Page images
PDF
EPUB

taken precedence of the intellectual principle in their poetry? No one can deny, that, with the same mental energy at work, and under the precedence referred to, there certainly would have been nothing to diminish it. In both cases the poet would have been so much greater as the man had been better. The triumph had been contemporaneous and parallel. But we pass to another consideration.

Under the direction of a good taste, simplicity is undoubt. edly a virtue of good poetry. But we hold it not to be the cardinal one to which some would elevate it. As an ingredient it has its value ; but when the higher properties of the composition are made subservient to it, there is great danger of failure. Manliness and power should never wait upon simplicity. As it is, indeed, it is a fault, and a childish one, we conceive, among some of the poetic brotherhood on this side the water. Cowper, on the other, may be said to have set the example of the plain, domestic poetry of modern days. But since his time, the mania, that in him was delightful, has spread, gathering sad symptoms, until it has passed from the character of simple-hearted to that of simple-headed ; until, indeed, it has degenerated, in some instances, from pure simplicity, to something worse than weakness—to folly, and almost to grossness. Now this is the joint effect of a proneness to imitate English standards-of a mistaken notion in the writers themselves, and of public opinion—that is, so far as criticism may be said to express it. This inclination to imitate is so evident, we believe, with a great portion of our native writers, that we think it would be idle to go gravely to work to prove it. We mean to be understood that the imitation of which we here speak, has been of what will one day be decried--if they are not already-as the very worst faults of the originals. Of high and commanding models we cannot have too much imitation, if that may be called such which is but a sympathetic expression of strong mind in strong language. In the great features of power, all great writers will have a resemblance-and, so far as this is concerned, it is no imitation. It is coincidence.

In some instances among ourselves, our bards have mis. taken the spirit of simplicity altogether; or, if they have not mistaken it, they have, like some of their prototypes, suffered themselves to commit divers poetical felonies, under the name. We too frequently meet extreme quaintness, or a

of what taphysical who wompany w again

thing abghts."

train of thought teeming with improbable devices, or bad conclusions. But the writer tells us this is simplicity. Again, we are struck with the degree of quietness that marks his style-perchance it may be sleepiness ; there seems to be a continual aim at suppression of thought, as though it were unrefined to give it play—as some men hold it so, to be natural and hearty in society. But the author tells us again, this is simplicity. Once more, we fall in company with one who travels perpetually in a mist; who loses himself and his readers in his own metaphysical labyrinth ; who torments us with a display of what Mr. Pollock calls merely the "tops of thoughts." And here our only consolation is that every thing about us is simplicity.

Genuine simplicity is not that of a person striving to be simple. It is not the simplicity of a heart unacquainted with the world and its trials. It is the expressive singleness of a mind accustomed to linger with the grandeur and power of the natural and intellectual worlds, and using its experience of the sorrows that lie beneath them, to regulate its emotions, or to “point the moral” it would enforce. To this delicate endowment one great charm of good poetry must be attributed_always and everywhere. It influences, not only in the choice of thought, but in the choice of language, in the happy perception of which, as appropriate to sentiment, we may observe, lies the grand secret of much-very much-that is graceful and admirable in poetry. It is a commanding quality; and, we apprehend, not fully appreciated. It is the only redeeming quality of that work which is exceptionable in its spirit, and the beauty and enchantment of that which is honorable to the artist. It is next to genius, and, on every occasion, its most effective minister. In short, it is in composition, what conscience is in morals—keeping the writer ever within the bounds of propriety, or at least of good taste; and operating as a continual rebuke, whenever he is inclined to swerve from purity and harmony of expression.

A more material change has not accompanied human improvement, than that which literature has undergone from one period to another; and in no one department of literature has it been more striking or effectual than in poetry—the poetry of our own day. View writing at large, and instead of the mystical and labored style that ran through the best pro

ductions of earlier times, and which, moreover, was so accordant with the comparative seclusion and silence of letters, we now hear both the philosopher and the elegant scholar delivering themselves with that free and graceful expression which so well comports with the liberal character of the age; while as to poetry, a popular air has been breathed into the best works of the best writers, imparting to them a freshness and meaning that come home with the attractiveness of domestic story to all who are capable of any intellectual delight. Poetry, we may be suffered to repeat it, has become a part of our lives. It has, in a sense, conformed itself to our conditions, and it speaks to us in the direct language of an acquaintance, who has been accustomed to unfold to us freely, at all times, and in all places. Divested of the heroics and the pomp with which it once awed and overshadowed the children of men, it now comes to us like a kind but superior spirit, enlivening, beguiling, instructing us, amidst the offices and sympathies of life. This is the true character of poetry. It is the character of the genuine poetry of the present day. Let us not be misunderstood. We would not qualify any of our preceding remarks. They refer to no such poetry as we refer to here—the poetry of the unchastened and fearless spirit—the poetry which stirs while it blesses us--the poetry that carries all its persuasiveness, without relinquishing any of its power. It may be said that we lay great stress upon this quality of strength. We do SO; but not more than it deserves; and we do so because there is a disposition to make it a secondary affair in poetical composition. With those who hold this doctrine we utterly disagree ; and whenever poetry departs from its primitive and natural dignity, to become the medium of ephemeral fancies, or the minister to a sickly taste, we hold that it has no longer a claim to the title. Genius disowns it

for ever.

