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"Ah! let me blameless gaze upon
Nor fear those watchful sentinels,
The publication of a volume of such poetry at the present day is a strange phenomenon; but a stranger, still, is the eagerness with which it is received by quite a large circle of neophytes, who look down with pitying contempt on all those who cannot share their admiration of its contents. It is stereotyped, and we hear that one or two thousand copies of it have been sold. How far the taste may be perverted by fashion, prejudice, or the influences of a clique or school, it is impossible to say; but there must be limits to all corruptions of it which come short of insanity. It is possible to profess admiration which one does not feel; or for the faculties to be so impaired by disease as to become insensible to their appropriate gratifications. The ear may lose its perception of the finest harmonies, the olfactory nerve may no longer be gratified by the most delicious perfumes; these would be mere defects, a loss of the sources of great enjoyment. But we cannot conceive of enjoyments being created of an opposite character. The ear cannot be trained to receive pleasure from discords, nor the sense of smell to enjoy a stench. As with the pleasures of sense, so is it with intellectual gratifications. We may never have acquired a relish for them, or we may lose it by neglect. But one cannot change the nature of things, and derive positive pleasure from that which is distasteful and odious by its original constitution. Incoherency of thought and studied obscurity of expression, an unmeaning jumble of words and a heap of vulgar and incongruous images, cannot, as such, be agreeable objects to contemplate. If praised by a sect, it must be because each one relies on the opinion of his fellows, so that there is not one independent judgment among them. If the hierophant of the sect be a shrewd humorist, it is most likely that he is mocking the weakness of his admirers.
We pass on to the second Muse on our list. After turning over the leaves of Mr. Channing's volume, one is tempted to exclaim,- Why, this is more excellent foolery than the other. His poetry is a feeble and diluted copy of Mr.
Emerson's, - not so mystical and incoherent, but far more childish and insipid. The two publications come together very naturally, as cause and effect; the one is a commentary on the other, the pupil following very closely his master's principles of taste and composition, and carrying them out even more boldly to their legitimate results. Their peculiarities of style are matters of choice and not of accident; their diction is slovenly upon system, and they strive after dulness and imbecility, as for hidden treasures. They have inverted the poetical decalogue, and strive to commit literary suicide with as much eagerness as others labor for literary immortality. We do not conceive, therefore, that we are doing them any disservice by holding up their peculiarities to the world; they are anxious to be expelled from the ranks of other poets, and court no honors but those of martyrdom.
If it were not for this consideration, we should hesitate about taking any notice of Mr. Channing's effusions. It is no pleasure to us, certainly, and will probably yield no gratification to our readers, to cover our pages with citations from such a work. Criticism is thrown away upon it, so far as the author is concerned. But example is contagious, and a school of admirers and imitators is easily formed under certain influences, which may have a great effect in corrupting the public taste, unless a vigorous protest be uttered in behalf of sound principles and common sense. Novelties are always captivating, and the old standards of poetry are in danger of being neglected and forgotten, the old landmarks in the realm of taste of being swept away, by the mere force of numbers and impudence on the part of the innovators. Something may be gained by reaction, if the full extent of the evil be exposed at one view, and the public be enabled to view the brass and clay that compose the new literary idols which they are invited to worship.
First Love is the title of one of Mr. Channing's more remarkable poems. It is a story about young Henry, who went to church, "am old, a celebrated church " ; yet he went "not as a worshipper," or rather to worship only a young and fair-haired girl.
"Her name was Hester, lovely as the Spring.
It was certainly heathenish to put a church to such uses, and Cupid never played a wilder trick than when he first kindled two hearts, and then laid them on "this reverend building as on a gridiron. The poet now breaks out into
"O what is love, young Love, what liquid fire,
A lively imagination certainly presents young love under a strange variety of aspects, making it appear, at one and the same moment, as "liquid fire," as an undiscovered fur
nace, which would be in itself a very remarkable object, - and as a "mirror in our breasts." That"faint look," also, must needs have been a very holy look, if it was "more worthy to be worshipped" than things divine. But young Henry, as we shall see, had some rather peculiar notions of theology. The sound of the Sabbath bell, we are told, often sent a thrill of fear through his heart,
"Lest Hester might not be at church that day.
How utterly vain and hollow was the Creed
We fear the poor youth had been very imperfectly instructed both in logic and the Catechism. If he went to church only to see Hester, it was a very proper punishment for him that she should stay away, and in her absence that he should be delivered over to Satan. He seems to have been a feebleminded youth, for he never told his love, and never came "nearer lovely Hester's form," than when in church, or when
"He paced the quiet street where Hester lived."
The story is very short, for this is the whole of it, the poet probably thinking that brevity is the soul of pathos, no less than of wit. We learn, however, that
"The ancient Church still holds the sacred form,
And hollow ghosts stalk through the gloomy aisles,
They ought to have joined company with the other ghosts, and continued to stalk through the aisles for at least a century. But they have fled, and may peace go with them; for they were a rare couple.
Paulo majora canamus; let us now pass to the "Ode," the only one in the volume, and see how our poet succeeds in the lyric strain. As most of it is written in the second person, it is apparently addressed to somebody, or to something, we know not what; for the poet does not condescend to inform us. It is evidently written in imitation of Mr. Emerson, for one stanza is quite as intelligible as another, or when standing alone as in company with its fellows. It is, therefore, quite convenient for quotation.
"The circles of thy Thought, shine vast as stars,
No glass shall round them,
No plummet sound them,
They hem the observer like bright steel wrought bars,
Or as bright waters run
From the cold fountain of the Alpine springs,
Or diamonds richly set in the King's rings."
It is often said that the stars shine bright; but we never heard that they shone "vast" before. This must be the effect of the poet's imagination, which is a very lively one, as it can find a similarity between "circles of thought" and "steel wrought bars."
"The pins of custom have not pierced through thee,
Thy shining armor
A perfect charmer;
Even the hornets of Divinity,
Allow thee a brief space,
And thy Thought has a place,
Upon the well-bound Library's chaste shelves,
Where man of various wisdom rarely delves."
We are a little staggered by "the hornets of Divinity," as it is not quite clear what the poet means. Is it an allusion to the text in Exodus, "And I will send hornets before thee, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the - No. 135.
Hittite, from before thee"? Then the person here addressed must be one of the heathen.
As Mr. Emerson has written quite a long poem on Mount Monadnoc, it was quite natural that Mr. Channing should indite another of equal length on Mount Wachusett. While on the summit, having gained what it is the fashion to call a "deeper insight into the heart of things," though we never could tell what this phrase means, he improves the opportunity to discourse about politics and religion.
"Society is leagued against the poor,
The poet must have thought the universe was in a very bad way indeed, when he undertook to physic it with such lines as these. His couplet about industry reminds us of another, which we first heard in our undergraduate days, as an illustration of the straits to which college poets were sometimes reduced for a rhyme.
"Father built a well-sweep,
And wind blew it down; sheep."
Mr. Channing, or as he here styles himself, a non studendo," the Student," evidently thinks that the Christian religon, as well as Mr. Murray's grammar, is an arbitrary imposition of rules, which ought to be resisted by all freemen.
"The Student said, — If all this, truly so,
Recording the fantastic miracles
Done in that day, which read like jugglers' spells,
Which later editors might crib away."
He thinks quite as poorly of the ordinances as the doctrines.
"How cold to me the worn church-service is,
I wonder that some people do not hiss."
We wonder too, considering that geese are quite as able to hiss as to cackle.