Text: Text: Edgar Allan Poe (?), “[Defense of Mrs. Lewis’s The Child of the Sea and Other Poems,” Morning Express (New York, NY), vol. 13, November 28, 1848, p. 1, col. 7


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[page 1, col. 7:]

One of our most accomplished critics sends us the following defence of the authoress whose recent volume of poems has been so unjustly assailed: —

THE CHILD OF THE SEA.

——

Mrs. Lewis’s new and beautiful volume, “The Child of the Sea and Other Poems,” has already become “popular” in the best sense of the term, while the critical voices throughout the country are unanimous in its praise. We say “unanimous” — for we can scarcely bring ourselves to suppose Mr. Greeley, of “The Tribune,” to be more than half in earnest in certain objections which (amid a great deal of commendation) he has urged against these poems. “We lack time,” says he very modestly and very justly, “for the searching criticism, which, for her sake and the public’s, we would gladly give them.” And perhaps “time” is not the only thing wanting to Mr. Greeley upon those rare occasions when he takes a fncy [[fancy]] to turn from party politics to the Fine Arts — from Fourierism to the discussion of poetical principles. The editor of “The Tribune” is not to be laughed at (unless now and then) when he speaks of matters within the range of his comprehension — but no one can require a second glace at him to decide that he is neither a poet nor judge of poetry. By the way, what can Mr. Greeley mean in saying that “inexperience is the only excuse for such marks of haste — for such feeble and faulty lines as

[[“]]Ye Powers that rule the destinies of men!

By one swift blow obliterate my pain.”

What can he mean, we ask, by calling these lines “feeble,” and especially what does he mean by calling them “faulty”? We defy him to point out a blemish in them. They are far more than usually accurate and forcible. Has Mr. G. an ear? — or has he too little — or too much?

“The ‘Child of the Sea’” observes the critic, though the longest, is about the least meritorious poem in the volume. You are constantly reminded in reading it of Byron’s ‘Corsair.” So are we — very frequently. We find the same dashing vigor and occasional abrupt energy of expression — the same abandon — the same passion — and (we admit) the same general turn of subject — that is to say, both “The Corsair” and “The Child of the Sea” are tales of the ocean and of pirates. Beyond this there is absolutely nothing upon which to base the (insinuated) charge of imitation. The conduct, tone, cast of thought, imagery, versification — all are different.

“These lines, says Mr. G. speaking of by no means the most praiseworthy portions of the book,” evince ability to write well, which, of course, precludes any excuse for writing otherwise. The author obeys no mercenary impulse, but we argue from this second effort a settled purpose to achieve the most unequivocal success in the loft and arduous vocation she has chosen. Let her shun flatterers, court solitude and study, think much and write little, being firmly resolved that not one line from her pen shall meet the public gaze until it may safely defy the assaults of criticism and she will win the honorable distinction she aspires to. But fame is jealous, exacting, vigorous, and if pursued along with pleasure, or fashion, or ease, parts company and refuses to be overtaken.”

Mrs. Lewis will “win the honorable distinction she aspires to” of that there can be no doubt among those competent to decide. As for the Tribune’s advice, it is, at all points, excelent; but we could scarcely imagine anything so especially inapplicable to the case of Mrs. Lewis, — with whom Mr. G. Of course, has not the honor of a personal acquaintance. No American poetess has loftier aspirations — sterner resolves. No one can be more studious — less given to “inglorious ease.” What is ordinarily termed “pleasure” she avoids. The frivolity of mere “fashion” she contemns. Her “study” — so vividly described in the following sonnet — is her kingdome and her home:

This is my world — my angel-guarded shrine,

Which I have made to suit my heart’s great need.

