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Thirty years ago, it was an easy task, in our country, to make a poetical reputation. A few metrical compositions, thrown together into a thin mis-shapen volume, were quite sufficient to form a halo, or weave a garland, for the brows of any infatuated young person, who, like Gray's “moping owl," took solitary satisfaction in complaining to the moon. In those days there was a plentiful lack of "the vision and the faculty divine;" and when, occasionally, it chanced to shine upon the upturned, wondering eyes of mortals, they almost looked to behold the dispenser of fancisul splendors,
Bestride the lazy-pacing clouds,
And sail upon the bosom of the air. To the fact we assert, bear witness the names of many who, never having perpetrated verses enough to eke out a volume, were destined to an immortality of preservation in the amber of Mr. Samuel Kettell's “Specimens of American Poetry." Were it not for the existence and assistance of that illustrious compendium, we have some doubt whether we should ever have been aware of the brilliant sparkles which those meteors emitted in their time. Even under the supposition that their glories had burst through the obscurity of our researches, we should hardly have deemed them fixed stars in the firmament of fame, had they not so appeared to the telescopic observation of Mr. Kettell. This gentleman has generously provided us with the names of some hundreds of American poets, and of each
* Bianca Visconti, or the Heart Overtasked, by N. P. Willis. Samuel Colman, New York.
Velasco, a tragedy, in five acts, by Epes Sargent. New York, Harper & Brothers.
The Ruins of Athens; Titania's Banquet, a mask; and other poems, by G. Hill. Boston, Otis, Broaders & Co.
Geraldine, Athenia of Damascus, and Miscellaneous Poems, by Rufus Dawes. New York, Samuel Colman,
one in particular has framed a brief biographical notice, which must be extremely consoling to the friends of the departed. Should this resurrectionist of the dry and crumbling remains of defunct poetasters philanthropically set himself to digging at this day, he would find a hundred subjects where he found one before, all fitted to adorn his museum of decayed specimens.
We fear that we have fallen into a little metaphorical confusion, in expatiating on the labors of Mr. Kettell; but it cannot be greater than that of his “poets.” If the appellation of “poets awarded to most of the metre-ballad-mongers, whose twattle has been thus resuscitated, we are right in the asseveration that the bays of poetic renown must, at no very distant period, have been of facile attainment. At present, it is a task of some magnitude, and we assert this in the face of any merely fictitious reputation which some self-deceiving rhymer may fancy that he enjoys. Your mere poetaster now is not distinguished from the herd of common men; no one turns to mark his abstracted air, or the fine phrenzy of his rolling eye; he may write “ till his ink be dry," and unless he can excel most of the “specimens," he must confine his “wild love of fame” to the perusers of the journal, through which his sentimental slip-slop is drizzled on to the public. And why is this? What has wrought this change in the public estimation of verse-making and verse-makers? In reply, unhesitatingly, the large quantity of excellent poetry, really, intrinsically excellent, which has been published within these last thirty years.
It is by no means our intention to attempt, within the judícious boundaries prescribed to a paper in a Democratic Review, (where many voices may claim audience,) an investigation or exposition of all the good verses which have appeared within the specified period of time. Far from it. We propose simply to set down
“A chosen tally of that singular few,
Who, gifted with predominating powers," have worthily achieved, and are worthy to bear, the name and fame of “poets." Besides these, we shall confine our remarks to the few authors whose books have been published so lately as to authorize their selection as texts to a cursory dissertation on recent American poetry.
We would state fairly in the outset, that we are about to express our own honest opinions, not those of the public; and the reason that we consider these opinions worthy to be expressed is, because they are formed not hastily or with prejudice, but reflectingly and with judgment. We shall not draw a rein upon our pen, but let it race freely and merrily over the whole course; thus shall we the more speedily attain the goal, and be watched with more excited gratification by our goodly crowd of spectators. Some of our notions will be found to agree wonderfully well with those entertained
by his majesty, the many; while others will differ so entirely, that they will be pronounced queer and paradoxical. We commence our career from our point of general agreement, which is this: Mr. William Cullen Bryant is the best poet in America. As it is quite needless to enter upon the proof of a fact which is strikingly evident, we shall not undertake to adduce the testimony which is so abundantly afforded by many of his long-published pieces. We have examined this testimony again and again, and always with increased dedight. It is rich and copious. From the library of English poets, it would be dificult to select a more freshly pleasing volume than Mr. Bryant's. It administers welcome nurture to the contemplative mind. It contains but little to excite the joyous and merry-hearted to louder mirth, but much to soothe and soften the elated spirit into a quietude that more nearly approaches true happiness. “Thanatopsis" is not so sublime as "Coleridge's Hymn in the Valley of Chamouni," but its effect on the imagination of the reader is scarcely less grand. It is not so perfect a production as the “Elegy in a Country Church Yard," but its strains Æolian sweep through the mind with a power equally subduing, for it breathes the same sad, sweet music of humanity.” Its concluding lines fall upon the ear as if uttered by some warning angel.
"So live, that when thy summons comes to join
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.” Next, scarcely inferior to this, comes the “Hymn to the Evening Wind." Either would of itself be enough to stamp its author as a man of high poetical genius. These two, and the “Song of Ma. rion's Men,” are as common and as popular in the United States as many of the oldest lyrics of British bards.
