Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Review of Longfellow’s Waif (parts I & II) (B), from the New York Weekly Mirror (New York), January 25, 1845, pp. 250-251


[page 250:]

Longfellow’s Waif.

Obviously, this volume is a collection of some few of the prettiest shells that have been thrown ashore by the poetic ocean; but, looking behind this idea, we see that Mr. Longfellow’s real design has been to make a book of his “waifs,” and his own late compositions, conjointly; since these late compositions are not enough in number to make a book of themselves: — an ingenious thought, too, with which no one can possibly quarrel. There are fifty brief poems in all, exclusive of the Proem which is professedly by the compiler; and, of these fifty, the seventeen attributed to Anonymous (a person who writes more and better than any man living,) we take to be the work of him who composed Outre-Mer.

Of a book put together purposely at random, we also at random shall be forced to speak — unless we go violently out of our way to get up principles of generalization for which no one would be at the trouble of thanking us.

Let us mention — let us pronounce reverently, yet lovingly — some half dozen of the great names which embellish the compilation: — Shelley, Herrick, Marvel, Browning, Hood, and Horace Smith: — there are others, too, nearly, if not equally, eminent. Of course, then, we mean a compliment worth at least a bow with the hand upon the heart, when we say that the Proem is the worthiest composition in the volume. It is a singular — a remarkable poem, and in no particular more remarkable than in this — that its particular excellence arises from what is, generically, a gross demerit. There is no error, as a general rule, more certainly fatal to a poem than defective rhythm; — but in this case the cautious, skillfully planned and dexterously executed slip-shod-iness is so thoroughly in unison with the nonchalant air of the thoughts — which, again, are so capitally applicable to the thing done — (a mere introduction of other people’s fancies) — that the effect of the looseness of metre becomes palpable, and we see at once that here is a case in which to be correct would have been to be inartistic.

How willingly would we quote all the lines were it possible with our limited space — but here are three of the quatrains:

I see the light of the village

Gleam through the rain and the mist,

And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me

That my soul cannot resist;

A feeling of sadness and longing

That is not akin to pain,

And resembles sorrow only

As the mist resembles the rain.

* * *

And the night shall be filled with music,

And the cares that infest the day

Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,

And as silently steal away.

Now, if any man fancy that these lines are scansible, we say no. They are referable to no true principles of rhythm. The general idea is that of a succession of dactyls; yet, not only is this idea confounded with an idea of anap;aests, but this succession is improperly interrupted at all points — improperly, because by unequivalent feet. The partial prosaicism thus brought about, however, without any interference with the mere melody, becomes a beauty, solely through the nicety of its adaptation to the whole tone of the poem, and of this tone again to the matter in hand. In his keen sense of this adaptation (which conveys the notion of what is vaguely termed “ease”) the reader so far loses sight of the rhythmical imperfection, that he can only be convinced of its existence by treating, in the same metre, a subject of different tone.

The poetic beauty of the passages italicised will enchant all who read. We forbear to comment on them in full, for no other reason than that we should never have done. The first quatrain of this poem, nevertheless, embodies a fault of illustration which Mr. Longfellow often commits; — let us quote the verses:

The day is done, and the darkness

Falls from the wings of Night,

As a feather is wafted downward

From an eagle in his flight.

The single feather is imperfectly illustrative of the omniprevalent darkness — but our more especial objection is to the likening of the falling of one feather to the falling of another. — Night is personified as a bird, and darkness (the feather of this bird) falls from it — how? — as another feather falls from another bird. Why, it does this of course. The illustration is identical — that is to say, null. It has no more force than an identical proposition in Logic.

We have a few words more to say of “The Waif,” but we may as well say them to-morrow — a single paragraph, however, in the meantime, about a point which is scarcely worth mentioning, after all.

How does it happen — not, we trust, through affectation — that the name of each author in this volume is carefully omitted from its proper place, at the head of his poem, to be as carefully deposited in the index? — so that the inquisitive reader, (and all readers of fine compositions are profoundly inquisitive about their paternity,) is forced to spend twice or thrice as much time in turning the leaves backward and forward, as in perusing what is so beautifully printed upon them. We ask this question, not by any means in the way of a sneer — a thing which went out of date with Childe Harold — but simply and positively because we have a liking for good enigmas, and take this to be one of the best of its species, on the ground that the soundest nut is always the most difficult to crack. For ourselves, we have given it up in despair.


Longfellow’s Waif — A few more words for and against it. — By far the most vivid and vigorous, if not in all respects the most commendable poem in this collection, is the “Bridge of Sighs,” by Hood — a man whose supremeness of fancy is often pardonably mistaken for imagination itself. Was ever anything on earth more full of the fantastic in pathos, the fantastic in the picturesque, the fantastic in sublimity, and the fantastic in sarcasm, than these lines which occur in the description of a woman found drowned?

