1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Richard Henry Dana

William Cullen Bryant, Review of Dana, Poems; North American Review [Boston] 26 (January 1828) 239-47.



To say that this work is by the author of The Idle Man, is the same thing as to say, that it is written by a man of genius, who possesses the essential qualities of a poet. The Idle Man, which came out in numbers in 1821-2, notwithstanding the cold reception it met with from the public, we look upon as holding a place among the first productions of American literature. It will be referred to hereafter, we doubt not, as standing apart from the crowd of contemporary writings, and distinguished by a character of thought and expression peculiarly its own. One reason why it took so little at its first appearance, was probably the hardihood with which its author slighted the usual arts of attracting the public attention, and conciliating the public favor. It was not a work that reflected the passing image of the day; and the author adopted no fashionable modes of expression, submitted to no fashionable canons of criticism, copied no popular author, and intimated no consent to favorite opinions. He seems to have fixed his attention only upon what he thought the permanent qualities of literature, and his work is one which will be read with the same pleasure a century hence, as at the present time. It does not, therefore, abound with the dexterous allusions to subjects of temporary and accidental interest, and topics of popular reading, by which a degree of sprightliness and attraction is often given to works, that a few years afterwards seem to have unaccountably parted with all their life and spirit. The opinions of the author are thrown off without any discreet reserve, or obsequious qualification, to mitigate the censures of the critic. The style of The Idle Man is genuine mother English, formed from a study of the elder authors of the language, with now and then a colloquial expression of the humblest kind, elevated into unexpected dignity, or an obsolete word or phrase revived, as if on purpose to excite the distaste of the admirers of a stately or a modernized diction. It is free from all commonplace ornaments, from all that multitude of stock metaphors and illustrations which have answered the uses of authors from time immemorial.

Add to this that the speculations of the author were as much his own as his style. An original turn of thinking is not the surest passport to immediate popularity. It is much easier, and sometimes much safer, to follow one who thinks in the common track. The most popular authors for the time, and often the most agreeable also, are those who glean up with address the thoughts of others, place them in perspicuous or striking lights, and make them look new by some artful collocation or embellishment, some liveliness of fancy, or skill of contrast. These writers give the mind the gentlest possible exercise, by detaining-it on things with which it is already familiar; they never task nor fatigue the intellectual faculty. But it is no light labor to follow the highly original thinker. It requires somewhat of the same effort to grasp and comprehend his conceptions, which it cost him at first to bring them out of the shadows that surround the remoter excursions of thought, to reduce them to distinct shape, and to fix them in language. If there be at the same time anything peculiar and unusual in his style, the difficulty is rather increased than diminished. It is only when his writings have had time to produce their effect upon the public mind, it is only when some of the materials he has furnished have passed into the common stock, out of which the multitude of authors draw materials of speculation, that the man of truly profound and original thought can receive the full measure of his fame.

It might be thought, however, that all this would be compensated for by the strength of imagination, and power in the description and expression of feeling, shown in the work. But the author's imagination is commonly employed in raising up gloomy creations, and his talent at laying open the workings of the human heart, in the delineation of the darker and sterner passions. We have heard these things somewhat strangely mentioned, as being of themselves, in the abstract, an objection to the work. Such critics, we suppose, would be for fitting out King Lear with a fortunate catastrophe, striking out the last act of Othello, and expunging from Paradise Lost the story of the fall and contrition of our first parents. For ourselves, we are willing to leave men of genius at liberty to exert their powers in their own way, provided that, like those of the author of The Idle Man, they are exerted to purposes of goodness and virtue. Sadness is oftentimes as wholesome as mirth. The melancholy Jacques has been thought as good a moralist as the funny Touchstone. Nobody ever thought of quarrelling with the landscapes of Salvator Rosa, because they were not painted like those of Claude. If he had taken the advice of some cold-blooded connoisseur, if any such lived in his day, and had undertaken to tame down the stern and savage grandeur of his pieces, and to make them pretty, pleasing, and cheerful, he would only have spoiled them.

