Edgar Allan Poe.

The complete works of Edgar Allan Poe (Volume 8) online

. (page 16 of 23)
Online LibraryEdgar Allan PoeThe complete works of Edgar Allan Poe (Volume 8) → online text (page 16 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

three acts of the play. The interest excited lies in
our admiration of the sacrifice, and of the love that
could make it; but this interest immediately and dis
agreeably subsides when we find that the sacrifice has
been made to no purpose. " You are no more a gypsy "
dissolves the charm, and obliterates the whole impres
sion which the author has been at so much labor to
convey. Our romantic sense of the hero's chivalry
declines into a complacent satisfaction with his fate.
We drop our enthusiasm, with the enthusiast, and


Longfellow, Willis, and the Drama

jovially shake by the hand the mere man of good
luck. But is not the latter feeling the more com
fortable of the two ? Perhaps so ; but " comfortable "
is not exactly the word Mr. Longfellow might wish ap
plied to the end of his drama, and then why be at the
trouble of building up an effect through a hundred
and eighty pages, merely to knock it down at the end
of the hundred and eighty-first ?

We have already given at some length our con
ceptions of the nature of plot, and of that of The
Spanish Student, it seems almost superfluous to speak
at all. It has nothing of construction about it. In
deed there is scarcely a single incident which has
any necessary dependence upon any one other. Not
only might we take away two thirds of the whole
without ruin, but without detriment, indeed, with a
positive benefit to the mass. And, even as regards
the mere order of arrangement, we might with a very
decided chance of improvement, put the scenes in a
bag, give them a shake or two by way of shuffle, and
tumble them out. The whole mode of collocation, not
to speak of the feebleness of the incidents in them
selves, evinces, on the part of the author, an utter
and radical want of the adapting or constructive power
which the drama so imperatively demands.

Of the unoriginality of the thesis we have already
spoken; and now, to the unoriginality of the events
by which the thesis is developed, we need do little


Longfellow, Willis, and the Drama

more than allude. What, indeed, could we say of
such incidents as the child stolen by gypsies, as her
education as a danseuse, as her betrothal to a gypsy,
as her preference for a gentleman, as the rumors
against her purity, as her persecution by a roue, as
the inruption of the roue into her chamber, as the
consequent misunderstanding between her and her
lover, as the duel, as the defeat of the roue, as the
receipt of his life from the hero, as his boasts of
success with the girl, as the ruse of the duplicate
ring, as the field, in consequence, abandoned by the
lover, as the assassination of Lara while scaling the
girPs bedchamber, as the disconsolate peregrination
of Victorian, as the equivoque scene with Preciosa, as
the offering to purchase the ring and the refusal to
part with it, as the " news from Court " telling of the
gypsy's true parentage, what could we say of all these
ridiculous things, except that we have met them, each
and all, some two or three hundred times before, and
that they have formed, in a greater or less degree, the
staple material of every Hop-o'My-Thumb tragedy
since the Flood ? There is not an incident, from the
first page of The Spanish Student to the last and
most satisfactory, which we would not undertake to
find bodily, at ten minutes' notice, in some one of the
thousand and one comedies of intrigue attributed to
Calderon and Lope de Vega.

But if our poet is grossly unoriginal in his subject,

Longfellow, Willis, and the Drama

and in the events which evolve it, may he not be
original in his handling or tone ? We really grieve to
say that he is not, unless, indeed, we grant him the
meed of originality for the peculiar manner in which
he has jumbled together the quaint and stilted tone
of the old English dramatists with the degagee air of
Cervantes. But this is a point upon which, through
want of space, we must necessarily permit the reader
to judge altogether for himself. We quote, however,
a passage from the second scene of the first act, by
way of showing how very easy a matter it is to make
a man discourse Sancho Panza :

" Chispa, Abernuncio Satanas! and a plague upon
all lovers who ramble about at night, drinking the
elements, instead of sleeping quietly in their beds.
Every dead man to his cemetery, say I; and every
friar to his monastery. Now, here 's my master Vic
torian, yesterday a cow-keeper and to-day a gentle
man; yesterday a student and to-day a lover; and I
must be up later than the nightingale, for as the abbot
sings so must the sacristan respond. God grant he may
soon be married, for then shall all this serenading cease.
Ay, marry, marry marry! Mother, what does marry
mean ? It means to spin, to bear children, and to weep,
my daughter ! And, of a truth, there is something more
in matrimony than the wedding-ring. And now, gentle
men, Pax vobiscum ! as the ass said to the cabbages."


