1817 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Milton Harney

John Neal, in Review of Harney, Crystalina; The Portico [Baltimore] 3 (January 1817) 23-38.



Crystalina, a Fairy Tale, by an American. New-York, printed by George F. Hopkins. 1816. Duodecimo. pp. 112.

This is the most splendid production, and one that offers the most ample field for the varieties of criticism, that ever came before us. The powers of genius are sometimes as well measured and determined by the magnitude of its errours, as by its beauties. Every flight is an adventure, and it cannot be expected, that every adventure should succeed. The genius that would mount high enough to drink inspiration from its fountain, must always risk a proportionate decent: must always risk being blinded by its glory, or maddened by its heat. A spirit less ambitious, risks neither the one nor the other. Its flight is uniform: but though its plumes are never ruffled by a fall, they scatter no sunshine in their course. In the performance of our duty, we are sometimes called upon to gaze upon deadening uniformity — acres of mole hills — or worlds of waveing and indefinite lights and shadows — but we are more than compensated, when we can catch a glimpse of nature in her unbroken majesty, her Andes and her Alps — of the overwhelming sublimities of mind, when it assembles its mightiest imagery — of young genius, that nursling of the sun, when it soars amid the storm, hearkens to its thunders, and sports with its "arrowy lightning." In the poem before us, there is every variety to call forth our attention, and we shall endeavour to do it justice.

All who have thought upon the subject of Fairies and Goblins, and this sort of gentry, have no doubt assigned to them, in their imagination, a form and size, something like Gulliver's Lilliputians. Their powers may be very great, but we have never conceived them to be unlimited, as our bard has chosen to represent them. He loosens the tempest rather too often, and has appropriated to his poem too much of the real machinery, which has been so long consecrated to the towering epic — that mightiest offering which man can make to Apollo. We do not so much object to the use of all these powers, as to their employment on so vast a scale. Let the spirits of the air, of the earth, and of the ocean, be impressed into the service of Oberon — let the "thunder speak from his dark blue cloud—" let the lightnings shake their wings, but let all this be done in miniature.

We can produce passages from Crystalina which have not been surpassed in our language. Spencer himself, who seemed to have condensed all the radiance of Fairy-land upon his starry page, never dreamed of more exquisitely fanciful scenery, than that which our bard has sometimes painted. Every step of Oberon's power demolishes as much of glittering magick, as the foot of mortal could do, in a bright morning, if every dew-drop were a palace. Had this poet written before Shakespeare and Spencer, he would have been acknowledged as the child of fancy; but now half his finest thoughts lose their impression, from the fear we feel, that they may have been borrowed. In the course of this review, we shall point out some very extraordinary resemblances between this writer's poetry, and that of some other moderns, which we have the charity to believe are purely accidental: for no being who could write as he has sometimes written from himself — no heart that was ever touched by the magick of invention, that was ever warmed by one sun-beam, from the genuine source of poesy, could stoop to borrow the most splendid thoughts or expressions, from the loftiest bard that ever shook his wild notes from the organ of minstrelsy. Some of these resemblances, we know, are not imitations; for we know that the passages were published simultaneously. Such instances are uncommon, and we feel rejoiced, that three native American poets can, each with equal justice, repel the charge of reciprocal imitation.

The radical defect of this poem, we take to be the consequence of the author's want of confidence in his own judgment: for no man who could stream such coruscations at the touch of poesy, as he has done, could mistake the feeble twinkling which he sometimes emits, for the flashes of genius. Had he dared to think for himself — to blot out some passages, which his judgment, we are sure, could not have approved, the remainder would have done credit to the fancy of any poet, living or dead. We know that this is a high award, but we are not afraid of being able to support it, by the passages to which we shall call the attention of our readers.

We have not the pleasure to know this author, even by name; we shall speak of him therefore, as far as our abilities will permit, without the fear of being charged with partiality, on the one hand, or prejudice, on the other. It is not our intention to run a parallel between the author of Crystalina, and the Shakespear, or Spencer, or Dryden, or Milton of other countries — for they moved in a different world; their march was on the winds:

Clouds were their chariots — and their coursers flame.

nor with Byron, who steps fearlessly into the midst of passion, and tumult, and madness, and controls them with the hand of destiny and of empire. We shall not compare our author with any of these, though he occasionally resembles them all. We shall not compare him with the author of our "Airs of Palestine," a poem which has given the same independence to the genius of our country, that the revolution did to its government. Crystalina's author moves in a different creation, but he moves in as radiant a circle, and at as elevated a point, in his limited sphere, as any whom we have mentioned. His faults are numerous and great, but they arise from the luxuriance of his imagination.

