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the two disorders aggravated each other, and ran through all the stages incident to literary affectation, until they assumed their worst form and common sense breathed its last, as the “Orphic Sayings ” came, – those most unmeaning and witless effusions we cannot say of the brain, for the smallest modicum of brains would have rendered their appearance an impossibility, — but of mere intellectual inanity.
Thus Carlyle rejected his own early and manly English style, to imitate in English a bad German model. The American Carlyle tribe imagined they were doing a wise and brilliant thing, by imitating the second-hand absurdities of an imitator, mistaking these borrowed follies for great originalities, and forgetting that affectation is the deadliest poison to the growth of sound literature.. Similar affectations have made their appearance at other times and in other nations. The Euphuists were not quite so ridiculous as the Transcendentalists; the metaphysical poets were men of learning and genius, highly admired in their day for the very vices which have sunk them into complete oblivion now. The followers of Gongora and the Culturists, in Spain, so exquisitely described in a few pungent sentences in “ Gil Blas," - what do they seem but a deplorable set of dunces, through whose works the literary historian plods his weary way, thanking the gods when he has left them far behind! The Marinisti in Italy played the same fantastic part, and have met with the same inevitable destiny. In France, the Hôtel Rambouillet, in the great age, was the nucleus around which gathered a band of beautiful spirits, who were annihilated by the Précieuses Ridicules of Molière, before they had reached the measureless inanity in which our fantastic youth disport themselves. In all these cases, more learning and genius were expended — incomparably more than have as yet been embodied in the school of American affectations. Yet, among the American Euphuists are several men of really fine genius and respectable acquirements, and some very amiable women, who would adorn society, if they would consent to be themselves, and to clear their heads of cant. But being possessed of the demon of affectation, they strive to set themselves apart from the common herd, imagine that they are inhabitants of a sublimated ether, and look down with pitying contempt on all who profess an inability to detect a meaning in their vapid and mystical jargon.
A great deal of our poetry is tainted with the imitation of the mannerisms, which have successively prevailed in England during the last quarter of a century. For a time, the Byronic tone was taken up and reëchoed, till the patience of the public was thoroughly exhausted. Then we had feeble and fat imitations of Mrs. Hemans, which have not yet entirely disappeared ; and now, feebler and flatter imitations of Alfred Tennyson wear out the forbearance of a long-suffering community. In Mr. Lowell's first volume, we thought we saw a tendency to this second-hand poetizing; a disposition to mimic the jingle of a man, who, with much genius and an exquisite ear for musical rhythm, has also a Titanian fondness for quaint and dainty expressions, affected turns, and mawkishly effeminate sentiment ; and who would be the worst model, therefore, not only for a young poet to imitate, but even to read; so contagious are the vices of his manner.
But the symptoms have, to a great degree, passed off, or Mr. Lowell has nearly outgrown the disease with which his literary childhood was threatened, if not actually assailed. We recognize in his later productions a firmer intellect, a wider range of thought, a bolder tone of expression, and a versification greatly improved. We feel that he is now becoming master of his fine powers, and an artist in the execution of his conceptions. The character of his more elaborate productions is, in general, noble and elevated, though tinged somewhat with the vague speculations which pass current in some circles for philosophy. There is a similar vagueness in the expression of religious feeling ; positive religious views, though not rejected, are kept far in the background. Many of the poems are devoted to the utterance of sentiments of humanity ; and here, though the feelings expressed are always amiable and tender, the youth and inexperience of the poet are clearly manifested. He is a dreamer, apparently, brooding over the wrongs which are endured in the present state of society, and rashly inferring that the existing institutions are bad, and should be overthrown.
Such radical opinions are not perhaps directly uttered, but the general tone tends that way.
Now, it requires but little observation to see, that the present state of the world is produced by the operation of natural laws, working slowly and surely through the ages ; and that the present organization of society can
be changed for the better only by the same gradual process. Every expression of lofty feeling, every act of heroism, every discovery of science, every newly found source of wealth and physical well being, every poetical creation, are incessantly coöperating towards this remote result. It does no good, however, to say that all is going wrong, as things are now constituted ; and to stand apart, and cultivate peculiarities of opinion and isolation of feeling, while the great world is in full activity all around us, is worse than idle. It is the part of the manly intellect to take hold of the work, whatever it be, that lies before him ; and, cheerfully falling in with the modes of action, and the manners of his contemporaries, so far as those modes of action and those manners have nothing against which an enlightened conscience revolts, to work, in his great taskmaster's eye, with simplicity, courage, and truth. The individual mind, once possessed with the idea, that it is animated by a spirit which does not condescend to enlighten others, that it has loftier views of society, or a wider and more comprehensive philanthropy, than others, runs the great danger of mistaking the suggestions of vanity for the dictates of conscience; of cultivating singularity for the sake of making the beholder wonder, and of procuring the gratification of self-conceit by being pointed out in the streets and public places. The feeling is very apt to be the same as that by which persons are almost always animated, who adopt a peculiar costume, and cultivate oddity of personal appearance. Feeble imitations and affectations, of the same general description, though differing in species, are to be seen on every side, outward indications of the same vices which have emasculated so much both of the prose and poetry of our literature.
