« PreviousContinue »
tury, have not thought proper to admit so many names as are included in Mr. Griswold's collection; and at the same time, they have selected many pieces which would confer no additional reputation upon Bryant, Longfellow, Willis, Dana, Halleck, Sprague, Percival, or Drake; and many also which American poets, of less pretensions, have excelled. Pinkney has written as well, to say the least, as many of the "mob of gentlemen," who were the boast of the times of Charles the First, and Charles the Second; as well as Lovelace and Carew, and better than Waller, Sedley, Etherege, and Dorset. There are few songs, if we except those of Burns and Moore, which have more lyric flow and hearty sentiment than the best of Hoffman's. Tom Warton has not written better sonnets than some of Benjamin's. Gallagher and Street have a finer feeling for the beauties and sublimities of natural scenery, and more felicity in giving it expression, than a large number of English descriptive poets of the second class. Sargent has written of the sea with more freshness and graphic power, with more true fancy and poetic feeling, than Falconer, or many others of a higher reputation. A richness of diction, a warmth of imagination, and a tenderness of sentiment distinguish many of the occasional compositions of Tuckerman, and especially his "Spirit of Poetry," which are not often found in the poetiical contributions to many of those English periodicals, in which Transatlantic verse is rarely mentioned without ridicule or affected contempt.
We have no desire to exalt American poetry above its merits. We are sensible of its deficiencies, as compared with the great creations of English genius. We know, that much, which circulates in the United States in the shape of rhyme, is nothing more than rhyme. But it appears to us quite absurd, that in a country whose literature is stained with so many metrical productions offensive to good taste and good morals, a country which has had its Tom D'Urfeys, Aphra Behns, Shadwells, Settles, and Wolcotts, as well as its Shakspeare, Spenser, Milton, and Wordsworth, a country whose miscellaneous and magazine verse is, at the present time, inferior to our own, there should be so much willingness to express pity or contempt for the poetry of the United States. But it is one of the amiable peculiarities of John Bull to forget all his own past or present sins, in his zeal against the peccadilloes of his neighbours.
All countries peopled by civilized men must have many minor poets, who, with a moderate share of the poetical faculty, have considerable poetical feeling. Their compositions may not deserve much eulogium; they may merely remodel old images and repeat old forms of expression; they may rather reproduce than create; but their poetry often displays smooth versification, pure sentiment, and occasionally a happy thought. Almost all men "experience " poetry during some period of their lives; and it is often the case, that, in a moment of happy inspiration, a man of very inferior abilities may write a short poem excelling some of the efforts of men of the highest genius. We might select. from Mr. Griswold's collection many pieces which are better than some few poems included in editions of Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge, and Scott. In the United States, there is a great number of such persons as we have indicated. The ease with which a moderate skill in versification is acquired, and the copious flood of poetic expressions which is poured into the mind of every school-boy, enable most men of taste and feeling to write what is called respectable poetry with great facility. Much rhyme is here produced by persons who have no direct connexion with literature, and who set forth no claims to be admitted into the glorious company of creative minds. If their good-natured friends would only let them alone, they would never discover that they were more gifted than their neighbours. The danger is, that they will be too much elated by flattery, and at last seriously entertain the conceit, that they are great poets, who reflect honor upon the literature of their country. As every man has some friend connected with a newspaper or magazine, this danger is not so groundless as one may at first imagine.
The fact cannot fail to strike the least observant spectator, that most of our distinguished authors are engaged in pursuits generally considered unfavorable to the efforts of genius. Sprague and Halleck obtain their livelihood by their pens, it is true; but not in any poetical sense of the phrase. The least lucrative profession in the United States is that of authorship. Every prudent man avoids it as he does a pestilence. A writer who attempts to live on the manufactures of his imagination, is continually coquetting with starvation. He spends his days in illustrating the ingenious theories of certain physiologists, who have tried to ascertain how little food will suf
fice for a man's stomach, and how little raiment for his back. Genius may be almost defined, as the faculty of acquiring poverty. Professional authors have ever been rudely bruised and battered by fortune. When so thin that they could not sport a shadow i' the sun," a bailiff has generally served in its place. Garrets and cellars have been at once their homes and hiding-places. In their case, mendicity often trails mendacity along with it. Famine hollows their cheeks; disease lackeys their steps. Every proud worldling hisses out his scoff, and every ass lifts his hoof against them. They drink deep, not only of the Pierian spring, but of that fountain of self-contempt, which is "bitterer to drink than blood." They die, at last, some by their own hands, some by insanity, some of famine, some of absolute weariness, and some of helpless, hopeless brokenness of heart,"
"Hiding from many a careless eye
We must confess that such dark and petulant fancies as these always flit through our minds, when we hear the constantly repeated regret, that a favorite author has not made literature his profession. The reasons why he has not done so are plain. He has common, as well as uncommon, sense; he deems pain and starvation evils which should be avoided; he thinks a good home and the certainty of a dinner better than a garret and heaven-soaring imaginations. Such men as Sprague and Halleck have displayed as much wisdom in their conduct as genius in their writings. They early discovered, what a little reflection would teach anybody, that professional authorship and worldly comfort are like parallel lines, they never meet. They certainly would not have written so well, had their muse been stimulated to exertion by hunger, or their fine faculties been let out to some "enterprising" bookseller, and forced into whatever channels of quackery and deceit the demands of "the trade" required. Professional authors are apt either to sneer at a banker or merchant who obtains applause for transient literary offerings, or to attempt to lure him by lying idealities into their own Slough of Despond. There is hardly a hack in Great Britain who has not, either in penny newspaper or sentimental magazine, directed his pop-gun of wit against Samuel Rogers, the banker and
poet. Men who get a living, or an epitaph, by the pursuits of literature, seem to think that no person has a right to be clever who is not something of a vagabond. We cannot admit that they are at all competent to decide the question, whether commerce or banking be inimical to poetry. Banknotes, it is to be regretted, visit their pockets too rarely to make them any thing but dogmatists in deciding on their poetical or prosaic nature.
