1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Motherwell

Anonymous, in Review of Motherwell, Poems; Boston Miscellany 1 (February 1842) 91.



Of all American Poets, J. G. Whitter most resembles him whose name will be the thread for such disconnected beads of criticism as time and space will allow us to string upon it. In both, the restlessness of strong feeling seems to have forced them into rhyme; and, though this, when armed in the cause of truth, often rises to the dignity, of thought and reason, yet, when the sudden and sharp impression of its enthusiasm passes, we feel the want of that calmness and majesty which, like the crown in the fairy tale, will only fit the rightful heir, — the truly great man. We do not mean to say that enthusiasm and greatness stand apart, for all history would give us the lie; but only to distinguish that enthusiasm which insists on an instant and fiery expression of itself, and that gentler and more mighty kind, which, with a silent and serene influence, bears up the hero through a long life of bitterness, — that eternal promise of God in the soul that His word shall not pass away. The passionate singer has his day; his popularity is sudden, and it is well that it is so, for he has not the heart to trust the future. But the day of the great poet is as a thousand years, and though the noise of the world may for a while drown his voice, yet he can afford to wait a century or two, for his song shall sound on forever like the clear tones of the circling spheres, and shall sink deep in the hearts of lonely men who sit on the mountains to watch the dawn of a purer day upon the world, until at last all the jarring voices of the earth shall be wooed into concord with his prophetic harmonies.

In the poems of Motherwell there is but little conscious artistic power, but there is that poetic instinct which often equals Art, and must always be the seed of that most perfect and glorious flower. Witness that exquisitely heart-breaking poem on the 48th page, — "My heid is like to rend, Willie," — which is as good as the best of Burns. Another illustration of this is the verse on the 62nd page, beginning "Oh, Lord, there was a flood of sound." We have selected two only of the most striking instances. The first poem in the volume also is very fine, and the metre seems to us judiciously, handled, the two long lines at the end of each stanza seeming like the sound of the long rolling waves singing a fitting chorus to the chaunt of the yellow-haired sea-king.

We find in these verses none of that longing and yearning, that vague yet awful presence in the soul, which haunts the true Seer, who, like Bunyan's pilgrim, "Hears the clear bells beyond the walls of Time." There is no love of humanity shown anywhere in the volume, and, as we might infer, the love of a single object is imperfect and desponding, for one cannot subsist long without the other. His verses, too, do not always seem to have come to him and asked for utterance, as we should suppose from what we have guessed of the impulsive structure of his mind. Often, we fancy, he wrote for the mere sake of writing; and here he has signally failed, even when he might have been most successful. "The Covenanter's Song," on the 143d page, is an instance of this.