secondly, that, in nineteen cases out of twenty, the reader will suffer the most valuable ore to remain unmined to all eternity, before he will be put to the trouble of digging for it one inch. And we do mean to assert, thirdly, that no reader is to be condemned for not putting himself to the trouble of digging even the one inch; for no writer has the right to impose any such necessity upon him. What is worth thinking is distinctly thought: what is distinctly thought, can and should [page 6:] be distinctly expressed, or should not be expressed at all. Nevertheless, there is no more appropriate opportunity than the present for admitting and maintaining, at once, what has never before been either maintained or admitted — that there is a justifiable exception to the rule for which we contend. It is where the design is to convey the fantastic — not the obscure. To give the idea of the latter we need, as in general, the most precise and definitive terms, and those who employ other terms but confound obscurity of expression with the expression of obscurity. The fantastic in itself, however, — phantasm — may be materially furthered in its development by the quaint in phraseology: a proposition which any moralist may examine at his leisure for himself.

The “Drama of Exile” opens with a very palpable bull: — “Scene, the outer side of the gate of Eden, shut fast with clouds” — [a scene out of sight!] — “from the depth of which revolves the sword of fire, self-moved. A watch of innumerable angels rank above rank, slopes up from around it to the zenith: and the glare cast from their brightness and from the sword, extends many miles into the wilderness. Adam and Eve are seen in the distance, flying along the glare. The angel Gabriel and Lucifer are beside the gate.” — These are the “stage directions” which greet us on the threshold of the book. We complain first of the bull: secondly, of the blue-fire melo-dramatic aspect of the revolving sword; thirdly, of the duplicate nature of the sword, which, if steel, and sufficiently enflamed to do service in burning, would, perhaps, have been m no temper to cut; and on the other hand, if sufficiently cool to have an edge, would have accomplished little in the way of scorching a personage so well accustomed to fire and brimstone and all that, as we have very good reason to believe Lucifer was. We cannot help objecting, too, to the “innumerable angels,” as a force altogether disproportioned to the one enemy to be kept out: — either the self-moving sword itself, we think, or the angel Gabriel alone, or five or six of the “innumerable” angels, would have sufficed to keep the devil (or is it Adam?) outside of the gate — which, after all, he might not have been able to discover, on account of the clouds.

Far be it from us, however, to dwell irreverently on matters which have venerability in the faith or in the fancy of Miss Barrett. We allude to these niaiseries at all — found here in the very first paragraph of her poem, — simply by way of putting in the clearest light the mass of inconsistency and antagonism in which her subject has inextricably involved her. She has made allusion to Milton, and no doubt felt secure in her theme (as a theme merely) when she considered his “Paradise Lost.” But even in Milton's own day, when men had the habit of believing all things, the more nonsensical the more readily, and of worshipping, in blind acquiescence, the most preposterous of impossibilities — even then. there were not wanting individuals who would have read the great epic with more: — , could it have been explained to their satisfaction, how ind why it was, not only that a snake quoted Aristotle's ethics, and behaved otherwise pretty much as he pleased, but that bloody battles were continually being fought between bloodless “innumerable angels,” that found no inconvenience m losing a wing one minute and a head the next, and if pounded up into puff-paste late in the afternoon, were as good “innumerable angels” as new the next morning, in time to be at reveille roll-call: And now — at the present epoch —  there are few people who do not occasionally think. This is emphatically the thinking age; — indeed it may very well be questioned whether mankind ever substantially thought before. The fact is, if the “Paradise Lost” were written to-day (assuming that it had never been written [column 2:] when it was), not even its eminent, although over-estimated merits, would counterbalance, either in the public view, or in the opinion of any critic at once intelligent and honest, the multitudinous incongruities which are part and parcel of its plot.

But in the plot of the drama of Miss Barrett it is something even worse than incongruity which affronts: — a continuous mystical strain of ill-fitting and exaggerated allegory — if, indeed, allegory is not much too respectable a term for it. We are called upon, for example, to sympathise in the whimsical woes of two Spirits, who, upspringing from the bowels of the earth, set immediately to bewailing their miseries in jargon such as this:

I am the spirit of the harmless earth;

God spake me softly out among the stars,

As softly as a blessing of much worth —

And then his smile did follow unawares,

That all things, fashioned, so, for use and duty,

Might shine anointed with his chrism of beauty —

Yet I wail!

I crave on with the worlds exultingly,

Obliquely down the Godlight's gradual fall —

Individual aspect and complexity

Of gyratory orb and interval,

Lost in the fluent motion of delight

Toward the high ends of Being, beyond Sight —

Yet I wail!

