Recent Poets of America.


Literatur: anonym
Literatur: The London Quarterly Review


1. The Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell. Edited by ANDREW R. SCOBLE. London: George Routledge and Co. 1852.

2. The Golden Legend. By H. W. LONGFELLOW. Second Edition. London: David Bogue. 1852.

3. The Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe. London: Addey and Co. 1853.

4. Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination; and Poems. First and Second Series. London: Clarke, Beeton, and Co. 1852.

HOWEVER opinion may vary as to the comparative merits of our present poets and those of other times, it will on all sides be admitted that the aesthetic principles, upon which poetry itself is based, are now much more generally understood than at any former period. It is a mistake to define poetry merely as an art. It is such only in the endless instances of its application to practice. But in its dependence upon principles of human [441] nature, rather than upon rules, – in its existence antecedent to, not springing from, experience, – it partakes of the nature of a science. While, therefore, as an art, it may multiply its productions to infinity, it is yet confined within certain canons, never to be transgressed with impunity. It is of late years only that these have been investigated with any degree of precision, – that criticism, the philosophy of æsthetics, has been properly cultivated. What a difference is there between the frigid analysis of Addison, and the genial penetration of Coleridge or Hazlitt! And, as Hallam says, the papers on "Paradise Lost," in the "Spectator," were an immense advance on every thing that had preceded them.

But we are far from agreeing with the superficial doctrine, that, in the more cultivated ages, in which philosophy is studied, great poets must necessarily disappear; that is to say, that the scientific apprehension of the laws of poetry interferes with the abandon of the genuine artist, – an assertion contrary both to analogy and experience. Modern ingenuity, for instance, has discovered that the sculptors of ancient Greece were in possession of a harmonic ratio of form, analogous to the diatonic scale in music. But is the majesty of a Greek statue diminished by this? or was the soul of the sculptor cramped? No: a conscious adherence to this general law, not less than individual genius, has produced that exquisite proportion and grace, after which later imitation has laboured in vain; and has moreover developed a universal of beauty, which, despite the bias of race or clime, is acknowledged by all. We do not, of course, claim for critical laws and principles the power of creating the poet. They are drawn from previously-existing art; and their evolvement has been simultaneous with the discovery that to apply them belongs to genius alone. But their influence in the guidance of genius is incalculable. It is both the defect and the praise of poetry to become the "mirror of the age." How many instances are there upon record of men, richly endowed with "the faculty divine," whose writings are faulty, obscure, and nearly worthless, through their too great subservience to the fashions of the time! A constant remembrance of the high requisitions of poetry, an assurance that its eternal principles are swaying the public mind, is likely to save the poet from a vast amount of aberration, and is doubtless the cause of the almost perfect taste which distinguishes much of the genuine poetry of this age. The influence of a defective criticism – that is, of a low-toned reading public – was well evidenced in the feebleness of the "Muses" of the latter half of the eighteenth century. It is precisely where criticism ceases to be a science, ceases to take cognizance of definite principles, and becomes referable only to individual taste, that poetry loses its verisimilitude, becomes frigid, – a mere illustration of empiric rules.

[442] There is a somewhat similar sense in which criticism – the appreciation of things – affects poetry. We constantly observe in poetry, as in other things, men of very different powers united in the contemplation of a set of truths or opinions. The change which began at the commencement of the current century in the character of English poetry, and the struggle between the antiquated school and the promulgators of a new order of things, have of late been made the subject of frequent disquisition. But we have never yet seen any thing connecting, by a law of causation, the phases through which poetry, since her emancipation from the old régime, has successively passed. We think that a clue may be found in the contemporary history of mental philosophy. It is a patent fact, that the French Revolution owed its origin, in great measure, to the rationalistic theories of the day; and the revival of poetry was coincident with that event. What have been the subsequent stages of the progress of mental philosophy? Speaking generally, they are two, – the French and the German. The one, starting with the rejection of reason, and setting up sensation alone as the criterion of truth, returned eventually to reason, and denied the supersensual, thus tending to atheism. The other, with the same premiss, – the incompetence of reason to attain a knowledge of the super-sensual, – arrived at the opposite conclusion; and, instead of denying the existence of the latter, argued for it from the subjective consciousness of faith. This is the Pantheistic phase. Seldom, in Germany at least, has the chain of argument been completed, – the inference drawn, of the necessity of a revelation to meet the vague cravings of faith, or the adaptation of the Christian scheme to all these wants acknowledged. All creeds have been regarded as alike, – mere symbols and effects of a mental phenomenon; and often an absolute deification of nature, as being herself the great corresponding object of human ideas, has been the result. How do the developments of English poetry answer to these phases? The latter of them, from the very nature of poetry, has been productive of the greater effect; indeed, Byron is the only instance of a great poet of thoroughly atheistic tendency. He is one of the very few who have remained poets in spite of their wit. There are not many instances of aberration on the opposite score. Germanism in Germany is a very different thing from Germanism in England; many causes, such as the spirit and training of the people, combine to check and temper its influence. Its most noticeable effect on poetry has been the large infusion of the subjective element. This has placed poetry upon its proper footing, and created between our poets and those of the best ages a marked generic resemblance. Nothing is more certain than that poetry, in the highest sense, is the expression of the eternal union and reciprocity existing between the soul and external beauty. Nature, in [443] this view, appears in her proper sphere, as the creatrix of sensation, and the ultimate suggester of thought: nor should she ever have usurped any other place; she is but the robe, which, however gorgeous, is yet ennobled by the form about which it is cast. It has, then, been perceived that, as the beauty of form and colour exist only in and through human intuition, the analysis of the latter should always be understood and implied in every delineation of the former. This analysis is effected by thought, which is defined to be "the representative of past emotion." So that poetry, to borrow the language of metaphysics, deals not with presentative, but with representative, faculties; not with intuition, but imagination. It is like the mirror of the Egyptian necromancer, which showed only phantoms.

