Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of The Damsel of Darien,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. X: Literary Criticism - part 03 (1902), 10:49-56


[page 49, continued:]


[Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, November, 1839.]

THE author of “The Damsel of Darien” is also the author of “Atalantis, a Story of the Sea;” “Martin Faber, the Story of a Criminal;” “Guy Rivers, a [page 50:] Tale of Georgia;” “The Partisan, a Tale of the Revolution;” and “Mellichampe, a Legend of the Santee.” Of these works, “Martin Faber” passed to a second edition (and well deserves a permanent success), “Guy Rivers” and “The Yemassee” each to a third. What fate “Mellichampe” met with, or what “The Partisan,” we are not so well prepared to say. In the latter work, with many excellences, were to be found very many disfiguring features, and, upon the whole, we thought it hardly worthy the literary reputation of Mr. Simms. The novel now published is, in our opinion, a much better book; evincing stricter study and care, with a far riper judgment, and a more rigidly disciplined fancy. The path of the writer appears to be still onward, although he proceeds somewhat slowly along that path, to be sure. He is thinking of Festina lente, perhaps. We sincerely wish him all the success to which his talents entitle him, and which his persevering efforts most assuredly deserve.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa is the hero of the “Damsel of Darien”; and the narrative, which of course has no plot, is occupied with his dreams, difficulties, adventures (and, finally, his death, through the jealous tyranny of Pedrarias) in the pursuit of that darling object of his heart, the discovery of the Southern Sea, of which he had obtained some indefinite knowledge from the Indians of Darien during his voyage under Rodrigo de Bastides. As these things are all matters of history, and as Mr. Simms has adhered for the chief part to the ordinary records, it will be unnecessary to dwell upon them here. In the first volume we have the most of pure romance; in the second, more of fact. The passages which, as mere specimens of good writing, [page 51:] we prefer, are to be found in the earlier portion of the story. We might designate the nineteenth and twenty-first chapters (of the first volume) as particularly forcible and full of interest. In the former, Vasco Nunez escapes from the hand of a matador, through the instrumentality of a Caribbean chief (Caonabo), who figures largely in the narrative. In the latter, this chief, being captured by two Spaniards for the sake of a reward set upon his head, seduces his captors, by promises of hidden treasure, into a chasm among the mountains, and entombs them irredeemably by hurling a huge rock upon the aperture through which they entered. This is well told, and has an exciting effect. There are also many other fine episodical pieces interspersed throughout the book, which, altogether, is one of value, and cannot fail of being favourably received. Still, we should not deny that its chief merit lies in the pertinacity of its adherence to fact; and the judicious reader will not be willing to give Mr. Simms exclusive credit for that portion of his entertainment which is referable to the chronicles of the men and times discussed; for that interest in short, which, appertaining to the subject itself, is essentially independent of the author.

Perhaps the following beautiful ballad, which is put into the mouth of the hero, Vasco Nunez, is the most really meritorious portion of the book: —


’Mong Lucayo's isles and waters,

Leaping to the evening light,

Dance the moonlight's silver daughters,

Tresses streaming, glances gleaming,

Ever beautiful and bright. [page 52:]

And their wild and mellow voices,

Still to hear along the deep,

Every brooding star rejoices,

While the billow, on its pillow,

Lull’d to silence, seems to sleep.

Yet they wake a song of sorrow,

Those sweet voices of the night.

Still from grief a gift they borrow,

And hearts shiver, as they quiver,

With a wild and sad delight.

’Tis the wail for life they waken,

By Samana's yielding shore —

With the tempest it is shaken;

The wide ocean is in motion,

And the song is heard no more.

But the gallant bark comes sailing,

At her prow the chieftain stands,

He hath heard the tender wailing; —

It delights him, it invites him,

To the joys of other lands.

Bright the moonlight's round and o’er him,

And O! see, a picture lies

In the gentle waves before him, —

Woman smiling, still beguiling,

With her dark and lovely eyes.

White arms toss above the waters,

Pleading murmurs fill his ears,

And the gem of ocean's daughters,

Love assuring, still alluring,

Wins him down with tears.

On, the good ship speeds without him,

By Samana's silver shore —

They have twined their arms about him,

Ocean's daughters in the waters,

Sadly singing as before. [page 53:]

The defects of the “Damsel of Darien” are few, and seldom radical. The leading sin is the sin of imitation — the entire absence of originality. This fault is especially seen in the manner, which, in regard to the greater portion of the narrative, could not be made by the caricaturist more utterly commonplace than it is. Mr. Simms adheres to the good old-fashioned way of getting at his subjects, and of handling them when attained. Every sentence puts us in mind of something we have heard similarly said before. This imitation is also perceptible in higher particulars. It pervades even the headings of his chapters, which are all Bulwerized. It extends to his characters. If Felipe Davila is not an humble follower of the old Jew in “Ivanhoe,” then what is he? “And thou thinkest, worthy Micer Codro, that the fortune of the brave youth is good, albeit he doth reject the offer of Enciso? Will the stars keep faith with him that is so obstinate? It were beggary to me, worthy Micer, should the castillanos — seven hundred and fifty —” etc., etc. The tone and material of all the astrological portion of the story is awkwardly adopted from “Godolphin.” We say awkwardly; for, in that fervidly poetical tale, the predictions of the star-gazer not only work out their own fulfilment, but are in accurate keeping with the dream-life character of the whole fiction. Besides, the astrological rant of old Micer Codro, in the “Damsel of Darien,” puts us constantly in mind of the “hi presto!” twaddle of Signor Blitz.

