I chiefly call, the chosen few,
Who cast not off the acknowledged guide,
Who faltered not, nor turned aside;
Whose lofty genius could survive
Privation, under sorrow thrive.”
By prefixing to his work these lines from Wordsworth, Mr. Lowell indicates his standard as to the hopes and destiny of the Poet. It is a high one; and in its application, he shows great justness of feeling, delicacy of perception, comprehensive views; and, for this country, an unusual refinement and extent of culture.
We have been accustomed to hear Mr. Lowell so extravagantly lauded by the circle of his friends, that we should be hopeless of escaping the wrath of his admirers, for any terms in which our expressions of sympathy could be couched, but for the more modest and dignified tone of his own preface, which presents ground on which the world, at large, can meet him. With his admirers, we have often been reminded of a fervent Italian who raved at one of our young country-women as “a heartless girl,” because she would not go to walk with him alone at midnight. But Mr. Lowell, himself, speaks of his work as becomes one conversant with those of great and accomplished minds.
“I am not bold enough to esteem these essays of any great price. Standing as yet only in the outer porch of life, I cannot be expected to report those higher mysteries which lie in the body unrevealed in the body of the temple. Yet, as a child, when he has found but a mean pebble, which differs from ordinary only so much as by a stripe of quartz or a stain of iron, calls his companions to behold his treasure, which then also affords matter of delight and wonder; I cannot but hope that my little findings may be pleasant and haply instructive to some few.”
We are thus presented with the agreeable opportunity of responding “pleasant and instructive to many;” for we feel that this book will be a pleasure and advantage to the many who do not receive it at the hands of a coterie.
The form of dialogue affords the author great advantage. It is easy and animated, and, though contrast of character, and sustained mental pictures of the speakers, to the extent that we find in Landor’s Pentameron, for instance, would add to our enjoyment, yet we are content in its use, merely as a free and various mode of expressing the writer’s own views.
It is even more rare to meet a great Critic than a great Poet. True criticism, as distinguished from petty cavil and presumptuous measurement, on the one hand, and encomiums, based merely on personal sympathy, on the other, supposes a range and equipoise of faculties, and a generosity of soul which have as yet been rarely combined in any one person. The great Critic is not merely the surveyor, but the interpreter of what other minds possess; he must have a standard of excellence, founded on prescience of what man is capable of; he must have, no less, a refined imagination and quick sympathies to enter into each work in its own kind, and examine it by its own law, so that he may understand how certain faults are interwoven, in growth, with certain virtues; he must have a cultivated taste, a calm, large, and deep judgment, and a heart to love everything that is good, in proportion to its goodness.
In some of these traits the English mind has thus far shown itself so deficient, that there is very little valuable criticism extant in that language, in proportion to the number of attempts. The English, as a nation, have attempted to criticize by tradition, outward rule, or habitual taste, and have, by an inadequate notion of the purposes and means of criticism, failed of its best uses.—Most essays in this kind by English writers are records of the habits and prejudices of the age or the writer; their value is merely historical. Amid honorable exceptions, Coleridge stands foremost, but, very generally, a verdict passed in the English speech, has failed of confirmation by the sense of the civilized world. And some critiques whose interest still endures, for the interest of the thoughts they embody, no longer have any value as applicable to the subject, for the years, as they pass, have brought a measure better proportioned to its size than contemporary mind could furnish.
Mr. Lowell belongs to the generous school, who deal more in affirmations than in negations, who have not the poor desire to sum up the merits of the subject, but are rather anxious to express the value received to themselves. His way of looking at greatness is reverent without extravagance, or the taint of mere temporary emotion; his doubts and exceptions are well-considered; and his homage is honorable to its objects and to himself. But let us hear in his own words how he would look at the Poet.
