William Wetmore Story.

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Wordsworth's friends about this sonnet. It seems,
according to my informant, that there was an old
lady and friend of Wordsworth who lived near him,
and just before St. Valentine's Day, some friends
of his proposed to him, as a joke, that he should
write her a valentine. He was amused by the
proposition and consented, and this sonnet was the
valentine he wrote.

B. It seems impossible, it is so tender and im-

M. I tell the story as 't was told to me ; I wish
he had written her a valentine every year.


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J9. You were saying that this is the only poem

of Wordsworth which breathes of passion and love.

There is one other at least, is there not? — that

entitled " Desideria," —

*' Surprised by joy, impatieiit as the wind,
I turned to share the transport."

M. Yes, I allow that ; and a beautiful sonnet it
is, though more elaborate in diction in some places
than I could wish. The lines, " That spot which
no vicissitude could find," and " Even for the least
division of an hour," are far from happy. Still it
is a beautiful sonnet.

B. I was trying to recall anything like a song
by Wordsworth, and this is the nearest approach
to one that I remember. Whether song or not, it
could be sung, I think, and it is a charming poem :

** There is a change, and I am poor;
Yonr loye hath been, nor long ago,
A fountain at my fond hearths door.
Whose only business was to flow.
And flow it did — not taking heed
Of its own bounty or my need.

" What happy m<»nents did I count !
Blest was I then all bliss above I
Now, for that consecrated fount
Of murmuring, sparkling. Hying loye
What haye I ? — shall I dare to tell ?
A comfortless and hidden well.

" A well of loye — it may be deep ;
I trust it is, and neyer dry;
What matter ? if the waters sleep
In silence and obscurity.
Such change, and at the yery door
Of my fond heart, hath made me poor.''


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Moore's songs sing well, and are married to such
charming old Irish airs that they seem better than
thej are. Generally he is too artificial and strained
in his imagery, but sometimes he strikes a note
which is natural and happy, as in " Oft in the
stilly night." The second line, " When slumber's
chain has bound me," is bad, and so is " stilly ; "
but it goes on very sweetly : —

'* Fond memory brings the light
Of other days around me,

The smiles, the tears of boyhood^s years,

The words of love then spoken,
The eyes that shone now dimmed and gone,
The cheerful vows now broken."

And again —

'* When I remember all Uie friends once linked together
I Ve seen around me fall, like leaves in wintry weather,
I feel like one who treads alone
Some banqnet-hall deserted.
Whose lights are fled, whose garlands dead,
And all bnt me departed/'

M. Yes, that is charming, and the music to which
it is set lends it an added grace ; I cannot separate
the air from the words. So, too, " I saw from the
beach " has one verse which is very happy in its
expression : —

^^ Give me back, give me back the wild freshness of morning.
Her clouds and her tears are worth evening's best light.'*

Now that I repeat it, it does not seem very
charming after all, but with the music it certainly
is, and so is " Love's Young Dream."

B. I should like to have heard him sing. His


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voice, I am told, was weak and small, but he man-
aged it with skill, and threw into his songs great
expression, sentiment, and feeling.

M. Oh ! the voice is nothing, or next to nothing,
compared with that. I have heard many a beautiful
voice which left me utterly cold, while I have been
profoundly touched by others which, though little
in themselves, had the art of winging the arrow
straight to the heart. If the singer does not feel
deeply, and lacks true expression, the best organ
will not compensate for the deficiency. There is
one celebrated singer who gives me no pleasure.
She has a wonderful voice, perfectly trained, and
endowed with extraordinary flexibility. I have no
fault to find with her voice or execution, but it
never touches me, and I hear it as I would a per-
fect piece of mechanism. There seems to be no
soul in it. I do not care so much to hear any one
sing, as the phrase is, like a bird. What I desire
is to hear one sing like a human being, with ex-
pression, passion, and feeling, and out of the deeps
of her nature. There must be a heart-beat in a
voice, or it is a noise.

B. I know to whom you refer, but I differ from
you, and you have the world against you. " My
voice is my fortune, sir, she said." Her royal
presents of jewelry are as numerous as a dentist's
decorations. She coins notes with notes, and her
execution is wonderfully rapid. She has the great
seal of success upon her, and her popularity is un-


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M. I know, but I am nevertheless " convinced
against my will, and of tlie same opinion still."
What does popularity prove ? ** ?

