1839 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. James McHenry

Willis Gaylord Clark, in "American Poets, and their Critics" 1839; Literary Remains of Willis Gaylord Clark (1844) 276-78, 284-89.



In discussing the merits of this individual — which we shall do with all possible gentleness, consistent with the evils we are to expose — we disclaim every sentiment of unkindness or sinister partiality. We know that in literature, as in politics, he who undertakes to lead or guide, should be able satisfactory to answer two questions that may be asked concerning him: "Is he honest? Is he capable?" We know that poetry is an important part of belles-lettres; and we desire to see no misleading of the general mind, in relation to its state and progress in our republic. We would invest this high department of art with a divine' and holy atmosphere, into whose magic circle no motives of envy, of chagrin, of policy or revenge, should be permitted to enter. If we succeed in proving that these incitements have hitherto defiled the oracles of criticism, and poisoned the rich flow of song among us, then we shall be amply repaid for the use of the facts we have gathered, and the lash we wield.

It is difficult to describe a "live critic," without some particulars. Johnson and Gifford gave these, each for himself. In the present case we shall eschew all personality, which we condemn; and in giving a few points of an author, shall avoid touching the man.

Imprimis — there is, in the city of Brotherly Love, on the corner of one of its rectangular thoroughfares, a small store, or shop, in which is sold Irish linen; whether ready made or not, we can not tell. It is the mart of a Quarterly Critic; once a practiser of the Galenian art, and as we have learned, with a success equalling the Asclepidae of yore. In Hibernia he was "raised;" to America he came; in Philadelphia he pitched his tent; and rejecting physic, took to trade, in which he now transacts a decent business, in a small way. We mention these biographical items in the outset, as arguments that his profession is neither literary nor akin to it; and that he is consequently quite unable to serve both Mercury and Apollo at once.

Speculation, however, is the spirit of the age; and our Censor determined not to be entirely occupied in the linen line. Accordingly he came the evil eye over an unfortunate publisher, who consented to issue a monthly magazine and Review of Literature under his supervision. Previous to this, we should remark, he put forth a poem entitled The Pleasures of Friendship, a mediocre volume, containing, we venture to assert, more palpable plagarisms than can be found in any book of its size in Christendom. The magazine was begun; and with it began the criticisms of the editor. Beside these operations, he had other irons in the fire; he had novels in embryo. Before alluding to these, we will show the gradations by which our critic rose to the acquisition of his present acumen as a quarterly reviewer.

When this monthly was in its maturity, the reputation of Lord BYRON was at its height. They who once blamed, had become eulogists; the best intelligences of both hemispheres were warmed by his genius, and vocal in his praise. But our profound reviewer cared for none of these things. He expressed great commiseration for the noble poet. He speaks of him in his work, as a man "whose heavy volumes of stanzas have pestered the world; a mere titled rhymester; the author of a mass of hobbling, teeth-grinding poetry; the major portions of whose writings possess not the smallest particle of the soul of poetry;" and after an assortment of criticisms, quite equal to the foregoing, he lumps the merits of Byron in the following summary passage: "That in the multiplicity of his Lordship's writings we should, by dint of industrious research, discover some easy flowing passages and brilliant ideas, is not much to his credit — for we can find the same things in the dull heroics of Sir Richard Blackmore." Finally, Byron is advised by our Aristarchus, in 1824, to quit poetry, wherein he is so deficient, and turn his attention to prose, in which he might hope for decent success!

Nothing seems to have yielded this critic more qualified delight than the death of Lord Byron. It gave a clearer field for his publications; it "left the world for him to bustle in." His ecstacies on hearing of that sad event, were irrepressible. He came forth with a Te Deum in his Review, from which we make a few extracts: "Wo, now," saith he, "to these witlings, (the admirers of Byron,) who have neither ears to discover harmony, nor skill to count numbers; who mistake rhymes for wit; the Great Dagon of their idolatry is no more! Well may they raise the ul-ul-loo; he who bullied the crowd into the reading of bad English, who inflicted upon men of good taste the penance of perusing hobbling numbers and false rhymes, has withdrawn from the scene of his exploits! Bellow forth, ye rugged verse lovers, till ye split your lungs with lamentations! Stiff, unwieldly couplets, or barbarous Spenserians, made the vehicles of unnatural quaintness or affected originality of ideas, have no longer a sprig of nobility to dignify them, or give them attraction to the unreflecting multitude!"

