Among all the pioneers of American literature, whether prose or poetical, there is not one hose productions have not been much overrated by his countrymen. But this fact is more especially obvious in respect to such of these pioneers as are no longer living, — nor is it a fact of so deeply transcendental a nature as only to be accounted for by the Emersons and Alcotts. In the, first place, we have but to consider that gratitude, surprise, and a species of hyper-patriotic triumph have been blended, and finally confounded with mere admiration, or appreciation, in respect to the labors of our earlier writers; and, in the second place, that Death has thrown his customary veil of the snored over these commingled feelings, forbidding them, in a measure, to be now separated or subjected to analysis. "In speaking of the deceased," says that excellent old English Moralist, James Puckle, in his "Gray Cap for a Green Head," "so fold up your discourse that their virtues may be outwardly shown, while their vices are wrapped up in silence." And with somewhat too inconsiderate a promptitude have we followed the spirit of this quaint advice. The mass of American readers have been, hitherto, in no frame of mind to view with calmness, and to discuss with discrimination, the true claims of the few who were first in convincing the mother country that her sons were not all brainless, as, in the plenitude of her arrogance, she, at one period, half affected and half wished to believe; and where any of these few have departed from among us, the difficulty, of bringing their pretensions to the test of a proper criticism has been enhanced in a wry remarkable degree. But even as concerns the living: is there any one so blind as not to see that Mr. Cooper, for example, owes much, and that Mr. Paulding owes all of his reputation as a novelist, to his early occupation of the field? Is there any one so dull as not to know that fictions which neither Mr. Paulding nor Mr. Cooper could have written, are daily published by native authors without attracting more of commendation than can be crammed into a hack newspaper paragraph? And, again, is there any one so prejudiced as not to acknowledge that all this is because there is no longer either reason or wit in the query, — "Who reads an American book!" It is not because we lack the talent in which the days of Mr. Paulding exulted, but because such talent has shown itself to be common. It is not because we have no Mr. Coopers; but because it has been demonstrated that we might, at any moment, have as many Mr. Coopers as we please. In fact we are now strong in our own resources. We have, at length, arrived at that epoch when out literature may and must stand on its own merits, or fall through its own defects. We have snapped asunder the leading-strings of our British Grandmamma, and, better still, we have survived the first hours of our novel freedom, — the first licentious hours of a hobbledehoy braggadocio and swagger. At last, then, we are in a condition to be criticised — even more, to be neglected; and the journalist is no longer in danger of being impeached for "lese majeste" of the Democratic Spirit, who shall assert, with sufficient humility, that we have committed an error in mistaking "Kettell's Specimens" for the Pentateuch, or Joseph Rodman Drake for Apollo.
The case of this latter gentleman is one which well illustrates what we have been saying. We believe it was about 1835 that Mr. Dearborn republished the "Culprit Fay," which then, as at the period of its original issue, was belauded by the universal American press, in a manner which must have appeared ludicrous — not to speak very plainly — in the eyes of all unprejudiced observers. With a curiosity much excited by comments at once so grandiloquent and so general, we procured and read the poem. What we found it we ventured to express distinctly, and at some length, in the pages of the "Southern Messenger." It is a well-versified and sufficiently fluent composition, without high merit of any kind. Its defects are gross and superabundant. Its plot and conduct, considered in reference to its scene, are absurd. Its originality is none at all. Its imagination (and this was the great feature insisted upon by its admirers,) is but a "counterfeit presentment," — but the shadow of the shade of that lofty quality which is, in fact, the soul of the Poetic Sentiment — but a drivelling effort to be fanciful — an effort resulting in a species of hopskip-and-go-merry rhodomontade, which the uninitiated feel it a duty to call ideality, and to admire as such, while lost in surprise at the impossibility of performing at least the latter half of the duty with any thing like satisfaction to themselves. And all this we not only asserted, but without difficulty, proved. Dr. Drake has written some beautiful poems, but the "Culprit Fay," is not of them. We neither expected to hear any dissent from out opinions, nor did we hear any. On the contrary, the approving voice of every critic in the country whose dictum we had been accustomed to respect, was to us sufficient assurance that had not been very grossly in the wrong. In fact the public taste was then approaching the right. The truth indeed had not, as yet, made itself heard; but we had reached a point at which it had but to be plainly and boldly put, to be, at least tacitly admitted.
