Festus: A Poem . . .

FESTUS: A Poem, by PHILIP JAMES BAILEY, Barrister at Law, First American, from the second English Edition. Boston: Benjamin B. Mussey, 1845. —For sale at Redfield’s.

  We are right glad to see this beloved stranger domesticated among us. Yet there are queer little circumstances that herald the introduction. The Poet is a Barrister at Law!—well! it is always worthy note when a man is not hindered by study of human law from knowledge of divine; which last is all that concerns the Poet. Then the Preface to the American edition closes with this discreet remark: “It is perfectly SAFE to pronounce it (the poem) one of the most powerful and splendid productions of the age.” Dear New-England! how purely that was worthy thee, region where the tyranny of public opinion is carried to a perfection of minute scrutiny beyond what it ever was before in any age or place, though the ostracism be administered with the mildness and refinement fit for this age. Dear New-England! yes! it is safe to say that the poem is good; whatever Mrs. Grundy may think, she will not have it burned by the hangman if it is not. But it may not be discreet, because she can, if she sees fit, exile its presence from book-stores, libraries, centre-tables, and all mention of its existence from lips polite, and of thine also, who hast dared to praise it, on peril of turning all surrounding eyes to lead by its utterance. This kind of gentle excommunication thou mayst not be prepared to endure, O Preface-writer! And we should greatly fear that thou wert deceived in thy fond security, for “Festus” is a bold book—in respect of freedom of words, a boldest book—also it reveals the solitudes of hearts with unexampled sincerity and remorselessly lays bare human nature in its naked truth—but for the theology of the book. That may save it, and none the less for all it shows of the depravity of human nature. It is through many pages and leaves what is technically praised as “a serious book.” A friend went into a book-store to select presents for persons with whom she was about to part, and among other things requested the shopman to “show her some serious books in handsome binding.” He looked into several, and then, struck by passages here and there, offered her the “Letters of Lady M. W. Montague”!! She assuring him that it would not be safe to make use of this work, he offered her a miniature edition of Shakespeare, as “a book containing many excellent things, though you had to wade through a great deal of rubbish to get at them.”

  We fear the reader will have to wade through a great deal of rubbish in “Festus” before he gets at the theology. However, there it is, in sufficient quantities to give dignity to any book. In seriousness, it may compete with Pollok’s “Course of Time.” In “splendor and power,” we feel ourselves safe in saying that, as sure as the sun shines, it cannot be outdone in the English tongue thus far, short of Milton. So there is something for all classes of readers, and we hope it will get to their eyes, albeit Boston books are not likely to be detected by all eyes to which they belong.

  The print and form of the book are not quite what we could wish; the volume is too thick, the margins too narrow. The inner margin is so narrow as to be no less inconvenient than ugly; this is a frequent fault; see, for instance, the lately published volume of Dr. Arnold’s Lectures. But we don’t care for Lectures; they are every-day affairs that may go about in coarse omnibus garb; but poetry that is poetry, deserves to be read in letters of gold and fire and, wanting that, in the largest fairest type, and on the best paper. The words hardly seem the same here as in the beautiful English edition of Pickering.

  With regard to the scope of the book, we cannot do better than by giving extracts from the Proem:

“Without all fear, without presumptions, he
Who wrote this work would speak respecting it
A few brief words, and face his friend, the world;
Revising, not reversing, what hath been.

Poetry is itself a thing of God;
He made His prophets poets; and the more
We feel of poesie do we become
Like God in love and power—under-makers.
All great lays, equals to the minds of men,
Deal more or less with the Divine, and have
For end some good of mind or soul of man.
The mind is this world’s, but the soul is God’s;
The wise man joins them here all in his power.
The high and holy works, mid lesser lays,
Stand up like churches among the village cots;
And it is joy to to think that in every age,
However much the world was wrong therein,
The greatest works of mind and hand have been
Done unto God. So may they ever be!
It shows the strength of wish we have to be great,
And the sublime humility of might.

