1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Sprague

Anonymous, "Literary Portraits: Charles Sprague" New England Magazine [Boston] 3 (August 1832) 89-95.



A bank seems to be one of the last places in the world in which we should look for a poet; and, yet in one of the busiest institutions of that sort in the city, one may be found, surrounded by bustling clerks, flanked by huge piles of paper — among the active the most active discounting and signing notes, writing letters, hurrying to and fro, talking to half a dozen men at a time — all the while displaying an ardor of interest, and apparently putting his whole soul into his work, as much as if his thoughts had never strayed an inch from his desk. His common talk is of interest, discount, per centage, credit — sounds grating to the ears of the muses, and which awaken no familiar echoes upon Parnassus. His appearance is gentlemanly and prepossessing — he has a bright eye and an animated and intellectual countenance; but you might talk with him for a long time and not suspect that he was any thing more than an uncommonly intelligent, and sensible man; until something having touched the inner chords of his spirit and awakened their slumbering music, he would delight you with some poetical fancy or eloquent expression of feeling, and with such a lighting up of eye, lip and cheek, as would show you at once that he was a gifted one. After this, we need hardly say that we are speaking of CHARLES SPRAGUE — a true poet, and a gentleman, every inch of him — a man of the highest character in every relation of life, and whom we are truly proud to have for a fellow-citizen.

Mr. Sprague is alone sufficient to prove the falsehood of that absurd opinion, so venerable for its age, and supported by blockheads of all times with a constancy that shows that they understand their own interests at least, that the imagination is an infirmity, unfitting its possessor from engaging in any of the practical concerns of life; and that a slight infusion of dullness is necessary to a good business man. A man of genius is supposed to be visionary, enthusiastic, unpractical — stumbling about the world with his head in the clouds — paying his bills without adding them up or stopping to see whether they are receipted or not — ignorant of the value of money, and imperatively requiring the aid of some plodding trustee to keep him solvent.

Poets have, in an especial manner, been visited with the ridicule or the pity, as each man's disposition prompted him, of the solid part of the community. The common notion is, that a little madness is an essential ingredient in his composition; he is thought to move in a strangely eccentric orbit; in his words, actions, and opinions, he is supposed to obey laws and impulses peculiar to himself, and to be exempted, by the indulgence of mankind, from the responsibility which belongs to all others. If we be not so hard upon poetry, as, like one of the Fathers, to call it the "Devil's wine," we believe it to be an intoxicating draught, which often does the devil good service, if it do not come from him. Our readers will recollect the consternation of Owen, in the opening scene of Rob Roy, on learning that the son of his patron was given to the unprofitable and dangerous trade of verse-making; and those, who have had much knowledge of the compting-house and the exchange, will acknowledge that the picture is not a caricature. We have heard of

The clerk, condemned his father's soul to cross,
Who penned a stanza when he should engross;

and even in these days, there is many a good business-man, who would hear that his son had discovered a taste for poetry with much the same feeling, as if he had heard that he was addicted to drinking.

Great must have been the consternation of all these good people when Mr. Sprague blazed out, all of a sudden, as a poet. Every man, who owned a dollar in the bank in which he was employed, must have been in a cold sweat at the thought of the risk he had run in suffering any of his property to pass through the hands of a wan of genius, who, lost in poetic visions, might not, with the eye of his body, see the difference between tens and hundreds. But we never heard that Mr. Sprague grew careless or inaccurate or inattentive to his employment after the sin of poetry was fairly laid to his door. We know, indeed, that he is at present in a much more lucrative and responsible situation than he was when we first heard of him; and he, should esteem it a piece of uncommon good luck, that he, wearing the livery of the Muses, is able to get employment in any other service than theirs.