Innumerable other spirits discourse successively after the same fashion, each ending every stanza of his lamentation with the “yet I wail!” When at length they have fairly made an end, Eve touches Adam upon the elbow, and hazards, also, the profound and pathetic observation — “Lo, Adam, they wail!” — which is nothing more than the simple truth — for they do — and God deliver us from any such wailing again!

It is not our purpose, however, to demonstrate what every reader of these volumes will have readily seen self-demonstrated — the utter indefensibility of “The Drama of Exile,” considered uniquely, as a work of art. We have none of us to be told that a medley of metaphysical recitatives sung out of tune, at Adam and Eve, by all manner of inconceivable abstractions, is not exactly the best material for a poem. Still it may very well happen that among this material there shall be individual passages of great beauty. But should any one doubt the possibility, let him be satisfied by a single extract such as follows:

On a mountain peak

Half sheathed in primal woods and glittering

In spasms of awful sunshine, at that hour

A lion couched, — part raised upon his paws,

With his calm massive face turned full on shine,

And his mane listening. When the ended curse

Left silence in the world, right suddenly

He sprang up rampant, and stood straight and stiff,

As if the new reality of death

Were dashed against his eyes, —  and roared so fierce,

(Such thick carnivorous passion in his throat

Tearing a passage through the wrath and fear) — 

And roared so wild, and smote from all the hills

Such fast keen echoes crumbling down the vales

To distant silence, — that the forest beasts,

One after one, did mutter a response

In savage and in sorrowful complaint

Which trailed along the gorges.

There is an Homeric force here — a vivid picturesqueness in all men will appreciate and admire. It is, however, the longest quotable passage in the drama, not disfigured with blemishes of importance; — although there are many — very many passages of a far loftier order of excellence, so disfigured, and which, therefore, it would not suit our immediate e to extract. The truth is, — and it may be as well mentioned at this point as elsewhere — that we are not to look in Miss Barrett's works for any examples of what has been occasionally termed “sustained effort;” for neither are there, in any of her poems, any long commendable paragraphs, nor are there any individual compositions which will bear the slightest examination as consistent Art-products. Her wild and magnificent genius seems to have contented [page 7:] itself with points — to have exhausted itself in flashes; — but it is the profusion — the unparalleled number and close propinquity of these points and flashes which render her book one flame, and justify us in calling her, unhesitatingly, the greatest — the most glorious of her sex.

The “Drama of Exile” calls for little more, in the way of comment, than what we have generally said. Its finest particular feature is, perhaps, the rapture of Eve — rapture bursting through despair — upon discovering that she still possesses, in the unwavering love of Adam, an undreamed-of and priceless treasure. The poem ends, as it commences, with a bull. The last sentence gives us to understand that “there is a sound through the silence, as of the falling tears of an angel.” How there can be sound during silence, and how an audience are to distinguish, by such sound, angel tears from any other species of tears, it may be as well, perhaps, not too particularly to inquire.

Next, in length, to the Drama, is “The Vision of Poets.” We object to the didacticism of its design, which the poetess thus states:’’I have attempted to express here my view of the mission of the veritable poet — of the self-abnegation implied in it, of the uses of sorrow suffered in it, of the great work accomplished in it through suffering, and of the duty and glory of what Balzac has beautifully and truly called ‘la patience angelique du genie.’’’ This “view” may be correct, but neither its correctness nor its falsity has anything to do with a poem. If a thesis is to be demonstrated, we need prose for its demonstration. In this instance, so far as the allegorical instruction and argumentation are lost sight of, in the upper current — so far as the main admitted intention of the work is kept out of view — so far only is the work a poem, and so far only is the poem worth notice, or worthy of its author. Apart from its poetical character, the composition is thoughtful, vivid, epigrammatic, and abundant in just observation — although the critical opinions introduced are not always our own. A reviewer in “Blackwood's Magazine,” quoting many of these critical portraits, takes occasion to find fault with the grammar of this tristich:

Here Æschylus — the women swooned

To see so awful when he frowned

As the Gods did — he standeth crowned.

“What on earth,” says the critic, “are we to make of the words ‘the women swooned to see so awful’? . . . . The syntax will punish future commentators as much as some of his own corrupt choruses.” In general, we are happy to agree with this reviewer, whose decisions respecting the book are, upon the whole, so nearly coincident with ours, that we hesitated, through fear of repetition, to undertake a critique at all, until we considered that we might say a very great deal in simply supplying his omissions; but he frequently errs through mere hurry, and never did he err more singularly than at the point now in question. He evidently supposes that “awful” has been misused as an adverb and made referrible to “ women.” But not so; and although the construction of the passage is unjustifiably involute, its grammar is intact. Disentangling the construction, we make this evident at once: “Here AEschylus (he) standeth crowned, (whom) the women swooned to see so awful, when he frowned as the Gods did.” The “he” is excessive, and the “whom” is understood. Respecting the lines,

Euripides, with close and mild

Scholastic lips, that could be wild,

And laugh or sob out like a child

Right in the classes,

the critic observes: — “ ‘Right in the classes’ throws our intellect completely upon its beam-ends.” But, if so, the fault [column 2:] possibly lies in the crankness of the intellect; for the words themselves mean merely that Sophocles laughed or cried like a school-boy — like a child right (or just) in his classes — one who had not yet left school. The phrase is affected, we grant, but quite intelligible. A still more remarkable misapprehension occurs in regard to the triplet,

And Goethe, with that reaching eye

His soul reached out from, far and high,

And fell from inner entity.