Our Reviewer's opinions of Sir WALTER SCOTT, (a gentleman of Abbotsford, North Britain, who wrote some novels and poetry,) are kindred with those he entertained of Lord Byron. He speaks of him as "an unknown Scotchman;" and of certain Waverley novels — that received by far the most praise on their appearance, and continue to be cherished with fond admiration by every reader of taste — as "slovenly and insipid productions; abounding with affected sentimentality, blackguards and scoundrels, common as thistles in a Scotch glen; with sheepish heroes, footballs to every one that might choose to kick them." These "blundering works," he condemns in toto; calls them "disgraceful literary manufactures, common-place, and stupidly constructed." in conclusion, he gave it as his candid opinion, that "the sooner Sir Walter Scott ceased to write, the better for himself and the public." This, reader, was when the author of Waverley was covered with renown, and after he had produced some of his most immortal productions!...

Witness the following, from a long and a strong strain, near the grave of a rural poet in Ireland ["An Elegy. Written on the Banks of the Inver"]. The rhyme is ineffably grand. The only improvement that could be proposed, would be to spell the last word in the first line, des-a-rts, instead of the present mode. We think it might give the metre a benefit, but we make the suggestion with profound diffidence:

Turn to your hut, the falling roof deserts—
There genius long her darling will deplore
His country owned him as — a man of parts—
She owned him such — but — ah! she did no more!

No man is fonder than our author of a strain. It is a constant operation with him. Thus:

—to the Indian shines the gem in vain,
The richest product of his native fields,
The tiger crushes with regardless strain,
The loveliest flower the sylvan desert yields.

Now we are not intimate with wild animals, having but a slight menagerie acquaintance with them: but we believe the tiger must be a weaker beast than naturalists are aware of, if he is obliged to strain much in crushing a flower.

Here comes a strain in another verse; or rather a verse in another strain:

Now to the lonely wood or desert vale,
With lengthened stride, he hurries o'er the plain;
And mutters to the wind his wayward tale,
Or chants abrupt, a discontented strain.

This, be it remembered, is the gait of a musing, melancholy bard. Now, the walk of a thoughtful man is solemn and slow. He gives his pensive fancies to the air beneath a beech at noontide, or he saunters in listless idleness along. Who but our author would represent him, "locomoting" on a long, dog-trot over the bogs of his neighborhood, or going ahead like the famous steam-boat of Davy Crockett's, that jumped all the sawyers in the Mississippi?

An amatory effusion, addressed by this writer to a virgin of his acquaintance, commences thus: "Maid of the 'lovely-rolling' eye!"

In truth, he appears always to have preferred Venus to Minerva, and a defective education was the result, which is everywhere exhibited in his writings. He tells us that he used to throw his books to the dogs,

and mingling in the sprightly train,
In many a 'gambol, scoured' the plain.

Indeed he is candid enough to say, expressly:

—I boldly 'shunned the school,'
And scorning all distracting rule,
The dreaded master's 'voice behind'
I thought 'I heard in every wind.'

A person conversant with the writings of GRAY, might fancy a kind of plagiarism here, from the following lines in the Ode to Eton College, where, speaking of school-boys, he sings:

—still as they run, 'they look behind'—
They 'hear a voice in every wind,' etc.

But we will be merciful. The similitude is merely one of the thousand and nine strange coincidences with common English authors, in which all the verses of this very original writer abound. In this particular instance he was excusable for imagining that he heard a voice in the wind, and for saying so in his rhymes, since his stolen relaxation was very suspicious. He went, he says, to meet a young woman,

—with charms divine that first could move,
And fire my youthful soul to love,
And 'show' the hawthorn 'in' the 'mead'
To whose well-known, concealing 'shade'
In evenings cool we oft would stray.

He remarks, also, that being thus cosily situated, under the hawthorn aforesaid, they concluded "to bring the vale to witness their tale," and that "she was kind, and he was blest." Particulars are omitted. It is possible that this is the same maid whom he immortalizes in another production, and to whom comfort is administered, just as the twain are leaving Ireland for Philadelphia, in the following affectionate and hopeful lines:

We need not grieve now; our friends to leave now,
For Erin's fields we again shall see
But first a lady, in Pennsylvania,
My dear, remember thou art to be!