Among the first productions by which Mr. Sprague made himself known beyond the city of his birth as a poet, are two prize prologues; one at the opening of the Park theatre in New-York, in 1821, and the other for the Philadelphia theatre, in 1822. Compositions of this kind are not to be judged of by the same rules which we apply to poetry in general. There are a certain number of common-places which must be brought in; and, as they are commonly limited in length, there is very little room left for original conceptions or the development of striking thoughts; so that we may observe a strong family likeness between them, whatever difference there may be in the genius of their respective authors. They should be criticized relatively and not absolutely; and, applying this rule to Mr. Sprague's prologues, we can safely say that they deserve a place by the side of those of Lord Byron and Dr. Johnson. They have all that seems desirable in such occasional productions — strength and harmony in the versification, natural succession in the thoughts, and a kind of declamatory vigor and flow of language which never degenerates into extravagance or bombast. Occasionally, too, there is a morsel of genuine poetry, as in these beautiful lines which are in the address at the opening of the Philadelphia theatre:—

Poor maniac Beauty brings her cypress wreath,—
Her smile a moon-beam o'er a blasted heath;
Bound some cold grave she comes, sweet flowers to strew,
And, lost to reason, still to love is true.

The Ode, which obtained the prize offered by the manager of the Boston theatre "for the best Ode or other poetical Address to be recited at the exhibition of a pageant in honor of Shakspeare," is a poem of higher pretensions and much higher merit. Here, he had ample sea-room, and could shape his course as he pleased. The greatness of Shakspeare's mind, and the boundless variety of his characters, furnished him with a most inspiring theme, while his invention was further aided by the flexibility of the lyric stanza and the license allowed to that kind of measure. The result was a noble poem, destined to live long after the occasion that called it forth is forgotten, and of which it is no flattery, to say, that it is worthy of its subject. This Ode has always been a great favorite with us; we regard it as that one of all his works which does the most honor to his genius — mind, we say his genius. We do not mean to say that it is the most finished of his productions, or that if they were all thrown into the fire, this is the first one we should take out; but it seems to us to abound most in that power of creating, which distinguishes the artist from the copier. It is crowded with fine images, rich expressions and epithets, which are in themselves poems. There is a thrilling rapidity in the flow of the thoughts; but nothing of turbulence or foam; every thing is as clear and transparent as the waters of an unruffled fountain. He has carried to its extreme the animation and variety of the lyric measure; but has always kept within the bounds prescribed by good taste and a correct ear. Its only defects are an occasional extravagance in his images, and a little too much gorgeousness and brilliancy in the expressions, for both of which a satisfactory defence might be offered, that the poem was written to be recited. As it is some time since it was written, we do not think our readers will object to seeing a few of the stanzas, which, in our opinion, have as much of the fire of true poetry as any thing which has been done on this side of the water.

Madness, with his frightful scream,
Vengeance, leaning on his lance,
Avarice, with his blade and beam,
Hatred, blasting with a glance,
Remorse, that weeps, and Rage, that roars,
And Jealousy, that dotes but dooms, and murders yet adores.

Mirth, his face with sunbeams lit,
Waking laughter's merry swell,
Arm in am with fresh-eyed Wit,
That waves his tingling lash, while Folly shakes his bell.
From the feudal tower pale Terror rushing,
Where the prophet bird's wail
Dies along the dull gale,
And the sleeping monarch's blood is gushing!

Despair, that haunts the gurgling stream,
Kissed by the virgin moon's cold beam,
Where some lost maid wild chaplets wreathes,
And, swan-like, there her own dirge breathes,
Then, broken-hearted, sinks to rest,
Beneath the bubbling wave, that shrouds her maniac breast.

Young Love, with eye of tender gloom,
Now drooping o'er the hallowed tomb,
Where his plighted victims lie,
Where they met, but met to die:—
And now, when crimson buds are sleeping,
Through the dewy arbor peeping,
Where beauty's child, the frowning world forgot,
To youth's devoted tale is listening,
Rapture on her dark lash glistening,
While fairies leave their cowslip cells and guard the happy spot.