Longfellow, Willis, and the Drama

And, we might add, as an ass only should say.

In fact, throughout The Spanish Student, as well as
throughout other compositions of its author, there runs
a very obvious vein of imitation. We are perpetually
reminded of something we have seen before, some old
acquaintance in manner or matter; and even where
the similarity cannot be said to amount to plagiarism,
it is still injurious to the poet in the good opinion of
him who reads.

Among the minor defects of the play, we may men
tion the frequent allusion to book incidents not gen
erally known, and requiring each a note by way of
explanation. The drama demands that everything be
so instantaneously evident that he who runs may read ;
and the only impression effected by these notes to a
play is, that the author is desirous of showing his

We may mention, also, occasional tautologies ; such

Never did I behold thee so attired
And garmented in beauty as to-night!


What we need

Is the celestial fire to change the flint
Into transparent crystal, bright and clear I

We may speak, too, of more than occasional errors
of grammar. For example, page 23 :

Did no one see thee ? None, my love, but thou,

Longfellow, Willis, and the Drama

Here, " but " is not a conjunction, but a preposition,
and governs " thee " in the objective. " None but
thee " would be right ; meaning none except thee, sa w
ing thee. At page 27, " mayst " is somewhat incor
rectly written " may'st." At page 34 we have :

I have no other saint than thou to pray to.

Here, authority and analogy are both against Mr.
Longfellow. " Than " also is here a preposition gov
erning the objective, and meaning "save" or "except."
" I have none other God than thee," etc. See Home
Tooke. The Latin quam te is exactly equivalent.
At page 80 we read :

Like thee I am a captive, and like thee,
I have a gentle gaoler.

Here, " like thee " (although grammatical, of course)
does not convey the idea. Mr. L. does not mean that
the speaker is like the bird itself, but that his condi
tion resembles it. The true reading would be thus :

As thou I am a captive, and, as thou,
I have a gentle gaoler.

That is to say, as thou art f and as thou hast

Upon the whole, we regret that Professor Longfellow
has written this work, and feel especially vexed that
he has committed himself by its republication. Only
when regarded as a mere poem, can it be said to have
merit of any kind. For, in fact, it is only when we


Longfellow, Willis, and the Drama

separate the poem from the drama, that the passages
we have commended as beautiful can be understood
to have beauty. We are not too sure, indeed, that a
" dramatic poem " is not a flat contradiction in terms.
At all events a man of true genius (and such Mr. L.
unquestionably is) has no business with these hybrid
and paradoxical compositions. Let a poem be a poem
only; let a play be a play and nothing more. As
for The Spanish Student, its thesis is unoriginal, its
incidents are antique, its plot is no plot, its characters
have no character; in short, it is little better than a
play upon words, to style it " A Play " at all.


Elizabeth Oakes Smith 1

is a very pretty little volume, neatly
printed, handsomely bound, embracing some
two hundred pages sixteenmo, and intro
duced to the public, somewhat unnecessarily, in a pre
face by Dr. Rufus W. Griswold. In this preface we
find some few memoranda of the personal authoress,
with some critical opinions in relation to her poems.
The memoranda are meagre. A much more interest
ing account of Mrs. Smith is given by Mr. John Neal,
and was included by Mr. John Keese in the introduc
tion to a former collection of her works. The
critical opinions may as well be here quoted, at least
in part. Dr. Griswold says:

" Seeking expression, yet shrinking from notoriety,
and with a full share of that respect for a just fame
and appreciation which belongs to every high-toned
mind, yet oppressed by its shadow when circumstance

1 The Poetical Writings of Elizabeth Oakes Smith, First complete edition.
New York, 1840.


Elizabeth Oakes Smith

is the impelling motive of publication, the writings of
Mrs. Smith might well be supposed to betray great
inequality; still in her many contributions to the
magazines, it is remarkable how few of her pieces dis
play the usual carelessness and haste of magazine
articles. As an essayist especially, while graceful and
lively, she is compact and vigorous; while through
poems, essays, tales, and criticisms (for her indus
trious pen seems equally skilful and happy in each
of these departments of literature), through all her
manifold writings, indeed, there runs the same beauti
ful vein of philosophy, viz., that truth and goodness
of themselves impart a holy light to the mind which
gives it a power far above mere intellectuality ; that the
highest order of human intelligence springs from the
moral and not the reasoning faculties. . . . Mrs.
Smith's most popular poem is The Acorn, which,
though inferior in high inspiration to The Sinless
Child, is by many preferred for its happy play of
fancy and proper finish. Her sonnets, of which she
has written many, have not yet been as much ad
mired as the April Rain, The Brook, and other fugitive
pieces, which we find in many popular collections."