Here, capricious in luxury, we must pause, and turn to another department in which our critic has excelled; namely, in the Drama.

His first tragedy was called "The Usurper," and although it was a most deplorable failure, yet the author strenuously contended that it was no fault of his. Everything that benevolence could suggest was done to make it live, and to resuscitate it after death; but in vain. Prometheus himself could not have revived it, with all the authentic fire of Jove. To herald its advent, every possible exertion was made in the newspapers, under the immediate direction of the author. How many were the free admissions, how numberless the antecedent puffs which he caused to be caused to be manufactured, or else produced himself; all setting forth, in sugared phraseology, that "our gifted fellow-townsman, Dr. McH***y," would appear as a dramatist on such a night! It was even publicly hinted, by a friendly journalist, at our author's special solicitation, that "it was understood that the seats were nearly all taken, and that all who desired to witness its first representation, must make immediate application at the box office!" But alas! the tragedy was inflicted but twice upon an exceedingly sparse audience, and then expired. The cause of its untimely demise was explained at length to the public at the time, by the author, and proved to be, that the actors were jealous of the writer's reputation! "Sir," said he to an unfortunate gentleman whom he held by the button in Chestnut-street, "the decline of this production was principally owing to one of the supernumeraries. He was dispatched to secure a distinguished prisoner, one of the heroes of the play. When he returned without him, he should have replied thus to the question, 'Where's your prisoner?'

'My lord, we caught him, and we held him long;
But as d-d fate decreed, he 'scaped our grasp,
And fled.'

Now, sir, this is poetry; it stirs the blood, and makes an audience feel very uneasy. And how do you think that elegant passage was spoken? Why, it was done in this wise:

Quest. — 'Well, have you catch'd the prisoner?
Ans. — 'Yes, Sir, we catch'd him, but we could not
Hold him — and he's off.'

That very passage, my friend, together with the pre-disposed stupidity of the audience, ruined my tragedy; and it is lost to the stage."

But these reverses did not damp the vanity of our author. Though the, public condemned and laughed, yet his familiar friends looked upon all the works that he had made, and pronounced them good. Thus, the Usurper, though dead and buried, was duly glorified in the American Quarterly Review. A labored analysis of its incomprehensible plot was given, and "its sweetness, tenderness, and simplicity," set forth by extracts!

Animated by these partial plaudits, our dramatist turned his attention to comedy. Feeling indignant at the unbending Mordecais of the critical world, he determined to crucify them all, emblematically. So he wrote a piece called "Love and Poetry." This lived two nights. One passage only is preserved in the memory of the hearers. The hero, a poet, was made to commit a highway robbery; and his poor old father, lamenting the infatuated criminality of his boy, exclaims in a burst of parental anguish:

Alas! my brain is wild — my heart is sad;
And, as 'tis troublesome to tarry here,
Where every thing reminds me of my son,
I think, upon reflection, I will go
'And live in the Western Country!'

On the second representation, at the theatre in Walnut-street, the quondam Circus, there were about a dozen persons in the boxes, perhaps twenty in the pit, and one enterprising Cyprian in the third tier. The piece was listened to with great solemnity. It was written for amusement, but the author had the fun all to himself. So irresistibly comic was it, that there was scarcely a smile during the whole performance. The friends of the writer, unwilling to be "in at the death" of his comedy, had staid away. They knew it would be dismal to look upon the bantling of a fellow-townsman, "in articulo mortis," and they spared themselves the trial. The curtain descended; and sundry peanut-eating pitlings, (who lay along on several benches, each occupying two or three,) made an unanimous call for the author. He arose from his solitude in the second box, second tier, where he had ensconced himself, and said:

"Ladies and Gentlemen: I thank you for this triumphant mark of esteem and honor. It is not on account of pecuniary considerations that I thank you, for I perceive by a glance at the house, that the avails will not be extensive; but ladies and gentlemen, I am thankful for the glory," (and here he smote his breast with sonorous emphasis,) "the undying glory which I feel at this moment. Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you ALL."

This was the last of our critic's dramatic productions. He has since attended to the linen trade, and occupied the stool of poetical criticism in the American Quarterly Review. All the long, dull articles in that periodical, from first to last, on the subject of American poetry, have been from his pen. The drift of them generally is, to show that there is not and can not be such a thing as American verse, and that in this particular the only way to succeed, is to abandon the idea of any independent literature of our own, and trust for that commodity to trans-atlantic producers.

