1831 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Fitz-Greene Halleck

Anonymous, "Literary Portraits: Fitz-Greene Halleck" New England Magazine [Boston] 1 (September 1831) 153-59.



When a man has by any means, good, bad or indifferent, succeeded in raising himself a few inches above the average level of humanity, a strong curiosity is excited about his person, habits and manners. The expression of his countenance, the fashion of his dress, the style of his conversation, and the character of his hand-writing become immediately objects of interest and inquiry. When we are told that Dr. Johnson used to help himself from the sugar-bowl with his fingers, we feel that we are in possession of an important truth, and we never should have pardoned the biographer of Dr. Parr, had he omitted to tell us that he smoked a pipe every day after dinner. To gratify this natural feeling, it was our intention, before saying any thing about the poetry of Mr. Halleck, to give a very minute description of his personal appearance, conversation and manners, and to show that all the peculiarities of his genius might be seen in the shape of his forehead, the brightness of his eyes and the chiseling of his lips. But there was one slight difficulty about this, which met us at the outset, which was, that we never had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Halleck, even in the street; and although we feel perfectly qualified, and are ready, at a moment's warning, to review a book without ever having read it, we are not yet sufficiently "hardened into the bone" of criticism to talk about a man's looks and conversation, without ever having seen or heard of him. Some time ago, there appeared in one of the London morning papers, an elaborate and minute account of the performance of a celebrated actor, the evening before, while, in reality, owing to the sudden illness of the performer himself:, another play had been substituted for the one originally advertised. The hardihood and moral courage of that critic we contemplate with admiration and despair. If ever the critics should form themselves into an order, we should vote for him to be grand-master, or president, since the former is an expression a little out of favor just now. But we are young at the trade and timid, and must confine our remarks to Mr. Halleck's poetry, and, luckily, it is a subject about which a good deal may be said, and all on the same side.

Mr. Halleck's warmest admirers have never contended that he sits upon the first form in the school of poets, and is to be ranked among those inspired masters of the art, who can strike every chord of feeling and thought, and bring forth sounds terrible as the coming on of an earthquake, or sweet as the music of birds. He has never threaded the mazes of the human heart, nor mused profoundly on the conduct and opinions of men. He does not attempt to describe the effects of strong passions upon various natures and how they sometimes exalt a low character into sublimity and degrade a great one to the clay of the meanest. He does not seem to have reflected very deeply on the workings of his own mind and the quick impulses that have shot through his own blood. He looks at nature with a poet's eye and paints its features with a poet's pencil, but he reads in its ample page none of that deep philosophy, which creates a mysterious union between the mind of man and the mute forms of the external world. Woods and mountains are to him picturesque objects, but he does not feel, in looking at them,

A presence that disturbs him with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.

He has lived in the world and in the fashionable part of it, and has had occasion to observe the carriage and manners of men, rather than the native grain of their natures, and has seen more of the expression of character, than of the character itself. His poems are like cabinet pictures, or rather like paintings in enamel, where the finishing is so exquisite that we do not regret the absence of sublimity of conception, variety in expression, and breadth of manner. But it would be doing great injustice to Mr. Halleck to class him among that class of poets of which Pope is the head, who describe exclusively, artificial life and manners. His veins tingle with a true poet's love of natural beauty, both of form and of spirit, and his eye is quick to discern its presence. Probably if he had passed all his life in the woods, his muse never would have caught a single fine lady air, but have had all the wild grace of a wood-nymph, and every minute beauty and delicate grace of nature would have found a home in his heart, and a tribute in his pages. And, as it is, his "Weewawken" and "Wyoming" show that he has looked at better things than paving-stones and brick walls, and with no unheeding or unadmiring eyes.