Had Mr. Bryant stopped with the volume which comprises, with many others scarcely less admirable, these three fine poems, we should have been equally free to grant him the place which he now holds by general consent; but we should have done so with less lively gratification than we now experience, arising, as it does, from our appreciation of his late pieces, given to the public in the pages of this Review. The pieces to which we allude are not familiar alone to the readers of this journal; their transfer to the columns of nearly every journal from the disputed territory to the seat of the Florida war has made them equally familiar to our countrymen in general. They have been rightfully designated by a northern critic as
not only acquisitions to American literature, but additions to the
English language.” They flow from the same rich fount of genius, which has so abundantly proved that their author is destined to occupy an enduring rank among the authors of the age. There is but one other man in existence who could have created such lines, on such a subject, as those that flow like living streams of beauty from “ The Fountain." No known living poet but Wordsworth could have originated the glorious thought in four lines, which we shall presently quote. They occur in the magnificent stanzas entitled “The Battle Field,” printed a year since in this Magazine. In reading the whole poem, they did not so break away from the entire chain of melody as to produce the single and startling effect which they afterwards did, upon our encountering them casually in Mr. Forrest's oration, on our last anniversary of national independence. There was a Shakspearean grandeur in the idea, and a Miltonic dignity in its expression, read aloud.
“ TRUTH, CRUSH'D TO EARTII, WILL RISE AGAIN;
TA' ETERNAL YEARS OF GOD ARE HERS;
AND DIES AMID IHER WORSHIPPERS." To Mr. Halleck, we are willing to assign a rank inferior only to that occupied by Mr. Bryant in the scale of those who have so elevated the standard of American poetry during these latter years. If a man were to be judged by the quantity, not by the quality of his works, then would Mr. Halleck's laurels be few and faded. As it is,
“Few have worn a greener wreath
Than that which binds his hair." To use an expressive mercantile phrase, he has done a very large business on a small capital. In this respect he excels every modern poet, except Gray. His taste is quite as fastidious as Gray's or Campbell's; there is the same intense polish in his lines, the same exquisite nicety in his versification. We wish that he had imitated their sobriety. They never indulge in antics or cut pirouettes at the conclusion of a poetical movement, as stately and graceful as a minuet. The fair form of “ Alnwick Castle" is spoiled by its mean and miserable ending. If this be wit, we beg to be spared its infliction. Mr. Halleck's finest poem are his lines in memory of Burns; they were probably suggested by Wordsworth's Rob Roy, but are none the less attractive on that account:
Equal to Mr. Halleck, and superior in that he has written so much more-is Mr. Charles Spraguo. It is curious that both these gentlemen should be the curators of extensive money concerns.. That the mind of one at least has received no sordid taint, we may jufer from this distich.
“The fool who holds it heresy to think,
Mr. Sprague has wrought rich treasures from every vein that he has struck. He has been so successful in all, that we are doubtful in which he has best succeeded. He displays the same singular felicity in sarcastic, pathetic, and spirited verse. His “Curiosity” is a noble poem; the language has scarcely a more splendid lyric than his Shakspeare Ode, and we know of few strains of deeper tenderness than those on the Death of a Sister, the Family Reunion, and others of the same tone. The arrow that would find a chink in Mr. Sprague's bright armor, must be more adroitly aimed than ours; he is impervious to our criticism.
In thus cursorily speaking of three of our best poets, we have sufficiently proved our postulate; as long as they, and others like them live to write, (we wish that they wrote to live,) the standard of refined taste in native poetry will be kept alive, and there will be little danger of our tolerating that which is in itself indifferent, because it is comparatively good. Before passing, however, to speak of those writers, whose more recent works immediately invite our observations, we would name one, to whom may, with singular fidelity, be applied Pope's expressive line:
"How sweet an Ovid was in Murray lost!" George D. Prentice, of the Louisville Journal, a rabid opposition paper, has all the richest endowments of genius. He deserted "the muses' bower,” to fight and scuffle on the dusty arena of politics. He flung aside his golden-voiced lute for the brazen-throated trumpet. Some of his earlier effusions are “beautiful exceedingly." His lines by his mother's grave, written at the age of fourteen, are more remarkable than any other juvenile production we ever saw. They breathe the very soul of sorrow; nothing could be more irresistibly touching and plaintive. His later pieces, especially those which tell of love, seem flushed with the rosiest hues of passion, pervaded with a glow like old Anacreon's. His fault is too lavish a profusion of imagery, the use of too many spangling epithets, which despoil his thoughts of their simplicity and beauty. Practice would have amended this, but he has not practised, he probably never will again practise poetry; he is a politician. Some of the most valuable contributions to American poetry have been made by those who have never yet had ambition enough to collect their scattered effusions into volumes. To convince the reader how sincerely this is to be regretted, we need mention no other names than those of the two last mentioned writers, Sprague and Prentice. We would that they could be persuaded to do so at this time, and we would that every writer upon whose efforts public approval has set its seal could be induced to follow the example.
Mr. Dawes' “Athenia of Damascus," Mr. Willis's “ Bianca Visconti," and Mr. Epes Sargent's “Velasco"-a tragedy which was successfully brought forward at the Park Theatre, in New