« ZurückWeiter »
veyors might fix that stigma upon us, by whose means Graylock becomes Saddle-mountain on the maps, and Tahconic is converted from his paganism, and undergoes baptism as Mount Everett. All the world over, the poet is not what he was in ruder times. If he ever unite, as formerly, the bardic and sacerdotal offices, that conjunction forebodes nothing graver than the publication of a new hymn-book. The sanctity of the character is gone; the garret is no safer than the firstfloor. Every dun and tipstaff sets at naught the precedent of the great Emathian conqueror. Poetry once concerned itself with the very staple of existence. Now it is a thing apart. The only time we were ever conscious that the Muse did still sometimes cast a halo round every-day life was when we heard the "Village Blacksmith" congratulating himself, that Longfellow had had his smithy "drawed as nateral as a picter."
Many respectable persons are greatly exercised in spirit at the slow growth of what they are pleased to call a national literature. They conjecture of the forms of our art from the shape of our continent, reversing the Platonic method. They deduce a literary from a geographical originality; a new country, therefore new thoughts. A reductio ad absurdum would carry this principle to the extent of conforming an author's mind to the house he lived in. These enthusiasts wonder, that our mountains have not yet brought forth a poet, forgetting that a mouse was the result of the only authentic mountainous parturition on record. Others, more hopeful, believe the continent to be at least seven months gone with a portentous minstrel, who, according to the most definite augury we have seen, shall "string" our woods, mountains, lakes, and rivers, and then "wring" from them (no milder term, or less suggestive of the laundry, will serve) notes of "autochthonic significance." We have heard of one author, who thinks it quite needless to be at the pains of a jury of matrons on the subject, as he makes no doubt that the child of Destiny is already born, and that he has discovered in himself the genuine Terra Filius.
Never was there so much debate of a national literature as during the period immediately succeeding our Revolution, and never did the Titan of native song make such efforts to get himself born as then. Hopkinson, Freneau, Paine, and Barlow were the result of that travail. It was not the
fault of the country; it was even newer then than now, and its shape (if that was to be effectual in the matter) was identical. Nor was zeal or pains wanting. It is believed that the "Conquest of Canaan" and the "Vision of Columbus" were read by authentic men and women. The same patriotism which refused the tea swallowed the poetry. The same hardy spirit, the same patient endurance, which brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth rock, was not yet gone out of the stock. A nation which had just gone through a seven years' war could undergo a great deal.
But we must come sooner or later to the conclusion, that literature knows no climatic distinctions of that external kind which are presupposed in this clamor for a national literature. The climate in which the mind of an author habitually dwells whether it be that of Greece, Asia, Italy, Germany, or England-moulds the thought and the expression. But that which makes poetry poetry, and not prose, is the same everywhere. The curse of Babel fell not upon the Muse. Climate gives inexorable laws to architecture, and all importations from abroad are contraband of nature, sure to be satirized by whatever is native to the soil. There is but one sky of song, and the growth of the tropics will bear the open air of the pole. For man is the archetype of poetry. Its measure and proportion, as Vitruvius reports of the Doric pillar, are borrowed of him. Natural scenery has little hand in it, national peculiarities none at all. Not Simoïs or Scamander, but Helen, Priam, Andromache, give divinity to the tale of Troy. Dante's Italicism is his lame foot. Shakspeare would fare ill, were we to put him upon proof of his Englishry. So homogeneous is the structure of the mind, that Sir William Jones conceived Odin and Fo to be identical.
There is no fear but we shall have a national literature soon enough. Meanwhile, we may be sure that all attempts at the forcible manufacture of such a product (especially out of physical elements) will be as fruitless as the opus magnum of the alchemists. The cunning of man can only adroitly combine the materials lying ready to his hand. It has never
yet compassed the creation of any seed, be it never so small. As a nation, we are yet too full of hurry and bustle. The perfectly balanced tree can grow only in the wind-bound shelter of the valley. Our national eagerness for immediate re
sults infests our literature. We wish to taste the fruit of our culture, and as yet plant not that slower growth which ripens for posterity. The mental characteristic of the pioneer has become engrained in us, outliving the necessity which begot it. Everywhere the blackened stumps of the clearing jut out like rocks amid the yellow waves of our harvest. We have not learned to wait; our chief aim is to produce, and we are more careful of quantity than quality. We cannot bring ourselves to pinch off a part of the green fruit, that the ripe may be more perfect. To be left behind is the opprobrium; we desire an immediate effect. Hence, a large part of that mental energy, which would else find its natural bent in literary labor, turns to the lecture-room or the caucus, or mounts that ready-made rostrum of demagogues, the stump. If any man think he has an errand for the general ear, he runs at full speed with it, and delivers such fragments as he has breath left to utter. If we adopt a Coptic emblem, and paste it on the front of our pine-granite propylæa, it must have wings, implying speed. That symbol of wiser meaning, with finger upon lip, is not for us. We break our eggs, rather than await the antiquated process of incubation. We pull up what we have planted, to see if it have taken root. We fell the primeval forest, and thrust into the ground a row of bean-poles for shade. We cannot spare the time to sleep upon any thing; we must be through by daylight. Our boys debate the tariff and the war. Scarce yet beyond the lacteal age, they leave hoop, and ball, and taw, to discuss the tea and coffee tax.