There is another peculiarity in The Idle Man, which, while it is the source of many of its excellences, may possibly have had some effect in preventing its immediate popularity. With a great majority of mankind, the emotions of the mind are neither profound not, lasting. Every event brings with it its attendant excitement, either cheerful or sad, and this excitement passes away with time (went, as time shadow departs with the object. Their feelings may be often acute and noisy, but they are at the same time brief and superficial. But there are minds of a different mould, upon which the passions fasten more strongly, and where they inhabit longer, devouring time heart in secret. These are the characters, which afford the best opportunity for the analysis of the passions. In these, if we may say so speak, the passions sit to be painted; and of these the author of The Idle Man has taken advantage for the exercise of a talent, which he possesses in a remarkable degree. He loves to describe a peculiar and unhappy mood of the mind, cherished, as if by a kind of fatality, instead of being healed, by the succession of events, and the lapse of time; drawing into its vortex all the lesser and feebler emotions, and making them its own nourishment. He loves to show, not merely the agitations of the surface, but the whole ocean upheaved from its profoundest depths, and refusing to he appeased, although calm and sunshine have returned to the atmosphere. These states of the mind are described with great force by the author of The Idle Man, and give occasion to scenes of true pathos, and successful delineations of strong emotion. It is not to be expected, that this kind of writing will please all readers alike.

Some, who have never perceived in their own minds any tendency to the process it describes, will not sympathize with it, because they will imperfectly comprehend it; and to others it will appear painful, although they cannot deny its power. Of the other merits of The Idle Man, of that delicacy of moral sentiment which pervades and hallows the whole, and that rare susceptibility to the influences of external nature which imparts to it such a charm, we need not speak, for these are perceived by every reader.

We have dwelt the longer on what we had to say of The Idle Man, because the peculiarities of that work are much the same with those of the Poems. In poetry, however, we believe they will be likely to find more favor than in prose. The Teutonic strength of the author's style is favorable to poetic expression; and the study of the old English authors is now justly looked upon, as a necessary part of poetic discipline. It is indeed curious to see, with what pertinacity the art of verse rejects the more worthless innovations on our language, and how steadily it preserves the picturesque and impassioned diction of our ancestors. The contemplative nature of poetry, also, its love of plaintive themes, the liberty it allows of dwelling long and enthusiastically on the emotions of the heart, and the depth and intensity of coloring it requires, are all in our author's favor.

We like this work the better, perhaps, because some of its merits are of a kind not common in modern poetry. It is simple and severe in its style, and free from that perpetual desire to be glittering and imaginative, which dresses up every idea that occurs in the same allowance of figures of speech. As to what is called ambition in style, the work does not contain a particle of it; if the sentiment, or image, presented to the reader's mind be of itself calculated to make an impression, it is allowed to do so, by being given in the most direct and forcible language; if otherwise, no pains are taken to make it pass for more than it is worth. There is even an occasional homeliness of expression, which does not strike us agreeably, and a few passages are liable to the charge of harshness and abruptness. Yet altogether, there is power put forth in this little volume, strength of pathos, talent at description, and command of language. There is the same propensity, as was exhibited in The Idle Man, to deal with strong and gloomy passions, with regret, remorse, fear, and despair; with feelings over which present events have no control except to aggravate them, and which look steadily back to the unalterable past, or forward to the mysterious future.

The first and longest of the poems in this collection, The Buccanneer, is a story of supernatural agency, founded, as the author says in his Preface, on a tradition relating to an island off the New England coast. It is a narrative of a murder committed by a piratical, hardhearted man, of whom the whole island stood in awe, and who at last comes to a strange and horrible end. The poem opens beautifully, with the following lines, descriptive of the island in its present state.

