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ART. VIII. CRITICAL NOTICES.
Poems on Man, in his various Aspects under the American
Motley Book," "Behemoth," "Puffer Hopkins," &c. New York: Wiley and Putnam. 1843. 16mo. pp. 112.
MR. MATHEWS is more favorably known to the literary public as the strenuous advocate of an international copyright law, than as an author. Yet some of his earlier writings were not without merit. His story called "Behemoth" showed uncommon imagination, and considerable power of style. It embodied a striking aboriginal tradition, and was told in manly, nervous, and unaffected language. It was a work which indicated something like genius, and gave good promise of better things to come; but each succeeding work has, by a regular gradation, sunk below its predecessor, exactly reversing the ordinary course of young and gifted authors. The art of sinking on a great scale was never more skilfully practised. With good and even high aims, Mr. Mathews has shown a marvellous skill in failing, each failure being more complete than the last. His comedy of "The Politicians" is "the most lamentable comedy"; and the reader exclaims, with Hippolyta, "This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard." The career of Puffer Hopkins is an elaborately bad imitation of Dickens; and must be ranked in fiction where "The Politicians " stands in the drama. It aims at being comical, and satirical upon the times. The author studies hard to portray the motley characters which move before the observer in a large city; but he has not enough of the vision and the faculty divine, to make them more than melancholy ghosts of what they profess to be. The attempts at humor are inexpressibly dismal; the burlesque overpowers the most determined reader, by its leaden dulness. The style is ingeniously tasteless and feeble. He who has read it through can do or dare any thing.
How is it, that a young man of talent can perpetrate such literary enormities? The question can only be answered by stating the peculiarities of style, which these works manifest. Mr. Mathews suffers from several erroneous opinions. He seems to think, that literary elegance consists in the very qualities which make elegance impossible. Simplicity and directness of language he abominates. When he has an idea to express, he aims, apparently, to convert it into a riddle, by inventing the most
forced, unnatural, and distorted expressions. If the thing can be obscured, he is sure to obscure it. He seems to say to the reader, "Can you guess? do you give it up? But then, less obliging than the maker of charades, he leaves the puzzled victim without an explanation at last. He studies a singularity of phrase at once crabbed and finical, and overloads his pages with far-fetched epithets, that are at once harsh and unmeaning. He seems to have been told, that he has wit and humor, and strange delusion -to believe it. He writes as if he imagined that he possessed the inventive power; never was a greater mistake. These qualities and these mistakes make his prose writings unreadable and intolerable, at least, all the later ones. But when to the charms of his ordinary style are added the attractions of verse, then the sense aches with the combined and heightened beauties. The present volume exaggerates all his literary vices. The plan of these poems is very well; if executed with taste and power, the volume would have been interesting. As it is, we have here and there a good line, a striking figure, or a bold expression. But most of the poems are deformed by harshness of versification, feebleness of thought, and every species of bad writing. Compounded words, never seen before, and impossible to be pronounced, epithets detailed on service for which they are wholly unfit, figures that illustrate nothing but their own absurdity, and rhymes that any common book would die of, astonish the reader on every page. Had the poet purposely aimed to twist the English language into every conceivable form of awkwardness, had he designed to illustrate, for the use of beginners, every possible defect and every positive fault of diction, his success in accomplishing the object could not have been more complete. We say these things with regret, because, as was intimated before, we regard the aims of Mr. Mathews, on several matters of importance, with respect, and we think he has the power to make valuable contributions to our literature. But he will never do so without rejecting all his present notions of fine writing, unlearning all the bad lessons he has been taught, and returning to nature, simplicity, and truth.
We had marked many characteristic passages in the present volume, to illustrate the observations we have felt called on to make. But we have space only for a few lines. In the first poem, besides many other absurdities of thought as well as expression, occurs this line :
"Strides he the globe, or canvass-tents the sea.”
Who ever heard of the verb to canvass-tent? To canvass-back the sea would be much more rational.
In the second poem we find this luminous line:
which must be very clear indeed.
What can be the meaning of the following words in the "Teacher"?
"Whose eyes cry light through all its dawning void."
Again, in the "Farmer":
"Fierce revolutions rush in wild-orbed haste."
In the "Mechanic," the following very intelligible direction is given to the architect:
"In the first Builder's gracious spirit work,
Through hall, through enginery, and temples meek,
In the "Merchant," the poet affirms:
"Undimmed the man should through the trader shine,
This can only mean, that the soul of the trader ought not to be supplied with babies by his craft.
The "Sculptor" ends with this prediction:
"And up shall spring through all the broad-set land,
The fair while people of thy love unnumbered."
