Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of The Book of Gems,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. IX: Literary Criticism - part 02 (1902), 9:91-103


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[Southern Literary Messenger, August, 1836.]

THIS work combines the rich embellishments of the very best of the race of Annuals, with a far higher claim to notice than any of them in its strictly literary department. If we regard this volume as the only one to appear, the title will convey no idea of the design — but we are promised a continuation. The whole, if we comprehend, will contain specimens of all the principal poets and artists of Great Britain. In the present instance we have the poets as far as Prior, including a period of about four hundred years, with extracts from Chaucer, Lydgate, James I, Hawes, Carew, Quarles, Shirley, Habington, Lovelace, Wyatt, Surrey, Sackville, Vere, Gascoigne, Raleigh, Spenser, Sidney, Brooke, Southwell, Daniel, Drayton, Shakspeare, Walton, Davies, Donne, Jonson, Corbet, Phineas Fletcher, Giles Fletcher, Drummond, Wither, Carew, Browne, Herrick, Quarles, Herbert, Davenant. Waller, Milton, Suckling, Butler, Crashaw, Denham, Cowley, Marvell, Dryden, Roscommon, Dorset, Sedley, Rochester, Sheffield, and Prior. Of these, all the autographs have been obtained and are published collectively at the end of the book, with the exception of the nine first mentioned. The work is illustrated by fifty-three engravings, each by different artists. A sea-side group by Harding, and L’Allegro and II Penseroso by Parris, are particularly good — but all are excellent.

We had prepared some observations in regard to the [page 92:] book itself, (over which we have been poring for many days with intense delight) and in regard more especially to the character and justice of that deep feeling with which most men, having claim to taste, are wont to look, even through a veil of exceedingly troublesome obscurity and antiquity, upon the writings of the elder poets and dramatists of Great Britain. But we have been so nearly anticipated in our design by a paper in the American Monthly Magazine for July, that what we should now say, and say con amore, would be looked upon as little better than a rifacimento of the article we mention. At the same time it would be an ill deed to remodel our thoughts, and proceed to think falsely, for the mere purpose of proving that we can think originally. In this dilemma then, we will merely express our general accordance in the opinions of the Northern Magazine, copy, of its critique, a portion which seems to embody, in little compass, much of what we have said less forcibly and more diffusely, and add some few additional observations which have lately suggested themselves.

“Among the early English poets, so called,” says the American Monthly, “there is combined with marked individuality, a sort of general resemblance, not easily defined, but readily perceived by a discriminating reader. They lived in an age of invention, and wrote from a pleasurable impulse which they could not resist. They did not borrow from one another, or from those who had gone before them, nor pass their time in pouring from one vessel into another. Thus, however different their styles, however various their subjects, whether the flight of their genius be high or low, there is the same aspect of truth and naturalness in the poetry of them all; as we can trace [page 93:] a common likeness in all faces which have an open, ingenuous expression, however little resemblance there may be in the several features. Most of them were well acquainted with books, and many of them were deeply learned; and an air of ripe scholarship sometimes degenerating into pedantry, pervades every thing they wrote. As a class too, they are remarkable for a healthy, intellectual tone, defaced neither by moody misanthropy, nor mawkish sentimentality. The manly Saxon character beams out from every line; and that vigorous good sense, so characteristic of the English stock, every where leaves its impress. Another trait which, with a few exceptions, honorably distinguishes them, is the purity of their sentiments, and their high moral feeling, especially in all that touches the relation of the sexes. We shall find many coarse expressions, such as a man would not read aloud to his family; but very rarely any thing bordering upon heartless profligacy, or studied licentiousness, or any intimation of a want of respect for the great principles of the moral law. Due reverence is always shown for those high personal qualities which constitute the best security for the greatness and prosperity of a people. Homage is always paid to honor in man, and chastity in woman. The passion of love, in its multitudinous forms and aspects, supplies a large proportion of their themes, and it is treated with equal delicacy and beauty. In the amatory strains of the old English poets, we perceive a romantic self-forgetfulness, an idealization of the beloved object, a tenderness and respectfulness of feeling, in which the passion is almost wholly swallowed up in the sentiment, and a wooing with the best treasures of the intellect as well as the heart, such as can be found in no other class of poets.” [page 94:]

