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CRITICISM

BY

JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER



CONTENTS:

EVANGELINE
MIRTH AND MEDICINE
FAME AND GLORY
FANATICISM
THE POETRY OF THE NORTH




CRITICISM

EVANGELINE

A review of Mr. Longfellow's poem.

EUREKA! Here, then, we have it at last, - an American poem, with the lack
of which British reviewers have so long reproached us. Selecting the
subject of all others best calculated for his purpose, - the expulsion of
the French settlers of Acadie from their quiet and pleasant homes around
the Basin of Minas, one of the most sadly romantic passages in the
history of the Colonies of the North, - the author has succeeded in
presenting a series of exquisite pictures of the striking and peculiar
features of life and nature in the New World. The range of these
delineations extends from Nova Scotia on the northeast to the spurs of
the Rocky Mountains on the west and the Gulf of Mexico on the south.
Nothing can be added to his pictures of quiet farm-life in Acadie, the
Indian summer of our northern latitudes, the scenery of the Ohio and
Mississippi Rivers, the bayous and cypress forests of the South, the
mocking-bird, the prairie, the Ozark hills, the Catholic missions, and
the wild Arabs of the West, roaming with the buffalo along the banks of
the Nebraska. The hexameter measure he has chosen has the advantage of a
prosaic freedom of expression, exceedingly well adapted to a descriptive
and narrative poem; yet we are constrained to think that the story of
Evangeline would have been quite as acceptable to the public taste had it
been told in the poetic prose of the author's Hyperion.

In reading it and admiring its strange melody we were not without fears
that the success of Professor Longfellow in this novel experiment might
prove the occasion of calling out a host of awkward imitators, leading us
over weary wastes of hexameters, enlivened neither by dew, rain, nor
fields of offering.

Apart from its Americanism, the poem has merits of a higher and universal
character. It is not merely a work of art; the pulse of humanity throbs
warmly through it. The portraits of Basil the blacksmith, the old
notary, Benedict Bellefontaine, and good Father Felician, fairly glow
with life. The beautiful Evangeline, loving and faithful unto death, is
a heroine worthy of any poet of the present century.

The editor of the Boston Chronotype, in the course of an appreciative
review of this poem, urges with some force a single objection, which we
are induced to notice, as it is one not unlikely to present itself to the
minds of other readers: -

"We think Mr. Longfellow ought to have expressed a much deeper
indignation at the base, knavish, and heartless conduct of the English
and Colonial persecutors than he has done. He should have put far bolder
and deeper tints in the picture of suffering. One great, if not the
greatest, end of poetry is rhadamanthine justice. The poet should mete
out their deserts to all his heroes; honor to whom honor, and infamy to
whom infamy, is due.

"It is true that the wrong in this case is in a great degree fathered
upon our own Massachusetts; and it maybe said that it is afoul bird that
pollutes its own nest. We deny the applicability of the rather musty
proverb. All the worse. Of not a more contemptible vice is what is
called American literature guilty than this of unmitigated self-
laudation. If we persevere in it, the stock will become altogether too
small for the business. It seems that no period of our history has been
exempt from materials for patriotic humiliation and national self-
reproach; and surely the present epoch is laying in a large store of that
sort. Had our poets always told us the truth of ourselves, perhaps it
would now be otherwise. National self-flattery and concealment of faults
must of course have their natural results."

