Edgar Allan Poe.

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

. (page 7 of 23)
Online LibraryEdgar Allan PoeThe complete works of Edgar Allan Poe (Volume 8) → online text (page 7 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

on their account to admit that, in some instances,
they are susceptible of solution. It is really difficult
to discover anything for approbation in engimas such

That bright impassive, passive angel-hood,

The silence of my heart is full of sound.

At long intervals we are annoyed by specimens of
repulsive imagery, as where the children cry:

How long, O cruel nation,

Will you stand to move the world, on a child's heart
Stifle down with a mailed heel its palpitation / etc.

Now, and then, too, we are confounded by a pure
platitude, as when Eve exclaims :


Elizabeth Barrett Barrett

Leave us not

In agony beyond what we can bear,
And in debasement below thundersmarb I

or, when the Saviour is made to say :

So, at last!

He shall look round on you with lids too straight
To hold the grateful teats,

" Strait " was, no doubt, intended, but does not
materially elevate, although it slightly elucidates, the
thought. A very remarkable passage is that, also,
wherein Eve bids the infant voices

Hear the steep generations, how they fall
Adown the visionary stairs of Time,
Like supernatural thunders far, yet near,
Sowing their fiery echoes through the hills!

Here, saying nothing of the affectation in " adown "
not alluding to the insoluble paradox of "far yet
near " ; not mentioning the inconsistent metaphor in
volved in the " sowing of fiery echoes " ; adverting but
slightly to the misusage of " like," in place of " as,"
and to the impropriety of making anything fall like
thunder, which has never been known to fall at all;
merely hinting, too, at the misapplication of " steep "
to the " generations " instead of to the " stairs," a
perversion in no degree to be justified by the fact that
so preposterous a figure as synecdoche exists in the
school-books ; letting these things pass for the pres
ent, we shall still find it difficult to understand how Miss


Elizabeth Barrett Barrett

Barrett should have been led to think that the princi
pal idea itself the abstract idea, the idea of tumbling
down-stairs, in any shape, or under any circumstances
either a poetical or a decorous conception. And
yet we have seen this very passage quoted as " sub
lime," by a critic who seems to take it for granted,
as a general rule, that Nat-Leeism is the loftiest order
of literary merit. That the lines very narrowly missed
sublimity, we grant; that they came within a step of
it, we admit; but, unhappily, the step is the one step
which, time out of mind, has intervened between the
sublime and the ridiculous. So true is this, that any
person that even we, with a very partial modifica
tion of the imagery, a modification that shall not
interfere with its richly spiritual tone, may elevate
the quotation into unexceptionability. For example,
and we offer it with profound deference :

Hear the far generations how they crash,
From crag to crag, down the precipitous Time,
In multitudinous thunders that upstartle,
Aghast, the echoes from their cavernous lairs
In the visionary hills !

We have no doubt that our version has its faults;
but it has, at least, the merit of consistency. Not
only is a mountain more poetical than a pair of stairs,
but echoes are more appropriately typified as wild
beasts than as seeds; and echoes and wild beasts
agree better with a mountain, than does a pair of stairs


Elizabeth Barrett Barrett

with the sowing of seeds; even admitting that these
seeds be seeds of fire, and be sown broadcast " among
the hills," by a steep generation, while in the act of
tumbling down the stairs; that is to say, of coming
down the stairs in too violent a hurry to be capable
of sowing the seeds as accurately as all seeds should
be sown; nor is the matter rendered any better for
Miss Barrett, even if the construction of her sentence
is to be understood as implying that the fiery seeds
were sown not immediately by the steep generations
that tumbled down the stairs, but mediately, through
the intervention of the " supernatural thunders " that
were occasioned by the " steep generations " that
tumbled down the stairs.

The poetess is not unfrequently guilty of repeating
herself. The " thunder cloud veined by lightning "
appears, for instance, on pages 34 of the first, and 228
of the second volume. The " silver clash of wings "
is heard at pages 53 of the first, and 269 of the second ;
and angel tears are discovered to be falling as well
at page 27 as at the conclusion of the Drama of
Exile, Steam, too, in the shape of Death's White
Horse, comes upon the ground, both at page 244 of
the first, and 179 of the second volume, and there are
multitudinous other repetitions, both of phrase and
idea, but it is the excessive reiteration of pet words
which is, perhaps, the most obtrusive of the minor
errors of the poet. " Chrystalline," " Apocalypse,"


Elizabeth Barrett Barrett

" foregone," " evangel," " 'ware," " throb," " level,"
" loss," and the musical term " minor," are forever
upon her lips. The chief favorites, however, are
" down " and " leaning," which are echoed and re
echoed not only ad infinitum, but in every whimsical
variation of import. As Miss Barrett certainly can
not be aware of the extent of this mannerism, we will
venture to call her attention to a few, comparatively
a very few, examples :

Pealing down the depths of Godhead . . .

