Miss Barrett’s Poems.

From: Papers on Literature and Art (1846)
Author: S. Margaret Fuller
Published: Wiley and Putnam 1846 New York




  WHAT happiness for the critic when, as in the present instance, his task is, mainly, how to express a cordial admiration; to indicate an intelligence of beauties, rather than regret for defects!

  We have read these volumes with feelings of delight far warmer than the writer, in her sincerely modest preface, would seem to expect from any reader, and cannot hesitate to rank her, in vigour and nobleness of conception, depth of spiritual experience, and command of classic allusion, above any female writer the world has yet known.

  In the first quality, especially, most female writers are deficient. They do not grasp a subject with simple energy, nor treat it with decision of touch. They are, in general, most remarkable for delicacy of feeling, and brilliancy or grace in manner.

  In delicacy of perception, Miss Barrett may vie with any of her sex. She has what is called a true woman’s heart, although we must believe that men of a fine conscience and good organization will have such a heart no less. Signal instances occur to us in the case of Spenser, Wordsworth and Tennyson. The woman who reads them will not find hardness or blindness as to the subtler workings of thoughts and affections.

  If men are often deficient on this score; women, on the other hand, are apt to pay excessive attention to the slight tokens, the little things of life. Thus, in conduct or writing, they tend to weary us by a morbid sentimentalism. From this fault Miss Barrett is wholly free. Personal feeling is in its place; enlightened by Reason, ennobled by Imagination. The earth is no despised resting place for the feet, the heaven bends wide above, rich in starry hopes, and the air flows around exhilarating and free.

  The mournful, albeit we must own them tuneful, sisters of the lyre might hush many of their strains at this clear note from one who has felt and conquered the same difficulties.


“Experience,’ like a pale musician, holds
A dulcimer of patience in his hand:
Whence harmonies we cannot understand
Of God’s will in his worlds the strain unfolds,
In sad perplexed minors. Deathly colds
Fall on us while we hear and countermand
Our sanguine heart back from the fancy land,
With nightingales in visionary wolds.
We murmur— ‘Where is any certain tune,
Or measured music in such notes as these?’
But angels leaning from the golden seat,
Are not so minded; their fine ear hath won
The issue of completed cadences;
And smiling down the stars, they whisper—SWEET.”

  We are accustomed now to much verse on moral subjects, such as follows the lead of Wordsworth and seeks to arrange moral convictions as melodies on the harp. But these tones are never deep, unless the experience of the poet, in the realms of intellect and emotion, be commensurate with his apprehension of truth. Wordsworth moves us when he writes an “Ode to Duty,” or “Dion,” because he could also write “Ruth” and the exquisitely tender poems on Matthew, in whom nature

“—for a favorite child
Had tempered so the clay,
That every hour the heart ran ‘Wild,
Yet never went astray.”

  The trumpet call of Luther’s ‘Judgment Hymn’ sounds from the depths of a nature capable of all human emotions, or it could not make the human ear vibrate as it does. The ca1m convictions expressed by Miss Barrett in the sonnets come with poetic force, because she was also capable of writing ‘The Lost Bower,’ ‘The Romaunt of the Page,’ ‘Loved Once,’ ‘Bertha in the Lane,’ and’ A Lay of the Early Rose.’ These we select as the finest of the tender poems.

  In the ‘Drama of Exile’ and the ‘Vision of Poets,’ where she aims at a Miltonic flight or Dantesque grasp—not in any spirit of rivalry or imitation, but because she is really possessed of a similar mental scope—her success is far below what we find in the poems of feeling and experience; for she has the vision of a great poet, but little in proportion of his plastic power. She is at home in the Universe; she sees its laws; she sympathises with its motions. She has the imagination all compact—the healthy archetypal plant from which all forms may be divined, and, so far as now existent, understood. Like Milton, she sees the angelic hosts in real presence; like Dante, she hears the spheral concords and shares the planetary motions. But she cannot, like Milton, marshal the angels so near the earth as to impart the presence other than by sympathy. He who is near her level of mind may, through the magnetic sympathy, see the angels with her. Others will feel only the grandeur and sweetness she expresses in these forms. Still less can she, like Dante, give, by a touch, the key which enables ourselves to play on the same instrument. She is singularly deficient in the power of compression. There are always far more words and verses than are needed to convey the meaning, and it is a great proof of her strength, that the thought still seems strong, when arrayed in a form so Briarean clumsy and many-handed.

