Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Our Amateur Poets, No. III —William Ellery Channing” [Text-02], Graham's Magazine, August 1843, pp. 113-117


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In speaking of Mr. William Ellery Channing, who has just published a very neat little volume of poems, we feel the necessity of employing the indefinite rather than the definite article. He is a, and by no means the, William Ellery Channing. He is only the son of the great essayist deceased. He is just such a person, in despite of his clarum et venerabile nomen, as Pindar would have designated by the significant term τις. It may be said in his favor that nobody ever heard of him. Like an honest woman, he has always succeeded in keeping himself from being made the subject of gossip. His book contains about sixty-three things, which he calls poems, and which he no doubt seriously supposes so to be. They are full of all kinds of mistakes, of which the most important is that of their having been printed at all. They are not precisely English — nor will we insult a great nation by calling them Kickapoo; perhaps they are Channingese. We may convey some general idea of them by two foreign terms not in common use — the Italian pavoneggiarsi, “to strut like a peacock,” and the German word for “sky-rocketing,” schwarmerei. They are more preposterous, in a word, than any poems except those of the author of “Sam Patch;” for we presume we are right (are we not?) in taking it for granted that the author of “Sam Patch” is the very worst of all the wretched poets that ever existed upon earth.

In spite, however, of the customary phrase about a man's “making a fool of himself,” we doubt if any one was ever a fool of his own free will and accord. A poet, therefore, should not always be taken too strictly to task. He should be treated with leniency, and, even when damned, should be damned with respect. Nobility of descent, too, should be allowed its privileges not more in social life than in letters. The son of a great author cannot be handled too tenderly by the critical Jack Ketch. Mr. Channing must be hung, that's true. He must be hung in terrorem — and for this there is no help under the sun; but then we shall do him all manner of justice, and observe every species of decorum, and be especially careful of his feelings, and hang him gingerly and gracefully, with a silken cord, as the Spaniards hang their grandees of the blue blood, their nobles of the sangre azula.

To be serious, then; as we always wish to be if possible. Mr. Channing (whom we suppose to be a very young man, since we are precluded from supposing him a very old one) appears to have been inoculated, at the same moment, with virus from Tennyson and from Carlyle. And here we do not wish to be misunderstood. For Tennyson, as for a man imbued with the richest and rarest poetic impulses, we have an admiration — a reverence unbounded. His “Morte D’Arthur,” his “Locksley Hall,” his “Sleeping Beauty,” his “Lady of Sha-lott,” his “Lotos Eaters,” his “œ none,” and many other poems, are not surpassed, in all that gives to Poetry its distinctive value, by the compositions of any one living or dead. And his leading error — that error which renders him un-popular — a point, to be sure, of no particular importance that very error, we say, is founded in truth — in a keen perception of the elements of poetic beauty. We allude to his quaintness — to what the world chooses to term his affectation. No true poet — no critic whose approbation is worth even a copy of the volume we now hold in our hand — will deny that he feels impressed, sometimes even to tears, by many of those very affectations which he is impelled by the prejudice of his education, or by the cant of his reason, to condemn. He should thus be led to examine the extent of the one, and to be wary of the deductions of the other. In fact, the profound intuition of Lord Bacon has supplied, in one of his immortal apothegmns, the whole philosophy of the point at issue. “There is no exquisite beauty,” he truly says, “without some strangeness in its proportions.” We maintain, then, that Tennyson errs, not in his occasional quaintness, but in its continual and obtrusive excess. And, in accusing Mr. Channing of having been inoculated with virus from Tennyson, we merely mean to say that he has adopted and exaggerated that noble poet's characteristic defect, having mistaken it for his principal merit.

Mr. Tennyson is quaint only; he is never, as some have supposed him, obscure — except, indeed, to the uneducated, whom he does not address. Mr. Carlyle, on the other hand, is obscure only; he is seldom, as some have imagined him, quaint. So far he is right; for although quaintness, employed by a man of judgment and genius, may be made auxiliary to a poem, whose true thesis is beauty, and beauty alone, it is grossly, and even ridiculously, out of place in a work of prose. But in his obscurity it is scarcely necessary to say that he is wrong. Either a man intends to be understood, or he does not. If he write a book which he intends not to be understood, we shall be very happy indeed not to understand it; but if he write a book which he means to be understood, and, in this book, be at all possible pains to prevent us from understanding it, we can only say that he is an ass — and this, to be brief, is our private opinion of Mr. Carlyle, which we now take the liberty of making public.