[ocr errors]

If it be true that public opinion may sometimes happily interfere to correct or modify the works of art, it is equally certain that its interference may go far, under some form or other, to injure or destroy them. There are traits of nature too closely allied to the most accomplished efforts of mind, ever to yield to the artificial requisitions of society. What would we think of the sculptor who should bring us forth a slatue robed in the fashion of our drawing-rooms, and call

it the true Apollo-the very Belvidere? The truth is, these traits need never be, they never must be surrendered. There exists no necessity for their surrender, as there does in politics for the relinquishment of individual natural rights, for the good of the whole body. They are the holy things of nature—thrice holy in poetry-which, if once associated with what is uncongenial or irrelevant, lose their virtue and their beauty ; and the work they were thought to adorn, is miserably and utterly destroyed.

We think it cannot have escaped even passing observation, that there is a class of people who profess to be great admirers of poetry, and many of whom assume to be its critical high priests and dissectors, who would set aside the hallowed inspiration of the poet, in favor of elaborateness or mere stratagerns of style. With them, finish, polish, is every thing; and the greater the degree of attenuation the better. Now, did we believe that public sentiment on this subject was to be met by such a profanation of the high offices of poetry, we should say, indeed, that the sublime art was approaching a fearful crisis. But the hallelujahs of partisans do not constitute public sentiment. The reading public demands no such relinquishment; and the doctrines of those critics who would make poets so unfaithful to themselves and their divinity, by maintaining this system of poetical mechanics by encouraging them in it, and praising them for it, under the grave sanction of a review, totally misrepresent the prevailing feeling of the community in this maiter. Doubiless the spirit of poetry has been outraged by the very means which mistaken heads and unskilful hands have used, to give it a direction, and to propound to it rules and proprieties. Still we believe that this same spirit, though circulating among grosser materials, is yet virtually unsullied; that it still holds ils wizzard power undisputed, though not untroubled. We have only to lament that in its nearer companionship with man, it has to endure the unsatisfying things which sometimes mark the propinquity. But we hope for a good issue-We believe in it." Better were it, indeed, that poetry, and the spirit of poetry, should pass from the world, than suffer the continued shame of such sacrifice as this to which we have alluded ; and we would willingly forego, for ever, the delight of realizing it when in its purity, like some sweet friend, going abroad with us in our wanderings,

and again returning to make glad our hearts and hearths, rather than see it casting away its nobler properties, to conform itself to the childish and morbid tastes of those who cannot appreciate its hidden power, or its better attributes ; who, calling themselves its judges, are nothing but its bane. Rather would we, than witness such abasement, be compelled to seek it in the blind old masters of antiquity-rather be driven back, to see it again, like jewels in a casket, locked in the shrine of the idolized men who ruled and rejoiced the simple but strong hearts of their hearers, in earlier, but in this respect, better times.

In leaving this part of our subject, we would observe, in reference to the spirit of criticism, that it is one of the strong enemies which poetry is doomed to encounter. The evil, too, of the sad condition of criticism, as connected with much of our literature, does not seem to be understood or appreciated. It leads to bad results, through its superficial and stereotyped character-bad both to the author, and to the journal which exhibits and encourages it. It is of miserable, sickly effect upon the author; because, in nine cases out of ten, being but an outside, unequal, unjust process of praise or execration, it begets in that author either ungraceful and ungodly vanity, or an undue, cruel, sinking mortification. Either of these consequences, where ill-feeling, ill-judgment, or bad taste bring them about, is of the worst kind, as opposed to all good exertion, in the good and wide cause of valuable literature. The evil is also of bad effect upon the journal which practises upon and spreads it ; for it eventually exposes it to the charges of shallowness and partiality, while it renders its pages but a · ridiculous exponent of our country's literature, with all minds at home and abroad, whose good opinion is its most valuable possession and support.

It is vain to think of a healthy literature, while we are under the ban of a sickly criticism. Worth, under this regimen, is rarely assigned its place in public opinion ; while indifferent claims are too often allowed the force of the best, and he who presents them is put in the seat of honorable distinction, which talent and genius of nobler bearing ought alone to fill. True, it may be said that all this does not touch the vitality of the case. The scholar is no less a scholar that he is not within the ring of Mr. Oldbuck's Re

« PreviousContinue »