“Nature should lead the true poet by the hand, and he has far better things to do than busy himself in counting the warts upon it, as Pope did. A cup of water from Hippocrene, tasting, as it must, of innocent pastoral sights and sounds, of the bleat of lambs, of the shadows of leaves and flowers that have leaned over it, of the rosy hands of children whose privilege it ever is to paddle in it, of the low words of lovers who have walked by its side in the moonlight, of the tears of the poor Hagars of the world who have drank from it, would choke a satirist. His thoughts of the country must have a savior of Jack Ketch, and see no beauty but in a kemp field. Poetry is something to make us wiser and better, by continually revealing those types of beauty and truth which God has set in all men’s souls; not by picking out the petty faults of our neighbors to make a mock of.” * * * * *
“Asmodeus’s gift, of unroofing the dwellings of his neighbors at will, would be the rarest outfit for a satirist, but it would be of no worth to a Poet. To a satirist the more outward motives of life are enough. Vanity, pride, avarice—these, and the other external vices, are but the strings of the unmusical lyre? But the Poet need only unroof his own heart. All that makes happiness or misery under every roof of the wide world, whether of palace or hovel, is working also in that narrow yet boundless sphere. On that little stage the great drama of life is acted daily. There the Creation, the Tempting, the Fall may be seen anew. In that withdrawing-closet, Solitude whispers her secrets, and Death uncovers his face. There sorrow takes up her abode, to make ready a pillow and a resting-place for the weary head of love, whom the world casts out. To the Poet nothing is mean, but every thing on earth is a fitting altar to the Supreme Beauty.”
There are passages of free humor and good sense which agreeably relieve this high strain, and which we should like to quote, in juxtaposition with the preceding, had we room. On the topics of the day, Mr. Lowell expresses himself with clear good sense, and in a worthy spirit. He shows such plain reason for the faith that is in him that the dullest conservative cannot say it is a blind enthusiasm that has joined him with the Movement party. He well expresses the grounds of such a faith. “He (the Poet) knows that the whole power of God is behind him, as the drop of water in the little creek feels that it is moved onward by the whole weight of the rising ocean.”
As to his Poets, the comments on Chaucer are feeling and discerning, and the extracts well-chosen and well-placed. On leading characteristics of Chapman he has seized with great force. Some things are admirably thought and said of this Poet.
The following remarks, upon Ford please us well:
“His plots raise him, and carry him along with them wither they please, and it is generally only at their culminating points that he shows much strength; and then it is the strength of passion, not of reason. Indeed, I do not know but it should rather be called weakness. He puts his characters’ insinuations where the heart that has a drop of blood in it finds it easier to be strong than weak. His heroes show that fitful strength which grows out of intense excitement, rather than healthy muscular action; it does not rise with difficulty or danger they are in, and, looking down on it, assert calmly the unsurpassable sovereignty of the soul, even after the flesh is overcome, but springs forward in an exulting gush of glorious despair to grapple with death and fate. In a truly noble bravery of soul, the interest is wholly the fruit of immortality; here is the Sodom-apple of mortality. In the one case we exult to see the infinite overshadow and dwarf the finite; in the other, we cannot restrain a kind of romantic enthusiasm and admiration at seeing the weak clay so gallantly defy the overwhelming power which it well knows must crush it. High genius may be fiery and impetuous, but it can never bully and look big; it does not defy death and futurity, for a doubt of its monarchy over them never over flushed its serene countenance.
“JOHN.—Shakespeare’s characters seem to modify his plots as they are modified by them in turn. This may be the result of his unapproachable art; for art in him is but the tracing of nature to her primordial laws; is but nature precipitated, as it were, by the infallible test of philosophy. In his plays, as in life, there is a perpetual seesaw of character and circumstance, now one uppermost, now the other. Nature is never afraid to reason in a circle. We must let her assume her premises, and make our deductions logical accordingly. The actor’s in Shakespeare’s dramas are only overcome by so much as they fall below their ideal, and are wanting in some attribute of true manhood. Wherever we go with him, the absence of a virtue always suggests its presence; the want of any nobleness makes us feel its beauty the more keenly.
“PHILIP.—But Ford’s heroes are strong only in their imperfections, and it is to these that whatever admiration we yield them is paid. They interest us only so far as they can make us forget our quiet, calm ideal. This is the very stamp of weakness. We should be surprised if we saw them show any natural greatness and nobleness is but entire health; to those only who are denaturalized themselves does it seem wonderful; to the natural man they are as customary and unconscious as the beating of his heart, of the motion of his lungs, as is necessary. Therefore it is that praise always surprises and humbles true genius; the shadow of earth then comes between them and their starry ideal with a cold and dark eclipse. In Ford’s characters, the sublimity, if there be any, is that of a defiant despair.
“A contemporary thus graphically describes him:
With folded arms and melancholy hat.”