It seems that having deduced, from Tennyson and Carlyle, an opinion of the sublimity of every thing odd, and of the profundity of every thing meaningless, Mr. Channing has conceived the idea of setting up for himself as a poet of unusual depth, and very remarkable powers of mind. His airs and graces, in consequence, have a highly picturesque effect, and the Boston critics, who have a notion that poets are porpoises, (for they are always talking about their running in “schools,”) cannot make up their minds as to what particular school he must belong. We say the Bobby Button school, by all means. He clearly belongs to that. And should nobody ever have heard of the Bobby Button school, that is a point of no material importance. We will answer for it, as it is one of our own. Bobby Button is a gentleman with whom, for a long time, we have had the honor of an intimate acquaintance. His personal appearance is striking. He has quite a big head. His eyes protrude and have all the air of saucers. His chin retreats. His mouth is depressed at the corners. He wears a perpetual frown of contemplation. His words are slow, emphatic, few, and oracular. His “thes,” “ands,” and “buts” have more meaning than other men's polysyllables. His nods would have put Burleigh's to the blush. His whole aspect, indeed, conveys the idea of a gentleman modest to a fault, and painfully overburthened with intellect. We insist, however, upon calling Mr. Channing's school of poetry the Bobby Button school, rather because Mr. Channing's poetry is strongly suggestive of Bobby Button, than because Mr. Button himself ever dallied, to any very great extent, with the Muses. With the exception, indeed, of a very fine “Sonnet to a Pig” — or rather the fragment of a sonnet, for he proceeded no farther than the words “ O piggy wiggy,” with the O italicized for emphasis — with the exception of this, we say, we are not aware of his having produced anything worthy of that stupendous genius which is certainly in him, and only wants, like the starling of Sterne, “to get out.”

The best passage in the book before us, is to be found at page 121, and we quote it, as a matter of simple justice, in full.

Dear friend, in this fair atmosphere again,

Far from the noisy echoes of the main,

Amid the world-old mountains, and the hills

From whose strange grouping a fine power distills

The soothing and the calm, I seek repose,

The city's noise forgot and hard stern woes.

As thou once said'st, the rarest sons of earth

Have in the dust of cities shown their worth,

Where long collision with the human curse

Has of great glory been the frequent nurse,

And only those who in sad cities dwell

Are of the green trees fully sensible.

To them the silver bells of tinkling streams

Seem brighter than an angel's laugh in dreams.

The four lines Italicized are highly meritorious, and the whole extract is so far decent and intelligible, that we experienced a feeling of surprise upon meeting it amid the doggerel which surrounds it. Not less was our astonishment upon finding, at page 18, a fine thought so well embodied as the following:

Or see the early stars, a mild sweet train,

Come out to bury the diurnal sun.

But, in the way of commendation, we have now done. We have carefully explored the whole volume, in vain, for a single additional line worth even the most qualified applause.

The utter abandon — the charming negligé — the perfect looseness (to use a western phrase) of his rhythm, is one of Mr. C's. most noticeable, and certainly one of his most refreshing traits. It would be quite a pleasure to hear him read or scan, or to hear any body else read or scan, such a line as this, at page 3, for example:

Masculine almost though softly carv’d in grace,

where “masculine” has to be read as a trochee, and “almost” as an iambus; or this, at page 8:

That compels me on through wood, and fell, and moor,

where “that compels” has to be pronounced as equivalent to the iambus “me on;” or this, at page 18:

I leave thee, the maid spoke to the true youth,

where both the “thes” demand a strong accent to preserve the iambic rhythm; or this, at page 29:

So in our steps strides truth and honest trust,

where (to say nothing of the grammar, which may be Dutch, but is not English) it is quite impossible to get through with the “step strides truth” without dislocating the under jaw; or this, at page 32:

The serene azure the keen stars are now;

or this, on the same page:

Sometime of sorrow, joy to thy Future;

or this, at page 56:

Harsh action,  even in repose inwardly harsh;

or this, at page 59:

Provides amplest enjoyment. O my brother;

or this, at page 138:

Like the swift petrel, mimicking the wave's measure;

about all of which the less we say the better.

