Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of The Poetical Writings of Mrs. E. O. Smith,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XII: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 228-233


[page 228, continued:]


[Broadway Journal, Aug. 23, 1845.]

MRS. ELIZABETH OAKES SMITH (better known as Mrs. Seba Smith) is indebted for her reputation as a poet, principally to “The Sinless Child,” her longest and perhaps her most meritorious composition. It was originally published in the “Southern Literary Messenger,” where it at once attracted much notice — but was not thoroughly appreciated until its second introduction to the public, in volume form, by Mr. John Keese, as editor. In a well-written Preface, he pointed out its peculiar merits, and these have since been readily and very generally admitted.

Of course we do not agree with Mr. Keese in all the encomium which his personal partialities, perhaps, rather than his judgment, have induced him to lavish on “The Sinless Child.” The conception is original, but somewhat forced; and although the execution is, in parts, effective, still the conduct, upon the whole, is feeble, and the dénoúement is obscure, and inconsequential. In any commendation of the poem, the critic should confine himself, principally, to detached passages. Many of these will be found to possess merit of a lofty order — and very many of them are remarkable for ease, grace, and exceeding [page 229:] delicacy and purity of thought and manner. For example:

Each tiny leaf became a scroll

Inscribed with holy truth,

A lesson that around the heart

Should keep the dew of youth;

Bright missals from angelic throngs

In every by-way left.

How were the earth of glory shorn,

Were it of flowers bereft!

We prefer, however, the little episode called “The Stepmother” to any portion of “The Sinless Child,” and shall take the liberty of quoting it in full. It has been universally and justly admired:

You speak of Hobert’s second wife, a lofty dame and bold,

I like not her forbidding air, and forehead high and cold;

The orphans have no cause for grief, she dare not give it now.

Though nothing but a ghostly fear, her heart of pride could bow.

One night the boy his mother called, they heard him weeping say,

“Sweet mother, kiss poor Eddy’s cheek, and wipe his tears away.”

Red grew the lady’s brow with rage, and yet she feels a strife

Of anger and of terror too, at thought of that dead wife.

Wild roars the wind, the lights burn blue, the watch-dog howls with fear, [page 230:]

Loud neighs the steed from out the stall: what form is gliding near?

No latch is raised, no step is heard, but a phantom fills the space —

A sheeted spectre from the dead, with cold and leaden face.

What boots it that no other eye beheld the shade appear

The guilty lady’s guilty soul beheld it plain and clear,

It slowly glides within the room, and sadly looks around —

And stooping, kissed her daughter’s cheek with lips that gave no sound.

Then softly on the step-dame’s arm she laid a death-cold hand,

Yet it hath scorched within the flesh like to a burning brand.

And gliding on with noiseless foot, o’er winding stair and hall,

She nears the chamber where is heard her infant’s trembling call.

She smoothed the pillow where he lay, she warmly tucked the bed,

She wiped his tears, and stroked the curls that clustered round his head.

The child, caressed, unknowing fear, hath nestled him to rest;

The Mother folds her wings beside — the Mother from the Blest!

“The Acorn” has been often mentioned as the best of Mrs. Smith’s poems, and in many respects it is. It has more completeness than “The Sinless Child,” and excels it in vigor, as well as in the minor merit of versification. It by no means equals it, however, [page 231:] in fancy, or in the originality of its conception. The subject of “The Acorn” is not a novel one.

Many of the Sonnets and shorter compositions, in the volume before us, are exceedingly beautiful. All are replete with that delicacy which is the distinguishing trait of the fair author. The two stanzas entitled “Presages” will exemplify this trait and Mrs. Smith’s general manner, perhaps, more strikingly than anything we could cite of similar length.

There are who from their cradle bear

The impress of a grief —

Deep, mystic eyes, and forehead fair,

And looks that ask relief;

The shadows of a coming doom,

Of sorrow and of strife,

When Fates conflicting round the loom,

Wove the sad web of life.

And others come, the gladsome ones,

All shadowless and gay,

Like sweet surprise of April suns,

Or music gone astray;

Arrested, half in doubt we turn

To catch another sight,

So strangely rare it is to learn

A presage of delight.

The poem entitled “The Water” is singularly happy, both in its conception and execution. We copy the two first stanzas, not only for their excellence, but by way of collating them with the opening lines of “Rain in Summer,” a poem by Professor Longfellow, published in the August number of “Graham’s Magazine.” [page 232:]

How beautiful the water is!

Didst ever think of it,

When it tumbles from the skies,

As in a merry fit?

It jostles, ringing as it falls,

On all that’s in its way —

I hear it dancing on the roof,

Like some wild thing at play.

’T is rushing now adown the spout

And gushing out below,

Half frantic in its joyousness,

And wild in eager flow.

The earth is dried and parched with heat,

And it hath longed to be

Released out the selfish cloud,

To cool the thirsty tree.

Mr. Longfellow’s poem commences thus:

How beautiful is the rain!

After the dust and heat,

In the broad and fiery street,

In the narrow lane,

How beautiful is the rain!

How it clatters upon the roofs,

Like the trample of hoofs!

How it gushes, and struggles out

From the throat of the overflowing spout!

Across the window-pane,

It pours and pours,

And swift and wide,

With a muddy tide,

Like a river down the gutter roars

The rain, the welcome rain! [page 233:]

If this is not a plagiarism, and a very bold one, on the part of Professor Longfellow, will anybody be kind enough to tell us what it is?

Mrs. Smith’s book is a neat 16mo of more than 200 pages. Its mechanical execution is altogether excellent — reflecting credit on the taste and liberality of Mr. Redfield.





[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of The Poetical Writings of Mrs. E. O. Smith)