A couplet which brings up the central figure on the title-page to the old edition of the “Anatomy of Melancholy” very vividly before our eyes. His dependence on things out of himself is shown also in his historical play of ‘Perkin Warback,’ in which, having no exciting plot to sustain him, he is very gentlemanly and very dull. He does not furnish so many isolated passages which are complete in themselves, a quality remarkable in the old dramatists, among whom only Shakespeare united perfectness of the parts with strict adaptation and harmony of the whole. A play of Shakespeare’s seems like one of those basilican palaces whose roof is supported by innumerable pillars, each formed of many crystals perfect in themselves.”
But presently, when Mr. Lowell criticises in detail Ford’s tragedy of ‘The Broken Heart,’ in his remarks upon the beautiful scene between Orgilus and Penthea, he seems quite undiscerning as to the feelings of Penthea and the motives which induce her to act as she does. Also in what he says of Calantha’s “saving up her heart-break, as it were, until it can come in with proper effect at the end of the tragedy”; though there is some truth in his remarks, he seems to leave out of sight the main-spring of the character, a greatness which Ford had the soul to feel was proper to the heroic character, and which very unheroic persons have been able to feel through him; the property, I mean, of being unexpectedly equal to anguish and horror, in proportion to their assault. The mind of Calantha rose instantaneously to the occasion, and like the Roman, when the drop too much came in the cup, she gave no groan, but folded the robe over her breast, and “died smiling.”
Indeed, we should dispute many of Mr. Lowell’s criticisms in detail, and are seldom entirely pleased with them; but newspaper limits do not allow of such an examination. Neither does he challenge it; he does not profess to give the results of long acquaintance through varied moods, which, with books as with living acquaintances, can alone enable us to give even as just an estimate as our imperfections permit, the sum total of our best judgment,—
But he offers the flowing mood of the day, and he who does not value it as clarified criticism, may find his profit in it for the companionship of stimulus and suggestion. He says very well,
“We do not agree, nor should we be pleasant companions if we did. This would be a dull world indeed if all our opinions must (bend?) to one standard; when all our hearts do, we shall see blue sky and not sooner.”
Two points he seems to labor unnecessarily. If he addresses a very ignorant audience, he talks too finely for them; if a cultivated one, he will find such truths recognized far more distinctly than he states them. 1st. That the principles which pervade the Fine Arts are identical, and that nothing but partial organization prevents any man who traces them in one from tracing them in all. The subject is one of such profound interest that the discernment of new analogies is always interesting. It pleases us to hear Architecture called “frozen music,” or to know that the dimensions of a pillar may be estimated by the tension of chords, but it is merely that we take pleasure in the application of recognized principles; recognized, we mean, by all the thinking part of the world now.
2d. In what he says of metres, Mr. Lowell does not do justice to the poetic facts. The reasons he gives are inadequate. It is true, as he says, that the mind rises from prose into poetic measure quite naturally, as from speech to song, when it has something to express above the level of the lower necessities of life. It is true that rhythm cannot more easily be disengaged from the poetic thought expressed in it than the skin from the pulp of the grape. But this is not merely because it holds it together “in a compact and beautiful form.” Metres themselves are actually something apart from the thought they are destined to convey. They are the music of that thought; its more or less perfect organization.
Madame de Stael was not wrong in receiving a high delight from the mere cadence of verses that she did not understand. As the same thought is expressed in all Gothic Cathedrals, but with peculiar force in that at Cologne, so may the same thought be expressed with equal distinctness in two metres, but with more force in one than the other. Just so two faces may look on you with love and you may translate the meaning of either look—Love—but one will be full-fraught with soul, and will express the beauty of love, the other not. The charms of metres are subtle and more deeply grounded than the obvious meaning of the words; their analysis is not impossible, but it requires as clear a knowledge of the laws of harmony, i.e. of proportion, as delicate a sense of the subtle efficacy of thoughts, i.e. of spiritual gradation, as the analysis of what are more strictly styled musical compositions does; therefore, while many men are too dully organized to feel their power, a larger proportion of those who can feel cannot render a reason. Let us put from us, once for all, the vulgar frivolity of assuming that that does not exist for which we cannot yet render a reason. Let us hear, with joyous hope, deep calling unto deep, where our steps may not yet venture.
It is needless to recommend Mr. Lowell’s book to general reading, as the extensive popularity of his Poems has made his name a sufficient passport.*
“Review.” New-York Daily Tribune, 21 January 1845, p. 1.