« PreviousContinue »
dark crime, in the past or the future, which we have a natural desire to expose and punish. The good characters are entangled in such a web of evil; there is such a provoking succession of premeditated accidents which seem untoward ; they are walking so long on the verge of a deep gulf, into which the slightest false step may precipitate them; that our feelings of philanthropy are enlisted in their behalf, and the common axioms which forbid cruelty to animals impel us to wish them speedy death or happiness.
Mr. James is also a spendthrift of human life. When he has done with a character, or thinks it necessary to enhance the interest of his story by something awful, he strikes his pen into one of his dramatis persona, without the slightest mercy, and literally blots him from existence. He knows well, that murder and violence are popular in romance, and he is desirous, like a sagacious book merchant, to make the supply equal to the demand. Whether he has any compunctious visitings of conscience, after gratifying, in this manner, his murderous thoughts, we are unable to determine; but we think the carelessness with which he slays evinces the feebleness with which he conceives. If his personages were real to his own heart or imagination, if they were any thing more than clothed ideas and passions, we doubt if he would part with them so easily, or kill them with such nonchalance. His hero, of course, is preserved amidst the general slaughter, but not without many wounds both of the body and spirit.
We have heard the style of Mr. James praised, but on what principle of taste we could never discover. To us it seems but ill adapted to narrative. It has little flow and perspicuity, and no variety. It is usually heavy, lumbering, and monotonous. His sentences seem constructed painfully, yet doggedly, and not to spring spontaneously from his brain, inspired by the thought or feeling they are intended to convey. The impression they leave upon the mind is a little unpleasant. Half of the words seem in the way of the idea, and the latter appears not to have strength enough to clear the passage. Occasionally, a short, sharp sentence comes, like a flash of lightning, from the cloud of his verbiage, and relieves the twilight of his diction; but generally, the reader must plod laboriously through one of his volumes, and, if he can overlook the style in the incidents, it is all the
better for his patience. James has none of that wonderful power of clear narration, which we observe in Scott; that ductile style, which changes with each change in the story, and seems insensibly to mould itself into the shape of the thought and emotion which are uppermost at the time. Nor has he any of that quiet, demure humor, which Scott often infuses into the very heart of his diction, as in the first hundred pages of "Redgauntlet." There is a strait-laced gravity in Mr. James's manner, which is often ridiculous, because wholly inappropriate. In all those higher qualities of style, which do not relate to the mere rhetorical arrangement of words and sentences, but spring directly from passion, fancy, or imagination, and bear the impress of the writer's nature, he is very deficient. There are but few felicitous phrases in his manifold volumes. He has hardly any of those happy combinations of words, which stick fast to the memory, and do more than pages to express the author's meaning. With all his command of a certain kind of elegant language, he has little command of expression. His imagination, as a shaping power, has either no existence, or he writes too rapidly to allow it time to perform its office. His imagery is common; and his manner of arraying a trite figure in a rich suit of verbiage only makes its essential commonness and poverty more evident. His style is not dotted over with any of those shining points, either of imagery or epigram, which illumine works of less popularity and pretension. To us his temperament seems sluggish, and is only kindled into energy by the most fiery stimulants. "A slow, rolling grandiloquence" seems his rhetorical ideal, and he does not always succeed in attaining even that humble height of expression. As his object, however, seems to be to fill out three volumes with a narration of incidents which will please, rather than to cultivate any of those qualities of condensation and picturesqueness which would compress them into one, we may not be justified in interfering between him and his bookseller.
In these remarks, we do not intend to say, that our novelist has no passages which clash with this opinion of his style. It would be a monstrous supposition, that a human being could possibly write a hundred volumes, without being betrayed at times into eloquence and beauty of expression. We refer, in our strictures, to general traits, not to individ
ual exceptions; to the desert, and not to the oases in it. Mr. James evidently possesses talents sufficiently great to enable him to write well, if he would only learn to "labor and to wait"; but he is cursed with the mania of bookmaking, and seems to look more to the number of his pages than to the quality of his rhetoric.
