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 vigor 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 cases 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 while 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
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 calm 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 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:
LITTLE ELLIE sits alone
‘Mid the beeches of a meadow
By a stream-side, on the grass;
And the trees are showering down
Doubles of their leaves, in shadow,
On her shining hair and face.
She has thrown her bonnet by,
And her feet she has been dipping
In the shallow water’s flow:
Now she holds them nakedly
In her hands, all sleek and dripping,
While she rocketh to and fro.
Little Ellie sits alone,
And the smile she softly useth
Fills the silence like a speech;
While she thinks what shall be done.
And the sweetest pleasure chooseth
For her future within reach.
Little Ellie, in her smile,
Chooseth—“I will have a lover,
Riding on a steed of steeds:
He shall love me without guile:
And to him I will discover
That swan’s nest among the reeds.
“And the steed shall be red-roan:
And the lover shall be noble,
With an eye that takes the breath;
And the lute he plays upon
Shall strike ladies into trouble,
As his sword strikes men to death.
“And the steed, it shall be shod
All in silver, housed in azure:
And the mane shall swim the wind:
And the hoofs along the sod
Shall flash onward in a pleasure,
Till the shepherds look behind.
“But my lover will not prize
All the glory that he rides in,
When he gazes in my face!
He will say—‘Oh, Love! thine eyes
Build the shrine my soul abides in,
And I will kneel here for thy grace.’
“Then—ay, then! he shall kneel low,
With the red-roan steed anear him,
Which shall seem to understand:
Till I answer—‘Rise, and go!
For the world must love and fear him
Whom I gift with heart and hand.’
“Then he will arise—so pale,
I shall feel my own lips tremble
With a yes I must not say;
Pathless, maiden brave. ‘Farewell!’
I will utter, and dissemble—
‘Light to-morrow with to-day.’
“Then he will ride through the hills,
To the wide world past the river,
There to put away all wrong:
To make straight distorted wills.
And to empty the broad quiver
Which the wicked bear along.
“Three times shall a young foot-page
Swim the stream and climb the mountain,
And kneel down beside my feet:
‘Lo, my master sends this gage,
Lady, for thy pity’s counting!
What wilt thou exchange for it?’
“And the first time, I will send
A white rosebud for a guerdon:
And the second time, a glove;
But the third time, I will bend
From my pride, and answer—‘Pardon,
If he comes to take my love.’
“Then the young foot-page will run:
Then my lover will ride faster,
Till he kneeleth at my knee:
‘I am a duke’s eldest son:
Thousand serfs do call me master;
But, oh Love! I love but thee!’
“He will kiss me on the mouth
Then, and lead me as a lover
Through the crowds that praise his deeds:
And, when soul-tied by one troth,
Unto him I will discover
That swan’s nest among the reeds.”
Little Ellie, with her smile
Not yet ended, rose up gaily;
Tied the bonnet, donned the shoe,
And went homeward, round a mile,
Just to see, as she did daily,
What more eggs were with the two.
Pushing through the elm-tree copse
Winding by the stream, light hearted,
Where the osier pathway leads,
Past the boughs, she stoops—and stops:
Lo, the wild swan had deserted,
And a rat had gnawed the reeds!
Ellie went home sad and slow!
If she found the lover ever,
With his red-roan steed of steeds,
Sooth, I know not; but I know
She could never show him—never—
That swan’s nest among the reeds!
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:
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 of thee.”
“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,
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.
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:
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 Spenser—or the subtle interflowings
Found in Petrarch’s sonnets—here’s the book—the leaf is folded down!
Or at times a modern 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 is 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 wood lands, 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 east 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 root 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 powers:
Do you hear the children weeping, oh my brothers:
Ere the sorrow comes with years?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers,
And that cannot stop their tears.
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows,
The young birds are chirping in the nest,
The young fawns are playing in the shadows,
The young flowers are blowing from the West;
But the young, young children, oh my brothers!
They are weeping bitterly!
They are weeping in the play-time of the others,
In the country of the free.
Do you question the young children in their sorrow,
Why their tears are railing so?
The old man may weep for his to-morrow
Which is lost in long ago.
The old tree is leafless in the forest,
The old year is ending in the frost;
The old wound, if stricken, is the sorest;
The old hope is hardest to be lost;
But the young, young children, oh my brothers!
Do you ask them why they stand
Weeping sore before the bosoms of their mothers,
In our happy fatherland?
They look up with their pale and sunken faces,
And their looks are sad to see:
For the Man’s grief untimely draws and presses
Down the cheeks of Infancy.
‘Your old Earth,’ they say, ‘is very dreary:
Our young feet,’ they say, ‘are very weak!
Few paces have we taken yet are weary;
Our grave rest is very far to seek!’
Ask the old why they weep, and not the children,
For the outside earth is cold,
And we young ones stand without, in our bewild’ring:
And the graves are for the old.
‘True, say the young children, ‘it may happen
That we die before our time!