Touch her not scornfully!

Think of her mournfully,

Gently and humanly —

Not of the stains of her —

All that remains of her

Now, is pure womanly.

Who was her father?

Who was her mother?

Had she a sister?

Had she a brother?

Was there a dearer one

Still, and a nearer one

Yet, than all other?

Alas, for the rarity

Of Christian charity

Under the sun!

O, it was pitiful!

Near a whole city full

Home she had none.

Where the lamps quiver

So far in the river,

With many a light

From window and casement

From garret to basement

She stood, with amazement,

Houseless by night!

The bleak wind of March

Made her tremble and shiver;

But not the dark arch

Or the black flowing river:

Mad from life’s history

Glad to death’s mystery

Swift to be hurled —

Anywhere, anywhere,

Out of the world!

In she plunged boldly —

No matter how coldly

The rough river ran —

Over the brink of it.

Picture it — think of it,

Dissolute man!

Dive in it — drink of it

Then, if you can!

These extracts, rich as they are, will convey a very fragmentary, and therefore a very feeble conception of the whole poem. Upon reading it, the first question occurring to an American who is himself a poet, will be — “How long has this been published?” — and if the answer be “many months,” he will be lost in wonder that he has not so much as heard of it before. Our taste — our critical feelings are in sad condition indeed, when such jewels as this are fairly made part and parcel of a volume of “waifs.” “The Bridge of Sighs” should have been received all over the world at once, and with acclamation.

From the “Hymn to the Flowers,” by Horace Smith, we quote only the four noble lines which conclude it:

Were I, O God! in churchless lands remaining,

Far from all teachers and from all divines,

My soul would find, in flowers of thy ordaining,

Priests, sermons, shrines.

“April” (anonymous) terminates with one of those striking, yet now and then objectionable images which are the forte of Mr. Longfellow.

But yet, behold! abrupt and loud,

Comes down the glittering rain —

The farewell of a passing cloud —

The fringes of her train.

This puts us in mind of the “Night’s skirts all fringed with light from the celestial walls.” The “abrupt and loud” is Homeric.

We are rejoiced to find here Lovelace’s piquant lines to Althea; — Mrs. Blackwood’s “Lament of the Irish Emigrant;” and the inimitable “Kulnazatz my rein-deer.

The commencement of the “Lily of Nithsdale” is exquisite:

She’s gane to dwell in Heaven, my lassie,

She’s gane to dwell in Heaven!

Ye’re owre pure, quo’ the voice of God,

For dwelling out o’ Heaven.

The owre and the o’ of the two last verses, however, should be Anglicised. The Deity at least, should be supposed to speak so as to be understood — although we are aware that a folio has been written, to demonstrate broad Scotch as the language of Adam and Eve in Paradise.

We copy in full the “Death-Bed,” by Hood, first, because of its intrinsic excellence — secondly, with the view of pointing out a parallel poem.

We watched her breathing through the night,

Her breathing soft and low,

As in her breast the wave of life

Kept heaving to and fro.

So silently we seemed to speak,

So slowly moved about,

As we had lent her half our powers

To eke her being out.

Our very hopes belied our fears;

Our fears our hopes belied;

We thought her dying when she slept,

And sleeping when she died.

For when the morn came dim and sad,

And chill with early showers,

Her quiet eye-lids closed: — she had

Another morn than ours.

The parallel (which we copy from Mr. Griswold’s large book) runs thus:

Her sufferings ended with the day,

Yet lived she at its close,

And breathed the long long night away

In statue-like repose;

But when the sun in all its state

Illumed the eastern skies,

She passed through Glory’s morning gate,

And walked in paradise.

Having fairly transcribed the two poems (about the respective dates of which we knew nothing) we have only to remark, as quietly as we can, that somebody is a thief. It is well said, however, by Leigh Hunt, that really beautiful thoughts are always sure to be spoiled in the stealing: — and if there is any spoiling in this case, it most assuredly is not upon the part of Mr. Hood.

We conclude our notes on the “Waif,” with the observation that, although full of beauties, it is infected with a moral taint — or is this a mere freak of our own fancy? We shall be pleased if it be so; — but there does appear, in this exquisite little volume, a very careful avoidance of all American poets who may be supposed especially to interfere with the claims of Mr. Longfellow. These men Mr. Longfellow can continuously imitate ( is that the word?) and yet never even incidentally commend.



Reprinted from the Evening Mirror


[S:0 - WM, 1845] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc - Longfellow's Waif (E. A. Poe ?, 1845)