True fiction hath in it a higher end
Than fact; it is the possible compared
With what is merely positive, and gives
To the conceptive soul an inner world,
A higher, ampler Heaven than that wherein
The nations sun themselves. In that bright state
Are met the mental creatures of the men
Whose names are writ highest on the rounded crown
Of Fame’s triumphal arch; the shining shapes
Which star the skies of that invisible land,
Which, whosoe’er would enter, let him learn;
’T is not enough to draw forms fair and lovely,
Their conduct likewise must be beautiful;
A hearty holiness must crown the work,
As a gold cross the minister dome, and show,
Like that instonement of Divinity
That the whole building doth belong to God.
* * * * * * *
Other bards draw men dressed
In manners, customs, forms, appearances,
Laws, places, times, and countless accidents
Of peace or polity: to him these are not;
He makes no mention, takes no count of them;
* * * * The life-writ of a heart,
Whose firmest prop and highest meaning was
The hope of serving God as poet priest,
And the belief that he would not put back
Love-offerings, though brought to Him by hands
Unclean and earthly, even as fallen man’s
Must be; and most of all, the thankful show
Of His high power and goodness in redeeming
And blessing souls that love Him, spite of sin
And their old earthy strain—these are the aims,
The doctrines, truths, and staples of the story.
’T is the bard’s aim to show the mind-made world
Without, within; how the soul stands with God,
And the unseen realities about us.
It is a view of life spiritual
And earthly. Let all look upon it, then,
In the same light it was drawn and colored in;
In faith, in that the writer too hath faith,
Albeit an effect, and not a cause.
Faith is a higher faculty than reason,
Though of the brightest power of revelation;
As the snow-headed mountain rises o’er
The lightening, and applies itself to Heaven,
We know in day-time there are stars about us,
Just as by night, and name them what and where
By sight of science; so by faith we know,
Although we may not see them till our night,
That spirits are about us, and believe,
That, to a spirit’s eye, all Heaven may be
As full of angels as a beam of light
Of motes. As spiritual, it shows all
Classes of life, perhaps, above our kind,
Known to tradition, reason, or God’s word—
As earthly it embodies most the life
Of youth, its powers, its aims, its deeds, its failings;
And, as a sketch of world-life, it begins
And ends, and rightly, in Heaven, and with God;
While Heaven is also in the midst thereof.

God, or all good, the evil of the world,
And man, wherein are both, are each displayed.
The mortal is the model of all men,
The foibles, follies, trials, sufferings—
And manifest and manifold are they—
Of a young, hot unworld-schooled heart that has
Had its own way in life, and wherein all
May see some likeness of their own—’tis these
Attract, unite, and sun-like, concentrate
The ever-moving system of our feelings.
The hero is the world-man, in whose heart
One passion stands for all, the moss indulged,
The scene wherein he plays his part are life,
A sphere whose centre is co-heavenly
With its divine original and end.
Like life, too, as a whole, the story hath
A moral, and each scene one, as in life—
One universal and peculiar truth
Shining upon it like the quiet moon,
Illustrating the obscure, the unequal earth;
And though these scenes may seem to careless eyes
Irregular and rough and unconnected,
Like to the stones at Stonehenge, though convolved,
And in primeval mystery, still an use,
A meaning, and a purpose may be marked
Among them of a temple reared to God:
The meaning alway dwelling in the word,
In secret sanctity, like a golden toy
’Mid Beauty’s orbed bosom. Scenes of earth
And Heaven are mixed, as flesh and soul in man.

Thus much then for this book. It aims to mark
The various beliefs as well as doubts
Which hold or search by turns the mind of youth
Unresting any where. Its heresies,
If such they be, are charitable ones.
* * * * * * *
All rests with those who read. A work or thought
Is what each makes it to himself, and may
Be full of great dark meanings, like the sea,
With shoals of life rushing; or like the air,
Benighted with the wing of the wild dove,
Sweeping miles broad o’er the far western woods,
With mighty glimpses of the central light,
Or may be nothing—bodiless, spiritless.

  These verses are no fair specimen of the poem. They are written since that great time of inspiration had passed, and seem indeed more like mere re-vision; the prose after-thought of the Poet. Yet they are true to the scope of the book, and hold to it the same relation that good criticism by another, but congenial mind, would.

  To ourselves the theology of this writer, and the conscious design of the poem have little interest—They seem to us, like the color of his skin and hair, the result of the circumstances under which he was born. Certain opinions came in his way early, and became part of the body of his thought. But what interests us is not these, but what is deepest, universal, the Soul of that body. To us the poem is

*  * “full of great dark meanings like the sea,
*  * shoals of life rushing,

and it is these, the deep experiences and inspirations of the immortal Man that engage us.

  Even the Proem shows how large is his nature, its most careless utterance full of grandeur, its tamest, of bold nobleness. This that truly engages us, he spoke of more forcibly when the book first went forth to the world:

“Read this World. He who writes is dead to thee,
But still lives in these leaves. He spake inspired;
Night and day, thought came unhelped, undesired,
Like blood to his heart. The course of study he
Went through was of the soul-rack. The degree
He took was high: it was wise wretchedness.
He suffered perfectly, and gained no less
A prize than, in his own torn heart, to see
A few bright seeds; he sowed them, hoped them truth.
The autumn of that seed is in these pages.”