The Sinless Child was originally published in the
Southern Literary Messenger, where it at once at
tracted much attention from the novelty of its concep
tion and the general grace and purity of its style.


Elizabeth Oakes Smith

Undoubtedly it is one of the most original of American
poems, surpassed in this respect, we think, only by
Maria del Occidente's Bride of Seven, Of course, we
speak merely of long poems. We have had in this
country many brief fugitive pieces far excelling in
this most important point (originality) either The Bride
of Seven or The Sinless Child, far excelling, indeed, any
transatlantic poems. After all, it is chiefly in works
of what is absurdly termed " sustained effort " that
we fall in any material respect behind our progenitors.
The Sinless Child is quite long, including more
than two hundred stanzas, generally of eight lines.
The metre throughout is iambic tetrameter, alternat
ing with trimeter; in other words, lines of four iam
buses alternate with lines of three. The variations
from this order are rare. The design of the poem is
very imperfectly made out. The conception is much
better than the execution. " A simple cottage maiden,
Eva, given to the world in the widowhood of one
parent and the angelic existence of the other . . .
is found from her birth to be as meek and gentle as
are those pale flowers that look imploringly upon us.
. . . She is gifted with the power of interpreting
the beautiful mysteries of our earth. . . . For
her the song of the bird is not merely the gushing forth
of a nature too full of blessedness to be silent . . .
the humblest plant, the simplest insect, is each alive
with truth. . . . She sees the world not merely


Elizabeth Oakes Smith

with mortal eyes, but looks within to the pure internal
life of which the outward is but a type," etc., etc.
These passages are taken from the Argument pre
fixed to Part I. The general thesis of the poetess may,
perhaps, be stated as the demonstration that the
superior wisdom is moral rather than intellectual;
but it may be doubted whether her subject was ever
precisely apparent to herself. In a word, she seems
to have vacillated between several conceptions, the
only very definite idea being that of extreme beauty
and purity in a child. At one time we fancy her, for
example, attempting to show that the condition of
absolute sanctity is one through which mortality may
know all things and hold converse with the angels ; at
another we suppose it her purpose to " create " (hi
critical language) an entirely novel being, a something
that is neither angel nor mortal, nor yet fairy in the
ordinary sense, in a word, an original ens, Besides
these two prominent fancies, however, there are various
others which seem continually flitting in and out of the
poet's vision, so that her whole work has an indeter
minate air. Of this she apparently becomes conscious
toward the conclusion, and in the final stanza endeav
ors to remedy the difficulty by summing up her design :

The sinless child, with mission high,

Awhile to earth was given,
To show us that our world should be

The vestibule of heaven.

VOL. VIII. 18. 27"?

Elizabeth Oakes Smith

Did we but in the holy light

Of truth and goodness rise,
We might communion hold with God

And spirits from the skies.

The conduct of the narrative is scarcely more deter
minate, if, indeed, The Sinless Child can be said to
include a narrative at all. The poem is occupied in
its first part with a description of the child, her saintly
character, her lone wanderings, the lessons she de
duces from all animal and vegetable things, and her
communings with the angels. We have then dis
cussions with her mother, who is made to introduce
episodical tales, one of Old Richard, another called
The Defrauded Heart (a tale of a miser), and another
entitled The Stepmother. Toward the end of the
poem a lover, Albert Linne, is brought upon the scene.
He has been reckless and sinful, but is reclaimed by
the heavenly nature of Eva. He finds her sleeping
in a forest. At this point occur some of the finest
and most characteristic passages of the poem.

Unwonted thought, unwonted calm

Upon his spirit fell;
For he unwittingly had sought

Young Eva's hallowed dell,
And breathed that atmosphere of love,

Around her path that grew;
That evil from her steps repelled,

The good unto her drew.

