William Wetmore Story.

Conversations in a studio online

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meteor, the aurora borealis — of the planets, the
comet, and all the ethereal blaze of the universe."

B . Comprehensive. Anything else ?

M. She next exhibits her as superintending the
subterranean and external volcanoes : —

'^ * Tou from deep cauldrons and nnmeasnred caves
Blow flaming airs or pour yitrescent waves ;
O'er shining oceans ray volcanic light,
Or hurl innocuous embers through the night.' "

B. Why " innocuous ? "

M. Have you any objection to " innocuous " as
a word ?

B . Does it mean anything?

M. Oh, this is " to consider too curiously.'*


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Why should it mean anything ? But let me go on.
The goddess proceeds to remind her handmaids
of their employments, says they lead their glitter-
ing bands around the sinking day, and, when the
sun retreats, confine in the folds of air his linger^
ing fires to the cold bosom of earth : —

** * O^er eve^s pale foims diffuse phosphoric light,

And deck vdth lambent flames the shrine of night' "

Now mark what Miss Seward says of this : " Surely
there cannot be a more beautiful description of a
vernal twilight. The phosphorescent quality of
the Bolognian stone, Beccari's prismatic shells, and
the harp of Memnon, which is recorded to have
breathed spontaneous chords when shone upon by
the rising sun, are all compared to the glimmer-
ings of the horizon. So, also, the luminous insects,
the glow-worm, the fire-flies of the tropics, the fab-
ulous ignis fatuus^ and the GyniTiotus dectricus,
brought to England from Surinam in South Amer-
ica about the year 1783, — a fish whose electric
power is a provocation mortal to his enemy. He
is compared to the Olympian eagle that bears the
lightning in his talons." There ! what do you think
of that?

B, Give me the book. You have invented, at
least, a part of it, as you are accustomed to do. I
I am up to your tricks.

M. No ; on my word, I have not interpolated
a word. See for yourseM.

B. I can scarce believe my own eyes. How


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prettily that bit of information is introduced about
the Gymnotiis electricus brought from Surinam in
South America about the year 1783 !

M. Shall I go on, or do I bore you ?

B. Pray go on.

M. " The Fourth Canto opens with a sunrise
and a rainbow, each of Homeric excellency. The
Muse of Botany gazes enchanted on the scene,
and swells the song of Paphos " (whatever that
may happen to be) " to softer chords." Her poet
adds : —

** ^ Long aisles of oaks returned the silver sound,
And amorous echoes talked along the ground.' "

B. Beautiful ! beautiful ! ! beautiful ! ! !

*^ And amorous echoes talked along the ground."

" Amorous echoes " ! That is the finest thing I
have heard yet I

Jif. Kestrain your enthusiasm. After a short
digression, Miss Seward continues : " But to re-
sume, the botanic goddess and her enumeration of
the interesting employments of the third class of
nymphs, their disposal of those bright waters which
make Britain irriguous, verdant, and fertile."

B. Irriguous ?

M. Yes, irriguous; and I will, as Bardolph
says, " maintain the word with my sword to be a
good soldier-like word, and a word of exceeding
good command, by heaven ! " Irriguous, " that is
when a country is, as they say, irriguous, or when
a country is being whereby a ' may be thought to
be irriguous, which is an excellent thing." But


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to leave Bardolph and go on with Miss Seward :
" We find this beautiful couplet in the course of
the passage : —

'* * Ton with nice ear on tiptoe strains pervade
Dim walkd of mom or evening^s silent shade.' "

. B. " Tiptoe strains " is good.

M, Good ? Miss Seward does not only think it
good, — she cries out in her enthusiasm, — " What
an exquisite picture ! " I shall now only cite one
other passage, and then I will lend you the book
to read for yourself. And this shall be the de-
scription of a simoom, — or rather of Simoom, for
of course he is personified : —

'^ Arrest Simoom amid his waste of sand,
The poisoned javelin balanced in his hand :
Fierce on blue streams he rides the tainted air,
Points his keen eye, and waves his whistling hair;
While, as he turns, the undulating soil
Rolls in red waves and billowy deserts hoil,^'*

" This," says Miss Seward, " is a fine picture of
the Demon of Pestilence. The speed of his ap-
proach is marked by the strong current of air in
which he passed, and by the term ' whistling ' as
applied to his hair." There, I have done.