We must confess that we read the first part of Evangeline with something
of the feeling so forcibly expressed by Professor Wright. The natural
and honest indignation with which, many years ago, we read for the first
time that dark page of our Colonial history - the expulsion of the French
neutrals - was reawakened by the simple pathos of the poem; and we longed
to find an adequate expression of it in the burning language of the poet.
We marvelled that he who could so touch the heart by his description of
the sad suffering of the Acadian peasants should have permitted the
authors of that suffering to escape without censure. The outburst of the
stout Basil, in the church of Grand Pre, was, we are fain to acknowledge,
a great relief to us. But, before reaching the close of the volume, we
were quite reconciled to the author's forbearance. The design of the
poem is manifestly incompatible with stern "rhadamanthine justice" and
indignant denunciation of wrong. It is a simple story of quiet pastoral
happiness, of great sorrow and painful bereavement, and of the endurance
of a love which, hoping and seeking always, wanders evermore up and down
the wilderness of the world, baffled at every turn, yet still retaining
faith in God and in the object of its lifelong quest. It was no part of
the writer's object to investigate the merits of the question at issue
between the poor Acadians and their Puritan neighbors. Looking at the
materials before him with the eye of an artist simply, he has arranged
them to suit his idea of the beautiful and pathetic, leaving to some
future historian the duty of sitting in judgment upon the actors in the
atrocious outrage which furnished them. With this we are content. The
poem now has unity and sweetness which might have been destroyed by
attempting to avenge the wrongs it so vividly depicts. It is a psalm of
love and forgiveness: the gentleness and peace of Christian meekness and
forbearance breathe through it. Not a word of censure is directly
applied to the marauding workers of the mighty sorrow which it describes
just as it would a calamity from the elements, - a visitation of God. The
reader, however, cannot fail to award justice to the wrong-doers. The
unresisting acquiescence of the Acadians only deepens his detestation of
the cupidity and religious bigotry of their spoilers. Even in the
language of the good Father Felician, beseeching his flock to submit to
the strong hand which had been laid upon them, we see and feel the
magnitude of the crime to be forgiven: -

"Lo, where the crucified Christ from his cross is gazing upon you!
See in those sorrowful eyes what meekness and holy compassion!
Hark! how those lips still repeat the prayer, O Father, forgive
them!
Let us repeat that prayer in the hour when the wicked assail us;
Let us repeat it now, and say, O Father, forgive them!"

How does this simple prayer of the Acadians contrast with the "deep
damnation of their taking off!"

The true history of the Puritans of New England is yet to be written.
Somewhere midway between the caricatures of the Church party and the
self-laudations of their own writers the point may doubtless be found
from whence an impartial estimate of their character may be formed. They
had noble qualities: the firmness and energy which they displayed in the
colonization of New England must always command admiration. We would not
rob them, were it in our power to do so, of one jot or tittle of their
rightful honor. But, with all the lights which we at present possess, we
cannot allow their claim of saintship without some degree of
qualification. How they seemed to their Dutch neighbors at New
Netherlands, and their French ones at Nova Scotia, and to the poor
Indians, hunted from their fisheries and game-grounds, we can very well
conjecture. It may be safely taken for granted that their gospel claim
to the inheritance of the earth was not a little questionable to the
Catholic fleeing for his life from their jurisdiction, to the banished
Baptist shaking off the dust of his feet against them, and to the
martyred Quaker denouncing woe and judgment upon them from the steps of
the gallows. Most of them were, beyond a doubt, pious and sincere; but
we are constrained to believe that among them were those who wore the
livery of heaven from purely selfish motives, in a community where
church-membership was an indispensable requisite, the only open sesame
before which the doors of honor and distinction swung wide to needy or
ambitious aspirants. Mere adventurers, men of desperate fortunes,
bankrupts in character and purse, contrived to make gain of godliness
under the church and state government of New England, put on the austere
exterior of sanctity, quoted Scripture, anathematized heretics, whipped
Quakers, exterminated Indians, burned and spoiled the villages of their
Catholic neighbors, and hewed down their graven images and "houses of
Rimmon." It is curious to observe how a fierce religious zeal against
heathen and idolaters went hand in hand with the old Anglo-Saxon love of
land and plunder. Every crusade undertaken against the Papists of the
French colonies had its Puritan Peter the Hermit to summon the saints to
the wars of the Lord. At the siege of Louisburg, ten years before the
onslaught upon the Acadian settlers, one minister marched with the
Colonial troops, axe in hand, to hew down the images in the French
churches; while another officiated in the double capacity of drummer and
chaplain, - a "drum ecclesiastic," as Hudibras has it.