The most finished of Mr. Sprague's productions, and that on which his fame will principally rest, is a poem on Curiosity, delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge. It is one of those rare works, in which the execution is equal to the conception; and the combination of genius, taste and judgement, displayed in it, will secure it a place in the literature of the language, long after many of the dazzling wonders, which, now and then, blaze upon us like a comet, have passed away and are forgotten. Its versification is, with a few exceptions, faultless, and yet free from the cloying monotony which is the "easily besetting sin" of the heroic measure. The thoughts are original and striking, but never extravagant — the subject is introduced and developed with great skill; and the style is so beautiful, that the Graces seem to have presided at the birth of each line. Its principal merit consists, however, in its unrivalled delineations of men and manners. It is a camera-obscura view of life's motley stage — a gallery of portraits, drawn from the life, with a pencil so firm, vigorous and easy, that they seem to breathe and stand out from the canvas. They remind us of one of those fine line engravings, which preserve not only the general expression, but give you the most minute characteristic, very wrinkle in the face, and every thread in the garments. They have the strength, fidelity and liveliness of Pope's Moral Sketches, without any of his bitterness and asperity. Indeed, there is a geniality, a heartiness, a sympathy with humanity, a tenderness, a sensibility, running through the poem, which give it much of its fascination. Though master of every weapon of satire, from the ponderous flail of Juvenal to the lithe rapier of Horace, he never inflicts a wound from the mere pleasure of wounding. If he has occasion to satirize vice in any of its forms, he does it with thorough good will. He gives no love-taps; he is quite in earnest "even unto slaying;" but, in his rebuke of the vanities and follies of men, there is a good-natured smile struggling through his frown, showing his sympathy for the offender as well as his contempt of the offence. This poem is doubtless familiar to all our readers, and we need not make any extracts in confirmation of what we have said. How beautiful is his description of the child with the new-born desire after knowledge fluttering in his breast! How admirable his picture of the miser, "who makes his folks eat beans," and "who holds it heresy to think" — of the maiden reading a romance when honest folks are asleep — of the traveler "who turns, half-unwilling, from his home," to roam in foreign lands! How exquisite, too, is the description of the wanderer's funeral at sea! how full of the simplicity of true feeling — with what skill every circumstance is selected — the assembled crew, the setting sun, the unruffled sea! Cold, indeed, must be the heart of him who could read it without emotion, and no one could have written it who had not gone down to the depths of the human soul and gathered the treasures that lie buried there. But it is idle to speak of single paragraphs or detached portions; the poem should be read as a whole, for it is distinguished for its symmetry, its completeness, its oneness. It will bear perusing again and again, and each time some new beauty will be discovered. There are many single expressions which are full of the salt of wit and the flavor of originality; such as

An incarnation of fat dividends....
Where sin holds carnival and wit keeps lent....
With a quill so noisy and so vain,
We almost hear the goose it clothed complain....
Their be-all and their end-all here below, &c.

The poem closes with a strain of lofty poetry and unaffected feeling; but we do not like exactly the way in which Mr. Sprague speaks of himself,

To life's coarse service sold,
Where thought lies barren, and nought breeds but gold.

He knew, or ought to have known, that he had received in "Nature's good old College" a diploma, that entitled him to hold up his head in the presence of any man that ever wore an academic laurel. Universities neither boast nor claim a monopoly in genius or even in learning. Many a dunce wanders into learned bowers that has just sense enough never to come out of them again. Mr. Sprague should observe what one of the greatest of his brethren calls "stern self-respect." His is the noblest of arts, and he is no unworthy professor. There is no higher, holier ground, than that upon which a Poet stands, whose heart is pure and whose thoughts fly heavenward.