B. " Points his keen eye, and waves his whist-
ling hair." Magnificent! It's all very well to
talk about arresting Simoom, with his keen eye
pointed and his whistling hair, while billowy des-
erts are boiling round you ; but I distinctly de-
cline to make the attempt. What a subject for a
picture I In fact, what a series of pictures could
be made from this work I


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M, There is one couplet of Paine's — I am
sorry that it is the only one I can bring into defi-
nite form out of vague mists of my memory —
which is worthy of a place with some of these.
Such as it is I give it you. Some tremendous con-
vulsion of nature is anticipated by him for some
purpose, and he closes with these lines : —

^^ And the vast alcove of creation blaze,
Till nature's self the Vandal torch shoold raise/'

B. Did you ever read Barlow's " Columbiad,"
the great epic of the American Revolution ?

M. All of it ? Gott hewahr I I have read a
good deal of it, however, in pure amusement, but
it has aU gone out of my memory. But there is
no foolishness which is not to be found in verse,
and there is no verse so bad that it does not find

B. Do you remember in our young days a fel-
low who called himseU the Lynn bard ?

M. Perfectly, and he used to wander along the
shores of the iroXvtfiXoUrPoio tfaXcurtnys, and wildly
gesticulate to the winds and the sea, and wave his
whistling hair and point his keen eye, and pour
forth his feelings in verse. One of his poems, I
remember, commenced thus : —

" The moon was rising on the sea,
Round as the fruit of orange tree ;
I wandered forth to meet my dear ;
And found her sitting right down here."

B. And then there was a remarkable Southern
poet, over whose verses we used to " laugh con-
sumedly " in our university days.


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M, " By cock and pie, sir," I remember him
well. He was a tremendous Pistol, who never
would *' aggravate his choler " in verse, though, I
dare say, he was a quiet, peaceable gentleman
enough at home and in prose, with a " mellifluous
voice," and a " sweet and contagious man, i' faith."
A few of his verses still stick in my mind, and I
think —

B. Let us have them.

M. They are but few ; but let us not measure
quality by quantity, — numerantur nan ponderan-
tur. They are out of a long wild poem, not desti-
tute of a certain straggling untrained talent, though
mixed up with such fustian and folly that we used
to roar with laughter over them. Scene, midnight
— a wild stormy night — a lover in despair — he
goes to the window : —

'^ He raised the lattice, oped the blind,
He looked around, before, behind,
And when he heard the hinges skreak,
He thought it was his Lena^s shriek.

For Lena was divinely f lur.

But he had swapped her for despair/'

jB. That is a magnificent idea, — swapping your
lady-love for despair. And skreak is good, too, —
very good. " Good phrases are surely and ever
were very conmiendable."

M. And yet, after all, laugh as we may over
these absurdities, there is something melancholy in
the thought of the hours, months, and even years,
that were spent over these poems, — of the hopes,


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ambitions, which falsely cheered the authors as
they wrote, — of the amount of talent and toil
wasted upon them that was destined never to be
rewarded. Even in the midst of our laughter we
are almost tempted to weep over these abortive
efforts for the immortality of fame. Every jeer
of criticism is a deadly stab to hopes that were
sweet almost as life, — to ambitions which were
pure as they were foolish. When this thought
comes over one, criticism seems cruel, and our
laugh has a Satanic echo.

B. Don't get sentimental.

M. Do you remember that absurd statue of
Moses that stands over the fountain at the entrance
of the Piazza de' Termini ?

B. Oh, yes! that squat, broad, fierce -looking
figure swaddled in heavy draperies, and so stunted
that it seems to have no legs.

M, The same. Well, there is a story connected
with that, sad enough to make one pause before
uttering a savage jeer of criticism. The sculptor,
whose very name is fortunately buried in oblivion,
was young, enthusiastic, ambitious, and seM-reliant ;
and when the commission to make this statue was
given him, he boasted that he would model a Mo-
ses that should entirely eclipse that of Michael
Angelo. It was a foolish boast, but he was young
and ardent, and let us forgive him his boast.
Filled with a noble ambition to excel, he shut him-
seM up in his studio, and labored strenuously and
in secret on his work. At last it was finished, and


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the doors were thrown open to the public. But
instead of the full acclaim of Fame which he had
expected, he only heard reverberating from all
sides cries of derision and scorn, and, driven to
desperation and madness by this cruel shattering
of all his hopes, he rushed to the Tiber and
drowned himself.