In these remarks on Mr. James, as a novelist, we have intended to do him no injustice. We are willing to grant him the praise of talents and learning, and to do fit honor to the moral purpose he seems to have in his writings. But we dispute his claim to those qualities which constitute the chief excellences of a novelist; we doubt his possession of that fecundity of mind, which can produce a series of novels, without constant repetition of old types of character and old machinery of plot. If the severity of our criticism has ever run into fanciful exaggeration, it has been owing to the petulant humor engendered by exposing unfounded pre
Indeed, Mr. James does not appear like a man who could be wounded or hurt by severe criticism. The abstract character of the personages of his novels affects our own view of himself. We oppose him as we would oppose an idea or a principle. We do not consider him as an individual. Our imagination refuses to shape the idea suggested by his name into a palpable person. Whenever an author appears to our
mind in a concrete form, the quality of mercy we extend to his compositions is never "strained". We feel for his pardonable vanity, and we would launch at him no sarcasm calculated to lacerate his delicate sensibilities. He is a human being, a brother, or, at least, a cousin. If he be a dunce, we pat him on the shoulder, and tell him to try again. If he be a man of talents, with some absurd or pernicious principles, we regret that the latter should weaken the respect we bear to the former. But not so is it with Mr. James. We no more think of hurting his feelings by sharp criticism, than of wounding the sensibility of Babbage's calculating machine by detecting it in a mathematical error. To us he is a thin essence, impenetrable to the weapons of earthly combat, and unmoved by any hail-storm of satire which might seem to beat on his frame. He is an abstraction, and, therefore, the last person to expect, that a reviewer will hide the thorns of analysis in the flowers of panegyric.
ART. II. Poems, by JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL. Cambridge : Published by John Owen. 1844. 12mo. pp. 279.
MR. LOWELL has already taken a high rank among the younger poets of America. His former volume, "A Year's Life," was noticed at some length in this Journal, immediately on its appearance; and the opinion of its merits and defects, which we then pronounced, has been sanctioned on the whole by the assent of the public. Mr. Lowell has since appeared as a contributor to several journals, besides having edited for some time a monthly magazine, "The Pioneer," with marked ability. In this, he published prose papers, which, in our judgment, are among the very best of his writings; we refer particularly to the articles on English song-writers. They show a deep appreciation of the poetical merits of those authors, and a fineness of critical tact quite unusual in the literature of the magazines.
Mr. Lowell evidently feels the sanctity of the poetical vocation. He devotes himself to it heart and soul, laboring to exercise his mind in careful study of the art, with respect both to thought and execution. Since the publication of his first volume, he has made great progress. He has acquired a more complete command of versification and language. He has, to a great extent, freed himself from the affectations and puerilities which were disagreeably prominent in that work. Affectation is one of the principal dangers that seem to beset American literature. In the throng and pressure of older communities, where the great mass of present literature is produced, oddities and affectations, unless they are supported by extraordinary genius, are soon laughed out of countenance. Ridicule is the keen weapon under which they speedily fall and expire. But in our country, intellectual powers are not brought into such perpetual collision; and the poet has by no means so fearful an ordeal to pass through. If he show tolerable skill in versifying, if he marshal sounding sentiments into smoothly flowing lines, he is pretty sure to be set down, by one coterie at least, as a great poet, if not the very greatest of the country and age. We have among us little companies of people, each of which "keeps its poet"; and not content with that, proclaims
from its small corner, with a most conceited air, that its poet is the man of the age. Thus, we have a sect of believers who think Mr. Bryant the greatest American poet; another of those who declare Mr. Halleck the very man ; others still claim this distinguished rank for Percival; one man thinks Cornelius Mathews has written the finest American poetry; and a very respectable party of over-zealous admirers give the precedence to Mr. Lowell. We have our own private opinion on this interesting question, which we shall not at present divulge. Now, this tone of talking and writing is essentially youthful and silly. It is worse; it does mischief to the subjects of such injudicious and measureless applause. It sets up false standards, and erects altars to a multiplicity of idols. It makes us appear to be a nation of very unwise and inexperienced boasters. Our exaggerated claims are necessarily laughed at by all whose views extend beyond the lines of "Little Pedlington" society. We are looked upon as a race of bragging boys, or but little better.
American literature is, in many respects, under very unfortunate influences. Many of our writers are men of imperfect knowledge, - men whose attainments in letters are, comparatively speaking, contemptible. Their range of thought is narrow, and their thoughts themselves are feeble. Their conceptions are indistinct; their imagery wan and faded; their expressions tame and commonplace, or tawdry and affected. The latter is quite as often the case as the former. This is the vice which has appeared within the last few years under a great variety of forms; and, of all the vices by which American literature has been attacked, it has struck the deepest and spread the widest. We all remember when Mr. Carlyle's whimsical peculiarities made their first appearance, and the effect they had at once upon the servile tribe. Mr. Carlyle is a man of genius, learning, and humane tendencies; his brilliant thoughts often break through the ragged clouds of his most absurd phraseology, and make us grieve, that an author capable of writing so well should write so execrably; should spoil the effect of his fine powers by the paltry folly of imitating so bad a model as Jean Paul Richter; an "original" writer who kept a commonplace book of odd expressions and far-fetched figures, which he embroidered on the ground of his natural style. The study of German became an epidemic about the time that Carlyle broke out;