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Art involves forgetfulness of immediate ends; complete surrender to the inward impulse to give form to the beautiful idea or image or truth because it is beautiful. Of the naiveté of the old ballad, the careless rapture of Chaucer when the lark sings and the meadows grow sweet with the breath of May, the free and joyous play of imagination in Shakespeare, there is no trace in early writing on this continent. That writing was serious and weighty, often touching the heights of eloquence in noble argument for the inviolability of those rights which are the heritage of the English race; but the spontaneity, the freedom, the joyousness, of creative art were not in it. They could not be in it; the men who wrote our early chronicles and histories, who took part in the great debates which preceded the Revolution, and made the speeches which were heard from Williamsburg to Boston, had other work to do.
In Charles Brockden Brown a new note is heard—a note of mystery and tragedy; as if into the working world of the new continent the old elements of fate had come, to give experience a deeper tinge, and to make men aware that in the fresh as in the long-tilled soil the seeds of conflict and sorrow are sown. There is none of the joyousness of youth in Brown's romances; but there is the sense of power, the play of the imagination, the passion for expression for its own sake, which are the certain signs of literature. There is, above all, the daemonic element, that elusive, incalculable, mysterious element in the soul of the artist, which is present in all art; and which, when it dominates the artist, forms those fascinating, mysterious personalities, from Aristophanes to Poe, who make us feel the futility of all easy endeavors to formulate the laws of art, or to explain with assurance the relations of genius to inheritance, environment, education, and temperament. In art, as in all products of the creative force, there is a mystery which we cannot dispel. If we could analyze genius, we should destroy it. To the time of the publication of Wieland, or the Transformation, it is easy to explain the written expression of American life, to show how it was directed and shaped by conditions in the New World; but with the publication of Wieland the inexplicable appears, the creative spirit begins to reveal itself. Charles Brockden Brown did not master his material and organize it, and his work falls short of that harmony of spirit and form which is the evidence of a true birth of beauty; but there are flashes of insight in it, touches of careless felicity, which witness the possession of a real gift. The prophecy which the discerning reader finds in Brown's sombre romances was fulfilled in the work of Poe and Hawthorne. It is conceivable that a student of the Puritan mind might have foreseen the coming of Hawthorne; for the great romancer, who was to search the Puritan conscience as with a lighted candle, was rooted and grounded historically in the world behind him. There was that in Hawthorne, however, which could not have been predicted: there was the mysterious coworking of temperament, insight, individual consciousness, and personality which constitutes what we call genius. On one side of Hawthorne's work there are lines of historical descent which may be clearly traced; on the other there is the inexplicable miracle, the miracle of art, the creation of the new and beautiful form. It is the first and perhaps the most obvious distinction of Edgar Allan Poe that his creative work baffles all attempts to relate it historically to antecedent conditions; that it detached itself almost completely from the time and place in which it made its appearance, and sprang suddenly and mysteriously from a soil which had never borne its like before. There was nothing in the America of the third decade of the century which seemed to predict “The City in the Sea,” “Israfel,” and the lines “To Helen.” It is true, work of genuine literary quality had been produced, and a notable group of writers of gift and quality had appeared. Irving had brought back the old joyousness and delight in life for its own sake in “Knickerbocker's History of New York” and in the “Sketch Book”; Cooper had uncovered the romantic element in our history in “The Spy”; “Thanatopsis” had betrayed an unexpected touch of maturity; Emerson was meditating at Concord that thin volume on “Nature,” so full of his penetrating insight into the spiritual symbolism of nature phenomena and processes; Longfellow had returned from that first year of foreign residence which had enriched his fancy, and through the sympathetic quality of his mind was to make him the interpreter of the Old World to the New. Hawthorne, born five years earlier than Poe—so like him in certain aspects of his genius, so unlike him in temperament and character—destined to divide with him the highest honors of American authorship, was hidden in that fortunate obscurity in which his delicate and sensitive genius found perhaps the best conditions for its ripening. The “TwiceTold Tales” did not appear until 1837. Lowell was a schoolboy, a college student, and a reluctant follower of the law; the “Biglow Papers,” his most original and distinctive contribution to our literature, being still a full decade in the future. Oliver Wendell Holmes, born in the same year with Poe—that annus mirabilis which gave the world Poe, Holmes, Tennyson, Lincoln, Gladstone, Darwin, Mendelssohn, and Chopin—had touched the imagination of the country by the ringing protest against the destruction of the Constitution in “Old Ironsides,” and in the same decade revealed his true lyric gift in “The Last Leaf.” Whittier