B. So much the better, perhaps. We have
probably been saved some very bad statues ; and
we have more than enough of these already.

M. Don't sneer at him. Nothing is so easy as
to sneer. I call this only sad, and all the more
sad because the artist really had talent and power.
Absurd in many respects as this statue is, it shows
vigor and purpose. It does ^ot sin on the side of
weakness, but of exaggeration ; and time and
study would probably have tamed him down to
truth and nature. But the blow was too sudden
and he fell beneath it.

B. 'T is as Ulysses says : —

'* No man is the loid of anytihiiig,
Though in and of him there be much eonsistiiig,
TiU he communioate his parts to others.
Nor doth he in himself know them for angfat
TiQ he behold them formed in the applause
Where they 're extended, — which, like an arch, reverberates
The voice agsun, or like a gate of steel
Fronting the snn, receives and renders back
His figure and his heat."

M, And when that arch reverberates only the
cries of scorn, what wonder that a sensitive mind
goes mad?


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B. I believe that to most authors censure gives
more pain than praise does pleasure. The arrow
of fault-finding has a poisonous barb that rankles
in the wound it makes. One would have thought
that Voltaire had a rhinoceros epidermis in such
matters, — that, scomer and bitter critic as he was
himself, he would have accepted criticism on his
own works at least with calmness ; but Madame
de Graffigny says of him that he " was altogether
indifferent to praise, while the least word from his
enemies drove him crazy." Take again, among
many others who might be mentioned. Sir Walter
Scott. He tells us that he made it a rule never to
read an attack upon himseU; and Captain Hall,
quoting this statement, adds : " Praise, he says,
gives him no pleasure, and censure annoys him.'*
1 have known several distinguished authors in our
own day who refused to read any criticisms, favor-
able or otherwise, of their works ; and one who al-
ways fled the country when publishing a book.

M. Criticism is not certainly like —

*' The bat of Indian brakes,
Whose pinions fan the wound it makes ;
And soothing thus the dreamer's pain,
It sucks the life-blood from his yein."

You cannot expect any one to relish attacks on his
works, or criticism and fault-finding, however just.
Sir Walter found probably that censure of his
writings, while it gave him pain, did him no good,
as it always came too late. This with him, as with
many others, did not arise from any self-suiB-


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ciency, or oyer-estimate of himself and of what he
had achieved. In the Introduction to the ^^ Lady
of the Lake " he says : " As the celebrated John
Wilkes is said to have explained to his late Maj-
esty, that he himself, amid his full tide of popu-
larity, was never a Wilkite ; so can I with honest
truth exculpate myself from ever having been a
partisan of my own poetry, even when it was in
the highest fashion with the million."

B. StiU a man must believe in himseK, or he
will do nothing great. If he had no faith in his
work, there would be no sufficient spur and mo-
tive to do it.

M. While we are doing it, yes ; but after it is
done, no. One might as well fall in love with
one's own face as with one's own work. It is
astonishing, after it is done, how fiat, tame, and
unsatisfactory seem those passages which in the
writing seemed so lively, spirited, and clever.
There is always a terrible back-water after a thing
is done.

B. Perhaps. Yet authors generally seem to be
amazingly fond of their own works. As long as
you praise them, they pretend to be modest ; but
attack them, and they will start up to prove that
the very defects you point out constitute their
greatest merits.

M. What a wonderful worker Scott was ! In
quantity, to say nothing of quality, I know of no
English writer of his time who can be compared
with him ; though in later days others have