The island lies nine leagues away,
Along its solitary shore,
Of craggy rock and sandy bay,
No sound but ocean's roar,
Save, where the bold, wild sea-bird makes her home,
Her shrill cry coming through the sparkling foam.

But when the light winds lie at rest,
And on the glassy, heaving sea,
The black duck, with her glossy breast,
Sits swinging silently;
How beautiful! no ripples break the reach,
And silvery waves go noiseless up the beach.

And inland rests the green, warm dell;
The brook comes tinkling down its side;
From out the trees the sabbath bell
Rings cheerful, far and wide,
Mingling its sound with bleatings of the flocks,
That feed above the vale amongst the rocks.

Nor holy bell, nor pastoral bleat
In former days within the vale;
Flapped in the bay the pirate's sheet;
Curses were on the gale;
Rich goods lay on the sand, and murdered men;
Pirate and wrecker kept their revels then.

But calm, low voices, words of grace,
Now slowly fall upon the ear;
A quiet look is in each face,
Subdued and holy fear:
Each motion's gentle; all is kindly done—
Come, listen, how from crime this isle was won.
pp. 1-3.

The desperate and daring character of the Buccanneer, the gentleness and sorrows of her whose death he had caused, the ruffian's guilty revels, his fits of remorse for his crime, the gradual and complete triumph of that remorse over his mind and the final and terrible retribution of his guilt, are very well managed. The incidents are strongly conceived, and brought before the reader, with great distinctness of painting. It seems to us, however, that the rough brutality of the Buccanneer's character is sometimes brought out so broadly, as to have rather an unpleasing effect. Yet nothing, it seems to us, can be better in its way, than the passage in which his remorse is described, after it had finally mastered and subdued his spirit.

He views the ships that come and go,
Looking so like to living things.
O! 'tis a proud and gallant show
Of bright and broad-spread wings
Flinging a glory round them, as they keep
Their course right onward through the unsounded deep.

And where the far-off sand-bars lift
Their backs in long and narrow line,
The breakers shout, and leap, and shift,
And send the sparkling brine
Into the air; then rush to mimic strife:—
Glad creatures of the sea! How all seems life!—

But not to Lee. He sits alone;
No fellowship nor joy for him.
Borne down by wo, he makes no moan,
Though tears will sometimes dim
That asking eye. — O, how his worn thoughts crave—
Not joy again, but rest within the grave.

The rocks are dripping in the mist
That lies so heavy off the shore.
Scarce seen the running breakers; — list
Their dull and smothered roar!
Lee hearkens to their voice. — "I hear, I hear
You call. — Not yet! — I know my time is near!"

And now the mist seems taking shape,
Forming a dim, gigantic ghost,—
Enormous thing! — There's no escape;
'Tis close upon the coast.
Lee kneels, but cannot pray. — Why mock him so?
The ship has cleared the fog, Lee, see her go!

A sweet, low voice, in starry nights,
Chants to his ear a plaining song.
Its tones come winding up those heights,
Telling of wo and wrong;
And he must listen till the stars grow dim,
The song that gentle voice doth sing to him.

O, it is sad that aught so mild
Should bind the soul with bands of fear;
That strains to soothe a little child,
The man should dread to hear!
But sin hath broke the world's sweet peace — unstrung
The harmonious chords to which the angels sung.

In thick, dark nights he'd take his seat
High up the cliffs, and feel them shake,
As swung the sea with heavy beat
Below — and hear it break
With savage roar, then pause and gather strength,
And then, come tumbling in its swollen length.

But thou no more shalt haunt the beach,
Nor sit upon the tall cliff's crown,
Nor go the round of all that reach,
Nor feebly sit thee down,
Watching the swaying weeds: — another day,
And thou'lt have gone far hence that dreadful way.
pp. 36-38.