We can not enumerate the various critiques in which this same sweet bard has destroyed all the chief minstrels of the land; but the ideas of the American Quarterly with respect to the merits of BRYANT, are too peculiar to be lost. It is true, that they differ in the matter from the recorded opinions of every eminent Review in Europe; but then taste is taste, and there is no accounting for it. The productions of Bryant are esteemed by this Philadelphia quarterly as utterly devoid of any qualities to excite the reader's curiosity or interest his heart. "Page after page," it says, "may be perused, if the reader has sufficient patience, with dull placidity, or rather perfect unconcern, so that the book shall be laid aside without a single passage having been impressed upon the mind as worthy of recollection."

Now, when opinions like these are advanced, in utter opposition to the whole world of letters, in defiance of taste and sense, the question naturally arises, Who judges thus foolishly? This, as far as the American Quarterly Review is concerned, we have endeavored to show in the foregoing pages, and in so doing, have set down naught in malice. The choice morsels of biography that we have presented, are inseparable from the works of our author; they are, moreover, notorious. The moral of all is, that our literature has been long enough degraded by alien intruders, who have neither learning nor genius, and by those enemies of the most dignified interests of the country, who have aided and abetted their shallow pretensions. Were it likely that a discontinuance of the evil is at hand, we might be content to let such literary empirics make themselves as ridiculous as they please. But when, because anonymous, their bad taste infects even a limited number of readers, their influence becomes offensive. The divine Plato, in his immortal dialogue of Protagoras, tells us, that in the arts it is only the opinions of those who are themselves gifted and skilful, that ought to be respected. And what kind of skill, by our present unbiassed showing, has been evinced by this Critic? He is a walking synonym for a failure, in everything. We are told on good authority, though the work has not yet reached us, that in the last number of the American Quarterly, our Aristarchus is at his work again. He confesses the general popularity of several American poets, but lays the blame on the press and the public. He thinks that both should be slow to commend, and be careful not to be gulled. Such advice comes with miserable grace from the author. His insatiate hunger for praise, and his continual supplications for it, of the editorial fraternity of Philadelphia, are proverbial. And, as to deceiving the public, we place him at our bar, and ask him to establish his own innocence. Did he not once determine to take the general applause by storm, and on the publication of one of his unhappy novels, repeatedly stop the press, and cause second, third, and fourth editions to be inserted in the title-page of the same impression? Was not the third edition for sale at the bookstores before the first was bound? Was not the same system adopted with several of his other works, the plagiarized Pleasures of Friendship, especially? Any Philadelphia bookseller can answer these queries, much more readily than our critic would like to admit them. It is only by such modes of grasping at ephemeral praise, through trickery, coupled with advance eulogies and surmises in newspapers:

—e l' augurio, a la bugia,
E chiromanti, ed ogni fallace arte,
Sorte, indovini, e falsa profezia,

that this critic has ever been honored, even with ridicule. All his articles have proceeded from the ignoblest private motives, either of hope or of retaliation. Thus, the argument spoken of as contained in his last Review; namely, that we have yet no great, long poem; no big book of American metre, and that there is now a want of it; is only to herald a manuscript volume of his, in some nineteen "books," which he has just been obliged to send to London, because the publishers on this side of the water can not see its merits. It has been shown about very generally, and we learn, is similar to Emmons' Fredoniad; only of greater length. It is y'clept "The Antediluvians;" and we venture to say, if any hapless London bookseller is seduced into its publication, that the first copy which reaches America will be lauded in a certain quarter, under the author's immediate supervision. as a work "unparalled, unpaired," equal to Klopstock or Milton in sublimity, superior to Pope in harmony, and a touch beyond anything ever produced in the United States, for "sweetness, tenderness, and simplicity!" We wait patiently for its coming.

[Note by Lewis Gaylord Clark: The effect of this article was a decided one. It put an end, from that time forth, to the literary career of the writer whose productions it exposed. The work here referred to was subsequently published in London by the author, but it dropped still-born from the press. CHRISTOPHER NORTH, indeed, revived a copy of it for a sort of galvanic experiment in criticism, which established an electrical "communication" with the risible nerves of his fifty thousand readers. The critique commenced, if we rightly remember, with these flattering words "To compare these two volumes with a couple of bottles of small beer, would be greatly to belie that fluid!"]