The tale is briefly this: Rinaldo loves Crystalina, and his love is returned; but the maiden will not consent to wed him, until he shall have acquired glory "in danger's bloody paths." The knight covers himself with honours in many a battle, and flies to king Amigrand, her father, to claim his promised reward. Crystalina had strangely disappeared, and no traces were left of her probable fate. Rinaldo is at length directed to an aged Seer, a Necromancer, who discovers by his magick powers, that Oberon, the fairy king, had stolen her. The Seer then arms the knight with a cross, and some other consecrated weapons, and points out the way to Fairy-land. His adventures there are related; the temptations that crowded upon his senses — the various stratagems and enchantments that Oberon makes use of to seduce, persuade, or terrify him; but the knight raises the cross, and all obstacles are annihilated. He finds his mistress, bears her away in triumph, and invites the Seer to return with him to the court of Armigrand. The Seer turns out to be his own father, and the earliest friend of the father of Crystalina; and thus the story is happily concluded. We come now to the poetry; when the knight meets the seer, the sun was setting:

—as he passed, his retroverted gaze
Set all the clouds behind him in a blaze,
Which sight, advancing up the eastern sky
In dusky pomp, beheld with sparkling eye;
Behind the hills she stay'd her ebon car,
Withheld her moon, and muffled every star.

The "warrior tall," and "petrifactions white," and "pebbles clean," in page 39, are perfectly contemptible — such epithets are absolute antipodes to all dignity, beauty, and precision.

Neither Shakespear, nor any other flashing spirit of the days that have gone by, ever looked upon morning, with more of the fullness of poetry, than our author has done, in the following glorious lines:

Thrice has yon moon her pearly chariot driv'n
Across the starry wilderness of Heav'n,
In lonely grandeur; thrice the morning star
Danc'd on the eastern hills before Hyperion's car.

The Knight relates his approach to the home of his mistress, after his return from the wars — it was evening:

On spire and turret glanc'd the setting sun,
And the proud pile in all its glory shone,
While groves of myrtle glimmer'd on my sight,
And from their foliage shook a quiv'ring light.

Numerous portents had scattered their shadows over his anticipations: every sound seemed the presage of the disappointment of his hopes — in that state of mind, the following description of his feelings, is natural and fine:

I trembled, sigh'd, and wept, I scarce knew why;
The wild-bird's warblings, musical and clear,
Seem'd mournful dirges to my list'ning ear—

We cannot agree to the propriety of introducing the convulsive throes of nature — the burstings of volcanick mountains — to describe a bosom swelling with grief: the comparison is too common, and too disproportionate — The strength of Scotland's barriers is finely painted in the following lines:

Where mountains huge the rushing storms deride
And turn the glancing thunder-bolts aside.

There is genuine poetry, in the description of the effect produced by the incantations of the Seer; particularly in the picture of the demon who,

Flapp'd his black wings, and brush'd the creeping flame
From his green face.

Every lover of poetry will feel the beauty of the following lines:

The mountain reel'd, and from its tossing head
Th' affrighted tiger and the wild-wolf fled,
Whilst loosen'd rocks came tumbling from on high,
And blazing meteors shot athwart the sky.
Awhile, the Seer with stem, unalter'd face,
Survey'd, unmov'd, the horrors of the place;
Then from the wall his aged harp he took—
String after string with solemn hand he strook.
With low, wild prelude, gently he began,
And o'er the chords with careless fingers ran;
But when Rinaldo lean'd his anxious ear,
The old man's magic minstrelsy to hear,
With bolder hand the necromantic sage
Wak'd loftier tones, and rous'd poetic rage,
Till on the harp, impatient of control,
Impetuous rush'd the tempest of his soul.

What follows is very much after the manner of Pope:

So from some mountain's high and hoary brow,
A loosen'd crag starts silently and slow,
But gaining force, snore furiously it bounds,
The mountain thunders and the vale resounds—
The vaulted roof and dark recesses rung,
As wildly thus the hoary minstrel sung.