We find talking cheaper than writing, and both easier than thinking. We talk everlastingly; our magazines are nothing but talk, and that of a flaccid and Polonian fibre. The Spartans banished the unfortunate man who boasted that he could talk all day. With us he had been sure of Congress or the Cabinet. No petty African king is fonder of palaver than the sovereign people. Our national bird is of no kin to the falcon of the Persian poet, whose taciturnity made him of more esteem than the nightingale. We are always in haste; we build a railroad from the cradle to the grave. Our children cannot spare time to learn spelling; they must take the short cut of phonography. In architecture, we cannot abide the slow teaching of the fitness of things; we parody the sacred growth of ages with our inch-board fragilities,
"Their rafters sprouting on the shady side,"
and every village boasts its papier-machè cathedral. Our railroad-cars are our best effort in this kind yet, the emblems of hurry. The magnetic telegraph is of our invention, a message upon which, travelling westward, outstrips Time himself. The national trait is aptly symbolized by a gentleman we know of, who has erected his own funeral monument (what a titbit for honest old Weever!) and inscribed upon it an epitaph of his own composing, leaving vacant only the date of his demise. This is to be beforehand with Death himself. We remember only the occasio celeris and not the ars longa of the adage. Hence a thousand sciolists for one scholar, a hundred improvisators for one poet. Every thing with us ripens so rapidly, that nothing of ours seems very old but our boys.
A sandy diffuseness of style among our speakers and writers is the result of this hurry. We try to grasp a substantial handful here and there, and it runs through our fingers. How our legislators contrive to sit out each other's speeches we could never conceive. Who reads those interminable debates is a question of harder solution than what song the Sirens sang. In our callower years, we sit down beside them, like the clown at the river's edge. But we soon learn the labitur et labetur. Providence, which has made nothing that is not food for something else, has doubtless so constituted some systems as that they can devour and digest these. The constituency of Buncombe, if it find time to read all that is addressed to it, must be endowed with an unmatched longevity. It must be a community of oldest inhabitants. Yet, with all this tendency to prosing, we love concentration, epigrammatic brevity, antithesis. Hence the potency of phrases among us; a nimble phrase in a trice trips up our judgment; "masterly inactivity," "conquering a peace," "our country right or wrong," and the like. Talleyrand's plan for settling the Restoration on a firm basis would have done for us:"C'est bien, c'est très bien, et tout ce qu'il faut maintenant, ce sont les feux d'artifice et un bon mot pour le peuple."
Under such circumstances, we need hardly expect a sudden crop of epics. We must have something that we can bolt. And we need not trouble ourselves about the form or the growth of our literature. The law of demand and supply
is as inexorable here as in every thing else. The forcing system, we may be sure, is out of place. Art cannot make heartwood under glass. Above all, let not our young authors be seduced into the belief, that there can be any nationality in the great leading ideas of art. The mind has one shape in the Esquimaux and the Anglo-Saxon, and that shape it will strive to impress on its creations. If we evaporate all that is watery, and the mere work of absorption, in the mythologies and early histories of the different races of men, we shall find one invariable residuum at bottom. The legendary age of Greece may find a parallel in our own recent history, and " Old Put," the wolf-killer, at whose door all the unfathered derring-does of the time are laid, is no mean Yankee translation of Theseus. Doubtless, a freer and more untrammelled spirit will be the general characteristic of our literature, and it is to be hoped that it will get its form and pressure before our social life begins (as it inevitably must) to fence itself from the approaches of license behind a stricter and more rigid conventionality. Where external distinctions are wanting, men intrench themselves the more deeply in forms. When this reaction makes itself felt in our literature, let us hope to find the works of our authors as conscientious in finish, as they should be bold in design and outline. As for expecting that our mountains and lakes and forests should inoculate our literature with their idiosyncrasies, we may as reasonably look to find the mental results of our corduroy roads there, a speculation which might confirm itself by certain metres we have lately been favored with by our poets. The "surface of the country," of which we used to read so much in our geographies, never made and never marred a poet. There are mountains as good as Chimborazo and Popocatapetl in the poet's mind. Were Skiddaw and Ben Lomond the lay-figures from which Bunyan painted his Delectable Mountains? Or was the dead marsh-level of parts of the Excursion an infection from those hills among which Wordsworth has spent his life? Shakspeare had done better than travel in Egypt when he said,
"Ye pyramids, built up with newer might,
Hitherto our literature has been chiefly imitative and artificial; we have found no better names for our authors than the VOL. LXIV. · No. 135.