  We compare her with those great poets, though we have read her preface and see how sincerely she deprecates any such comparison, not merely because her theme is the same as theirs, but because, as we must again repeat, her field of vision and nobleness of conception are such, that we cannot forbear trying her by the same high standard to see what she lacks.

  Of the “Drama of Exile” and other poems of the same character, we may say that we shall never read them again, but we are very glad to have read them once, to see how the grand mysteries look to her, to share with her the conception and outline of what would, in the hands of a more powerful artist, have come forth a great poem. Our favorite, above anything we have read of hers, is the “Rhyme of the Duchess May,” equally admirable in thought and execution, in poetic meaning and romantic grace.

  Were there room here, it should be inserted, as a sufficient evidence of the writer’s high claims; but it is too long, and does not well bear being broken. The touches throughout are fine and forcible, but they need the unison of the whole to give them their due effect.

  Most of these poems have great originality in the thought and the motive powers. It is these, we suppose, that have made “The Brown Rosarie” so popular. It has long been handed about in manuscript, and hours have been· spent in copying it, which would have been spared if the publication of these volumes in America had been expected so soon. It does not please us so well as many of the others. The following, for instance, is just as original, full of grace, and, almost, perfectly simple:


  How sweetly natural! and how distinct is the picture of the little girl, as she sits by the brook. The poem cannot fail to charm all who have treasured the precious memories of their own childhood, and remember how romance was there interwoven with reality.

  Miss Barrett makes many most fair and distinct pictures, such as this of the Duchess May at the fatal moment when her lord’s fortress was giving way:

Low she dropt her head and lower, till her hair coiled on the floor.
Toll slowly!
And tear after tear you heard, fall distinct as any word
Which you might be listening for.
“Get thee in, thou soft ladie!—here is never a place for thee.”
Toll slowly!
“Braid thy hair and clasp thy gown, that thy beauty in its moan
May find grace with Leigh of Leigh.”
She stood up in bitter case, with a pale yet steady face,
Toll slowly!
Like a statue thunderstruck, which, though quivering, seems to look
Right against the thunder-place,
And her feet trod in, with pride, her own tears i’ the stone beside.*
Toll slowly!
Go to, faithful friends, go to!—Judge no more what ladies do,
No, nor how their lords may ride.

and so on. There are passages in that poem beyond praise.

  Here are descriptions as fine of another sort of person from


Her foot upon the new-mown grass—bareheaded—with the flowing
Of the virginal white vesture, gathered closely to her throat;
With the golden ringlets in her neck, just quickened by her going,
And appearing to breathe sun for air, and doubting if to float,—

With a branch of dewy maple, which her right hand held above her,
And which trembled a green shadow in betwixt her and the skies,—
As she turned her face in going, thus she drew me on to love her,
And to study the deep meaning of the smile hid in her eyes.

For her eyes alone smiled constantly: her lips had serious sweetness,
And her front was calm—the dimple rarely rippled on her cheek:
But her deep blue eyes smiled constantly,—as if they had by fitness
Won the secret of a happy dream, she did not care to speak.

  How fine are both the descriptive and critical touches in the following passage:

Ay, and sometimes on the hill-side, while we sat down in the gowans,
With the forest green behind us, and its shadow cast before;
And the river running under; and across it, from the rowens,
A brown 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 Spencer—or the subtle interflowings
Found in Petrarch’s sonnets—here’s the book—the leaf is folded down!

Or at times a modem volume—Wordsworth’s solemn-thoughted idyl,
Howitt’s ballad-dew, or Tennyson’s god-vocal reverie,—
Or from Browning some “Pomegranate,” which, if cut deep down the middle,
Shows a heart within, blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity,

Or I read there, sometimes, hoarsely, some new poem of my making—
Oh, your poets never read their own best verses to their worth,
For the echo, in you, breaks upon the words which you are speaking,
And the chariot-wheels jar in the gate through which you drive them forth.

After, when we were grown tired of books, the silence round us flinging
A slow arm of sweet compression, felt with beatings at the breast,—
She would break out, on a sudden, in a gush of woodland singing,
Like a child’s emotion in a god—a naiad tired of rest.

Oh, to see or hear her singing! scarce I know which is divinest—
For her looks sing too—she modulates her gestures on the tune;
And her mouth stirs with the song, like song; and when the notes are finest,
‘Tis the eyes that shoot out vocal light, and seem to swell them on.