At the late celebration of the landing of the Pilgrims in New York, the
orator of the day labored at great length to show that the charge of
intolerance, as urged against the colonists of New England, is unfounded
in fact. The banishment of the Catholics was very sagaciously passed
over in silence, inasmuch as the Catholic Bishop of New York was one of
the invited guests, and (hear it, shade of Cotton Mather!) one of the
regular toasts was a compliment to the Pope. The expulsion of Roger
Williams was excused and partially justified; while the whipping, ear-
cropping, tongue-boring, and hanging of the Quakers was defended, as the
only effectual method of dealing with such devil-driven heretics, as
Mather calls them. The orator, in the new-born zeal of his amateur
Puritanism, stigmatizes the persecuted class as "fanatics and ranters,
foaming forth their mad opinions;" compares them to the Mormons and the
crazy followers of Mathias; and cites an instance of a poor enthusiast,
named Eccles, who, far gone in the "tailor's melancholy," took it into
his head that he must enter into a steeple-house pulpit and stitch
breeches "in singing time," - a circumstance, by the way, which took place
in Old England, - as a justification of the atrocious laws of the
Massachusetts Colony. We have not the slightest disposition to deny the
fanaticism and folly of some few professed Quakers in that day; and had
the Puritans treated them as the Pope did one of their number whom he
found crazily holding forth in the church of St. Peter, and consigned
them to the care of physicians as religious monomaniacs, no sane man
could have blamed them. Every sect, in its origin, and especially in its
time of persecution, has had its fanatics. The early Christians, if we
may credit the admissions of their own writers or attach the slightest
credence to the statements of pagan authors, were by no means exempt from
reproach and scandal in this respect. Were the Puritans themselves the
men to cast stones at the Quakers and Baptists? Had they not, in the
view at least of the Established Church, turned all England upside down
with their fanaticisms and extravagances of doctrine and conduct? How
look they as depicted in the sermons of Dr. South, in the sarcastic pages
of Hudibras, and the coarse caricatures of the clerical wits of the times
of the second Charles? With their own backs scored and their ears
cropped for the crime of denying the divine authority of church and state
in England, were they the men to whip Baptists and hang Quakers for doing
the same thing in Massachusetts?

Of all that is noble and true in the Puritan character we are sincere
admirers. The generous and self-denying apostleship of Eliot is, of
itself, a beautiful page in their history. The physical daring and
hardihood with which, amidst the times of savage warfare, they laid the
foundations of mighty states, and subdued the rugged soil, and made the
wilderness blossom; their steadfast adherence to their religious
principles, even when the Restoration had made apostasy easy and
profitable; and the vigilance and firmness with which, under all
circumstances, they held fast their chartered liberties and extorted new
rights and privileges from the reluctant home government, - justly entitle
them to the grateful remembrance of a generation now reaping the fruits
of their toils and sacrifices. But, in expressing our gratitude to the
founders of New England, we should not forget what is due to truth and
justice; nor, for the sake of vindicating them from the charge of that
religious intolerance which, at the time, they shared with nearly all
Christendom, undertake to defend, in the light of the nineteenth century,
opinions and practices hostile to the benignant spirit of the gospel and
subversive of the inherent rights of man.





MIRTH AND MEDICINE

A review of Poems by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

IF any of our readers (and at times we fear it is the case with all) need
amusement and the wholesome alterative of a hearty laugh, we commend
them, not to Dr. Holmes the physician, but to Dr. Holmes the scholar, the
wit, and the humorist; not to the scientific medical professor's
barbarous Latin, but to his poetical prescriptions, given in choice old
Saxon. We have tried them, and are ready to give the Doctor certificates
of their efficacy.