B. Present success, and that is all a singer
needs and asks. It is not the meed which poets
and artists desire solely, for their works look to
the Future as well as the Present, and they can
wait. At all events, with them immediate popu-
larity is not a necessity as it is with an actor and
a singer. But the actor's and singer's prosperity
lies in the ear of those who hear him. His suc-
cess is a flash of the present. There is no record
left in the air of the voice, and the tones of the ex-
pression, and the action. It is not like a picture,
or poem, or statue, which may live for centuries to
enchant generations yet imbom — which, neglected
or scorned to-day, may be recognized, loved, and
enjoyed a hundred or a thousand years from now —
which, dead to those who now see and hear, may
spread hereafter into a large life, and delight na-
tions. Swift popularity with poets and artists has
generally a short life. Fame grows slowly ; and
the most popular poets and artists of to-day are
often neglected and forgotten to-morrow. Cowley
ran through seven editions, Norris of Bemerton
through nine, Flatman through four, and Waller
through five, in less time than Shakespeare and
Milton through two. Yet scarcely even the names
of any of these, except Cowley and Waller, are
known now, while Shakespeare and Milton shine
like great planets in the firmament of literature.


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For forty-one years there were only about a thou-
sand copies printed of Shakespeare's plays. Shad-
well and Little were as popular with their contem-
poraries as Dryden and Pope. But where are they
now ? Darwin was thought a genius in his day,
and his " Botanic Garden " esteemed a great poem.
Dryden's jejune transcripts of Chaucer delighted
the world, which would not read the originals ; and
one may safely say that he touched nothing of
Chaucer which he did not spoil. * Percy's " Reliques
of English Ballad Poetry" was ridiculed by the
great autocrat, Johnson ; and Percy himself bowed
to the spirit of the age in the poems which he
avowed as his own. The turgid bombast of Mac-
pherson's *' Ossian" was received with enthusiasm
by those who laughed at the old ballads. Present
popularity, in a word, is no guarantee of future

M. And a blessed fact it is for aU bad poets to
console themselves with. If you do not admire
their verses, if tlie cold world turns a deaf ear to
them, they range themselves in their own imagina-
tion with the great poets who were not recognized
at first, and thus salve the wounds of criticism.

B. Thus far tlie most popular poet of to-day
is Tupper, or rather was Tupper, for the ungrate-
ful world begins to look upon him with a cold eye.
But twenty years ago his " Proverbial Philosophy "
was on nearly every drawing-room table, and there
is probably no other writer of our age whose poems
have gone through so many editions, and of which
so many copies have been sold.


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M. They had a sort of moral and religious
twang about them that gave them vogue, — a sort
of bastard Old Testament form, which produced
an effect on the pious. He ^^ said an undisputed
thing in such a solemn way," that the world abso-
lutely believed that there must be something pro-
found in his utterances. You have only to put any
kind of self-evident moral and religious statements
into verse, and you are sure to find readers, no mat-
ter how feeble the twaddle may be.

Suppose, for instance, that I say : —

** Seldom goeth man up stairs Uiat he cometh not down again,
And he who ascendeth with pride and strength
Will often descend in grief.
For lo ! — it is given to us to sleep hy night
And to wake to work hy day,
And our dreams of the night avail ns naught,
When the work of the day is come.
And thus, O dreamer, it is with life.
And the lahor thereof and the joy/'

This is all twaddling nonsense, but it has an air
of meaning something perhaps profound.

B, I think it is remarkably good sense — and
it awakens in me, as you say, a half feeling of rev-

M. Take, again, the hymns we sing in church.
How many of them are there that, were it not for
their catch-words of religion, any human being
would read ? How much real feeling, real piety,
real aspiration, do they breathe ? Are they not, as
a whole, a mass of affected phrases, unreal senti-
ment, and very bad writing ?