The next poem, entitled The Changes of Home, is of a more humble character, and with less action in the narrative, but it pleases us more than the first. It is in the heroic couplet, and reminds us very strongly of the poetry of Crabbe. It is, indeed, such a tale as he might have written with more fancy, it is true, more warmth of coloring, a deeper and more continued pathos, and more delicacy of style; but with all his skill of minute and graphic description, his intermixture of dialogue, a good deal of his peculiar rhythm, and a few of his harsh inversions. Every part of this little story is imbued with a deep sadness. One who has long wandered in foreign lands, returns to the place of his birth, and the residence of his early youth, and finds every thing changed. He inquires for those whom he once knew; he is shown an insane woman, whom he remembered as a blooming maiden; and is told a tale of love, misfortune, and death. We should spoil it by attempting to give its particulars in our prose. The following are among the introductory lines,

How like eternity doth nature seem
To life of man-that short and fitful dream!
I look around me; — no where can I trace
Lines of decay that mark our human race.
These are the murmuring waters, these the flowers
I mused o'er in my earlier, better hours.
Like sounds and scents of yesterday they come.—
Long years have past since this was last my home!
And I am weak, and toil-worn is my frame;
But all this vale shuts in is still the same:
'Tis I alone am changed; they know me not:
I feel a stranger — or as one forgot.

The breeze that cooled my warm and youthful brow,
Breathes the same freshness on its wrinkles now.
The leaves that flung around me sun and shade,
While gazing idly on them, as they played,
Are holding yet their frolic in the air;
The motion, joy, and beauty still are there—
But not for me! — I look upon the ground:
Myriads of happy faces throng me round,
Familiar to my eye; yet heart and mind
In vain would now the old communion find.
Ye were as living, conscious beings, then,
With whom I talked — but I have talked with men!
With uncheered sorrow, with cold hearts I've met;
Seen honest minds by hardened craft beset;
Seen hope cast down, turn deathly pale its glow;
Seen virtue rare, but more of virtue's show.

Yet there was one true heart: that heart was thine,
Fond Emmeline — O God! it once was mine.
It beats no more. Cruel and fierce the blow
That struck me down, that laid my spirit low;—
No feeble grief that sobs itself to rest—
Benumbing grief, and horrors filled my breast:
Dark death, and sorrow dark, and terror blind—
They made my soul to quail, they shook my mind—
O! all was wild — wild as the driving wind.
pp. 49, 50.

The two poems that follow, entitled The Husband's and Wife's Grave, and The Dying Raven, both in blank verse, are characteristic of the author, and fine in their way. Mr. Dana seems to gain something in freedom of expression, by exchanging rhyme for blank verse, and to lose nothing, as many poets do, in condensation of thought. There are two pieces in the volume, of a more cheerful cast, The Clump of Daisies, and The Pleasure Boat. The latter is sprightly and graceful, a praise which we are glad to see that the author can earn when he pleases. With the following stanzas from this poem, we take our leave of the work.

Now, like the gull that darts for prey,
The little vessel stoops;
Then, rising, shoots along her way,
Like gulls in easy swoops.

The sun-light falling on her sheet,
It glitters like the drift,
Sparkling, in scorn of summer's heat,
High up some mountain rift.

The winds are fresh — she's driving fast.
Upon the bending tide,
The crinkling sail, and crinkling mast,
Go with her side by side.

Why dies away the breeze so soon
Why hangs the pennant down?
The sea is glass — the sun at noon.—
Nay, lady, do not frown;

For, see, the winged fisher's plume
Is painted on the sea.
Below's a cheek of lovely bloom,
Whose eyes look up at thee?

She smiles; thou need'st must smile on her.
And, see, beside her face
A rich, white cloud that doth not stir.—
What beauty, and what grace!

And pictured beach of yellow sand,
And peaked rock, and hill,
Change the smooth sea to fairy land.—
How lovely and how still!

From yonder isle the thrasher's flail
Strikes close upon the ear;
The leaping fish, the swinging sail
Of that far sloop sound near.

The parting sun sends out a glow
Across the placid bay,
Touching with glory all the show.—
A breeze! — Up helm! — Away!