This is the great lesson which poetry has received from the deep thinkers of Germany, and from the German-like thinkers of this country. Its own nature, demanding a due admixture of objectivity, a recognition of matter as well as of mind, has generally preserved it from the excesses of absolutism: it is nearer to perfection, as the alternation between "the outward and the inward" is better observed. So long as this principle is recognised, our poets are safe from the errors of their predecessors. There will be no danger of a poem being either an allegory, or a treatise on landscape gardening. No man will dream of writing either a "Polyolbion," or a "Purple Island." Hither is to be referred the resemblance, often remarked, between the real poetry of our own day, and the tempestuous lift and versi-coloured emotion of the living drama. Poetry, when properly understood, has ever the same nature. It is an appeal to the common consciousness of man. It has to do with the vague and subtle feelings of the human breast. Its temperament is the clear chastity of past emotion. It is a common remark, that the poet expresses what others can only feel; he is that man, whose conceptions are most conscious. And in this lies the great benefit of poetry to the world. Although subjective, it can never descend to represent the mere notions or prejudices of one single mind. No phase or shade of emotion can be portrayed by it, which is not sanctioned by the mental experience of mankind. Plato himself, notwithstanding his proverbial contempt for poets, might have recognised here his own dialectician.

The two men to whom, in our opinion, the poetry of the last twenty years stands indebted for its proximate type, were of very opposed character. They are Wordsworth and Keats. The former said, nobly, that "of genius in the fine arts the only infallible sign is the widening the sphere of human sensibility, for the delight, honour, and benefit of human nature." This truth, uttered as a "consolation of philosophy," during the prevalence of garish popularists, did not find its complete fulfilment [444] in its enunciator. The unbending spirit of Wordsworth, which enabled him to endure with calmness the depreciation of his contemporaries, reposing himself on his own exalted ideal of a writer and a reader, refused to condescend at all to popular taste. His philosophic frigidity, the unnatural classification of many of his poems, and the prolixity of his great one, render him a sealed book to the majority even of readers. Consequently, with world-wide views and sympathies, his name is the text-word of a sect. Keats is equally ill-adapted for general popularity, but from opposite causes. His distinguishing trait is fancy, – fancy, rich, luxurious, and tender as moonlight. He plays like a child around the awful shrine of poesy, and, like a child, gets further in than most. Instead of the terse and severe eloquence of Wordsworth, he has carved out for himself a diction unequalled for gorgeousness and amplitude. This quality of fancy is the only one to which the brief career of the boy-poet allowed full development. In his latest fragment, the "Hyperion," he evidenced a might of imagination, which has left his name second to very few on our literary annals. Wordsworth was a poet from principle, Keats from instinct. From the confluence of these two streams, springs the latest development of poetry. It combines the philosophic depth of the one, and the fancy of the other, with the attractions of compactness and condensation; and the result has been the production of writing, among the most perfect that the world has seen. Indeed, the fallacy, that, in order to be a great poet, it is necessary to write a long poem, seems to be virtually abandoned. Few poems are now written that cannot be read at a sitting: and those that are otherwise, – such as the poems of the "Festus" and "Life Drama" school, – are evidently to be read piece-meal, have no completeness as a whole, depend for their effect on detached passages, and are even full of separate lyrical pieces. A long poem, as has been truly remarked by one who understood æsthetics better than any one else, is, in reality, nothing more than a succession of short ones, disconnected by intervals of prose; for the reason, that no mind can long sustain the extreme tension of poetical excitement, any more than a long chain of mountains can be of equal height throughout its extent. It is in the close-packed thought, the diamond hardness and polish, the unmixed purpose, of the "fragments" of Tennyson and others, – true and aphoristic as philosophy, – that we are to expect the high and real delighting of the world by poetry.

