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WHY THE LITTLE FRENCHMAN WEARS HIS HAND IN A S:ING,.
THE POETIC PRINCIPLE.
In speaking of the Poetic Principle, I have no design to be either thorough or profound. While discussing, very much at random, the essentiality of what we call Poetry, my principal purpose will be to cite for consideration, some few of those minor English or American poems which best suit my own taste, or which, upon my own fancy, have left the most definite impression. “ minor poems” I mean, of course, poems of little length. And here, in the beginning, permit me to say a few words in regard to a somewhat peculiar principle, which, whether rightfully or wrongfully, has always had its influence in my own critical estimate of the poem. I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, “a long poem,” is simply a flat contradiction in terms.
I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags-fails—* revulsion ensues--and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.
There are, no doubt, many who have found difficulty in reconciling the critical dictum that the “ Paradise Lost” is to be devoutly admired throughout, with the absolute impossibility of maintaining for it, during perusal, the amount of enthusiasm which
that critical dictum would demand. This great work, in fact, is to be regarded as poetical, only when, losing sight of that rital requisite in all works of Art, Unity, we view it merely as a series of minor poems. If, to preserve its Unity—its totality of effect or impression-we read it (as would be necessary) at a single sitting, the result is but a constant alternation of excitement and depression. After a passage of what we feel to be true poe. try, there follows, inevitably, a passage of platitude which no critical pre-judgment can force us to admire; but if, upon completing the work, we read it again ; omitting the first book—that is to say, commencing with the second-we shall be surprised at now finding that admirable which we before condemned--that damnable which we had previously so much admired. It follows from all this that the ultimate, aggregate, or absolute effect of even the best epic under the sun, is a nullity :--and this is precisely the fact.
In regard to the Iliad, we have, if not positive proof, at least > very good reason, for believing it intended as a series of lyrics ;
but, granting the epic intention, I can say only that the work is based in an imperfect sense of Art. The modern epic is, of the suppositious ancient model, but an inconsiderate and blindfold imitation. But the day of these artistic anomalies is over. If, at any time, any very long poem were popular in reality-which I doubt--it is at least clear that no very long poem will ever be popular again.
That the extent of a poetical work is, ceteris paribus, the measure of its merit, seems undoubtedly, when we thus state it, a proposition sufficiently absurd-yet we are indebted for it to the quarterly Reviews. Surely there can be nothing in mere size, abstractly considered—there can be nothing in mere bulk, so far as a volume is concerned, which has so continuously elicited admiration from these saturnine pamphlets! A mountain, to be sure, by the mere sentiment of physical magnitude which it conveys, does impress us with a sense of the sublime—but no man is impressed after this fashion by the material grandeur of even “The Columbiad.” Even the Quarterlies have not instructed us to be so impressed by it. As yet, they have not insisted on our estimating Lamartine by the cubic foot, or Pollock by the pound
but what else are we to infer from their continual prating about
many which I have been just urging, will be received as selfevident. In the meantime, by being generally condemned as falsities, they will not be essentially damaged as truths.
On the other hand, it is clear that a poem may be improperly brief. Undue brevity degenerates into mere epigrammatism. A very short poem, while now and then producing a brilliant or vivid, never produces a profound or enduring effect. There must be the steady pressing down of the stamp upon the wax. De
2 Béranger has wrought innumerable things, pungent and spiritstirring ; but, in general, they have been too imponderous to stamp themselves deeply into the public attention ; and thus, as
feathers of fancy, have been blown aloft only to be whistled down the wind.
A remarkable instance of the effect of undue brevity in depressing a poem--in keeping it out of the popular view--is afforded by the following exquisite little Serenade:
The wandering airs they faint
On the dark, the silent stream
Like sweet thoughts in a dream;
The nightingale's complaint,
It dies upon her heart,
O, beloved as thou art !
0, lift me from the grass !
I die, I faint, I fail !
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My heart beats loud and fast :
Where it will break at last!
Very few, perhaps, are familiar with these lines-yet no jess a poet than Shelley is their author. Their warm, yet delicate and ethereal imagination will be appreciated by all--but by none so thoroughly as by him who has himself arisen from sweet dreams of one beloved, to bathe in the aromatic air of a southern midsummer night.
One of the finest poems by Willis--the very best, in my opinion, which he has ever written--has, no doubt, through this same defect of undue brevity, been kept back from its proper position, not less in the critical than in the popular view.
The shadows lay along Broadway,
'Twas near the twilight-tideAnd slowly there a lady fair
Was walking in her pride.
Walk'd spirits at her side.
Peace charm’d the street beneath her feet,
And Honor charm'd the air ; And all astir looked kind on her,
And call’d her good as fair-For all God ever gave to her
She kept with chary care.
She kept with care her beauties rare
From lovers warm and true-
And the rich came not to woo-
If priests the selling do.
Now walking there was one more fair
A slight girl, lily-pale;
To make the spirit quail —