When sorrow dooms it overmuch to bleed;

Or when, aweary and athirst, I pine

For genial showers and sustenance divine —

When soft illusive Hopes my heart deceive

And I would sit me down alone to grieve —

My mind to sad. or studious mood resign,

Here oft upon the stream of Thought I lie

Floating whichever way the waves are flowing —

Sometimes along the Banks of childhood going,

Where all is bud and bloom and melody;

Or, wafted by some stronger current, glide

Where darker frowns the steeps and deeper flows the tide

Now, we may be mistaken, but it is our honest opinion that not a Fourrierite in American can write half so noble a sonnet as the one we have just quoted.

The Child of the Sea” is by no means too long. It occupies about. 90 pages of the exquisitely printed volume before us. The narrative is singularly “romantic” — in the most commendable verse. It is a story of

— Youthful Love,

Ill-starred yet trustful, truthful and sublime

As ever angels chronicled above: —

The sorrowings of Beauty in her prime —

Virtue’s reward — the punishment of Crime —

The dark, inscrutable decrees of Fate —

Despair untold before in prose or rhyme.

We should like to give a digest of the story, but this would be doing the fair author injustice. Let it suffice to say that the plot is most happily contrived and conducted — riveting the attention throughout — that the characters are dashingly portrayed, and often very original — that the descriptions of natural scenery (especially maritime) are in the highest degree vivid and picturesque — that the incidents are startling and dramatic and that the whole is embodied in harmonious, melodious, and strikingly varied verse. Of course, it is quite impossible to convey any idea of the poem by an extract. Nevertheless we give a few lines by way of instancing the general tone:

Sleep chains the earth: the bright stars glide on high,

Filling with one effulgent smile the sky;

Aud all is hushed, so still, so silent there,

That one might hear an angel wing the air.

And where is Zamen? Are his slumbers sweet,

Calm, renovatiug, in this fair retreat

Have Beauty’s smile, and tranquilizing light,

Mute, moaning Melancholy, put to flight ;

And changed his bosom from a murky hell,

To an abode where Love and Peace may dwell

Ah, no it only shows the Ruin there,

Like sunshine falling on a sepulchre.

Isabelle, or The Broken Heart,” (originally published in “The Democratic Review,” where it attracted much attention) is by no means so elaborate or so long a poem as “The Child of the Sea” — occupying about 40 pages. In some respects, however, it is a more commendable work than its predecessor. It has far less polish, and infinitely less scope and vigor, but is more delicately fanciful, and perhaps more really passionate. Its leading feature is “romance.” As before, the narrative is of that true love which did “never yet run smooth.”

The “Miscellaneous Poems” of the volume are few, but particularly meritorious. The best, perhaps, are “To Corinno,” and “The Lament of La Vega.” These, however, are somewhat too long for quotation, and we must content ourselves with copying the following singularly imaginative quatrains:

I am looking down into my heart —

Into its deep, deep stream,

Where, choking up its current, lie

The ashes of love’s dream.

Along the brightly blooming banks,

With a solemn step and slow,

And visage drear, and gleaming spear,

Stride the sentinels of wo.

While from the troubled waters flow

Into my mental ear,

Like those sounds, that oft when half asleep,

And half awake, we hear,

The softest, saddest music that

O’er mortal ear eer stole,

Up from the hearth-stone of the heart,

Or, the altars of the soul.

Voices whose tones have long been hushed

Mid the rushing waves of life —

All false, and fadeless vows of love —

All jarring notes of strife. —

I hear the mournful moans of joy —

Hope, sobbing while she cheers —

Like dew descending from the leaf,

The dropping of love’s tears.

The heavy sighings of despair,

As she folds her dusky wings —

The wild, impetuous gushings of

A thousand secret springs.

I am looking down into my heart —

Into its deep, deep stream,

Where, choking up its current, he

The ashes of love’s dream.


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Notes:

Many aspects of tone, phrasing and substance of this item strongly suggest that Poe is the unnamed but accomplished critic. It is certainly difficult to imagine another prominent critic of the time who might pen such a devoted defense of Mrs. Lewis, and have it placed anonymously in a New York newspaper.

 

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[S:0 - MS, 1848] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Cricitism - [Defense of The Child of the Sea and Other Poems (Text-01)