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B. Ofa, that is going altogether too far. But I
agree that, however much piety there may be in
them, there is for the most part very little poetry.
The world would not endure verses on any other
subject so wanting in all that constitutes poetry
and truth of sentiment. They are machine made,
without a breath of inspiration or a glow of feeling.
The cold-bloodedness with which the most offensive
images are introduced, the doggerel in which the
commonplaces of the pulpit are rehearsed, and the
strange unreality of the thoughts are so foreign to
any true religious sentiment, that one cannot help
wondering how they can have been written by ear-
nest minds. Let me not sweep them all, however,
into the same net. Some of tliem are real, simple
and devout, give expression of natural feelings of
piety and supplication ; but these are exceptions.
What a satisfaction it is to come across such a one
at long intervals, as, for instance, " While Thee I
seek, protecting power " I

M. What do you think of these four lines,
which are all I can remember of an old hymn ?
Absurd as they are, I have no doubt they were
sung with earnestness and feeling; —

" For Faith is like a nisty lock
Anointed by Thy grace ;
We mb, and mb, and mb, and mb,
Until we see Thy face."

B. It seems scarcely possible that they should
have been written with a serious intention.

M. It is all a matter of taste. Many things


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seem ridiculous to one age which delight another.
Our notions have very much changed as to what
poetry is within this century. Look simply at the
list of Lives of the Poets by Dr. Johnson. Cow-
ley is the first name. Chaucer, Spenser, Sidney,
Shakespeare, and all of their time nearly, are omit-
ted ; while Phillips, Stepney, Spratt, Walsh, Duke,
Smith, Broome, and others of the same stamp, are
thought worthy to be recorded as among the poets
of England.

B. Oh, that was editor's work, and Johnson
probably wrote the lives of those whom his pub-
lisher selected. At all events, let us hope he did.
Some of them he could not possibly have deemed
to be entitled to the august name of Poet.

M. At all events, Johnson himself informs us
that it was by his recommendation that the poems
of Blackmore, Watts, Pomfret, and Yalden were
added to his collection of English poets, and that
he wrote their lives of his own free wilL

B. Poets indeed !

M. I think I could give you a recipe for mak-
ing poetry which would be sure of at least pres-
ent popularity.

B. Pray let me hear it.

M. In the first place, you must not be original.
You must attempt nothing new, and you must not
put too much mind into the composition. This is
preliminary. Then take equal parts of weak self-
evident morality and the commonplaces of reli-
gious sentiment. Mix them well, and dilute them


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With poetic verbiage. Flavor them with sentimen-
tality and sadness. Add if you can a few phrases
from the New or Old Testament; put in a few
images from the fields ; sprinkle here and there a
faded rose or a violet, and then set them in a mould
of rhymes. Double the rhymes if you can — it pro-
duces a good effect. Be careful to keep them out
of the Sim, and it is more to the general taste to
color them strongly with melancholy ; but some-
times you may vary the flavor by a stimulating
essence of work and self-sacrifice and encourage-
ment to active benevolence. The less real mean-
ing you put into them the better. Serve them up
on cream - colored paper, with fantastic emblems
on the border, and the dish will be sure to be

B. Xiet me add one thing more. Give the dish
a good well-known name. Names stand for a
great deal. The Harp of Patience, Dead Leaves,
Faded Eoses, for instance ; alliteration is even
better; Hymns of Humanity, Gleams of Grace,
Dreams in Darkness.

M. I accept the suggestion. Now for an en-
tirely dijfferent receipt for entirely different minds.
To make a popular romance : Take a number of
characters, some supernaturally good, some super-
naturally bad, and roll them up in a mass of mys-
tery and crime. Dash in murder, and poison, and
secrecy ad libitum ; and if this be not sufficient,
add a flavor of bigamy and madness. Be careful
not to stint your heroine of masses of golden hair


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and full pouting lips, magnetizing eyes and subtle
fascinations of every kind. Give your central hero
a muscular and brutal force and figure, under which
is concealed a tender and sensitive heart. Do not
care for nature; but the more sensitive he is in
his honor the more harsh and bad let his manners
be. Add a weak-minded clergyman, a helpless girl,
and a detective who sees through everything with
supernatural acuteness. Put the whole into a wild
and ghastly country, and serve the dish up to your
readers at midnight.

B. A capital dish to sleep on, if it does not
give one a nightmare.

M. Do women like brutal men ? They are cer-
tainly fond of drawing them in their novels. They
generally either give us as their hero a consump-
tive clergyman, devoted to the poor, and constantly
investigating slums, and getting a typhus fever
in consequence ; or a fellow with brutal manners,
large muscles, and an infinitely tender heart, which
he displays in the most peculiar and unexpected
moments. It would seem as if, by contrast to
their own natures, they preferred a touch of bru-
tality and violence in our sex. If they do not
take to this, they go in for the Lara and Conrad
style — a melancholy creature, who has suffered
terribly, who loves to skulk into the shadow, who
avoids society, and cultivates his wounded heart.