We think a little more reflection will convince Mr. Lowell, that, in the opinions and principles of conduct now prevailing, in the organization of society and the current manners of the world, there is much less to dissent from than he seems at present to imagine ; and that a few years more will see him wholly emancipated from those peculiarities of thought and feeling, whose tendency is towards isolation ; whose result is to enfeeble the active powers first, and then to bring down the poetical genius from its lofty heights, and bind it to the narrow circle of individual views, thoughts, and experiences. With his manly reach of mind, it is impossible that he should dwell long among the unsubstantial dreams of radical reform. The real interests of men, strong characters unfolded under the pressure of actual conflicts with the difficulties of life, passions burning in hearts that have borne the brunt of sorrow and suffering, — these are the subjects that must expel a dreamy philosophy, an unsubstantial religion, and a vague and brooding passion for some Utopian state of society, which the world can never reach, except by the slow operation of general laws, through a long series of centuries, if it reach at all.
Mr. Lowell's poems want compression. In the words of Taylor, the whey needs pressing out. Redundancy, both of thought and expression, is the principal fault which we think the critical reader will be disposed to find with them. The subjects of many of his poems are drawn out to a wearisome length, by interweaving, not only the leading thoughts which belong to their proper treatment, but all the subordinate ideas and common-place moralities, which should be taken for granted, as understood of themselves. To borrow an expression from the writers on metre, they abound in logaædic endings ; – they are poetry terminating in prose. Sometimes, at the end of a fine poetical piece, a long moral application is appended, like the “improvements ” in the old Puritanical sermons. Now, either the moral conclusion would naturally be drawn by the attentive reader, or else the telling of the story, or the wording of the parable, is deficient in point and clearness. But there is no such deficiency in any of Mr. Lowell's poetical effusions of this class. The “ Prometheus " is an instance of injuring the effect of an otherwise noble poem by too great prolixity. The conception of this piece is not only beautiful, but sublime ; it is a Christian reproduction of the old myth, and, in general, is treated not only with high poetical beauty, but with a dignified elevation of moral feeling ; but Prometheus is not characteristically represented. His soliloquy runs too far into minute details and ornamented expression, as if he were a gentleman a great deal more at his ease than he really was under the circumstances. The Prometheus of Æschylus utters lofty and audacious thoughts, in language of Titanic vastness and energy. Shelley treated a part of the fable with great affluence of poetical imagery and a heaven-defying boldness of thought. Goethe handled it with admirable force and brevity. Lowell's “ Prometheus” is masterly, and sustained at a high point of elegance and calm beauty ; but it is precisely this elegance and calm beauty which are out of keeping with the subject, considered with reference to the character and condition of the gigantic sufferer.
A good instance of the second fault, - that of the unnecessary enforcement of a moral application, – is in the delightfully written poem of “Rhæcus." All after the conclusion of the story, on page 125, were much better omitted ; that is, something more than two pages of very well expressed, but quite uncalled for, moralizing. Striking out all that, and some lines at the beginning, the poem is nearly faultless, as our readers will have an opportunity, by and by, of seeing.
Of Mr. Lowell's poetical style in general, the present volume has given us a high opinion. Not that it is by any means free from defects ; but it has the elements of a clear, vigorous, and pure form of expression. It shows the marks of a profound study of the English language, in the best authors; and though the influence of particular writers is at times perceptible, his style is generally formed from the substantial materials taken from the heart of the language. For the most part, the constructions are clear, and the order of the words is free from those inversions which disfigure so much of the overstrained poetical composition of this age. Sometimes, though rarely, we find a studied quaintness of turn, a finical expression, or an extravagant simile or metaphor. Again, we are offended by words absurdly compounded, or used in a distorted sense. The termination of the imperfect tense, or passive participle, in ed is too frequently made an independent syllable. But all of these faults might easily be avoided. To justify these remarks, we shall copy a few examples.
“ More trembly secret than Aurora's tear.” The meaning of this and of the following forced expression is too indistinct :
6 Tremble from the divine abyss to cheer it. So in the following lines,
“ And what we win of earth's contentment slips
From our forlorn embraces not too slowly," the epithet forlorn conveys no very precise idea.