1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lydia Huntley Sigourney

C. W., in "Contemporary Poetry" Boston Lyceum 2 (November 1827) 233-34.



We were desirous of saying something on the subject of American song. On this route perhaps we may have to travel alone: but there are flowers enough to tempt and amuse us in a solitary ramble. Some of them are unobtrusive enough: — but we always loved violets and hold sun flowers in no estimation; though these are bold, bright, glittering and gaudy, and those, simple, pale and retiring. It would perhaps be thought strange were we to compare Mrs. Sigourney with Mrs. Hemans: and yet, after a thorough examination, managed with as much impartiality as we were capable of exercising, we are free to confess we could discover no proper reason for the alleged superiority of the latter. The works of the American lady are as thoroughly imbued with the spirit of religious elevation as those of her more popular contemporary. Being equal in purity and justness of moral sentiment, her perception of natural beauty is apparently much finer. The genius of the one leads her to live in the companionship of nature: she delights in the loveliness of the objects about her; she owes her impulses and thoughts to a tree or a flower, — a valley or a mountain. To the other these objects are but secondaries or instruments. — They are not her motives. But she uses them, elegantly, it is true, whenever she has a subject to beautify and adorn. To complete the parallel: Mrs. Hemans is a lyric poet of a high order, Mrs. Sigourney a poet of the meadows and fields. The one has more sentiment, — the other more nature. The one animates and delights; and when the delirium is over we sink lower than before; — the other leads us gently and quietly along; and if she saddens, it is only to make us wiser. You may glance along the pages of the one and be almost dazzled by the brilliant gems sparkling here and there; — in order to be appreciated, the other must be read and understood.

We do not mean to praise Mrs. Sigourney's poems indiscriminately. Some, of them are manifestly unworthy of her: but she ought not to be "damned with faint praise," in the manner we have seen attempted in some respectable journals. Were we to select amongst so much that is beautiful, we would refer the reader to the "Coral Insect" which we are sorely tempted to quote; — to the "Old Man," which we first saw in the public papers, and with our more than usual high opinion of American genius, the thought certainly never struck us that it was written on this side the Atlantic; — not that we are incapable of writing well, but because our literature is in a depressed and disheartening condition: — to the "Hebrew tale" and the Address to the Moon:"—

Dost thou hold
Dalliance with ocean that his mighty heart
Tosses at thine approach, &c.

is sublime. But we cannot help copying this eminently sweet thing:

DEATH OF AN INFANT.
Death found strange beauty on that cherub brow,
And dash'd it out. — There was a tint of rose
On cheek and lip; — he touched the veins with ice,
And the rose faded. — Forth from those blue eyes
There spake a wishful tenderness, — a doubt
Whether to grieve or sleep, which Innocence
Alone can wear. — With ruthless haste he bound
The silken fringes of their curtaining lids
Forever. — There had been a murmuring sound
With which the babe would claim its mother's ear,
Charming her even to tears. — The spoiler set
His seal of silence. — But there beam'd a smile
So fix'd and from that marble brow,—
Death gazed and left it there; — he dared not steal
The signet-ring of Heaven. p. 86.