Elizabeth Oakes Smith

Mem, The last quatrain of this stanza would have
been more readily comprehended if punctuated and
written thus :

And breathed that atmosphere of love

Around her path that grew
That evil from her steps repelled

That good unto her drew.

We may as well observe here, too, that, although
neatly printed, the volume abounds in typographical
errors that very frequently mar the sense, as at page 66,
for example, where " come " (near the bottom) is im
properly used for " came," and " scorching " (second
line from the top) is substituted for " searching." We
proceed with Albert's discovery of Eva in the wood.

Now Eva opes her child-like eyes

And lifts her tranquil head ;
And Albert, like a guilty thing,

Had from her presence fled.
But Eva marked his troubled brow,

His sad and thoughtful eyes,
As if they sought yet shrank to hold

Their converse with the skies.

" Communion with the skies " would have been far
better. It seems strange to us that any one should
have overlooked the word.

And all her kindly nature stirred,
She prayed him to remain;


Elizabeth Oakes Smith

Well conscious that the pure have power.

To balm much human pain.
There mingled too, as in a dream,

About brave Albert Linne,
A real and ideal form,

Her soul had formed within.

We give the punctuation here as we find it; it is
incorrect throughout, interfering materially with a
proper understanding of the passage. There should
be a comma after " And " in the first line, a comma
in place of the semicolon at the end of the second line,
no point at the end of the third line, a comma after
u mingled," and none after " form." These seeming
minutiae are of real importance ; but we refer to them,
in the case of The Sinless Child, because here the
aggregate of this species of minor error is unusually
remarkable. Of course it is the proof-reader or the
editor, and not Mrs. Smith, who is to blame.

Her trusting hand fair Eva laid

In that of Albert Linne,
And for one trembling moment turned

Her gentle thoughts within.
Deep tenderness was in the glance

That rested on his face,
As if her woman-heart had found

Its own abiding-place.

And evermore to him it seemed
Her voice more liquid grew

Elizabeth Oakes Smith

" Dear youth, thy soul and mine are one;

One source their being drew!
And they must mingle evermore

Thy thoughts of love and me
Will, as a light, thy footsteps guide

To life and mystery."

There was a sadness in her tone,

But love unf athomed deep :
As from the centre of the soul

Where the divine may sleep ;
Prophetic was the tone and look,

And Albert's noble heart
Sank with a strange foreboding dread

Lest Eva should depart.

And when she bent her timid eyes

As she beside him knelt,
The pressure of her sinless lips

Upon his brow he felt,
And all of earth and all of sin

Fled from her sainted side ;
She, the pure virgin of the soul,

Ordained young Albert's bride.

It would, perhaps, have been out of keeping with
the more obvious plan of the poem to make Eva
really the bride of Albert. She does not wed him, but
dies tranquilly in bed, soon after the spiritual union
in the forest. " Eva," says the Argument of Part
VII., " hath fulfilled her destiny. Material things can
no farther minister to the growth of her spirit. That


Elizabeth Oakes Smith

waking of the soul to its own deep mysteries, its one
ness with another, has been accomplished. A human
soul has been perfected." At this point the poem
may be said to have its conclusion.

In looking back at its general plan, we cannot fail
to see traces of high poetic capacity. The first point
to be commended is the reach or aim of the poetess.
She is evidently discontented with the bald routine of
commonplace themes, and originality has been, with
her, a principal object. In all cases of fictitious com
position it should be the first object, by which we do
not mean to say that it can ever be considered as the
most important. But, caeteris paribtts, every class of
fiction is the better for originality; every writer is
false to his own interest if he fails to avail himself,
at the outset, of the effect which is certainly and in
variably derivable from the great element, novelty.

The execution of The Sinless Child is, as we have
already said, inferior to its conception; that is, to its
conception as it floated, rather than steadily existed,
in the brain of the authoress. She enables us to see
that she has very narrowly missed one of those happy
" creations " which now and then immortalize the
poet. With a good deal more of deliberate thought
before putting pen to paper, with a good deal more
of the constructive ability, and with more rigorous
discipline in the minor merits of style, and of what is
termed in the school-prospectuses " composition," Mrs.


