Page images
PDF
EPUB

'Wretch!' I cried, thy God hath lent thee-by these angels he hath sent thee Respite-respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore! Quaff, oh, quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!' Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore!' "Prophet,' said I, 'thing of evil, prophet still, if bird or devil! Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore, Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchantedOn this home, by horror haunted-tell me truly, I implore,— Is there, is there balm in Gilead? tell me, tell me, I implore!' Quoth the Raven, Nevermore!'

[ocr errors]

66 6 Prophet,' said I, thing of evil, prophet still, if bird or devil! By that heaven that bends above us-by that God we both adoreTell this soul with sorrow laden, if within the distant Aidenn It shall clasp a sainted maiden, whom the angels call LenoreClasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels call Lenore.' Quoth the Raven, Nevermore!' "Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend,' I shrieked, upstarting,

[ocr errors]

'Get thee back into the tempest and the night's Plutonian shore! Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken! Leave my loneliness unbroken!-quit the bust above my door! Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'

6

Quoth the Raven, Nevermore!' "And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting On the pallid bust of Pallas, just above my chamber door; And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming, And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow that lies flitting on the floor, Shall be lifted nevermore."

Our readers will all agree with us in pronouncing this poem to be one of unquestionable merit. It exhibits a truly extraordinary mastery over most of the difficulties of verse. The power of rhyme displayed in it has not been surpassed or even equalled in our time, except by the late Thomas Hood. The metre is, in the abstract, a very fine one; like all very fine metres, its movement once heard can never be forgotten; and it has the additional merit of being perfectly adapted to the subject; the cadence at the end of each stanza is, by itself, expressive of the calm and settled, and almost careless sorrow conveyed by the words. The phraseology is extremely colloquial, without being at all undignified; and the prevailing sentiment, though deeply mournful, and verging upon despair, is never unmanly in its tone. We have endeavoured, in our extracts, to take the high-water marks

The Mediocrity of American Poets.

417

of American poetry in its different kinds; and as in Mr. Read's "Closing Scene" we have the best example we could find of the passive or feminine phase of poetical feeling, so here we have the highest example which America has yet produced of that manliness of passion which will rather relieve itself by laughter than by tears. Nothing can be better in its way than the mechanism of this poem. The expression of the sentiment upon which the poem is founded is most elaborately wrought out; and no poetical aid that could have been thought of is wanting. Mr. Poe has written other poems, but none of them, in our opinion, is comparable to this. He has also published a number of tales, which are of a very extraordinary character. They deal mainly in the simply horrible and marvellous; but these common elements of effect are managed with such unusual power, and in such a peculiar manner, that they cease to be vulgar. In the recent death of this young poet and romancist America has suffered a loss which will be more appreciated fifty years hence than it is now.

We have now placed before our readers the very best blossoms out of the garden-a very wide one-of American verse. The number of "respectable" versifiers who have come into existence in America, during the last few years, is surprising. The fertility of the New World in the production of mediocre poets exceeds even that of our own land. Indeed, almost every American seems to be possessed of the "accomplishment of verse" to some considerable degree. But that American poets are deficient in the "faculty divine," which shews us thoughts, and feelings, and facts from a totally new point of view, and spiritually enriches us with the revelation of an individuality quite different from our own or any other with which we have hitherto become acquainted, must be abundantly manifest to those of our readers who possess the amount of originality which is requisite to enable them to recognise true originality in others. Unquestionable as is the merit of each of the four writers whom we have selected as being, to our mind, the best of the American poets, we must confess that it never rises to a higher mark than this-that their poetry equals first-class modern English poetry in its own way: that is to say, they have succeeded in producing repetitions-which are not necessarily imitations of firstrate original poetry; but have never attained to the production of first-rate original poetry themselves.

In conclusion, let us throw together a few recommendations which it seems especially desirable that American poets should follow, if they would ever rise above their present mediocrity, which is not tolerable to "gods or men," although, unfortu

nately for the poets themselves, it is tolerated by women, and therefore by "columns."

Follow, in poetry, the artistic law of architecture, which adopts, perfects, and displays, with the utmost degree of ostentation, the essential, but nothing else. Unsuperfluousness is the invariable effect and the most powerful means of expressing real passion; and it can never be too often repeated that, in a good poem, all the words must be the words; for true feeling, if it is able to express itself at all, does so with perfect accuracy and eloquence.

Do not write in metres that you do not understand. It is difficult to do full justice even to the simplest metres; but we find now-a-days the merest novices in verse attempting to dance in fetters which could hardly be worn gracefully by the mightiest poets.

In choosing your subject, and in deciding upon your method of treating it, remember that simple nature is full of endless significance and symbolism; meaning within meaning, like—

"Laborious orient ivory, sphere in sphere;"

and that the great difficulty in art is not to infuse nature with significance; but to apprehend and express the significance of nature. To do this properly, demands that your imagination should have received the highest religious culture; otherwise you will fall foul either of Pietism or Pantheism-extremes which are equally fatal to the poet.