The "quaking fen," the "driving air," and the "wormy bed" of the corpse, are all admirable; and the line which follows, we think, has never been surpassed:

The clouds sailed by like a routed fleet.

The whole of the following picture is exquisitely drawn — while the hermit continued to sing to his "wizard lyre:"

Unearthly phantoms danced with frantick air,
Glar'd on the knight and shook their snaky hair.
But when he ceas'd, above, below, around,
Was seen no phantom, and was heard no sound;
Deep silence reigned — so still, so deep and dread
That they might hear the Fairy's lightest tread—
Might hear the spider as he wove his snare
From rock to rock, or snails soft creeping there.

The opening of "the magic volume" is attended with many strange and horrible sounds — among them:

The lone owl hooted on his wizard oak.

And when the old man again closed it:

—the troubled air
And rocking earth grew tranquil, still and fair.

We come now to one of the resemblances, of which we have spoken:

From the touch'd lyre a soft bewilder'd sound,
Of doubtful tones fell murmuring around.
The quivering chords, with light mysterious, glow,
And all around a silver lustre throw.

The reader of the "Airs of Palestine," will hardly fail to recollect the following lines of that exquisite poem:

As the young harper tries each quivering wire,
It leaps and sparkles with prophetic fire,
And with the kindling song the kindling rage
Around his fingers tremulously blaze.

The following description of morning is not merely beautiful — it is grand:

Aurora bright,
From yon tall mountain's oriental height,
Precipitates her cataracts of light.

And the effect of the Enchanter's tread upon the solitude of nature, when every thing that had life, testified its consciousness of proximity to this fearful being, is inimitably described:

The couchant tiger screamed as they pass'd by,
And on them wildly roll'd his meteor-eye!
The wolf sprang frighted from the crackling brake,
And in their pathway coil'd the hissing snake.—
—the mountain-tops, oak-crown'd,
Toss'd in the storm and echoed to the sound
Of trees uptorn, and thunders rolling round.

The opening to the second canto, is so masterly, and so entirely beyond the reach of common invention, that we forbear to make any remarks:

Tremendous scene! the prowlers of the wood
Stop'd in mid-chase and spar'd their victim's blood,
Fled to their caves, or crouching with alarm,
Howl'd at the passing spirits of the storm!
Eye-blasting spectres and bleach'd skeletons,
With snow-white raiment and disjointed bones,
Before them strode; and meteors, flickering dire:
Around them trail'd their scintillating fire,
Livid and pale as light of fun'ral pyre.

When the old man rebukes the storm—

The clouds dispers'd; again the tranquil moon
Sat in mid sky upon her silver throne,
And heaven's blue vault with stars unnumber'd shone.
No sound was heard, save where the torrent hoar
Down the steep mountain fell with sullen roar,
Or far away exploding long and loud,
The deep-ton'd thunder rent the fiery cloud.

The hero soon gets into Fairy-land, where he finds groves of harmony and flowers — The description is all beautiful, except what is going forward — they stand on tip toe, perhaps from a presentiment that their new visitor would expect some gambols for his entertainment.

We shall now point out a series of very singular and very close resemblances to Leigh Hunt, that excellent but affected poet; as in the lines printed in italics:

Ev'n at my hand, the fearless songsters sing
And round me flutter with familiar wing;
Or mid the flowers "like sun-beams glance about
Sipping with slender tongues the dainty nectar out."

The bathing scene is perfectly like Hunt:

Upon their beauteous bodies, with delight,
The billows leapt. "O! 'twas a pleasant sight
To see the waters dimple round for joy,
Climb their white necks and on their bosoms toy;
Like snowy swans, they vex'd the sparkling tide,"
Till little rainbows danc'd on ev'ry side.
Some swam, some floated, some on pearly feet
Stood sidelong, smiling exquisitely sweet.

"The swell of distant melod"y he heard;
Anon, a golden chariot appear'd,
Proudly advancing, drawn by peacocks fair,
"With gorgeous plumery, dancing in the air."

Infernal "shapes" danc'd on the fiery wall.

On foamy steeds that toss'd their manes on high
Beside them rode with princely gallantry.