At page 96 we read thus:

Where the untrammelled soul on her wind pinions,

Fearlessly sweeping, defies my earthly foes,

There, there upon that infinitest sea

Lady thy hope, so fair a hope, summons me.

At page 51 we have it thus:

The river calmly flows

Through shining banks, thro’ lonely glen,

Where the owl shrieks, tho’ ne’er the cheer of men

Has stirred its mute repose;

Still if you should walk there you would go there again.

At page 136 we read as follows:

Tune thy clear voice to no funereal song,

For O Death stands to welcome thee sure.

At page 116 he has this:

——— These graves, you mean;

Their history who knows better than I?

For in the busy street strikes on my ear

Each sound,  even inaudible voices

Lengthen the long tale my memory tells.

Just below, on the same page, he has

I see but little difference truly;

and at page 76 he fairly puts the climax to metrical absurdity in the lines which follow:

The spirit builds his house in the last flowers —

A beautiful mansion; how the colors live,

Intricately delicate!

This is to be read, of course, intrikkittly delikkit, and “intrikkittly delikkit” it is — unless, indeed, we are very especially mistaken.

The affectations — the Tennysonisms of Mr. Channing pervade his book at all points, and are not easily particularized. He employs, for example, the word “delight,” for “delighted;” as at page 2:

Delight to trace the mountain-brook's descent.

He uses, also, all the prepositions in a different sense from the rabble. If, for instance, he was called upon to say “on,” he would n’t say it by any means, but he’d say “off,” and endeavor to make it answer the purpose. For “to,” in the same manner, he says “from;” for “with,” “of,” and so on: at page 2, for example:

Nor less in winter, mid the glittering banks

Heaped of unspotted snow, the maiden roved.

For “serene,” he says “ serene:” as at page 4:

The influences of this serene isle.

For “subdued,” he says “ subdued:” as at page 16:

So full of thought, so subdued to bright fears.

By the way, what kind of fears are bright?

For “eternal,” he says “eterne:” as at page 30:

Has risen, and an eterne sun now paints.

For “friendless,” he substitutes “friend less:” as at page 31:

Are drawn in other figures. Not friendless.

To “future,” he prefers “future:” as at page 32:

Sometime of sorrow. Joy to thy fu ture.

To “azure,” in the same way, he prefers “azure:” as at page 46:

Ye stand each separate in the azure.

In place of “unheard,” he writes “ un heard:” as thus, at page 47:

Or think, tho’ unheard, that your sphere is dumb.

In place of “perchance,” he writes “ per chance:” as at page 71:

When perchance sorrow with her icy smile.

Instead of “more infinite,” he writes “infiniter,” with an accent on the “nit,” as thus, at page 100:

Hope's child, I summon infiniter powers.

And here we might as well ask Mr. Channing, in passing, what idea he attaches to infinity, and whether he really thinks that he is at liberty to subject the adjective “infinite” to degrees of comparison. Some of these days we shall hear, no doubt, of “eternal, eternaler, and eternalest.”

Our author is quite enamored of the word “sumptuous,” and talks about “sumptuous trees” and “sumptuous girls,” with no other object, we think, than to employ the epithet at all hazards and upon all occasions. He seems unconscious that it means nothing more than expensive, or costly; and we are not quite sure that either trees or girls are, in America, either the one or the other.

For “loved” Mr. C. prefers to say “was loving,” and takes great pleasure in the law phrase “the same.” Both peculiarities are examplified at page 20, where he says:

The maid was loving this enamored same.

He is fond, also, of inversions and contractions, and employs them in a very singular manner. At page 15 he has:

Now may I thee describe a Paradise.

At page 86 he says:

Thou lazy river, flowing neither way

Me figurest and yet thy banks seem gay.

At page 143 he writes:

Men change that Heaven above not more;

meaning that men change so much that Heaven above does not change more. At page 150, he says:

But so much soul hast thou within thy form

Than luscious summer days thou art the more;

by which he would imply that the lady has so much soul within her form that she is more luscious than luscious summer days.

Were we to quote specimens under the general head of “utter and irredeemable nonsense,” we should quote nine tenths of the book. Such nonsense, we mean, as the following, from page 11:

I hear thy solemn anthem fall,

Of richest song, upon my ear,

That clothes thee in thy golden pall,

As this wide sun flows on the mere.

