Poetry is not a superhuman or supernatural gift. It is, on the contrary, the fullest and therefore most completely natural expression of what is human.—It is that of which the rudiments lie in every human breast, but developed to a more complete existence than the obstructions of daily life permit, clothed in an adequate form, domesticated in nature by the use of apt images, the perception of grand analogies, and set to the music of the spheres for the delight of all who have ears to hear. We have uttered these remarks, which may, to many of our readers, seem truisms, for the sake of showing that our definition of poetry is large enough to include all kinds of excellence. It includes not only the great bards, but the humblest minstrels. The great bards bring to light the more concealed treasures, gems which centuries have been employed in forming and which it is their office to reveal, polish and set for the royal purposes of man; the wandering minstrel with his lighter but beautiful office calls the attention of men to the meaning of the flowers, which also is hidden from the careless eye, though they have grown and bloomed in full sight of all who chose to look. All the poets are the priests of Nature, though the greatest are also the prophets of the manhood of man.—For, when fully grown, the life of man must be all poetry; each of his thoughts will be a key to the treasures of the universe; each of his acts a revelation of beauty, his language will be music, and his habitual presence will overflow with more energy and inspire with a nobler rapture than do the fullest strains of lyric poetry now.
Meantime we need poets; men more awakened to the wonders of life and gifted more or less with a power to express what they see, and to all who possess, in any degree, those requisites we offer and we owe welcome and tribute, whether the place of their song be in the Pantheon, from which issue the grand decrees of immortal thought, or by the fireside, where hearts need kindling and eyes need clarifying by occasional drops of nectar in their tea.
But this—this alone we claim, and can welcome none who cannot present this title to our hearing; that the vision be genuine, the expression spontaneous. No imposition upon our young fellow citizens of pinchback for gold! they must have the true article, and pay the due intellectual price, or they will wake from a lifelong dream of folly to find themselves beggars.
And never was a time when satirists were more needed to scourge from Parnassus the magpies who are devouring the food scattered there for the singing birds. There will always be a good deal of mock poetry in the market with the genuine; it grows up naturally as tares among the wheat, and, while there is a fair proportion perserved, we abstain from severe weeding lest the two come up together; but when the tares have almost usurped the field, it is time to begin and see if the field cannot be freed from them and made ready for a new seed-time.
The rules of versification are now understood and used by those who have never entered into that soul from which metres grow as acorns from the oak, shapes are characteristic of the parent tree, containing in like manner germs of limitless life for the future, And as to the substance of these jingling rhymes, and dragging, stumbling rhythms, we might tell of bombast, or still worse, an affected simplicity, sickly sentiment, or borrowed dignity; but it is sufficient to comprise all in this one censure. The writers did not write because they felt obliged to relieve themselves of the swelling thought within, but as an elegant exercise which may win them rank and reputation above the crowd. Their lamp is not lit by the sacred and inevitable lightning from above, but carefully fed by their own will to be seen of men.
There are very few now rhyming in England, not obnoxious to this censure, still fewer in our America. For such no laurel blooms. May the friendly poppy soon crown them and grant us stillness to hear the silver tones of genuine music, for, if such there be, they are at present almost stifled by these fifes and gongs.
Yet there is a middle class, composed of men of little original poetic power, but of much poetic, taste and sensibility, whom we would not wish to have silenced. They do no harm but much good, (if only their minds are not confounded with those of a higher class,) by educating in others the faculties dominant in themselves. In this class we place the writer at present before us.
We must confess to a coolness toward Mr. Longfellow, in consequence of the exaggerated praises that have been bestowed upon him. When we see a person of moderate powers receive honors which should be reserved for the highest, we feel somewhat like assailing him and taking from him the crown which should be reserved for grander brows. And yet this is, perhaps, ungenerous, It may be that the management of publishers, the hyperbole of paid or undiscerning reviewers, or some accidental cause which gives a temporary interest to productions beyond what they would permanently command, have raised such an one to a place as much above his wishes as his claims, and which he would rejoice, with honorable modesty, to vacate at the approach of one worthier. We the more readily believe this of Mr. Longfellow, as one so sensible to the beauties of other writers and so largely indebted to them, must know his own comparative rank better than his readers have known it for him.
And yet so much adulation is dangerous. Mr. Longfellow, so lauded on all hands—now able to collect his poems which have circulated so widely in previous editions, and been paid for so handsomely by the handsomest annuals, in this beautiful volume, illustrated by one of the most distinguished of our younger artists—has found a flatterer in that very artist. The portrait which adorns this volume is not merely flattered or idealized, but there is an attempt at adorning it by expression thrown into the eyes with just that which the original does not possess, whether in face or mind. We have often seen faces whose usually coarse and heavy lineaments were harmonized at times into beauty by the light that rises from the soul into the eyes. The intention Nature had with regard to the face and its wearer, usually eclipsed beneath bad habits or a bad education, is then disclosed and we see what hopes Death has in store for that soul. But here the enthusiasm thrown into the eyes only makes the rest of the face look more weak, and the idea suggested is the anomalous one of a Dandy Pindar.