How much, in every line of the preceding extracts, to remind us of the fascinating quaintness and simplicity of Rimini, and the richness of "The Feast of the Poets—"

The description of the palace is

Like gorgeous clouds that throng the setting sun.

The "pearly" river and "golden" shores and "huge" and "bright" palace, are all beneath prose — but the "gaudy multitude" of flowers atones for all.

We are now come to the description of Oberon's approach, and all the petty glories of that bewildering land, and except the sculptured clouds of ivory, we think it unequalled.

On this green Isle the splendid Palace stood,
And rainbow bridges arch'd the pearly flood—
A fairer bow fair Juno ne'er display'd
In vernal skies, tho' not, like Juno's, made
Of subtile sun-beams, but of solid gems,
Such as adorn imperial diadems.
Its blue was solid sapphire. Its gay green
Was massy emerald. The ruby sheen
Form'd its bright curve of rich and rosy red;
Its yellow hue the golden Topaz shed.
Seem'd either end on snow-white clouds to lie—
They were not clouds, but sculptur'd ivory!
And now a bugle breath'd a silver sound,
Whose notes with soft reverberations, round
Rang sweet and long.
"And now rode out a fairy cavalcade
In order'd march, with banners bright display'd,
With diamond lances and with golden helms,
And shields of gold emboss'd with sparkling gems,
Advanc'd the pageant; proud beneath each knight,
O'er grassy levels pranc'd their steeds milk-white,
Whose ivory hoofs in glitt'ring silver shod,
With nimble grace on blushing flow'rets trod.
Prancing they came, and as the trumpets blew,
They neigh'd for pride and arch'd their necks of snow;
Toss'd their proud heads indignant of the rein,
Champ'd their foam'd bits and paw'd the trembling plain;
Warrior and steed array'd for battle shone;
Whose burnish'd mail and bright caparison
Illum'd, far round, the flow'r-enwoven field,
AND RESTLESS SPLENDOURS FLASH'D FROM SHIELD TO SHIELD."
Loud in the van the wreathed bugle spoke,
"The rain-bow arch beneath the measur'd tread
Of "prancing steeds harmonious clangour made."

The curious will be amazed at the resemblance of the preceding lines to some which were given to us last July, and published in our October number, under the title of the Lyre of the Winds. That was fairy minstrelsy, and every line conspired to swell the concert. It is not possible that the author of either production could have seen the other. Here are the lines to wich we allude:

Now a silv'ry sob, as of elf-babe sighing,
Now distant, yet clear, like fairy-steed neighing,
When it springs on the air with a spirited shake,
And is answered again from the hare bell and brake,
When the cry of the bugle is heard for the strife,
And it gallops abroad full of laughter and life;
When a diamond-edg'd scymetar swings from each side,
And the streamers sing clearly and sharp as they ride,
When echo leans forward and mimics the sound
And melody keeps to their helmets fine ringing
And the minstrels of fairy-land prancing around,
On cymball-hoof'd chargers are shouting and singing,
When the sweet bursting sounds are all dancing and light,
As if spirits of harmony mingled in sight.
And clank'd their toned armour and pour'd their sweet breath
In a struggle for melody's wind woven wreath.

We select a few more lines for their resemblance to Hunt.

—domes, and turrets, bath'd in show'rs
Of saffron light, and, rais'd pre-eminent,
Tall Cupolas that propp'd the firmament!
And, lifted high on stately Colonade,
(With richest carvings flourish'd and portray'd,)
Balconies bright and galleries of gold—
A thousand pillars, all of ivory,
Adorn'd with wreaths and fairest imag'ry,
Romantic fancy nor elysian dream
E'er form'd so fair, so exquisite a dream.

The whole picture is fuller of fancy and fire than any modern production that we know.

The epithets are generally descriptive and appropriate, but we do not admire the perpetual recurrence of "huge" and "foamy," and "melancholy"; or the application of "sublime" to a fairy palace. The effects of enticement are pictured with all the breathing tenderness of a voluptuary:

Her glowing hand his glowing hand did press,
And from her forehead many a golden tress
Fell on the panting bosom of the Knight,
Whose fetter'd eyes grew dizzy at the sight.

Among the terrific sounds that amazed the knight in his solitude we give the preference to these, the "whet of daggers, gnash of iron teeth," and "the gasping breath of dying men."