American poetry must be sought from the last few years. Here, as in other respects, she is the heiress of England. She has received poetry in a certain state of development, and it is her part to advance it; but several circumstances have prevented her from entering so fully on this part of her inheritance as on [445] others. Many of our readers will recollect the periodical castigations which, some time ago, it was the wont of the Tory journals to administer to the "institutions" and literature of the "model republic." Political animosity and authorial jealousy, aggravated by the unsettled state of the question of international copyright, insured for every thing American a reception, on this side the water, as unfavourable as lay within the resources of a criticism the keenest and most unsparing. A reviewer or magazinist, who might be desirous of imparting a relish to his forthcoming Number, could do nothing better than give some poor young New-Englander a toss. Here, as elsewhere, poetry offered the fairest mark; and most truly did the first of the occidental bards pass through the ordeal by fire. Want of originality, of vigour, of purpose, were the charges iterated against them by critics whose taste had been daintified during the mighty revel of genius which transfigured Europe throughout the past generation. A degree of schoolboy correctness of imitation was the utmost merit usually conceded. Passages, in this respect, unexceptionable, were half quoted, and abandoned with an ennuyé &c. Let the Americans, it was said, relinquish the common walks of poetry. We already possess descriptions of nature in her more usual moods, and of the soul in its more acknowledged phases. Let us not be bored with mere tame reprints of English poetry. To recruit the exhausted imagery and decayed fancy of the old world, by an infusion of novel forms of beauty from their own land, should be the object of the Americans, if they are to effect any thing at all; in a word, let them aim at some nationality in their effusions. This rebuke, albeit administered in wrath, and in bitterness received, was, in some measure, just; and the advice, though founded on false premises, good. Thirty years ago, America did not possess a national poetry, – a poetry whose patriotism is universally philanthropic. The genius of the people had been turned upon the nearer necessities of life; and, while the literature of reason was not without cultivation, that of taste remained comparatively uncultivated. "Our business," says a distinguished American writer, "has been to hew down the forest, to make paths and sawmills, railroads and steamboats; to lay the foundation of a great people; to provide for the emergencies of the day. As yet, there is no American literature which corresponds to the first principles of our institutions, as the English and French literatures correspond to theirs." The system of education, moreover, adopted in America, is better calculated for the wide diffusion of knowledge, than for the formation of a class of literati; it produces vast numbers of sciolist citizens, but not an aristocracy of learning. But our periodical censors did not reflect that, in a country so peculiarly situated, a certain degree of imitation was at first inevitable; nay, was the earnest of future excellence. America did nationally what has been often [446] done individually; she began with imitation, in order to reach originality, consenting to receive the principles of art from its most practised cultivators, in order to re-produce them wedded to a living spirit. The process was natural and hopeful. In her the world had no need of a fresh exemplification of the progress of poetry, from the early lyric and epic upwards, any more than of a gradual national advance from a state of original savagery. The poetry of America, sudden as her civilization, was to be an off-shoot from the latest poetry of England. We purpose to show that this is the case; that the cutting from "the great vine of fable," which has been planted in Transatlantic soil, is already putting forth a separate, though kindred, vitality; and, in so doing, we hope to illustrate the workings, as well in perfection, as in excess and defect, of the great poetical principle which we have indicated. For this purpose, we have chosen three representatives, – Lowell, Longfellow, and Poe.

The name of RUSSELL LOWELL might have been replaced by several others, about equally known on this side of the Atlantic. He is selected as a good representative both of the excellencies and the defects which characterize a poetry trained in the rough school of utilitarianism. The errors of the age arise rather from a distorted perception, than from absolute ignorance of æsthetic truth. At present there seems great danger, in the homebred American bards, – those who have never seen Europe, – of acting on a very partial apprehension of the true nature of poetry. They endeavour too openly to utilize her, forgetting that exalted beauty which is at once her essence and her highest object. From analyzing the soul, they make their art the index of society. Thus the modern science of sociology becomes a great part of their province. They set forth the laws of human intercourse and relation, those actions and reactions, in which cause becomes effect, and effect relapses into cause, with an unceasing advance towards that mighty destiny which looms nearer and more near; just as, at flow of tide, each broken column of wave, in its very subsidence, adds to the volume of its loftier and stronger successor. Such themes are very enticing in the hands of those who know how to wield them, they have inspired some of the noblest lyrics of modern times; but, especially in an artistic point of view, and in America, they are liable to some very serious drawbacks. They make poetry reflect too much the notions and topics of the day, to the neglect of its own proper graces. They often lead into a wild extravagance, both of thought and expression, which has not failed to shock and alarm that numerous class of wellmeaning persons, who, unable to separate the use of a thing from its abuse, deny the former in toto; and they thus retard the present working of many great and glorious truths. And they [447] introduce an indiscriminate use of that stereotyped phraseology, which marks a poetic era, no less surely than a peculiar terminology marks a philosophical sect; thus cramping the efforts of genius, and giving rise to a great deal of spurious imitation. Nothing is more remarkable in the aspect of literature, than the prodigious number of middling versicles, which, both here and in America, continually issue from the press. Our unoriginal poets – to use a paradoxical expression – have been unable to avoid a hackneyed mannerism, in consequence of their very appreciation of true poetry. Getting hold of some phrase, appropriate and happy enough, when used by the right owner and in its right collocation, – which they can perceive, but not apply, – they seek to work out an effect by a perversion, and fondly imagine, that, by linking their own immitigable crudities to the recognised diction, they have succeeded in producing the indefinable impression of the poet. Their bungling attempts at liberality and philosophy of sentiment remind us of the violent innocence and spontaneity of the Sylvias and Rosalinds of the comedy of last century; who came upon the stage with a skipping-rope, and drawled out artlessness in a sub-rustic vernacular. This class of writers chiefly haunts the "poetical department" of journalism; a cursory glance may detect them by the presence of such "voces decomplexe" as may be formed by the most unlimited application of the doctrine of hyphen. They are usually perfect masters of the whole language of indefiniteness, by which means it is possible to give to the poorest and tritest observation an appearance of very great profundity indeed. How much of modern sentiment depends upon the skilful employment of plural for singular, and vice-versâ; upon the omission or insertion of an article, definite or indefinite!