Notwithstanding the direct truth of what has been here so well advanced, it cannot, we think, be a matter of doubt with any reflecting mind, that at least one-third of the reverence, or of the affection, with which we regard the elder poets of Great Britain, should be credited to what is, in itself, a thing [[apart]] from poetry — we mean to the simple love of the antique — and that again a third of even the proper poetic sentiment inspired by these writings should be ascribed to a fact which, while it has a strict connection with poetry in the abstract, and also with the particular poems in question, must not be looked upon as a merit appertaining to the writers of the poems. Almost every devout reader of the old English bards, if demanded his opinion of their productions, would mention vaguely, yet with perfect sincerity, a sense of dreamy, wild, indefinite, and he would perhaps say, undefinable delight. Upon being required to point out the source of this so shadowy pleasure, he would be apt to speak of the quaint in phraseology and of the grotesque in rhythm. And this quaintness and grotesqueness are, as we have elsewhere endeavored to show, very powerful, and if well managed, very admissible adjuncts to Ideality. But in the present instance they arise independently of the author's will, and are matters altogether apart from his intention. The American Monthly [[American Monthly]] has forcibly painted the general character of the old English Muse. She was a maid, frank, guileless, and perfectly sincere, and although very learned at times, still very learned without art. No general error evinces a more thorough confusion of ideas than the error of supposing Donne and Cowley metaphysical in the sense wherein Wordsworth and Coleridge are so. [page 95:]

With the two former ethics were the end — with the two latter the means. The poet of the Creation wished, by highly artificial verse, to inculcate what he considered moral truth — he of the Auncient Mariner to infuse the Poetic Sentiment through channels suggested by mental analysis. The one finished by complete failure what he commenced in the grossest misconception — the other[[,]] by a path which could not possibly lead him astray, arrived at a certainty and intensity of triumph which is not the less brilliant and glorious because concentrated among the very few who have the power to perceive it. It will now be seen that even the “metaphysical verse” of Cowley is no more than evidence of the straight-forward simplicity and single-heartedness of the man. And he was in all this but a type of his school [[school]] — for we may as well designate in this way the entire class of writers whose poems are bound up in the volume before us, and throughout all of whom runs a very perceptible general character. They used but little art in composition. Their writings sprang immediately from the soul — and partook intensely of the nature of that soul. It is not difficult to perceive the tendency of this glorious abandon. To elevate immeasurably all the energies of mind — but again — so to mingle the greatest possible fire, force, delicacy, and all good things, with the lowest possible bathos, baldness, and utter imbecility, as to render it not a matter of doubt, but of certainty, that the average results of mind in such a school, will be found inferior to those results in one (ceteris paribus) more artificial: Such, we think, is the view of the older English Poetry, in which a very calm examination will bear us out. The quaintness in manner of which we were just speaking, is an adventitious [page 96:] advantage. It formed no portion of the poet's intention. Words and their rhythm have varied. Verses which affect us to-day with a vivid delight, and which [[delight]] in some instances, may be traced to this one source of grotesqueness and to none other, must have worn in the days of their construction an air of a very common-place nature. This is no argument, it will be said, against the poems now. Certainly not — we mean it for the poets then. The notion of power, of excessive power, in the English antique writers should be put in its proper light. This is all we desire to see done.