The first thing, that strikes us in reading his poems, is the singular union we find in them of the humorous and pathetic. He seems like "two single" poets "rolled into one;" and his mind presents a singularity of formation, analogous to that of the Siamese twins. Read his serious poems alone, such as "Magdalen," or those beautiful verses beginning, "The world is bright before thee," which ten thousand albums cannot make hackneyed, and you would suppose him to be a man steeped in romance, whose common language was sighs, a stranger to mirth and smiles, and whose mind was crowded with images of tenderness and gloom. You would picture him to your mind's eye, as a pale and melancholy man, in suit of solemn black, with dark, mysterious eyes, a low and sweet voice, a woman's gentleness, and a child's simplicity, much given to serenading and repeating poetry by moonlight, and not a whit to songs and suppers. You would as soon think of a Lord Chancellor's fiddling a jig, or an Archbishop of Canterbury's dancing one, as of such a man's cracking a joke, or even laughing at one very boisterously. On the other hand, take him in another point of view, and read his "Sketch," or "Domestic Happiness," and you would think the mantle of Prior had fallen upon him, and would set him down for one of the merriest souls that ever chirped over a wine-cup, and "doffed the world aside and bade it pass." You would never suppose he knew how to sigh, or had ever talked sentiment this side of the third bottle. Harlequin's playing Hamlet would not be so wild an incongruity as such a man's being "melancholy and gentlemanlike." So readily does be slip from grave to gay, that if he ever begins a piece in a serious and penseroso style, you may be pretty sure that he will fall into his comic vein, before he gets through. Take, for instance, his "Alnwick Castle," which begins with a stateliness of verse and a grandeur of thought, worthy of Pindar. Images of romantic beauty follow each other in rapid succession; we are carried back to the days of feudal glory and warlike emprise, we catch the gleam of armor, and the trumpet's sound makes the blood beat quicker in our veins; — the plume of Hotspur and the scarf of Lady Katharine flit, like visions, before our eyes. And through this picturesque writing there runs a sweet and tender moralizing vein, tinged somewhat with a melancholy hue, which, like the ivy clinging round a ruin, envelopes the whole with its pensive and touching beauty. While we are in the airy regions of cloud-land, and quaffing exciting draughts of poetic ether, quick as thought the scene is, changed; our fairy visions vanish, the wings on which we mounted are paralysed, and we find ourselves lying flat upon our backs on the familiar earth. Since the days of the man in the Arabian tale, who went to sleep a Caliph and awoke nobody at all, there never was a more sudden and violent transition. Every thing has a villanous smack of reality. We are fallen upon the days of steamboats and Lyceums, of stall-fed citizens, of beaver hats, and whole heads under them. We are a little provoked with the author, who has kindled up all this romantic flame, merely to have the pleasure of putting it out at once with a bucket-full of ridicule. We feel somewhat as we should, if we had been cheated out of our money (and may be our tears) by the piteous tale of a beggar, which turned out to be all humbug. This is a very curious combination of talents, and very strange to those of us who have but one of the two, and doubly so to those who have neither. In the one case, the intellectual process is directly the reverse of that in the other, and the objects are looked at, from totally opposite points of view. In the one every thing is referred to the ideal, properly so called, and in the other o the comic ideal, which is its direct antipode. But though a very curious, this is not a very rare, union. Here an opportunity offers itself (which, were we a regularly bred critic we should certainly improve) of being very learned on the subject of this mixed style of writing, where tragedy and farce succeed each other like the black and white squares of a chess-board, where sober truth is told in a merry vein, and a lurking laugh in the sleeve runs through what sets out to be serious. We might trace its history from Italy, where it took its rise, through the literatures of all the nations of Europe, and crowd our pages with great names from Boiardo to Byron; but we will be merciful to our readers, and hope they will to us; and, if they find us particularly dull, console themselves by thinking how much worse it might have been.