In the "Journalist," we find the following directions to the printer:
"Hell not the quiet of a Chosen Land,
Thou grimy man over thine engine bending."
Hell, as a common noun, is a sufficiently uncomfortable idea; but when converted into an active verb, it becomes positively alarming.
The poet thus advises "The Masses":
"In vast assemblies calm, let order rule,
And be as little children at a singing school."
And the "Reformer" is told to
"Seize by its horns the shaggy Past,
2.-1. The Prelatical Doctrine of Apostolical Succession examined, and the Protestant Ministry defended against the Assumptions of Popery and High-Churchism, in a Series of Lectures. By THOMAS SMYTH, Pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Boston Crocker & Brewster. 1841. 8vo. pp. 568. 2. Presbytery and not Prelacy the Scriptural and Primitive Polity. By THOMAS SMYTH. 1843. 8vo. pp. 568. 3. Ecclesiastical Republicanism; or, the Republicanism, Liberality, and Catholicity of Presbyterianism, in Contrast with Prelacy and Popery. By THOMAS SMYTH. 1843. 12mo. pp. 323.
THESE ponderous, but very handsome, volumes form an elaborate treatise upon a question, which is now exciting an unusual and very extraordinary degree of popular interest. We have no intention of here setting forth our opinion upon the controverted points; and an analysis of Mr. Smyth's volumes would occupy more space than we can spare. But we may say, that the author's tone is such as befits a scholar and a divine. His good temper even improves as he proceeds, an extraordinary thing in religious controversy,· from which we infer, that he has full confidence in the strength of his own arguments. Neither does our author set the "divine right of Presbytery" against the "divine right of Prelacy," as his title-pages might be deemed to imply. Though standing in the Presbyterian ranks, and with a strong and natural bias in favor of the ecclesiastical polity of Calvin and John Knox, he contends only for the general cause of Protestantism, and "includes under the term, presbytery, those generic principles which are common to Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Reformed Dutch, Lutherans, Baptists, and Methodists."
In execution, the first of these volumes is greatly inferior to its successors. The author did not give himself time to elaborate the mass of materials which he had industriously collected from all the ordinary sources, especially from the old English divines, both prelatic and puritan, who have long since exhausted all the arguments which bear strongly upon the questions debated between a High-Churchman and a Presbyterian. The book is rendered tedious by redundant quotations, wearisome repetitions, and needless amplification of minor or collateral points. It is rather a storehouse of arguments, than a close argumentation, or a well-arranged digest. These remarks, however, do not apply to the second work in the series, which the author has elaborated with care, so as to do justice both to himself and to the subject. The third treatise of Mr. Smyth, a mere pendant to the other
two, hardly requires a particular notice at our hands; since few will question the republican tendency of presbyterianism. Dean Swift very plausibly traces the "opposition to kingly government in England" directly to the influence of those Protestants, drivne abroad by the persecutions under Queen Mary, who, for a time, "resided at Geneva, which is a commonwealth governed without a king, where the religion contrived by Calvin is without the order of bishops."
3.- Willie Rogers, or Temper Improved. Boston: Samuel G. Simpkins. 1844. 12mo. pp. 104.
We are not in the habit of noticing books for children, which have multiplied on our hands of late with alarming rapidity, so that the manufacture of them seems to have become quite a branch of trade in this country. But the character of many of these publications is such, that we look back almost with regret upon the days, when the rhymes of Mother Goose and tales of fairy land formed nearly the whole contents of our juvenile libraries. Morality and science are now hashed up into baby talk, and are inculcated in such wise, that if the stupidity of the book does not hinder it from producing any impression, it will be likely to convert its youthful readers into formal little pedants or affected hypocrites. Occasionally, however, a book of rare merit, like the little volume now before us, makes its appearance, and we would fain do our humble part to prevent its being lost amidst the heap of trash on the booksellers' counter, with which it is surrounded. The writer is evidently a lover of children, admires their winning and roguish ways, and enters into the very spirit of their generous impulses, their quick affections, and their pranks and peccadilloes. The incidents are probable and well chosen, and are told with grace and naturalness. The little hero is so admirably drawn, that we suspect it is a portrait from the life, and he is surrounded with a group of very familiar faces. Little Sarah, and Tom, and Becky are all old acquaintances of ours, and we are glad to meet them again. They are not little men and women, stiffly drawn on pattern cards, but true children, at once active and droll, laughing and crying, in a breath. The only proper companions for them, that we have ever found in print, are members of the admirable group in Miss Edgeworth's "Sequel to Frank." We would willingly enlarge the circle of their acquaintances, and, therefore, heartily commend them to the notice of all anxious mothers and affectionate aunts.