Such is not the case with Mr. Longfellow himself. He is never a Pindar, though he is sometimes a Dandy in the clean and elegantly ornamented streets and trim gardens of his verse. But he is still more a man of cultivated taste, delicate though not deep feeling, and some, though not much, poetic force.
Mr. Longfellow has been accused of plagiarism. We have been surprised that any one should have been anxious to fasten special charges of this kind upon him, when we had supposed it so obvious that the greater part of his mental stores were derived from the works of others. He has no style of his own growing out of his own experiences and observations of nature. Nature with him, whether human or external, is always seen through the windows of literature. There are in his poems sweet and tender passages descriptive of his personal feelings, but very few showing him as an observer, at first hand, of the passions within, or the landscape without.
This want of the free breath of nature, this perpetual borrowing of imagery, this excessive, because superficial, culture which he has derived from an acquaintance with the elegant literatue of many nations and men out of proportion to the experience of life within himself, prevent Mr. Longfellow’s verses from ever being a true refreshment to ourselves. He says in one of his most graceful verses:
My spirit drank repose;
The fountain of perpetual peace flows there,
From those deep cisterns flows.
Now this is just what we cannot get from Mr. Longfellow. No solitude of the mind reveals to us the deep cisterns.
Let us take, for example of what we do not like, one of his worst pieces, the Prelude to the Voices of the Night—
I lay upon the ground;
His hoary arms uplifted be,
And all the broad leaves over me
Clapped their little hands in glee
With one continuous sound.
What an unpleasant mixture of images! Such never rose in a man’s mind, as he lay on the ground and looked up to the tree above him. The true poetry for this stanza would be to give us an image of what was in the writer’s mind as he lay there and looked up. But this idea of the leaves clapping their little hands with glee is taken out of some book; or, at any rate, is a book thought and not one that came in the place, and jars entirely with what is said of the tree uplifting its hoary arms. Then take this other stanza from a man whose mind should have grown up in familiarity with the American genius loci.
The Spring clothed like a bride,
When nestling buds unfold their wings,
And bishop’s caps have golden rings,
Musing upon many things,
I sought the woodlands wide.
Musing upon many things—ay! and upon many books too or we should have nothing of Pentecost or bishop’s caps with their golden rings. For ourselves, we have not the least idea what bishop’s caps are;—are they flowers?—or what? Truly, the schoolmaster was abroad in the woodlands that day! As to the conceit of the wings of the buds, it is a false image, because one that cannot be carried out. Such will not be found in the poems of poets; with such the imagination is all compact, and their works are not dead mosaics, with substances inserted merely because pretty, but living growths, homogenous and satisfactory throughout.
Such instances could be adduced every where throughout the poems, depriving us of any clear pleasure from any one piece, and placing his poems beside such as these of Bryant in the same light as that of the prettiest made shell, beside those whose every line and hue tells a history of the action of winds and waves and the secrets of one class of organizations.
But, do we, therefore esteem Mr. Longfellow a wilful or conscious plagiarist? By no means. It is his misfortune that other men’s thoughts are so continually in his head as to overshadow his own. The order of fine development is for the mind the same as the body, to take in just so much food as will sustain it in its exercise and assimilate with its growth. If it is so assimilated—if it becomes part of the skin, hair and eyes of the man, it is his own, no matter whether he pick it up in the wood, or borrow from the dish of a fellow man, or receive it in the form of manna direct from Heaven. “Do you ask the genius” said Goethe “to give an account of what he has taken from others. As well demand of the hero an account of the beeves and loaves which have nourished him to such martial stature.”
But Mr. Longfellow presents us, not with a new product in which all the old varieties are melted into a fresh form, but rather with a tastefully arranged Museum, between whose glass cases are interspersed neatly potted rose trees, geraniums and hyacinths, grown by himself with aid of in-door heat. Still we must acquit him of being a willing or conscious plagiarist. Some objects in the collection are his own; as to the rest, he has the merit of appreciation, and a rearrangement, not always judicious, but the result of feeling on his part.
Such works as Mr. Longfellow’s we consider injurious only if allowed to usurp the place of better things. The reason of his being overrated here, is because through his works breathes the air of other lands with whose products the public at large is but little acquainted. He will do his office, and a desirable one, of promoting a taste for the literature of these lands before his readers are aware of it. As a translator he shows the same qualities as in his own writings; what is forcible and compact he does not render adequately, grace and sentiment he appreciates and reproduces. Twenty years hence when he stands upon his own merits, he will rank as a writer of elegant, if not always accurate taste, of great imitative power, and occasional felicity in an original way, where his feelings are really stirred. He has touched no subject where he has not done somewhat that is pleasing, though also his poems are much marred by ambitious failings. As instances of his best manner we would mention “The Reaper and the Flowers,” “Lines to the Planet Mars,” “A Gleam of Sunshine,” and “The Village Blacksmith.” His two ballads are excellent imitations, yet in them is no spark of fire. In “Nuremberg” are charming passages. Indeed the whole poem is one of the happiest specimens of Mr. L.’s poetic feeling, taste and tact in making up a rosary of topics and images.—Thinking it may be less known than most of the poems we will quote it. The engraving which accompanies it of the rich old architecture is a fine gloss on its contents.