Looking at the matter from the point of theory only, we should say that a
physician could not be otherwise than melancholy. A merry doctor! Why,
one might as well talk of a laughing death's-head, - the cachinnation of a
monk's _memento mori_. This life of ours is sorrowful enough at its best
estate; the brightest phase of it is "sicklied o'er with the pale cast"
of the future or the past. But it is the special vocation of the doctor
to look only upon the shadow; to turn away from the house of feasting and
go down to that of mourning; to breathe day after day the atmosphere of
wretchedness; to grow familiar with suffering; to look upon humanity
disrobed of its pride and glory, robbed of all its fictitious ornaments,
- weak, helpless, naked, - and undergoing the last fearful metempsychosis
from its erect and godlike image, the living temple of an enshrined
divinity, to the loathsome clod and the inanimate dust. Of what ghastly
secrets of moral and physical disease is he the depositary! There is woe
before him and behind him; he is hand and glove with misery by
prescription, - the ex officio gauger of the ills that flesh is heir to.
He has no home, unless it be at the bedside of the querulous, the
splenetic, the sick, and the dying. He sits down to carve his turkey,
and is summoned off to a post-mortem examination of another sort. All
the diseases which Milton's imagination embodied in the lazar-house dog
his footsteps and pluck at his doorbell. Hurrying from one place to
another at their beck, he knows nothing of the quiet comfort of the
"sleek-headed men who sleep o' nights." His wife, if he has one, has an
undoubted right to advertise him as a deserter of "bed and board." His
ideas of beauty, the imaginations of his brain, and the affections of his
heart are regulated and modified by the irrepressible associations of his
luckless profession. Woman as well as man is to him of the earth,
earthy. He sees incipient disease where the uninitiated see only
delicacy. A smile reminds him of his dental operations; a blushing cheek
of his hectic patients; pensive melancholy is dyspepsia; sentimentalism,
nervousness. Tell him of lovelorn hearts, of the "worm I' the bud," of
the mental impalement upon Cupid's arrow, like that of a giaour upon the
spear of a janizary, and he can only think of lack of exercise, of
tightlacing, and slippers in winter. Sheridan seems to have understood
all this, if we may judge from the lament of his Doctor, in St.
Patrick's Day, over his deceased helpmate. "Poor dear Dolly," says he.
"I shall never see her like again; such an arm for a bandage! veins that
seemed to invite the lancet! Then her skin, - smooth and white as a
gallipot; her mouth as round and not larger than that of a penny vial;
and her teeth, - none of your sturdy fixtures, - ache as they would, it was
only a small pull, and out they came. I believe I have drawn half a
score of her dear pearls. [Weeps.] But what avails her beauty? She has
gone, and left no little babe to hang like a label on papa's neck!"

So much for speculation and theory. In practice it is not so bad after
all. The grave-digger in Hamlet has his jokes and grim jests. We have
known many a jovial sexton; and we have heard clergymen laugh heartily at
small provocation close on the heel of a cool calculation that the great
majority of their fellow-creatures were certain of going straight to
perdition. Why, then, should not even the doctor have his fun? Nay, is
it not his duty to be merry, by main force if necessary? Solomon, who,
from his great knowledge of herbs, must have been no mean practitioner
for his day, tells us that "a merry heart doeth good like a medicine;"
and universal experience has confirmed the truth of his maxim. Hence it
is, doubtless, that we have so many anecdotes of facetious doctors,
distributing their pills and jokes together, shaking at the same time the
contents of their vials and the sides of their patients. It is merely
professional, a trick of the practice, unquestionably, in most cases; but
sometimes it is a "natural gift," like that of the "bonesetters," and
"scrofula strokers," and "cancer curers," who carry on a sort of guerilla
war with human maladies. Such we know to be the case with Dr. Holmes.
He was born for the "laughter cure," as certainly as Priessnitz was for
the "water cure," and has been quite as successful in his way, while his
prescriptions are infinitely more agreeable.

The volume now before us gives, in addition to the poems and lyrics
contained in the two previous editions, some hundred or more pages of the
later productions of the author, in the sprightly vein, and marked by the
brilliant fancy and felicitous diction for which the former were
noteworthy. His longest and most elaborate poem, _Urania_, is perhaps
the best specimen of his powers. Its general tone is playful and
humorous; but there are passages of great tenderness and pathos. Witness
the following, from a description of the city churchgoers. The whole
compass of our literature has few passages to equal its melody and
beauty.

"Down the chill street, which winds in gloomiest shade,
What marks betray yon solitary maid?
The cheek's red rose, that speaks of balmier air,
The Celtic blackness of her braided hair;
The gilded missal in her kerchief tied;
Poor Nora, exile from Killarney's side!
Sister in toil, though born of colder skies,
That left their azure in her downcast eyes,
See pallid Margaret, Labor's patient child,
Scarce weaned from home, a nursling of the wild,
Where white Katahdin o'er the horizon shines,
And broad Penobscot dashes through the pines;
Still, as she hastes, her careful fingers hold
The unfailing hymn-book in its cambric fold:
Six days at Drudgery's heavy wheel she stands,
The seventh sweet morning folds her weary hands.
Yes, child of suffering, thou mayst well be sure
He who ordained the Sabbath loved the poor."