The rainbow bridge is demolished too frequently even for magick: and when one of Oberon's tremendous spells is broken, the poet is too anxious for the introduction of his "frantic lightnings" "bickering mad meteors," &c. but when peace is restored:

And bowers and groves come dancing on the sight
And all the waters roll in saffron light,

we feels contented with his own way of managing his subject. The following are the richest, best finished, and most poetical lines in the whole poem:

In robes of green, fresh youths the concert led,
Measuring, the while, with nice, emphatic tread
Of tinkling sandals, the melodious sound
Of smitten timbrels; some, with myrtles crown'd,
Pour the smooth current of sweet melody,
Thro' ivory tubes — some blow the bugle free,
And some, at happy intervals, around,
With trumps sonorous swell the tide of sound;
Some, bending raptur'd o'er their golden lyres,
With cunning fingers fret the tuneful wires;
With rosy lips, some press the syren shell,
And, thro' its crimson labyrinths, impel
Mellifluous breath, with artful sink and swell.
Some blow the mellow, melancholy horn,
Which, save the Knight, no man of woman born,
E'er heard and fell not senseless to the ground,
With viewless fetters of enchantment bound.
The nodding trees its magic influence own,
And, spell-struck, drop their golden clusters down;
The forests quaver, and elysian bow'rs,
With pleasing tremors shed their fragrant flow'rs.
An awful silence, winds and waters keep;
And spell-chain'd brooks, that bound from steep to steep,
On jutting rocks, delay their headlong leap.

There is enchantment in the very language, it never was excelled. The indecision of the melancholy Titania, Oberon's queen, is admirably described:

She curses, blesses, sues, and now commands,
Bids him begone, yet stays him with her hands;
Embraces him, then pushes him away,—
Chides him for staying, and then bids him stay.—

The "silver white," and "diamond bright" hills we think about the silliest splendours we have seen; but he makes up for them in the following:

—true love was never sold,
'Twere sacrilege to barter love for gold;
For love is sacred — 'tis a gift of Heaven,
And only precious when 'tis freely given.

The "hoarse," rustling of the ravens wing is admirable; but the shield of the giant meets with an unaccountable transformation, now it is a "sable cloud," and not it is "sun-broad," which for the honour of common sense, we hope means something more than size. The idea of "rainbow robes" of light flung from the countless gems that lighted that little world upon all beneath it, is exquisitely beautiful, so is the "ocean" of light.

There never was a poet who has not at some time sung of a bark, a skiff, or a pinnace, when she sails into port — "chases the whistling brine," or eddying foam; but the following is quite as fine as any:

To see that pinnace cleaving with delight
The liquid em'rald, and diffusing wide,
Her golden glories on the quiv'ring tide!
Swift o'er the lake she fled before the wind,
And left a path of sparkling foam behind.

The means by which the knight discovers his mistres under her transformation is perfectly new and beautiful — She had been changed to a bird — after repeated attempts to call the attention of her knight, by flattering and beating her wings against the cage, she sings one of those strains, which had once made knights dope their lances to hear — The knight remembers the notes, and liberates her — and the restoration is conducted with great richness and skill — he kissed the "plumy" captive and it waked, warbled, and "shook its plumes of gold" — he invokes the powers of Heaven to assist him in dissolving the spell, and the bird becomes a vapour — then a slender column — then from above—

—loose golden tresses stream'd
Now snow-white garments indistinctly gleam'd.

But

He never lived who cannot fancy all.

The convulsion of that emerald lake when Oberon looked frowningly upon it — the monsters, "That strode upon the clouds and sailed upon the storm" — Auster's "rainy" locks, and Boreas crowned with arctic snows, are sometimes very poetical, and sometimes very childish.

We could ask the author what he means by "yellow" gold — page 72; occasionally we meet with lines that we cannot read, as

—her azure eye
Mutely implored a favourable reply.

But we ask no explanation of these transcendant lines:

And now Aurora from the climes of light,
Ascending fair, shower'd gold and rubies bright.
On sea and earth, and on Hyperion's road,
At his forth coming, blushing roses strew'd.

One of the happiest expressions we have ever seen to represent the winning magick with which one, who feels the whispering of melody, can call forth her tones, is this:

From fretted lyres solicit tuneful sound.

