1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Washington Allston

John Neal, in "American Writers" Blackwood's Magazine 16 (November 1824) 560-62.



WASHINGTON ALSTON — the painter. This fine artist has written some poetry: and, we are sorry to say, one poem — called the "Paint King." There are, certainly, two or three fine passages in it; but we never knew whether Mr. Alston is making fun of M. G. Lewis — or imitating him: whether he is caricaturing the extravagance of another; or playing off his own — under cover: whether he is in earnest or not. As a painter, he knows very well that any such equivocal disclosures of intention, or design, would be the death of an artist, whatever were his merit, in other matters. — Nobody can mistake the purpose of the following lines; wherefore everybody enjoys them:—

His whip was a torch, and his spur was a match;
And over his horse's left eye was a patch,
To keep it from burning the manger....

His teeth were calcined, and his tongue was so dry,
It rattled against them, as though you should try
To play the piano with thimbles.—

A touch, by the way, quite Shakspearean; as, where the bard says,—

—The poor beetle that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

No doubt: but quere — how great a pang does the poor beetle find, when a giant dies?

Let us return. Caricature M. G. Lewis, if you will; burlesque anybody's poetry, and welcome: turn what you please into ridicule; but — in mercy to us — in mercy to yourself — let your purpose be unequivocal. We may laugh in the wrong place, else; and mistake your poetry for nonsense.

The truth may be, perhaps, that Mr. Alston ran ashore, like many a good fellow before him, while trying to steer two courses at once. Perhaps he began, with a serious design, to manufacture some "godlike poetry:" pushed on, with tolerable success, until he took fire; — when, afraid of being laughed at, he put himself out. We have known many such catastrophes. People begin seriously: say something, by and by; or do something, very extravagant — just on the confines of the ridiculous — just balancing between sublimity and burlesque — when, afraid of having it caricatured, or misrepresented, or mistaken — or tilted over, into the gulph, by another, they even tilt it over themselves, and have the credit of it: like smugglers, who, when the duties are high, and the informer is well paid, inform against themselves, and make money by the job; — or, perhaps, Mr. Alston began the poem in a frolic; worked away, helter-skelter, until he had written something more seriously than he desired — and much better than he wished: when, like many a living author, whom we could name, — without patience or self-denial enough to preserve the idea, till it would come in play — discretion enough to throw it aside altogether; or dexterity enough to interweave it, without spoiling the whole piece-he lugs it in, to the ruin of his original plan. Some poets, afraid of being caricatured by others, take the trouble to caricature themselves. If they run their head against a post, they always begin the laugh. If they do anything very foolish, they know well enough, that if they don't tell of it, somebody else will. Thus Homer, after his absurd comparison of armies to bees — protected himself by his frogs and mice. Thus Cowper, in his Task, and "Gilpin," laid an anchor to windward. Thus M. G. Lewis, in his "Giles Jollop the grave; and the Brown Sally Greene," secured himself, and all his admirers, for ever, from eternal ridicule. — It reminds us of a friend's advice — "If you ever offer yourself to a woman," said he, "do it so, that if she refuse you, she herself shall never he able to tell whether you were in earnest or not." — So, too, with Lord Byron. What is Beppo — what is Don Juan, but a caricature of Childe Harold? — the very point on which that incoherent poem was most vulnerable. And Mr. Moore's criticism on his Lallah Rookh, put into the month of Fadladeen — what was that, but offering himself in such a way, that, if he were rejected, we should never know whether he were serious or not? — You are surprised. We could mention fifty more of these contrivances, to escape accountability and ridicule. Point us out a single writer, of any age — if you can — who has not been guilty of them; or one, who has not been diverted from his original design, by accidental thoughts — rhymes — or mistaken scratches of a pen; — like a painter, by a blot; a captain, or a chess-player, by an accidental move. Point us out a single one, who, when he is waggishly disposed, can bear to lose an eloquent or affecting passage, if it pop into his head; or one, who, when he is running before the wind — with absolute poetry very sail set — has enough self-denial to hold on his way, in spite of a joke: one who-if it be good for anything, will not find a place for it sooner or later — as he would, in chase, for a man overboard — for drift wood, with great carbuncles growing to it — or for a dolphin tumbling in his wake.

Long after the appearance of the "Paint King," Mr. Alston wrote some lines upon the Peak of Chimborazo, in which was one passage of extraordinary power. He describes it, after nightfall, — overtopping the other mountains — rejoicing in the sun-set — and luminous with royalty. "Thou of the purple robe and diadem of gold!" he says: — a line worth his "Paint King," — the whole of it forty times over. Let no man venture to pronounce positively upon the first movements of genius. — It is very painful to us — of course — to allude again to the Edinburgh castigation of Lord Byron, (a castigation, by the way, that made Lord Byron; but for that, he would, probably, have lived, and been forgotten: that stung him into "convulsive life;") but we would warn everybody on this point. It is in the history of all extraordinary men. All have endured a like trial. They are all exposed, in their infancy, to a seasoning like that of the Spartan children. It is fatal to the weak — none but the offspring of the giants can outlive it. H. K. White perished. Mr. Alston, himself, had a picture shown to him one day. "What is your opinion? — speak freely, I pray you," said a person to him. Mr. A. declined. He was really unwilling. The other insisted — "It was the work of a young friend. He must have Mr. A.'s opinion." "Well, then," said he — "well, then, to deal plainly with you — it is a wretched affair. — There is no ground for hope — not even for hope. Let him give up the idea. He never can make a painter." — "It was painted by yourself." — "No! — impossible." — "It was — look — there is your name; and here — see — here is the date — only seven years ago, you perceive."

Another warning to those, who give out a rash judgment upon the youthful. Many a brave heart has been broken by the hasty word of a critic; and many a critic has persevered — like the lawgivers of the Medes and Persians — in maintaining every decree — right or wrong, after it had once gone forth.