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gentle but irresistible power which conquers without arms and enslaves without fetters, constitutes the great charm of
“Once, as I told in glee
Tales of the stormy sea,
looked love on me,
Fell their soft splendor.” It would be easy to say much of Longfellow's singular felicity in addressing the moral nature of man. It has been said of him, sometimes in derision, that all his poems have a moral.
There is, doubtless, a tendency in his mind to evolve some useful meaning from his finest imaginations, and to preach when he should only sing ; but we still think that the moral of his compositions is rarely thrust intrudingly forward, but rather flows naturally from the subject. There is nothing of the spirit of Joseph Surface in his genius; he does not pride. himself on being a man of “noble sentiments."
The morality of the “ Psalm of Life” is commonplace. If versified by a poetaster, it would inspire no. deep feeling, and strengthen no high purposes.
But the worn axioms of didactic verse have the breath of a new life breathed into them, when they are touched by genius. A power is added to them, of which before we had little conception. They are rendered instinct with imagination. We are made to love and to follow what before we merely assented to with a lazy acquiescence.
“Lives of great men all remind us,
We can make our lives sublime,
Footprints on the sands of time.
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
Seeing, shall take heart again.”
that the records of our deeds and struggles will strengthen the breasts of those who come after us to do and to suffer.
Longfellow's verse occupies a position half way between the poetry of actual life and the poetry of transcendentalism. Like all neutrals, he is liable to attack from the zealots of both parties ; but it seems to us, that he has hit the exact point, beyond which no poet can at present go, without being neglected or ridiculed. He idealizes real life ; he elicits new meaning from many of its rough shows; he clothes subtle and delicate thoughts in familiar imagery; he embodies high moral sentiment in beautiful and ennobling forms; he inweaves the golden threads of spiritual being into the texture of common existence ; he discerns and addresses some of the finest sympathies of the heart ; but he rarely soars into those regions of abstract imagination, where the bodily eye cannot follow, but where that of the seer is gifted with a “ pervading vision.” Though he fixes a keen glance on those filmy and fleeting shades of thought and feeling which common minds overlook or are incompetent to grasp, he has his eye open a little wider, perhaps, when its gaze is directed to the outward world, than when it is turned within. His imagination, in the sphere of its activity, is almost perfect in its power to shape in visible forms, or to suggest, by cunning verbal combinations, the feeling or thought he desires to express ; but it lacks the strength and daring, and the wide sweep, which characterize the imagination of such poets as Shelley. He has little of the unrest and frenzy of the bard. We know, in reading him, that he will never miss his mark; that he will risk nothing ; that he will aim to do only that which he feels he can do well. An air of repose, of quiet power, is around his compositions. He rarely loses sight of common interests and sympathies. He displays none of the stinging earnestness, the vehement sensibility, the gusts of passion, which characterize poets of the impulsive class. His spiritualism is not seen in wild struggles after an ineffable Something, for which earth can afford but imperfect symbols, and of which even abstract words can suggest little knowledge. He appears perfectly satisfied with his work. Like his own “ Village Blacksmith," ” he retires every night with the feeling, that something has been attempted, and something done.
The intellectual tendencies of Longfellow, judging from
the mystical charm which many of his poems possess, seem to be purely spiritual. But his keen sense of what is physically pleasurable keeps them in check, and gives a more sensuous property to his imagination than what simply inheres in it. Were it not that young misses have made the phrase of equivocal meaning, we would call him “a beautiful poet." He has a feeling exquisitely fine for what is generally understood by the term beauty, - that is, for actual, earthly beauty, idealized and refined by the imagination, embodied in graceful shapes, or beheld in that soft, dreamy light of fancy, which makes it more witching to the senses than if seen in bolder outlines. There is a slight dash of epicureanism in his conception of the quality, when his sentiment and sensations are commingled by his imagination. A sense of luxury steals over the heart, in reading many of his apparently most spiritualized descriptions.