  Such is, in our belief, the true theologian, the learner of God, who does not presumptuously expect at this period of growth to bind down all that is to be known of divine things in a system, a set of words, but considers that he is only spelling the first lines of a work, whose perusal shall last him through eternity. Such an one is not in a hurry to declare that the riddles of Fate and of Time are solved; for he knows it is not calling them so that will make them so. His soul does not decline the great and persevering labors that are to develope its energies. He has faith to study day by day.—Such is the practice of the author of Festus, whenever he is truly great. When he shows to us the end and plan of all things, we feel that he only hides them from us. He speaks only his wishes. But when he tells us of what he does really know, the moods and aspirations of fiery youth to which all things are made present in foresight and foretaste—when he shows us the temptations of the lonely soul pining for knowledge, but unable to feel the love that alone can bestow it, then he is truly great, and the strings of life thrill oftentimes to their sublimest, sweetest music.

  We admire in this author the unsurpassed force and distinctness with which he casts out single thoughts and images. Each is thrown before us fresh, deep in its impress as if just snatched from the forge. We admire not less his vast flow, his sustained flight. His is a rich and spacious genius; it gives us room; it is a palace home: we need not economise our joys; blest be the royalty that welcomes us so freely.

  In simple transposition of the thought from the mind to the paper, that wonder even rarer than perfect, that is simple, expression through the motions of the body of the motions of the soul, we dare to say no writer excels him. Words are no veil between us and him, but a luminous cloud that upbears ns borh together.

  So in touches of nature, in the tones of passion; he is absolute. There is nothing better, where it is good; we have the very thing itself.

  We are told by the critics that he has no ear, and, indeed, when we listen for such, we perceive blemishes enough in the movement of his line. But we did not perceive it before, more than when the Æolian was telling the secrets of that most spirit-like minister of Nature that bloweth where it listeth, and no man can trace it, we should attempt to divide the tones and pauses into regular bars, and be disturbed when we could not make a tune.

  England has only two poets now that can be named near him, (with the exception of Wordsworth, who belongs to a past generation, for, though still upon this earth, his period of production has passed).—These two are Tennyson and the author of “Philip Van Artevelde.” Tennyson is all that Bailey is not in melody and voluntary finish, no less than a Greek moderation in declining all undertakings he is not sure of completing: Taylor noble, an earnest seer, a faithful narrator of what he sees, firm and sure, sometimes deep and exquisite, but in energy and grandeur no more than Tennyson to be named beside the author of Festus. In inspiration, in prophecy, in those flashes of the sacred fire which reveal the secret places where Time is elaborating the marvels of Nature, he stands alone. It is just true what Ebenezer Elliott says, “that ‘Festus’ contains poetry enough to set up fifty poets”—ay! even such poets, so far as richness of thought and imagery are concerned, as the two noble bards we have named.

  But we need call none less to make him greater, whose liberal soul is alive to every shade of beauty, every token of greatness, and whose main stress is to seek a soul of goodness in things evil. The book is a precious, even a sacred book, and we could say more of it, had we not years ago vented our enthusiasm when it was in first full flow. The extract which we then gave, sold at once all the English copies then to be obtained. Now there are American copies, they need no wind of praise to swell their inevitable course wherever they begin to find the current. He will be read as he read those of the older time who in his own words,

Brought an immortal to a mortal breast;
And, like a rainbow clasping the sweet earth,
And melting in the covenant of love.
Left here a bright precipitate of soul,
Which lives forever through the lives of men,
Flashing, by fits, like fire from an enemy’s front—
Whose thoughts, like bars of sunshine in shut rooms,
’Mid glory, all glory, win the world to light,
Who make their very follies like their souls;
And, like the young moon with a ragged edge,
Still, in their imperfection, beautiful.
Whose weaknesses are lovely as their strengths,
Like the white nebulous matter between stars,
Which, if not light, at least is likest light—
* * * * * *
Men whose great thoughts possess us like a passion,
Through every limb and the whole heart; whose words
Haunt us as eagles haunt the mountain air;
Thoughts which command all coming times and minds,
As from a tower a warden—fix themselves
Deep in the heart as meteor stones in earth,
Dropped from some higher sphere; * * *
Men who walk up to fame as to a friend
Or their own house, which from the wrongful heir
They have wrested. * * * *
* * * Who shed great thoughts
As an oak looseneth its golden leaves
In a kindly largess to the soil it grew on,
Whose rich dark ivy thoughts, sunned o’er with love,
Flourish around the deathless stems of their names—
Whose names are ever on the world’s broad tongue
Like sound upon the falling of a source,
Whose words, if winged are with angels’ with wings,
Who play upon the heart as a harp,
And make our eyes bright as we speak of them—
Whose hearts have a look southwards, and are open
To the whole noon of nature—these I have waked
And wept o’er, night by night, oft pondering thus:
Homer is gone; and where is Jove? and where
The rival cities seven? His song outlives,
Time, tower, and god—all that then was save heaven.

  In the second English edition from which the American is taken, the Proem, two scenes, and many passages have been added to the first.*

“Festus: A Poem . . .” New-York Daily Tribune, 8 September 1845, p. 1.