1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Neele

Nathaniel Parker Willis, in Review of Neele, Literary Remains; American Monthly Magazine [Boston] 1 (April 1829) 28-30.



It is with this feeling of fellowship and regard, that we read the works of Henry Neele. They are of that character which wins most upon the feelings, and gives the best security for the heart of the writer. Not only do we know that he would have sympathized with all our impressions of beauty, and our more secret because finer and more elevated sentiment, but we are satisfied that he was a pure man. Extreme refinement of taste can only be the gift of the virtuous. Vice, grossness — anything that dims the purity of the soul — destroys the fine vision, and deadens the quick ear, and blunts the acute sensibilities. The very organs of taste are lost by the debasement of the mind to which they minister. This is true only in a degree of other kinds of talent. Power and strong pathos, though dependant upon taste to a degree, are not made up of it. Our passions can be wrought upon without any very nice discrimination of its lights and shadows. But in the works if taste and feeling, there can be no error in our appreciation of the writer. If his perceptions are delicate, and his thoughts separated, not only from palpable grossness, but from the remoter links of impure allusion, we are certain of his character. We read his books as we would talk with a friend, and cherish him, as we do Addison and Gray and Roscoe — with a memory of love.

The genius of Henry Neele was rather one of taste than talent. His poetry seems to have been a natural result of a rare sense of beauty — the expression of pleasure in the loveliness of outward things, and the fine creations of other and loftier spirits than his own. He was evidently a man of delicate and acute senses; possessing what Wordsworth finely phrases,

An inevitable ear,
And an eye practised like a blind man's touch.

With little or no creative power, he had a peculiar faculty of appreciation, and relished, to a degree unknown to most readers, the hidden meanings, and the sweet refinements of poetry. There is a class of men in the world, (and we are not certain that Henry Neele did not belong to them,) who are meant to be the happiest of God's creatures — but not poets. It is reserved for them to walk the inner temples of nature, and hear harmonies inaudible to their fellow men, and find out the secrets of subtle beauty, and the links of fine mysteries They are like seeing men in a world of the blind or hearing men in a world of the deaf. It is as if the mortal film were already removed, and they could see into another sphere. The earth is a different place to them, and they walk it like angels, with a higher knowledge, and a far more elevated conception and enjoyment of its cunning workmanship. With all this, they have no originating power, and therefore it is that we say they should not be poets. They have, it is true, finer faculties than their fellow men, but they are faculties meant to gladden their own bosoms, and gratify those who can come familiarly and delight in them. The friendships of men thus gifted are invaluable. Their love is beautiful, because it is always elevated and refined. They are the light of the circle in which they move, and go on through life, if their feelings are not embittered, giving pleasure to all around them, and winning deep measures of respect and affection. To a certain extent they will write beautiful poetry, and it is well if they can be made to consider it only as an elegant accomplishment, and a pleasant gift among friends. It will pass well with their indulgent appreciation and its local interest, but it is not strong enough to come out and wrestle with criticism, and be committed without fear to the burning ordeal of time. It is the dissonant quality of such finely mingled natures, that they are ambitious. They feel that they are superior to those about them, and they would win from others the tribute they have themselves given from the very depths of their souls to genius. They know from their own thrilling bosoms the splendid idolatry men pay to intellectual power, and they would themselves be the magicians to shew us spirits of their own calling up, and unfold to us a universe of their own unassisted creation. It is not enough to stand aside and enjoy these things with a finer relish than other men. They must have a like triumph with the great mover, and a like niche in the temple of human fame; and when, from their real taste, and minds imbued with the color of their acquisitions, they start with a bright promise, and are cried up by the undiscerning as fair candidates for the palm, they are confirmed in their giddy delusion, and press upward-till, suddenly, their wings melt and the cold truth of public opinion comes home to them, and they are confounded, as if the thunder had stricken them down.

We would not say that Henry Neele should never have written at all, but we would say that he should not have been ambitious of fame as a poet. He has, it is true, left us some poetry which we would not have lost, and would not willingly forget; but it is his prose by which he will be remembered. Creative power, which he had not, is necessary to poetry. Taste and knowledge are sufficient for prose, and these he had abundantly. He was a skilful critic, and a nervous and chaste narrative writer. If he had confined himself to these, we believe he would have been a happier man — nay, more — we believe it possible it might have saved him from himself. He died by his own hand, "the victim" says his biographer, "of an overwrought imagination." This is general language, but who shall say what gave the color to his distempered fancy? We know that he had friends — many and ardent ones; that he was respected and beloved by those from whom it was an honor; that he was not the victim of vice, and that his worldly prospects were, at least, fair. There is everything in his previous circumstances to make the world wonder at the catastrophe. Who will tell us why he, to whom it promised so much, wearied of life? We would not seem wiser than our contemporaries, but we believe that the sting of his madness was disappointed ambition. The first draught of praise — a draught whose unmingled and delirious intoxication can never be felt but once, but is worth, in its one magnificent dream, the sum of a hundred common lives — he won by poetry. It chained him to it forever. Poetry was thenceforth his idol. Fame, distinction, were his perpetual dream. Success became the breath of his being, and he died — for even justice was denied him!