The reviewer's remarks upon this are too preposterous not to be quoted in full; — we doubt if any commentator of equal dignity ever so egregiously committed himself before. “Goethe,” he says, “is a perfect enigma, what does the word ‘fell’ mean? Xxxxxx [[greek text]] we suppose — that is, ‘not to be trifled with.’ But surely it sounds very strange, although it may be true enough, to say that his ‘fellness’ is occasioned by ‘inner entity.’ But perhaps the line has some deeper meaning which we are unable to fathom.” Perhaps it has: and this is the criticism — the British criticism — the Blackwood criticism — to which we have so long implicitly bowed down! As before, Miss Barrett's verses are needlessly involved, but their meaning requires no OEdipus. Their construction is thus intended: — “And Goethe, with that reaching eye from which his soul reached out, far and high, and (in so reaching) fell from inner entity.” The plain prose is this: — Goethe, (the poet would say), in involving himself too far and too profoundly in external speculations — speculations concerning the world without him — neglected, or made miscalculations concerning his inner entity, or being, — concerning the world within This idea is involved in the metaphor of a person leaning from a window so far that finally he falls from it —  the person being the soul, the window the eye.

Of the twenty-eight “Sonnets,” which immediately succeed the “Drama of Exile,” and which receive the especial commendation of Blackwood, we have no very enthusiastic opinion. The best sonnet is objectionable from its extreme artificiality; and, to be effective, this species of composition, requires a minute management — a well-controlled dexterity of touch — compatible neither with Miss Barrett's deficient constructiveness, nor with the fervid rush and whirl of her genius. Of the particular instances here given, we prefer “the Prisoner,” of which the conclusion is particularly beautiful In general, the themes are obtrusively metaphysical, or didactic.

“The Romaunt of the Page,” an imitation of the old English ballad, is neither very original in subject, nor very skilfully put together. We speak comparatively, of course: — It is not very good — for Miss Barrett: — and what we have said of this poem will apply equally to a very similar production, “The Rhyme of the Dutchess May.” The “Poet and the Bird” — “A Child Asleep” — “Crowned and Wedded” —  “Crowned and Buried” — “To Flush my Dog” — “The Four fold Aspect” — “A Flower in a Letter” — “A Lay of the early Rose” — “That Day” — “L. E. L's Last Questio” — “Catarina to Camoens” — “Wine of Cyprus” — “The Dead Pan” —  “Sleeping and Watching” — “A Portrait” — “The Mournful Mother” — and “A Valediction” — although all burning with divine fire, manifested only in scintillations, have nothing in them idiosyncratic. “The House of Clouds” and “The Last Bower” are superlatively lovely, and show the vast powers of the poet in the field best adapted to their legitimate display: — the themes, here, could not be improved. The former poem is purely imaginative; the latter is unobjectionably because unobtrusively suggestive of a moral, and is, perhaps, upon the whole, the most admirable composition [page 8:] in the two volumes: — or, if it is not, then “The Lay of the Brown Rosarie” is. In this last the ballad-character is elevated —  the realized — and thus made to afford scope for an ideality at once the richest and most vigorous in the world. The peculiar foibles of the author are here too, dropped bodily, as a mantle, in the tumultuous movement and excitement of the narrative.

To be Continued.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 5, column 1:]

*  We are sorry to notice, in the American edition, a multitude of typographical errors, many of which affect the sense, and should therefore be corrected in a second impression, if called for. How far they are chargeable to the London copy, we are not prepared to say. “Froze,” for instance, is printed “frore.” “Foregone,” throughout, is printed “forgone.” “Wordless” is printed “worldless” — “worldly,” “wordly” — “spilt,” “split,” etc., etc., — while transpositions, false accents, and mix-punctuations abound. We indicate a few pages on which such inadvertences are to be discovered. Vol. I — 23, 26, 37, 45, 53, 56, 80, 166, 174, 180, 185, 251. Vol. 2 — 109, 114, 240, 247, 253, 272.





[S:0 - BJ, 1845 (fac, 1965)] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Review of Drama of Exile and Other Poems [Part 01](Text-02)