Much of this is attributable to the advanced state of literature. Language, we are told, becomes more subtle and analytic as refinement advances. "With increasing cultivation finer distinctions are seen between the relations of objects, and corresponding expressions sought for to denote them." Language, indeed, is become almost identical with thought; words, in poetry especially, are less symbols than ideas. At an earlier period in our history, before the various dialects introduced into the island were fully blended, the case was different. Thought was then, in a manner, independent of expression, and moved in it with a degree of stiffness and difficulty. The ponderous sentences of our ancestors anterior to Elizabeth, wending their way through a maze of curiously involved parentheses, and groaning beneath the weight of a sense they were scarcely able to manage, bear about the same resemblance to the piquancies wherewith the dainty modern reader is regaled, that the ribbed folio of a thousand pages bears to the trim octavo. There is in scarcely any of them an idiosyncrasy of style. Whole passages of Cranmer, for [448] example, might be re-modelled without hazard of impairing any well-nigh impalpable grace, any delicate shade of meaning. But alter or displace a sentence in Macaulay or Hallam, and the charm is gone; you have marred utterly the perspicacious naïveté of the one, the poised hauteur of the other. Hence it is, that authors of an earlier date in a literature bear translation so much better than later ones. How difficult, then, must it be, so to adapt the mechanism of language as to prevent a legitimate stage-effect from degenerating into a mere clap-trap; and, amid complexities of meaning so multitudinous and infinitely subtle, to avoid the appearance of affectation, and secure a real living style! Here is the test which distinguishes the genuine poet from the imitator.

But the same reason that renders this the true test, renders it also exceedingly difficult of application. It requires a poetical education to understand Tennyson. We never met with a taste which could at once enter into the beauty of that style which owns no law but truthfulness. So certain it is that man looks through an inverted telescope, that "those things which are first to nature are not first to man." The unfettered boldness, which delights the trained critic, perplexes and confounds the unreflective timidity which has been accustomed to gauge every thing by previous rules. A judgment of this sort would hardly be able to discern between poet and imitator; and, as is usually the case, would shrink from, and reject, both alike. These things, however, are only accidents: it need be no cause for wonder, that so mighty a whirlwind as poetry should catch up some rubbish in its career.

The above-mentioned blemishes have been shared by some of acknowledged genius: there is another equally important, which is not unfrequently a consequence of them, – we mean negligence and roughness of versification. A remark on this is particularly applicable here. We would strongly counsel the Americans to avoid roughness. At this date there can be no such thing as rude vigour. Much may be forgiven to youth and inexperience, as well national as individual; but the Americans have received a language ready-formed to their hands, and more capable than any other of delicate and harmonious treatment; and they must learn to manage it skilfully, before they can hope for much favour from the public of this country. We are aware that, both in England and America, there exists a class of writers amongst whom the notion prevails, that force and power of expression are to be cultivated at the expense of versification; who imagine that, to be Titanic, it is necessary to be clumsy; – an idea of composition which the curious may see carried ad absurdum in the poetical replies of the spirit-rapping manifestations. In poetry, all appearance of strength arising from ruggedness must be fallacious. If versification be a necessary part [449] of the expression of poetic thought, then, to fail in this is to confess inability to adapt thought to adequate expression. We can assure the class of writers referred to, unhappily already too numerous, that their invention is by no means new. "To wear a rough garment to deceive," was old in the days of Zechariah.

We have been led into these remarks without any direct reference to Mr. Lowell; although he is not free from an imitative mannerism and quaintness, although he does not always submit vigour of conception and moral purpose to the standard of that which is pleasing, and although most of his pieces are disfigured by a rough and inharmonious versification. But, for much the same reason that Aristotle speaks of injustice and vice, when desirous of conveying an idea of justice and virtue, – because it is easiest to treat of some things through their opposites, – we have attempted, by describing a false meteorosophism, to indicate still further our conception of the true nature of poetry. Mr. Lowell is, notwithstanding these faults, a fine specimen of the American man and poet. There is about him an uncommon buoyancy and freshness, and a salience of thought and language, which could only spring from a soul intensely earnest and alive to all that concerns humanity. He is fully imbued with the enthusiasm of the age, a respecter of his vocation, and a firm believer in the mighty destiny of mankind and of poetry. His lays are a foreshadow of the "good time coming," they are hopeful as a voice from Pisgah. Even as an artist of his own school, his merits are great. There is nothing uncertain in his touch; his thoughts are often singularly bold and striking; he has an intimate acquaintance with nature, and a fearless appreciation of her minutest sights and sounds.

The longest of the poems, and that which most strongly displays the peculiar genius of the author, is the "Fable for the Critics." This is a remarkably clever satire, full of keen criticism, and showing a very extensive and appreciative knowledge of men and manners. It possesses considerable wit as well as comic force, but is chiefly marked by humour. This, the result only of a most kindly nature and unflagging vigour, embraces, in an atmosphere of homogeneousness, all other qualities. Its command of phrase and rhyme is absolutely unlimited. In these respects it is as wonderful as Hudibras.

As a sample of the exuberant fancy and vivid word-painting of Mr. Lowell, we cite the following description, taken from the "Vision of Sir Launfal," of the approach of winter, and the triumph of "King Frost:" –