Bear in mind the vast responsibility of public utterance. It is bad to become, like Milton's devil, "a liar in four hundred mouths," or more, by speaking without regard to the truth of the universe, in the most ephemeral magazine or newspaper; but how greatly aggravated is the crime of him who, in hope at least, is writing for all time, and raising, for aught he cares, a standing miracle of iniquity-for such is the proper designation of certain "works of art" which we could name, but will not, lest we should be charged with bigotry.

In intellect, no less than in action, the way of life is narrow, and in intellect, far more than in action, the temptation to pursue "the broad way and the green" is mighty. But heavenly truth, like heavenly life, is found to be "exceeding broad" when we are once really in the fruition of it. "He that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully; what is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord." We know the things that truly concern us, and in what Book they are to be sought; and "if any man shall add to these things, God shall add to him the plagues that are written in this Book; and if any man shall take away from the words of the Book of this prophecy, God shall

Poetical Language Suggestive and not Exhaustive.

take away his part out of the Book of Life." Again, "The words of the Lord are pure words, as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times." Such should be, such must be the true poet's words; for, bear well in mind, that finish in art is not a question of surface, but of essence; finished expression is nothing more nor less than perfectly true expression; and all want of finish is simply want of truth. "How forcible are right words!" exclaims Job; and he might, alas! have exclaimed, with almost equal justice, "How forcible are wrong words!"

Do not, however, fancy that the execution is the only stage of your work at which you are to pray for inspiration. The greatest labour and the deepest inspiration of a large work must come before what is commonly called its execution. It is far better that the execution of your idea should be imperfect, than that the idea itself should lack worth and adequate general develop

ment.

419

Beware of the modern tendency to be unartistically explicit. Be as explicit as you can consistently with that primary demand of your art, extreme condensation and pregnancy; but remember that poetical language is representative and suggestive, and not, like prosaic, or "scientific" language, arbitrary and exhaustive. In Swedenborg's "Heaven and Hell," where he describes the language of the angels, there are some passages which come nearer than any we have ever met with to a description of what poetical language ought to be:

"This language is not learned artificially, but is inherent in every one; for it flows direct from their affection and thought. The sound of their speech corresponds to their affection, and the articulations of sound composing the words correspond to the ideas of their thought proceeding from their affection: and as their language corresponds to these, it likewise is spiritual, being in reality audible affection and speaking thought. Whoever attends to the subject may be aware that all thought proceeds from affection, and that the ideas of thought are various forms into which the common affection is distributed; for no thought or idea can possibly exist without affection, it being from this that it derives its soul and life. . . . . . The angelic tongue has nothing in common with human [prosaic] languages, except with certain words, the sound of which is derived from some affection. Since the speech of the angels corresponds to their affection, which belongs to their love, and the love that prevails in heaven is love to the Lord, and love towards the neighbour, it is evident how elegant and pleasing must be their discourse; for it not only affects the ears, but also the interiors of the minds of those who hear it. There was a certain spirit, remarkable for hardness of heart, with whom an angel was speaking, and who at length burst into tears: he said that he could not help it, for what he heard was love itself speaking; and that he had never wept before. The speech of the angels is also full

of wisdom, because it proceeds from their interior thought, and their interior thought is wisdom, as their interior affection is love. In their speech their love and wisdom are united, whence it is so full of wisdom that they are able to express by a single word what man cannot in a thousand."—Heaven and Hell, translated by S. Noble, pp. 94-96.

Above all things, let the modern poet take the commonplace warning to beware of self-conceit, which, if allowed to get possession of him, will stop the development of his faculties, and destroy the powers to the use of which he has already attained. This is the age of the priestcraft of the intellect. We have cast off the bondage of those who would have influenced us unduly, in the name of God; but we have assumed the chains of a worse servitude in humbling ourselves before men who preach in their own names, for their own glory. This is not the place for an appeal to the self-degrading worshippers of the "intellect" -a class of persons who are only less miserable than those who treat superior faculty and information with disrespect. Our word is to the "men of intellect" themselves; particularly to the men of that kind of intellect which owes its power to health and vigour of imagination. To these we say, Do not be led astray by the adulation of your foolish worshippers; take your populalarity to pieces, and see what it is really worth. True fame must come from men who are your equals, or superiors, in gifts of mind; and these do not make their voices heard, until popularity which comes from those who are lower in the scale of intellect than yourself, has done with its loud and fitful blasts. To beseech you, with many arguments, to remember that he is the greatest who is, in heart as well as in work, the servant of all, would be to trespass upon the office of the Christian pastor; but there is one humiliating fact which we may here impress upon those who, justly or not, think themselves to be great among the teachers of others, and the glorifiers in verse, or otherwise, of the works of God. It is certain that the sense of truth and loveliness which makes you eloquent, is inferior in force to the sense of the same truth and loveliness which makes others silent. Hear the sentence of the most inspired man of modern times :

"Men adroit

In speech, and for communion with the world
Accomplished, minds whose faculties are then
Most active when they are most eloquent,
And elevated most, when most admired.
Men may be found of other mould than these;
Who are their own upholders, to themselves
Encouragement, and energy, and will;
Expressing liveliest thoughts in lively words,

« PreviousContinue »