Then we talked—oh, how we talked! her voice so cadenced in the talking,
Made another singing—of the soul! a music without bars—
While the leafy sounds of woodlands, humming round where we were walking,
Brought interposition worthy-sweet,—as skies about the stars.

And she spake such good thoughts natural, as if she always thought them.—
And had sympathies so ready, open-free like bird on branch,
Just as ready to fly cast as west, which ever way besought them,
In the birchen wood a chirrup, or a cock-crow in the grange.

In her utmost lightness there is truth—and often she speaks lightly;
And she has a grace in being gay, which mourners even approve;
For the roots of some grave earnest thought is understruck so rightly,
As to justify the foliage and the waving flowers above.”

  We must copy yet one other poem to give some idea of the range of Miss Barrett’s power.


  If it be said that the poetry, the tragedy here is in the facts, yet how rare is it to find a mind that can both feel and upbear such facts.

  We have already said, that, as a poet, Miss Barrett is deficient in plastic energy, and that she is diffuse. We must add many blemishes of overstrained and constrained thought and expression. The ways in which words are coined or forced from their habitual meanings does not carry its excuse with it. We find no gain that compensates the loss of elegance and simplicity. One practice which has already had its censors of using the adjective for the noun, as in the cases of “The cry of the Human,” “Leaning from the Golden,” we, also, find offensive, not only to the habitual tastes, but to the sympathies of the very mood awakened by the writer.

  We hear that she has long been an invalid, and, while the knowledge of this increases admiration for her achievements and delight at the extent of the influence,—so much light flowing from the darkness of the sick room,—we seem to trace injurious results, too. There is often a want of pliant and glowing life. The sun does not always warm the marble. We have spoken of the great book culture of this mind. We must now say that this culture is too great in proportion to that it has received from actual life. The lore is not always assimilated to the new form; the illustrations sometimes impede the attention rather than help its course; and we are too much and too often reminded of other minds and other lives.

  Great variety of metres are used, and with force and facility. But they have not that deep music which belongs to metres which are the native growth of the poet’s mind. In that case, others may have used them, but we feel that, if they had not, he must have invented them; that they are original with him. Miss Barrett is more favoured by the grand and thoughtful, than by the lyric muse.

  We have thus pointed out all the faults we could .find in Miss Barrett, feeling that her strength and nobleness deserves this act of high respect. She has no need of leniency, or caution. The best comment upon such critiques may be made by subjoining this paragraph from her Preface:

  “If it were not presumptuous language on the lips or one to whom life is more than usually uncertain, my favourite wish for this work would be, that it be received by the public as a deposite, ambitious of approaching to the nature of a security for a future offering of more value and acceptability. I would fain do better, and I feel as if I might do better: I aspire to do better. In any case, my poems, while full of faults, as I go forward to my critics and confess, have my life and heart in them. They are not empty shells. If it must be said or me that I have contributed unworthy verses, I also to the many rejected by the age, it cannot, at least be said that I have done so in a light or irresponsible spirit. Poetry has been as serious a thing to me as life itself; and life has been a very serious thing; there has been no playing at skittles for me in either. I never mistook pleasure for the final cause of poetry; nor leisure, for the hour of the poet. I have done my work, so far, as work; not as mere hand and head work apart from the personal being, but as the completest expression of that being to which I could attain; and, as work, I offer it to the public, feeling its faultiness more deeply than any of my readers, because measured from the height of my aspiration, but feeling also that the reverence and sincerity with which the work was done should protect it in the thoughts of the reverent and sincere.”

  Of the greatest of Grecian sages it was said that he acquired such power over the lower orders of nature, through his purity and intelligence, that wild beasts were abashed and reformed by his admonitions, and that, once, when walking abroad with his disciples, he called down the white eagle, soaring above him, and drew from her willing wing a quill for his use.

  We have seen women use with skill and grace, the practical goose-quill, the sentimental crow-quill, and even the lyrical, the consecrated feathers of the swan. But we have never seen one to whom the white eagle would have descended; and, for a while, were inclined to think that the hour had now, for the first time, arrived. But, upon full deliberation, we will award to Miss Barrett one from the wing of the sea-gull. That is also a white bird, rapid, soaring, majestic, and which can alight with ease, and poise itself upon the stormiest wave.

* Several poems mentioned in these articles, and published in the first instance, are omitted now on account of their length.

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