"Down swept the chill wind from the mountain peak,
    From the snow five thousand summers old;
On open wold and hill-top bleak
    It had gathered all the cold,
[450] And whirl'd it like sleet on the wanderer's cheek;
    It carried a shiver every where,
    From the unleaved boughs and the pastures bare.
    The little brook heard it, and built a roof,
    'Neath which he could house him, winter-proof;
    All night by the white stars' frosty gleams
    He groin'd his arches and match'd his beams;
    Slender and clear were his crystal spars,
    As the lashes of light that trim the stars;
    He sculptured every summer delight
    In his halls and chambers out of sight;
    Sometimes his tinkling waters slipt
    Down through a frost-leaved forest crypt;
    Long sparkling aisles of steel-stemm'd trees,
    Bending to counterfeit a breeze;
    Sometimes the roof no fretwork knew,
    But silvery masses that downward grew;
    Sometimes it was carved in sharp relief,
    With quaint arabesques of ice fern-leaf;
    Sometimes it was simply smooth and clear,
    For the gladness of heaven to shine through, and here
    He had caught the nodding bulrush-tops,
    And hung them thickly with diamond drops,
    Which crystall'd the beams of moon and sun,
    And made a star of every one.
    No mortal builder's most rare device
    Could match this winter-palace of ice;
    "T was as if every image that mirror'd lay
    In his depths serene through the summer day,
    Each flitting shadow of earth and sky,
        Lest the happy model should be lost,
    Had been mimick'd in fairy masonry,
        By the elfin builders of the frost."

It is now about three years since the "Golden Legend," the latest production of PROFESSOR LONGFELLOW, was first submitted to British readers; and it may seem strange that the work of one, who is among the closest bonds of union between the literature of this country and that of his own, should have hitherto excited, comparatively, but a small share of attention. The general opinion seems to be, that Longfellow has added little to his poetic renown by its publication. Nevertheless, it is instinct with the same exquisite sympathies, the same placid thinking melancholy, that dictated "Hyperion," that true "life-drama" of a soul made up of the fineness of the passions, whose very strength is its weakness, tremulous through excess of emotive power. It is another tale, by the bard of "Evangeline," of the "strength of woman's devotion," of that passive heroism –

"Whose very gentleness and weakness
 Are like the yielding but irresistible air."

[451] Its scene is in the heart of old Germany, – the land of Richter, the land of the poet's education, – whence he has imbibed the true spirit of the philosophical romance. To read it gives one a vision of dim, niched, grotesquely furnished rooms, groined roofs, and pointed windows; of portly Barons, stout Burghers, travelling Students, and visionary Monks. Like "Hyperion," it is the history of a noble soul, capable of the mightiest energies, yet possessed by a spirit of inglorious melancholy, and falling "from swoon to swoon" of sick and inert brooding, but which is led, through weakness and anguish, to freedom, to duty, and to God. We are reminded by this simple and affecting dénouement, – the recovery of such a spirit from the enthralments of selfishness after many an effort and false remedy, – of some vast cathedral in that same German land, when the summer day-break is pouring through its windows, and flooding with rich light the solemn haunts consecrated to God and man, which but now were the abode of spectral darkness, or flashed only with the mimic torch. How is it, then, that such a production should have met with but partial success? The fact is, that it is both false in its professedly dramatic form, and is by no means a perfect specimen even of a modern amateur drama. We scarcely need observe that the drama, that bright foam-wreath cast up by the encountering waters of civilization and barbarism, is, as a vital organ of the spirit of poetry, irrecoverably extinct; and the themes with which Longfellow deals, – the vaguer and more indefinable emotions, – are not well adapted for it. They require the more deliberate and accurate analysis of the modern substitute for the drama, – the philosophizing novel, – in which form of writing the Professor has been most successful. Accordingly, in this view, the "Golden Legend" is a failure. "Elsie," as a heroine, lacks interest; her devotion arises from pietistic instinct, not from passion; she appears too slight to experience or excite much emotion. The supernatural machinery, too, is rather childishly managed; perhaps in imitation of the monkish "Miracle Play," which is actually introduced; at all events, "Lucifer" is little better than the devil of a piece of Popish mummery. This, though it may tend to give an antiquarian reality to the poem, is a desertion of the true poetic stand-point, – that standpoint, whence nothing seems incongruous that can aid an effect, whence the universe is seen as a unit undivided by time and space, and which has given us Shakspeare's anachronisms and Spenser's physically impossible grove, wherein appeared –

"The sailing pine, the cedar proud and tall,
 The vine-propt elm, the poplar never dry,
 The builder oak, sole king of forests all,
The aspen good for staves, the cypress funeral."

with the "thirteen more in the next stanza," when, as Mr. Hallam complains, "every one knows that a natural forest never [452] contains such a variety of species." Not only was Spenser on enchanted ground, but so is every poet.

Such seems to be the defect of a poem, of which the beauty and delicacy of sentiment are the Professor's own, which threads with a light and gentle step the maze of youthful agonies, at that time when "the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted." This is the peculiar, the pious aim of Longfellow's writings: he stands as interpreter between genius and itself; he is at home with the quietest, and therefore the strongest and most intimate, feelings of the breast, – those feelings which underlie the whole nature, prompters to its more active parts, but which it belongs to the temperament of genius, in its ceaseless self-inspection, to stir into consciousness, and which, so stirred, occasion endless disquietude and misery, like the beating of the heart or the action of the nerves, which, habitually unfelt, are the source of health and life; but, when they occupy the attention, of intolerable uneasiness and agony. In this sense it is true, that the man of genius "learns by suffering;" he enters upon an education which requires the neglect of some parts of his nature, and the unhealthy development of others; he must be regarded as having sacrificed to the benefit of mankind that due balance and harmony of the faculties, which is essential to happiness. Hence proceed misanthropy, sickly sensibility, complaining weakness, and "all the thousand bitters" which too often disfigure poetry, – that of the young especially. Professor Longfellow's poetic ideal is not a spirit of peevish and querulous contradiction to the divine order of things, – a spirit which "tears at all the creeds," and which, in reality, notwithstanding its defiant attitude and indignant eloquence, is the quintessence of weakness and selfishness. That mood he, indeed, depicts, as a process in the formation of the perfect poetic character; – as, who that thinks at all has not at some time held struggle with the hydra-crest of atheism in his own soul? – but he has searched his heart for something better than gall and wormwood: he does not live merely to pour into the world's ear the broken wailing music of complaint; his poet is not one who is yet struggling with deep waters, but one who has already gained firm footing, and who labours sympathizingly and cheerfully to impart to his fellow-men the joy and courage which he has gained from his own experience. It is in administering such consolation, and inspiring such hope, that the real use of poetry lies; and herein she vindicates her divine origin as descended from the same skies with religion, whose offices she is thus ennobled in sharing; and, whilst providing for these yearnings of the moral nature, she becomes a part of the true γνῶθι σεαυτὸν philosophy, supplying many of the neglects of philosophy, properly so called.

