Page images
PDF
EPUB

So are wont to be changed the faces of those who are dying.
Hot and red on his lips still burned the flush of the fever,
As if life, like the Hebrew, with blood had besprinkled its

portals,
That the Angel of Death might see the sign, and pass over.
Motionless, senseless, dying, he lay, and his spirit exhausted
Seemed to be sinking down through infinite depths in the darkness,
Darkness of slumber and death, for ever sinking and sinking.
Then through those realms of shade, in multiplied reverberations,
Heard he that cry of pain, and through the hush that succeeded
Whispered a gentle voice, in accents tender and saint-like,

Gabriel ! O my beloved !' and died away into silence. Then he beheld, in a dream, once more the home of his child.

hood; Green Acadian meadows, with sylvan rivers among them, Village, and mountain, and woodlands; and, walking under their

shadow, As in the days of her youth, Evangeline rose in his vision. Tears came into his eyes; and as slowly he lifted his eyelids, Vanished the vision away, but Evangeline knelt by his bedside. Vainly he strove to whisper her name, for the accents unuttered Died on his lips, and their motion revealed what his tongue would

have spoken. Vainly he strove to rise ; and Evangeline, kneeling beside him, Kissed his dying lips, and laid his head on osom. Sweet was the light of his eyes ; but it suddenly sank into

darkness, As when a lamp is blown out by a gust of wind at a casement.

“ All was ended now, the hope, and the fear, and the sorrow, All the aching of heart, the restless, unsatisfied longing, All the dull, deep pain, and constant anguish of patience! And, as she pressed once more the lifeless head to her bosom, Meekly she bowed her own, and murmured, Father, I thank thee!""

pp. 156 – 160. Such is a faint outline of this simple and beautiful story. From the historical sketch we have given, our readers will perceive that none of the incidents are improbable. Such separations and such life-long seekings were among the consequences of the enforced exile of the Acadians. The poem is constructed with more art and skill than any of Mr. Longfellow's previous writings. The opening and closing lines balance each other with admirable effect; and the contrast between the scenes described in the first part and the more gorgeous passages in the second, while both are purely American, enough so to satisfy the most fanatical prater about Americanism in literature, gives a delightful variety to the narrative.

There is one peculiarity about this poem, which has excited a good deal of comment, and some complaint, - its rhythmical structure. The dactylic hexameter has been repeatedly attempted in English, but not often with much success. In point of fact, the measure is as different from the old classical hexameter of the Latin and Greek, as the modern languages differ from the ancient; but it has an analogous effect. The ancient hexameter runs back into the mythical times; its first appearance was in the oldest temples of the gods. The elements of this rhythmical movement were probably brought from the East into Greece at the same time with the elements of the language itself, and formed a part of the musical character which entered so deeply into the original constitution of the language. The Orientals had an indefinite rhythm, a species of chant, in their more elaborate recitation. It is found in the movement of the Hebrew Psalms, and is even now preserved in the modulated tones of the Arabian story-tellers. With their fine artistic sense, the Greeks subjected this Oriental rhythmical element to definite laws; just as their exquisite feeling of the beauty of proportion substituted, for the irregular architecture of the East, the symmetry of the Hellenic orders. The Greek hexameter bears the same analogy to a Hebrew or Sanscrit rhythm that the Parthenon bears to the temples of the hundred-gated Thebes or of Ellora.

All the ancient rhythms are founded on quantity, and inseparably connected with music. Each metrical foot had its fixed musical time, from which there was no departure ; but the music was subordinate to the meaning, and was intended simply to heighten and embellish it. The poems of Homer were chanted by the rhapsodists, but never in such a way as to conceal the quality of the verse. Undoubtedly this fact restrained and limited the range of musical composition at first; and the inventive genius of the music-poets endeavoured to break loose from such fetters, by putting together those complicated and curiously interwoven rhythms by which Greek lyrical poetry was distinguished. Many of these it is impossible now to read in such a way as to produce, to modern ears, any rythmical effect at all. In the choral songs of the tragedies, we find long passages of whose rhythmical effect we can form no conception, except by supposing them set to very elaborate musical composition, with times corresponding to the syllabic quantities.

In comparing ancient and modern poetical rhythms, we shall form quite erroneous opinions, unless we bear this essential fact constantly in mind, - that of the former, quantity, and consequently musical time, is the foundation ; of the latter, accent, and consequently a delivery more or less approaching the conversational, is the basis. Music with us is so far divorced from language, as to form a separate and independent art ; and when the two are combined, music is the predominating element in the composition, while language is treated in the most arbitrary manner, a syllable being lengthened or shortened, not according to any fixed time in the language, but wholly to suit the musical exigencies of the composer. Who ever hears the words of an opera, or cares for them, if he does ? Who ever catches a particle of verbal sense in the midst of the tumult of instrumentation in an oratorio ?