Smiling down as Venus down the waves . . .

Smiling down the steep world very purely . . .

Down the purple of this chamber . . .

Moving down the hidden depths of loving . . .

Cold the sun shines down the door . . .

Which brought angels down our talk . . .

Let your souls behind you lean gently moved . . .

But angels leaning from the golden seats . . .

And melancholy leaning out of heaven . . .

And I know the heavens are leaning down . . .

Then over the casement she leaneth . . .

Forbear that dream, too near to heaven it leaned . . .

I would lean my spirit o'er you . . .

Thou, O sapient angel, leanest o'er . . .

Shapes of brightness overlean thee . . .

They are leaning their young heads . . .

Out of heaven shall o'er you lean . . .

While my spirit leans and reaches . . .

etc., etc., etc.

In the matter of grammar, upon which the Edin-

Elizabeth Barrett Barrett

burgh critic insists so pertinaciously, the author of
the Drama of Exile seems to us even peculiarly with
out fault. The nature of her studies has, no doubt,
imbued her with a very delicate instinct of construc
tive accuracy. The occasional uses of phrases so
questionable as " from whence," and the far-fetched
ness and involution of which we have already spoken,
are the only noticeable blemishes of an exceedingly
chaste, vigorous, and comprehensive style.

In her inattention to rhythm, Miss Barrett is guilty
of an error that might have been fatal to her fame,
that would have been fatal to any reputation less solidly
founded than her own. We do not allude so particu
larly to her multiplicity of inadmissible rhymes. We
would wish, to be sure, that she had not thought proper
to couple " Eden " and " succeeding," " glories " and
" floorwise," " burning " and " morning," " thither "
and " aether," " enclose me " and " across me,"
" misdoers " and " flowers," " centre " and " winter,"
" guerdon " and " pardon," "conquer" and "anchor,"
" desert " and " unmeasured," " atoms " and " fath
oms," " opal " and " people," " glory " and " door
way," " trumpet " and " accompted," " taming " and
" overcame him, " " coming " and " woman," " is "
and " trees," " off " and " sunproof," " eagles " and
" vigils," " nature " and " satire," " poems " and " in-
terflowings," " certes " and " virtues," " pardon " and
" burden," " thereat " and " great," " children " and


Elizabeth Barrett Barrett

"bewildering," "mortal" and "turtle," "moon
shine " and " sunshine." It would have been better,
we say, if such apologies for rhymes as these had
been rejected. But deficiencies of rhythm are more
serious. In some cases it is nearly impossible to
determine what metre is intended. The Cry of
the Children cannot be scanned; we never saw so
poor a specimen of verse. In imitating the rhythm
of Locksley Hall, the poetess has preserved with
accuracy (so far as mere syllables are concerned) the
forcible line of seven trochees with a final caesura.
The " double rhymes " have only the force of a single
long syllable, a caesura; but the natural rhythmical
division, occurring at the close of the fourth trochee,
should never be forced to occur, as Miss Barrett con
stantly forces it, in the middle of a word, or of an
indivisible phrase. If it do so occur, we must sacri
fice, in perusal, either the sense or the rhythm. If
she will consider, too, that this line of seven trochees
and a caesura is nothing more than two lines written
in one a line of four trochees, succeeded by one of
three trochees and a caesura she will at once see
how unwise she has been in composing her poem in
quatrains of the long line with alternate rhymes in
stead of immediate ones, as is the case of Locksley
Hall The result is, that the ear, expecting the
rhymes before they occur, does not appreciate them
when they do. These points, however, will be best


Elizabeth Barrett Barrett

exemplified by transcribing one of the quatrains in its
natural arrangement. That actually employed is ad
dressed only to the eye.

Oh, she fluttered like a tame bird

In among its forest brothers
Far too strong for it ! then, drooping,

Bowed her face upon her hands,
And I spake out wildly, fiercely,

Brutal truths of her and others !
I, she planted in the desert,

Swathed her, wind-like, with my sands.