Charles Sprague, one of the best poets in Mr. Griswold's multitudinous collection, has always been engaged in pursuits connected with commerce, and his poems are therefore the rich products of his leisure. His poetical compositions are naturally divided into two classes: those written for special occasions, and in some degree manufactured to order; and those which commemorate events in his domestic life, and which accordingly have more of the heart's spontaneous music. Although those of the first class display to greater advantage his skill in versification, and the extent of his intellectual resources, they are not so instinct with the poetical spirit as his less ambitious efforts. His prologues are the best which have been written since the time of Pope. His "Shakspeare Ode" has hardly been exceeded by anything in the same manner, since Gray's "Progress of Poetry." But the true power and originality of the man are manifested in his domestic pieces. "The Brothers," "I see Thee still," and the "Family Meeting," are the finest consecrations of natural affection in our literature. The pathos of Bryant is so deeply tinged with the spirit of meditation, that it is rather the philosophy of grief than its direct expression. His regrets flow through his reason and imagination, but those of Sprague seem to gush directly from the heart. There is a purity, a sweetness, a true home-like feeling in the little domestic pieces of the latter, to which none but a fribble or a roué can be insensible. They can be read again and again with a delight which is ever renewed. The true soul of human affection is in them, and "waxes not old." A composition which dazzles at first sight by gaudy epithets, or brilliant turns of expression, or glittering trains of imagery, may fade gradually from the mind, and leave no enduring impression; but words which flow fresh and warm from a full heart, and which are instinct with the life and breath of human feeling, pass into household memo
ries, and partake of the immortality of the affections from which they spring. The spiritual tone, also, of these beautiful embodiments of sensibility is exquisitely fine and touching.
The tone of a poem is, after all, its most enduring excellence. Images, metaphors, subtle and delicate phrases, may glide away from the mind, and yet the soul by which they were animated may remain. There is much confusion produced in criticism by not discriminating between the form and the essence of poetry. In "Childe Harold," there is probably displayed more of the radiant vesture of the imagination than in any poem of the present age; yet the tone of one half of that splendid apotheosis of misanthropy and egotism is unpoetical. Its effect is merely to stir and to sting. It leaves an impression in the memory which may be called almost disagreeable. We feel that the author's spiritual life was inharmonious, that the tone of his mind was not pure. On the other hand, in many of Wordsworth's early compositions, where the versification is harsh or slovenly, and the diction mean and meagre, the tone is often fine and poetical. The "white radiance" of the soul shines through the most homely verbal expression. To attempt to analyze the tone of a poem would be useless. It is an object of inward perception. It is
“The viewless spirit of a lovely sound,
A living voice, a breathing harmony,
A bodiless enjoyment."
It may be compared to the murmur of a brook as heard in a dream. When good, it is the very music of a soul which contains no jarring string.
The tone of Sprague's domestic poems is, as we have already stated, very pure and harmonious. The swelling diction, the wide command of language and imagery, the artistic skill, the deliberate and elaborated frenzy of his long odes, will hardly bear comparison, in point of true poetic excellence, with his quiet pictures of fireside joys and sorrows. The latter illustrate the truth, that gentleness is power. There is more real strength in them than in all the clang and clatter which words can be easily made to produce, when employed by a cunning rhetorician. We extract the little poem of "The Brothers," in illustration of our meaning. No dominion over the mere shows of poetical expression VOL. LVIII. - No. 122.