Mr. Simms is now and then guilty of a grossness of thought and expression which indicates anything but refinement of mind. We spoke of this matter at some length in a review, elsewhere, of the “Partisan,” and we speak of it now because we would particularly call [page 54:] the author's attention to the subject. By grossness of expression we do not mean indelicacy, but the expression of images which repel and disgust. At page 59, Vol. I., for example, the novelist dwells too unequivocally upon the horrid barbarities inflicted upon the Indians by Jorge Garabito. At page 195, we read, — “The sabueso has no keener scent for his victim, and loves not better to snuff up the thick blood with his nostrils.” And at page 219, what can be in worse taste than such a phrase as, — “I will advance to the short banyan that stands within the path, and my dagger shall pick his teeth, ere he gets round it.” The most curious instance, however, of our author's penchant for such things as these occurs at page 98 of the same volume, where, amid a passage of great beauty, he pauses to quote from the “Siege of Corinth” the well-known image about “peeling the fig when the fruit is fresh” — an image whose disgusting application where it originally stands has been often made the subject of severe and very justifiable censure.

The style of our novelist has improved of late, but is still most faulty. The Dedication to Mr. Paulding needs no comment from us. Every one who either writes or reads at all will pronounce it a disgraceful piece of composition. Never was anything so laboriously bad. The whole work, indeed, abounds with awkward or positively ungrammatical phrases; but we shall be satisfied with pointing out merely one or two.

Page 17, Vol. I., — “He was noted for his vigour and address in jousts and tilting matches, was unsurpassed in feats of horsemanship, and — an accomplishment not less attractive among his admirers — a most capital musician.” Here a musician and a compliment are placed in opposition. [page 55:]

At page 123, we read thus, — “This was spoken by Ojeda while at some little distance from, and while the crowd stood, a solid mass, between him and his rival.” Here the sentence is to be tortured into grammar only by placing in a parenthesis the words “and while the crowd stood a solid mass between him and.” But how easily might it have been written that “ Ojeda said this while the crowd stood, a solid mass, between himself and his rival, whose position was at some little distance from his own.”

Again, at page 59, Vol. I., — “Women, who are very foolish, are apt to be very cruel.” In this equivocal sentence, Mr. S., no doubt, intended to assert that very foolish women are apt to be very cruel. His words, as they stand, however, convey a really serious charge of stupidity against the gentle sex at large. These faulty constructions, occurring at every page, not only offend the eye of the critic, and lessen the authority of the writer, but have an exceedingly large influence in marring the beauty of sentiment, by rendering abortive all vigour of thought.

In another point of view Mr. S. has committed certain blunders, or fallen into certain inadvertences, which it might be as well to remedy in a second edition. The whole account of the hurricane is, we think, monstrously at war with all the dicta of common sense, as well as all the known principles of natural philosophy. The writer discourses of the storm as he would of a wild beast; and the reader cannot get over the idea that Mr. S. actually supposes it to be something which possesses an existence independent of that atmosphere of which it is merely a quality or condition.

At page 161 of the same volume, we find these [page 56:] words, — “And how natural, in an age so fanciful, to believe that the stars and starry groups beheld in the new world, for the first time by the native of the old, were especially assigned for its government and protection!” Now if by the old world be meant the East, and by the new world the West, we are quite at a loss to know what are the stars seen in the one, which cannot be equally seen in the other.

Some singular instances of bad taste (instances of a different character from those above noted) are also observable in the “Damsel of Darien,” but we cannot now attempt to indicate them in detail. There is a ludicrous example, however, which it will not do to pass by, and which occurs at page 105 of the first volume. “It was a pile of the oyster,” says Mr. S., “which yielded the precious pearls of the South, and the artist had judiciously painted some with their lips parted, and showing within the large precious fruit in the attainment of which Spanish cupidity had already proved itself capable of every peril as well as of every crime. The intention of the artist was of much more merit than his execution. At once true and poetical, no comment could have been more severe upon the national character than that conveyed in this slight design.” Now we can have no doubt in the world that the artist was a clever fellow in his way, but it is really difficult to conceive what kind of poetical beauty that can be which Mr. Simms is so happy as to discover in the countenance of a gaping oyster.





[S:1 - JAH10, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of The Damsel of Darien)