Here it will be seen that there is a paucity of rhyme,
and that it is expected at closes where it does not
occur. In fact, if we consider the eight lines as two
independent quatrains (which they are), then we find
them entirely rhymeless. Now so unhappy are these
metrical defects of so much importance do we take
them to be, that we do not hesitate in declaring the
general inferiority of the poem to its prototype to be
altogether chargeable to them. With equal rhythm
Lady Geraldine had been far, very far the superior
poem. Inefficient rhythm is inefficient poetical ex
pression ; and expression, in poetry, what is it ? what
is it not ? No one living can better answer these
queries than Miss Barrett.

We conclude our comments upon her versification,
by quoting (we will not say whence, from what one
of her poems) a few verses without the linear division


Elizabeth Barrett Barrett

as it appears in the book. There are many readers
who would never suspect the passage to be intended for
metre at all. " Ay ! and sometimes, on the hillside,
while we sat down on the gowans, with the forest
green behind us, and its shadow cast before, and the
river running under, and, across it from the rowans a
partridge whirring near us till we felt the air it bore
there, obedient to her praying, did I read aloud the
poems made by Tuscan flutes, or instruments more
various of our own, read the pastoral parts of Spenser,
or the subtle interflowings found in Petrarch's son
nets; here 's the book! the leaf is folded down! "

With this extract we make an end of our fault
finding, and now shall we speak, equally in detail, of
the beauties of this book? Alas! here, indeed, do
we feel the impotence of the pen. We have already
said that the supreme excellence of the poetess whose
works we review is made up of the multitudinous
sums of a world of lofty merits. It is the multiplicity,
it is the aggregation, which excites our most profound
enthusiasm, and enforces our most earnest respect.
But unless we had space to extract three fourths of
the volumes, how could we convey this aggregation by
specimens ? We might quote, to be sure, an example
of keen insight into our psychal natures, such as this :

I fell flooded with a Dark,

In the silence of a swoon ;
When I rose, still cold and stark,

Elizabeth Barrett Barrett

There was night, I saw the moon;
And the stars, each in its place,
And the May-blooms on the grass,
Seemed to wonder what I was.

And I walked as if apart

From myself, when I could stand,

And I pitied my own heart,
As if I held it in my hand

Somewhat coldly, with a sense

Of fulfilled benevolence.

Or we might copy an instance of the purest and
most radiant imagination, such as this :

So, young muser, I sat listening,

To my Fancy's wildest word,

On a sudden, through the glistening

Leaves around, a little stirred,

Came a sound, a sense of music, which was rather felt
than heard.

Softly, finely, it inwound me,

From the world it shut me in,

Like a fountain falling round me

Which with silver waters thin,
Holds a little marble Naiad sitting smilingly within.

Or, again, we might extract a specimen of wild Dan-
tesque vigor, such as this, in combination with a
pathos never excelled:

Ay! be silent let them hear each other breathing

For a moment, mouth to mouth ;
Let them touch each other's hands in a fresh wreathing

Of their tender human youth !


Elizabeth Barrett Barrett

Let them feel that this cold metallic motion
Is not all the life God fashions or reveals ;

Let them prove their inward souls against the notion
That they live in you, or under you, O wheels !

Or, still again, we might give a passage embodying
the most elevated sentiment, most tersely and musically
thus expressed:

And since, Prince Albert, men have called thy spirit high and

And truth to truth, and brave for truth, as some at Augsburg


We charge thee by thy lofty thoughts, and by thy poet-mind,
Which not by glory or degree takes measure of mankind,
Esteem that wedded hand less dear for sceptre than for ring,
And hold her uncrowned womanhood to be the royal thing !

These passages, we say, and a hundred similar ones,
exemplifying particular excellences, might be displayed,
and we should still fail, as lamentably as the skolas"
tikos with his brick, in conveying an idea of the vast
totality. By no individual stars can we present the
constellatory radiance of the book. To the book then,
with implicit confidence, we appeal.

That Miss Barrett has done more in poetry than any
woman, living or dead, will scarcely be questioned;
that she has surpassed all her poetical contemporaries
of either sex, with a single exception, is our deliberate
opinion, not idly entertained, we think, nor founded
on any visionary basis. It may not be uninteresting,
therefore, in closing this examination of her claims,


Elizabeth Barrett Barrett

to determine in what manner she holds poetical rela
tion with these contemporaries, or with her immediate
predecessors, and especially with the great exception
to which we have alluded, if at all.

