1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Fitz-Greene Halleck

Anonymous, in "Poetical Writers of the United States" Philadelphia Monthly Magazine NS 1 (July 1829) 626-29.



The poetry of Halleck has been pronounced, by what is termed the popular voice, worthy of preservation from the furious torrent of verse that is pouring upon us from the modern Helicon. He has certainly written some things which entitle him to much praise, for the taste and feeling that they exhibit. He does not appear to think, as is thought by too many, that poetry may be easily written by any one who happens to have an inclination for rhyming, and has at command an abundant supply of tropes and figures, ready to be worked up into whatever form of a composition he may choose, in the moment of his happy inspiration, to adopt. We may discover in some of his poetical productions evidence of his wish to avoid the fantastical conceits, the confusion of images, and the wearisome verbiage, which are so prevalent in this brazen age of verse. This is no trivial matter, considering the evil spirit of the time, which has fallen upon so many persecutors of the muse. He has not always given his fancy unrestrained license, and permitted it to hold the ascendency over his judgment. There is a degree of common sense observable in his poetry, which is not very readily discovered among our fashionable metre-mongers. He does not think that, because he may have come into the world with poetical propensities, he should permit them to, take entire possession of him, and force him to indite verses, whether he has or has not substantial thoughts to constitute the body of them, and the animating spirit to breathe into them the breath of perfect life. He has, however, unfortunately, too often been persuaded by "a truant disposition," to forsake the career in which he has given some indications of strength, for one that he can never pursue, but with feeble step and laborious effort. In poetry of description, and that which depends on moral impressions for its power, he is capable of producing works of which he need not be ashamed. In these departments of literature, his perceptions are generally correct, and his taste rejects the frivolous ornament which is so profusely heaped upon the works of modern bards, as to conceal them almost entirely from view. But he is not the wit that he is ambitious to he thought. His is not the rare fancy that surprises us by the suddenness and vivacity of its conceptions, and the rapidity with which they are combined-the true wit, which is

nature to advantage dress'd,
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd.

There is apparent, in all his attempts at badinage, a struggle between his natural gravity of disposition, and his anxiety to be distinguished as a humorist. Whenever he abandons the serious vein, to which his feeling and judgment prompt him, to indulge in gay sallies and sportive fancies, we detect the artificial excitement to which he is compelled to resort to produce them. His "Fanny" must be classed with the innumerable productions, which bad example and false taste have brought into existence, and which have enjoyed the ephemeral life, that was protracted enough to prove the weak judgment of their authors. The subject of this poem is, in itself, so uninteresting as to require the utmost exertion of ingenuity to secure it attention. It is only by the most brilliant and well-sustained efforts of a fertile imagination, that topics, which in themselves are trivial, can be rendered of sufficient moment to secure the. works in which they are presented a favorable reception, and affix to them the stamp of approbation, that shall not be removed, when curiosity is appeased and novelty is at an end. The fable of "Fanny" contains nothing to excite our interest, and in the progress of the tale, there is displayed but faint evidence of its author's power to wield with effect the shafts of satire. A careful and candid perusal of the poem will result in the conviction of its deficiency in that felicity of invention and sprightliness of humor — the genuine "vis comica," which are the only qualities that can preserve the class of productions to which it belongs from neglect or reproach. Nor are the occasional pieces which its author and some of his friends have written, under the names of "Croaker," "Croaker & Co.," and "Croaker, junior," more entitled than is "Fanny," to approbation. These effusions, which first appeared in the New York Evening Post, attracted, at the time of their publication, the attention which will always, in some degree, be given to writings having a professed satirical purpose, and directed against the follies of the day. Such productions are not of a nature to entitle them to much regard, after the individuals and the occasions that brought them into notice have passed away, and ceased to impart to them the temporary interest which they once excited. It is to be regretted that Mr. Halleck has wasted so much of his strength on works which could have been designed for only a brief existence. Satire, to produce its proper effect, should neither be so local and personal, as to confine its influence to certain contracted limits, within which it exhausts itself, nor so general and indefinite that, for want of designating and identifying its real objects, it fails to produce any salutary and lasting impression.

Although Halleck is not fairly entitled to the praise of a wit, he is not altogether unworthy that of a poet. He has not, indeed, written any work which can properly be classed with entire and regular poems. His muse is, perhaps, too discursive and impatient of labor, to submit to the systematic toil which these require, whatever may be asserted of the facility with which genius enables its favorites to execute their enterprises, His best poetical efforts have been employed on "Alnwick Castle," "Marco Bozzaris," and the address "To a Rose, brought from near Alloway Kirk."

His reputation as a poet is dependent for its support on these brief productions. He must not complain if he is numbered with some of his predecessors, who have derived an enviable celebrity from the excellence of works, which do not exceed these in extent, and which have survived the attacks both of critics and of time, the most infallible critic of all. They escaped the fate which has consigned more voluminous works to oblivion, because in them were condensed all the qualities which are deficient in others, more elaborate, diffused, and of greater pretensions. "Alnwick castle" is conceived in a spirit, which, had it been sustained throughout the poem, would have acquired for the author a higher degree of praise than he can justly claim, considering the inequality which it exhibits, as an entire composition. His restless anxiety to indulge his propensity for humor has seduced him, in the production of this piece, from the dignified tenor in which it was commenced, into a strain of levity, incompatible with the nature of his subject, and detracting materially from the merit which might have been attributed to him, had he successfully resisted his inclination for frivolous conceits. In "Marco Bozzaris" he has shown a resolution to do justice to the hero and his gallant achievement, worthy of the theme which he has chosen. He is remunerated for his exertion, by the power and beauty which distinguish his work, and the applause which he has received for its construction. It is pervaded by a fervidness of feeling and a propriety of sentiment, which entitle it to high commendation. Of all his poetical writings, it must be admitted to be that which gives him the most indisputable right to the enviable honors of a poet.