1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Richard Henry Dana

Rufus Wilmot Griswold, in Poets and Poetry of America (1842) 64-65.



WILLIAM DANA, Esquire, was sheriff of Middlesex during the reign of Queen ELIZABETH. His only descendant at that time living, RICHARD DANA, came to America about the middle of the seventeenth century, and settled at Cambridge, then called Newtown, near Boston. A grandson of this gentleman, of the same name, was the poet's grandfather. He was an eminent member of the bar of Massachusetts, and an active whig during the troubles in Boston immediately before the Revolution. He married a sister of EDMUND TROWBRIDGE, who was one of the king's judges, and the first lawyer in the colony. FRANCIS DANA, the father of RICHARD H. DANA, after being graduated at Harvard College, studied law with his uncle, Judge TROWBRIDGE, and became equally distinguished for his professional abilities. He was appointed envoy to Russia during the Revolution, was a member of Congress, and of the Massachusetts Convention for adopting the national constitution, and afterward Chief Justice of that Commonwealth. He married a daughter of the Honourable WILLIAM ELLERY, of Rhode Island, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and through her the subject of this sketch is lineally descended from ANNE BRADSTREET, the wife of Governor BRADSTREET, and daughter of Governor DUDLEY, who was the most celebrated poet of her time in America. Thus, it will be seen, our author has good blood in his veins: an honour which no one pretends to despise who is confident that his grandfather was not a felon or a boor.

RICHARD HENRY DANA was born at Cambridge, on the fifteenth of November, 1787. When about ten years old he went to Newport, Rhode Island, where he remained until a year or two before he entered Harvard College. His health, during his boyhood, was too poor to admit of very constant application to study; and much of his time was passed in rambling along the rockbound coast, listening to the roar and dashing of the waters, and searching for the wild and picturesque; indicating thus early that love of nature which is evinced in nearly all his subsequent writings, and acquiring that perfect knowledge of the scenery of the sea which is shown in The Buccaneer, and some of his minor pieces. On leaving college, in 1807, he returned to Newport, and passed nearly two years in studying the Latin language and literature, after which he went to Baltimore, and entered as a student the law office of General ROBERT GOODHUE HARPER. The approach of the second war with Great Britain, and the extreme unpopularity of all persons known to belong to the federal party, induced him to return to Cambridge, where he finished his course of study and opened an office. He soon became a member of the legislature, and was for a time a warm partisan.

Feeble health, and great constitutional sensitiveness, the whole current of his mind and feelings, convinced him that he was unfitted for his profession, and he closed his office to assist his relative, Professor EDWARD T. CHANNING, in the management of the North American Review, which had then been established about two years. While connected with this periodical he wrote several articles which (particularly one upon HAZLITT'S British Poets) excited much attention among the literary men of Boston and Cambridge. The POPE and Queen ANNE school was then triumphant, and the dicta of JEFFREY were law. DANA praised WORDSWORTH and COLERIDGE, and saw much to admire in BYRON; he thought poetry was something more than a recreation; that it was something superinduced upon the realities of life; he believed the ideal and the spiritual might be as real as the visible and the tangible; thought there were truths beyond the understanding and the senses, and not to he reached by ratiocination; and indeed broached many paradoxes not to be tolerated then, but which now the same community has taken up and carried to an extent at that time unthought of.

A strong party rose against these opinions, and DANA had the whole influence of the university, of the literary and fashionable society of the city, and of the press, to contend against. Being in a minority with the "North American Club," he in 1819 or 1820 gave up all connection with the Review, which passed into the hands of the EVERETTS and others, and in 1821 began The Idle Man, for which he found a publisher in Mr. CHARLES WILEY, of New York. This was read and admired by a class of literary men, but it was of too high a character for the period, and on the publication of the first number of the second volume, DANA received from Mr. WILEY information that he was "writing himself into debt," and gave up the work.

In 1825, he published his first poetical production, The Dying Raven, in the New York Review, then edited by Mr. BRYANT; and two years after gave to the public, in a small volume, The Buccaneer, and other Poems. This was well received, the popular taste having, in the five years which had elapsed since the publication of the Idle Man, been considerably improved; but as his publishers failed soon after it was printed, the poet was not made richer by his toil. In 1833 he published his Poems and Prose Writings, including The Buccaneer, and other pieces embraced in his previous volume, with some new poems, and the Idle Man, except the few papers written for it by his friends. For this he received from his bookseller about enough to make up for the loss he had sustained by the Idle Man. His case illustrates the usual extent of the rewards of exertion in the higher departments of literature in this country. Had his first work been successful, he would probably have been a voluminous writer.

In 1839, he delivered in Boston and New York a series of lectures on English poetry, and the great masters of the art, which were warmly applauded by the educated and judicious. These have not yet been printed.

The longest and most remarkable of DANA'S poems is the Buccaneer, a story in which he has depicted with singular power the stronger and darker passions. It is based on a tradition of a murder committed on an island on the coast of New England, by a pirate, whose guilt in the end meets with strange and terrible retribution. In attempting to compress his language he is sometimes slightly obscure, and his verse is occasionally harsh, but never feeble, never without meaning. The Buccaneer is followed by a poem of very different character, entitled The Changes of Home, in which is related the affection of two young persons, in humble life, whose marriage is deferred until the lover shall have earned the means of subsistence; his departure in search of gain; his return in disappointment; his second departure, and death in absence — a sad history, and one that is too often lived. Factitious Life, Thoughts on the Soul, and The Husband's and Wife's Grave, are the longest of his other poems, and, as well as his shorter pieces, they are distinguished for high religious purpose, profound philosophy, simple sentiment, and pure and vigorous diction.

All the writings of DANA belong to the permanent literature of the country. His prose and poetry will find every year more and more readers. Something resembling poetry "is oftentimes borne into instant and turbulent popularity, while a work of genuine character may be lying neglected by all except the poets. But the tide of time flows on, and the former begins to settle to the bottom, while the latter rises slowly and steadily to the surface, and goes forward, for a spirit is in it."