If ever mortal " wreaked his thoughts upon expres
sion," it was Shelley. If ever poet sang (as a bird
sings) impulsively, earnestly, with utter abandon
ment to himself solely, and for the mere joy of his
own song, that poet was the author of The Sensitive
Plant Of art, beyond that which is the inalienable
instinct of genius, he either had little or disdained
all. He really disdained that rule which is the emana
tion from law, because his own soul was law in itself.
His rhapsodies are but the rough notes, the steno
graphic memoranda of poems, memoranda which, be
cause they were all-sufficient for his own intelligence,
he cared not to be at the trouble of transcribing in full
for mankind. In his whole life he wrought not thor
oughly out a single conception. For this reason it is
that he is the most fatiguing of poets. Yet he wearies
in having done too little rather than too much ; what
seems in him the diffuseness of one idea is the con
glomerate concision of many; and this concision it is
which renders him obscure. With such a man, to
imitate was out of the question; it would have an
swered no purpose, for he spoke to his own spirit
alone, which would have comprehended no alien
tongue; he was, therefore, profoundly original. His


Elizabeth Barrett Barrett

quaintness arose from intuitive perception of that
truth to which Lord Verulam alone has given distinct
voice : " There is no exquisite beauty which has not
some strangeness in its proportion." But whether
obscure, original, or quaint, he was at all times sin
cere. He had no affectations.

From the ruins of Shelley there sprang into existence,
affronting the heavens, a tottering and fantastic pagoda
in which the salient angles, tipped with mad, jangling
bells, were the idiosyncratic faults of the great original
faults which cannot be called such in view of his
purposes, but which are monstrous when we regard
his works as addressed to mankind. A " school "
arose, if that absurd term must still be employed,
a school, a system of rules, upon the basis of the Shel
ley who had none. Young men innumerable, dazzled
with the glare and bewildered with the bizarrerie of
the divine lightning that flickered through the clouds
of the Prometheust had no trouble whatever in heaping
up imitative vapors, but, for the lightning, were con
tent, perforce, with its spectrum, in which the bizaf
rerie appeared without the fire. Nor were great and
mature minds unimpressed by the contemplation of a
greater and more mature; and thus gradually were
interwoven into this school of all lawlessness, of
obscurity, quaintness, exaggeration, the misplaced
didacticism of Wordsworth, and the even more prepos
terously anomalous metaphysicianism of Coleridge.


Elizabeth Barrett Barrett

Matters were now fast verging to their worst, and at
length, in Tennyson, poetic inconsistency attained its
extreme. But it was precisely this extreme, for the
greatest error and the greatest truth are scarcely two
points in a circle, it was this extreme which, follow
ing the law of all extremes, wrought in him (in Ten
nyson) a natural and inevitable revulsion, leading
him first to contemn and secondly to investigate his
early manner, and finally to winnow from its mag
nificent elements the truest and purest of all poetical
styles. But not even yet is the process complete ; and
for this reason in part, but chiefly on account of the
mere fortuitousness of that mental and moral combina
tion which shall unite in one person (if ever it shall)
the Shelleyan abandon, the Tennysonian poetic sense,
the most profound instinct of art, and the sternest will
properly to blend and vigorously to control all,
chiefly, we say, because such combination of an
tagonisms must be purely fortuitous has the world
never yet seen the noblest of the poems of which it
is possible that it may be put in possession.

And yet Miss Barrett has narrowly missed the fulfil
ment of these conditions. Her poetic inspiration is the
highest ; we can conceive nothing more august. Her
sense of art is pure in itself, but has been contaminated
by pedantic study of false models, a study which has
the more easily led her astray because she placed an
undue value upon it as rare, as alien to her character