To the Ode delivered at the Centennial Celebration of the settlement of the city, we are not disposed to assign the same relative rank among his works as seems to have been given it by popular opinion. Not that it is not beautiful and every way worthy of the occasion; but there does not seem to be the stamp of individuality upon it. It is tasteful and scholar-like, rather than original or profound. He was encompassed with peculiar difficulties. He was obliged to address a large and miscellaneous audience, which had already listened to a long oration; and, however great the ability of the orator, there could not but be a slight feeling of fatigue at the close. He was forced to make a popular poem — to have something in every paragraph which would tell. His subject, too, was prescribed for him, and, however interesting, it was not new. When we consider all these things, his success was very remarkable. Its proper criterion is the manner in which it was received by the audience, which was, as all will recollect, with the utmost enthusiasm. Its versification is easy, graceful, and various; every thing about it is remarkable for good taste; and a high tone of moral and religious feeling runs through it, which elevates and warms. The best part of it is that in which he laments the fate of the Indians, and eulogizes (a little too extravagantly, we fear, for sober history) their character. It is highly poetical, and, though full of feeling, is free from that mawkish sentimentality with which every thing about the "poor red man" is usually garnished.

Mr. Sprague is the author of some lines on "Art," written for a public festival of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association; also of an "Address to a Cigar," and of some Lines to two Swallows, which flew into a church window during divine service. They are, all of them, perfect gems — graceful and finished, and the first one, in particular, is highly poetical. We regret that he has not written more compositions of this length and character, his success has been so complete in what he has done. Where shall we find any thing more beautiful than these lines from his little poem on the Swallows?

Gay, guiltless pair,
What seek ye from the fields of heaven?
Ye have no need of prayer,
Ye have no sins to be forgiven.

Why perch ye here
When mortals to their Maker bend?
Can your pure spirits fear
The God ye never could offend?

Ye never knew
The crimes for which we come to weep;
Penance is not for you,
Blest wanderers of the upper deep.

The distinguishing characteristics of all Mr. Sprague's poetry are correctness, good taste, purity of feeling, and great skill and precision in the use of language. He has formed himself upon the models of an earlier age, and has learned from them how to dress his thoughts in a becoming garb and the importance of a finished style, musical numbers, simple and expressive language, and the propriety of saying nothing which has not a meaning to it; while, at the same time, he has the merits which distinguish the literature of the present age its freshness, its originality, its philosophic spirit, its more thorough analysis of human nature and its profounder knowledge of the human heart. There is a great manliness about his poetry — a scorn of all affectation and trickery, a straight forward simplicity, which disdains wildness of thought or prettinesses of expression. There are none of those dark, elliptical passages, which so puzzle an honest man's brains to find out what the author is driving at — no wandering out of his plain course to drag in a simile or an allusion — no panting and straining after an elevation he was never meant to reach. There is a pleasant spirit of repose hovering over his poetry — a mild and thoughtful beauty, like that of the hues of twilight. He knows his strength, and always succeeds, because he attempts no more than he is sure he can accomplish.

In forming our estimate of his literary character, we should not forget his prose writings. He is the author of a Fourth-of-July Oration, and of an Address delivered before the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance. To these we cannot give the same unqualified praise that we do to his poems. Though we cannot complain of the latter that they are too prosaic; we can of the former that they are too poetical. The style is rich, gorgeous and declamatory — often to a fault; but there is power and originality in the thoughts, and here and there a fine burst of eloquence. They are admirably calculated to please a popular audience in the delivery, if they will not bear the test of a cold perusal in the closet — and who is there that can accomplish both these objects?

Our readers may, perhaps, think that an exhortation to write more comes in as naturally at the close of our notices of a poet, and is as much a matter of course, as is, in the beginning of the Arabian tales, Dinarzade's saying to Scheherazade, "My dear sister, if you are not tired, please to finish that charming story you began to tell us last night." Well — we must plead guilty to the charge, and bear the laugh. We think that there is plenty of room in the world for good poetry, and we know that Mr. Sprague would write none that did not deserve that epithet. He is a business man, and has a family to take care of, and we cannot expect him to give up his time to the composition of such elaborate productions as "Curiosity;" but he certainly can spare us, now and then, a graceful and elegant trifle, written — as we have done this imperfect criticism — in the hours between the labors of the day and the repose of the night. If he is at any loss for a proper vehicle by which to communicate them to the public, he will receive information by applying to the Editors of the New-England Magazine.