It would be a difficult matter to say in which of his two styles Mr. Halleck is the more successful. Our opinion would probably be somewhat influenced by which of his productions we had read last. The common mass of readers suppose that humor is his distinguishing attribute and excellence. But this arises from two causes; one is, that humor so delicate and fine as his, is a very rare thing; much more so than the power of originating thoughts of serious beauty; and the other is, that his humor is very peculiar and entirely his own; whereas, sentimental poetry must always bear a strong family likeness, though individuals will differ, of course, in their styles of thinking and writing. But the question is, whether his admirers themselves would prefer to have written his serious or his comic poems, or which of the two they would least wish to have never been written at all. For ourselves we should not know what to say to this dilemma. It is true that his humor is of the most delicate and refined kind, and it seems as if the Graces had presided over the birth of each line. There is none of the sting of wit which creates as much fear as admiration, or of that breadth of humor which distends the muscles into a loud laugh; but there are a thousand little airy graces hovering over the words, like hummingbirds over a flower; new combinations, and analogies, and unexpected turns of thought, rapidly succeeding each other to the close, so that we read the last word with a new-born smile upon our lips. There is so much of honest feeling and truth about him, and so little of bitterness, and he seems to take such good-humored and just views of life, that we feel an inward glow spreading itself through us as we read, and are more reconciled to ourselves and the world for the rest of the day. We can go all lengths in our admiration with a safe conscience, for he ridicules the peculiarities of classes and not of individuals, and his lash never cuts through the skin. But while we thus do justice to his humorous poems, we do not in the least forget the admiration which his serious ones challenge for themselves. They present the undying excellence of beautiful and original thoughts, enclosed in language of the most crystal purity. There is nothing diseased in his melancholy, and when he is sentimental his good genius makes him stop this side of mawkishness. Indeed there is a very healthy tone about every thing he has written; nothing seems the fruit of unnatural excitement; he evidently does not belong to the gin-and-water school of poetry. His thoughts, if not very original and profound, are by no means commonplace; and if they were, we could forgive it, so becoming is the garb they wear, and so delicious is the cadence of his verse. Who can read his verses on Burns, or his "Magdalen," and say that humor is his distinguishing characteristic? Who can be insensible to the feeling, the sensibility, the tenderness and the imagination, that breathe from every line and hallow every word of these beautiful poems? The heart and the pulse of a true poet are here — the bright dreams, the romantic hues, the thrilling sense of the beautiful and the grand, "imagination's world of air," "the vision and the faculty divine." They strike you, too, as the productions of a man with whom poetry is the natural expression of thought, and who writes for the same reason that a bird sings, or a child frolics.

If we were asked, what is the peculiar charm of Mr. Halleck's poetry, and what it is that distinguishes him from the other poets of our country, we should answer in one word, — Grace. One of his tuneful brethren may be more reflective, another more intense and passionate, and another may translate more easily the hieroglyphics of nature, but none of them are so graceful as he. He is graceful in every thing, in his thoughts, in the appropriateness of his imagery, in the grouping of his words, and in the magic harmony of his numbers, which, from the lips of a fine reader, are as good as music. Every one must have observed how much effect he will produce by a single epithet, or by the peculiar form in which he will mould a thought, and how much novelty and aptness there is in his illustrations. To enumerate instances would be almost to copy out his poems, word for word. This uncommon gracefulness of expression, which gives the same kind of indescribable charm to fine thoughts, that the cestus of Venus is feigned to have done to a beautiful face and figure, is partly the effect of nature, and partly of art. He is evidently a careful writer, and does not belong to the school of Lucilius, who, as Horace says, would stand upon one foot and dictate two hundred lines in an hour. Mr. Halleck knows well that the most enduring works are those which are the slowest in construction, in mental architecture at least. His poetry reminds us of an antique Cameo, in which we know not which to admire most, the beauty of the material or the exquisite finish of the workmanship. Without knowing any thing of the matter, we should say from internal evidence merely, that he was a slow writer and a merciless corrector, and that he blotted, to say the least, as many lines as he left. Nothing that he has written bears the marks of carelessness or haste. You cannot say of any of his poems, "it would have been better for his fame, if he had never written this;" but every individual line has been, as it were, a drop to swell the tide that bears him on to immortality.

It is to his grace and elegance that Mr. Halleck owes his universal popularity, for, take the world through, these are the qualities most generally acceptable. Grace of manner without beauty of person, goes farther than the latter without the former, to say nothing of its wearing so much better. And in the same way, grace and elegance of expression will secure a man a greater number of readers than originality or profoundness of thought, without the charm of felicitous diction. In illustration of this remark, we never met with a person who did not read Mr. Halleck's poetry with pleasure. One man admires Pope, and another Byron, and another Wordsworth, but all are charmed with "Alnwick Castle" and "Connecticut."