We cannot bring ourselves to believe that the selections made use of in the Book of Gems, are such as will impart to a poetical reader the highest possible idea of the beauty of the school. Better extracts might be made. Yet if the intention were merely to show the character of the school the attempt is entirely successful. There are long passages now before us of the most utterly despicable trash, with no merit whatever beyond their simple antiquity. And it is almost needless to say that there are many passages too of a glorious strength — a radiant loveliness, making the blood tingle in our veins as we peruse them. The criticisms of the Editor do not please us in a great degree. He seems to have fallen into the common cant in such cases. In one instance the American Monthly accords with him in an unjust opinion touching some verses by Sir Henry Wotton, on the Queen of Bohemia, daughter of James I, and about which it is said that “there are few finer things in our language.” Our readers will agree with us, we believe, that this praise is exaggerated. We quote the lines in full. [page 97:]

You meaner beauties of the night

That poorly satisfy our eyes,

More by your number than your light,

You common people of the skies

What are you when the sun shall rise?

You curious chaunters of the wood

That warble forth dame Nature's lays,

Thinking your passions understood

By your weak accents; what's your praise

When Philomel her voice shall raise?

You violets, that first appear

By your pure purple mantles known,

Like the proud virgins of the year

As if the spring were all your own,

What are you when the rose is blown?

So, when my mistress shall be seen

In sweetness of her looks and mind,

By virtue first, then choice a queen,

Tell me if she were not designed

Th’ eclipse and glory of her kind?

In such lines we can perceive not one of those higher attributes of the Muse which belong to her under all circumstances and throughout all time. Here every thing is art, naked or but awkwardly concealed. No prepossession for the mere antique (for in this case we can imagine no other prepossession) should induce us to dignify with the sacred name of Poesy, a series such as this, of elaborate and threadbare compliments, (threadbare even at the time of their composition) stitched apparently together, without fancy, without plausibility, without adaptation of parts — and it is needless to add, without a jot of imagination. [page 98:]

We have been much delighted with the Shepherd's Hunting, by Wither — a poem partaking, in a strange degree, of the peculiarities of the Penseroso. Speaking of Poesy he says —

By the murmur of a spring

Or the least boughs rusteling,

By a daisy whose leaves spread

Shut when Tytan goes to bed,

Or a shady bush or tree

She could more infuse in me

Than all Nature's beauties can

In some other wiser man.

By her help I also now

Make this churlish place allow

Something that may sweeten gladness

In the very gall of sadness —

The dull loneness, the black shade

That these hanging vaults have made,

The strange music of the waves

Beating on these hollow caves,

This black den which rocks emboss

Overgrown with eldest moss,

The rude portals that give light

More to terror than delight,

This my chamber of neglect

Walled about with disrespect —

From all these and this dull air

A fit object for despair,

She hath taught me by her might

To draw comfort and delight.

But these verses, however good, do not bear with them much of the general character of the English antique. Something more of this will be found in the following lines by Corbet — besides a rich vein of humor and sarcasm. [page 99:]

Farewell rewards and fairies!

Good housewives now you may say,

For now foul slurs in dairies

Do fare as well as they:

And though they sweep their hearths no less

Than maids were wont to do,

Yet who of late for cleanliness

Finds sixpence in her shoe?

Lament, lament, old Abbies,

The fairies’ lost command,

They did but change priests’ babies,

But some have changed your land;

And all your children stolen from thence

Are now grown Puritanes,

Who live as changelings ever since

For love of your demaines.

At morning and at evening both

You merry were and glad,

So little care of sleep and sloth

These pretty ladies had:

When Tom came home from labor

Or Ciss to milking rose,

Then merrily went their tabor

And nimbly went their toes.

Witness those rings and roundelays

Of theirs which yet remain,

Were footed in Queen Mary's days

On many a grassy plain;

But since of late Elizabeth

And later James came in,

They never danced on any heath

As when the time hath bin. [page 100:]

By which we note the fairies

Were of the old profession,

Their songs were Ave Marys,

Their dances were procession;

But now alas they all are dead

Or gone beyond the seas,

Or farther for religion fled —

Or else they take their ease.

A tell-tale in their company

They never could endure,

And whoso kept not secretly

Their mirth was punished sure;

It was a just and Christian deed

To pinch such black and blue —

Oh how the commonwealth doth need

Such justices as you!