We are led astray sometimes, by applying to modern languages the terms which are properly applied to the ancient. Thus we speak of long and short vowels, when in point of fact any vowel may be made long or short ad libitum. The letter o, for example, is said to be long in note, but short in not. Now the difference here is not a difference of quantity, but of quality; the latter may be prolonged as well as the former. The idea of applying quantity to modern versification is wholly fallacious ; and this accounts for the failure of many early English poets who attempted to write in the ancient measures.

"'Why, a' God's name," asks Spenser, may not we, as the Greeks, have the kingdom of our own language, and measure our accents by the sound, reserving the quantity to the verse ? The answer to which is, that the Greeks had a fixed musical element in common speech, which we have not, and poets cannot create it.

But even in the Greek, this musical enunciation seems to have gradually yielded to the every-day uses of language, as life became more diversified and practical. The dialogue portions of the drama, which had originally been trochaic, and therefore an approximation to the dactylic, finally and universally became iambic, because, as Aristotle asserts, the iambic is the natural rhythm of conversation. In this fact we see an approach to the character of modern rhythm.

[ocr errors]

In our language, therefore, the basis of poetical rhythm is accent; and the conversational and discursive character of our Anglo-Saxon runs naturally into the iambic accent. Those rhythms, therefore, which are most analogous to the iambic, are most congenial to our language. The heroic couplet, and blank verse, and the dialogue of the poetical drama, are all iambic rhythms of five accents.

Next come the anapæstic rhythms, which are only an expansion of the iambic. Dactylic rhythms are the anapæstic reversed; they are less natural, because they begin with an accent like the trochee, and are an extension of the trochaic. The dactylic hexameter in English is a rhythm of six accents, of which the prevailing foot is the accented dactyl, and the last always a trochee or spondee. As a general rule, the last but one should be an accented dactyl, that is, an accented syllable followed by two unaccented ones. Again, as in the English anapæstic rhythms the iambic may take the place of the anapæst, as in the line,

" And mor Itals the sweets of forget|fulness prove, I so in dactylic rhythms the trochee often takes the place of the dactyl ; as, Rang out the hour of nine, the I village | curfew and

straightway." There are two difficulties in the way of writing English hexameters. First, that which we have already intimated, the necessity of putting some force upon the conversational iambic rhythm, which is natural to the language ; secondly, the numerous monosyllables, which make the proper arrangement of the cæsuras no easy task, besides increasing the difficulty of always commencing with an accent.

All these remarks apply with nearly equal force to other modern languages, and particularly to those which are of Northern origin and akin to the English.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, the measure has been often attempted, especially in German, where the works of Klopstock, Voss, Goethe, and Schiller have almost naturalized it. It has been tried in Swedish with most success by the great national poet, Tegnér, whose early studies as professor of Greek probably led him to adopt this classical rhythm. There is one peculiarity in the Swedish, and some other Northern dialects, which facilitates the beginning with an accent, — namely, the position of the article after the noun, as a suffix.

The modern hexameter, like the ancient, has been successfully used for minute delineation and picturesque narra-tive. Its length and variety enable the poet to add a thousand touches which he would be obliged to omit in the ordinary rhythms. The many naïve passages in Homer, the homely painting of common objects in daily life, the exquisite pictures in which his genius loves to indulge whenever a simile gives him an opportunity of presenting them in detail, no less than the sublime and terrible scenes in nature, and the uproar of battle, where shield closes with shield and spear rings against spear, owe their vividness to the facilities afforded by the dactylic hexameter. Let the harnessing of old Priam's chariot, in the twenty-fourth Iliad, be compared with the putting of the horses to the wagon by Hermann, in that delicious poem of Hermann and Dorothea, and the reader will not fail to see with what unerring instinct Goethe felt and used the capabilities of the hexameter.

In Evangeline, Mr. Longfellow has managed the hexameter with wonderful skill. The homely features of Acadian life are painted with Homeric simplicity, while the luxuriance of a Southern climate is magnificently described with equal fidelity and minuteness of finish. The subject is eminently fitted for this treatment; and Mr. Longfellow's extraordinary command over the rhythmical resources of language has enabled him to handle it certainly with as perfect a mastery of the dactylic hexameter as any one has ever acquired in our language.

Of the other beauties of the poem we have scarcely left ourselves space to say a word ; but we cannot help calling our readers' attention to the exquisite character of Evangeline herself. As her virtues are unfolded by the patience and religious trust with which she passes through her pilgrimage of toil and disappointment, she becomes invested with a beauty as of angels. Her last years are made to harmonize the discords of a life of sorrow and endurance. The closing scenes, though informed with the deepest pathos, inspire us with sadness, it is true, but at the same time leave behind a calm feeling that the highest aim of her existence has been attained. With these few nar we proceed to select a few passages. Here is a lovely picture :

« PreviousContinue »