[453] Hitherto we have seen what may be called the conscious subjectivity of poetry carried to an extreme, becoming a mere reflex of the spirit of the age, and of the aspirations of enthusiasm, and hereby made to affect "a saucy roughness," strikingly at variance with the pleasure which it belongs to poetry to excite in the soul; and we have also beheld it embodying such an amount of human feeling as is consistent with poetic beauty and perfection. We are now to regard it in another extreme, not as swerving from the eternal principles of beauty through too great sympathy with the agitations of humanity, but as deprived of a legitimate interest, as losing a healthy and human tone, through want of this sympathy.

It may seem strange that utilitarian America should have been the birth-land of one who, perhaps of all poets, exhibits the most exquisite rhythmic treatment, and whose verse borrows least from without, is least dependent upon external aids and associations. Such, nevertheless, is the case: the man was EDGAR POE. This name is already known to many in this country; but it is rather regarded as the prefix to a life of moral turpitude and a premature death, than as the emblem of the rarest genius. Few there are who appreciate Poe; and, of them, some endeavour to separate the writer from the man; whilst others, unwilling to believe evil of one to whom they are compelled to do reverence, seek to palliate his conduct, believe accounts to be exaggerated, and that Poe was no worse than his neighbours, but that the brightness of his genius made any moral peccadillo he might commit more conspicuous. From each of these courses we are compelled to dissent. That brief and frightful history is far too well authenticated, and, we must add, in one of the peculiar temperament of Poe, far too likely, to be explained away or denied. And to separate from the productions of a writer that knowledge of his character which is to be gained from his career, is to abandon the key to the right understanding of the former. Poe belonged to a class. There are a few, appearing now and then upon the earth, whose life is one habitual tension of soul, a ceaseless watch maintained by the spirit over the perceptive nature, a self-concentration and collectedness, which draws and moulds into itself every thing around. These are the true "heritors of unfulfilled renown," – the men who never sleep, who become the slaves of morbid habits, who die young. Possessed of splendid temper, often of extraordinary physique, in mental sensibility and energy the most perfect of the race, endowed, as if by instinct, with universal knowledge, they yet do little, are only passively affected by the movements of society, and seem to pass through life as through a vivid dream. It is seldom that circumstances induce them to clothe their own fine and infinitely subtle intuitions in the grosser garb of language. Then they let fall a few words as [454] a memory, which, like the dreamy mutterings of sleep, serve to show the whereabouts of the thoughts, – are half a concealment, half a revelation, of the mysteries of the inner spirit. Neither in their errors, nor in their perfections, are such men to be judged by any ordinary standard. Whatever they write, is a psychological memoir of themselves: they are absolutely the prey of their own minds; they never escape themselves; all their thoughts are interior sensations. And the very perfection of their faculties, the taste which lies at the centre of their being, insures that these sensations shall be purely æsthetic. A certain amount of moral insensibility, an isolation from the movements of the world, are the inevitable results of a mind so entirely æsthetic. "Would," we involuntarily exclaim, "that this nature could be imbued with a feeling of philanthropy, that this mind were gifted with an active moral sense, that these fiery passions could be fashioned into use!" It has not been so yet; and that man, in his most perfect form, has not yet fully spoken to man, is a reflection full of hope to the world. Of this order was Poe a type. His ardent passions seem to have existed for nothing else than to be subjects for the experimenting of his intellect; and this has invested their wildest freaks with an indescribable finesse and grace. His career is a terrible instance of what one may become whose course is guided by such a principle as this. More reckless expenditure of energy, more utter disregard of the claims of others, of the world, it is impossible to imagine. Into the details of that life we need not enter: they have already often enough pointed the moral of critic and biographer. We have only to do with them so far as regards an estimate of the writings of Poe.