Elizabeth Barrett Barrett

of woman. The accident of having been long se
cluded by ill-health from the world has effected, more
over, in her behalf, what an innate recklessness did
for Shelley, has imparted to her, if not precisely that
abandon to which I have referred, at least a something
that stands well in its stead, a comparative indepen
dence of men and opinions with which she did not
come personally in contact, a happy audacity of
thought and expression never before known in one of
her sex. It is, however, this same accident of ill-
health, perhaps, which has invalidated her original
will, diverted her from proper individuality of purpose,
and seduced her into the sin of imitation. Thus, what
she might have done we cannot altogether determine.
What she has actually accomplished is before us.
With Tennyson's works beside her, and a keen appre
ciation of them in her soul, appreciation too keen to
be discriminative; with an imagination even more
vigorous than his, although somewhat less ethereally
delicate; with inferior art and more feeble volition,
she has written poems such as he could not write, but
such as he, under her conditions of ill-health and se
clusion, would have written during the epoch of his
pupildom in that school which arose out of Shelley, and
from which, over a disgustful gulf of utter incongruity
and absurdity, lit only by miasmatic flashes, into the
broad, open meadows of natural art and divine genius,
he, Tennyson, is at once the bridge and the transition.


Elizabeth Barrett Barrett

of woman. The accident of having been long se
cluded (by ill-health from the world has effected, more-
ew, in to behalf, what an innate recklessness did
for itmfify , -! imparted to her, if not precisely that
to wfeteh I have referred, at least a something
rit in its stead, a comparative indepen
dence if AMI and opinions with which she did not

her sex. It is, however, this same accident of ill-
health, perhaps, which has invalidated her original
ertod her roaiJHN|rtrennysortty of purpose,

and seduce* her into the sin df HnHlttlap . .. Thus, what

From the painting by G F. \\ atts.

he migfct lutve done we faim altogetner determine.
What At has actually accomplished is before us.
With Tennyson's works bUt her, and a keen appre
ciation of them in her soul, appreciation too keen to
be discriminative; with an imagination even more
vigorous than his, although somewhat lets ethereally
delicate; with inferior art and more flit volition,
she has written poems such a* b* . miid a* write, but
such as he, under her c uiMoM * 11 bhh and se
clusion, would have written dunnf the epoch of his
pupildom in that school which arose out of Shelley, and
from which, over a disgustful gulf of utter incongruity
and absurdity, lit only by miasmatic flashes, into the
broad, open meadows of natural art and divine genius,
fet, Tennyson, is at once the bridge and the transition.


William W. Lord 1

Mr. Lord we know nothing, although we
believe that he is a student at Princeton
College, or perhaps a graduate, or perhaps
a professor of that institution. Of his book, lately, we
have heard a good deal ; that is to say, we have heard
it announced in every possible variation of phrase as
" forthcoming." For several months past, indeed,
much amusement has been occasioned in the various
literary coteries in New York by the pertinacity and
obviousness of an attempt made by the poet's friends
to get up an anticipatory excitement in his favor.
There were multitudinous dark rumors of something
in posse f whispered insinuations that the sun had at
length arisen or would certainly arise, that a book was
really in press which would revolutionize the poetical
world, that the MS. had been submitted to the inspec
tion of a junto of critics whose fiat was well under
stood to be fate (Mr. Charles King, if we remember

1 Poems. By William W. Lord. New York: D. Appleton & Co.

William W. Lord

aright, forming one of the junto), that the work had
by them been approved, and its successful reception
and illimitable glorification assured, Mr. Longfellow,
in consequence, countermanding an order given his
publishers (Redding & Co.) to issue forthwith a new
threepenny edition of The Voices of the Night Sug
gestions of this nature, busily circulated in private,
were, in good time, insinuated through the press, until
at length the public expectation was as much on tiptoe
as public expectation in America can ever be expected
to be about so small a matter as the issue of a volume
of American poems. The climax of this whole effort,
however, at forestalling the critical opinion, and by
far the most injudicious portion of the procedure, was
the publisher's announcement of the forthcoming book
as " a very remarkable volume of poems."

The fact is, the only remarkable things about Mr.
Lord's compositions are their remarkable conceit, ig
norance, impudence, platitude, stupidity, and bombast :
we are sorry to say all this, but there is an old adage
about the falling of the heavens. Nor must we be
misunderstood. We intend to wrong neither Mr. Lord
nor our own conscience by denying him particular
merits, such as they are. His book is not altogether
contemptible, although the conduct of his friends has
inoculated nine tenths of the community with the
opinion that it is; but what we wish to say is, that
" remarkable " is by no means the epithet to be ap-


William W. Lord

plied, in the way of commendation, either to anything

1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryEdgar Allan PoeThe complete works of Edgar Allan Poe (Volume 8) → online text (page 7 of 23)