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immoral, and the incidents improbable, still we must not complain, but must try to take our stand in the poet's own attic, to look through his dirty windows, and gain some impossible point of view whence all these supposed defects will appear as excellences.
If we could only look at the production through the poet's own eyes, we are assured that it would appear very beautiful. At any rate, we must first learn from experiment how tedious and painful a process incubation is, before we presume to find fault with the feeble and callow progeny that the poet has just hatched. The critic must ascertain, not only what the writer's precise intentions were, but how difficult a matter it was to execute them; he must watch the progress of creation step by step, and ascertain by his own experience
“ How new-born nonsense first is taught to cry.” Now these claims on the part of the poet are very unreasonable and foolish, and he may rest assured that the public will never grant them. He wholly mistakes his office, when he attempts to impose an onerous duty upon the world, instead of imparting to it an additional pleasure. Every reader of his book, who has independence and sagacity enough to form and to hold any opinions at all, is necessarily a critic of it, though he may not often deem it necessary to put his criticisms into print. If the unhappy bard will publish, if he will appeal to the judgment of his contemporaries, he must stand by their decision. If he desires the sympathy and applause of those who do not write books, but read them, he must consult their tastes, submit to be guided by the rules which they lay down, and attempt to give them pleasure in the only ways in which they are capable of receiving it.
" Multa fero
Quum scribo, et supplex populi suffragia capto.” He may keep out of court altogether, if he sees fit; he is under no obligation to come before the public, but may
keep his piece nine years," or ninety, just as he chooses. But the poet will plead his inspiration here, the impulse and the energy divine, and say that he must write, whether he will or no, just as the phrenologists affirm that some people must steal or murder, in spite of themselves. We don't believe either the poets or the phrenologists in this respect; but no matter. The story is an old one.
“ Quid faciam, præscribe. Quiescas. Ne faciam, inquis,
Optimum erat; verum nequeo dormire.” As our respect for the temperance cause will not allow us to indorse Horace's prescription in this hard case, as a means of expelling the cacoethes scribendi, we will grant the necessity of writing. But why publish? There is no fatality,
“manisest destiny,” here. Publication is the overt act, the flagrant delict, which immediately brings the culprits within the jurisdiction of the court. If they will only keep their manuscripts within their desks, we may safely promise then immunity from harsh and illiberal criticism.
But if they rashly leave their garrets to go to the printing-office, let them beware the constables.
These rather rambling remarks, we frankly confess, were not immediately suggested by the perusal of Mr. Lowell's volume, and have very little direct connection with it. But the appearance of one whom we believe to be a true poet reminds us of the number of those who would fain be considered in the same light, and of the magnitude and impudence of their pretensions. Some barrier must be erected against unfounded claims before actual merit can receive its due ; some principles of criticism must be established before either praise or blame can be intelligently awarded. The tone of the sugitive pieces in the volume now before us is singularly high-minded, vigorous, and pure ; there is nothing mawkish, feeble, or impudently obtrusive about them. It is not strange that these qualities should lead us to reflect on the annoyance that is often caused by their opposites, and on the arrogance with which inferior minds are wont to thrust forward their baseless claims.
The successive publications of Mr. Lowell show a marked progress, and encourage us to hope for a rich harvest, when the soil shall be cultivated to the utmost, and the fruit have been allowed to reach its full maturity. He will not complain of us for thinking that he has not yet attained his perfect stature, and that even his latest productions fall quite short of what he is able to accomplish. His first volume, A Year's Life, published in 1841, was rich in promise rather than performance; we remarked of it at the time, that it showed his conceptions to be "superior to his power of execution.” Three years afterwards appeared another volume of his
poems, which made good many of the bright anticipations that were founded upon his first experiment. It showed more compass and vigor of intellect, a wider range of thought, and many portions of it were worked out with great elegance and elaborateness of finish. But it contained nothing which impressed us so forcibly with the idea of great power, of imagination scattering its wealth with singular profuseness, and of a daring originality of conception, as many of the pieces in the present volume. The haze that formerly dimmed many of his grandest pictures has now almost entirely disappeared, and their outlines stand forth with sharp distinctness in a bright atmosphere. If a cloud still hangs over a few of his finer thoughts, we fear that it was left to float there intentionally, from some misconception of the effect of obscurity in heightening our idea of the beautiful. Language has become more obedient to his will, and he executes his highest purposes without straining its idiom, or painfully ransacking its vocabulary. Many of the pieces in this volume will support as high a reputation as belongs to some of the most honored names on the roll of English poets.
This is strong commendation, and we must quote one or two of the poems before going farther, lest our readers should suspect that our good-will exceeds our sense of justice. The following, called “ Above and Below,” though not the first in point of grandeur and originality, seems to us the most complete and highly finished of any in the collection.
“O dwellers in the valley-land,
Who in deep twilight grope and cower,
Shortens to noon's triumphal hour,
Of morn, because 't is dark with you ?
In God's ripe fields the day is cried,
Troop, singing, down the mountain-side :
In the frank Dawn's delighted eyes,
The night-shed tears of Earth she dries !
“ The Lord wants reapers: O, mount up, Before night comes, and says,
“ Too late!” Stay not for taking scrip or cup,
The Master hungers while ye wait : 'Tis from these heights alone your eyes
The advancing spears of day can see, Which o’er the eastern hill-tops rise,
To break your long captivity.
“ Lone watcher on the mountain-height !
It is right precious to behold
Flood all the thirsty east with gold ;
Know also when the day is nigh, Seeing thy shining forehead lit
With his inspiring prophecy.
God lacks not early service here,
He counts with us for morning cheer;
And when He giveth work to do,
To pierce the shield of error through.
Light's earlier messages to preach;
Plunge deep the rowels of thy speech.
More worthy than our twilight dim,
And following that is finding Him." These are certainly very striking stanzas, which no living poet need be ashamed to own. The imagery in the lines that we have Italicized is very bold and grand, and shows that Mr. Lowell has entered thoroughly into the spirit of the Elizabethan age of poetry. The next poem that we borrow, " Extreme Unction is in a very different strain, yet of hardly inferior excellence, so that it shows the compass and versatility of the writer's powers. It is too long to be copied entire.
“Go! leave me, Priest; my soul would be
Alone with the consoler, Death; Far sadder eyes than thine will see
This crumbling clay yield up its breath; These shrivelled hands have deeper stains
Than holy oil can cleanse away, — Hands that have plucked the world's coarse gains
As erst they plucked the flowers of May. “ Call, if thou canst, to those gray eyes
Some faith from youth's traditions wrung; This fruitless husk which dustward dries
Has been a heart once, has been young; On this bowed head the awful Past
Once laid its consecrating hands; The Future in its purpose vast
Paused, waiting my supreme commands. " But look! whose shadows block the door?
Who are those two that stand aloof? See ! on my hands this freshening gore
Writes o'er again its crimson proof! My looked-for death-bed guests are met;
There my dead Youth doth wring its hands, And there, with eyes that goad me yet,
The ghost of my Ideal stands ! “ God bends from out the deep and says,
“I gave thee the great gift of life; Wast thou not called in many ways?
Are not my earth and heaven at strife ? I gave thee of my seed to sow,
Bringest thou me my hundred-fold ?' Can I look up with face aglow,
And answer, · Father, here is gold'? " I have been innocent; God knows,
When first this wasted life began,
Than I with every brother-man :
When this fast-ebbing breath shall part ? What bands of love and service bind
This being to the world's sad heart?