B. Women's men and men's men are very dif-
ferent ; as men's women and women's women also
are. We cannot understand the reason why cer-


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tain men have great success with the other sex,
who to us are blanks, or, at least, without attrac-

M, I am afraid we shall get on the subject of
women's rights and the difference of sex — a sub-
ject I detest.

B. Oh, I am a great advocate for their rights.
I wish them to do everything they can; and it
seems to me they are not very much oppressed in
the present day. I am also a great advocate of
men's rights ; and there is nothing less agreeable
than a mannish woman, except a womanish man*

M. You shall not seduce me into any discussion
on this subject. Women are the most charming
and delightful creatures in the world. I really
don't know what we should do without them. But
there is the bell of the old monastery ringing, and
the nuns are going to vespers : shall we go and
hear them sing at tiie Trinita dei Monti ?

B. Agreed,


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Bdton. Is this Freedom's temple ? Is this door
its portal ! If so, here is a subject for your art.
Behold me ! I am the Washington of Robert Treat
Paine — ' repulsing with his breast the assaults of
the thunder, and conducting "every flash to the
deep " with the point of my sword. Listen : —

'* Should the tempest of war overshadow our land,
Its bolts ne'er could rend Freedom's temple asunder ;
For, unmoved at its portal wotild Washington stand,
And repulse with his breast the assaults of the thunder."

Mallett. Bravo! Bravo 1

B. I have not been able to get those lines out
of my mind since you repeated them the other day.
I have been reciting them to myself ever since, in
a loud, declamatory tone, striking an attitude, and
repulsing with my breast the assault of the thun-
der. Tell me something more about this amazing

M. After our conversation the other day, on my
i*etum home, I refreshed my own memory by read-
ing a biographical sketch of him by his friend Mr.
Charles Prentiss ; and being in Uie vein, I then
took up the life of Dr. Darwin, the famous poet,
written by the scarcely less famous Miss Anna
Seward. They amused me so much that I have


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brought them both down to the studio to read you
some choice passages from each.

B. Pray do.

M. To begin with Eobert Treat Paine. Slight-
ingly as you may think of his genius, he was
thought to be the great poet of his age in America.
Mr. Prentiss says of his poems that " they are the
legitimate and indisputable heirs of immortality ; "
and he boldly prophesies that ^'he will take his
place, not by the courtesy of the coming age, but
by the full and consentient suffrage of posterity,
on the same shelf with the prince of English
rhyme " — by whom he means, of course, Dryden.

B. Does it not make one doubt our own judg-
ment of our contemporaries, when we hear such
trumpeting as this about a man whose very name
has now passed into oblivion ?

M. Ah! you never came in contact with him
personally, and you can therefore form little idea
of the influence he exerted. Mr. Selfridge, his
friend, says of him: "Once engaged he was an
electric battery ; approach him and he scintillated ;
touch him and he emitted a blaze."

B, What a tremendous fellow, to be sure 1

M. This was the judgment formed of his pow-
ers, not by common, vulgar flatterers, but by men
of ability and distinction, such as Mr. Selfridge
and Mr. Prentiss, both of whom were men of very
considerable power and repute.

B, All I can say is that it is simply amazing.

M, Great as the temporary reputation of Paine


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was in America, the reputation of Dr. Darwin in
England was higher and wider. The distinction
which he won in his profession of medicine was
overshadowed by his fame as a poet ; and his ad-
mirable medical works were held in far less esteem
than the pompous, artificial, and ingeniously ab-
surd poems of "The Botanic Garden," and the
"Loves of the Plants," with their gnomes and
nymphs and ridiculous impersonations, which were
afterwards so admirably travestied by Canning in
his " Loves of the Triangles." K anything could
be more absurd than the poems themselves in their
form, conception, and execution, it would be Miss
Seward's criticisms of them. Indeed it is scarcely
possible to believe that such a work as her "Life
of Dr. Darwin " could have been written in the
present century ; its stilted style, its unnatural ver-
biage, its pompous solemnity, are so out of keep-
ing with our modern habits of thought, feeling, and
expression. Let me read you some passages : —