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equaled him in the number of their works. He
wrote, if I remember right, some ninety volumes.
Of these, forty-eight volumes of novels, and twenty-
one of history and biography, were produced be-
tween 1814 and 1831, or in about seventeen years ;
which alone would give an average of four vol-
mnes a year, or one for every three months. But,
besides these, he had already written twenty-one
volumes of poetry and prose, which had been pre-
viously published. And all this was done with
an ease which seems astonishing, leaving him time
to devote himself to society and all sorts of other
occupations. That marvelous hand was never
weary. The stream of fancy and invention never
ran dry. Temporary disease did not check his
inspiration, and one of his most striking works —
one, indeed, in which he touched perhaps the high-
est point of his genius, "The Bride of Lammer-
moor" — was dictated from a bed of sickness. Not
until paralysis had struck him down, and the hand
of death was on him, did that pen, which had so
long enchanted the world, drop from his hand.
And what a loss he was ! What possibilities of
joy and delight and feeling died with him, when
the splendid light of his genius, which had so long
shed its glory on Scotland, dropped below the hori-
zon ! But go where you will in that romantic land,
his genius still irradiates it. There is scarcely a
rock, or a crag, or a lake, a city, a town, or a vil-
lage, where his ideal creations do not live and walk
and breathe, more real than the actual men and


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women who tread the streets, or climb the fast-
nesses, or trample upon the heath of Scotland.

B. I am glad to hear you speak with such en-
thusiasm of him. It is the fashion, I fear, now
to rank him in literature far lower than he de-
serves : —

*'So oup virtues
Lie in the interpretation of the time.
One fire drives out one fire, one nail one nail/'

When he wrote he was almost alone in the field.
But literature has since swarmed with novelists,
and tastes have changed.

M, I don't know that they have altogether
changed for the better. Where is the "Great
Magician " to take his place ? For great magi-
cian he was ; and out of the realms of history and
of ideal regions beyond our ken, he had the art to
evoke beings of the past and of the imagination,
with whom to delight us. Over all the scenery of
Scotland he threw a veil of poetic enchantment.
He amused us with his rich humor, he excited us
with thrilling incidents, he painted with equal
facility the days of chivalry and the common life
of the people of his day. Some of the characters
he drew are living portraits, drawn with wonderful
truth to nature. What can be more admirable in
drawing than Andrew Fairservice, Edie Ochiltree,
Caleb Balderstone, the Antiquary Monkbarns,
Dugald Dalgetty, Mause and Cuddie Headrigg,
and a score of others in his comic gallery ? What
more touching and simple than Jeanie Deans?


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What more romantic than the Master of Ravens-
wood ? What more fanatically powerful than Bal-
four of Burley ? In his female heroines he was
less successful; and it is only exceptionally that
he gives us such spirited sketches as Di Vernon
and Kebecca. But in his secondary female char-
acters he is admirable, and in many of his men
masterly. To me, one of the most remarkable
figures he ever drew was that of Conachar. Noth-
ing could be more difficult than to provoke at
once pity, contempt, and sympathy for a coward.
Yet he has successfully achieved this feat ; and as
far as I can recollect, it is the sole instance in
English literature where such an attempt was ever
made. More than this, he has drawn two cowards
in this remarkable novel, — each quite different
from the other and contrasted with eminent skill
— the comic, swaggering, good-natured, fussy lit-
tle coward, Oliver Proudf ute, who provokes a per-
petual smile ; and the sullen, irritable, proud, and
revengeful coward, Conachar, whom we cannot but
pity, while we despise him, "The Fair Maid
of Perth " was always a favorite of mine. It has
perhaps more variety of interest, incident, and
characters than any he ever wrote, and it never
flags. Think of Ramomy, Rothesay, and Bon-
thron ; the sturdy smith, and his comic reflection
Proudfute ; Dwining the physician ; Simon Glover
the plain burgess ; Conachar the apprentice and
the chief of his clan, and his heroic foster-father,
who was ready to sacrifice life, family, everything


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for his weak-hearted foster-son. Think of the gay
morris-dancers ; the riot and recklessness of the
duke and his boon companions; the darkened
chamber of the mutilated Eamomy, and his grim
interview with Rothesay and Dwining; the glee-
woman at the castle, and the troubles of the hon-
est and fiery smith ; the pathetic death of the young
prince, and the silence and horror that is thrown
over it ; and the exciting, vivid, and bloody fray
of the clan Chattan and the clan Quhele, which is
epic in its character. What variety, what interest,
what excitement, there is throughout !

B. This novel was a favorite also of Goethe,
which it may give you satisfaction to know ; but
I do not think ordinarily that it is reckoned one of
Scott's best novels.