This habit of apotheosising our literary pioneers was a most indiscriminating one. Upon all who wrote, the applause was plastered with an impartiality really refreshing. Of course, the system favored the dunces at the expense of true merit! and, since there existed a certain fixed standard of exaggerated commendation to which all were adapted after the fashion of Procrustes, it is clear that the most meritorious required the least stretching, — in other words, that although all were much overrated, the deserving were overrated in a less degree than the unworthy. Thus with Brainard: — a man of indisputable genius, who, in any more discriminate system of panegyric, would have been long ago be puffed into Demi-Deism; for if "M'Fingal," for example, is in reality what we have been told, the commentators upon Trumbull as a matter of the simplest consistency, should have exalted into the seventh heaven of poetical dominion the author of the many graceful and vigorous effusions which are now lying, in a very neat little volume, before us.
Yet we maintain that even these effusions have been over praised, and materially so. It is not that Brainard has not written poems which may rank with those of any American, with the single exception of Longfellow — but that the general merit of our whole national Muse has been estimated too highly, and that, the author of "The Connecticut River" has, individually, shared in the exaggeration. No poet among us has composed what would deserve the tithe of that amount of approbation so innocently Iavished upon Brainard. But it would not suit our purpose just now, to enter into any elaborate analysis of his productions. It so happens, however, that we open the book at a brief poem, an examination of which will stand us in good stead of this general analyses, since it is by this very poem that the admirers of its author are content to swear — since it is the fashion to cite it as his best — since thus, in short, it is the chief basis of his notoriety, if not the surest triumph of his fame.
We allude to "The Fall of Niagara," and shall be pardoned for quoting it in full.
The thoughts are strange that crowd into my brain
While I look upward to thee. It would seem
As if God poured thee from his hollow hand,
And hung his brow upon thy awful front,
And spoke in that loud voice which seemed to him
Who dwelt in Patmos for his Saviour's sake
The "sound of many waters" and had bade
Thy flood to chronicle the ages back
And notch his centuries in the eternal rocks.
Deep calleth unto deep. And what are we
That hear the question of that voice sublime?
O, what are all the notes that ever rung
From war's vain trumpet by thy thundering side!
Yea, what is all the riot man can make
In his short life to thy unceasing roar?
And yet, bold babbler, what art thou to HIM
Who drowned a world and heaped the waters far
Above its loftiest mountains? — a light wave
That breaks and whispers of its Maker's might.
It is a very usual thing to hear these verses called not merely the best of their author, but the best which have been written on the subject of Niagara. Its positive merit appears to us only partial. We have been informed that the poet had seen the great cataract before writing the lines; but the Memoir prefixed to the present edition, denies what, for our own part, we never believed, for Brainard was truly a poet, and no poet could have looked upon Niagara, in the substance, and written thus about it. If he saw it at all, it must have been in fancy — "at a distance" — [Greek characters] — as the lying Pindar says he saw Archilocus, who died ages before the villain was born.
To the two opening verses we have no objection; but it may be well observed, in passing, that had the mind of the poet been really "crowned with strange thoughts," and not merely engaged in an endeavor to think, he would have entered at once upon the thoughts themselves, without allusion to the state of his brain. His subject would have left him no room for self.
The third line embodies an absurd, and impossible, not to say a contemptible image. We are called upon to conceive a similarity between the continuous downward sweep of Niagara, and the momentary splashing of some definite and of course trifling quantity of water from a hand; for, although it is the hand of the Deity himself which is referred to, the mind is irresistibly led, by the words "poured from his hollow hand," to that idea which has been customarily attached to such phrase. It is needless to say, moreover, that the bestowing upon Deity a human form, is at best a low and most unideal conception. In fact the poet has committed the grossest of errors in likening the fall to any material object; for the human fancy can fashion nothing which shall not be inferior in majesty to the cataract itself. Thus bathos is inevitable; and there is no better exemplification of bathos than Mr. Brainard has here given.