America had little share in the formation of his character. His education was European. When very young, he travelled all over England, and remained for five years at school near London. Thence returning home, he entered the University at Charlottesville, where, says his biographer, "the remarkable ease with which he mastered the most difficult studies kept him in the first rank for scholarship; and he would have graduated with the highest honours, had not his gambling, intemperance, and other vices induced his expulsion from the University." This, and subsequent misconduct, occasioned a rupture with his friends, and he again repaired to Europe "on a Quixotic expedition to join the insurgent Greeks." His Græcizing enthusiasm probably evaporated with the voyage; at all events, he never reached his destination. But at this time he traversed nearly the whole of Europe, visiting Russia, France, and Italy. Of such an education his genius was the counterpart: it was European; it was Italian. He belonged in spirit to that land in which nature – the art of God – is so blended with human works and associations, as to become almost the art of man, – a symbol of human [455] faculties, and no longer an appeal to human consciousness. So, the great characteristic of Poe's poetry is – we will not say, science, but – conscious art. Had he not been a poet, he would have been the most consummate critic that ever lived. Every piece that he ever wrote, with all its seeming spontaneity and living grace, is yet the product of the most inexorable taste, of the theoretic principles of poetry existing in his own mind; and every part, when examined, will assume an air of rigid and inviolable connexion. There is no ebullience in him; nothing foreign to his purpose occurs; a digression, however beautiful, he would have considered a blemish. Each of his little poems is a study, designed to illustrate some æsthetic principles upon which the ever-musing spirit was at the time engaged. "The Raven," his most known poem, the only one which he laboured to render universally appreciable, with all its mastery of passion, its weird and unearthly effect, is no more than this. In the paper entitled "The Philosophy of Composition," he has left us a minute account of the process of its formation, – consequently, a portraiture of himself. He gives a quiet, admirably perspicuous detail of each succeeding step: how he resolved to write a poem which should embody a certain effect, produce a certain impression; how he deliberately analyzed the various modes which might be employed for this purpose, selecting the best; how from these data he excogitated all the paraphernalia of his poem, and, with his thinking finished, his plan elaborated to the dénouement, first set pen to paper in the composition of the last stanza but two. There is one short sentence which reveals the whole man. After mentioning that he began with the stanza,-

"'Prophet,' said I, 'thing of evil, prophet still, if bird or devil,
 By the heavens that bend above us, by the God we both adore,
 Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if within the distant Aidenn,
 It shall clasp a sainted maiden, whom the angels name Lenore,
 Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels name Lenore?'
                                Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore.'

He adds, "Had I been able, in the subsequent composition, to construct more vigorous stanzas, I should have purposely enfeebled them, so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect." Could any one else have said that?

It is scarcely possible to over-estimate the artistic merits of Poe. Not only were such faculties as he had, possessed in an eminent degree, – but he possessed all the faculties of the artist. His numbers, moving to a purpose under the guidance of an unfailing taste, resemble the trained battalions of an Alva or a Cromwell; which, we are told, "marched to victory with the rigid precision of machines, whilst burning with the wildest enthusiasm of Crusaders." There is in them no stiffness, no appearance of elaboration; free scope is given to an invention, that is, an imagination, in the highest sense of the word, "creative;" [456] and this is ever accompanied by a power of analysis the subtlest and most minute, by which every thing is reduced to congruity: no room is left for the improbable; and we are enwrapped in a true dream-atmosphere, where, dream-like, nothing jars, every faculty is excited and gratified; and the result is a delightful, unresisting abandonment of the whole soul to the guidance of the poet, whose amazing skill we only pause to examine at the end, when striving to ascertain what it is that has so spelled us. The joint operation of these two qualities has made Poe the most original of modern poets. He struck out for himself a path far divergent, and it has never since been followed. He has not even an imitator. His "Raven" is the completest example of conscious art that has ever been exhibited. We have already seen how every thing in it is toned down to suit a proposed climacteric effect; and we must further refer those who wish to understand the genius of the author, to his own astonishing account of its elaboration. Another wonderful little poem is that entitled, "For Annie." This is a flight of thinking almost superhuman, yet how lightly and easily sustained! A still life, haunting the body after "the fever called living" is past, – the apparently inanimate clay, yet instinct with a passive consciousness, like the awakening from a trance, and visited by slight things, half memories, half new and pleasant fancies, which never surprise could such a conception have entered any other brain? Who can read these exquisitely naïve lines, remembering that they are supposed as written by a dead man, without a start? –

"And I lie so composedly
    Now in my bed,
 That any beholder
    Might fancy me dead;
 Might start at beholding me,
    Thinking me dead.”

There are other pieces, such as "Dreamland," "The Haunted Palace," "The Sleeper," "Ulalume," which we should be disposed to dwell on, but can only name. These have afforded us infinite amazement at the inspired art of the poet, mingled with a regret and melancholy, springing from their very tone, and which have centred naturally upon his untimely fate.

A perception so refined of the essentials of art led Poe to pay particular attention to the graces both of rhythm and metre. In these respects he is unrivalled. It is no exaggeration to say, that the finest ear ever formed for rhythm was possessed by him. The full harmonious flowing, the light and exquisite poise, of his verses, are unequalled in the language. His very roughnesses have meaning; they give relief, they delight, like the daring dissonances of a skilled musician. We may instance, in particular, "Annabel Lee," a lovely little lyric, which goes dancing [457] along, like a light boat on a summer sea. He is singular, again, for his mastery over metres. Every metre which he uses is modified by his peculiar touch, assumes an original appearance, and is enwoven with the very nature of his theme. In this last particular, we know of no modern poet to compare with him, except Tennyson. How admirably managed are the changes, the slightly varied repetitions da capo, by which this effect of originality is wrought! But some of the metres in which he writes. are actually original; that of the "Raven," for instance, is an elaborate piece of invention. It is this, more than any thing else, that stamps Poe as a great poet. How little is ever done in the way of stanzical combination! what an event is a new metre! Poe himself seems to have been astonished at it. In the paper from which we have already quoted, he roundly affirms, that "no man for centuries has ever done, or seemed to dream of doing, an original thing in verse." We think there is no great cause of astonishment. It is not once in centuries that an entirely new phase of human consciousness is brought to light, and requires a sheerly novel form of expression. The majority even of those who are accounted great original poets, traverse again and again the same field, make their discoveries in an old region. However they may twist the kaleidoscope, they use the same colours still. Hence, they confine themselves to metres, already sanctioned by association to their own subjects. These they vary and modify to an accordance with their own state of feeling, just as they view the same sphere of thought from different points; but it is the exhibition of a totally new metre which alone signifies a caste of mind hitherto unexpressed.