was a young Quaker, of gentle nature but intense convictions, who was speaking to hostile audiences and braving the perils of mob violence in his advocacy of the anti-slavery cause. These names suggest the purity and aspiration, the high idealism and the tender domestic piety, which were soon to give early American literature its distinctive notes. To these earlier poets, romancers, and essayists were, later, to be added the name of Sidney Lanier, whose affluent nature needed another decade for its complete unfolding and coördination; and of Walt Whitman, who was so rich in the elemental qualities of imagination, and so rarely master of them. There was something distinctive in each of these writers—something which had no place in literature before they came, and is not likely to be repeated; and yet, from Bryant to Whitman, there were certain obvious relationships, both spiritual and historical, between each writer and his environment. Each was representative of some deep impulse finding its way to action; of some rising passion which leaped into speech before it turned to the irrevocable deed. To the men who were young between 1830 and 1840, there was something in the air which broke up the deeps
of feeling and set free the torpid imagination. For the first time in the New World it became easy and natural for men to sing. Hitherto the imagination had been invoked to give wings and fire to high argument for the rights of men; now the imagination began to speak, by virtue of its own inward impulse, of the things of its own life. In religion, in the social consciousness, in public life, there were stirrings of conscience which revealed a deepening life of the spirit among the new people. The age of provincialism, of submission to the judgment and acceptance of the taste of older and more cultivated communities, was coming to an end. Dr. Holmes called the address delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard College in August, 1837, “our declaration of intellectual independence.” That independence was already partially achieved when Emerson spoke those memorable words:—
“Perhaps the time is already come . . . when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fulfill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill. Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions that around us are rushing into life cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests. Events, actions, arise that must be sung, that will sing themselves. Who can doubt that poetry will revive and lead in a new age, as the star in the contellation Harp, which now flames in our zenith, astronomers announce, shall one day be the pole-star for a thousand years?”
This striving of the spirit, breaking away from the old forms and feeling after new ways of speech, was shared by all the New England writers. Beneath his apparent detachment from the agitations of his time, Dr. Holmes was as much a breaker of old images as Lowell or Whittier; and Hawthorne, artist that he was to the last touch of his pen, is still the product of Puritanism. The breath of the new time was soft and fecundating on the old soil, and the flowers that were soon afield had the hue of the sky and the shy and delicate fragrance of the New England climate in them.
Poe stood alone among his contemporaries by reason of the fact that, while his imagination was fertilized by the movement of the time, his work was not, in theme or sympathy, representative of the forces behind it. The group of gifted men, with whom he had for the most part only casual connections, reflected the age behind them or the time in which they lived; Poe shared with them the creative impulse without sharing the specific interests and devotions of the period. He was primarily and distinctively the artist of his time; the man who cared for his art, not for what he could say through it, but for what it had to say through him. Emerson, Lowell, Holmes, Whittier, Bryant, Irving, and, in certain aspects of his genius, Hawthorne might have been predicted; reading our early history in the light of our later development, their coming seems to have been foreordained by the conditions of life on the new continent; and, later, Whitman and Lanier stand for and are bound up in the fortunes of the New World, and its new order of political and social life. Poe alone, among men of his eminence, could not have been foreseen. This fact suggests his limitations, but it also brings into clear view the unique individuality of his genius and the originality of his work. His contemporaries are explicable; Poe is inexplicable. He remains the most sharply defined personality in our literary history. His verse and his imaginative prose stand out in bold relief against a background which neither suggests nor interprets them. One may go further, and affirm that both verse and prose have a place by themselves in the literature of the world. There are, it is true, evidences of Poe's sensitiveness to the English landscape, and to certain English philosophical and literary influences. The five years spent in the Manor House school in the suburbs of the London of the early part of the century gave the future writer of “William Wilson ” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” a store of reminiscences and impressions of landscape and architecture which touched some of his later work with atmospheric effects of the most striking kind, and gave that work a sombre and significant background of immense artistic value. It is not difficult to find in his earlier verse, as Mr. Stedman has suggested, the influence of Byron and Moore, whose songs were in the heart of that romantic generation. It is easy also to lay bare Poe's