Now let us translate this: He hears (Mr. Channing,) a solemn anthem, of richest song, fall upon his ear, and this anthem clothes the individual who sings it in that individual's golden pall, in the same manner that, or at the time when, the wide sun flows on the mere — which is all very delightful, no doubt.

At page 37, he informs us that,

—— It is not living,

To a soul believing,

To change each noble joy,

Which our strength employs,

For a state half rotten

And a life of toys,

And that it is

Better to be forgotten

Than lose equipoise.

And we dare say it is, if one could only understand what kind of equipoise is intended. It is better to be forgotten, for instance, than to lose one's equipoise on the top of a shot tower.

Occupying the whole of page 88, he has the six lines which follow, and we will present any one (the author not excepted,) with a copy of the volume, if any one will tell us what they are all about:

He came and waved a little silver wand,

He dropped the veil that hid a statue fair,

He drew a circle with that pearly hand,

His grace confin’d that beauty in the air,

Those limbs so gentle now at rest from flight,

Those quiet eyes now musing on the night.

At page 102, he has the following:

Dry leaves with yellow ferns, they are

Fit wreath of Autumn, while a star

Still, bright, and pure, our frosty air

Shivers in twinkling points

Of thin celestial hair

And thus one side of Heaven anoints.

This we think we can explain. Let us see. Dry leaves, mixed with yellow ferns, are a wreath fit for autumn at the time when our frosty air shivers a still, bright, and pure star with twinkling points of thin celestial hair, and with this hair, or hair plaster, anoints one side of the sky. Yes — this is it — no doubt.

At page 123, we have these lines:

My sweet girl is lying still

In her lovely atmosphere;

The gentle hopes her blue veins fill

With pure silver warm and clear.

O see her hair, O mark her breast!

Would it not, O! comfort thee,

If thou couldst nightly go to rest

By that virgin chastity?

Yes; we think, upon the whole, it would. The eight lines are entitled a “Song,” and we should like very much to hear Mr. Channing sing it.

Pages 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, and 41, are filled with short “Thoughts” in what Mr. C. supposes to be the manner of Jean Paul. One of them runs thus:

How shall I live? In earnestness.

What shall I do? Work earnestly.

What shall I give? A willingness.

What shall I gain? Tranquillity.

But do you mean a quietness

In which I act and no man bless?

Flash out in action infinite and free,

Action conjoined with deep tranquillity,

Resting upon the soul's true utterance,

And life shall flow as merry as a dance.

All our readers will be happy to hear, we are sure, that Mr. C. is going “to flash out.” Elsewhere, at page 97, he expresses very similar sentiments:

My empire is myself and I defy

The external; yes, I rule the whole or die!

It will be observed, here, that Mr. Channing's empire is himself, (a small kingdom, however,) that he intends to defy “the external,” whatever that is — perhaps he means the infernals and that, in short, he is going to rule the whole or die; all which is very proper, indeed, and nothing more than we have to expect from Mr. C.

Again, at page 146, he is rather fierce than otherwise. He says;

We surely were not meant to ride the sea,

Skimming the wave in that so prisoned small,

Reposing our infinite faculties utterly.

Boom like a roaring sunlit waterfall.

Humming to infinite abysms: speak loud, speak free!

Here Mr. Channing not only intends to “speak loud and free” himself, but advises every body else to do likewise. For his own part, he says, he is going to “ boom” — “to hum and to boom” — to “hum like a roaring waterfall,” and “boom to an infinite abysm.” What, in the name of Belzebub, is to become of us all?

At page 39, while indulging in similar bursts of fervor and of indignation, he says:

Thou meetest a common man

With a delusive show of can,

and this passage we quote by way of instancing what we consider the only misprint in the book. Mr. Channing could never have meant to say:

Thou meetest a common man

With a delusive show of can;

for what is a delusive show of can? No doubt it should have been,

Thou meetest a little pup

With a delusive show of tin-cup.

A can, we believe, is a tin-cup, and the cup must have been tied to the tail of the pup. Boys will do such tricks, and there is no earthly way of preventing them, we believe, short of cutting off their heads — or the tails of the pups.