Little Alice died last year,—the grave is shapen
Like a snowball, in the rime.
We looked into the pit prepared to take her,
Was no room for any work in the close clay!
From the sleep wherein she lieth none will wake her,
Crying—‘Get up, little Alice, it is day!’
If you listen by that grave in sun and shower,
With your ear down, little Alice never cries;
Could we see her face, be sure we do not know her,
For the new smile which has grown within her eyes.
For merry go her moments, lulled and stilled in
The shroud, by the kirk chime!
‘It is good when it happens,’ say the children,
‘That we die before our time!’
Alas, the wretched children! They are seeking
Death in life, as best to have!
They are binding up their hearts away from breaking.
With a cerement from the grave.
Go out children, from the mine and from the city,
Sing out, children, as the little thrushes do!
Pluck you handfuls of the meadows cowslips pretty,
Laugh aloud to feel your fingers let them through!
But they answer, Are your cowslips of the meadows
Like the weeds anear the mine?
Leave us quiet in the dark of the coal-shadows
From your pleasures fair and fine.
‘For oh!’ say the children, ‘we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap;
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep.
Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping,
We fall on our faces, trying to go,
And underneath our heavy eyelids drooping
The reddest flower would look as pale as snow:
For all day we drag our burden, tiring,
Through the coal-dark underground.
Or all day we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories round and round.
All day the wheels are droning, turning;
There wind comes in our faces!
Till our hearts turn, and our heads with pulses burning,
And the walls turn in their places!
Turns the sky in the high window black and reeling,
Turns the long light that droopeth down the wall,
Turn the black flies that crawl along the ceiling,
All are turning all the day, and we with all!
All day long the iron wheels are droning,
And sometimes we could pray,
‘O ye wheels (breaking off in a mad moaning.)
Stop! Be silent for to-day!’
Ay, be silent! let them hear each other breathing,
For a moment, mouth to mouth;
Let them touch each other’s hands, in a fresh wreathing
Of their tender human youth:
Let them feel this cold metallic motion
Is not all the life God giveth to feel;
Let them prove their inward souls against the notion
That they live in you, or under you, O wheels!
Still, all day, the iron wheels go onward,
As if fate in each were stark!
And the children’s souls, which God is calling sunward,
Spin on blindly in the dark.
Now tell the weary children, O my brothers!
That they look to him and pray,
For the blessed One who blesseth all the others,
To bless them another day.
They answer—‘Who is God that he should hear us,
While this rushing of the iron wheels is stirred?
When we sob aloud, the human creatures near us
Pass unhearing—at least, answer not a word;
And we hear not (for the wheels in their resounding)
Strangers speaking at the door.
Is it likely God with angels singing round Him,
Hears our weeping any more?
Two words, indeed, of praying we remember;
And at midnight’s hour of harm,
‘Our Father!’ looking upward in our chamber,
We say softly for a charm.’*
We say no other words except ‘Our Father!’
And we think that, in some pause of angels’ song,
He may pluck them with the silence sweet to gather,
And hold both in His right hand, which is strong.
Our Father! If he heard us, he would surely
(For they call Him good and mild)
Answer, (smiling down the steep world very purely,)
‘Come and rest with me, my child.’
‘But no,’ say the children, weeping faster,
‘He is silent as a stone;
And they tell us, of His image is the master
Who commands us to work on.
Go to!’ say the children: ‘up in Heaven,
Dark, wheel-like, turning clouds are all we find!
Do not mock us! we are atheists in our grieving,
We look up to Him—but tears have made us blind!’
Do you hear the children weeping and disproving.
O my brothers, what ye teach?
For God’s possible is taught by His world’s loving,
And the children doubt of each!
And well may the children weep before ye,
They are weary ere they run!
They have never seen the sunshine, nor the glory
Which is brighter than the sun!
They know the grief of men, but not the wisdom,
They sink in their despair, with hope at calm,
Are slaves without the liberty in Christdom,
Are martyrs by the pang without the palm!
Are worn as if with age; yet unretrievingly
No joy of memory keep,
Are orphans of the earthly love and heavenly:
Let them weep, let them weep!
They look up, with their pale and sunken faces,
And their look is dread to see:
For you think you see their angels in their places,
With eyes meant for Deity.
‘How long,’ they say, ‘how long O cruel nation!
Will you stand to move the world, on a child’s heart?
Trample down with mailed heel its palpitation,
And tread onward to your throne amid the mart?
Our blood splashes upward, O our tyrants!
And your purple shows your path,
But the child’s sob curseth deeper in the silence
Than the strong roan in his wrath!
* “A fact,” says a note, “rendered pathetically historica by Mr. Horne’s Report of his Commission.
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 favored 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 deserve 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 of one to whom life is more than usually uncertain, my favorite wish for this work would be, that it be received by the public as a deposit, 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 of 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 hight 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.*
“Miss Barrett’s Poems.” New-York Daily Tribune, 4 January 1845, p. 1.