Elizabeth Oakes Smith

Smith would have made of The Sinless Child one of
the best, if not the very best, of American poems.
While speaking of the execution, or, more properly,
the conduct of the work, we may as well mention,
first, the obviousness with which the stories intro
duced by Eva's mother are interpolated, or episodical ;
it is permitted every reader to see that they have no
natural connection with the true theme ; and, indeed,
there can be no doubt that they were written long be
fore the main narrative was projected. In the second
place, we must allude to the artificiality of the " Argu
ments," or introductory prose passages, prefacing each
Part of the poem. Mrs. Smith had no sounder reason
for employing them than Milton and the rest of the
epicists had for employing them before. If it be
said that they are necessary for the proper compre
hension of a poem, we reply that this is saying noth
ing for them, but merely much against the poem
which demands them as a necessity. Every work of
art should contain within itself all that is required for
its own comprehension. An " argument " is but an
other form of the " This is an ox " subjoined to the
portrait of an animal with horns. But in making
these objections to the management of The Sinless
Child, we must not be understood as insisting upon
them as at all material, in view of the lofty merit of
originality, a merit which pervades and invigorates
the whole work, and which, in our opinion, at least,


Elizabeth Oakes Smith

is far, very far more than sufficient to compensate
for every inartisticality of construction. A work of
art may be admirably constructed, and yet be null as
regards every essentiality of that truest art which
is but the happiest development of nature; but no
work of art can embody within itself a proper origin
ality without giving the plainest manifestations of
the creative spirit, or, in more common parlance, of
genius in its author. The originality of The Sinless
Child would cover a multitude of greater defects than
Mrs. Smith ever committed, and must forever entitle
it to the admiration and respect of every competent

As regards detached passages, we think that the
episode of " The Stepmother " may be fairly cited as
the best in the poem.

You speak of Hobert's second wife, a lofty dame and bold;
I like not her forbidding air, and forehead high and cold.
The orphans have no cause for grief ; she dare not give it now,
Though nothing but a ghostly fear her heart of pride could bow.

One night the boy his mother called ; they heard him weeping

" Sweet mother, kiss poor Eddy's cheek and wipe his tears


Red grew the lady's brow with rage, and yet she feels a strife
Of anger and of terror, too, at thought of that dead wife.

Wild roars the wind; the lights burn blue; the watch-dog
howls with fear;


Elizabeth Oakes Smith

Loud neighs the steed from out the stall. What form is glid
ing near ?

No latch is raised, no step is heard, but a phantom fills the

A sheeted spectre from the dead, with cold and leaden face.

What boots it that no other eye beheld the shade appear ?
The guilty lady's guilty soul beheld it plain and clear.
It slowly glides within the room and sadly looks around,
And, stooping, kissed her daughter's cheek with lips that gave
no sound.

Then softly on the step-dame's arm she laid a death-cold hand,
Yet it hath scorched within the flesh like to a burning brand ;
And gliding on with noiseless foot, o'er winding stair and hall,
She nears the chamber where is heard her infant's trembling

She smoothed the pillow where he lay, she warmly tucked the

She wiped his tears and stroked the curls that clustered round

his head.

The child, caressed, unknowing fear, hath nestled him to rest ;
The mother folds her wings beside the mother from the blest !

The metre of this episode has been altered from its
original form, and, we think, improved by the altera
tion. Formerly, in place of four lines of seven iam
buses, the stanza consisted of eight lines : a line of four
iambuses alternating with one of three, a more ordinary
and artificial, therefore a less desirable, arrangement.
In the three last quatrains there is an awkward vacilla
tion between the present and perfect tenses, as in the


Elizabeth Oakes Smith

words " beheld," " glides," " kissed," " laid," " hath
scorched," " smoothed," " wiped," " hath nestled,"
" folds." These petty objections, of course, will by
no means interfere with the reader's appreciation
of the episode, with his admiration of its pathos, its
delicacy, and its grace; we had almost forgotten to
say, of its pure and high imagination.

We proceed to cull from The Sinless Child a few
brief but happy passages at random :

Gentle she was and full of love,

With voice exceeding sweet,
And eyes of dove-like tenderness

Where joy and sadness meet.

With calm and tranquil eye
That turned instinctively to seek
The blueness of the sky.

Bright missals from angelic throngs

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 16 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryEdgar Allan PoeThe complete works of Edgar Allan Poe (Volume 8) → online text (page 16 of 23)