1836 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lydia Huntley Sigourney

Anonymous, in Review of Sigourney, Zinzendorff, and other Poems; Southern Literary Messenger [Richmond] 2 (January 1836) 112-13.



It would be an easy, although perhaps a somewhat disagreeable task, to point out several of the most popular writers in America — popular in the above mentioned sense — who have manufactured for themselves a celebrity by the very questionable means, and in the very questionable manner, to which we have alluded. But it must not be thought that we wish to include Mrs. Sigourney in the number. By no means. She has trod, however, upon the confines of their circle. She does not owe her reputation to the chicanery we mention [appealing to the "bibliographical rabble"], but it cannot be denied that it has been thereby greatly assisted. In a word — no single piece which she has written, and not even her collected works as we behold them in the present volume, and in the one published some years ago, would fairly entitle her to that exalted rank which she actually enjoys as the authoress, time after time, of her numerous, and, in most instances, very creditable compositions. The validity of out objections to this adventitious notoriety we must be allowed to consider unshaken, until it can be proved that any multiplication of zeros will eventuate in the production of a unit.

We have watched, too, with a species of anxiety and vexation brought about altogether by the sincere interest we take in Mrs. Sigourney, the progressive steps by which she has at length acquired the title of the "American Hemans." Mrs. S. cannot conceal from her own discernment that she has acquired this title solely by imitation. The very phrase "American Hemans" speaks loudly in accusation: and we are grieved that what by the over-zealous has been intended as complimentary should fall with so ill-omened a sound into the ears of the judicious. We will briefly point out those particulars its which Mrs. Sigourney stands palpably convicted of that sin which in poetry is not to be forgiven.

And first, in the character of her subjects. Every unprejudiced observer must be aware of the almost identity between the subjects of Mrs. Hemans and the subjects of Mrs. Sigourney. The themes of the former lady are the unobtrusive happiness, the sweet images, the cares the sorrows, the gentle affections, of the domestic hearth — these too are the themes of the latter. The Englishwoman has dwelt upon all the "tender and true" chivalries of passion — and the American has dwelt as unequivocally upon the same. Mrs. Hemans has delighted in the radiance of a pure and humble faith — she has looked upon nature with a speculative attention — she has "watched the golden array of sunset clouds, with an eye looking beyond them to the habitations of he disembodied spirit" — she has poured all over her verses the most glorious and lofty aspirations of a redeeming Christianity, and in all this she is herself glorious and lofty. And all this too has Mrs. Sigourney not only attempted, but accomplished — yet in all this she is but, alas! — an imitator.

And secondly — in points more directly tangible than the one just mentioned, and therefore more easily appreciated by the generality of readers, is Mrs. Sigourney again open to the charge we have adduced. We mean in the structure of her versification — in the peculiar turns of her phraseology — in certain habitual expressions (principally interjectional,) such as "yea! alas!" and many others, so frequent upon the lips of Mrs. Hemans as to give a almost ludicrous air of similitude to all articles of her composition — in an invincible inclination to apostrophize every object, in both moral and physical existence — and more particularly in those mottos or quotations, sometimes of considerable extent, prefixed to nearly every poem, not as a text for discussion, nor even as an intimation of what, is to follow, but as, the actual subject matter itself, and of which the verses ensuing are, in most instances, merely a paraphrase. These were all, in Mrs. Hemans, mannerisms of a gross and inartificial nature; but, in Mrs. Sigourney, they are mannerisms of the most inadmissible kind — the mannerisms of imitation.

In respect to the use of the quotations, we cannot conceive how the fine taste of Mrs. Hemans could have admitted the practice, or how the good sense of Mrs. Sigourney could have thought it for a single moment worthy of her own adoption. In poems of magnitude the mind of the reader is not, at all times, enabled to include in one comprehensive survey the proportions and proper adjustment of the whole. He is pleased — if at all — with particular passages; and the sum of his pleasure is compounded of the sums of the pleasurable sensations inspired by these individual passages during the progress of perusal. But in pieces of less extent — like the poems of Mrs. Sigourney — the pleasure is unique, in the proper acceptation of that term — the understanding is employed, without difficulty, in the contemplation of the picture as a whole — and thus its effect will depend, in a very great degree, upon the perfection of its finish, upon the nice adaptation of its constituent parts, and especially upon what is rightly termed by Schlegel, the unity or totality of interest. Now it will readily be seen, that the practice we have mentioned as habitual with Mrs. Hemans and Mrs. Sigourney is utterly at variance with this unity. By the initial motto — often a very long one — we are either put in possession of the subject of the poem; or some hint, historic fact, or suggestion is thereby afforded, not included in the body of the article, which, without the suggestion, would be utterly incomprehensible. In the latter case, while perusing the poem, the reader must revert, in mind at least, to the motto for the necessary explanation. In the former, the poem being a mere paraphrase of the motto, the interest is divided between the motto and the paraphrase. In either instance the totality of effect is annihilated.

Having expressed ourselves thus far in terms of nearly unmitigated censure, it may appear in us somewhat equivocal to say that, as Americans, we are proud — very proud of the talents of Mrs. Sigourney. Yet such is the fact. The faults which we have already pointed out, and some others which we will point out hereafter, are but dust in the balance, when weighed against her very many and distinguishing execllences. Among those high qualities which give her, beyond doubt, a title to the sacred name of poet are an acute sensibility to natural loveliness — a quick and perfectly just conception of the moral and physical sublime — a calm and unostentatious vigor of thought — a mingled delicacy and strength of expression — and above all, a mind nobly and exquisitely attuned to all the gentle charities and lofty pieties of life.