M. Tastes differ. I only speak for myself. I
always read it with pleasure.

B, You were speaking of the wonderful fertility
of his genius, and of the amount of work he did.
It is indeed surprising ; but in quantity he cannot
compare with Lope de Vega, who, I fancy, is the
most voluminous of all writers, and whose fertility
of creation and ease of execution seem simply mar-
velous. He left, it is said, no less than twenty-one
million three hundred thousand verses in print,
besides a mass of MSS. According to the account
of Montalvan, himself a voluminous writer and
the intimate friend of De Vega, he furnished the
theatre with eighteen hundred regular plays, and
four hundred autos or religious dramas. He him-


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self states that lie composed more than one hun-
dred comedies in the almost incredibly short space
of twenty-four hours each, each comedy averaging
between two and three thousand verses, a great
part of them rhymed and interspersed with sonnets
and difficult forms of versification. One would
suppose that this was enough for any man to do ;
but besides this, his time was occupied by various
other occupations than writing. Nor did he break
down under this labor ; on the contrary, he lived
to a good old age, dying when he was seventy-two,
and thoroughly enjoying life. Supposing him to
have given fifty years of his life to composition
alone, he must have averaged a play a week, with-
out taking into consideration twenty-one volumes
quarto, seven miscellaneous works, including five
epics, all of which are in print.

M, The quantity is overpowering ; but the qual-
ity, how is that ?

B. Kemarkably good, considering the quantity.
They had great success when they were written,
though tastes have changed, and only very few of
them still keep possession of the stage in Spain.
Montalvan tells rather an amusing story about one
of these plays. It seems that he himself once under-
took, in connection with Lope, to furnish the thea-
tre with a comedy at very short notice : accordingly
he rose at two o'clock in the morning in order to get
through with his half of the play, and by eleven
o'clock he had completed it. When one considers
that a play ordinarily covered from thirty to forty


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pages, each of one hundred lines, this seems an
extraordinary feat in itself, exhibiting at least im-
mense facility. Six lines a minute is about as
fast as one can easily write, merely mechanically ;
and to achieve this feat Montalvan must have
averaged this number every minute for nine hours,
with no pause for invention or hesitation. Having
finished his work, he went down to walk in the
garden, and there found his brother poet Lope
pruning an orange-tree. " Well, how did you get
on ? " said he. " Very well," answered Lope ; " I
arose early, at about five, and after I had finished
my work I ate my breakfast ; since then I have
written a letter of fifty triplets, and watered the
whole garden, which has tired me a good deal."
What do you say to that ?

M, I don't believe it; I don't think, merely
mechanically, it would be possible. This would
have required him to write nine lines a minute, and
there are very few persons who can copy five lines,
though word for word it be read out to them, in
that space of time. I write very fast, and it takes
me that time to write seven ; I have tried it.

B, I merely repeat the story of Montalvan, and
I suppose many of the lines are very short ; he
may have used shorthand.

M. That alone could in my belief have made
it possible. Such excessive production must, how-
ever, lead to mannerism and repetition. The
mind requires fallow times of leisure between its
harvests. The stream finally runs shallow if too
much be constantly drawTi from it.


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B, One cannot give absolute rules in such cases.
Genius is with some a perennial spring, which
never runs dry ; with others it is a petroleum well,
which suddenly goes out; but with the highest
minds it is like a light which is not spent with

M. A bad comparison, for the light itself con-
sumes the candle.

B. Aj& the mind consimies the flesh, but not
itself. But since you object to my figures of
speech, let me call in Shakespeare to help me : —

^^ Our poesy is as a gnm which oozes
From whence 't is nourished : the fire in the flint
Shows not till it he stmck ; onr gentle flame
Provokes itself, and, like the current, flies
Each honnd it chafes. *'

Shallow minds fall soon into mannerism, but great
minds are not to be bounded by old limits. They
overflow their banks in times of fullness, and go
ever on, enlarging and deepening their currents.
Besides, does not one's mind strengthen as much
as one's muscles by constant practice ? Does not
lying fallow often mean merely being idle ? Does
not mannerism arise rather from laziness of pur-
pose than limitation of faculties ? Of course one
cannot be original to order, — even to one's own
order ; but does doing nothing for a time help us ?
M. I have no doubt it does. Does it not
strengthen one to sleep ? But, by the way, I see
that in the quotation you have just made from
Shakespeare you have adopted Pope's emendations


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