The same dispassionate passionateness, the same ceaseless watch maintained by the subtle intellect over the sentient nature, the same marvellous power of analysis, cold, bright, cruel, as the Greek painter, who, in order to gain a grander ideal of agony for his Prometheus, tortured his prisoner to death, – pervade the "Tales." Poe's writings are like his life, – they are the result of a series of experiments upon his own nature. A continual self-production runs through them: he is a very Byron in this. Himself may be recognised in the Legrand and Dupin of his first series of tales. The singular faculty of solution possessed by them, – a faculty apparently intuitive, yet really "the very soul and essence of method," – is a description of one of the main attributes of the author's own mind. He lets us still further into the mystery of that self-absorption, which was at once the bane and the perfection of his character, in his tale of "The Assignation." The hero of this tale, – that "ill-fated and mysterious man," who, "squandering away a life of magnificent meditation in that city of dim visions," Venice, lived apart in a "habit of intense and continual thought, pervading even his most trivial actions, intruding upon his moments of dalliance, [458] and interweaving itself with his very flashes of merriment, like adders which writhe from out the eyes of the grinning masks around the temple of Persepolis;" who enveloped himself in a boudoir of more than regal magnificence, the embodiment of his own fancy, where, in defiance of timid decorism, "the chastity of Ionia was offended by antediluvian devices, and the sphynxes of Egypt outstretched upon carpets of gold," where the senses were steeped in the tremblings of an unseen music, and the mingled perfumes of "strange convolute censers;" whose acquirements embraced the sum of human knowledge, but who took a singular pleasure in concealing them; who to an English birth added an Italian life; finally, who, his spirit "writhing in fire," departed so abruptly to the "land of real dreams," – he, we say, is no other than the poet himself. Again: perchance, at a later, darker period, is Poe personified in the pitiable hypochondriac, "Usher:" certainly that air, rather than song, "The Haunted Palace," is the very strain of morbid consciousness. There is a strong significance in the invariable form of these narratives they are related by a second person, – a type of that psychal duality to which we have already often alluded as the characteristic of Poe's temperament. The whole tone and manner of the tales give evidence of an unhealthily stimulated mind. We stand appalled at the preternatural acumen which could construct such an astounding succession and complication of incident, and draw a magnetic circle of such enthralment. It is as though a madman should lay before us in logical outline the whole grotesquerie of delirium. In that peculiarly modern species of literature, – the literature of the horrible, which seems to be the offspring of the human craving after preternatural excitement, driven from the belief in ghoul and goblin, and discovering that the true horrors of man are in himself, – Poe stands almost alone. No one is more at home in the glooms and shadows of the inner world; no one is more skilful in the dissection of human agony, the sensations of nerve-haunted disease, the moods in which the mind is conquered by the fancies it has conjured up. There is in him, to use his own words, "a species of energetic concision," which unfalteringly traverses the whole range of the morbidly excited mind, from its most fairy phantasies to its most grewsome horrors.

This tendency, which renders his "Tales" the most perfect of their kind, exercises a fascinating, but deleterious, influence upon his poetry. It greatly narrows his sphere: to reverse a sentence of his editor, "his circle, though a magic, was a narrow, one." We have already remarked on the insensibility to human interests occasioned in Poe by an exclusively æsthetic bent. He fell into "that true hell of genius," where art is regarded not as a means, but as an end. His poetry derives nothing from the world of man, reflects in no degree the agitations [459] of society, is fraught with none of the enthusiastic philanthropy of the age, never even implies a moral; therefore it will never be popular. It is not meant for universal approbation; it is a sacrifice upon the altar of taste. Hence there is imparted to it a certain fantastic character, as to a musical performance confined to a few notes; and this sometimes betrays a touch of madness, a sort of mental hysteria. He has written madness, – deliberate, concinnate madness, but still madness; his guarded glance, ever retorted upon himself, is terrible, like the vivid, yet serpent, glance of the madman's eye. To read these poems is to be melancholy. They are the broken fragments of a being once of unmatched glory and beauty, the scant remains of, potentially, the greatest word-artist of modern times.

It is lamentable to think of the degraded and unhappy life of such a man; but it would be criminal to omit all references to its striking moral. The lesson so often repeated in literary history, but ignored, if not denied, in the present day, is here written as it were in blood and tears; to wit, the total insufficiency of art or mental culture, be they never so complete, to rescue man from the fatal proclivity of his nature. We commend to a certain class, "religious philosophers" of the day, – worshippers of genius and of science, – the study of Edgar Poe. From his life and writings they may gather some curious illustrations of "the intuitive religion of the heart."





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The London Quarterly Review.
Bd. 2, 1854, Juni, S. 440-459.


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The London Quarterly Review   inhaltsanalytische Bibliographie
The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900.
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Literatur: anonym

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Literatur: The London Quarterly Review

King, Andrew / Plunkett, Andrew (Hrsg.): Victorian Print Media. A Reader. Oxford 2005.

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DOI: 10.14361/9783839451137-018



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer