1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Daniel Bryan

James McHenry, Review of Bryan, The Mountain Muse; American Monthly Magazine [Philadelphia] 1 (April 1824) 324-30.



Since the commencement of our editorial labours, the chief object of our criticisms has been to convince American writers, that in order to succeed, it is necessary to exercise judgment mid taste, as well as imagination and fancy, to adhere to the rules of consistency and good sense, as well as to indulge in deep feeling and ardent enthusiasm. We have held out clearness of thought and purity of language, as the most valuable and most attractive requisites in all kinds of composition; and with respect to poetical composition we have endeavoured to show that it cannot even exist without such an arrangement of words and syllables as will produce harmony.

For deficiency in the last particular, we have refused to acknowledge Lord Byron as a good poet and for the same reason, as well as for his frequent impenetrable cloudiness of both thought and language, we have denied to Percival that character, and yet we have unreservedly expressed our conviction that these are men of extraordinary genius. That we have found the greater portion of their works disagreeable, and some parts of them altogether unreadable, does not, therefore, arise from our supposing them to be written without genius, according to the common acceptation of the term, but because they are written without judgment and taste, and because, as works of literature, they are frequently destitute of that precision calculated to impress them on the mind, and, as poetical works, almost always devoid of that which is the true soul of song, harmony of versification.

To show, however, that strenuous as we are in support of the doctrine that "Good versification is essential to good poetry," we are not of the opinion that it is all that is essential, we have selected for the subject of our present remarks, the well-versified poem, whose title is at the head of this article. In the general structure of its numbers, notwithstanding some hobbling lines, this poem is as harmonious as the most fastidious ear could wish; yet we must pronounce it a bad poem, because it is neither planned with judgment nor executed with taste. It is a long performance, manifesting immense genius, if by genius be meant the faculty of inventing incidents, and delineating nature. In these respects, Mr. Bryan is, at least, equal to either Percival or Byron, while in the tuneful movement of his strains, is much their superior. We do not believe that lines of equal tenderness and melody with the following, ever came from the pen of either of time last named authors.

The following passage also affords a good specimen of Mr. Bryan's talent for constructing blank verse.

The lonesome Solitudes had now to him
The enlivening charms of sweet society.
Benignant Love breathed balmy blessings round:
And fair Eliza's Beauty seem'd to bloom
In every flower and blossom of the Wild;
And every tuneful note that sweetly trill'd
From the harmonious Warblers of the Groves,
Seemed but the echo of her flowing Voice!

The following passage also affords a good specimen of Mr. Bryan's talent for constructing blank verse.

—He found his Charmer fair
And lovely as before. The deepen'd blush
Of cheerful Health and freshest Beauty, ting'd
Her smiling cheek. — Her lustre-streaming eye
With thoughtful tenderness divinely shone;
Her graceful symmetry of person seem'd,
Celestial elegance by Nature's skill
Transfer'd to earthly Beauty. Sweetly soft
Her honey-breathing lips their strains effus'd;
Now in convivial converse, now in songs
Of tenderest melody. Their interview,
On either side, confusion mark'd; but most
His agitated mien and downcast eye,
Th' unnerving power of timid love betrayed.

The description of the morning at the commencement of the third book, is highly poetical and like many other detached passages in the poem, prove that the author is not only gifted with a musical ear, but with a lively fancy, to which if he could only add judgment and good taste, we think he would be able to produce a better poem, than any we have yet seen written on this side of the Atlantic. The description to which we allude, is not too long, and is, therefore, free from a fault exceedingly prevalent in other parts of this work, the fault of prolixity. We shall here extract it.

The Queen of morn, in crimson robes array'd,
The shadow-woven curtains now withdrew
From round her roseate couch, and lifting high
Above the Orient God her blushing cheek,
Soft, amorous smiles, upon him cast, and woo'd
Him from his blazing chamber.

As the quantity of other matter intended for this number, compels us to brevity in our present review, we can afford no more space for eulogy on this poem, if we even thought it deserved more; but we have in reality, we believe, gone over all the topics for which we can afford to praise it. The disagreeable task of censure now becomes our duty; and if we were inclined to severity, and had leisure and space to indulge it, we should here meet with ample materials on which to exercise it. We believe, however, that the author was young when he permitted his Muse to plunge into the absurdities, and commit the extravagancies that constitute so large a portion of this production, and what tends still more to mollify our critical wrath, is the information we have received that he has long since become conscious of the errors of his youthful and hair-brained Muse, and is now heartily sorry for the presumption with which in her first efforts, she so daringly overleaped the bounds of proper discretion and sound sense. He has, we are told, endeavoured to chasten his taste, and improve his judgment. He no longer mistakes bombast for sublimity, nor pedantry for elegance, and we dare say, that, if he had this poem to write now, be would not bring the Seraphs of Heaven down to the top of the Allegany Mountain, there to sit in "colloquy sublime," to determine on the best method of persuading James Boone to ramble into the forests of Kentucky, and spy out the land. The greater part of the first book, which consists of between nine and ten hundred lines is occupied with an extravagant account of this Seraphic conclave, or caucus, as is now the popular term. We can scarcely imagine a more perfect instance of the bathos, than representing an enterprise so manifestly of human suggestion, and arising from the impulse of human curiosity, as that of a forest hunter traversing mountains and penetrating into adjoining wilds, to be the result of a grave and formal consultation of celestial spirits, who not only take the trouble of descending from Heaven to earth, but of erecting a most extraordinary fabric, a Firmamental hail, on the top of the Allegany mountain, in which to hold their conference on the subject. Perhaps we could not select from the work a better specimen of the false sublime with which it abounds, than the description of this absurd edifice, and of the materials with which it was composed. Our readers will also find in it a fair proportion of those pedantic and jaw-fracturing words, for which the poetry of Joel Barlow has been celebrated; but against the very sound of which the tuneful Nine have such an inveterate antipathy, that they have vowed never to acknowledge any production that happens to be defiled with any of them, as proceeding from their inspiration, nor to admit its guilty author, unless he repents and makes proper atonement for his crime, into the regions of Parnassus. We wish the passage were shorter, but in order that our readers may thoroughly comprehend its absurdity, long as it is, we must give it entire.

Meanwhile command
Was given th' etherial Guardians to prepare,
High o'er the Alleganean Mountain-Heights,
For the Divan, a FIRMAMENTAL HALL.
Anon, obeident to the high behest,
The mighty Spirit of the welkin deeps
Bade convoluted winds, with furious flight
And curvilinear sweep, encompass all
The Atmospheric bounds; and dash and roll
To the appointed place of Rendezvous,
With all their fulminating Magazines,
Th' encircled Regiments of mingled clouds!
The gloomy Vast, impetuous howlings pierce;
The Northern Gates, tempestuous Whirlwinds burst;
And Mountain-Caverns wide-expanded, vent
Their hissing blasts. Against impinging clouds,
And driving strength, th' encircling Tempests rush
And from their boundary's wide circumference roll
Converging the dark billowy-mixing mass.
From cloud to cloud, in blazing torrents stream
Th' awaken'd fires electric: flashing flames
In forky grandeur, with ethereal light,
Projected peaks of rolling vapour crown;
And all the nubilous involutions paint
With intermitting Lightning's vivid tints:
While glancing scintillations spangle thick
With dancing lustre all the clouded gloom;
And Angry Meteors, flaming as they fly,
With burning paths their ragged way emblaze.
From ridge to ridge of the big Mountain-Mass,
Dark sullen Thunders by the conflicts wak'd,
Their sky-convulsing detonations pour.
Their destin'd point, th' embattled volumes reach;
And rest. The grand, the wonderous Edifice,
The great th' ethereal Architect begins.
Wide over Allegany's summit spread,
Of close impacted, squared and polish'd clouds
Constructed, the extended base appears;
And of the same compressed material form'd,
Octagonal the burnish'd walls ascend,
Sublimely towering through the midway skies!
Broad sheets of lightning constitute the roof,
Whose flashing splendors flood with day the Heavens,
When Night spreads o'er the sun her darkling wings.
Reflected from the Fabric's upright squares,
Prismatic tinctures paint the fragment-clouds,
Which float unused in widening fleeces round.
Its myriad windows and its thousand gates
Were all of pure translucent ether wrought,
And all with bright festoons superbly hung
Of pansied clouds, and wreathed lightnings made.
Both North and South of the magnific dome,
In grand Corinthian style and towering state,
On Meteor-Pillars rear'd, refulgent shone
Its roomy porticos. Innumerous seats,
Of downy clouds composed, and white and soft
As Cygnet plumes, in graceful circles ranged;
Around th' interior of the shining hall,
All ready for the Angel host appear'd.
A canopy of Rainbows intertwined
In spiral union, forming in the whole,
A beauteous arch of intermingling hues
As rich as Fancy's pencil can portray;
In all their gayly blended forms can be,
High o'er each line of dazzling sofas bends.

On reading this magnificent description, this "much ado about nothing," to a female friend who had recently crossed the Allegany Mountain, she was so struck with the sense of the ludicrous it excited, that she observed that "the angels had put themselves to a great deal of unnecessary trouble, considering all they had to accomplish — for she thought that when they condescended to deliberate so solemnly on the sending of James Boone to Kentucky, they might have been content with a decent apartment in Stottler's Tavern, as it would have been sufficiently respectable for the purpose." The fair critic, however, was wrong in assuming the existence of "Stottler's Tavern," at the time this conference was held.

Our readers will now have a tolerable idea of both the beauties and the blemishes that we consider characteristic of this poem. Its subject is the adventures of Colonel Boone in the Western country, a subject in itself sufficiently interesting and susceptible of romantic embellishment, to form the basis of a poetical tale, if constructed with judgment, and narrated with taste. We think it a subject in every respect as well suited for poesy as any of the Scottish Border occurrences, which Scott or Hogg have made the themes of their song. Had our author followed their example, and attempted nothing but what was natural to his subject, we are. seriously of opinion that he would have produced as pleasing a poetical romance, as any of theirs. But he committed the fault to which young writers are peculiarly prone, that of overdoing his task. No matter how simple and natural may be their topic, they imagine that they can never do enough to render it grand and elevated. They are perpetually straining to be sublime, when they should only endeavour to be beautiful. A mistaken opinion of what will produce an effect, is the cause of this. It requires some experience in life to convince them that unnatural elevation and pomp are not so efficient for this purpose as ease, gracefulness and propriety.

If Mr. Bryan be now aware of this, and still retains the ardent feeling and tuneful taste, with which he wrote some parts of the Mountain Muse, we should be glad soon to see another of his productions on our table; for we should, indeed, be much deceived, if with his acquired judgment, and his inherent talents, he did it produce a work as much deserving of praise as the present is of censure.