IN the valley of the Pegnitz, where across broad meadow lands
Rise the blue Franconian mountains, Nuremberg, the ancient, stands.
Quaint old town of toil and traffic—quaint old town of art and song—
Memories haunt thy pointed gables, like the rooks that round them throng;
Memories of the Middle Ages, when the Emperors, rough and bold,
Had their dwelling in thy castle, time-defying, centuries old;
And thy brave and thrifty burghers boasted in their uncouth rhyme,
That their great imperial city stretched its hand through every clime.
In the court-yard of the castle, bound with many an iron band,
Stands the mighty linden, planted by Queen Cunigunda’s hand.
On the square the oriel window, where in old heroic days,
Sat the poet Melchior, singing Kaiser Maximilian’s praise.
Every where I see around me rise the wondrous world of Art—
Fountains wrought with richest sculpture, standing in the common mart;
And above the cathedral doorways, saints and bishops carved in stone,
By a former age commissioned as apostles to our own.
In the church of sainted Sebald sleeps enshrined his holy dust,
And in bronze the Twelve Apostles guard from age to age their trust;
In the church of sainted Lawrence stands a Pix of sculpture rare,
Like the foamy sheaf of fountain, rising through the painted air.
Here, when Art was still Religion, with a simple reverent heart,
Lived and labored Albert Durer, the Evange list of Art;
Hence in silence and in sorrow, toiling still with busy hand,
Like an emigrant he wandered, seeking for the Better Land.
Emigravit is the inscription on the tomb-stone where he lies;
Dead he is not, but departed, for the Artist never dies.
Fairer seems the ancient city, and the sunshine seems more fair,
That he once has trod its pavement—that he once has breathed its air!
Through these streets so broad and stately, these obscure and dismal lanes,
Walked of yore the Master-singers, chanting rude poetic strains.
From remote and sunless suburbs came they to the friendly guild,
Building nests in Fame’s great temple, as in spouts the swallows build.
As the weaver plied the shuttle, wove he too the mystic rhyme.
And the smith his iron measures hammered to the anvil’s chime;
Thanking God, whose boundless wisdom makes the flowers of poesy bloom
In the forge’s dust and cinders—in the tissues of the loom.
Here Hans Sachs, the cobbler-poet, laureate of the gentle craft,
Wisest of the Twelve Wise Masters, in huge folios sang and laughed.
But his house is now an ale-house, with a nicely sanded floor,
And a garland in the window, and his face above the door;
Painted by some humble artist, as in Adam Paschman,s song,
As the old man, gray and dove-like, with his great bears white and long.
And at night the swart mechanic comes to drown his cank and care,
Quaffling ale from pewter tankards in the master’s antique chair.
Vanished is the ancient splendor, and before my dreamy eye
Wave these mingling shapes and figures, like a faded tapestry.
Not they Councils, not thy Kaisers, win for thee the world’s regard;
But thy painter, Albert Durer, and Hans Sachs, thy cobbler bard.
Thus, oh, Nuremberg! a wanderer from a region far away,
As he paced thy streets and court-yards, sang in thought his careless lay;
Gathering from the pavement’s crevice, as a flow’ret of the soil,
The nobility of labor, the long pedigree of toil.
This image of the thought gathered like a flower from the crevice of the pavement, is truly natural and poetical.
Here is another image which came into the mind of the writer as he looked at the subject of his verse, and which pleases accordingly. It is from one of the new poems, addressed to Driving Cloud, “chief of the mighty Omahaws.”
Narrow and populous streets, as once by the margin of rivers
Stalked those birds unknown, that have left us only their foot-prints,
What, in a few short years, will remain of thy race but the foot-prints?
Here is another very graceful and natural simile:
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles rain.
Pressed in my heart like flowers within a book,
Shall be torn out and scattered in the winds.
The Drama from which this is taken is an elegant exercise of the pen, after the fashion of the best models. Plan, figures, all are academical. It is a faint reflex of the actions and passions of men, tame in the conduct and lifeless in the characters, but not heavy, and containing good meditative passages.
And now farewell to the handsome book, with its Preciosos and Preciosas, its Vikings and knights, and cavaliers, its flowers of all climes, and wild flowers of none. We have not wished to depreciate those writings below their current value more than truth absolutely demands. We have not forgotten that, if a man cannot himself sit at the feet of the Muse, it is much if he prizes those who may; it makes him a teacher to the people. Neither have we forgotten that Mr. Longfellow has genuine respect for his pen, never writes carelessly, nor when he does not wish to, nor for money alone. Nor are we intolerant to those who prize hot-house bouquets beyond all the free beauty of nature; that helps the gardener and has its uses. But still let us not forget—Excelsior!!*
“Poems. By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow . . .” New-York Daily Tribune, 10 December 1845, p. 1.