Now they have left our quarters

A register they have,

Who can preserve their charters —

A man both wise and grave.

An hundred of their merry pranks

By one that I could name

Are kept in store; con twenty thanks

To William for the same.

To William Churne of Steffordshire [[Staffordshire]]

Give land and praises due,

Who every meal can mend your cheer

With tales both old and true.

To William all give audience

And pray you for his noddle,

For all the fairies evidence

Were lost if it were addle.

The Maiden lamenting for her Fawn, by Marvell, is, we are pleased to see, a favorite with our friends of [page 101:] the American Monthly. Such portion of it as we now copy, we prefer not only as a specimen of the elder poets, but, in itself, as a beautiful poem, abounding in the sweetest pathos, in soft and gentle images, in the most exquisitely delicate imagination, and in truth — to any thing of its species.

It is a wondrous thing how fleet

’T was on those little silver feet,

With what a pretty skipping grace

It oft would challenge me the race,

And when’t had left me far away

’T would stay and run again and stay;

For it was nimbler much than hinds,

And trod as if on the four winds.

I have a garden of my own,

But so with roses overgrown,

And lilies that you would it guess

To be a little wilderness,

And all the spring-time of the year

It only loved to be there.

Among the beds of lilies I

Have sought it oft where it should lie,

Yet could not till itself would rise

Find it although before mine eyes.

For in the flaxen lilies shade,

It like a bank of lilies laid,

Upon the roses it would feed

Until its lips even seemed to bleed,

And then to me ’t would boldly trip,

And print those roses on my lip,

But all its chief delight was still

On roses thus itself to fill,

And its pure virgin limbs to fold

In whitest sheets of lilies cold.

Had it lived long it would have been

Lilies without, roses within. [page 102:]

How truthful an air of deep lamentation hangs here upon every gentle syllable! It pervades all. It comes over the sweet melody of the words, over the gentleness and grace which we fancy in the little maiden herself, even over the half-playful, half-petulant air with which she lingers on the beauties and good qualities of her favorite — like the cool shadow of a summer cloud over a bed of lilies and violets, and “all sweet flowers.”

The whole thing is redolent with poetry of the very loftiest order. It is positively crowded with nature and with pathos. Every line is an idea — conveying either the beauty and playfulness of the fawn, or the artlessness of the maiden, or the love of the maiden, or her admiration, or her grief, or the fragrance and sweet warmth, and perfect appropriateness of the little nest-like bed of lilies and roses, which the fawn devoured as it lay upon them, and could scarcely be distinguished from them by the once happy little damsel who went to seek her pet with an arch and rosy smile upon her face. Consider the great variety of truth and delicate thought in the few lines we have quoted — the wonder of the maiden at the fleetness of her favorite — the “little silver feet” — the fawn challenging his mistress to the race, “with a pretty skipping grace,” running on before, and then, with head turned back, awaiting her approach only to fly from it again — can we not distinctly perceive all these things? The exceeding vigor, too, and beauty of the line

And trod as if on the four winds,

which are vividly apparent when we regard the artless nature of the speaker, and the four feet of the favorite [page 103:]one for each wind. Then the garden of “my own,” so overgrown — entangled — with lilies and roses as to be “a little wilderness” — the fawn loving to be there and there “only” — the maiden seeking it “where it should lie,” and not being able to distinguish it from the flowers until “itself would rise” — the lying among the lilies “like a bank of lilies” — the loving to “fill” itself with roses,

And its pure virgin limbs to fold

In whitest sheets of lilies cold,

and these things being its “chief” delights — and then the pre-eminent beauty and naturalness of the concluding lines — whose very outrageous hyperbole and absurdity only render them the more true to nature and to propriety, when we consider the innocence, the artlessness, the enthusiasm, the passionate grief, and more passionate admiration of the bereaved child.

Had it lived long it would have been

Lilies without — roses within.





[S:1 - JAH09, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of The Book of Gems)