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"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
American Scott, the American Mrs. Hemans, the American Wordsworth. There is nothing to fear from too great license as yet. At present, every English author can see a distorted reflection of himself here, a something like the eidolons of the Homeric Hades, not ghosts precisely, but unsubstantial counterparts. He finds himself come round again, the Atlantic Ocean taking the function of the Platonic year. Our authors are the best critics of their brethren (or parents) on the other side of the water, catching as they do only what is exaggerated in them. We are in need of a literary declaration of independence; our literature should no longer be colonial.
Let us not be understood as chiming in with that foolish cry of the day, that authors should not profit by example and precedent, a cry which generally originates with some hardy imitator, the "stop thief!" with which he would fain distract attention from himself. It is the tower-stamp of an original mind, that it gives an awakening impulse to other original minds. Memory was the mother of the Muses. Montaigne says, "In my country, when they would decipher a man that has no sense, they say such a one has no memory." But to imitate the works of another is not to profit by them. It is making them our dungeon. It is better to smell of the lamp than of the library. Yet the most original writers have begun in some sort as imitators, and necessarily so. They must first learn to speak by watching the lips and practising the tones of others. This once acquired, the native force within masters and moulds the instrument. Shakspeare's early poems have the trick and accent of Spenser. Milton's Comus was written with a quill from the Swan of Avon's wing, dipped in Jonson's ink. But even the imitations of an original mind give no small oracle of originality. The copyist mimics mannerisms only. Like Crashaw's minstrel,
"From this to that, from that to this, he flies." The original mind is always consistent with itself. Angelo, cramped by the peculiar shape of a piece of marble which another sculptor had roughed out for a conception of his own, conquered something characteristic out of that very restraint, and the finished statue proclaimed its author. poet, like the sculptor, works in one material, and there, in the
formless quarry of the language, lie the divine shapes of gods and heroes awaiting the master's evocation.
The republication of a poem which has made a sensation in England is not without its importance to us. We read of an ancient nation who, every New Year, made clean hearths, and then rekindled them with fire sent round by their king for that end. A rite not unlike this in form, though widely dif ferent in meaning, is still maintained by many of our authors. So soon as a new light makes its appearance in England, every native rushlight is ceremoniously extinguished, and the smoking wick set once more ablaze by the stolen touch of that more prosperous foreign flame. From the avatar of this Christmas we cannot remotely conjecture in what shape an author shall choose to appear at the next. But the book, which we have made the text of our somewhat erratic discourse, is not only worthy of notice, inasmuch as it may serve as a model, but still more from its own intrinsic merits, and because it is a strong protest against the form and spirit of the poetry now in vogue. It once more unburies the hatchet of the ancient feud between what are called the "natural" and "artificial" schools.
The dispute in this case, as in most others, has concerned itself chiefly about words. An exact definition of the terms used by the contending parties would have been the best flag of truce. Grant the claims of the disciples of Pope, and you blot out at once the writings of the greatest poets that ever lived. Grant those of the opposite party, and you deny to Pope any merit whatever. The cardinal point of the whole quarrel lies in the meaning attached to the single word poet. The most potent champion of Popery in our day gave by his practice the direct lie to his assumed theory. The Age of Bronze, the only poem which he wrote professedly upon this model, is unreadable from sheer dulness. His prose letters in the Bowles controversy were far more in Pope's vein and spirit.
The author of the New Timon avows himself a follower of Pope. We shall by-and-by have occasion to try him by his own standard. In the mean time, we shall barely remark, that his allusions to Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Keats are presumptuous and in bad taste. The fact that he misspells the name of one of these poets argues either a very petty affectation, or a shameful unfamiliarity with what he pretends to criticize.
The truth is, that Pope's merit lies in the concinnity and transparency of his style. It is this, rather than the sentiment, which charms. Thousands of readers find no want of orthodoxy in the Essay on Man, who would recoil in horror from the rough draught of Bolingbroke, on which it was based. Fancy, purity of diction, conciseness, unfailing wit, all these are Pope's, and they have given him immortality. But these are not essentially the attributes of a poet. In imagination, the crowning faculty of the poet, nay, the one quality which enphatically distinguishes him as such, Pope is wanting. A single example of the pure exercise of this faculty is not to be found in his works.
A profusion of ignorance and bad temper have been lavished on this topic. Had the controversy been understandingly carried on, there would have been no occasion for ill-feeling. One chief blunder has been the defining of authors as belonging to a certain school because they happened to be addicted to the use of a measure consisting of a certain number of feet, yet not the less variable on that account. Dryden, Pope, and Goldsmith are commonly named together, authors as dissimilar as Chaucer and Racine. Crabbe, Campbell, and Rogers have all three used the same measure, yet are wholly unlike each other and unlike their three predecessors above named. Byron, who also used the "English Heroic" (as it is commonly called) in the Corsair and some other poems, presents still another totally distinct variety.
What, then, is the secret of that predilection in the minds of many to that kind of writing which is rather vaguely defined to be "of the Pope school"? Many, no doubt, adhere to it on the ground of its age and respectability, a prejudice which Pope himself has admirably satirized. Others commend it on the score of its being easily comprehensible. Others again are charmed with what they esteem the grace, precision, and finish of its metre.
It is unquestionably the prime merit of style, that it conveys the author's ideas exactly and clearly. But after all, the ideas to be conveyed are of more importance than the vehicle, and it is one thing to see distinctly what they are, and another to comprehend them. Undoubtedly the first requisite is that they be worth comprehending. Once establish the principle, that easiness of comprehension is the chief