The songs of spirits, if we were not afraid of punning, we should say, the spiritual songs have nothing at all of that tricksy minstrelsy which should should distinguish these sunbeam riders, and pipers on wheat straws — they are all too earthly — the last line is the only tolerable one in the whole.

After Rinaldo recovers the maid

A chariot like the dawn,
Uprose at once, by milk-white horses drawn,
Swift as from clouds th' unfetter'd light'nings dart,
With thund'ring hoofs the fiery coursers start—
— and e'er the king of light
Had quench'd his lamp in ocean's billows bright,
The chariot gay, a golden cloud became,
And from their sight was rapt by steeds of flame.

The last picture will remind the reader of Pierpont's:

Clouds were his chariot and his coursers flame.

We find these same tip-toe gentry, the hills, "rustling" to the rising gale. "The wat'ry solitude" is great — but the crew of ruffians must have puzzled the poet confoundedly, for he declares, that they were "dreadful to behold." The pinnace seemed "the rainbow of the storm."

—and fill'd the waters wide
With fairy splendours—
—When in ocean's bed
The placid morn her milky white dispread.
All care, all spirit, sat the list'ning knight,
His fancy free, and giddy with delight—
Rode on the wings of harmony.

The hermit's tale, with all its "procession of departed years" its battles, and its tempests, is highly respectable, until we come to this:

Dark, dark as raven's wing her train,
Red her cheeks, as roses — red.

which we declare to be downright plagiarism from Coleman:

Till like the poplar was his size,
Green, green his waistcoat was as leeks;
Red, red as beet roots were his eyes,
Pale, pale as turnips were his cheeks.

And the following is Walter Scott himself:

So Rowland charged me force and fast—
So back recoil'd, and on the field,
Fell horse and horseman, spear and shield.
Why did I spare the recreant's life.

The chase is spirited enough, until we come to these lines:

My shield before my breast I flung,
And tam'd the feeble lance aside.

Which entirely contradicts the most favourable interpretation of the line which occurs in the commencement of the poem:

Against the weak I ne'er uplifted shield.

Never were words or conceptions more like the glowing effulgence of the mornings in Anster-fair then these:

Now morn, ascending from the sparkling main,
Unlock'd her golden magazines of light,
And on the seas and heav'ns cerulean plain
Shower'd liquid rubies; while retreating night,
Far westward wheeling her umbrageous flight,
In other climes her starr'd pavillion spread;
When they descried (O, joy-inspiring sight!)
The Mermaid-Isle, slumb'ring on ocean's bed,
With rosy canopy of low-hung clouds o'erspread.

In the following lines there is another of Walter Scott's flashes.

I cleft his helm and head in two,
What mortal man on earth could stand
In such a cause, 'gainst such a hand.—

Nothing can be more contemptible than the following miniature copy of Shakspeare's littleness:

Or said he falsely, and am I undone?
If it be false, the previous falsehood hide,
More dear to me than all that's true beside.
If it be false, henceforth let falsehood be
My truth, and truth be falsehood unto me—

And this stoop for a Rhyme is unequalled:

—He is! by earth — and — Hell,
He is thy son the child of Christabelle!

And the following exclamation will remind the reader of the proclamation from certain Towers and Mosques, that the Sultan has dined and therefore the world may go to dinner—

Haste ye — haste away—
The king rejoices — let the world be gay.

Old Armigrand, makes an eloquent speech when he quaffs the rich juice, and

From his loose locks shook off the snows of time.

But in the whole "extacy" there is not a line worthy of the poet, except the following:

Ye rolling streams make liquid melody
And dance into the sea.

We have thus endeavoured to give a full analysis of "Crystalina," which we are disposed to consider, even as it now stands, one of the most splendid productions of the age. But it has many little faults, and may beggarly resemblances to the fashionable rhymsters of the day, which it is the duty, as we are sure it is in the power of its author, to correct. Many of the rhymes would disgrace even Searson. We cannot conclude without inviting the author to tune his lyre once more; — let him undertake some other work: — let him mature it and he may then draw his mystic circles, in Heaven, Earth, or Air; — he may spread his incantations on the "driving wind," and we may venture to promise that all who can fancy themselves within the one, or can be touched with the gossamer of the other, shall be chained to silence and delight.

Q.