Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Critical Notices, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 2, January 1836, 2:117-121


[page 123, column 2:]

The Poetry of Life. By Sarah Stickney, Author of “Pictures of Private Life.” Philadelphia: Republished by Carey, Lea, and Blanchard.

These two volumes are subdivided as follows. Characteristics of Poetry — Why certain objects are, or are not poetical — Individual Associations — General Associations — The Poetry of Flowers — The Poetry of Trees — The Poetry of Animals — The Poetry of Evening — The Poetry of the Moon — The Poetry of Rural Life — The Poetry of Painting — The Poetry of Sound — The Poetry of Language — The Poetry of Love — The Poetry of Grief — The Poetry of Woman — The Poetry of the Bible — The Poetry of Religion — Impression — Imagination — Power — Taste — Conclusion.

In a Preface remarkable for neatness of style and precision of thought, Miss Stickney has very properly circumscribed within definite limits the design of her work — whose title, without such explanation, might have led us to expect too much at her hands. It would have been better, however, had the fair authoress, by means of a different title, which her habits of accurate thinking might have easily suggested, rendered this explanation unnecessary. Except in some very rare instances, where a context may be tolerated, if not altogether justified, a world, either of the pen or the pencil, should contain within itself every thing requisite for its own comprehension. “The design of the present volumes,” says Miss Stickney, “is to treat of poetic feeling, rather than poetry; and this feeling I have endeavored to describe as the great connecting link between our intellects and our affections; while the customs of society, as well as the license of modern literature, afford me sufficient authority for the use of the word — life in its widely extended sense, as comprehending all the functions, attributes, and capabilities peculiar to sentient beings.”

We remember having read the “Pictures of Private Life” withinterest of no common kind, and with a corresponding anxiety to know something more of the author. In them were apparent the calm enthusiasm, and the analytical love of beauty, which are now the distinguishing features of the volumes before us. We have perused the “Poetry of Life” with an earnestness of attention, and a degree of real pleasure very seldom excited in our minds. It is a work giving evidence of more profundity than discrimination — with no ordinary quantum of either. What is said, if not always indisputable, is said with a simplicity, and a scrupulous accuracy which leave us, not for one moment, in doubt of what is intended, and impress us, at the same time, with a high opinion of the author's ability. Miss Stickney's manner is very good — her English pure, harmonious, in every respect unexceptionable. With a strong understanding, and withal a keen relish for the minor forms of poetic excellence — a strictness of conception which will ever prevent her from running into gross error — she is still, we think, insufficiently alive to the delicacies of the beautiful — unable fully to appreciate the energies of the sublime.

We were forcibly impressed with these opinions, in looking over, for the second time, the chapter of our fair authoress, “On the Poetry of Language.” What we have just said in relation to her accuracy of thought and expression, and her appreciation of the minor forms [page 122:]of poetic excellence, will be exemplified in the passage we now quote, beginning at page 187, vol. i.

“There can scarcely be a more beautiful and appropriate arrangement of words, than in the following stanza from Childe Harold:

The sails were filled, and fair the light winds blew,

As glad to waft him from his native home;

And fast the white rocks faded from his view,

And soon were lost in circumambient foam;

And then it may be of his wish to roam

Repented he, but in his bosom slept

The silent thought, nor from his lips did come

One word of wail, whilst others sate and wept,

And to the reckless gales unmanly moaning kept.

“Without committing a crime so heinous as that of entirely spoiling this verse, it is easy to alter it so as to bring it down to the level of ordinary composition; and thus we may illustrate the essential difference between poetry and mere versification.

The sails were trimm’d and fair the light winds blew,

As glad to force him from his native home,

And fast the white rocks vanish’d from his view,

And soon were lost amid the circling foam:

And then, — perchance, of his fond wish to roam

Repented he, but in his bosom slept

The wish, nor from his silent lips did come

One mournful word, whilst others sat and wept,

And to the heedless breeze their fruitless moaning kept.

“It is impossible not to be struck with the harmony of the original words as they are placed in this stanza. The very sound is graceful, as well as musical; like the motion of the winds and waves, blended with the majestic movement of a gallant ship. ‘The sails were filled’ conveys no association with the work of man; but substitute the word - trimmed, and you see the busy sailors at once. The word ‘waft’ follows in perfect unison with the whole of the preceding line, and maintains the invisible agency of the ‘light winds;’ while the word ‘glad’ before it, gives an idea of their power as an unseen intelligence. ‘Fading’ is also a happy expression, to denote the gradual obscurity and disappearing of the ‘white rocks;’ but the ‘circumambient foam’ is perhaps the most poetical expression of the whole, and such as could scarcely have proceeded from a low or ordinary mind.”

All this is well — but what follows is not so. “It may be amusing” — says Miss Stickney, at page 189, “to see how a poet, and that of no mean order, can undesignedly murder his own offspring” — and she proceeds to extract, from Shelley, in illustration, some passages, of whose exquisite beauty she has evidently not the slightest comprehension. She commences with

“Music, when soft voices die

Vibrates in the memory —

Odours, when sweet violets sicken,

Live within the sense they quicken.”

“Sicken” is here italicized; and the author of the “Poetry of Life” thinks the word so undeniably offensive as to render a farther allusion to it unnecessary. A few lines below, she quotes, in the same tone of criticism, the terrific image in the Ode to Naples.

“Naples! — thou heart of men, which ever pantest

Naked, beneath the lidless eye of Heaven!”

And again, on the next page, from the same author —

“Thou art the wine whose drunkenness is all

We can desire, O Love!”

Miss Stickney should immediately burn her copy of Shelley — it is to her capacities a sealed book.






[S:0 - SLM, 1836] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Criticial Notices (January 1836)