And this remarkable little volume is, after all, by William Ellery Channing. A great name, it has been said, is, in many cases, a great misfortune. We hear daily complaints from the George Washington Dixons, the Socrates Smiths, and the Napoleon Buonaparte Joneses, about the inconsiderate ambition of their parents and sponsors. By inducing invidious comparison, these prænomina get their bearers (so they say) into every variety of scrape. If George Washington Dixon, for example, does not think proper, upon compulsion, to distinguish himself as a patriot, he is considered a very singular man; and Socrates Smith is never brought up before his honor the Mayor without receiving a double allowance of thirty days; while his honor the Mayor can assign no sounder reason for his severity, than that better things than getting toddied are to be expected of Socrates. Napoleon Buonaparte Jones, on the other hand, to say nothing of being called Nota Bene Jones by all his acquaintance, is cowskinned, with perfect regularity, five times a month, merely because people will feel it a point of honor to cowskin a Napoleon Buonaparte.

And yet these gentlemen — the Smiths and the Joneses are wrong in toto — as the Smiths and the Joneses invariably are. They are wrong, we say, in accusing their parents and sponsors. They err in attributing their misfortunes and persecutions to the prænomina — to the names assigned them at the baptismal font. Mr. Socrates Smith does not receive his double quantum of thirty days because he is called Socrates, but because he is called Socrates Smith. Mr. Napoleon Buo-naparte Jones is not in the weekly receipt of a flogging on account of being Mr. Napoleon Buonaparte, but simply on account of being Mr. Napoleon Buonaparte Jones. Here, indeed, is a clear distinction. It is the surname which is to blame, after all. Mr. Smith must drop the Smith. Mr. Jones should discard the Jones. No one would ever think of taking Socrates — Socrates solely — to the watch-house; and there is not a bully living who would venture to cowskin Napoleon Buonaparte per se. And the reason is plain. With nine individuals out of ten, as the world is at present happily constituted, Mr. Socrates (without the Smith) would be taken for the veritable philosopher of whom we have heard so much, and Mr. Napoleon Buonaparte (without the Jones) would be received implicitly as the hero of Austerlitz. And should Mr. Napoleon Buonaparte (without the Jones) give an opinion upon military strategy, it would be heard with the profoundest respect. And should Mr. Socrates (without the Smith) deliver a lecture, or write a book, what critic so bold as not to pronounce it more luminous than the logic of Emerson, and more profound than the Orphicism of Alcott. In fact, both Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, in the case we have imagined, would derive, through their own ingenuity, a very material advantage. But no such ingenuity has been needed in the case of Mr. William Ellery Channing, who has been befriended by Fate, or the foresight of his sponsors, and who has no Jones or Smith at the end of his name.

And here, too, a question occurs. There are many people in the world silly enough to be deceived by appearances. There are individuals so crude in intellect — so green, (if we may be permitted to employ a word which answers our purpose much better than any other in the language,) so green, we say, as to imagine, in the absence of any indication to the contrary, that a volume bearing upon its title-page the name of William Ellery Channing, must necessarily be the posthumous work of that truly illustrious author, the sole William Ellery Channing of whom any body in the world ever heard. There are a vast number of uninformed young persons prowling about our book-shops, who will be raw enough to buy, and even to read half through this pretty little book, (God preserve and forgive them!) mistaking it for the composition of another. But what then? Are not books made, as well as razors, to sell? The poet's name is William Ellery Channing is it not? And if a man has not a right to the use of his own name, to the use of what has he a right? And could the poet have reconciled it to his conscience to have injured the sale of his own volume by any uncalled-for announcement upon the title-page, or in a preface, to the effect that he is not his father, but only his father's very intelligent son? To put the case more clearly by reference to our old friends, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones. Is either Mr. Smith, when mistaken for Socrates, or Mr. Jones, when accosted as Napoleon, bound, by any conceivable species of honor, to inform the whole world the one, that he is not Socrates, but only Socrates Smith; the other, that he is by no means Napoleon Buonaparte, but only Napoleon Buonaparte Jones?



In a March 10, 1874 letter to John H. Ingram, Mrs. Sarah H. Whitman says that Channing was the nephew, not the son, of the distinguished clergyman of the same name. See Ingram Collection, item 129.


[S:0 - GM, 1843] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Our Amateur Poets, No. III — William Ellery Channing [Text-02]