His power of language is truly magical. The right words always come at his bidding, and he puts them invariably into the right places. He has cut into the very heart of the noble Saxon tongue, and his language has a racy and idiomatic flavor, worthy of English verse in other days, when it was in its early and vigorous manhood. He is uncommonly graphic in his style; he does not write merely, but he paints, and his poems are a gallery of pictures. He is free from the common and obvious faults of style. He is not obscure, nor diffuse, nor unnatural. He is never in the unhappy predicament of a man who "knows but can't express himself." Neither is there any affectation or trickery about him; he never uses quaint or out-of-the-way words, but he is distinguished by a straight-forward manly simplicity, which opens our hearts to him at once.

There is one of Mr. Halleck's poems which stands alone, and is beyond the range of the remarks we have been making. We need hardly say that we refer to the lines on Marco Bozzaris, which cannot be praised in too extravagant terms, and which make us half inclined to take back what we said in the early part of this paper, and disposed to rank their author, at once, among the first class of poets. Of this splendid poem it is not too much to say, that it has not its superior of its kind, in the English, or, we may venture to add, in any other language. It is worthy of being bound up with Pindar and Filicaja. Never did the lyric muse soar on a more vigorous pinion or reach a higher elevation. Every line is brimfull of inspiration and every word is baptized in fire. It is such a poem as might have been written by Eschylus, and sung by the Grecian army, as the setting sun bathed in his golden splendor their victorious banners upon the plains of Marathon. It is one of those poems with which the rules of ordinary criticism have nothing to do. It is above their atmosphere, if we may so say. To apply them to it would be like measuring the arch of a rainbow by trigonometry, or gauging the solid contents of the gold and crimson clouds that gather round the dying sun. It addresses itself to the senses as well as to the understanding, and it is felt in the blood no less than in the heart. It brings before us the glorious sights and sounds of war, the gleam of armor, the waving of plumes, and the streaming of banners, "the thunder of the captains and the shouting," the fierce voice of the trumpet, and the faint huzzas of dying conquerors. The eye and the cheek kindle and the heart burns as we read, and we could rise up and charge the Macedonian phalanx with a single rush in our hands. The quiet fame of a scholar, for a moment, seems poor and tame to the blaze of a hero's glory, like the glow-worm's lamp to the sun at noonday. Though its illustrious subject died in the arms of victory and in the holy cause of liberty, we cannot but think he would have felt an additional glow of satisfaction, had he known of the glorious monument, which the genius of poetry was to rear for him in a land beyond his "sire's islands of the blest."

It is fashionable in criticising an author, to say something about his faults, and without stopping to consider Mr. Halleck's less obvious defects, (which we might have some difficulty in finding out) we propose to close our article with saying a word or two upon his great and prominent fault, — which is that he has written so little. Now, although there are many things in this world which are valuable in the inverse ratio of their abundance, we never heard that Poetry was one of them. Even if it be what one of the Fathers called it, the "Devil's wine," it cannot be denied that a small dose is as intoxicating as a large one. Perhaps it may be said, that, in these days of Souvenirs and Magazines, the infrequency of the fault should be its apology, but he has no more right to be chary of his favors than the mob of poets have to be so liberal. If he think that his own tones of finest melody will be unheard amid the tumultuous bray of the long-eared race, we will reply by a pretty fable from Leasing, which is very good and very short. A shepherd once complained to a nightingale that she did not sing. "Alas," said the nightingale, "the frogs make such a croaking that I have no wish to sing." "True," replied the shepherd, "but it is because you are silent that we hear them."

In short, Mr. Halleck owes it to himself, his country and the reading public that he should write often. He has heard, probably, of a somewhat musty proverb about a bird that can sing and won't sing, and if we were the autocrat of Russia and he one of our subjects we should insist upon his writing so many lines a year, on pain of being sent to Siberia.

Since this article was commenced, we have read that Mr. Halleck is to be the editor of a Magazine in the city of New-York. We wish him as much success as he deserves, and we can say nothing more than that. We hope he may receive golden opinions from all men, and exchange his own notes for another sort of notes which have a very magic sound, and which, when properly arranged, form the tune of "Money in both pockets." We are sure of the success of the work, for one stanza of his would buoy up the rest of the number, were it unmingled lead.