This is but one of many passages, showing that the author is capable of
moving the heart as well as of tickling the fancy. There is no straining
for effect; simple, natural thoughts are expressed in simple and
perfectly transparent language.

_Terpsichore_, read at an annual dinner of the Phi Beta Kappa Society at
Cambridge, sparkles throughout with keen wit, quaint conceits, and satire
so good-natured that the subjects of it can enjoy it as heartily as their
neighbors. Witness this thrust at our German-English writers: -

"Essays so dark, Champollion might despair
To guess what mummy of a thought was there,
Where our poor English, striped with foreign phrase, Looks like a
zebra in a parson's chaise."

Or this at our transcendental friends: -

"Deluded infants! will they never know
Some doubts must darken o'er the world below
Though all the Platos of the nursery trail
Their clouds of glory at the go-cart's tail?"

The lines _On Lending a Punch-Bowl_ are highly characteristic. Nobody
but Holmes could have conjured up so many rare fancies in connection with
such a matter. Hear him: -

"This ancient silver bowl of mine, it tells of good old times,
Of joyous days, and jolly nights, and merry Christmas chimes;
They were a free and jovial race, but honest, brave, and true,
That dipped their ladle in the punch when this old bowl was new.

"A Spanish galleon brought the bar; so runs the ancient tale;
'T was hammered by an Antwerp smith, whose arm was like a flail;
And now and then between the strokes, for fear his strength should fail,
He wiped his brow, and quaffed a cup of good old Flemish ale.

"'T was purchased by an English squire to please his loving dame,
Who saw the cherubs, and conceived a longing for the same;
And oft as on the ancient stock another twig was found,
'T was filled with candle spiced and hot and handed smoking round.

"But, changing hands, it reached at length a Puritan divine,
Who used to follow Timothy, and take a little wine,
But hated punch and prelacy; and so it was, perhaps,
He went to Leyden, where he found conventicles and schnaps.

"And then, of course, you know what's next, - it left the Dutchman's shore
With those that in the Mayflower came, - a hundred souls and more, -
Along with all the furniture, to fill their new abodes, -
To judge by what is still on hand, at least a hundred loads.

"'T was on a dreary winter's eve, the night was closing dim,
When brave Miles Standish took the bowl, and filled it to the brim;
The little Captain stood and stirred the posset with his sword,
And all his sturdy men-at-arms were ranged about the board.

"He poured the fiery Hollands in, - the man that never feared, -
He took a long and solemn draught, and wiped his yellow beard;
And one by one the musketeers - the men that fought and prayed -
All drank as 't were their mother's milk, and not a man afraid.

"That night, affrighted from his nest, the screaming eagle flew,
He heard the Pequot's ringing whoop, the soldier's wild halloo;
And there the sachem learned the rule he taught to kith and kin,
'Run from the white man when you find he smells of Hollands gin!'"


In his _Nux Postcoenatica_ he gives us his reflections on being invited
to a dinner-party, where he was expected to "set the table in a roar" by
reading funny verses. He submits it to the judgment and common sense of
the importunate bearer of the invitation, that this dinner-going, ballad-
making, mirth-provoking habit is not likely to benefit his reputation as
a medical professor.

"Besides, my prospects. Don't you know that people won't employ
A man that wrongs his manliness by laughing like a boy,
And suspect the azure blossom that unfolds upon a shoot,
As if Wisdom's oldpotato could not flourish at its root?

"It's a very fine reflection, when you're etching out a smile
On a copperplate of faces that would stretch into a mile.
That, what with sneers from enemies and cheapening shrugs from friends,
It will cost you all the earnings that a month of labor lends."


There are, as might be expected, some commonplace pieces in the volume, -
a few failures in the line of humor. The _Spectre Pig_, the _Dorchester
Giant_, the _Height of the Ridiculous_, and one or two others might be
omitted in the next edition without detriment. They would do well enough
for an amateur humorist, but are scarcely worthy of one who stands at the
head of the profession.

It was said of James Smith, of the Rejected Addresses, that "if he had


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Online LibraryJohn Greenleaf WhittierCriticism, Part 4, from Volume VII, The Works of Whittier: the Conflict with Slavery, Politics and Reform, the Inner Life and Criticism → online text (page 1 of 3)