1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Anonymous, Review of Browning, An Essay on Mind with other Poems; Imperial Magazine 10 (May 1828) 459-62.



It has been said, that "modesty is always a concomitant of genuine merit," and the position is too firmly established to admit of any dispute. This may probably furnish a reason, why the volume before us appears as an anonymous production. Superior talents, however, cannot always lie concealed. Both curiosity and more exalted motives will conspire to trace them to their legitimate source, and the friends of genius will contrive means to announce their possessor to the world.

The writer of these poems, we understand, is a Miss Barret, a young lady who resides near Malvern, and, at the time when they were written, we are informed, from unquestionable authority, that she was only eighteen years of age. In courting the muse at this precocious period, Miss Barret exhibits nothing singular. Many at this season of life have attempted to climb Parnassus; but they have been unable to ascend its slippery heights, and to all their invocations, the daughters of Jupiter and Mnemosyne have lent an unpropitious ear. It is the lot, however, of this young lady, to have woo'd the sacred Nine with more success; and through their assistance, she has been enabled to ascend the Aonian mount, and to take her stand on a conspicuous elevation.

The preface to this volume is written in a strain of playful humour; but the numerous references that are made to authors of distinguished celebrity, in whom the attributes of mind have been strongly developed in nearly all their varieties, display an intimate acquaintance with their distinct pursuits, the peculiarities of which are marked with masterly precision. The notes which are appended to the "Essay on Mind," confirm the truth of this statement, and furnish convincing evidence, that the writer has read much, and accompanied her reading with more than common discrimination.

There are two lights in which this poem presents itself to our observation. The first relates to its philosophical character, and the second, to its poetical execution.

In regard to the former, Miss Barret has clearly distinguished between Matter and Mind, assigning to each its exclusive characteristics. She then expatiates on the varied operations of the latter, traces visible phenomena to their respective sources, and points out causes, which, in their combined or solitary influence, produce the results that mark and diversify the intellectual world. These discriminations are illustrated by an appeal to numerous authors, both ancient and modern, whose names are inscribed on the pedestal of fame, surrounded with records of their great achievements in literature, science, and the polite arts. Her poem is not encumbered with what may be called a severe metaphysical analysis; but she has learnt to "catch the manners living as they rise," and to range without control over the face of intellectual nature, which seems spread before her in its ample dimensions, beneath a sky of unclouded serenity.

Her poetical abilities keep pace with her philosophical energies; but of these, the reader will be able to judge from the few specimens which are subjoined. The poem opens with the following paragraph:—

Since Spirit first inspired, pervaded all,
And Mind met Matter, at the Eternal's call—
Since dust weighed genius down, or Genius gave,
Th' immortal halo to the mortal's grave:
Th' ambitious soul her essence hath defined,
And Mind hath eulogized the powers of Mind.
Ere Revelation's holy light began
To strengthen Nature and Illumine Man—
When Genius, on Icarian pinions flew,
And Nature's pencil, Nature's portrait drew;
When Reason shudder'd at her own wan beam,
And hope turned pale beneath the sickly gleam—
Even then bath Mind's triumphant influence spoke,
Dust own'd the spell, and Plato's spirit woke—
Spread her eternal wings, and rose sublime
Beyond the expanse of circumstance and time:
Blinded but free, with faith instinctive, soared
And found her home where prostrate saints adored. — p. 5.

From alluding to the present state of Rome, Miss Barret prognosticates the future destiny of England in the following lines, the poetry of which, is more pleasing than the prediction.

Alas! alas! so Albion shall decay,
And all my country's glory pass away!
So shall she perish, as the mighty must,
And be Italia's rival — in the dust;
While her ennobled sons. her cities fair,
Be dimly thought of midst the things which were!
Alas! alas! her fields of pleasant green.
Her woods of beauty, and each well-known scene!
Soon o'er her plains shall grisly ruin haste,
And the gay vale become the silent waste!
Ah! soon, perchance, our native tongue forgot—
The land may hear strange words it knoweth not;
And the dear accents which our bosoms move,
With sounds of friendship or with tones of love,
May pass away; or, conn'd on mouldering page,
Gleam 'neath the midnight lamp for unborn sage;
To tell our dream-like tale to future years,
And wake the historian's smile, and school-boy's tears! — p. 20.

In the following lines on the extremes concentrated in man, "the sound is an echo to the sense."

Man! man! thou poor antithesis of power!
Child of all time! yet creature of an hour!
By turn, chameleon of a thousand forms,
The lord of empires, and the food of worms!
The little conqueror of a petty space,
The more than mighty, or the worse than base!
Thou ruined land-mark in the desert way,
Betwixt the all of glory, and decay!
Fair beams the torch of science in thine hand.
And sheds its brightness o'er the glimmering land;
While in thy native grandeur bold and free,
Thou bidst the wilds of nature smile for thee,
And treadest ocean's paths full royally
Earth yields her treasures up — celestial air
Receives thy globe of life — when, journeying there,
It bounds from dust, and bends its course on high,
And walks, in beauty, through the wandering sky.
And yet, proud clay! thine empire is a span,
Nor all thy greatness makes thee more than man!
While knowledge, science, only serve t' impart
The god thou wouldst be, and the thing thou art. — p. 28.

The following apostrophe to sir Isaac Newton, carries with it its own evidence.

Divinest Newton! if my pen may shew
A name so mighty, in a verse so low—
Still let the sons of science, joyful, claim
The bright example of that splendid name!
Still let their lips repeat, my page bespeak,
The sage, how learned! and the man, how meek!
Too wise, to think his human follies less;
Too great, to doubt his proper littleness;
Too strong, to deem his weakness pass'd away;
Too high in soul, to glory in his clay;
Rich in all nature, but her erring side
Endowed with all of science-but its pride. — p. 42.

On the mode in which spirit communicates thought to spirit, Miss Barrett thus ventures her opinion.

Thus thought must bend to words! Some sphere of bliss,
Ere long, shall free her from th' alloy of this:
Some kindred home for mind — some holy place,
Where spirits look on spirits "face to face,"—
Where souls may see, as they themselves are seen,
And voiceless intercourse may pass between,
All pure — all free! as light, which doth appear
In its own essence incorrupt and clear!
One service, praise! one age, eternal youth!
One tongue, intelligence! one subject, truth. — p. 51.

Our next quotation expresses the fair writer's opinion of poetry.

Oh! silent be the withering tongue of those
Who call each page, bereft of measure, prose;
Who deem the muse possessed of such faint spells,
That, like poor fools, she glories in her bells;
Who hear her voice alone in tinkling chime,
And find a line's whole magic in its rhyme;
Forgetting, if the gilded shrine be fair.
What purer spirit may Inhabit there!
For such, — indignant at her question'd might,
Let Genius cease to charm — and Scott to write. — p. 67.

From the specimens thus given, the reader will be enabled to form some estimate of the writer's talents. We had marked several other passages for quotation; but we must not forget that other works have a claim upon our pages. It is a little volume, with the perusal of which we have been much pleased, and we wish the fair authoress all the success to which her merit is entitled. We have noticed a few rugged lines, and some objectionable terminations, such as "abroad" and "Lord," and we could wish that the antiquated "for aye," had not been so frequently introduced, but these trifling blemishes sink into insignificance, when compared with its numerous excellencies. Should Miss B. again court the Muses with equal success, she need not blush when prefixing her name to acknowledge that the "Essay on Mind" was the production of the same pen.