The fourth line but renders the matter worse, for here the figure is most inartistically shifted. The handful of water becomes animate; for it has a front — that is, a forehead, and upon this forehead the Deity proceeds to hang a bow, that is, a rainbow. At the same time he "speaks in that loud voice," &c.; and here it is obvious that the ideas of the writer are in a sad state of fluctuation; for he transfers the idiosyncrasy of the fall itself (that is to say its sound) to the one who pours it from his hand. But not content with all this, Mr. Brainard commands the flood to keep a kind of tally; for this is the low thought which the expression about "notching in the rocks" immediately and inevitably induces. The whole of this first division of the poem, embraces, we hesitate not to say, one of the most jarring, inappropriate, mean, and in every way monstrous assemblages of false imagery, which can be found out of the tragedies of Nat Lee, or the farces of Thomas Carlyle.
In the latter division, the poet recovers himself, as if ashamed of his previous bombast. His natural instinct (for Brainard was no artist) has enabled him to feel that subjects which surpass in grandeur all efforts of the human imagination are well depicted only in the simplest and least metaphorical language — a proposition as susceptible of demonstration as any in Euclid. Accordingly, we find a material sinking in tone; although he does not a once discard all imagery. The "Deep calleth unto deep" is nevertheless a great improvement upon his previous rhetoricianism. The personification of the waters above and below would be good in reference to any subject less august. The moral reflections which immediately follow, have at least the merit of simplicity; but the poet exhibits no very lofty imagination when he bases these reflections only upon the cataract's superiority to man in the noise it can create; nor is the concluding idea more spirited, where the mere difference between the quantity of water which occasioned the flood, and the quantity which Niagara precipitates, is made the measure of the Almighty Mind's superiority to that cataract which it called by a thought into existence.
But although "The Fall of Niagara" does not deserve all the unmeaning commendation it has received, there are, nevertheless, many truly beautiful poems in this collection, and even more certain evidences of poetic power. "To a Child, the Daughter of a Friend" is exceedingly graceful and terse. "To the Dead" has equal grace, with more vigor, and, moreover, a touching air of melancholy. Its melody is very rich, and in the monotonous repetition, at each stanza, of a certain rhyme, we recognise a fantastic yet true imagination. "Mr. Merry's Lament for Long Tom" would be worthy of all praise were not its unusually beautiful rhythm an imitation from Campbell, who would deserve his high poetical rank, if only for its construction. Of the merely humorous pieces we have little to say. Such things are not poetry. Mr. Brainard excelled in them, and they are very good in their place; but that place is not in a collection of poems. The prevalent notions upon this head are extremely vague; yet we see no reason why any ambiguity should exist. Humor, with an exception to be made hereafter, is directly antagonistical to that which is the soul of the Muse proper; and the omni-prevalent belief, that melancholy is inseparable from the higher manifestations of the beautiful, is not without a firm basis in nature and in reason. But it so happens that humor and that quality which we have termed the soul of the Muse (imagination) are both essentially aided in their development by the same adventitious assistance — that of rhythm and of rhyme. Thus the only bond between humorous verse and poetry, properly so called, is that they employ in common, a certain tool. But this single circumstance has been sufficient to occasion, and to maintain through long ages, a confusion of two very distinct ideas in the brain of the unthinking critic. There is, nevertheless, an individual branch of humor which blends so happily with the ideal, that from the union result some of the finest effects of legitimate poesy. We allude to what is termed "archness" — a trait with which popular feeling, which is unfailingly poetic, has invested, for example, the whole character of the fairy. In the volume before us there is a brief composition entitled "The Tree Toad" which will afford a fine exemplification of our idea. It seems to have been hurriedly constructed, as if its author had felt ashamed of his light labor. But that in his heart there was a secret exultation over these verses for which his reason found it difficult to account, we know; and there is not a really imaginative man within sound of our voice to-day, who, upon perusal of this little "Tree Toad" will not admit it to be one of the truest poems ever written by Brainard.