" Poetry," says Miss Seward, " has nothing more
sublime than this, the picture of a town on fire : —

*^ * From dome to dome, when flames infuriate climb,
Sweep the long street, invest the tower sublime,
Gild the tall vanes amid the astonished night,
And reddening heaven returns the sanguine ligfht ;
While with vast strides and bristling hair aloof,
Pale Danger glides along the falling roof ;
And g^ant Terror howling in amaze,
Moves his dark limbs along the lurid blaze.
Nymphs I you first taught the gelid wave to risOi
Hurled in resplendent arches to the skies ;
In iron cells condensed the airy spring.


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And imp'd the torrent with unfailing wing ;
On the fierce flames the stream impetuous falls,
And sudden darkness shrouds the shattered walls ;
Steam, smoke, and dust in blended volumes roll,
And night and silence repossess the pole/ "

There ! what do you think of that ?

B. I feel like giant Terror — I " howl in

M. I was sure you would be impressed by this.
Think of " imping a torrent with unfailing wing,"
and the "vast strides and bristling hair" of
Danger, and the " gelid waves " of the fire-engine,
"hurled in resplendent arches to the skies."
Think of night and silence repossessing the pole
like two tame bears. But let me read you now
some passages from Miss Seward's "Analysis of
the Botanic Garden." "After that landscape of
the scene which forms the exordium, the Goddess
of Botany descends in gorgeous gayety."

B. " Gorgeous gayety ! " Good heavens 1

J/. Yes, gorgeous gayety ; and she thus makes

her appearance : —

'* She comes, the Goddess, through the whispering air,
Bright as the mom descends her blushing car/'

"Spring welcomes her with fragrance and with
song, and to receive her commission the four ele-
ments attend. They are allegorized as gnomes,
water-nymphs, and sylphs, and nymphs of fire. Her
address to each class and the business she allots to
them form the four cantos of the first part of the
poem. The ladies of Ignition receive her primal


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B, No ! You have invented that.

M. I could not mvent anything half so good.
Be patient. " The picture with which her address
commences is of consummate brilliance and grace.
Behold it, reader, and judge if this praise be too
glowing ! "

**" Nymphs of primeyal fire ! yonr vestal train,
Hung with gold tresses o'er the vast inane,
Pierced with yonr silver shafts the throne of night,
And charmed young nature's opening eyes with light"

B. " Vast inane," indeed !

M. Listen, and don't interrupt. " The Darwin-
ian creation which ensues charms us infijiitely,
even while we recollect the simpler greatness on
the page of Moses, and on its sublime paraphrase
in the 'Paradise Lost.' The creation in this
poem is astronomic, and involves the universe,
and as such is of excellence unequaled in its kind,
and never to bei excelled in the grandeur of its
conceptions : —

** * Let there be light I proclaimed the almighty Lord :
Astonished Chaos heard the potent word ;
Through all his realms the kindling Ether runs,
And the mass starts into a million suns.
Earths round each sun with quick explosions burst,
And second planets issue from the first ;
Bend, as they journey with projectile force,
In bright ellipses their reluctant course.
Orbs wheel in orbs, round centres centres roll.
And form, self-balanced, one revolving whole.
Onward they move amid their bright abode.
Space without bound — the bosom of their God.' "

And listen to this commentary : " The word


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of the Creator setting into instant and universal
blaze the ignited particles of Chaos till they burst
into countless suns, is an idea sublime in the first

B, Sublime indeed ! It is more like the fire-
works and the girandola of Castel St. Angelo than
anything I ever read. What would Dr. Darwin of
to-day say to all this ? Here is " evolution " with a
vengeance ! I think it almost unhandsome, after
the first Dr. Darwin had so satisfactorily arranged
creation in a moment, and astonished Chaos, that
his descendant should undertake to " evolve " na-
ture by such tedious processes.

M. Miss Seward continues : " The subsequent
comments of the goddess on the powers of the
nymphs of fire introduce pictures of the lightning
and the rainbow, the exterior sky, the twilight, the

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Online LibraryWilliam Wetmore StoryConversations in a studio → online text (page 16 of 19)