His sense of beauty, though uncommonly vivid, is not the highest of which the mind is capable. He has little perception of its mysterious spirit ; of that beauty, of which all physical loveliness is but the shadow, which awes and thrills the soul into which it enters, and lifts the imagination into regions" to which the heaven of heavens is but a veil.” His mind never appears oppressed, nor his sight dimmed, by its exceeding glory. He feels, and loves, and creates what is beautiful ; but he hymns no reverence, he pays no adoration, to the Spirit of Beauty. He would never exclaim with Shelley, “awful Loveliness !” We say
this rather to make a distinction than to note a fault ; to show how far the spiritual element in Longfellow's poetry is modified by the sensuous properties of his genius, than to blame him for the combination. Indeed, by a majority of critics and readers, this combination is deemed a high merit. If they found any fault with Longfellow, it would be, that he is too transcendental. It is the cant nowadays, that poetry is soaring beyond the ken of us “poor humans." A poet, who occasionally dwells in abstract imaginations, is pelted with pet epithets, and accused of lacking human sympathy. This arises, we think, from a too narrow definition of the term. It is true, that men have a quicker sense of their relations to external nature and to each other, than to God; to shows rather than to substances ; and their hearts are more readily kindled by what is addressed to their blood and physical temperament, than by that which speaks to their spiritual nature. Still, he must be a daring and somewhat impudent person, who decides upon the whole reach of human sympathies by the range of his own, and calls that meaningless and unprofitable, which his own heart echoes feebly or not at all. Lust, falsehood, and intemperance have been so often idealized by bards, and have found so ready a response from “human sympathies,” that in some minds they have become significant of the whole meaning of the phrase. If the term, human weakness, or criminality, were substituted for it in many cases,
there would be a gain to the science of strict definition. Every man has a theory of human sympathies to fit his own tastes ; and his system is often so sharp a satire on his moral perceptions, that he would manifest much more prudence in its concealment, than in shouting it forth in the markets and public places of criticism.
The sympathies which Longfellow addresses are fine and poetical, but not the most subtle of which the soul is capable. The kindly affections, the moral sentiments, the joys, sorrows, regrets, aspirations, loves, and wishes of the heart, he has consecrated by new ideal forms and ascriptions. He inculcates with much force that poetic stoicism which teaches us to recken earthly evils at their true worth, and endure with patience what results inevitably from our condition, as in the “ Psalm of Life,” “Excelsior," “ The Light of Stars," and in passages of other poems.
- The Village Blacksmith” and “God's Acre " have a rough grandeur, and “ Maidenhood” and “ Endymion” a soft, sweet, mystical charm, which advantageously display the range of his powers. Perhaps “Maidenhood” is the most finely poetical of all his poems. Nothing of its kind can be more exquisitely beautiful than this delicate creation. It appears like the utterance of a dream. In “ The Spanish Student," the affluence of his imagination in images of grace, grandeur, and beauty, is most strikingly manifested. He scatters his wealth, in this production, with a careless munificence calculated to astonish the “barren rascals ” of rhyme. The objection to it, as a play, is its lack of skill or power in the dramatic exhibition of character. But read merely as a poem cast in the form of dialogue, it is one of the most beautiful in American literature. None of his other pieces so well
illustrates all his poetical qualities, — his imagination, his fancy, his sentiment, and his manner. It seems to comprehend the whole extent of his genius.
To write good comic verse is a different thing from writing good comic poetry. A jest or a sharp saying may be easily made to rhyme; but to blend ludicrous ideas with fancy and imagination, and display in their conception and expression the same poetic qualities usually exercised in serious composition, is a rare distinction. Among American poets, we know of none who excels Holmes in this difficult branch of the art. Many of his pleasant lyrics seem not so much the offspring of wit, as of fancy and sentiment turned in a humorous direction. His manner of satirizing the foibles, follies, vanities, and affectations of conventional life is altogether peculiar and original. He looks at folly and pretension from the highest pinnacle of scorn. They never provoke his indignation, for to him they are too mean to justify anger, and hardly worthy of petulance. His light, glancing irony and fleering sarcasm are the more effective, from the impertinence of his benevolent sympathies. He wonders, hopes, wishes, titters, and cries with his victims. He
practises on them the legerdemain of contempt. He kills with a sly stab, and proceeds on his way as if "nothing in particular” had happened. He picks his teeth with cool unconcern, while looking down on the captives of his wit, as if their destruction conferred no honor upon himself, and was unimportant to the rest of mankind. He makes them ridicule themselves, by giving a voice to their motions and manners. He translates the conceited smirk of the coxcomb into felicitous words. The vacant look and trite talk of the bore he links with subtle analogies. He justifies the egotist unto himself by a series of mocking sophisms. He expresses the voiceless folly and affectation of the ignorant and brainless by cunningly contrived phrases and apt imagery. He idealizes nonsense, pertness, and aspiring dulness. The movement of his wit is so swift, that its presence is known only when it strikes. He will sometimes, as it were, blind the eyes of his victims with diamond dust, and then pelt them pitilessly with scoffing compliments. He passes from the sharp, stinging gibe to the most grotesque exaggerations of drollery, with a bewildering rapidity.
Holmes is also a poet of sentiment and passion. “Old